Tuesday, 6 December 2016

If you didn't go dog sledding in the Norwegian mountains, did you really study abroad??

Ah yes, Norway.  It took me a whole 2.5 day weekend to absolutely fall in love with you, and here's why.

This past weekend was a big step for me, the first time I've traveled alone; no travel buddy, and no one waiting for me on the other side of the airport gate when I landed.  Except, I was never really ever alone. You see, solo traveling allows you to meet ten times more people than you would if you were traveling in a group or with a partner, it forces you to speak up, ask for help and go out of your way to make connections.

I met some pretty awesome individuals over the weekend, from Alicja and Piotr, my air bnb hosts, to Dom and Mike, the Welsh couple who became my trusted team while dog sledding, and everyone in between (my fellow north Americans and exchange students studying in Barcelona, and another etranger living abroad in Paris).

My first stop after settling into my air bnb was the Vigelandsparken. A large outdoor park covered in interesting, and somewhat mildly disturbing sculptures, but nonetheless, some stunning artwork.  The nice thing about traveling in December is the lack of tourists, allowing you to really take in the sights and gather (almost) tourist-free photos. I can't stress enough, don't be afraid to travel out of tourist season! Yes, it's cold, but bundle up and I promise it will be so worth it.

Quick selfie for your viewing pleasure

I wish I had of been able to take more pictures, however I could barely feel my fingers when they were out of my mitts so this stopped me from really being able to capture everything (sorry in advance..you'll just have to go see it for yourself).

From Vigelandsparken I decided it would be a great idea to walk back to the city instead of taking the tram....Update: it wasn't. Little did I know it becomes dark before 4 pm in Norway, which made it much harder to navigate the ever so trusty google maps in the dark.

In some time I stumbled upon a Christmas market in the downtown, but before exploring the market I was on a mission to find somewhere to charge my phone up, because let's face it, there was no way I was getting back to the apartment without google maps. So I found the nearest 7-eleven,charged up my phone and was ready to hit the town (again), but not before having a lovely solo dinner, of course.

"Eating a croissant for dinner in 7-eleven is an all new low"
I later found yet another Christmas market while wandering around (aka trying to play it cool while being extremely lost for over an hour), and discovered there is actually 3 different ones in the city...absolute heaven!

 Before leaving the market I stopped at a small stand and bough myself a pair of alpaca wool socks (random, I know) because I wanted to insure my feet would be nice and toasty while out adventuring the next day! I stayed for awhile and talked the father-daughter duo running the booth who were asking me about what I was doing all the way out in Norway by myself (common theme lol).

Day 1's adventures came to an end and I was ready to head back to the apartment to get a good sleep before the busy day I had ahead of me on Saturday.


Day 2 brought more adventure than I thought possible. I hopped on a bus in central Oslo that took me 3 and a half hours north to the small town of Beitostolen, where the owners of the dog sledding tour met myself, and the rest of the group, at the bus station to drive us to their place. The bus ride alone was filled with some pretty amazing views, and I happened to stay awake the entire time (impressive, I know) and managed to snap a few pics.

Winter wonderland- reminds me of home!

And upon arriving at the dog sledding lodge, the view only got better (and much easier to take pictures of as I was no longer on a moving bus).

Next, we suited up in some lovely one piece snow suits and were ready to head out to learn the art of mushing.  Our guide first showed us about the sled works, from steering, to breaking, and even bailing (sorry what?). The sleds have 3 spots- one person sitting in the front, one person controlling the steering in the middle, and one person at the back who was the main controller of the breaks (although this was a two person job most of the time) and was responsible for jumping off the sled and pushing from behind while the dogs were pulling up hill (this happened to be my position for 3/4 of the time!).

We split up into 3 teams of 3, each with 6 dogs, and we then learned how to harness the dogs; which includes straddling them and squeezing lightly at their hips to keep them in one position. From there the dogs could almost show us what to do as they were so used to being harnessed up! It was quite an experience to be able to harness our own team and get a feel for them before heading out.

The squad- Dom, Mike and Myself

Handing out head lamps at 4:30...yup welcome to Norway

Much better!

Dom and Mike were sweet enough to send me the pics that Dom had taken from the front spot, because being on the back or middle spot does not allow you to lift a single hand from the sled!

I was extremely surprised about how physically demanding dog sledding was (for the humans and the dogs!).  When you think of the idea of dog sledding, or at least how I thought of it, was that I would be pulled for a leisurely ride by my dogs while taking in the incredible view...nope, not at all!

It requires that all three members to be focused at all times during the ride. The dogs know the trail and (for the most part) will stay on track, but it is easy for the sled to go off the tracks which as you can imagine, may not end in our favour.  Apart from steering, the two people standing almost always have their foot on the break. These dogs are trained to go full speed, and even if someone falls off, they aren't stopping (as we learned first hand).

So needless to say I got my cardio in this weekend and was absolutely exhausted upon pulling back into our starting spot, and was delighted to find that they had prepared a lovely soup dinner for us, over a campfire in the woods, complete with tea, and Norwegian juice and flat bread.

While my dog sled experience came to a close, I felt very fulfilled. It was such a unique experience, with some great people, and I wouldn't change it for the world (..except prolonging my stay, of course).

The bus ride back to Oslo left me time for a much needed nap, and upon returning to the apartment I was quick to pass right out (so unlike me, I know).


Day 3 left me limited time but I was still able to hit a number of landmarks I had been wanting to. After suggestion from Alicja, I headed to Aker Brygge, and area by the water, a very wealthy area might I add. It was a beautiful spot to start the morning with a leisurely stroll.

Its pretty amazing to be able to catch the sunrise over the water...at 9:30 am!

Next, I was off to the Royal Palace, which was once the residence of the King of Norway during the 19th century and is now the official residence of the current Norwegian monarch.  During the summer hours, the palace is open for guided tours and you can also see the official changing of the guards every day at 1:30 pm. I stopped by for a quick visit just to check the grounds out.

My final destination for the day was the opera house, which has a unique feature, allowing tourists to climb up onto the roof for a spectacular view over the city (careful, it's quite slippery!).

So after taking in the beautiful from atop the Opera House, I thought it would be a great idea to end my visit by slipping on the last step and fall smack dab on the middle of my bum (once again, not the best idea I've ever had). Things are also slightly more embarrassing when you're by yourself, so let's just let that image of me falling at one of the biggest tourist attractions sink in....yeah.

From the city center of Oslo to the snowy mountains of Beitostolen, Norway is such a diverse and truly beautiful country, and has so much to offer, especially for the outdoorsy and adventurous kind. It's safe to say that Norway has stolen my heart this weekend, and I hope it won't be long 'till my next return.

~I forgot to buy a postcard so naturally I have to go back, right?~

Thursday, 10 November 2016

6 days, 5 languages, 3 countries, & 2 Canadian gals

My reading week adventures were about to get so real, and I hadn't the slightest idea.


When in Warsaw...

So Wednesday night we headed to Lyon (to the airport closest to us that flies out internationally) for direction, Poland!

After a very smooth flight, we arrived in Warsaw around 11 pm. We hopped in a cab and headed to our accommodation for the next few days. We were lucky enough to be able to stay with Ferdinand, a friend from my exchange back in grade 11, who is doing his Erasmus year in Poland.  Upon arrival we headed almost immediately to bed as we were exhausted and wanted (needed) to be up early the next morning.

Thursday morning we woke up bright and early and followed Ferdinand to school to check out the campus (which was an amazing facility, like there was a coat check and all for the students.. it overall made us quite jealous..should we have chosen Poland??? jk..but actually), before heading to the old town.

So as we left Ferdi to the academics we hopped on the tram direction Old town, but not before stopping for some Mcdon's breaky (I know, I'm sorry).

Arriving in front of the old town was breath taking.

We walked throughout the Old town for over 2 hours. Now this may sound silly, but I had no idea that the "Old Town" wasn't really all that old (or at least as not as old as you'd think).  But when you think about it, yes, the entire town of Warsaw was torn apart during World War 2, and shorty after the Old Town Market Place (as seen below) was restored to its pre-war appearance. Pretty amazing if you ask me, because it looks so authentic.

Where my fellow crazy cat ladies at

One of the most authentic historical monuments in Warsaw, located between the old and new towns are the defense walls.  Known as the Warsaw Barbican, it dates back to the 16th century, and is one of Warsaw's biggest tourist attractions.

Next was crossing over into new town, much like the old town, except new, so actually nothing really alike...see for yourself.

Through this path was an open-air art gallery featuring photographs displaying the rebuilding of the Old Town post-war.  Very neat, to say the least, to see photographs of parts of the town we had just seen minutes before in person, in their rebuilding stages.

And lastly, I couldn't possibly forget about the food. We make it a must to try at least one traditional dish from each country we visit (common sense, duh), and for Poland, none other than perogies, of course! Nothing like some home-made dumplings, $16.95 CAD for lunch for two (realistically could've done for a small family but then again we're taking about me and food here..).

Oh, right. Did I mention that expenses in Poland are crazy cheap? 1 Polish Zloty is equal to $0.34 Canadian.

And this 50 zloty bill (the smallest bill you can withdraw from the atm) can get you 5 of these...

From this little hole in the wall...

The man climbed up an 8 ft ladder to take orders!

So, its safe to say that Warsaw stole my heart, every last bit of it. From the people we encountered, to the Polish language itself, the charm of the Old Town, and the feeling of security we felt during our stay, Poland is certainly one for the books. And it should be one for your books too.


You can take a Canadian gal out of Canada, but you'll probably just end up finding her in Germany...

Yeah, you guessed it (or you most likely didn't) I was back in Aachen.

Cutest little Welcome gift :-)

This part of my travels was less about the tourist sightseeing and much more about relaxing and catching up.  I had seen Aachen, and Cologne before, and as beautiful as they are, I was so so excited to be back with Mara and her family.

Mara and I met during grade 11 at good ol' WDHS, and over the past three we have kept in touch from time time, and I just happen to be lucky enough that she invites me back every few years. 

It was such a refreshing change of scenery to say the least..

Looking out from the driveway

Our first day consisted of a much needed sleep-in (forever thankful), and a wetland nature walk. Refreshing, as previously mentioned, and also gave me a good flashback to home, something I could always use every now and then.

Lil cutie!!

The night led us to a little village not too far from Mara's, Monschau, for a 'spooky tour' of the town.  Well 'spooky' if you're asking the 6 year old children who participated (or Elise & Mara), but for the rest of us (who understand German...so not Elise and I...) it was more of an entertaining and humorous evening, and nonetheless, a really well put together event by several members of the community of all ages.

We finished up the night by heading for drinks (and snacks of course..) at a cute little restaurant in town, the perfect time to catch up.

Day two consisted of getting up bright and early (okay 9:00, if you will), as we headed to Cologne, a city about an hour outside of Mara's.  The biggest tourist attraction in Cologne is the Cologne Cathedral.  Although we didn't climb up, I've climbed it in the past and can assure you its a good workout.

When you ask a random passer-byer for a photo of you and your pals infront of the cathedral and this is what you get...

Sorry...didn't think we needed to clarify that, oh yes, we did want the most visited monument in Germany in the background please & thanks...on the bright side she didn't try to run away with Mara's phone in her hand so that's a plus.

We were lucky enough to be able to enter and take a quick peek even while a mass was in session.

We then took a tour across the river (and lock bridge, much like the Seine), where we captured this beautiful of the city.

Cologne has its own little charm...

Next we headed back towards Aachen to find some dinner. But not before checking out the Aachen cathedral of course.

Don't get me wrong, the Cologne cathedral is absolutely massive, its beautiful, and it is one of the most visited cathedrals in Germany..but the interior of the Aachen cathedral was one of the most beautiful I have ever seen,  And let me tell ya, this European traveler has seen her fair share of churches...

Luckily we arrived with 5 minutes left before closing, just enough time to take quick glimpse.

And what was on the menu for tonight, you may be wondering? (I know that's one thing I'm always wondering about).

Why schnitzel, of course! A must have in Germany, I do suggest. 10/10.

Aachen holds a special place in my heart (cheesy I know, I know), and leaving for the second time I think I've left a little piece of me there. (Oh, wait. I actually did forget my necklace at Mara's...).

Mara is one of those of those friends where you know its never going to be goodbye, but rather until the next time we meet, wherever that may be in the world.


Amsterdam(nnnn what did you do to me...)???

Ah yes, the Netherlands. I knew we would meet up at some point. This was straight up one of the craziest places I've been.  I don't know if I'm just really naive or if other people feel like this when they first arrive but wow..overwhelming to say the least.

When they say weed and prostitution is legal I didn't think it would be on every street corner???

Okay so not every street corner, that's a bad pun, but there is a really big presence..not that it comes as a bother, but rather as a bit of a culture shock!

To start, we stayed in the cutest hostel I've ever come across, Hotel My Home. And yes, it was like home.  When you get up in the morning you head down the lobby area and there is the owner making all her guests breakfast, eggs to order! Needless to say, I was extremely impressed with our accommodation choice, especially given it was one of the only places with a private room we could find while booking the night before.

Without even knowing where we were going, we headed out of the train station and started down what would be the main road.  We ended up running into the Amsterdam Dam, the town square, on our way along.

While wandering around town waiting for Matt to join us from Brussels, we decided to stroll the Flower Market..

All types of flowers... :-) (this old lady is loving it).

But actually, it was a beautiful display of around 15-20 little flowers shop booths.

Second destination was the I Amsterdam sign of course, which we were soon to find out was quite the trek...and swarmed with people..

Located in the museum square behind the letters is the Rijksmuseum, a Dutch national museum dedicated to art and history.
We decided we would have to come back to letter early the next day to try and get our own picture without the swarms (which would prove nearly impossible).  But for now we decided to head back the hostel to rest up before grabbing dinner..and we were still waiting to meet up with Matt..

Fast forward, so after finding Matt at the station and grabbing dinner at some little sketchy restaurant (honestly great food, but was right along the main strip which I would definitely not recommend), we headed to the IceBar.

XtraCold Icebar Amsterdam is literally the drinking experience needed for any Canadian who is missing home.  Yes, you literally pay 16 euros to go inside a giant freezer that looks like an igloo from the inside, and that serves alcohol..pretty cool if you ask me. You'll have to checkout the pics to understand...

Sidenotes: the beer was served in an ice glass, and also it was definitely colder than -9.4 C..

Anyways, we lasted 2 drinks and a solid 15 minutes before our buns just about froze off (yeah I know, some Canadians...).

Day two had us trekking back to the I amsterdam in hopes of getting a better photo opportunity. And this was the best we could do.

Some scenery shots we stopped for while on the move...

Next we headed to the Anne Frank House.  Only to arrive and be told that they were only accepting online tickets until 3:30 (it was currently 11:00) and that they were all sold out..something that they lady at the Amsterdam tourism office failed to mention when I asked about tickets for the museum!!! So we were to come back at 3:30 and wait inline to try and snag some at-the-door tickets.

Anyways, we decided to find a little cafe to warm up (a strawberry Dutch pancake and hot chocolate) and then headed into town to try and find a patch with the Netherlands' flag. And we did find some, with much success! (I collect a flag, in the form of a patch, from every country that I visit and sew them- more like my mom sews them- onto my backpack)

Along our walk through the city, its hard to miss the number of bikes, locked to the bridge or whipping through the streets, Amsterdam is definitely a city of bikes.

So this had killed enough time, and we headed back to the Anne Frank house where we waited in line for around an hour an hour and a half (cold and rainy, unfortunately), but definitely very much so worth it.  No pictures allowed inside so this is all I've got for you..

The Anne Frank House museum is in fact the actual house where Anne Frank and her family (and 4 other family friends) hid from the Nazi's during World War 2. They were located in the rear annex of the building behind her father's workshop, and indeed the museum tour takes you throughout each level of the house with great description of what went on each day during their two years of hiding.

Anne Frank's diary was found by a worker of her father after they had been betrayed discovered by the Nazis.  Although Anne Frank never survived the war, her father, along with her wartime diary did, and a short time after the end of the war her father decided to publish her journal.

Quotes are displayed throughout the museum and actual pages from Anne Frank's diary are kept on display in the Anne Frank House, and needless to say, this is a must see while in Amsterdam. Just remember to buy tickets online to avoid waiting.

After our visit it was time for a quick break before dinner.  After dinner, at a lovely Italian restaurant (surprise, surprise), we decided it wouldn't be a trip to Amsterdam without a stroll through the Red Light District, complete with a visit to the Museum of Prostitution.  Very informative, to say the least, it definitely changes your perception and any and all preconceptions.

Although there are no photos allowed in the Red Light District, I'll leave you with this one from one of the museum exhibits..

What happens in Amsterdam, stays in Amsterdam??

Unlike most of previous destinations, I can say that 2 days in Amsterdam was definitely enough.  It has a lot to offer, but when it comes down to it, Amsterdam is a party place. So if you're going to party, you won't be disappointed.  I'm happy with our decision to end our whirlwind week of traveling with Amsterdam, we were definitely ready to hit the hay after that one.