Wanderer

Climbing the Pyramids…

I remember seeing these images this time last year when they were plastered all over various newspapers and on my Facebook feed. A group of Russian ‘pranksters’ somehow managed to sneak by security to scale one of the Great Pyramids.

Yes, I know what they did was illegal, and they were very bad for doing it and blah blah blah, especially giving how old the pyramids are – you can’t just trample over such an ancient and important structure as you please… but seriously, looking at the view.. it’s hard to keep that in mind.

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In this day and age, with travel such an easy an affordable thing for so many, many of us have or – in my case – will see the pyramids before we die. It’s on many a bucket list. Mine included. It’s a pretty standard part of tourism. And yet how many people have ever stood atop the last of the seven great wonders of the world and seen that view? Especially how it looks today, with the lights of Cairo in the distance. Not too many. Though judging by the graffiti on that bottom picture, so clearly security hasn’t always been so tight.

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Honestly, I would happily get myself arrested just to see that view. I’m probably being naive in saying that; Egypt isn’t ‘slap on the wrist’ England. How would they react to a woman climbing a pyramid? Maybe being a woman wouldn’t matter, but then again. I don’t know.

These guys were lucky enough that they were not caught by security. In fact, no one would have ever known that they had climbed it at all had they not posted their images online. Of course images like these are going to go viral immediately.

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I for one am go glad that they did, though.

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My European Top Spots.

It’s nearly April… I’ve been wondering where to spend my summer. While I’m looking at spreading my wings as far as Thailand or America (I know, completely different ideas there!) this year, I think I’ve definitely scattered my heart across different cities of Europe, including good old England. Then again… I tend to say that about pretty much every city and country I visit, so no doubt as I wander further afield, that list will just grow longer and longer.

I love the diversity of Europe; the array of cultures and languages and delicacies, the contrast of stark differences and intermingled traditions from border to border. There are some cities that I just find myself going back to again and again, and it never gets old – there are always new cafes serving coffee even more delicious than the last, more landmarks that I haven’t found the time to visit yet and beautiful little streets that are deserted but for myself and the occasional knowing local.

This wasn’t easy at all, but I managed to order my unruly top 10:

1. Paris. For years Rome held this top spot, but France’s capital has rather snuck up on me over the years – every time I go I love it more and more, even if I’m literally just passing through on a train, and somehow, it overtook Rome. Yes, the people can at times be a little snooty, but most of the time the snooty-ness that I have witnessed against tourists is purely because they are not meeting Paris’ standards – arriving in Paris in dirty clothes and Birkenstock with a tatty rucksack on your back is not going to make you the darling of the city. It’s quite like trying to wear jeans and a t-shirt to a ball. Everyone makes an effort in Paris, even if it is in that je ne sais quoi, ‘I just fell out of bed’ Parisian sense. They’re experts at putting in a lot of effort in looking effortless. Try to blend in, and that snooty-ness will disappear. Or so I find. 

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2. Rome. See, my ex-top spot has not slipped far. I love history. I love art, architecture, literature and the renaissance, all of which can be found on every corner of Rome. I feel comfortable walking around the city without getting lost – I can act as tour guide to fellow travellers. There’s no better feeling than realising that you know a foreign city. It’s not just a place that I have visited a few times anymore. I’ve always been and will continue to be lured to Rome for its history, its art, its food and its coffee. Yes, yes, yes and a very big yes from me on those fronts!

My one pet peeve when in Rome? Arrogant, metrosexual Roman guys who still live with their mothers well into their thirties. They linger around Trevi Fountain in droves. Huge, huge pet peeve of mine.

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3. Prague. When I first visited Prague, I didn’t really know what to expect. It’s just not a place that I have looked into too much before I arrived at  Hlavni Nadrazi station. Until then my Pinterest (what came before Pinterest? Good old fashioned cut-and-paste scrapbooks?) had been full of photographs of Paris, Rome, Athens, The Great Pyramids, Macchu Picchu and Buddhist Temples. I’d always planned to visit Prague, but somehow looking at what it was like never occurred to me. The beauty of the place blew me away. It’s a perfect blend of East and West European; some streets could easily pass for France or Italy – or even England, when suddenly you’re surrounded by Eastern European architecture, Czech music ringing through your ears and people drinking brands I can’t even pronounce.

Also, Prague is one of the most beautiful cities at night.

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4. Venice. Yes, it’s quite a pricey city, but then I’ve found that I can still keep my budget low – Venice is not a city teaming with museums and must-see sites with expensive ticket fares like other touristic cities. I’m also not big on souvenirs, which could prove to be super pricey if I were. Venice is the city I head to if I want to see Italy, without the hustle and bustle of Rome or Milan or – to some extent – Florence. I tend to avoid the few busy spots of the city – St Mark’s Square and Ponte di Rialto. Two or three streets from these Venetian hot-spots, and you’ll find deserted streets, a woman beating sheets over her balcony perhaps, the occasional cat, but otherwise you’re entirely alone. No cars, no noise. It’s wonderful.

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5. Florence. Yes, Paris may be my number one city, but Italy is clearly my number one country. Florence is a nice balance of everything I love about Italy. It’s not as mad as Rome, or as busy and metropolitan as Milan, and while it has that same peace as Venice, it’s gifted in sprinkles rather than spades. It is quintessential Italy in the country’s best region: Tuscany – I love taking day trips from Florence to explore the beautiful surrounding countryside.

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6. Lisbon. I tend to yo-yo between Porto and Lisbon when choosing my favourite Portuguese city, but right now, I’d choose Lisbon. It’s true what they say – ‘Porto works and Lisbon plays’. Things are much more relaxed in the south, and people seem to mysteriously work less and yet are richer. I do have one issue with Lisbon – its treacherously slippering paving stones.

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Seriously, I had to buy a new pair of shoes just because wearing my sandals or ballet flats was about as effective as wearing Cinderella’s glass slippers. Otherwise you pretty much have to choose between risking your life by walking in the road, or risking your life because every step could end in a broken neck.

Still, Lisbon is beautiful, not majorly touristic and yet not entirely isolated to the lone traveller who doesn’t speak a word of Portuguese – like me. Actually, that’s a lie. I can say thank you. I think thank you is the most important phrase to learn in every language. Even more so than hello.

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7. Budapest. Another city that I had little knowledge of – like Prague. I knew it to be cheap, but that’s about it. Yes, it is cheap, though as tourism grows, so do those prices. The architecture is sophisticated, the people are sophisticated – but for a few old men who linger on park benches whistling at passing women. So many people have apologized for ‘the habits of the older generation’ – honestly, it’s fine. Clearly they have never passed a building site in the UK. The famous thermal baths are wonderful. I recommend visiting the bath houses during winter – it’s instantly even better when you’re lounging in the steaming water watching the snow fall outside.

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8. Barcelona. I’m not a fan of gaudy Gaudi, but of course, his architecture makes Barcelona what it is. I find it amazing how we all flock to see a building that is not due to be finished until 2026. I mean, of course, La Sagrada Familia. However, one place where I feel Gaudi’s unique style does work within the city is Park Güell – also the spot of my favourite (yet discovered) view in Barcelona. In Park Güell you will find pianists, violinists and musicians of instruments so exotic that I don’t even know what they are. They claim a spot and play beautiful classical pieces to entertain tourists and locals alike. It’s quirky and amazing.

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9. Vienna. A haven for museum-geeks like me, my favourite being the Sisi museum; a museum dedicated to the life of Empress Elizabeth of Austria. It’s cleaner than Paris and Rome. It’s more efficiently run than England, but it’s not as frustratingly perfect as a few cities I have been to; so perfect that they no longer feel real. Also, the people who live there are unbelievably lovely.

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10. Off the beaten track. Finally, while I could go on and on about this city and that city, for me, one of the best parts of Europe is the little villages whose names I never learnt before I moved on to the next. I love the lakes, beaches, rivers and hills. I’m a country girl as well as a city girl, and I love rambling around woodland and climbing hills to see the view at sunset. So if you’re going to Europe, don’t just stick to the ‘must see cities’.

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My 5 Travel Site Musts

The verdant limestone bluffs that form the Phi Phi Islands open at Wang Long, a famed dive site with submarine tunnels and caverns. Though hit hard by the December 2004 tsunami, the place has been cleared of debris, and diving is as popular as ever

At a glance, I have about 1050385 travel-related web pages listed in my web bookmarks. I’ve become weirdly OCD about organising my bookmarks, so I know exactly how to find just that exact website whose entire url name escapes me.

Still, out of those 1050385 bookmarked web pages, there are a select few that I use again and again, be it for booking my flights, finding a bed for the night, or reading about the adventures of others.

  1. Skyscanner. Let’s start with the most addictive, shall we? Skyscanner is simple enough: select the airport/city/country from which you wish to depart, choosing either a specific date or the month in which you will be flying, select where you’re flying to, and behold, a list of prices with various airlines. It’s a flight comparison website. What I find most addictive is the ‘fly anywhere’ option… I love browsing and seeing where I can jet off to. Many a spontaneous trip has been born from my Skyscanner addiction, I can tell you. Sure, it has a few hiccups – sometimes it will display an incorrect flight price, but generally it’s accurate. And you always find those mistakes before booking any flights, so no worries there.
  2. Couchsurfing. I have met so many lovely people through this website, many of whom I’m now fortunate enough to call my friends. Thanks to the freedom of modern day travel, I have friends in more countries than I have visited – often due to this website! This is the perfect website for if you’re short of cash, or, like me, you simply prefer to stay with locals when you’re travelling. It’s an online community designed to bring together ‘surfers’ – aka, the adventurous traveller, to you and me – with hosts, who will offer them a bed for the night, or if they can’t do that, their company, a drinking partner, a tour guide – whatever. Yes, there can be some safety concerns. I’ve heard them all from my loving but a tad over-protective friends. You know, warnings about lone young women staying with strange men, in a strange city, in a strange country with a strange language and no money. Blah blah blah. Honestly, as long as you’re careful, and you keep your creep-radar on full at all times, you’ll be fine. There are women hosts too, you know (if it does worry you).
  3. Seat61. While I love flying (a little too much, perhaps. I get such a rush from take off), I like to travel by train as often as possible. The views are nicer (and there are many more window seats, so it’s much less likely that I find myself wrestling with strangers over the best seat), the ride kinder on my ears, and it gives me a chance to say ‘ooo what a lovely little village… I think I’ll go and explore’. Somewhat adrenaline junkie I may be, but I am not about to jump out of a plane because ‘ooo, that mystery space of Earth 30,000ft (at a guess) below me looks pretty… I’m sure they won’t notice if I borrow a chute and just float on down there for a browse.’ This site is the creation of Mark Smith, ‘career railwayman’, who luckily saw a need to breakdown to us wanderlusters exactly how to get from any A to any B via train, from routes, approximate prices and timetables. Very handy!
  4. NomadicMatt. This guy is something of a budget travel king. His blog focuses a lot on money-saving tips, from how to get cheap flights and cruise tickets, how to choose the best insurance and credit cards, to how to build a successful travel blog of your own. While now days he has a base in NYC (though according to his blog he only spends a few weeks there at a time before jetting off again), he travelled constantly as a digital nomad from 2006 until New Year 2013. Six and a half years of travel!? I think he’s definitely earned his crown.
  5. BlaBlaCar. Again, for when I want to see the world pass me by – or I just want to nip to the next nearest city or a quaint nearby village with no public transport links. If people have planned a car journey, they can sell spare seats for a small fee. Tip: even if you think you’re travelling light, always message the driver to check that there is space for your luggage. Don’t just presume that they will have room for your matching LV luggage set – or your teeny tiny rugged canvas rucksack, if you’re me.

Honourable Mentions:

Finding the bare essentials:

Airbnb.
Hostelworld/Hostelbookers.
Warm Showers. <—-so useful when you’ve just stepped off a stuffy train/bus/boat after a day-long journey with no air-con, having spent the entire trip stuffed into a sweaty overweight stranger’s fat folds. Yes, such an event has happened to me. Yes, therapy is ongoing.

Money makes the world go round…

Global Work and Travel. A great site for finding work abroad; paid, voluntary, internships, etc.
‘7 digital nomads explain how they live, work and travel’ <—- very inspiring post, and links to several great blogs.
WWOOF. While it’s really useful that every country has it’s own WWOOF website, I find it a little annoying that each of those websites requires a seperate membership, and even more so that each membership ranges everywhere from £0 to £50. If you’re planning to ‘wwoof’ and travel across many borders, this can get quite pricey. Still, a great source for finding fruit picking/farm work if you’re looking to experience something different than museums and beaches.
Verbling. Teach English online.
’50 Travel Magazines that want to Publish your Writing’

Inspirational bloggers:

Adventurous Kate.
JacksGap.
The Odyssey Expedition.
The Runaway Guide.

A to B:

Hitchhikers.org 

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My 10 Favourite Travel Apps

Everyone I meet on the road has some sort of tech now days, be it a laptop, a tablet or a smartphone. Some people, like me, need them for work, to run their businesses and keep the money needed to travel coming in, while others are simply too used to having their gadgets as a part of their day to day lives to leave them behind, or they’ve promised family members that they would stay in touch. I’ve met people whose parents gave them IPads before their backpacking trips for that reason. But for a brief daily addiction to Facebook last year that ended in a cold-turkey cure, I could easily travel without any gadgets were it not for my freelance work. If I’m away for a very short time, my IPad replaces my laptop, which stays at home. Of course, I’ve put together a nice little list of my preferred travel apps which definitely come in handy when on the road, and as most of them are the apps of websites, even when the IPad stays at home and I have my laptop instead, I’ll still use the same sites.

1. Skyscanner. This site/app is addictive because of its ‘everywhere’ option: I can see a list of flight prices in ascending order to countries around the world. Terrible temptation, and usually one I give in to. Free.

2. Hostelworld/Hostelbookers app. These two apps – and the websites they come from – are pretty much identical, and I tend to use both, depending purely on whichever one pops up in Google’s auto-fill first. This would be my number one in how useful I find them, and they are beaten by Skyscanner only because of how fun and addictive I find browsing through worldwide flights. Finding a place to stay in the only think I would find difficult without wifi access, especially now that I have become used to booking rooms online rather than simply using my feet and my eyes. Lazy, I know, but we all do it. Both free.

3. Couchsurfing. When I’m feeling sociable, I love Couchsurfing – I’ve met so many people through this site, many of whom I am still friends with to this day. However, I’m someone who likes a lot of me-time. I enjoy my company, and so whether I choose Couchsurfing or a hostel tends to depend on my feelings on that particular day. Free.

4. XE Currency. There must be hundreds of currency converters out there, and surprisingly few of them are freebies. I tend to check the currency conversion when first arriving in a new country, or just prior to, and write down a simple list on a scrap of paper: £1=, £10 =, £100 =, etc, rather than standing awkwardly in the middle of a busy market or shop, scrolling through my IPad, jabbing in the exact price. I prefer a piece of paper and some simple maths. Free.

5. Google Maps. I’m not going to try and be fancy and different and mention some obscure alternative app that does the exact same as Google, just because everyone has heard of Google Maps. It’s free, it’s arguably the biggest and the best, and I know exactly how to use it. Free.

6. AroundMe. I use this when I need to find something in particular – wifi, a launderette, a supermarket. Yes, you need wifi, though there is a useful – and common sense – feature; wifi is not needed to find wifi. Sounds ridiculously obvious, I know, but you’d be surprised how many similar apps I tried before this one that had that one fatal design flaw. Of course, because that feature helps you wind only wifi without a connection, that means that sometimes I have to first find wifi, go and connect to that wifi before I can then search for what it is I’m actually looking for, but again, if I apply a little common sense (yes, I do use it from time to time), I can kill two birds with one stone. For example, if it’s 44C and I’ve just drank two-thousand gallons of water, I search for wifi at a cafe or shopping centre – the app always tells you exactly where you will find wifi, rather than just blindly guiding to it. Free.

7. Various metro map apps. I have one for Paris and Rome, and I once had one for London too. Generally they’re free, and of course they’re quite useful, though equally, every metro stop has a map. However, in some of the smaller, non-touristic metro stops in certain cities – Rome especially, it seems – the maps can be based only on the lines that cross that metro, rather than showing the whole map, or there is just one map in the building and it has been vandalized. It’s always handy to have your own copy, and I always lose the paper ones. Generally free.

8. Museums Mobile. My favourite geek-traveller app. With a frequently updated database on thousands of worldwide museums, including information on current, permanent and upcoming collections. It also uses GPS to inform you of nearby museums. I’ve found many a stroll turning into a spontaneous museum trip thanks to this app. Free.

9. Translate Pro. There are so many translation apps out there, but this is just the one I happen to use. Being able to say what you want in the local language is always useful. I don’t know what else I can say on that matter, really. Free.

10. Airbnb. Another ‘find a place to stay’ app. This is for when I really need me-time – and a bit of extra money. People rent out their apartments, either the whole place, a spare room or a spare bed for travellers to rent for a short time. Great for if you want to really integrate yourself within a community by staying somewhere where the locals live, rather than necessarily somewhere with the most popular attraction on your doorstep. Then again, I think there’s only so much you can really integrate yourself into a neighbourhood if you’re staying in someone’s home without them actually being there too. If they’re there, you’ll be invited out with them and their friends, they’ll teach you about their city and their language, whereas if you rent an entire apartment to yourself, you’re just the loner foreigner in the street. Free.

And the ones I am still to try:

JetLag Genie. I’ve only recently heard about this, but apparently it carefully calculates when to set your alarm clock based on your flight time, arrival time, flight length and normal sleep patterns to ease your through the ‘trauma’ of jet lag – something I have not yet experienced, hence I haven’t yet had any need for a jet lag app. I am curious as to how well it could work, though. Then again, if I have never had jet lag, how well would I know that it has worked if I were to try it on my next long flight? Perhaps I’m just super lucky and immune to jet lag (is there such a thing?). I don’t know. £1.99

Tipulator. It can be tricky knowing how much to tip. It’s considered offensive in some countries, and obligatory in others, and in those that is is expected, exactly how big a percentage is considered the norm? And once you’ve passed that first barrier, the total cost on your receipt is rarely easy maths. Even more so if you’re eating with someone else or a group and you’ve all chosen different prices dishes on the menu. Tipulator not only works as a calculator for you, but it tells you how big a percentage you give and works it out for you. I don’t know what happens if it recommends a certain percentage, and you disagree depending on the quality of your meal and service… maybe it works on a non-negotiable basis and you’d have to turn to good old fashioned pen and paper – or a calculator app and figure it out yourself… £0.69

TravelSafe Pro. Up until now I’ve again relied on pen and paper to note down each countries emergency numbers as I arrive there, and luckily it’s a scrap of paper (many lost and re-written scraps of paper over the years), that I have never had to use *touch wood*, but it’s definitely something that everyone should have, in one form or another. What would worry me more than whether or not I have the right emergency number is the potential language barrier if ever I have to make an emergency call… hmm… £0.99

WorldMate/Blackberry Travel. Simply, these apps – I mentioned the Blackberry one because I have a Blackberry… for some reason – organise all of your reservations, from flights to restaurants, and put together an itinerary for you. Pointless if you’re just winging it, of course, but they’re free, so why not? Both free.

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