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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!

To read more posts about Istanbul, click here.

I had dreamed about visiting Turkey for a long time, and took the opportunity to do so on my way to my new life in London. After ten days exploring the Netherlands and Belgium, I flew to Istanbul to start a three-week trip around the country. My friend Ryan flew from Canada to meet up with me as we went on to explore Turkey over the next three weeks, a trip I will never forget!

The Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

The Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

As a first point of arrival, Istanbul immediately changed my perception of what I should expect from the country as a whole; it was not better nor worse, it was simply different from what I had imagined. Istanbul is a lot more modern and westernized than I had expected.

I spent a couple of days in Istanbul at the beginning of my three-week Turkey trip, and a few more days at the end of it. I was also lucky (well, I planned it) to spend my 30th birthday in Istanbul, so it is a city that will always have a special place in my heart.

Istanbul is a city full of contrasts, seeping with history at its core. From the traditional bazaars, hamams and impressive Mosques of the old city, to the incredibly westernized shopping arcades and trendy bars of Beyoğlu district, to  the somehow different Asian-continent side of the city, Istanbul offers a little bit of everything for everyone.

The Old City
Istanbul’s old city is a great base to explore the city. During my stay (both at the beginning and at the end of my trip) I stayed in this area, as it is within a quick walk from the city’s top attractions, as well as a multitude of restaurants, most of which have outdoor sitting areas, perfect for enjoying the city in good weather.

The old city is fairly modern, but still retains an aura of history and mythicism that took me back to another era. This area is home to incredible historical landmarks, buzzing bazaars, and remnants of history sprinkled throughout the area, as a reminder that Istanbul (as Constantinople) was for many centuries one of the world’s most important cities.

At the heart of the old city, stand two of the world’s most recognized landmarks, the beautiful Hagia Sophia and the stunning Blue Mosque, standing across from each other, separated by the landscaped gardens and fountains of a park.

Me, by the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey

Me, by the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey

•Hagia Sophia
The Hagia Sophia has an extensive history that has seen it transformed from a Greek Orthodox Church, to a Mosque and now into a museum, over the more than 1500 years of its existence.

The building itself is impressive, a true architectural masterpiece, especially given the era when it was originally built (532 AD). Remnants from the different eras of The Hagia Sophia’s history are visible, including beautiful mosaic murals depicting the Virgin Mary, Jesus and various Saints, dating back to the building’s beginning as a church, as well as impressive chandeliers and medallions inscribed with Islamic relics, dating back to its centuries as a mosque.

As a museum, the Hagia Sophia gives visitors a chance to explore and understand facets of both the Christian and Islamic religions, as well as admire valuable art pieces stemming from both religions. The different components of both a traditional (massive) church and a traditional Mosque coexist together in a way that is unseen anywhere else.

I had the opportunity to visit the Hagia Sophia twice during my trip, and was able to appreciate the beauty of it both times. Entrance to the building is quite affordable and worth every penny, and the 72 hour Museum Pass includes one entry.

Interior of the Blue Mosque

Interior of the Blue Mosque

•The Blue Mosque
Across a pretty park from the Hagia Sophia, stands the stunning Sultan Ahmed Mosque, a still-functioning mosque known world-wide by its nickname, the Blue Mosque.

An impressive structure dating back to the early 1600s, the Blue Mosque can be seen from many parts of the old city as well as from the water and across on the modern part of the European side of Istanbul. The multi-level mosque, topped with multiple blue domes and surrounded by six towering minarets, is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen.

As beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside, the Blue Mosque receives its famous nickname due to the blue tint of over 20,000 hand-made tiles which adorn the interior of the mosque. Multiple forged iron chandeliers hang from the ceiling, providing extra light to the already naturally-lit interior, from the Mosque’s multiple exquisitely decorated stained-glass windows.

Being a working Mosque, the Blue Mosque diligently plays recordings of the call to prayer five times a day from speakers attached to all six minarets. The Blue Mosque’s call to prayer can be heard all throughout the old city, echoed in the distance by the call to prayer of other mosques further away.

Access to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque is free of charge, but visitors must follow Islamic traditions when entering, including taking off your shoes at the entrance, and making sure that you are wearing appropriate attire (no sleeveless tops for men or women, and no shorts / skirts that go above the knee). If you happen to be wearing “indecent” attire, you will be provided with a throw to put over your shoulders or tie around your waist as a skirt. I had to wear one as my shorts were about 1cm above my knee and it was slightly embarrassing, so make sure to go prepared!

Topkapi Palace Gate

Topkapi Palace Gate

•Topkapi Palace
This traditional Ottoman Palace stands in the heart of the old city, surrounded by Sutanahmet Park, a quick walk from the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque.

Topkapi Palace was the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans for multiple centuries starting in the 1400s, and is now an important museum in the city, not only due to the historical significance of the building itself, but also for the collection of important holy relics of Islam housed within it.

The main entrance to Topkapi Palace, which can be viewed from the public gardens outside, is a good indication of what can be admired inside; it is a beautiful marble imperial gate, decorated with gilded Ottoman calligraphy depicting verses of the Qu’ran.

Once inside, the palace complex consists of four large courtyards surrounded by multiple small buildings. Many of the building complexes overlook the sea or Sutanahmet Park from up above the hill. The courtyards include beautiful landscaped gardens and have small one-room structures scattered around them. Big, elaborate stone gates, all of them different from each other and beautiful on their own, separate each one of the four courtyards.

Some of the buildings within the Palace house important relics relating to the Muslim world, including art, a large porcelain collection, weaponry, coins, religious artifacts, and a jewelry room. Other buildings are simply to be admired based on the beauty of their decor, whether it is intricate tile work, murals, or beautifully carved wooden doors.

The Harem at Topkapi Palace

The Harem at Topkapi Palace

The Topkapi Palace complex also contains a Harem area: the place where the sultan’s parents, his wife and children, and his many concubines, used to reside.

The Harem complex contains a number of intricately decorated bedrooms and bath chambers, many containing original furnishings and beautiful (amazingly preserved) decorative tiles from the Ottoman Empire era. The Harem also has a number of courtyards and gardens, each with its own individual appeal.

The main Topkapi Palace complex entry does not include access to the Harem (there is a minimal additional fee to see it, and you must purchase the main ticket to the Palace itself to access the Harem); however, the 72 hour Museum Pass includes the entry to both the Topkapi Palace complex and the Imperial Harem area.

•Istanbul Archaeology Museums
The Istanbul Archaeology Museums are located next to Topkapi Palace. The complex, all of which is under a single entry fee (and is, again, covered by the 72 Hour Museum Pass), consists of three museums, with the larger Archaeological museum containing most of the relics, and two smaller niche museums (Museums of the Ancient Orient and Museum of Islamic Art).

My favourite part of the Archaeology Museums was in the lower level of the main museum, a large collection of Turkish and Hellenistic stone sarcophaguses, all decorated with detailed carvings depicting stories related to the person buried in them. The most famous of all is the Alexander Sarcophagus, thought to be the final resting place of Alexander the Great!

The museum also houses a large collection of Turkish, Hellenistic and Roman artifacts, including many statues of gods, people and animals; a big collection of coins; and stone tablets.

My Friend Ryan at the Spice Market

My Friend Ryan at the Spice Market

•Spice Bazaar
At the advise of our guide, we skipped a visit to the more famous (and from what I hear extremely overrated) Grand Bazaar, and went to the more manageable, smaller Spice Bazaar.

The Spice Bazaar (sometimes referred to by the translation of its Turkish name, Egyptian Bazaar), is the city’s second largest covered shopping complex, with 85 businesses selling spices, sweets (including turkish delight and baklava), dried fruits and nuts, teas, and an array of souvenirs including knock-off watches, Turkey t-shirts, jewelry, belly dancer outfits, and traditional Turkish lamps.

Shopping at the Spice Bazaar still feels uniquely traditional, with hospitable store owners trying to get your attention with friendly chat, or by offering tastings of their goods (hello turkish delight paradise). The Bazaars halls are packed with shoppers (both locals and tourists) and a visit, even without shopping, is quite cool!

And then there is the shopping. My friend Ryan, who I traveled with, bought a beautiful set of turkish hanging lights from one of the stalls. While simply looking around, the owner invited us to have tea, and showed us an array of lamps until Ryan found the one. The purchase wasn’t over right then though, as negotiations at the Spice Bazaar (especially for high ticket items like that) are not over until a friendly game of haggling takes place.

The Spice Bazaar is walking distance from the main area of the old city, or can be reached on a quick tram ride. The area surrounding the bazaar is covered with more market stalls which sell everything from electronics to fresh food, and contains many market eateries and cafés, which are quite nice as well!

The New Mosque

The New Mosque

•New Mosque
Next door to the Spice Bazaar is the New Mosque, a smaller mosque in the old city (compared to the Blue Mosque). While it lacks the fame of the Blue Mosque, the New Mosque is incredibly beautiful in its own right, and well worth a visit.

The outside of the New Mosque is architecturally wonderful, with no less than 66 domes and semi domes stacked on top of each other in a pyramidal shape. The New Mosque has only two minarets, but, with a location close to the water, it still makes for an impressive landmark in the cityscape.

The inside of the Mosque looks surprisingly similar to the Blue Mosque, but in a  smaller scale. This is also a working Mosque, so make sure to practice the same respect to the religion, including the no-shoes and proper clothing policies!

•Basilica Cistern
One of the coolest hidden secrets in Istanbul is a visit to the Basilica Cistern in the old city. A quick walk away from the Hagia Sofia and Blue Mosque, this cistern, dating back to the 6th Century, is a captivating marvel of architecture.

The Basilica Cistern is an underground chamber with an area of nearly 10,000 square metres and the capacity to store 100,000 tons of water, although it is mostly empty now.

The ceiling of the cistern is supported by 336  9-metre high marble columns, which are methodically arranged in 12 rows with 28 columns each, all spaced 5 metres apart from each other. Most of the columns are typical design, with the exception of three which stand out. The first, often referred to as the Tear Column, has engravings of a peacock’s eye and tears. Two other ones have large Medusa heads as a base; one of the heads is placed upside down, while the second one is placed sideways.

A wooden walkway raised slightly above the water allow visitors to walk around the cisterns and admire the columns from different angles, as well as get close to the medusa column bases and the tear column.

Entrance to the Basilica Cisterns is 10 Turkish Lira, and is not included in the Museum Pass.

Çemberlitaş Hamam

Çemberlitaş Hamam

Çemberlitaş Hamam
One of the coolest experiences in Turkey, is a visit to a traditional Turkish bathhouse (or hamam), and Istanbul is the perfect place to do it.

Why? Because the hamams in Istanbul are multiple centuries old, and there is nothing like having your body scrubbed clean by a stranger in a 450+ year-old building!

The Çemberlitaş Hamam (established all the way back in 1584!) is incredible. I visited at the end of my three weeks in Turkey, on my very last day before flying out, as a goodbye to the country and a cleansing experience after almost five weeks of traveling and carrying my heavy backpack around.

Ready to be Scrubbed Clean at the Hamam

Ready to be Scrubbed Clean at the Hamam

I had done a previous visit to a hamam in Cappadocia, and although that experience was relaxing enough, it did not compare to the one at Çemberlitaş. The setting here was more inspiring: a large domed bathhouse seeping with history, and the man who scrubbed / washed / massaged me seemed much more experienced.

The cost for the experience isn’t cheap, but it is well worth it, and I definitely recommend anyone to visit a hamam when visiting Istanbul. I am not sure about any others as this was the only one I visited in the city, but I can attest to how good Çemberlitaş is, and guarantee it is worth the cost!

Çemberlitaş Hamam also provides visitors with individual private rooms (to store your clothes during the bathing experience and relax afterwards if necessary), as well as a nice rooftop patio where you can refresh with a fresh orange or pomegranate juice from their juice bar. The Hamam is easily found, being a mere 1-minute walk from Çemberlitaş tram stop right in the old city.

Beyoğlu District
Crossing the Galata Bridge from the old city is Beyoğlu District, on the modern part of the European side of Istanbul. Beyoğlu is an area full of outdoor shopping arcades, art galleries, trendy restaurants, cafés and bars. This is Istanbul’s main entertainment district, with multiple restaurants and bars overlooking crowded shopping streets from higher-up balconies, and is also home to the city’s thriving gay scene.

Beyoğlu District, the "Modern" part of the Europe side of Istanbul

Beyoğlu District, the “Modern” Part of the European Side of Istanbul

The Galata Bridge is an attraction in itself: a combined pedestrian, tram and traffic bridge crossing the Bosphorus Strait which separates the old city from Beyoğlu, the bridge also houses a multitude of waterfront restaurants, cafés and bars under the road itself.

Once on the other side, the 1.4 kilometre-long pedestrian-only İstiklal Caddesi (Grand Avenue) and its surrounding streets and alleys offer visitors an array of outdoor shopping and entertainment options that is not found anywhere else in the city. The area is popular with locals and tourists alike, bringing up to three million visitors on a single day! The street culminates at the popular Taksim Square.

İstiklal Caddesi is completely different from the old city part of Istanbul, in that it is much more European in style. The buildings along the street follow a Neo-Classical and Neo-Gothic 19th Century style, with a few examples of cool Art Deco structures. Every so often, historic red trams will cruise down the Avenue – the only vehicle allowed on this otherwise pedestrian-only street.

Beyoğlu District is also home to many of the city’s grand consulates, all housed in majestic European-style buildings, as well as for the famous Genoese Galata Tower, which stands out on the cityscape above the rest of the city.

The district can be reached within minutes from the old town by tram, although it is not too far to walk across the bridge if you prefer.

Cruising from Europe to Asia

Cruising from Europe to Asia

Asia side
One of the most unique aspects about Istanbul, is that it is the only city built on two separate continents: Europe and Asia.

Towards the end of my stay in Istanbul, I took a ferry to go explore the Asian side of the city for half a day, simply because I wanted to check it out.

The Asian side of Istanbul feels somehow different, like being in a completely different city altogether. On the Asian side, transit is much harder to figure out, tourists are virtually non-existent, and English is definitely much harder to find.

The Funky Asian Side of Istanbul

The Funky Asian Side of Istanbul

Unlike the European sides of Istanbul (both the modern and the old part of the city), the Asian side doesn’t have any real attractions to go to, and the highlight was the ferry back and forth, which did allow me to see beautiful views of the city, and appreciate the massive size of Istanbul.

If you do make the trip over to the Asian side (whether it is to get the views from the ferry, or simply because you want to be in two continents within half an hour!), you will find some great little authentic food markets (remember they’re not aimed at tourists like the ones on the European side), as well as a bunch of small cafés and boutique stores.

*****

Istanbul has a lot to offer, and even though I was in the city for a total of six days, I feel like I could have spent longer, and I would be very happy to return. From the contrasts between ancient and modern, to the breath-taking architecture and natural scenery of the city, to the delicious restaurants and trendy bars we visited, Istanbul honestly offers something for everyone.

This past Sunday, Eamonn and I went to London’s Chinatown for the Chinese New Years celebrations. The streets were packed, despite the impending rain (which thankfully mostly held back until we were leaving!).

London allegedly hosts the biggest Chinese New Year celebration outside of Asia, and judging from the crowds, I very well believe it! The streets were lively with locals and visitors alike, all enjoying the Lion dances and decorations… Chinatown continues to be decorated with more paper lanterns than usual thought the days-long celebration.

Happy year of the Sheep / Goat everyone!

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?

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!

Hope all my Aussie friends enjoy Australia Day. Can’t believe it’s almost been three years since I left Australia!

To celebrate, here’s a photo of a sexy kangaroo I met in Kuranda during my trip to Queensland.

Kangaroo in Kuranda, Queensland, Australia

Kangaroo in Kuranda, Queensland, Australia

Happy Australia Day!

January 15th 2015 marks the 4th anniversary of my travel blog. I can hardly believe that it’s been so long since I got my domain and started blogging exclusively about travel. I have so far published 367 posts and had nearly 60,000 views over the past four years…very exciting!

Leaving Footprints All the Way to the Summit of Lion's Head In Cape Town, South Africa!

Leaving Footprints All the Way to the Summit of Lion’s Head in Cape Town, South Africa! (November 2014)

I am not the avid blogger that I would like to be. Every year I try to post more than the prior year, but life gets in the way and I constantly find myself being too lazy procrastinating making up excuses not finding the time to write. To tell the truth though, this blog has become an important part of me, and, although I don’t pay it the attention it deserves, this blog is one of my favourite hobbies!

I have not been short on travel since leaving Vancouver in August 2013 and moved to the UK. I’ve managed to visit quite a few new countries, and countless new cities, towns and sites (well, I could count them… but I won’t right now) through my time abroad, and collected a range of incredible memories.

In the last couple of months I’ve started (very slowly) catching up with my trips since leaving Vancouver. I still have a long way to go, but it is happening. I have hundreds of travel stories and photographs to share, so I can guarantee this blog will continue to grow over time, it just might take me a while.

In the last couple of months I also took a leap into making an official Clausito’s Footprints Facebook page, which is also growing slowly. Please like my page if you’d like to connect, as sometimes I add contact there not available in other social media platforms!

I am honestly extremely flattered that friends, family, acquaintances, and even strangers take the time to visit my blog, read about my trips, look at my photos, and sometimes even connect though comments and likes. I enjoy sharing my travels and promise this year I will force myself to write more often, adding a total (minimum) of 100 posts in 2015!

Thank you again to my loyal fans, regular visitors, infrequent readers, and one-time viewers for checking out my blog, I hope you continue to enjoy my adventures!

Good day, and happy travels!

-CG

Another year of fantastic trips has come to an end. I honestly cannot believe how lucky I am to have had the opportunity to travel as much as I have in the past few years, and 2014 was no exception.

Me by the Brighton Royal Pavilion, August 2014

Me by the Brighton Royal Pavilion, August 2014

Year in (Travel!) Review:
My year in 2014 started in my “new,” current home, London, England. Right away I started the travel trend that would follow for the rest of the year, by going on my first trip out of the UK since moving here, with a four-day trip to Tenerife in the Canary Islands, Spain, in January.

I stayed in London through February and March, but with visits by my friends Timothy from Belgium, and Vanessa from Canada, I got to see a lot of London as a tourist, including a visit to the Tower of London, checking out some museums, lunch at the Shard, and going to the Harry Potter Studios!

In April I got to go on two separate trips: a four-day getaway to Paris, France to visit my friend Loic, and a six-day trip to Portugal, in which I visited the stunning town of Porto, and the country’s lively capital city, Lisbon.

May saw my first big trip of the year, with an eleven-day exploration of Germany. I tried to maximize my time there by seeing as much as I could, and I managed to visit a few cities: Cologne, MunichNuremberg, Dresden, and Berlin; as well as take some day trips to see the stunning Neuschwanstein Castle, and the beautiful Medieval town Rothenburg ob der Tauber.

June through August I stayed in the UK, enjoying the summer sunshine… I did however manage to visit three Pride Events: Pride in London, Brighton and Hove Pride, and Pride Cymru (in Cardiff, Wales). I even took another day trip to Brighton  at the end of August to explore the lovely seaside town in more detail.

In September, I was sent by my work on a week-long holiday to Florida, on a trip sponsored by British Airways, and the tourism boards for Tampa Bay and St Petersburg / Clearwater. The trip included a bit of everything, from cycling around the cosmopolitan city of Tampa and a visit to the Busch Gardens amusement park, to laying on beautiful white-sand beaches in Clearwater, taking a boat to the beachy Caladesi Island State Park, and exploring Art museums in St. Petersburg. And of course there were visits to lots of amazing restaurants and bars, where I got wined and dined like there was no tomorrow!

October was once again spent back in London, in preparation of my biggest trip of 2014: November’s three-week exploration of South Africa, a trip that I took from Cape Town to Durban, stopping at various points along the Garden Route and the Wild Coast, as well as a quick stop in Port Elizabeth, and my very first African safari in Addo Elephant National Park.

December has flown much too fast with all the Christmas events going on, but I did manage to sneak in one last trip, when I went up to Northern Ireland to spend Christmas with my boyfriend Eamonn’s family. Most of the three-day trip was Christmas related, but I did spend a wonderful 24 hours in Belfast, a beautiful little city that has a lot to offer!

What’s Next?:
So far, 2015 is looking quiet on the travel front, but I am excited to have my first trip already planned, a trip in March 2015 to Rome, Italy, with Eamonn and his parents. This will be my third time going to Rome, but it is a city I love, so I am really looking forward to it!

Now for my New Years Resolutions:
1. Keep on traveling. I need to visit at least five new countries in 2015!
2. Write more… 2014 saw me slacking on my blog, but I promise to write more posts in 2015! (Should be easy as long as I make the time… I am so behind, I have a lot of material to write about!).

Hope everyone has had an amazing 2014 doing whatever it is that makes you happy. Best wishes for the new year, and happy travels in 2015!

-CG

Wishing everyone a happy happy Christmas wherever in the world you happen to be.

I took this photo at the Southbank Winter Festival in London last weekend, before setting off to Northern Ireland to spend Christmas with my boyfriend Eamonn’s family!

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Merry Christmas everyone!

As I noted in my post about Brussels, one of the little surprises that I really enjoyed about Brussels were the murals depicting some of Belgium’s Beloved Comic Strips.

Comic Strip Mural: The Adventures of Tintin

Comic Strip Mural: The Adventures of Tintin

Comic Strip Mural: Passe-moi l’ciel (Oh, Sweet Heaven!)

Comic Strip Mural: Passe-moi l’ciel (Oh, Sweet Heaven!)

Comic Strip Mural: Blondin et Cirage

Comic Strip Mural: Blondin et Cirage

Comic Strip Mural: Le Scorpion

Comic Strip Mural: Le Scorpion

I have learned since my visit that there is an official Comic Strip Route which includes 42 pieces in the centre of Brussels alone, plus a bunch of others in some of the city’s suburbs… and I am almost tempted to go back to Brussels just to check it out!

One last day-trip my friend Timothy and I took during my visit to Belgium in August 2013, was to go see the country’s impressive capital city: Brussels.

Brussels, Belgium

Brussels, Belgium

Brussels is grand, like many other European capital cities, but somehow it gets overlooked during many people’s Euro trips, when compared to other capitals like Paris, or London, or Amsterdam.

We visited as a day trip, walking around the city before stopping for a big lunch. We mostly walked through the different areas, admiring the external architecture, the monuments, and the street art, rather than going to any museums or attractions.

The Brussels Town Hall

The Brussels Town Hall

Grand Place
The most impressive part of Brussels is hands down the Grand Place, the city’s beautiful main square, located right in the heart of the city.

The medieval square is surrounded by the stunning gothic-style Town Hall, the Museum of the City of Brussels, and an array of restaurants, cafés and bars, and hotels, all housed in impressively ornate former Guildhalls.

Grand Place is often home to events and festivals, and even on a weekday at the end of the high season, the square was quite busy with locals and visitors alike.

Due to the concentration of beautiful historic buildings surrounding the square, the entire Grand Place is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Manneken Pis
One of the very few things I knew about Belgium before my visit, was that somewhere hidden in its capital, was the fountain of a little boy peeing, a bit of a weird piece of knowledge I gathered from my semesters studying Art History in university.

Manneken Pis Statue

Manneken Pis Statue

The statue, sculpted by Hiëronymus Duquesnoy in the 1600s, is based on a local legend about a little boy in the 14th Century, whose peeing on a track of gunpowder prevented a spark from reaching a bunch of dynamite which would have destroyed the city walls, allowing the invaders to access the city.

As one does, while looking for a famous landmark in a city when first visiting, Timothy and I went on a hunt in search of the little peeing boy, walking in circles for a few minutes without success. Finally, we came upon a sign that undoubtedly meant we had found our goal: a large crowd of tourists gathered around a wall, taking photos of an invisible icon we couldn’t see from the distance, due to the human barrier of tourists.

We approached the crowd and made our way through everyone to the front of the crowd, and there he was, in all his inglorious splendor, a life-size bronze statue of a baby, peeing into the fountain. A tiny little landmark that is more famous based on its fame alone, rather than its actual merit (although I controversially feel exactly this way about the Mona Lisa in Paris… And actually think the peeing boy is more interesting to see!).

Parc de Bruxelles

Parc de Bruxelles

Parc de Bruxelles
The Parc de Bruxelles is a beautiful park right in the city’s core. Once the private garden of a palace, the park is now the largest public green area inside the city limits, and a cherished jewel to Brussels’ citizens.

Large, beautiful landscaped gardens and grass areas provide a place to relax, while pathways, which cover the entire perimeter of the park and cut across it in various areas, allow people to go for leisure walks or jog around the park. The park also has a number of monuments, as well as scenic ponds and fountains.

The Royal Palace of Brussels is located at the South entrance to the park, while the Belgian Senate Building is located at the Northern end.

Royal Palace of Brussels
In the centre of Brussels, surrounded by beautifully landscaped gardens, lies the Royal Palace of Brussels, a mansion constructed over a period of 200 years, which is the official Palace of the King and Queen of Belgium.

Me outside the Royal Palace

Me outside the Royal Palace

While the King and Queen of Belgium do not live at this palace, it is here that they perform all of their official duties. The Royal Palace of Brussels is also the place where international dignitaries will stay while visiting Brussels.

Certain rooms within the Palace are open to the public (free of charge), but only for a short period in the summer months. During our visit the palace wasn’t open, so we didn’t get to look at the inside!

Other Landmarks
Crossing right across Parc de Bruxelles from the Royal Palace of Brussels, by the North entrance to the Park, is the stately Palace of the Nation, a neoclassical building that houses the Belgian Parliament. This is also where the Prime Minister of Belgium performs his duties.

Palace of the Nation Brussels

Palace of the Nation Building, Brussels

Further down south from Parc de Bruxelles is the Palace of Justicethe supreme court of Belgium, which is housed in an imposing Neoclassical building. The Palace of Justice is gigantic, built atop a hill which accentuates its size when seen from below. The building is topped with a shiny copper dome which can be seen towering above other structures, from various points around the city.

The Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula, is a Gothic-style cathedral reminiscent of Notre Dame in Paris. The Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula is the official church of Belgium, so it is the host for all the Monarchy’s baptisms, weddings and funerals.

Just outside the central station, heading down the hill towards Grand Place stands a set of statues depicting the fictional Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, characters of the Spanish Novel by Miguel de Cervantes. Surprised at first to see this, I have learned since that Brussels was the first place to publish the novel outside of the Iberian peninsula, and this set of statues is perhaps a tribute to that!

The Congress Column was put up to commemorate the Independence of Belgium. The monumental column has a statue of King Leopold I standing at the top, while the pedestal is occupied by the personified versions of four major liberties in the constitution: Liberty of Union, Worship, Press and Education. There are also two huge statues of lions, in front of the column. The Congress Column also serves as the Monument to the Unknown Soldier, with the monument serving as the resting place to five unknown soldiers, plaques in the memories of those who died at war, and an eternal flame.

***

Brussels might not have as many famous landmarks as other capitals in Europe, but it is a city that offers a lot more. The architecture throughout the city is stunning, and there are a number of open spaces and squares for visitors and locals to enjoy and explore.

With Belgium’s strong history in the creation of internationally known comics – Asterix, The Smurfs and The Adventures of Tintin, to name a few – Brussels had a number of murals painted on walls up to four stories high, depicting some of them, which I felt was a nice touch!

I know I’ve said this before, but Belgium as a while really surprised me, and I am glad I got to visit. I am definitely considering going back at some point, and checking out some cities I didn’t get a chance to go to, and I strongly recommend travellers make a point of visiting during their European trips!

During my stay in Belgium in August 2013, I went on a day trip with my friend Timothy to Bruges, a beautiful medieval city on the Northwestern side of the country, about two hours by train from either Brussels or Antwerp.

Canal in Bruges

Canal in Bruges

Before I set out on my trip to Europe, multiple people recommended I visit Bruges, and I am glad I took the time to go visit, as it is a beautiful city. Bruges is quite small, so it is easy to cover on foot on a single day; all the sights can be seen within a few hours, and although there are a number of restaurants and nice bars to keep one entertained during the day, I hear the city does die down at night.

The historic centre of Bruges, which is a recognized UNESCO World Heritage site, is built along a network of canals. The heart of the city is Markt (The Market Square), which is home to notable buildings, including the bell tower with its iconic belfry, and the stately Provincial Court. The medieval city is stunning, with ornate Flemish brick buildings lining the cobble stone streets in all directions.

Bruges’ canals are not only beautiful, but also serve as a mode of transportation. Private boats are often seen cruising the canals, while tourist companies offer tours of the city aboard small speedboats. The tour boats can be boarded at a few different locations, and the ride lasts roughly 45 minutes.

During our visit, Timothy and I joined one of the canal tours. On top of allowing visitors to see the city from a beautiful angle inside the canals, the tour was also informative, as the captain of the boat explained a little bit about the history of the different buildings and about Bruges altogether.

After walking around the city, and cruising down the canals, Timothy and I stopped at a pub to people watch, and so I could have a Brugse Zot, Bruges’ local beer!

Having a Brugse Zot Beer in Bruges

Having a Brugse Zot Beer in Bruges

I definitely recommend a visit to Bruges if you’re visiting Europe; as I said, you can easily reach the city from other places within Belgium (and even from other nearby countries) by train, and makes for a great day trip.

Bruges Canal with Belfrey Tower in Distance

Bruges Canal with the Iconic Belfry in the Distance

Visitors don’t always include Belgium into the itineraries of their European trips, but if you can fit in a day or two, you’ll be surprised about how much this tiny country has to offer. While the much bigger Brussels, or even Antwerp have more to see and do, Bruges has incomparable beauty and is well worth a visit.

On my post about Antwerp, Belgium, I referred a few times to a local legend about a giant: a legend that kept popping up in various parts of the city, and which is embraced by the city as part of its folklore.

Sitting on Antigoon's Cut Off Hand, in Antwerp's Meir Street

Sitting on Antigoon’s Cut Off Hand, in Antwerp’s Meir Street

Well, the legend, as it goes, is about a giant named Antigoon, who lived in Antwerp two thousand years ago. The giant built a fortress at the edge of the River Scheldt, and demanded passing boats to pay a toll. If the sailors were unwilling or unable to pay, the giant would cut off one of their hands, and throw it into the river.

Eventually, the giant was slain by a Roman warrior (Brabo), who proceeded to pay homage to the giant’s victims, by cutting the giant’s hand off, and throwing it into the River Scheldt.

The legend is meant to explain where the name of the city, Antwerpen, came from; in Flemish, “hand-werpen” means “throwing hands.” The idea of Antigoon’s hand, now sunk at the bottom of the river, also symbolizes that the river is now a free sailing zone, important as the city’s port has been Antwerp’s biggest source of revenue through its entire existence.

The Giant’s legend is visible throughout the city: the Brabo Fountain outside City Hall in the Grote Markt, built in 1887, depicts the hero Brabo throwing the hand into the river; a sculpture of a giant’s hand is found in Mair Street, the city’s main shopping street; there is also a statue of a giant at the entrance to Het Steen, the city’s fortress. Even more, the hand is even depicted in the city’s coat of arms!

A couple of days late on wishing everyone a happy Day of the Dead. This is one of my favourite celebrations in the entire year, one that makes me extra proud of my Mexican heritage.

This is a photo of my first attempt to make the typical Day of the Dead Bread (Pan de Muertos)… As I brought a little taste of Mexico to London, England, at a party my flatmates and I hosted last Saturday.

IMG_8043.JPGBelow is another craft I made (one of 36 pieces I made), a piece of traditional Papel Picado, which is also a typical decoration for Día de Los Muertos in Mexico. This form of art is regarded as part of the folklore of the country, and protected as a cultural heritage art… Of course mine is an amateur piece, but not bad for my first time since I was a child!

IMG_7940.JPGHappy Day of the Dead!

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