Hiking Cerro de Arco

During our stay in Mendoza (Western Argentina), one of our goals was to set foot in the Andes.

Due to the Andean foothills bordering Mendoza there are many options to choose from, but typically tourists take the “excursion hikes” which involve an organised tour with a guide and are expensive. We didn’t want to do that, so instead I spent time researching the favourite options for locals and planned a nearby half day hike that we could do independently.

I decided that Cerro de Arco was a good choice. It is something that tourists don’t often venture to because transportation to get there is a bit tricky but many locals do and it’s worth the challenge.

Distinguishable by its crown of radio antennae, Cerro de Arco lies just to the West of the city amongst the looming Andean foothills. To get to the start of the hike, we took a local bus (114/115) to El Challao Mirador, at the end of the line 8km to the Northwest. The 8km took 45 minutes due to the bus winding amongst backstreets to various bus stops. It was nice to sit back amongst the friendly locals and even nicer to see all the young men and boys jump up to relieve their seats for women boarding the bus.

We departed at the end of the line, stepping into a desolate and dusty carpark. We sought two landmarks, a white building in the middle of nowhere (a nightclub no less!), and a “dyke” which is a regional term for a dry stone wall. Once locating these two points it was was easy to find the 1km gravel road leading to the base of the mountains. Within 20 minutes we had passed through the gates of the Club Andista clubhouse and were ready to begin the hike.

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At the beginning…

What we found surprising, was that those first two steps put many tourists off from attempting the walk at all. Even our American housemate at the Air BnB caught a taxi to the mountain and spent 90 minutes finding and walking to the clubhouse. He had been living in Mendoza and using it as a base for travel for more than 6 weeks and recommended we take a tour guide for this walk. Really?

We decided that as long as directions and reviews were researched carefully and we had a plan (including a back up) it was worthwhile catching public transport and trusting that were were capable of small challenges. This kind of travel seems more genuine to us and overcoming problems is extremely gratifying too.

After passing the clubhouse we meandered along a gravel road for 1km to the reach mountain base. Then began the winding, rocky track up. Having been for a run that morning, we took it easy and yet found ourselves sweating during the constant ascent.

Some locals passed us at a slow jog, puffing and sweating up the Argentinian version of the 1000 steps! Without the leafy coolness and actual steps of course!

Instead the 11km return jog included jaggard and loose rocks, 600 metres of incline and full exposure to the relentless sun.

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Heading towards the mountain

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Quick stop at the helipad, look at Mendoza!

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We made progress quickly and after a few minutes of ascent, looked back and could no longer see the clubhouse

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We passed helipads, launching points for paragliders and even saw one paraglider soaring off the summit and spiraling upwards until we could no longer see him at all and felt a bit queasy watching.

But the most spectacular part of the walk was the 360 degree panorama of the city and the seemingly endless expanse of land to the East, as well as a peek into the higher foothills to the West.

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Views of the Andean foothills behind

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The vast expanse of Mendoza’s plains to the front.

We stopped for a quiet lunch on the top, flanked by two drooling stray dogs and then it was time for a quick decent before dusk.
As we walked back we marvelled at the eagles soaring close by, the cows amongst the foliage and the birds that could imitate other bird songs like our Australian Lyrebirds.

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Time to go back down!

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Can you see the trail?

With buses running every 25 minutes, it was inevitable that we would get within 500 metres from the bus stop and see a bus coming in the distance.

Nothing else to do but run!

Sprinting down the treacherous embankment with loose and tumbling rocks, all I could think about was the disaster of twisting an ankle, smashing to the ground and seeing a bus of staring people driving away!

But the potential crisis was avoided and we made it onto the bus.

Time to relax.

Mendoza

Located on the Argentinian side of the Andes near the Chile-Argentina border, the city of Mendoza is a large country town filled with long, leafy streets and has a quiet country feel. This is wine country- the atmosphere is relaxed and yet still very lively. The locals are often rushing about, going to work on buses and the back of motorbikes, buying groceries and everywhere, talking! Animated Spanish conversations fill your ears as you wander through a town that has a strong resemblance to Victoria’s, Bendigo or Ballarat.

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As we did in Buenos Aires, we chose an Air BnB room close the the famous town park. In this case it is Parque San Martin, a huge park consisting of a large lake, running and biking tracks, areas of woodland, a tennis club, fitness centre, golf course and velodrome.

A welcome change from many of the parks we visited in Europe, was how well the park was utilised. Not just by joggers and walkers, but with a variety of sport and recreation reminding us of parks at home. We ran and walked the trails dozens of times throughout our stay and felt comfortable and safe almost all of the time. Our BnB host had warned us to stay on the paths and avoid going into the woodland where we “might see things you shouldn’t see and get in trouble for seeing them”. Well that sounds ominous!
Yet we found with so many people around, including families, we were just like the locals enjoying the outdoors and luxuriously warm climate.

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As well as visiting the park each day, we also discovered the local ice-creamery and became frequent visitors. Ordering in Spanish was difficult at first, but after a while the staff began to know us and preempt our intentions! With a chocolate and nut waffle cone and 3 flavours a bargain at 20 pesos (under $3 AUD) we managed to try a variety of flavours during our visit, the most outstanding being Dulce de Leche with brownie. Mmmm.

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Internationally, Mendoza is best known as the hub of Argentina’s wine country. The bodegas in the vicinity of Mendoza comprise the largest production source of Malbec wine in the world. Naturally, we sampled several Mendozan wines.

We matched a few bottles with our home cooking. Purchasing wines from the shops and finding Syrah/Shiraz and Malbec to be our favourites. We found that the quality was essentially “you get what you pay for.” The difference in quality of a 25 peso bottle (AUD $3.50) to a 60 peso bottle (AUD $9) vastly different.

We considered visiting the nearby town of Maipú where many of the wineries could be found. But it required a long trip by bus and then a bike ride along roads that were not equipped with bike lanes and in some parts unsafe. We weighed up the options and instead chose to visit a tasting room in town called Wines of Mendoza.

In essence Wines of Mendoza is a tasting room for all wines of the region. From boutique wineries, historical family run wineries, and every bodega near and far from Mendoza. It provides the opportunity for people to try wines that otherwise may not be easily accessible. We utilised half price wines during special “happy hour drinks” and went back several times for a glass of delicious Chardonnay.

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One Wednesday night we also attended a “Winemakers night.”

It was more formal than we expected, with chairs and small tables facing the front and lengthly, animated discussions about each wine. The room was filled with Americans, Australians, South Africans, Brazilians and one outspoken Argentinian. The winemakers spent a lot of time speaking passionately in Spanish and the English translation was brief. We didn’t mind though because we knew enough about wine to translate parts of the Spanish description and analyse the wine ourselves. I also discovered that waiters continued to refill your “tasting glass” as quickly as you drank it! Coupled with a selection of cheese and bread, it was great value for money!

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Munich

Our last adventure in Europe would involve returning to Germany to explore Munich and visit a good friend in Ravensburg.

The big trip from Barcelona to Munich was in the comfort of a plane, but in the early hours of the morning. We caught a taxi to the airport at 4.30am and had a surreal ride through an unusually quiet Barcelona.

We noticed that people at the airport seemed a bit impatient and anxious, possibly due to the crash of a German Wings flight from Barcelona to Germany the previous day. It certainly was on the forefront of our minds too!

Despite this, it was a smooth flight and we arrived ahead of schedule. Obviously I wasn’t too worried because I slept through yet another landing!

To catch the train from the airport into the city we had to buy an all-day ticket, strangely 2€ cheaper if purchased as a couple traveling together.
We decided that since we couldn’t check in until 2pm and it was 11am, we’d throw our packs in the luggage room and use our tickets to journey to Dachau Concentration Camp.

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We have written about this experience separately.

Dinner that night had to be at a local Beerhall. We chose “Augustiner Braustuben,” which is well known for it’s great food, beer and atmosphere.

All were superb!

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This place was the real deal and totally packed with big, loud and laughing Germans.

Not a glass of water was in sight!

Without pause, we found ourselves at a table with four German men and two steins of “Augustiner Hell Maß”  beer in front of us.

We looked around at the mountains of meat on every plate and swiftly ordered the best local cuisine consisting of roast pork with copious crackling, pork knuckles, roast duck, enormous, glutenous potato dumplings, and delicious cabbage salad.

We resisted the urge to grab an “appetizer” in the form of pretzels on each table to leave room for the meals.

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We found the food to be rich, heavy and satisfying with huge amounts of delicious gravy. Something I wouldn’t usually want, but this was divine.

The people and atmosphere were welcoming and authentic and the whole dinner definitely made the list of our top ten this trip!

Day two started with a cold run around a strange open space called “Theresienwiese”. Treed paths around a concrete oval with some kind of circus or festival tents in the middle. Mmmm?

Afterwards we checked out and began to walk! Here are some highlights:

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City square (Marienplatz) with stunning, neo-Gothic “Neues Rathaus” which began in 1867. Here we needed bakery treats for energy 😉

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Isartor Gate. Built in the 14th Century and is one of the three remaining Munich city gates (the others being Karlstor and Sendlinger Tor)

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Royal Residence and Hofgarten (Palace gardens)

For a spontaneous lunch we visited “Viktualienmarkt” a famous fresh produce market. We grabbed some delicious marinated beans, olives and bratwurst to eat on the go. After lunch we passed the Hofbrauhaus – of course we had to visit and try the beer! Inside there was fantastic energy with bands playing and so many people talking and laughing in the Beerhall.

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Inside the Hofbrauhaus

 

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“Englischer Garten ” worlds largest multicipal park.

It features a permanent wave at the southern tip of the park where surfers hone their skills.

It also has beautiful trails and wildlife, we saw an abundance of birds including gorgeous ducks and woodpeckers (which we heard too – so cool!)

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Our last stop was at “Steinheil,” famous for their legendary schnitzels. As we had not had a German schnitz yet, we chose this place to represent. It did not disappoint and was the perfect early dinner we needed before boarding a bus to Friedrichshafen.

Barcelona – what’s not to love?

We arrived at Barcelona airport with a feeling of anticipation and excitement.

After sharing so many travel stories with one another, I was thrilled with the opportunity to show Nick the city I’d fallen in love with in August 2010 while traveling with Michelle.

Our plan was to spend one night in our hostel, check out the following day and leave leave our packs in storage while bike packing; then return for a further six nights.
Our base would be a fun and quirky hostel that’d I’d stayed in before, “St Jordi Mambo Tango.” The staff and atmosphere was as eclectic and welcoming as last time, with great beats playing all hours of the day and night and the staff every bit as endearing and helpful as you’d hope for.

We met a whole host of travelers during our stay, the ‘dungeon’ (rec room) and kitchen providing a great place to share stories, drink beers, and cook cheap and nutritious food that we’d been craving.

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‘Montjuic Parc’ our nearby running spot

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From Mambo Tango we were only a short walk from everything. Stepping out and going left, we had a steep and winding path up to a famous tourist attraction and recreation spot ‘Montjuic Parc’. Many times we took on the 2km ascent to run the park circuit.
A mixture of gravel paths surrounding a castle and with spectacular views of the port, as well as challenging cross-country bike tracks snaking their way through trees on a steep embankment.

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After a day of exploring and/or a satisfying run in Montjuic Park, we had the luxury of mouth watering tapas at our doorstep. Quite literally.

The most incredible tapas place “Quimet & Quimet” was right next door to our hostel!
Reviewed by Anthony Bourdain on his cooking show “No Reservations”, he describes this bar as Barcelona’s best.

Foodies everywhere would flock to this tiny bar lined floor to ceiling with wine bottles and with only two tall tables and a bench. No-one seemed to care about the lack of personal space, to busy stuffing exceptional tapas in their mouths and standing in the street; all the while claiming how they happened to “stumble upon this place”.
Quite ironic given that everyone on Trip Advisor says the same thing!

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Needless to say, I distinctly recalled the tapas from my last visit and was eager to go back to devour some more!

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My favourite – salmon with yoghurt and truffle honey

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Prawns with red pepper and caviar

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Pate, caramalized onions and sweet balsamic (pate was the consistency of terrine and AMAZING!), Vermouth Blanco (sweet and an excellent aperitif)

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Cured beef with sweet tomato and pickles

Other degustation delights were of course a must in Barcelona! We other tapas dishes from nearby bars, marinated eggplant, stuffed capsicum, crumbed calamari and mini burrito some of our favourite toppings on the toasted bread.

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A tapas bar a bit further away than Quimet & Quimet – at least 200 meters!

Surprisingly we were disappointed with a well-known and busy restaurant that I had experienced previously, ‘Cuidad Condal.’ In the past, it had delivered an amazing tapas experience including fried Camembert and Creama Catalana to die for. Since 2010, the restaurant has dropped it’s standards. Due to increasing popularity and publicity, the restaurant seemed to be barely keeping up with customer demands and dropping the ball on cleanliness, customer service and reasonable pricing. We left feeling deflated and ready to run the gauntlet with new and less mainstream options.

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Having fun while exploring – not cliche at all!

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As per ‘Claire and Nick style’ we spent many hours wandering around the city and stumbling across many attractions including La Rumbla, Mercat de la Boqueria (produce market), Parc de la Ciutadella (city park) and Passeig Lluis Companys. We noticed the attitude and demeanor of the locals was not dissimilar to Melbourne. Everyone seemed relaxed, easy going and loved to talk animatedly. We found ourselves laughing and talking loudly like the locals, enjoying being immersed in a familiar and comfortable setting.

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We also saw the influence and admiration of Spanish Catalyn Architect, Antoni Gaudi, throughout the city.

Gaudi was made famous by his individualized and distinctive style, incorporating ceramics, stained glass, wrought iron and carpentry into his designs. He also introduced new techniques in the treatment of materials, such as trencadís which used waste ceramic pieces.

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One of Gaudi’s famous houses ‘La Pedrera.’ Now recognised as World Heritage.

On our final day, we visited the most popular tourist attraction in all of Spain,
The Basilica of the Sagrada Familia.

This cathedral was started in 1882 and was influenced by the work of Antoni Gaudi who died in 1926, when it was less than a quarter finished.

Since his death, the construction of the cathedral has continued but is still not complete! The goal is to have it finished 100 years after Gaudi’s death, which would make it 2026.

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The Basilica of the Sagrada Familia

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After an hour soaking up the cathedral, we followed local advice and headed for “Barceloneta” (the Marina) to share a fresh seafood Paella for lunch.

The salty ocean wind and seagulls cawing overhead, produced an exciting backdrop for our paella hunt!

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Cold and raw, the area was barely touched by tourists and very romantic.
Eventually we found a restaurant that seemed genuine and had a large turnover of locals, a good sign!

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We shared a plate of piping hot and fresh calamari, which literally melted in our mouths. Closely followed by a mixed paella with chicken, mussels, calamari, scampi in a delicious tomato and turmeric spiced rice base.

Delicioso!

Prague – The best of Eastern Europe?

After a bus, a train and a walk, we arrived at Sir Toby’s hostel in Prague, unsure of what to expect.

Our hostel was all about quirky charm. It’s kitchen/bar/lounge style bunker gave us a taste of cooking for ourselves while mingling with other backpackers. Most of whom were well travelled. This independence was such a luxury for us and was made even better by an in-house beer tasting workshop on our first night!

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We had only two days to explore the town, but instead of racing through, we wandered down appealing allies and found the city to be a highlight in itself.
Utterly beautiful artitecture and charm, the whole place is a treasure trove of discovery and well worth going back to for more. Our only advice, if this is how busy and bustling winter is, avoid summer at all costs!

Highlights:
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Exploring the Prague Castle.
Despite being told “its not that amazing” by a fellow backpacker, we decided the walk up the hill was worth taking to see the largest anciant castle in the world.
It was actually very impressive! Covering 70,000 square metres and dating back to the ninth century.

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Wandering through the streets, we found the University quarter and enjoyed delicious soup for lunch. The only downside, everyone smoking in restaurants. At the Old Town Square we just had to try Revisewurst and Old Prague ham, delicious!

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We accidentally stumbled upon the best coffee in Europe in the the most unexpected place. A market place on the outskirts of town, not on trip advisor but good enough to rival Melbourne! Cafe Alza (now on TripAdvisor).

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Views from an evening walk in Letná Park. A large park on Letná hill, built on a plateau above steep embankments along the Vltava River. Letná’s elevation afford commanding views of the Prague Old Town.

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Our favourite place in the Netherlands… Holland!

Our overnight bus from Berlin was half an hour early. Usually a good thing, but slightly inconvenient when disembarking in the dark at 4.30am in the morning. Weary from minimal sleep and painfully cramped seats, we stumbled off the bus onto the footpath and received our first welcome from Utrecht, a gust of icy air penetrating our clothing!

Without hesitation we picked up our bags and headed towards the nearest shelter we could find. We wondered if this was going to be the coldest place we’d visit on our trip, and we were right.

Our second welcome to the country was much warmer and came in the form of two lovely friends and Dutch locals, Rik and Lonneke.

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Having offered to look after us for our stay, Rik and Lonneke revealed themselves to be the very best of hosts. Generous, warm, accommodating and amazing people to get to know.

On our first and last days they picked us up and dropped us off at the crack of dawn; They planned activities to help us explore the area; and best of all, they welcomed us into their lives.
When at home, it can be easy to overlook the simple pleasures; The enjoyment of sitting around a table in a warm home, sharing a nutritious breakfast with friends. Or the luxury of receiving a home-cooked meal, candles lit, gentle music playing and relaxing in your comfy clothes! It was a privilege for us to let down our guards, truly relax and enjoy our time with this couple. Quite simply, they are gold.

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Day one: After a slow breakfast we headed off to nearby Veluwe National Park to hire bikes and devour Lonneke’s homemade sandwiches and spiced cake. The park was stunning, with long winding paths, a few people enjoying the winter sun and yet, isolated too. Thick forest broken up with vast grassy plains and the scent of pine trees, enveloped us into the forest. The four of us chattered away while peddling, our voices carried off by the wind. Our quiet and peaceful escape broken only occasionally by the mono antics and displays of cycling finese by Nick and Rik. These fine displays made even finer by the ackward, clunky baby seats attached to their bikes!

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Bike car parks – they’re everywhere!

Day two involved a short train ride from Utrecht to Amsterdam. An early start to beat the queues for Rembrandt’s new collection at Rijks Museum and we were well rewarded. A quick pass in, followed by rich chocolate brownies for energy, and we were set for 3 hours of viewing delight. The collection boasts many famous works, including Vincent Van Gogh and the aforementioned Rembrandt as well as significant pieces from different eras.

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Finally feeling over-stimulated, we left the museum and couldn’t help but smile and nod at the enormous line of people waiting to get in. It had been worth the early rise!

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Nick and Claire attempting “horsemanning” 🙂 We’re not very good at it yet, but we’ll practice Rik and Lonneke!

Donning hired bikes, we decided to explore the center parts of Amsterdam stopping only for lunch and afternoon beverages and meeting up with another friend, Chris. What struck us was the positive energy and atmosphere of the streets. It’s lively and interesting, with every alley offering new things to discover and people watching a fascinating pastime.

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Nick trying “Febo”, a shop selling fast food in a wall for a few Euros each. Why don’t we have this in Melbourne? 😦

Down a few alleyways we came across the red light districts. They were not hard to miss, with bright red lights above the doors and big glass windows displaying the women. We walked through a few, curious and a bit wary.
It was strange and confronting to see the women dolled up, making seductive gestures and trying to flirt with men through a pane of glass. It was uncomfortable how close we were to them when passing, they were eye level with us and dressed in virtually nothing. I couldn’t help but imagine the lives of these women and feel a strong sense of compassion. This feeling was intensified when through one window I saw a women packing up her bedroom, obviously the end of her shift. Unlike the others, she was wrapped in a dressing gown and was folding clothes and straightening out the bed off to the side. It felt like an intrusion to see this, her personal space.
We all walked away, happy to never revisit these lanes, but with a greater understanding of the reality of this famous Amsterdam attraction.

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Exploring Utrecht on foot

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On our last day in Utrecht, we decided to take it slow. A sleep in, leisurely breakfast and some washing.
It was our day to explore Utrecht and we decided to see it our favourite way, out running! Utrecht is well designed for travel by bike or foot, with shared paths and bike parking everywhere. We ran through manicured parks and along the canal winding through town, a perfect route for exploration.
Afterwards, we explored at a walking pace and fell in love with this town. Much quieter than Amsterdam, but with the same positive energy and more warmth from the locals.

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Thank you Rik and Lonneke, for planning a “less touristy” and more authentic visit of Holland; as well as introducing us to our new favourite treat, stroopwaffels!

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For the sake of our longevity, we hope they’re not available in Australia!

Ljubljana – The darling capital of Slovenia

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There was a sense of familiarity and comfort about Ljubljana from the moment the train began to pull into the station, and it wasn’t due to the Harvey Norman sign we pointed out and laughed.

We had an uncanny sensation of feeling like we had arrived home. We found our hostel quickly and easily, only a five minute walk from the station and on the way we were surprised to feel safe and welcome already.

Our hostel (Celica Art Hostel) is situated in an “artistic” area, nestled amongst youth hangout spots, makeshift stages and military buildings completely covered in original graffiti and a rainbow of colour.

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Upon entering the hostel, we discovered it was even more spectacular on the inside. One of a kind, it had been transformed from an old military prison to a funky youth hostel with the hallways, eating area and bedroom cells still exhibiting the look and feel of the original prison.

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Naturally we had booked ourselves a private cell for three nights… pending release on the final day! Our room was complete with two doors, one being original bars. We had a port hole and barred window, and little loft bed which actually made the room feel less claustrophobic than you might expect!

Our cell
Our cell

From the minute we walked in and were warmly greeted by hostel staff we felt the positive energy and atmosphere; it was obvious why Lonely Planet voted it number one HIPPEST HOSTEL IN THE WORLD.

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After dumping our bags we quickly changed into running gear, keen to see the nearby running trails recommended by hostel staff. We were not disappointed. Barely a ten minute jog from the hostel, was a huge city park equipped with single-track, cross-country terrain and enough space that you could literally get lost in.

The circumference of the park has lanterns along the paths, a handy design for those needing to navigate in the dark. This was definitely one of the best places we had found to run and we ran there twice during our stay.

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On the first night we headed to a tapas bar in the town centre. The walk took only ten minutes and required us to cross Dragon Bridge. At that stage we did not know that the symbol of the city is in fact, the Ljubljana Dragon. It is depicted on the top of the tower of the Ljubljana Castle in the Ljubljana coat-of-arms and on the Ljubljana-crossing Dragon Bridge.

We were struck by the city’s beauty. It is beautifully designed for those on foot. Wide landscaped footpaths, clean and sculptured, countless bars and hip restaurants and cars not permitted in the peaceful city centre.

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The tapas bar (TaBar) was popular and affordable and the food was sensational. We tried many tasty dishes including pâté, sardines, homemade salami, chorizo and broad beans, pom frites, scallops, grilled onions accompanied with some local pinot noir.
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On the second night we opted for a dinner that was less rich but was definitely bang for its buck. The best falafel wraps we’d ever tasted!
Fresh falafel cooked to order, crunchy on the outside, soft and hot inside, coated with hummus, babaganoush and garlic sauce and packed with fresh vegetables. 4.50 euros!

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While walking around the city we noticed the high percentage of young people filling the bars and streets.
It was no surprise to find out students make up one seventh of Ljubljana’s population. The 63,000 university students in town giving it a vibrant, youthful feel.

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On the second day we took a tour to Lake Bled. A beautiful lake bordered by walking tracks and featuring a castle, spectacularly perched on the cliff overlooking the lake. As the only two on the tour we were able to make it our own. We skipped the entry to the castle and chose to walk the path around it instead. We were rewarded with spectacular views.

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We also decided to join the many locals who’d traveled near and far to walk the paths around the lake edges. Instead of trying the famous cream cakes (a glorified french vanilla slice) we opted for beer in the setting winter sun.

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The whole experience was an enjoyable outing but not a stand out for us. Possibly one of the best parts was meeting Tine, our knowledgeable tour guide willing to unpack the politics, history and philosophy of Slovenia, Europe in general, and all of the questions Nick threw at him. During conversation we told Tine about our plans to travel to Vienna the next day, but of our hesitation to buy the train tickets due to their ludicrous cost. 150€ for two people one way, the most expensive train tickets we’d come across so far.

We asked Tine for advice and he laughed and clapped his hands together, “my brother! He can take you!!” He got out his phone and immediately called him!
In a brilliant twist of fate, Tine’s brother was driving to Vienna the following day to visit his girlfriend and happily agreed to have two passengers for the trip.

Thank you Ljubljana for an amazing visit, for the generous and accommodating locals and for all the positive energy!

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