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Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been telling a few people my so-called BIG NEWS, and here it is, time to come out publicly with what the next chapter in my life will be, coming up only two months from today.

Well, it happens that my two-year working visa for the UK is coming to an end, and after much deliberation (as I was exploring options to maybe extend my stay through a work sponsorship), I’ve decided to take the “easy” road and return to Canada in mid September.

Yep, I'm Moving Back to Canada on the 15th of September 2015!

Yep, I’m Moving Back to Canada on the 15th of September 2015!

I can’t believe that after making a life in London over the last couple of years, just as I was starting to plant some roots, it is time for me to leave. I have grown to love this city so much, so, although I am happy to be returning to Vancouver and being close to family and friends, I have a bittersweet feeling about this move.

HOWEVER, If you’ve followed my blog over the last few years, you’ll know that I don’t just “move” places. En-route to moving, I take the long way around, and get some travel under my belt while I am free from any responsibilities. Moving to Australia meant I got to travel for three weeks in New Zealand and 3 months in Australia itself, before settling down to work in Sydney. When I moved to the UK, I took 10 days to travel the Netherlands and Belgium, followed by three weeks in Turkey and a month traveling around to various cities in the UK, before I started work in London.

So, in true Clausito’s Footprints fashion, before I settle down in Vancouver again, I will be doing an epic six-week trip around Central America this Autumn, visiting all seven countries which make this sub-continent.

My Rough Guide to Central America, Because, Life

My Rough Guide to Central America, Because, Life

This trip will not only help me tick a whole lot of new countries, cities, towns, beaches and archaeological sites off my bucket list, but it will also mean I will have FINALLY reached my goal of visiting as many countries as the years I’ve lived (that will be 32 countries visited, just past my 32nd birthday!).

And there’s more BIG NEWS!… but I can’t go into that just yet…

Stay tuned as I finish up my two-years living in Europe in style over the next two months, followed up with many new adventures throughout the rest of 2015, and in the years to come.

Happy Canada Day 2015!

To celebrate this Canada Day, celebrated the 1st of July every year, here are some Canada Geese, hanging out by Burnaby Lake in Vancouver, BC, Canada.

Canada Geese at Burnaby Lake, BC, Canada

Canada Geese at Burnaby Lake, BC, Canada

I took this photo about two years ago now, as I went around the city with my friend Ryan trying to find new secluded places to hike and walk around the greater Vancouver area, before moving to the UK.

Happy Canada Day!!

Happy Pride in London 2015!

#mygaypride London 2015

#mygaypride London 2015

Last year, I notoriously bashed Pride in London, as there were a number of things I didn’t enjoy about the event. That had been my very first Pride event outside of Vancouver, and I felt may things about the parade itself were badly organized, and combined with other factors (like a torrential downpour), I was really disappointed with it.

Aside from the parade, I had really enjoyed what came afterwards, which was basically a big street party in all of Soho.

Well, I went to Pride in London again this year to give it a second chance, and I am happy to report, that Pride in London 2015 was MUCH BETTER than it was last year, and I have kind of forgiven the event for doing certain things the way they do. Sunny skies and warm temperatures also helped, but I think there was more to the weather alone!

With Eamonn at the Citibank Pride in London 2015 Champagne Breakfast

With Eamonn at the Citibank Pride in London 2015 Champagne Breakfast

Champagne Breakfast
The morning started on the right foot, as I joined my boyfriend Eamonn for a “Champagne breakfast” (it was actually Prosecco, but you get the idea) with his colleagues at Citibank, as he was marching with them to represent his company. It was a leisurely morning in a patio near Oxford Street, where we got to enjoy the sun, some light breakfast foods, and plenty of bubbly and mimosas.

We were there for a couple of hours before I had to leave to meet my friend Shane in Oxford Circus, to grab  good spot to watch the parade. With over 950,000 people expected to attend (that is about 1/3 more people than they had last year!), we wanted to make sure we’d be in the front row to be able to take it all in.

The Parade in 2015
Shane and I found a perfect spot at the circle itself of Oxford Circus, which allowed us to see the parade without any issues. Now, I will deconstruct my complaints from last year, explaining why this year was SO MUCH BETTER, and maybe apologizing a little about some of the things I may have under-thought about.

Bull Fight

Bull Fight

1. The barricades. Pride in London runs right through the centre of the city, an area that even at the best of times is transited by thousands of people every single hour. I noticed the amounts of people trying to cross the parade and having to go towards one of the designated crossing points and wait for their chance to cross, only because the barricades got on their way.
Last year the barricades made me feel like they were separating the people watching from the parade itself, but yesterday I understood that without them, the parade would constantly be interrupted by people crossing from one side of the street to the next.
I also understand now, thinking about it, that in other pride festivals, such as Vancouver Pride or Brighton & Hove Pride, the parade routes don’t need the same kind of separation as the areas aren’t as busy as that of central London, so people won’t need to cross over from side to side as often.

So here it is: I apologize, Pride in London, I now know you use the barricades for a reason, and it works… but maybe it just felt better this year because there was an improvement in the next four points!

2. Last year, I felt there was a complete lack of interaction between the parade marchers and those of us watching the parade. This year, I honestly felt that, for the most part, the marchers came over to us more often, waving at us, at times hugging us, and most of the time giving us high fives.
Despite having the barricades in front of us, it felt like we were part of the party, rather than merely watching it, as it happened last year!

With Shane at Pride in London 2015

With Shane at Pride in London 2015

3. The goodies! Yes, everyone loves getting stuff, even if it’s pretty useless, as long as it is shiny. One of my favourite things about Vancouver Pride, for example, are the bead necklaces that nearly every float throws at the audience, making pride an event to enjoy, like a small version of Mardi Gras.
While Pride in London participants didn’t have beads to hand out, they were interacting with us more, and giving out a number of things… We got mostly stickers, but we also got a rainbow flag, some pins, candy, and even simple things, like the marchers coming over to glue some glitter on us, or paint rainbows on our faces… or shoot confetti into the sky above us!

Again, more than actually getting anything, it was this interaction that made it feel more like a fun party that we were all part of!

4. The volunteers. Pride in London runs only because of the hard work of volunteers, most visibly the “stewards” who keep an eye out on the crowd & marchers to ensure that everything runs smoothly.
Last year, the volunteers became more of a hinderance than an asset, as they stood still watching the parade from one spot, blocking our view with their giant umbrellas.
This year, the stewards seemed to take on a better role, helping pump up the crowd before the parade even go to where we were, and making sure the atmosphere was fun and enjoyable for everyone the whole way through. Little things, like moving around in their designated area, instead of standing in one place through the entire thing blocking people’s views, made the parade more enjoyable for us watching.

Confetti in the Sky

Confetti in the Sky

5. The parade ran smoothly! In addition to a better job by the volunteers, the entire thing went ahead much more smoothly than last year. I am going to assume that Pride in London learned from their mistakes last year, and made changes to ensure that any stresses that surely arose, were fixed without making a big visible drama that gathered more attention than the parade itself.

Overall, I really enjoyed the parade, and seeing Eamonn marching was an extra added treat. Also, I got to give a credit to the sun for making an appearance, as the sunny weather surely had to help impact the atmosphere and the attitude of everyone involved.

Soho Street Party
While the sun made the parade much more enjoyable to watch, it also meant that thousands more people would be out and about for Pride in London.

Last year, one of my favourite parts of Pride was when we headed over to Soho and enjoyed the celebrations, when the entire area closed to traffic and turned into a giant street party, with stages for singers and drag queens to perform and entertain. With so many more people out and about this year, I actually found it a bit overwhelming, and unfortunately didn’t enjoy Soho as much.

I think I will stick to visiting Soho in normal nights, when the venues and the streets are busy and buzzing, but not overwhelmingly packed!

Trafalgar Square Festival
London is unique amongst other UK cities, in that they host a post-parade festival which is free of charge… this sounds amazing, until you realize that a free event means the place will be over-packed and hard to access. Also, because the parade runs a central course, it is only logical that such festival be held central as well, and the best place to host that kind of party is Trafalgar Square. The square is a great venue, but not nearly big enough to host the large number of people Pride in London attracts.

Trafalgar Square Pride in London

Trafalgar Square Pride in London

We went into Trafalgar Square in the late afternoon, just before the last sets ran, when the crowds had reduced by about half from what they were earlier. There were still hundreds of people in the square, but we were able to actually see some of the performances.

When the stage closed, we decided to call London a night and head back to South London for dinner, as returning to busy Soho was a little more than we were looking to put ourselves through!

***

Overall, I can actually say Pride in London did a fantastic job in 2015. This is estimated to have been the city’s largest pride celebration, and they ran a successful and fun parade, as well as a multitude of options in Soho and Trafalgar Square for people to continue celebrating afterwards.

Eamonn, Me & Shane, Pride in London 2015

Eamonn, Me & Shane, Pride in London 2015

In terms of redeeming themselves for the chaotic Pride of last year, I can say – Pride in London: mission accomplished!

June is here, and with it, the beginning of pride season, as pride festivals and events begin to pop up all over the world (mainly the northern hemisphere). No, this blog post is not about songs, despite the festive title (although singing to my favourite gay anthems shall happen this summer), but if you read through, you’ll understand the name of the post!

Pride festivals are meant to increase the visibility of LGBT people in our communities, and stand for gay+ acceptance and equality in rights. These pride celebrations have their share of fans (and a number of not-so-fans) in both the straight and gay communities, and to me they are an important part of gay culture and a way for everyone to have fun in a non-judgemental, colourful way. No, a pride parade is not everyday life for every gay and lesbian, but I see nothing wrong with a little celebration now and then!

The Ghost of Prides Past
Until two years ago, I had surprisingly only ever gone to one pride (albeit many times). This might come as a surprise to some of my friends, who perceive me as ‘very gay,’ hopping from one bar to another on any given Saturday night (which does happen, but not as often as it seems!).

With my Friend Sammy at Vancouver Pride, August 2012

With my Friend Sammy at Vancouver Pride, August 2012

For me, until 2013, it was all about the Vancouver Pride Festival, a week-long celebration that happens every year in the last week of July, culminating with a fabulous parade on the first Sunday of August (which happens to be a long weekend). To date, I have gone to Vancouver Pride six years so far (I skipped a few in between!), and being the great celebration that it is, I never even considered traveling anywhere to witness other cities’ pride celebrations. When I moved to the UK nearly two years ago, I decided I’d branch out. It was not that I didn’t want to see other pride festivals. It was simply that I didn’t feel the need to go out of my way to go to other prides, when a great one already happened at home every year. But this was a new beginning, and a new opportunity to try new things.

Pride in London #mygaypride

Pride in London #mygaypride

My first pride experience out of Vancouver was Pride in London 2014, a parade that to me, just wasn’t as good as it could’ve been. I wanted so badly to have a good time, but it was a combination of things seem to have conspired to make me not enjoy the event as I was hoping: I may have over-built the excitement of seeing a new pride parade too much; I may have compared Pride in London to Vancouver Pride just a little too much… like, through the entire thing; or maybe it was the fact that it rained buckets that day! – In any case, London’s pride just didn’t meet my expectations, and left me wanting a lot more. With the rain as a complete damper, my friends and I ended up skipping most f the parade and the post-parade festival at Trafalgar Square, and opting for pub drinks instead.

Brighton Pride Dancers

Brighton Pride Dancers

A month later, I headed over to my second pride festival in the UK, in the coastal town of Brighton. To put it bluntly, Brighton & Hove Pride 2014 blew Pride in London out of the water, and it surpassed my expectations a gizillion times. The atmosphere of the parade and the excitement of the people was so vibrant you could almost feel it in the air. The Brighton & Hove Pride is the UK’s biggest pride festivals and it’s definitely worth checking out, with an interactive parade that reminded me of Vancouver (both in the way it was well-organized and the geographical setting itself), and the post-parade festival at Preston Park, which was great fun with good music and loads of stalls to keep us entertained.

Pride Welsh Flag, Cymru Pride, August 2014

Pride Welsh Flag, Cymru Pride, August 2014

Lastly, I headed to my third pride festival of 2014 at Pride Cymru 2014, the official pride for Wales held in its capital, Cardiff. Pride Cymru is much smaller than Brighton, but it held the same fun atmosphere, although in a much smaller scale. The group of friends I went with (all Welsh) were great company through the entire day, watching the mini parade (twice, actually!), and dancing the day and night away in the post-parade festival Main Event at Coopers Field. Aside from a little incident in which I got punched in the jaw and lost part of a tooth for trying to stop a fight between two pride goers (welcome to Wales!), I had a great night!

The Ghost of Non-Prides
No, not an official ghost, but in between last year and now, I have attended two gay-heavy events that, although not official pride events, could easily compete with some of the best.

The first happened by pure un-planned accident in November 2014 as I happened to be in Cape Town, South Africa, on the weekend of Gay Day in Cape Town, a street party that works as a teaser to Cape Town’s official Pride, which happens in the middle of February. Gay Day was so much fun, with various streets around the gay area closed to traffic and turned into a huge street party, in which drag queens performed, and a combination of live music and disco tunes alternated between two stages. The atmosphere was fantastic, and the only sad part about the day was that I had to leave early-ish, as the place started to really fill up, because I was leaving Cape Town that evening!

The second event happened only a few weeks ago in May 2015, at the gay-inundated European music contest Eurovision, which Eamonn and I went to in Vienna, Austria. This is not an official pride, nor a gay event even, but with a large gay attendance, the party was full of rainbow flags waving about, literally and figuratively!

The Ghost of Prides Yet to Come
This summer I will once again be gaying it up by visiting three prides. I am also once again being an ambassador for #mygaypride, an initiative set up last summer by one of my favourite travel blogger duo Two Bad Tourists.

The initiative #mygaypride, started up last year by Two Bad Tourists, is back again this year and will see a bunch of real travel bloggers (not wannabes, like me), gay website Gay Star News, and many more ‘ambassadors’ (that’s me!) spread the hashtag #mygaypride on social media, as we visit a multitude of Pride events this summer, all over the world. The hashtag is a way of uniting gay and gay-friendly individuals world-wide as we celebrate diversity and promote equality everywhere through sharing our experiences in and out of pride events.

#mygaypride - Me in June 2014.

#mygaypride – Me in June 2014.

To start up my 2015 pride season, I will be giving Pride in London a second chance, and I promise I will go with a clean slate and no preconceptions. I am hoping this year’s parade and celebrations will completely blow me away and I will have nothing but good things to say about it. My boyfriend Eamonn will also be walking the parade with his company, so I also have him to look forward to!

Secondly, I will once again return to Brighton & Hove Pride on the first weekend of August. A small group of friends will be going with me this year, and I know that I’ll have a great time making the mini-trek (aka the gay pilgrimage) down to Brighton in the morning, and enjoying what has become one of my favourite places in the UK, pride style! Brighton & Hove Pride is celebrating their 25th anniversary this year, and to add to the excitement, the after party at Preston Park has a fantastic line-up of artists and DJs, including Fatboy Slim, Hercules & Love Affair, Freemasons, and Bright Light Bright Light, so it’s sure to be a fantastic festival as a whole!

To end 2015’s pride celebrations in style, this year I will be heading over to pride in no other place than…. Reykjavik! That is right, my boyfriend Eamonn, two friends and I will be visiting Iceland for a few days, staying in Reykjavik and exploring some of the island from there. We planned to go over the pride weekend so we could experience the pride atmosphere as well as the country’s natural beauty. I am very excited to see pride in a country that, although quite small and fairly secluded, has been historically very strongly gay-friendly – can’t wait!

***

I hope all my LGBT and gay-friendly readers are looking forward to the summer pride season, and maybe you’ll be enjoying some of these festivals yourself… if so, please let me know, I’d love to hear! And don’t forget to tag all your photos under #mygaypride to keep connected!

What is the favourite pride festival you’ve been to?

Rainbow Flag & Vienna Flags at Rathaus

Rainbow Flag & Vienna Flags at Rathaus

If you’re not from Europe, you might be unfamiliar with the continent-wide phenomenon Eurovision, a singing competition in which a bunch of European (and pseudo-European) countries submit a singer(s) with an original song, and then award points to each other, until a winner is crowned. The winning country gets the honour of hosting the event the following year, as well as bragging rights for winning the competition.

This past weekend, Austria’s beautiful (very European) capital, Vienna, hosted the 60th Anniversary of Eurovision. With a bit of luck on our side, my boyfriend Eamonn and I got to go to the Eurovision final show as VIP guests of the Vienna Tourism Board! Not only did we get two tickets to go see the final, but also return airfare from London with flag carrier Austrian Airlines, three nights accommodation at the 25 Hours Hotel, and a city pass which included free transit and discounts at museums within the city.

VIENNA AS A HOST
The week-long event catered not only to those visitors who went to the live Eurovision shows, but to anyone who was in Vienna through its duration.

The large plaza in front of the Rathaus hosted public parties from which visitors (and locals) who did not have tickets to see Eurovision live could watch the performances on large outdoor screens. The weather unfortunately did not cooperate during one of the semi-finals, bringing a downpour which killed the party, but dry skies allowed the final to be a success.

Eamonn and I had tickets to the live final show, but headed down to the Rathaus afterwards to grab some food from one of the many stalls, and although the crowds had mostly dispersed by then, it was clear the place had been a huge party!

Eamonn 'Building Bridges' with the Parks Board Eurovision Carboard Cutouts

Eamonn ‘Building Bridges’ with the Parks Board Eurovision Carboard Cutouts

Vienna’s version of Eurovision had ‘Building Bridges’ as its general theme, which centred about connecting with each other, despite nationality or any other differences (which interestingly enough was Eurovision’s main goal when it was first invented a few years after WWII). As part of the ‘Building Bridges’ theme, Vienna wanted to portray itself to the rest of Europe as a gay-friendly and welcoming city, with the additional tagline adopted by the city’s tourism board for 2015: ‘ViennaNow or Never.

To welcome the competition’s largely-gay spectatorship, Vienna added a number of welcoming features to its streets. A large rainbow flag hung down from the Rathaus (city hall), and small rainbow flags topped most of the city’s trams. In a more permanent addition, the city changed many of its pedestrian crossing lights to include gay and lesbian couples (as well as straight couples), instead of the traditional single figure.

BUILDING BRIDGES
Now, my moment of truth, which is likely to enrage Eurovision fans all over the world: I had seen very little Eurovision in my lifetime before this weekend.

Eurovision is truly a European phenomenon, which means it’s not as popular (or even known about) in countries outside of the continent – except for Australia, which for some reason has been a long-time fan of the competition. What I can honestly say now, after this weekend, is that I am a convert, and can now call myself a fan!

I had binge-listened to most of the entrants to the competition in the week before flying out to Vienna, but nothing compared to seeing the final show live. There were many songs I had listened to before and wasn’t crazy about, which I loved seeing live; in many cases, these under-appreciated songs surpassed some of my previously-favourite songs!

The evening, held on Saturday the 23rd of March 2015, was amazing. We had to be at the stadium at 7pm in order to get a good spot on the floor (which in case you’re wondering, is the best place to be!) and the show went on until nearly 1am, including voting and a final performance by the winner. Yet, the evening was fun from beginning to end. We ran into some friends and had a great time chatting before the show started, discussing the sets, and dancing during the intermission. The venue in the Wiener Stadthalle also had bars, so a couple of beers throughout the evening helped loosen us up to get a bit of dancing.

The Stunning Stage at Eurovision 2015

The Stunning Stage at Eurovision 2015

Aside from the music itself, what really blew my mind was the atmosphere on the floor. Not only was everyone enjoying themselves, it was also touching seeing thousands of flags from many different countries – as well as a bunch of rainbow flags – waving above the crowd. The artists also got a warm reception from the entire stadium after their sets; even non-fans like me got really into it: my hands and throat are still a little sore now from all the clapping and screaming!

The only downside of the evening was when Russia’s singer received clearly audible booing from many in the stadium at the start of the voting. This is obviously due to Russia’s blatant discrimination of LGBT rights, since the artist herself is very talented, and her song was definitely one of the best songs in the contest. Fans did not want a homophobic country hosting a usually gay-friendly event next year, but took the wrong approach, punishing an artist who has stood up for LGBT rights against her country’s laws. Thankfully, a little nudge from the hostesses reminding the crowd about ‘Building Bridges,’ and a heart to heart from Conchita Wurst (the beloved Austrian bearded drag queen, winner of last year’s Eurovision), turned the boos into a more accepting applause.

Eamonn & Me, Ready for the Eurovision 2015 final!

Eamonn & Me, Ready for the Eurovision 2015 final!

At the end of the night, once all 27 finalists had performed and the votes were counted, Sweden took top prize with the song ‘Heroes’ (we’ve been rooting for this song since the entry got announced, as it is a pretty nifty song!), while Russia came in second with ‘A Million Voices,’ and Italy third with ‘Grande Amore.’ Belgium’s catchy ‘Rhythm Inside’ ended up in fourth place, while Australia, a country invited as a one-time-only guest due to their long-standing support of Eurovision, ended up in fifth place with Guy Sebastian’s ‘Tonight Again.’

Biggest surprises of the night were Lithuania with the duet ‘This Time,’ which quickly became one of my favourite songs even though it didn’t do great in the competition, and Spain’s ‘Amanecer,’ which despite having a great song and performance, got only a few points. The live performance of France got roaring applause in the stadium, but the grandeur didn’t seem to translate into the TV, leaving the country in third-to-last place with only four points awarded. Austria and Germany surprisingly ended up in last place, without a single point awarded.

As I try to adopt the United Kingdom as my new home, I proudly waved my Union Jack flag, despite our entry ‘Still in Love With You’ only earning 5 points and ending in 24th place overall. Another guilty confession is: I actually really enjoy the song! It is a silly and playful jazzy melody, which would get me moving on the dance floor any day (after a few beers, especially).

The intermission proved to be another great treat. While the 40 voting countries around Europe gathered their votes, we were presented with an incredible half-way show filled with music, both upbeat drum & base and a classical chorus segment. Biggest highlight of the night was definitely when my group of friends and I ended up being recorded during the intermission, appearing dancing for about four seconds in front of an estimated 200 million viewers world-wide!

My Four Seconds of Fame on this Still from the BBC Broadcast of Eurovision 2015!

My Four Seconds of Fame on this Still from the BBC Broadcast of Eurovision 2015!

***

I am not sure if I’ll ever make it to another live Eurovision contest as visiting the show does require some serious commitment in the financial sense… however, this has been one of the coolest experiences I’ve had in Europe, and I am so happy I got the opportunity to go!

Have you ever been to Eurovision? What did you think?!

Back in January, I dragged my boyfriend Eamonn and a few friends over to a gay travel expo in London, hosted by Gay Star News Travel.

The expo was small (having worked in the travel industry for over seven years now, I’ve been to my share of travel expos and markets, so I know!) but, surprisingly, had a raffle with a grand prize that consisted of a trip to Vienna, to see the Eurovision song contest final!

For those who don’t know what Eurovision is – so basically everyone who isn’t from Europe or Australia (not sure why, but Eurovision is super big there too!) – it is a huge multi-national European singing contest, in which countries submit a singer with an original song, then award points to each other to pick a winner. The winning country usually hosts the following year’s Eurovision, and the show goes on.

Despite most people outside of Europe (and Australia) not knowing about this event, Eurovision has launched the careers of a couple famous people over the past few decades – most notably, Sweden’s ABBA, and believe it or not, Celine Dion, my fellow Canadian that for some reason sang for Switzerland, taking that year’s prize for the country.

Last year, a lovely bearded drag queen named Conchita Wurst from Austria, rose to the top of the competition with her song Rise Like a Phoenix, earning the country the chance to host the singing contest this year in its capital Vienna.

And so, as fate would have it, my boyfriend Eamonn participated on the “Pin the Beard on Conchita Wurst” game at the Gay Star Travel Expo (a funny version of the popular pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey game), and his entry to the raffle won him the grand prize!

Eamonn Pinning the Winning Beard on Conchita Wurst!

Eamonn Pinning the Winning Beard on Conchita Wurst!

And so, this coming Friday we are off to Vienna, on the winning trip sponsored by the Vienna tourism board. Our trip includes return airfare on national flag carrier Austrian Airlines, three nights accommodation at the funky 25 Hours Hotel in Vienna’s museum ring, a city pass which offers us discounts to various attractions, and of course, tickets to see the Eurovision final!

I’m especially excited about this trip as it will be my first 2015 trip visiting a new city (and country!), after re-visiting Rome, Madrid, and Bangkok so far this year. It will also be Eamonn’s first time visiting the city, so we already have a list of things we want to do, and most importantly for our foodie selves, places where we want to eat!

So if you’re watching the Eurovision final this year, keep an eye out for me on the television… You never know, you might see me there!

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about the Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul’s most important attractions. The structure itself is an architectural wonder, the art inside it is priceless, and the history of the Hagia Sophia is an important heritage to the world altogether.

Outside of the Tombs of Hagia Sophia

Outside of the Tombs of Hagia Sophia

However, more than the Hagia Sophia itself, there are other areas included within the Hagia Sophia Museum, that I didn’t write about… so here you go, a post dedicated specifically to the lesser-known, but just as important, Sultan Tombs.

During my visit to Turkey in September 2013, I went to check out the Sultan Tombs with my friend Ryan. The Tombs are a series of beautifully decorated mausoleums, each which contains a number of sarcophaguses that happen to be the final resting place of various sultans and their families.

Each mausoleum is intricately decorated in its own individual manner, with different colour schemes and designs on its tiles and carved doors, and are hence worth visiting individually. The older mausoleums date all the way back to the 16th Century, so the historical significance is no less important than that of other buildings in Old Istanbul.

Inside One of the Tombs

Inside One of the Tombs

A single entry ticket will allow visitors access to all the tombs, and the Istanbul Museum pass includes the entry to this area of the Hagia Sophia Museum as well. Keep in mind each individual mausoleum is considered a sacred structure, so make sure to respect the traditions and rules of Muslim places of worship, including the use of acceptable clothing and removal of shoes before entering!

Have you been to the Hagia Sophia Museum Tombs?

Happy Earth Day – 22 April 2015!

I took this photo of a mural of Earth in downtown Belfast, Northern Ireland, during my visit with my boyfriend Eamonn in December 2014.

Colourful Mural of the Earth in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Colourful Mural of the Earth in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Belfast is a wonderful little city, and one of my favourite things about it was the amount of murals everywhere!

During my visit to Istanbul, Turkey, in September 2013, I got to admire first-hand the magnificent Blue Mosque, one of the world’s most recognized buildings, and arguably, one of its most beautiful.

Path Leading to the Blue Mosque

Path Leading to the Blue Mosque

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, as it is officially named, has dominated the skyline of the Old City in Istanbul for over 400 years, and continues to be a working mosque; as such, you are likely to overhear the overpowering call to prayer, which plays out of the Blue Mosque’s six towering minarets, five times each day.

Main Chamber Inside the Blue Mosque

Main Chamber Inside the Blue Mosque

Although the outside of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque has a slightly blue tint, the Blue Mosque actually received its famous nickname due to the blue tinge (which is also a bit pink) of over 20,000 handmade Iznik ceramic tiles which adorn its interior.

Detail of Iznik Ceramic Tiles Inside of the Dome of the Blue Mosque

Detail of Iznik Ceramic Tiles Inside of the Dome of the Blue Mosque

A visit to the Mosque is free, but make sure to dress appropriately as you will be denied entry otherwise – or be offered the chance to wear a wrap-around skirt to cover your “indecent” attire… like I did!

The Blue Mosque & Fountain at Night

The Blue Mosque & Fountain at Night

During my visit to Istanbul I went to check out the Blue Mosque twice. The queue to enter can be long, but the mosque is well worth the wait. And for those that don’t believe me, here is the Blue Mosque dress code guidelines sign, and the result of wearing shorts deemed “too short!”:

If you want to read more posts about Istanbul, click here!

Cologne Cathedral & Statue

Cologne Cathedral & Statue

Hope everyone had a fun and relaxing Easter weekend. To mark this day, I thought I’d share some photos of the beautiful Cathedral in Cologne, Germany, from my trip to this city in May 2014.

The Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom, if you’re feeling German), is a stunning Gothic-styled Catholic landmark, which towers high above the city of Cologne – 144.5 metres, to be exact. The Cathedral is Germany’s most visited landmark, attracting over 20,000 visitors every day, and has been designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO.

During my visit to Cologne, I took the opportunity to climb up one of the bell towers, 509 steps up to a viewing platform. After the climb, I was rewarded with beautiful views of the Rhine River and the city, and I also got a better, close-up view of the intricate decorations of the Cathedral’s many spires!

Entry to the Cathedral itself is free of charge, but a ticket must be purchased to climb up to the viewing platform.

The Cologne Cathedral houses a number of beautiful works of art, including five massive, stained glass windows depicting popular scenes from the Bible, including one of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, in a distinctly German 19th Century style. Also housed inside the Cologne Cathedral, the Shrine of the Three Kings is triple sarcophagus gilded in gold, which is said to contain the remains of the Three Wise Men.

Stained Glass Window Depicting Crucifixion in Cologne Cathedral

Stained Glass Window Depicting Crucifixion

Happy Easter!

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

One of Turkey’s most iconic buildings is Istanbul’s magnificent Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya in Turkish), a  one-time Greek Orthodox church turned into a Mosque and eventually converted into a museum over its 1500-year history.

The Hagia Sophia was an architectural masterpiece in the time it was built (532AD) and to this day it’s still an impressive two-storey domed structure that has survived the test of time against wars, loots, and a number of natural disasters.

While the outside structure itself is not nearly as breath-taking as that of the nearby Blue Mosque, the inside of the Hagia Sophia is incredibly beautiful. The building maintains aspects of both the Christian and Islamic religions in a unison that is not seen anywhere else.

One of the greatest assets of the Hagia Sophia is its collection of mosaic murals, dating back to its many centuries as a church. While the mosaics were covered with white plaster after the building was taken over and converted into a mosque, extensive restoration work has seen many of the mosaics restored.

I visited the Hagia Sophia twice during my time in Istanbul and was able to appreciate the graciousness and history of this great building both as much on my second visit as I did the first time! If you visit, make sure to also check out the Sultan Tombs at the next-door Hagia Sophia Museum.

To read more posts about Istanbul, click here.

Last week I wrote about the All the Beers I Drank in Belgium. Yes, Belgian beers are an important part of the country’s culture (at least in my eyes); but how about the rest of the cuisine in Belgium?

Belgium is a tiny Western European country that doesn’t always make it into people’s general travel itineraries when visiting Europe, but in many ways, travellers to Europe who miss Belgium, are missing out on a lot. And cuisine, with my big love for anything edible, is a big part of this!

Despite Belgium being such a small country, Belgian cuisine is incredibly varied. Before my visit in August 2013, all I could have ever attributed to Belgium is beer, chocolate, and waffles… but there are many more dishes to try, so make sure you make your way to Belgium and stuff your face with all the delicious meals!

Chocolaterie in Antwerp

Chocolaterie in Antwerp

Chocolate
Belgium is known worldwide for the quality of its chocolates. What sets Belgian chocolates apart from any others, is that they use the oil from the cacao itself to create their chocolate bars, as opposed to using external fats, as many countries do. What this does, is create a chocolate that is stronger and creamier in flavour, as it is not diluted by an animal or vegetal lard which will reduce the cacao flavour.

But Belgians don’t stop at just eating chocolate as bars. There are products like the Kwatta chocolate spread, a spread similar to Nutella, but is pure chocolate (no Hazelnuts) and comes in either milk or dark chocolate versions. Belgians often eat this spread for breakfast, as well as simple chocolate sprikles over buttered bread, and chocolate milk… this might not be the healthiest way to start the day, but it sure is delicious!

Belgian Breakfast
Traditional Belgian breakfasts are very continental European: a collection of breads (often fancy), cheeses (often stinky), and meats (often pork, although at times horse). On the weekend I spent in Belgium, my friend Timothy set up a nice array of foods for a proper Belgian breakfast, including fresh breads (mostly fancy), meat cuts (including smoked horse), cheeses (some stinky), and assorted spreads like fruit preserves and Kwatta chocolate spread.

Queen of Waffles, Antwerp

Queen of Waffles, Antwerp

Waffles
Another big internationally known staple for Belgian cuisine are waffles, and interestingly enough, waffles are not a breakfast meal (as they are often seen in other countries) but an any-time-of-day snack.

During my visit to Antwerp in August 2013, my friend Timothy took me to the Queen of Waffles, a local LGBT-friendly waffle café that serves a wide variety of waffle styles, topped with a range of yummies. Timothy went for the basic Kwatta chocolate spread while I tried something different: a creamy spread made from the Belgian Speculoos biscuits, which are similar to gingersnaps.

The Queen of Waffles is located in the centre of Antwerp just off of the Grote Markt.

Frites
Frites (or fries, for us non-Belgians – “chips” in the UK) are super common in Belgium; in fact, it is believed that the dish originated there (not in France, as the North American full name “french fries” alludes).

The thick-cut fries are often served accompanying other dishes (even food that in other countries is considered to be higher-class, such as mussels or rabbit!), but can also be bought on their own as a snack. If you go to a frites take-out stand, the frites will usually be served along with a delicious thick mayonnaise to dip them in: the Belgian way.

Moules (Frites not pictured!)

Moules (Frites not pictured!)

Mussels
A nice pot of mussels is a typical Belgian dish, and in fact Moules-frites (mussels & fries) is the official National dish of Belgium.

During my visit to Belgium, Timothy and I went to a restaurant where I got a delicious serving of moules-frites cooked in a white-wine sauce.

There are many variations on mussel recipes, from cream-based to tomato-based to broth-based (usually with either red or white wine in any of them), but you’ll be sure to find mussels in many establishments in Belgium, especially those serving traditional food.

Gentse Waterzooi
My friend and host Timothy was kind enough to cook for me on many occasions during my stay in Belgium. The first time he cooked, he made a traditional Gentse Waterzooi, which is basically a tasty chicken broth, full of hearty chopped vegetables, chicken breasts, and meatballs (variations on the contents can be made, but this is the one he made).

The waterzooi is served as a soup with a big dollop of sour cream on top, similar to a Russian borscht, although some recipes seem to include the cream during the cooking process.

Lapin Aux Pruneaux in Brussels

Lapin Aux Pruneaux in Brussels

Lapin Aux Pruneaux
On our day trip to Brussels, we went to a nice restaurant and I tried the French-cuisine Lapin Aux Pruneaux (Rabbit and Prunes) dish: a juicy chunk of rabbit with prunes, smothered in a beautiful thick beer and prune sauce. The dish is traditional to the French half of Brussels.

Meatloaf with Sour Cherries (& Mash)

Meatloaf with Sour Cherries (& Mash)

Meatloaf with Sour Cherries
Again at his home, Timothy cooked for me another traditional Belgian dish: a nice hearty meatloaf served with cooked red sour cherries.

This is a beautiful dish, combining the heartiness of meatloaf and the boldness of tart black cherries, and is often served along with either mashed potatoes or frites.

Dame Blanche
A delicious, although incredibly basic desert, the Dame Blanche (White Lady, in English) is vanilla ice cream covered with thick melted chocolate. Nothing out of this world, but a nice Belgian dessert to finish off a meal.

Belgian Beers
Belgium has over 180 breweries and an it is estimated they have over 800 unique beers, so beer definitely forms part of the country’s cuisine. During my five-day visit I got to try 20 different beers, and I can attest, Belgian beer is good!

***

Based on the small size of Belgium, I was surprised at the range in its cuisine, and seriously recommend everyone take a trip to this country and check out the incredible fusion and variety in flavours.

Have you ever been to Belgium? What is your favourite dish?!

During my visit to Belgium in August 2013, one of my favourite activities was getting to taste as many Belgian beers as I could.

Why? Everyone who knows me well knows that I am a bit of a beer aficionado. Funny, for someone who, until the age of 21, could not drink beer, as I hated the taste (Thank you university, for changing that)!

Belgium produces an incredible range of unique beers. The small country has over 180 breweries and arguably has over 800 different beers. The beers range everywhere from a normal 4% alcohol proof, to a very high 14% or so.

Also, Belgians take their beer seriously. Everything from the way they pour it (the large amount of head is not the bartender ripping you off… that is the correct way to serve a beer to protect it from getting oxidized by oxygen!) to the glass it is poured in (every Belgian beer has its own unique glass, and it is so improper to serve a beer in the wrong glass, that most bartenders will refuse to serve it until the correct glass becomes available).

Through my five days in Belgium I tried to taste as many uniquely different beers as I could, although sometimes it was not possible due to the places I visited not having as wide a range. In my visit, I drank 20 different kind of beers (that is four per day, so not utterly a failure!). And yes, of course I photographed them.

So here it is, all the beers I drank in Belgium!

Belgian Beers

Belgian Beers

Belgian Beers

Belgian Beers

Belgian Beers

Belgian Beers

What is your favourite Belgian Beer?

Love is in the Air.

This is possibly the most romantic street sign ever, a little piece of humour I found in the streets of Brussels, Belgium, during my trip in August 2013.

Brussels "No Entry" Street Sign, with a Little Love

Brussels No Entry Street Sign, with a Little Love

Happy Valentine’s Day! And may you get as much action as this ‘no entry’ sign!

I had a Marketing Conference today for work at the Marriott Hotel County Hall, just across Westminster Bridge, in London… and here was my view for the day!

Big Ben & Parliament House from Marriott Hotel County Hall, January 2015

Big Ben & Houses of Parliament from Marriott Hotel County Hall, January 2015

Nothing like a beautiful view of the Houses of Parliament (Palace of Westminster) from the conference room’s window, to remind me how lucky I am to live in this amazing city!

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