Descent into the Deep: A Daring Four-Wheel Drive in Canyonlands National Park

Most people still choose the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona when looking for breathtaking canyon views. But around 300 miles north in Utah lies another national park that will equally make your jaw drop, without having to be shared with as many tourists. Canyonlands is a mouthwatering mezze of proud mesas, deep canyons, awesome arches, and exciting drives.

There are four districts of Canyonlands National Park: Island of the Sky; The Maze; The Needles; and The Rivers. Separated by the Colorado and Green rivers,  it takes many hours of driving via the highway to get to each section. My boyfriend and I opted for the former for its easy access. About 40 minutes drive from Moab, the 191 north leads you past Arches National Park before you take a left down the 313 onto Grand View Point Road. With possession of an annual national park pass costing $80, our entry to the park was free.

It doesn’t take long after entering the park before the sweeping views from the Island of the Sky mesa take you by surprise. A remarkable vista of sprawling red ravines and flat sandy basins with jagged buttes and plateaus of sandstone rock sketched into the bare desert landscape, it is easy to see why this section of the park received its name. 1000 feet below the cliff edges, a narrow track was pencilled into the dry terrain. We knew little about this park before arrival, but soon discovered that it offers the opportunity for a drive of a lifetime.

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The 100-mile White Rim road begins with the Shafer Trail. No permit is required to drive along this section (however from 2015, those planning to continue along the White Rim road do require one). With our Land Cruiser we met the requirements of a 4WD vehicle to travel the route. It seemed foolish to refuse the chance for such an adventure. Those who get caught out by the rain can expect to pay up to $2000 for a tow. Confident that the puffy clouds above wouldn’t turn nasty, we took a deep breath and set off on an epic journey. (You can catch a short video of it here.)

Daft Punk’s ‘Disc Wars’ was the soundtrack of choice to our descent. Its rumbling first bars built up the tension perfectly as we began navigating the dirt track, careful to avoid potholes but also wary of driving off the edge in the process. The outburst of a higher tune began pertinently as we started a steeper descent towards a string of switchbacks that left me sucking in my stomach for the next 30 minutes as the edges of the steep cliffs repeatedly loomed closer before us.

If you see a car approaching, even if a few minutes drive away, it’s best to perch in the nearest space available rather than face a nerve-racking reverse back along the narrow track. Stay in low gear and use the engine brake rather than relying on the foot pedal. It’s important to keep a cool head – any loss of control and you could be doing a Thelma and Louise!

Finally we reached flat lands and could breathe normally again after our intense descent. All was quiet in our surroundings as we stopped at Gooseneck Overlook to explore the bottom of this dry ocean below the island. Lizards posed in a frozen state of camouflage against the rock painted with natural black bacteria, before darting through tiny cracks which, when peered through on all fours, might sometimes reveal a stomach-churning drop to the base of the canyon far below where rivers of sandstone snaked their way through the valley. Further on towards Musselman Arch,  giant statues of stone with bold faces stood closely together, looking like ruins from an ancient temple of the underworld. With nobody else around, it was the perfect playtime for young adults.

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The hairpin bends were just as hair-raising on the way back up the trail, however we were now more comfortable with the road. Reaching the top of the mesa and looking back down into the canyon where we had come from brought a huge sense of fulfillment. How many people could say they had conquered a road like this?! (Props to Andrew for driving it!)

Further into the park,  Mesa Arch attracts more tourists, becoming more reminiscent of the neighbouring Arches National Park. After our experience of tranquility in the canyon, the noise of clicking cameras and giddy children became a little irritating and so we drove north-east towards Whale Rock. The trail here was marked with piles of stone which gave it a more rustic feel. From the top of the rock you can see Upheaval Dome, an enormous block of rock with jagged peaks that looks very out of place in the canyon. The question on geologists’ minds is, is it simply an excessive sandstone deposit or a meteorite..?

After an adrenaline-pumping afternoon, the remainder of our day was spent basking in the evening calm at the Grand View Point Overlook. Looking out over Monument Basin, the way the canyons were carved into the plateau reminded me of the shape of bronchi from Biology lessons in school. On the other side of the road looking out over the Green River, a gang of hairy Aussie bikers on Harley Davidsons asked, “What’s for tea?” as we cooked sausages. We sat and admired the sunset beaming down on the basin below, the colours changing from intense reds to hot pinks and warm oranges. It was definitely a pinch-worthy moment. I remember seeing the tiny outline of a plane soaring overhead and suddenly feeling a flood of heartbreak because I knew I would have to be on a plane back to England in a few weeks’ time. We watched a spectacular show of shooting stars up above in an indigo sky where the Milky Way was the clearest I’ve ever seen it. Sat safely in serenity, I counted 50 flashes of lightning in the space of two minutes appearing hundreds of miles away to the west.

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Canyonlands is a place that could so easily be missed off someone’s list in favour of the more famed Arches National Park. This is a shame because it is a place quiet enough in popularity to make you feel like a local once having arrived, but crazy enough in auto-touring opportunities to make you feel like a VIP once having left! If you have a 4WD vehicle that you are confident using, definitely make sure to drive the Shafer Trail for an experience that you won’t forget in a hurry. I visited Canyonlands in August 2014, and it remains my favourite national park to date.

Angels & Canyons: Discovering the Legendary Zion National Park

The noble faces of ancient towering cliffs gaze down with dignity over a desert kingdom of cottonwood trees, sandstone boulders and winding rivers where 12,000 years ago, mammoths and sloths would roam and pioneers would admire a land deemed “too stunning for mere mortals.” This was a destination to behold, a place of refuge for angels and saints who deserved to live on forever in this prestigious realm.

Your own eyes will tell you that Zion National Park is an example of the extraordinary, especially when it comes to hiking opportunities. Of the many routes available, there are two which stand out as unique in allowing visitors to immerse themselves in the natural environment and experience its mystical vibes. One takes you deep into a canyon in which you are enclosed by huge sheets of rock; another takes you high up a cliff where you are exposed to the wider world. The first national park to be established in the geological heaven of Utah, Zion is a blessed part of the world for hiking lovers who aren’t afraid of water and heights!

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The Narrows

Zion comes across as one of the more “untouched” national parks and one of the great things about it is its free shuttle bus system which prohibits cars from travelling on the Scenic Drive from spring to autumn, hence preventing congestion and promoting a cleaner environment. Grazing deer blend in against the creamy cliffs as the bus winds its way gently through the canyon, passing sacred natural landmarks such as the Three Patriarchs. Hop off at the final stop of Temple of Sinawava and let the adventure into the Narrows begin!

The easy 1-mile Riverside Walk will lead you to the river’s edge where the wading commences. At first it feels bizarre to be walking through water with shoes on, but you’ll soon get used to the temperature and texture as you make your way further down the gorge. It’s essential to wear sturdy shoes on this walk. Many walkers use sticks to help them navigate over the rocky river floor, but I preferred to test my natural balance, precarious as this was at first. I gradually gained more faith in my feet and was able to traverse the uneven ground without looking down so often. The miracle of walking on water came to mind…although I didn’t quite get that far! Parents would tow their little ones along in blow-up dinghies. I left my muddy hand print on the glistening wet walls decorated by visitors thousands of years after the first settlers made their mark.

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Stains of iron oxide on the canyon walls form varied patterns throughout the route, almost looking like they have been painted by former inhabitants of the land. When you reach the Narrows half a mile into the walk, this is where you really don’t want a flash flood to start! As the canyon walls begin to close in, the air turns colder and echoes grow louder. The atmosphere becomes slightly eerie, as if you are in the presence of ghosts whispering your name as you enter their domain. Perhaps it is their chiselled faces that jut out into your path.

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There are points when you might be waist deep in the water, so it’s advisable not to bring valuables with you on this walk. Do bear in mind however that you may be chilly after leaving the water. Nevertheless make the most of the water on your skin as the park only receives 15 cm of rainfall a year!

Angel’s Landing

This striking monolith gained its title in 1916 after the explorer Frederick Fisher claimed that”only an angel could land on it”.

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Starting from the Grotto shuttle stop on the Scenic Drive, the West Rim Trail up to the monolith is a 2 mile thigh-burning, zig-zagging route that hugs mountains of bronzed sandstone. Lizards dart between cracks in the rock only to become camouflaged against the dried leaves. A plentiful supply of sunscreen and water is essential! After a mile you’ll find shade in Refridgerator Canyon before you have to “squiggle the wiggles” and tackle a series of steep switchbacks. My partner and I foolishly decided it would be a good idea to start running up the first one, without realising how many were left…

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Many gasps for air and gulps of water later, you’ll reach the flat sandy area of Scout Lookout where you’ll see the ridged runway for Angel’s Landing begin ahead of you. Some people won’t even make it onto the trail because they are so fatigued after their sweaty uphill trek. From the start of the trail to the end point is only half a mile, but the path is steep, complex and takes time to maneuver. But for those who get a thrill from challenging routes, it’s great fun!

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At the time we did the hike (in August 2014), six people had died within the last 10 years on this trail. In a way this doesn’t seem like much when you consider the height and width of this monolith combined with the threat of heatstroke causing hikers to keel over. This hike is not for the faint-hearted. At times you will be walking along a very narrow path with a stomach-churning drop of over 1000 feet off the side, the Virgin River looking only a millimetre wide far below. Chains regularly have to be used to ascend steep slabs of rock and there are narrow crevices which you must hoist yourself up through. One of my strongest memories is the sight and smell of sweat-stained shorts as a (rather large) man’s buttocks loomed alarmingly close to my face while he struggled to squeeze through one of the thin gaps in front of me. I would not be offering to give him a push…

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Courtesy is definitely a requirement on this hike, as many times there will be not space for more than one person to pass through a certain part of the route. Those heading back from the end would offer support to approaching hikers with calls of “Not far to go!” We finally reached the summit with stunning views of the valley of Zion sprawled out before our eyes. We, the angels, had landed and it was easily one of my most fulfilling travel moments. Man-made rock piles stand proud near the cliff edge, showcasing the hiker’s achievement to the world in front. It may not have involved the elevation of Everest, but this hike had brought its own unique challenges. Gazing out at the view ahead, you can’t help but feel superhuman after this remarkable feat.

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I saw the large man produce his camera to take a photo as proof of his achievement. Whilst reaching the summit of a hike alone is very rewarding, I was grateful to be able to experience the physical and at times mental challenges of this hike with someone else, and share the subsequent sense of success. I now wish I had offered to take the man’s photo so that he is able to look back in later years at himself against this incredible backdrop and feel a great sense of pride. I did however compensate by asking a German couple if they’d like their photo taken. I particularly loved how much they appreciated me speaking their language.

It would be easy to get slightly complacent about safety on your way back along the ridge, but in your rush to finish the hike after having seen the best bit, it’s important to remain cautious and take your time. On the way back down the West Rim Trail we passed many tourists panting as they hiked up towards the monolith under the sweltering heat of the midday sun. It was definitely a good idea to set off on this hike early, to avoid both the peak sunshine and the greater numbers on the trail. When you’re back on ground level, dive into the Virgin River to cool off. You won’t even care that you’re not wearing swimsuits as your body will be so grateful for the refreshing water! It was here that we chatted with a family on vacation from Minnesota, and I began to understand better why some Americans might be so ignorant about other areas of the world, because they have so many amazing places to discover within their own huge country.

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With the amount of calories that you’ll burn off completing this tough 5-mile hike, you’re bound to feel hungry later. We drove into the village of Springdale to fill up on gas and my partner asked inside for a recommendation for lunch. We were advised to visit a Mexican restaurant around the corner called Oscar’s Cafe…and it was an excellent recommendation. This was an occasion where American food portions no longer seemed outrageous. Served by a friendly waitress, we shared a scrumptious meal of fish tacos, beef burgers and sweet potato fries. Then came dessert. We dived into the mountain of ice cream-smothered chocolate brownie devilishly, only to be distracted by the sound of a young girl on another table exclaiming to her red-faced mother: “They’re gonna get fat!” My partner conceded defeat after a few mouthfuls, but the pudding-lover in me ploughed on until the end before I sank into a food coma all afternoon.

If you love the idea of pushing your boundaries to out-of-this-world levels, definitely visit Zion National Park and chase the Angel. If you’ve been to Zion before or have any questions, please comment below!

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More information on the Angel’s Landing trail can be found here.

If walking to the Narrows, be sure to check forecasts for flash flooding beforehand.

Books & Bridges: Budapest for the Quiet Solo Traveller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Heroes’ Square

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

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

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

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

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

Views of the Afternoon in Szeged, Hungary

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

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

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

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

Dömötör Tower, Szeged, Hungary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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If you would like to use this article as a reference while visiting Szeged, you can download it on the GPsMyCity app here.

 

Likes vs Lives: Hiking in Hawaii

I recently read Into the Wild, the journalistic book by Jon Krakauer that discusses the life of Chris McCandless and his motivation to venture alone into the Alaskan interior with minimal supplies. After McCandless’s decomposed body was discovered in September 1992, some people labelled the 24-year-old American as an arrogant fool who should have been better prepared for the harsh conditions he would face; Krakauer attempts to explain the reasons McCandless chose to live off the land with little help. He defends the young man’s intentions but acknowledges his mistakes, stating that ultimately it was ignorance, not arrogance, that led to his death.

Reading this book made me think of people I’ve encountered while travelling who have also been inadequately prepared for their undertakings. I can put my hands up and say that, at the age of 19 on my first solo trip, I was one of them as I wore shorts whilst hiking up Whistler Mountain in the Canadian Rockies with its elevation of 2181 metres. Standing level with the clouds, a mid-40s hiker in appropriate gear asked if I was cold, and I knew even as I indignantly shook my head with shivering knees that I should have been more sensible. I wouldn’t make the same mistake again.

However it still shocks me when I see people older than me dressed inappropriately for certain activities and weathers, or attempting feats that are clearly far beyond their fitness level. The single biggest eye-opener was on the island of Kauai in Hawaii, when I and some friends hiked to Hanakapiai Falls in the Nā Pali Coast State Park. You may be thinking how this is a location far different to that of Alaska, but a large difference in temperature doesn’t mean this popular holiday destination is any less dangerous. In fact, the 11-mile trail that encompasses the particular hike I did is regarded as being in the top 10 of America’s most dangerous hikes.

The first two miles of the Kalalau trail along the Nā Pali Coast end at a river that flows into the ocean. As roaring waves thrashed against rocks, I was told by friends native to Kauai that this beach is renowned for the number of drownings that occur as visitors innocently go to the water’s edge, only to be smothered by a wave and swept away by the force of an overwhelming current. Across the river, a trail continues on for two further miles into the Hanakapiai Valley of mud, bamboo trees and rocky river crossings until it comes to the  91 metre-high waterfall where signs warn of falling rocks from the high cliff. If one gets in danger here, there is no mobile signal to call for help.

We set off on the trail at 7 a.m to avoid the tourist trap. Even at this time, the path was muddy and slippery. The rocks over the river glistened with slime. I like to think of myself as quite an experienced hiker – distance and elevation aren’t too big a deal for me – but this trail was definitely one of the most challenging ones I’ve done due to the natural elements it contained. (If you’re not convinced of this by the photos, that’s because my camera was tucked securely in my backpack during these tricky moments!)

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Around midday on the way back we reached Hanakapiai river marking two miles left to go. By now the numbers on the trail had vamped up immensely and people were queuing to cross the river. The sights I saw here and on the last two miles were quite unsettling. I watched with my heart in my mouth as people carrying backpacks far too heavy to support their balance gingerly attempted to cross the river on the slippery rocks. I saw elderly people who could barely walk unaided attempting to climb steps smothered in greasy mud that concealed uneven tree roots. I encountered guys and girls warily descending steep paths drizzled with mud and scarred with skid-marks whilst wearing flimsy flip flops and brand new Nike Airs probably unwrapped from under the Christmas tree a few days earlier. Even at the most challenging times, hiking should be enjoyable. Very few of the inappropriately dressed people I saw looked like they were enjoying themselves.

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Travel has become much more accessible thanks to the likes of of travel blogs and social media. Blogs tell us that “anyone can travel”, encouraging people to quit their day jobs for a life on the road. I think it’s excellent that more people are travelling, and it’s something I hope I myself can inspire in people who read my blog. Social media platforms such as Instagram enable travellers to give others instant access to their experiences. There are benefits to this; in particular, it lets friends and family at home know the traveller is safe. Ironically however, this promotion of travel-for-all and availability of instant access could also be creating a cult of irresponsible travel. In a world where ‘likes’ and retweets are perceived to be indicative of popularity and hence success, some people forget to prepare properly and take precaution when it comes to aspects of travel such as hiking.

I will happily be the first to acknowledge that I tend to upload a lot of travel photos onto Facebook and my blog. However this is done days, sometimes weeks after the photo has been taken and not as I am having the experience. This not only allows the traveller to make the most of the moment without staring at a screen, but can prevent them taking risks in the hopes of receiving a quick ‘like’ for their pretty selfie in front of a backdrop illustrating a daring adventure. Getting excited or feeling proud about one’s undertaking can cause an impulse to share the moment with the world, leading to spontaneous irrational choices. Posing with a selfie-stick on a narrow cliff edge in windy weather before a beautiful ocean view? Walking down a slippery and uneven rocky path towards a tranquil lake whilst staring at your phone choosing a flattering filter? Not a smart idea.

Any travel blogger who says they don’t want to impress people with their photos and stories is lying. What I and many travel bloggers can confidently say is that I am not wanting to impress with how I look in a photo, but with the scenery I am looking at. Social media tends to take the attention off the environment and onto how people look in the environment. This is turn puts a pressure on some people (mostly young girls) to look their best. Perceptions of what “looking your best” means on Instagram might not necessarily equate to suitable hiking attire.

Ultimately it’s up to people what they wear when hiking, but they must accept that they are responsible for their own welfare, and their choices will govern how easily and successfully they can do something. In some cases, one’s actions and choices can be selfish if, by putting themselves at risk through lack of preparation, they also put others near them at risk should they be needed to help them. Nobody should feel like they can’t travel, but everybody should know their limits.

In their attempts to promote a destination and perhaps receive a cheque or free perk in return, travel bloggers must be careful not to create unrealistic expectations of what one can do in an area. In glorifying locations as exotic paradises, they must remind readers of the fundamental practicalities of hiking, swimming and other general activities. Before starting a trail, people should have the right footwear; they should check weather forecasts; they should pack sensibly but lightly; they should know details about the trail; and they should be alert and aware of others whilst on the trail. Hawaii may be a heavenly escape of stunning beaches, palm trees, chilled music and luscious cocktails, but it also has the potential to bring hell on one’s trip if they do not prepare properly.

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Tips for this hike can be found on this website

If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy reading The Rise of Techno-Travellers

Searching for Nature’s Treasures in Goldstream Provincial Park

Located off Highway 1 just under 20km from Victoria on Vancouver Island, Goldstream Provincial Park is a great stop en route to Tofino and a favoured destination among locals looking for a weekend walk with their dog. Parking is free, toilets are on site, and the staff in the tiny visitor centre will point out the park’s key areas on a map.

Autumn is a lovely time to visit this park as the maple leaves have a wonderful golden glow to them when they catch the sunlight, emitting that wispy wet sound as you wander through them. I spent much time staring at the ground looking for the perfect one to take away with me. Within these lush surroundings, the only fault is the faint sound of traffic from the highway nearby.

As you walk through the tunnel that remains fom the gold rush experienced here in the mid 19th century, you’ll come to Niagara Falls (a much smaller version of its eastern twin!) with a trail beginning on the right. There aren’t many signs so further on you have to follow the sight of flattened soil which highlights a path up to the right. Scramble steeply up and after leaping a few fallen logs, you’ll eventually reach the old railway trestle which, based on the number of Facebook cover photos I’ve seen that feature them, is quite a popular place with island kids.

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The park is most famous for its salmon run which takes place in mid October until December, featuring mainly Chum salmon as well as Coho and Chinook. I saw about 12 salmon struggle upstream to lay their eggs having journeyed from the Pacific Ocean after living there for the past three years. Conquering the current is quite a battle, with splashes erupting sporadically as the fish thrash to move upwards. Nests in the gravel are known as ‘redds’ and are chosen by the female, while the male guards the area. Her eggs, known as ‘roe’ are fertilised by the male after they have been laid. After a new life has been created through all this effort, the salmon will slowly die in the place where they were born. It’s quite the sacrifice! To add salt to the wound (or perhaps highlight the significant existence of the food chain in nature), bald eagles will eagerly feed on their corpses in the spring.

 

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Some visitors will come to the park for a 60 minute refreshing walk; others will spend a day exploring. I did the former but elsewhere in the 366 hectare park you can find a range of rich vegetation including red cedar and arbutus trees, while if you crave a workout there’s the hike up 419m high Mt. Finlayson.

When surrounded by such an abundance of natural goodness, it’s a shame that some visitors couldn’t put their Starbucks cups in the many bins provided in the park. But this is the risk when nature is easily accessible to urban society and the social habits that form within. The park is in close proximity to life in the fast lane, but as photos like this one below show, it’s a great little spot for when you need a breath of fresh air.

 

Escape to Portugal: Lazy Sundays in Lisbon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Escape to Portugal: 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

 

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Escape to Portugal: A Train Trip to Pinhão

When I woke to my alarm on my first full day in Portugal, I heard rain pattering on the balcony outside. The man at reception in my hostel said the weather was supposed to improve later, but I’d already decided I would head inland and take the recommended train journey to Pinhão.

Breakfast comes free with your booking at Magnolia Porto Hostel. I sat down with some cereal and juice and then a lady came and placed before me a plate of bread with jams and sliced ham and cheese. The only thing that would make the setting nicer was if the TV was playing traditional Portuguese music, rather than showing MTV and various scantily dressed women dancing. After filling my boots (because when it’s free, why not?) I asked the man where I could find the nearest supermarket. He said his brother at reception would show me on the map, which made me wonder if the lady who brought me the food was their mother. I hope so.

My geographical skills had not improved as I tried to find my way to São Bento station. Seeing me scrutinise my map, a man came over and pointed me the right way and with 10 minutes to go until my departure, I was in the queue for tickets. The member of staff asked if I was under 25 and when I said yes, he asked for proof. Amazing! The first time I’ve ever been asked to prove I am younger rather than older! With my age, a return ticket cost only 16.30Euros. Good on the Portuguese for offering international travellers discounts too. Telling me when the last train back would leave, the man warned me with a wink to watch out for the red wine. I found my train and asked the conductor (Jorge) if I could sit anywhere. He recommended the front carriage and sure enough it was empty so I could find a seat near the window. I liked how friendly and helpful both these men had been – if you just make some effort in the language to clarify that you don’t speak Portuguese (by asking “Fala Inglês?”) you will be helped in embarrassingly good English. Seeing him help a group of young French tourists in their own language raised an interesting point of comparison. Working on a train in England isn’t regarded as the most impressive of jobs, but over here the use of different languages makes it a very important one, alongside other hospitality and retail work.

At Campanhã station a lady got on with her teenage daughter and sat opposite me. The mum looked exactly how I’ve always imagined Portuguese women to be – curvy in a floral dress and sandals with a strong big-boned face, big brown eyes and hands that have worked. As the mother read some biblical pamphlet, the girl and I would occasionally catch eyes and with her sulky face I was reminded of those days as a teenager when your parents are the most embarrassing thing on the planet and you feel completely misunderstood and frustrated.

The cloudy skies began to disappear as we headed inland. Lush green jungle-esque vegetation strewed the landscape with a few dots of white houses with orange roofs here and there. We passed hills hosting wind turbines and then the glistening river Douro appeared, winding its way around hills zig-zagging with vines with cars slowly ascending the hairpin bends. The mum opposite would pat her daughter’s knee and encourage her to take photos, upon which the girl would unplug her earphones with a scowl.

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On this inter-regional train there were no announcements when the next station was coming so after two hours I started to check the signs at each station. Stepping onto the quiet platform in Pinhão, I instantly regretted still having leggings on from rainy Porto as the midday heat began to roast my legs. There was no bridge to cross to the other side so people would casually cross the rail track – a fine-worthy offence in England! Unable to find a washroom at the tiny station, instinct told me to turn left and along the quiet cobbled street. I needed a bathroom to change in and a cafe called Princesa do Douro looked promising. I wandered in and nobody was around, but there was a WC to the right. Hallelujah! Changing into shorts, I couldn’t decide if I was being travel-smart or being a trespasser. The pastries on the counter looked too good to resist and I wanted to say thanks in some way, so I called over to the lady mopping in the corner and chose a popular toasted ham and cheese croissant and a pastry coated in chocolate with apricot jam on the inside.

Wandering along with no idea where I was going, I noticed before a bridge  that there was an open metal gate off the side of the road. After going over curiously to inspect, found myself walking down some steps past a bunch of orange trees onto the river front. This was when I believed my traveller’s instinct had returned.

There isn’t too much to do in Pinhão and most of my afternoon was spent doing nothing apart from enjoying the quiet rural setting of a town that wasn’t overloaded with tourists. For a moment I wondered if I was bored. In London it’s hard to switch off and with so much always going on, doing nothing feels strange. I had to remind myself that I was on holiday and it was okay not be tearing around various institutions with the aim of doing something productive.

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Further along the river in the busier part of the village are the boat tours and wine merchants. I remembered what the man in the station had said about the red wine here, but it was definitely too hot to be drinking. I opted for a cooler liquid and walked into a mini-mercado. It must have been obvious that I didn’t speak Portuguese because when I went to pay for my water and iced tea, the old lady got a yellow sticky note just like the ones I use at work and wrote ‘1.80’, showing it to me with a smile. I was tempted to ask to keep it as a souvenir but wasn’t convinced I would be able to make the lady understand why I wanted a scrap of paper.

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In the early evening I headed back to the train station for the journey home. Hearing a lady tell a fellow French tourist that the train for Porto was “en face”, I quickly crossed to the other platform before I found myself sleeping in the station for the night. It was reassuring to know I remembered some French! By now the midges had introduced themselves and I ignored any odd looks I got from people as I slapped my legs irritably. There was no chance of me finding a seat on this rammed train and I found myself stood in the doorway with the French group from the train here and a Portuguese family. It was hot and my mouth felt dry but there was hardly room to get water from my bag. The thought of standing for two and half hours became more bearable when some merry men in the next carriage began to play the accordion and dance around. Thankfully at the next station a few people got off but I stayed behind preparing to remain standing as the French group shot forwards to grab a seat. Then the girl of the group looked back at me and pointed at a free seat whilst one of the boys held the door for me. I sat down gratefully, only to hear the little boy next to me (also French) say “J’ai mal au ventre!” and feel less comforted…

Following their cooperation I was tempted to make conversation with the French group, but I’ve also learned during my travels when you should just accept some things as a nice gesture and not a sign of possible friendship and company. Sure it might have been nice to go for a drink with them, but did I really need their company for the evening? Instead of changing trains back to São Bento, I walked back from Campanhã past cheap quiet cafes and staring men. I was perplexed to notice that my dorm was unlocked, and a little disappointed to discover there were two new residents inside. I’d been looking forward to lounging around in private. The lights had been fixed as well…and one girl seemed to be afraid of the dark, as well as glued to her phone. I asked if she was from Portugal and she said “Sim” before saying she didn’t speak English. The other lady was Eastern European with long legs and a scary face. Suddenly I wished I’d approached the French group afterall. Luckily the festival in the park opposite had a live singer tonight which covered up the hostile silence, with my restless skin-scratching filling in the gaps.

I was glad to have visited a more rural, quieter area of the country and experienced the interaction I did with the locals in Pinhão and other tourists on the train. I was feeling like a traveller again, getting something out of every seemingly insignificant moment. I was remembering how pleasant one’s own company can be and feeling truly switched off from other commitments.

The rain had stopped and tomorrow I would explore more of Porto.

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Part Three: Exploring Porto Without a Camera

Escape to Portugal: Arrival in Porto

On July 28th 2015 I set off on my first solo trip in two years, and my first with hand-luggage only. The destination of choice was Portugal, on the basis that I wanted to visit somewhere with a warmer temperature and relaxed Latino ambience as opposed to the colder climate and outdoor pursuits-driven landscape of more northern areas of Europe which I’m better used to. I was excited to rekindle my sense of lone adventure, but felt out of practice too, and this became noticeable on arrival.

My plane touched down in Porto just before midday. My lack of preparation and the arrangement of the airport made for a muddled and delayed time there. After changing into shorts and a vest top in the washroom (and subsequently re-stuffing my small rucksack), I had to find an ATM that would accept my debit card, having been so busy that I hadn’t had time to change my currency beforehand. Then it was time to find the metro to take me into the city centre. After I wrongly approached the car parking machine on the lower level, a fellow tourist directed me back upstairs to the main level to buy metro tickets, only for me to be told by a member of staff up there that these had to be bought downstairs from the machine. (Life lesson: never take advice from an American man with long hair!) There were large queues for the three machines but there were no staff around to advise and the queues weren’t moving as confused tourists looked around helplessly. I finally reached the front and selected a ticket for zone 4, having read that the machine accepted 50Euro notes. Mine however was rejected meaning I had to walk all the way back upstairs yet again to buy some water for change. By now I was getting frustrated – I just wanted to be in the city out in the sun exploring.

20 minutes later I finally had my ticket for the violet line to Trindade at the price of 2.35Euros. Up on the platform my hands were full with change from the machine, tickets, receipts, water, a map and guidebook. I kneeled down and precariously shoved bits and bobs in various pockets, only to glance up and wonder why a man was staring at me with interest. A glance back down revealed that I was flashing a large amount of cleavage…The journey to Trindade only took about 25 minutes but because of my headless chicken-style running around in the airport, two hours had passed by the time I reached the centre. But I was finally here, it was time to think forward and that began with applying large amounts of sunscreen, ideally without involving extra exposure..!

I set off down the street noting the style of the pavements with their uneven, shiny-stoned surfaces. Câmara Municipal do Porto provides a great view down the Avenue dos Aliados towards the river Douro. People sit at tables under small trees reading the newspaper and drinking coffee. I noticed a lot of beeping going on by impatient taxi drivers which seemed to contrast with the ancient tram that would laze along the streets with an occasional clang. Unlike in other cities, it seemed you could be pretty relaxed about walking in the road without fear of being squished by one. Walking up a road to the right, I had my first sighting of a Portuguese bakery…and it was love. But I forced myself to wait a little longer before making a move. 003 004 008 010 Inside the Torre dos Clérigos (Tower of Clerics), a sign stated that the top would only be open to visitors from 7pm for 5Euros. With my first and only plan of the day out of the window, I instead headed down a little cobbled side road with quiet pastry shops where stray cats dashed underneath cars, leading me to the miradouro (viewpoint) which showed a sea of orange roofs with the iconic metal bridge of Luis I in the background. It wasn’t the most outstanding view I’d seen but I remained open-minded. Some steps took me down a narrow alley between scruffy stone houses and as I passed neighbours gossiping across to each other I felt almost invasive. Soon after this hushed local area of modesty came the Cais de Ribeira which was heaving with packed restaurants, but rather than the menus, I was attracted by the beautiful detail on the tall buildings, with their vintage look of tiled decoration and the balconies painted with corresponding colours. It’s this ancient beauty, combined with the collection of traditional wooden boats on the water, that probably influenced UNESCO to declare the Praça da Ribeira (riverside square) a World Heritage Site. My stomach was starting to rumble but I didn’t fancy dining alone in this touristy section. I dropped 50 cents into the case of two young boys playing guitar before wandering on towards the bridge. A long set of steps led me up past another poorer area where washing hung off lines attached to houses with paint peeling off the walls as young girls sat in a doorway playing games. 016035 036 039 040 041 042Crossing the top half of the Ponte de Luis I to the south side of the Douro, things get quieter. I felt more confident of finding a supermarket here and sure enough, quickly found a local fruit and veg shop, my mouth watering at the sight of fresh produce. Moments after walking in it became obvious that this was very much a place where a local few went, namely old women. “Desculpe!” I would say as I accidentally knocked one with my bag, but they never seemed to notice. The younger lady at the till would chat away with them as she weighed their bags stuffed with pears, nectarines, cherries and plums. As she weighed mine, I saw her glance quickly at my Oyster card holder which I was using to store notes (to save the space a purse would take up in my bag). Recognising the English words, she cleared her throat, looked me nervously in the eyes and slowly but profoundly said: “1.80.” Seeing her pride put a smile on my face and I walked out of the shop in a happy day dream, before almost flattening a girl stood right outside holding her hands out for money.056 058 060 Settling down in the green space of Jardim do Morro, the view of the town was much prettier, the river now more visible and glittering in the sun. I bit into a succulent peach and watched a young teenage couple on a bench in front of me look at each other with tentative excitement before locking their hands together. A few minutes later they walked off hand-in-hand giggling shyly and a busty girl in tight jeans who looked about six years older sauntered past them to sit on the wall. Then a motorbike revved past and her boyfriend pulled up beside her and rested his arms on her lap. It was a five-minute scenario that highlighted the phases of growing up and growing in love. At first there are the sweet, fragile romantic moments of making eye contact and feeling butterflies when you hold hands, then there’s the sexual excitement and physical comfortability as you spend more time together and grow more familiar with each other. I spent most of the afternoon resting here, enjoying the lack of visible tourists around, until around 5.30 p.m. I decided I should find my hostel. A steep cobbled street led down to the lower half of the bridge, where a group of young boys attracted applause as they jumped into the water. I was tempted to join; it was hot and I was still getting accustomed, the parts of my back that I hadn’t been able to reach starting to redden (one downside of travelling alone!)    061 062 066 Walking up past São Bento station, the looks and comments from local men began to increase. Of course I had no idea what was being said, but could tell the comments were pretty indecent. With my blonde hair I had expected to stand out, but was still surprised by just how ‘odd’ I appeared to be. The attention wasn’t perturbing and I didn’t feel unsafe; I just ignored the men and walked on. One thing I’ve learned from travelling alone is the art of bluffing. Even if you are completely lost or scared or uncertain about something, you have to put on a brave face, otherwise you make yourself more vulnerable to unwanted attention. I find that when in a foreign country, it feels easier to stand up for myself against harassment, perhaps because when one doesn’t understand the language it’s harder to get upset by the verbal reply, and also because since I know nobody else I’m less concerned about what people might think of me. This meant therefore that when the old homeless man came over with his hand held out and started poking me, I could look at him square in the eyes, firmly say “Não” and walk away with no further attempts being made by him.

After a few wrong turns I finally found Avenue Rodrigues de Freitas where Magnolia Porto Hostel is located, to the east of the city centre. I knocked on the big red door of number 387 and a lady signed me in and showed me to my dorm, which I would have to myself that night. The room had a homely ambience unlike that I’ve experienced in most hostels. It’s as if the owners have put more thought into the rooms than ‘You need a bed for the night – here it is.’ I washed my smelly feet and let them dry near the window, as I’d declined to bring a towel for the sake of luggage space.

At 8 p.m. I set off out again, glad to have only my camera bag on me. I wanted to watch the sun go down at the nice spot across the river from earlier. A grey cat sat looking vain on the walls of the Muralha Fernandina. Runners passed me down a flight of dusty steps from which I could peep into people’s kitchens through the open windows. The runners turned left to run alongside the river and for a moment I regretted not bringing my trainers.

Serra do Pillar is a nice viewpoint, and probably best enjoyed with a glass of local port (which, despite its fame and heritage here, I definitely was not fussed about sampling).  The green space adjacent was busier now, but with locals rather than tourists. I was glad to have come across the place – popular tourists areas rarely do it for me. By 9 p.m. it was getting chilly and I headed back across the bridge, pausing to admire the softening glow of the sun on the river and buildings, before wandering through random areas of the town map-less. Porto hadn’t overwhelmed me yet, but it definitely seemed to be a good city for just rambling around, finding interesting little things here and there such as the Sé Cathedral. 069 076 079 083 093Again, I got confused on the way back to my hostel. In the park nearby a sign read ‘Festival das Francesinhas’ and I translated the words ‘free entry’, but there didn’t seem to be much going on. I later discovered that ‘francesinha’ is a popular dish here – a thick sandwich filled with cheese, egg, sausage and other meats in a rich sauce. However in this heat the only food I felt like eating was the juicy fresh local fruit. This time a man welcomed me inside the hostel and I felt like I was returning home as I entered my quiet dorm. The lights didn’t seem to be working but I didn’t mind – it made things more cosy and I could crawl into bed tired from the heat and just wait for the impending darkness to come and send me to sleep.

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Read about day two in A Train Trip to Pinhão