My photo
Comprising Spagus (derived from Asparagus), or Cam. Previously rural banker and farmer that has decided to ditch his tie and gumboots in exchange for a backpack and shaved head. Partnered with Shroom (derived from Mushroom), or Cat. Formally a country/city/country girl that has left behind the world of policy consulting and has ditched her high heels for some comfortable (yet stylish) footwear to support a wee bit of globetrotting through 2010 and 2011. We hope you enjoy following the travels of SpaguShroom through Europe, North America and South America!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Ireland (July 21 - July 28)

Our flight arrived into Dublin on a true Irish Summer’s day; 13 degrees and torrential rain. According to the locals it was ‘extremely muggy’, we found it quite refreshing. So we donned our warmer layers, picked up our (Diesel Ford Mondeo) hire car at the airport and headed straight to the legendary Galway to begin our week long venture looping up to Belfast in the north and back down to Dublin.
I lived in Galway in 2006 so was eager to return to visit friends and show Cam around this great wee city with loads of character. At the time of our two night visit the infamous Galway Arts Festival was happening so the place was buzzing even more than usual and the street performers were out in force.
On our first night in Galway we headed straight to the pub for a delicious pint of Guinness (which tastes completely different from the rubbish sold in NZ) and good Irish food. As the rain fell steadily it was difficult to resist settling in for the night drinking rounds of the delicious stuff...

The next day we woke to sunshine; the first Galway had seen in a couple of weeks. We spent the day sifting through the streets, shopping for essentials and absorbing the electric atmosphere of Shoppe Street. We visited the Galway Museum and learnt a little about the history of the city from 1800-1950, and about the legendary Galway Hooker fishing boat. Meeting up with some local friends that night we enjoyed our first home cooked meal in some time. It was delicious as always and lovely to catch up - thanks Miss Paula!
The following day we hit the road early and set off for Derry (or Londonderry) in Northern Ireland. The drive took us through quintessential Ireland countryside; rolling green hills, stone fences, and thatched-roof farm houses. We stayed in a sweet B&B located on the outskirts of the city that served up a mean full Irish breakfast the next morning (had to be done).

Derry is the only city in Ireland with a complete city wall. The wall was built during 1613-1619 as defence against settles from England and Scotland. With cannons still intact and the wall’s width reaching 4-12 metres in places, this was a fairly impressive wall (of all the city walls we have seen!).
On 30 January 1972 the ‘Bloody Sunday’ incident, which lead to the deaths of 26 unarmed protesters and bystanders by the British Army, occurred in the Derry area. Some say this was the beginning of Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’ (the Troubles is said to be the period of political conflict in Northern Ireland from the early 1970’s through to the ‘Good Friday’ agreement in 1998). This is something we learnt a lot more about at our next destination, Belfast.
We took the scenic route to Belfast along the north east coast of the country, known as the Causeway Coast. This road took us along a beautiful rugged coastline that required many stops along the way to take it all in. The road brought us to its’ namesake, the Giant’s Causeway. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is an area of thousands of interlocking hexagonal basalt columns. A phenomenon created by solidified lava forming 50-60 million years ago.

In a wee nutshell legend has it that the giant Finn McCool built the causeway after challenging his enemy to a battle (a much larger giant from Scotland) Benandonner. When Benandonner arrived at Finn’s house to fight, Finn’s wife lay a blanket over him pretending he was their baby. Benandonner got so worried that if the baby was this big then the father must be huge, so he fled back to Scotland ripping up the causeway as he went.

We ended our day with a large bowl of traditional Irish stew and a Guinness to wash it down at one of Belfast’s oldest pubs, Kelly’s Cellars. The locals had gathered to play some great bluegrass music - making the experience feel even more Irish authentic!
We booked a taxi for the following morning to drive us around some of the famous political murals (there are almost 2000 of them!), to see the Peace Line and to learn about the history of the area from a local. Our driver was a lovely man and incredibly full of knowledge, having lived in the area all his life. We were completely blown away by the detailed story that unfolded before our eyes over the two hour tour.
The murals themselves were amazing works of art; each depicted a powerful story or message with a mixture of words and pictures. They are displayed for either republican or loyalist political beliefs and some commemorate those that have lost their lives during the Troubles. One mural in particular was rather frightening; as the barrel of a gun held by a man in a balaclava appeared to follow you as you moved past it.

The Peace Lines that separate the Protestant and Catholic suburbs are made from brick and steel and stand up to 8 metres high. Some have gates and we passed through one that closes each night at 10pm. The first of the lines were erected in the 1970s and intended to only stand for 6 months, but due to the violence continuing they still stand today. Some believe that it won’t be until the next generation that the community can consider bringing these walls down.

As our tour continued through the ‘trouble spots’ and we heard of the latest shooting occurring only a month prior, it truly dawned on us how lucky we are to live in NZ. The sad truth is that there may be no resolution to the conflict any time soon, and as quoted by our taxi driver, “Belfast is a pretty place in terms of its’ landscape, its just a shame that the people don’t get along”
We thoroughly enjoyed the tour and would highly recommend it to anyone visiting Ireland. Definitely make the effort to get up to the north and attempt to see a part of the ‘real’ Belfast.

After a fairly ‘heavy’ morning we went to see Shrek at the movies in Eniskillen, where we stayed for a night stop over before returning to Dublin for two nights.
Dublin was a chance for us to do some much needed admin and to prepare for our next phase of travel. We shopped and replaced the clothes that were falling apart, visited the National Gallery, and had a pint or three of the good stuff.
Our week in Ireland has been fabulous. We have indulged in the comfort food of the pubs, learnt a lot about the history of the country, seen some beautiful and unique countryside, and of course met some lovely local people.
We feel relaxed (almost like we have had a holiday from our holiday) and ready to farewell Europe and embark on the next stage of our trip – first stop New York City!!

Friday, July 23, 2010

France (July 19 - July 21)

After a decent night’s sleep on our first class train journey we arrived into Paris feeling refreshed and ready to crank a full day. And that we did.
Our hotel was located in Montmartre so we tackled the sights of our neighbourhood first up - visiting the beautiful Sacre-Couer and the Place du Tertre where artists gather to produce and sell their works. I played ultimate tourist and had my portrait painted by a lovely French man.

The remainder of the day was spent doing the usual Pairs things. We explored the Lourve for a couple of hours before it closed which was just the right amount of time as we were feeling slightly saturated by art after our recent trip to Rome. Still very enjoyable of course and we were able to view one of the most famous paintings in the history of art, the Mona Lisa.

We enjoyed Nutella crepes on the Champs Elysees and fell asleep, in the most comfy metal chairs, in the lovely Tuileries Gardens. For dinner we discovered an exceptional little Viatnamise restaurant just off the tourist track in the Latin Quarter, called Coin des Gourmet (I would recommend it to anyone visiting the city).

With satisfied tummies and a new found energy we continued to explore Paris by night. We headed across the river to the Notre Dame, and while inspecting this fabulous gothic creation our park bench became front row seats to a spectacular street skating display. Boys on rollerblades were performing 2 metre back flips - great entertainment and for this we were happy to part with some coin. As with most performers you see on the streets throughout Europe – they do it to make some money and some are far better at it than others.

Feeling inspired by the stunning Summer’s evening we headed to the Eiffel Tower on foot. What appeared so close and just around the next corner ended up being a decent one hour walk away. Although our feet were a little sore, the reward of Mr Effiel’s creation by night was well worth it.

After an epic first day, day two in Paris demanded a far slower pace. We returned to the Tower and made our way to the top, opting to climb the stairs to the 2nd floor which significantly reduced our waiting time. The panoramic views of Paris from the third level were just breathtaking.

We loved our whirlwind trip of this unique city. Next we head to Ireland for some good craic.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Italy (July 12 - July 18)

We flew into Rome on another scorching hot day and were greeted by our good friend from NZ, Ursh, who would be joining us for 5 nights in Italy. After settling into our hostel (which was far more like a hotel) we ventured out to visit the monumental Colosseum. Joining a walking tour we were able to skip the line and get a whizz bang tour of the Colosseum which was completed in AD80!! It was amazing to be there but we expected it to be a lot larger in size, likely due to how it is portrayed in The Gladiator. The tour then took us through the ruins of the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. It was just mind blowing to hear the stories and then to view the ancient remains of the Roma Republic.

Day two was another monumental day of walking. We headed across town to the Vatican City stopping along the way to view more stuff such as the Pantheon and a visit inside the Castel Sant Angelo Museum which provided us with an excellent roof top view of the city.

Next was St Peter’s Basilica and Square which was swarming with thousands of tourists all eager and pushy to see the same things we were. Fortunately we waited in line for only half an hour to enter the Basilica. Once inside we were able to see the impressive Michelangelo-designed dome that soars 120m above the main alter, this was just out of this world. With such incredible detail in every facet of the Basilica you could easily spend an entire day here. We also ventured through the catacombs of the Vatican to view the tombs of previous Popes including that of Pope John Paul II, a special moment indeed. Next we strolled through the gigantic 5.5 hectare Vatican Museum complex and viewed the main highlights which culminated in the Sistine Chapel.
We have certainly learnt the true significance of ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’. It seems everything that draws the tourist to Rome is just incredible (I am aware of the overuse of adjectives!). Photos do not do it justice, you just have to see it for yourself!
From Rome we travelled up to Florence for a three night stay. With the ability to walk everywhere in Florence and after the intensity of Rome, we all thoroughly enjoyed this smaller city. With temperatures hovering close to 40 degrees each day our pace here was very slow, but we still managed to cover the main sights and attractions including a visit to Michelangelo’s David. This marble creation was very impressive and well worth the one hour queue for tickets. Florence also had the best markets we have seen yet, selling mostly leather goods but also an incredible range of fresh Italian produce. Unlike most markets the products here were of a very high quality. With the opportunity to barter the price down we all purchased a leather item or two.
Making the most of our stay in the Tuscany region we took a day trip to the coast. Heading west we visited both Pisa for a very quick look at the leaning tower and then on to Cinque Terre National Park.

Cinque Terre is a remaining part of the Italian Riviera and a Unesco-listed site. It takes its name from the five fishing villages of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso. The villages are joined by a 10km hiking track which weaves upwards along sheer cliff tops and back down to each of the five villages below.

The track was hard work in the intense heat but the magnificent views made it all worthwhile. Feeling incredibly jaded and slightly battered after some swimming amongst the rocks, we rewarded ourselves with a beautiful seaside dinner before heading back to Florence later that night.

Parting ways with Ursh in Florence we headed onto Venice for one night. We arrived to a sweltering 46 degree day (!) so spent most of our time slowly wandering the streets and taking in the gorgeous Venetian lifestyle. This vehicle-free city felt deliciously peaceful in comparison to all our previous destinations allowing us to wind down and sift through the streets.

We also discovered real Italian pizza here which we had struggled to find in Rome and Florence. Naturally we made the most and ate it for two meals a day. Soo good!

Boarding our overnight train we head to our next destination, Paris.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Croatia (July 6 – July 12)

After rigorous passport and baggage inspection at the boarder of Croatia and a 3 hour stop-over in the capital city Zagreb, we boarded our overnight train to reach our final destination, Dalmatia.
Dalmatia is the central part of Croatia’s Adriatic coast and is just stunning. With its’ rugged rock coast line, pristine blue waters and ancient ruins scattered throughout, this part of the world truly felt like paradise!
Our first taste of this was in our arrival town, Split. Split is a lovely sea side town which we were pleased to find was far more than just a place of transit to the many off-shore islands, which we expected it to be. We had a one-night stay here which gave us a chance to re-charge after the travel and to check out the Dalmatian lifestyle. We spent most of our time walking the maze of alleyways in the Old Town which houses many cafes, shops, homes and the ancient roman ruin of Diocletian Palace. With temperatures hovering around 35 degrees we made a quick exit to the local beach. It was beautiful but we soon learnt that a beach in Croatia generally does not have sand but instead large flat (and sometimes jagged) rocks which people perch on to soak up the sun.

The next morning we took the ferry to the island of Hvar. On arrival we were picked up by the owner of our accommodation in his old school blue Renault. Described by its’ owner as an ‘antique’ and full to the brim with beer crates and our packs we were not so confident that we would make it up and over the hill to the Hvar township. But we did and arrived safely to find that we had scored yet another great apartment.

Hvar is one of Croatia’s most popular destinations, with tens of thousands visiting on a daily basis, yet we did not get the cramped tourist feel that you would expect. The pace here was slow, everyone was extremely tanned (except Cam) and beautiful.

On our second day in Hvar we woke to the news that my little nephew, William Michael McKee, had arrived safely during the night. A huge congratulations to Vanessa and Malcolm, we can’t wait to meet him on skype very soon!!!
After several skype calls to the Barnes whanau we set off on our adventure for the day. We took the next best option to sailing (which was fully booked) and hired a wee motor boat for the day (a 6 seater with only a 5hp outboard so it didn’t get anywhere in a hurry). We packed up a picnic and headed for the Pakleni Islands, exploring along the coast lines and stopping in a small bay for more swimming, eating and relaxing.

Our last two nights in Croatia were spent in beautiful Dubrovnik. We arrived in the sweltering heat, after a 6 hour ferry journey from Hvar, and were taken to our apartment which had a stunning view (making for excellent sunsets) overlooking the port and New Town of Dubrovnik.

During our stay here we took in the sights by slowly wandering the streets of the large Old Town and again just enjoyed sifting at the slow holiday pace. We took a ferry to Lokrum, an island located close by where we enjoyed exploring the botanical gardens and diving from rocks into the refreshing ocean.

On our final evening we ran along the harbour soaking up the scenery and admiring many of the super-yachts (Cam has decided he would like one when he grows up!).
We feel incredibly sun-baked and relaxed as we leave for our next destination Italy.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Hungary (July 4 - July 6)

Arriving into Budapest on a sweltering Sunday afternoon we headed directly to the 19th century Szechenyi Baths. We enjoyed taking part in this ancient tradition soaking in the thermal baths as well as cooling off in the lap pool.

At the Baths we randomly bumped into two friends from home, Carly and Stacey, who are also travelling around this small world. Making the most we met later that evening for drinks in a funky wee bar located amongst war ruins, a unique use of space for a bar that worked really well. We then sought out a highly recommended restaurant in the back streets of the city. With quality food for extremely reasonable prices it was well worth the mission- a lovely evening.

We felt Hungary was the ‘real deal’ in terms of an eastern European destination compared to what we had seen so far. As travellers we found it relatively cheap for both food and transport, but there was definitely a greater level of poverty evident on the streets of the city and it was the first time we felt we needed to be very security conscious. Reflective of a country that has experienced hardship in the past as it struggled toward full democracy and then was hit hard by the global financial crisis.
Budapest is divided into ‘Buda’ and ‘Pest’ by the Danube River. Buda to the West of the river is a hilly area dominated by the castle district and residential homes, while flat Pest on the East is primarily the commercial and government area. An 8 hour day of walking the streets on both sides of the river provided for a great close-up inspection of this architecturally diverse city. Our favourite building was definitely Parliament (see photo) located in Pest, making our Beehive seem like even more of a joke!

We also visited the large indoor food markets, which provided an interesting experience for the senses, but well worth the visit. The cuts of meat were budget-what we would describe as offal, but perhaps reflective of the lower living standards in this area.

We have a full day and night on the train ahead of us in order to get to our next stop Croatia. But all worth it as we are very excited about swimming in the ocean!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Austria (July 1 - July 4)

Our three night stay in Vienna was jam packed with a range of exciting activities reflective of a city that combines a love and appreciation of its’ history with a modern cultural and arts scene. We stayed in a very cute city-style apartment located off the tourist track which allowed us to cook each night and do our own washing. Small comforts which made the stay all the more enjoyable.
We wandered Vienna’s inner centre (a designated a Unesco World Heritage site) in both the searing heat of the day as well as the evening as the magnificent buildings appeared to change with the light. With such a mixture of architecture including the neo-Gothic town hall, the Greek-Style Revival Parliament, and the baroque St Charles Church it was almost overwhelming to discover this buildings one by one.

There are horses everywhere in Vienna. From the countless number of statues, horse drawn carriages and the famous Spanish Riding School this place is a horse-lovers dream! We were fortunate to attend a two hour training session to watch these amazing Lipizzaner stallions and riders do their thing.

We spent a day at the Alte Danau, a river located northeast of the city. Our first paid ‘beach’ but well worth it to escape the city heat under the trees and enjoy the luke warm waters of the river.

Our final evening in Vienna we attended the opening night of the 2010 film festival. A giant screen was erected in front of the St Charles Church along with a number of temporary bars and restaurants which made for a fantastic atmosphere in this unique environment.

We leave Vienna incredibly shattered- putting it down to the heat- but excited for our next destination Budapest.

Czech Republic (June 28 - July 1)

Our time in Prague was surprisingly relaxing considering we stayed in the heart of the city during the intense school-trip season. We spent our days wandering (actually walking a hell of a lot!) the many cobbled streets and hillsides of this magnificent city.

To avoid the crowds we did an early morning mission to the popular Charles Bridge. This is one amazing bridge, it was built in 1357 and has over 30 statues lining both sides. Another major attraction we enjoyed was of course Prague Castle (St. Vitus Cathedral). After the trek up to the castle in 30 degree heat (which is great-no moans about the heat!) we were rewarded with spectacular views over the city and of course a close up look of this amazing structure built in 1344.

The castles, bridges, churches or basically any building in this city is just amazing and mind blowing, just so old! At times it is rather difficult to take it all in.

We also enjoyed the tourist hub of Stare Mesto. This area provided a myriad of lanes where we happily got lost in the crowds of tourists and passed an endless number of shops filled with the essential Prague keepsakes- puppets, jewellery and Russian dolls.
We enjoyed a traditional Czech dinner of goulash and dumplings; a very different flavour combination of sweet gravy and beef. We sampled the excellent Bohemian lagers on offer at the many garden bars along the river, and learnt that ‘thank you’ said after handing over payment implies no change is required (and therefore constitutes a tip!)
Prague has a really great energy. It has a colourful history spanning thousands of years yet has the feel of a recently discovered tourist destination. It is a dynamic city with much to offer, from the buzz of the tourist packed streets to the relaxed atmosphere along the banks of the river. We certainly enjoyed our time here. Vienna is our next stop...