Buenos Aires – Warm and welcoming

Arrive at Buenos Aires airport. Discover that Argentines are on strike due to proposed tax hikes. Join the line that extends from customs to the luggage collection. Wipe sleep from tired eyes, and try to recalibrate body clocks. Luggage is X-rayed and passes. Hola, Buenos Aires.

We are dog tired. We stand out like the dogs proverbials, tall pale Gringos. Our luggage on the trolley we try to work out the best way to get into town. Obviously if we go to the taxi rank we will pay an extortionate Gringo price, and the local bus is either not running due to strikes, or requires coins that we have not yet acquired. After some tired deliberation we head to the internal taxi stand and book a taxi. One that then speeds like a rally car down the bumpy freeway, dodging and overtaking as much as possible. I hope Argentina produces good rally drivers, this guy was definitely up there.

Eventually we arrive, and are greeted by a warm smile from one of the hostel workers. We check into a small room which will be ours for the next few days. I immediately change into shorts and a t-shirt, and walk outside to feel the heat of the sun beating down on me. Such a strong contrast with the icy-cold tail of Winter that we left behind in Germany. We spend the next few days adjusting to the jet lag, and the sunshine helps us.

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The hostel is warm and inviting on the inside, painted colourfully outside. We have breakfast near the stove daily, making the most of the free coffee. We pass on the staple white bread and dulce de leche (delicious but not nutritionally satisfying), and opt for bought cereal, fruit and yoghurt.

While there we make a foray into the heart of Buenos Aires, in order to change some money on the black market. Or blue market? The Argentinian government has placed restrictions on the flow of currency into the country, which means that a thriving market for foreign currency exists. We have a bit of euro that we change over after walking up and down Florida Calle, the street for moneychangers. ‘Cambio Cambio Cambio!!!’ the crys of the vendors ring out when we walk past. We find someone who offers a price we accept, and then says ‘Come into my office’ and we follow them into a small green kiosk on the road. There is a money counting machine in the tiny space, and the transaction for pesos is quick and effortless. We then make tracks back to the hostel, not keen to be carrying substantial wads of cash.

After a few days at the hostel, where the operator smoothly makes clients pay in the Blue Dolar rate, we decide it is time for somewhere with better cooking facilities and no dodgy practices regarding payment. We try AirBnB for the first time and find an excellent apartment for the week very close to the parkland around Lagos de Regatos. We spend the next while getting back outdoors everyday, running and walking and enjoying the climate. Running through the park we come across Eucalypts, which are a reminder of home. The lake in the closest park is beautiful, especially at sunset.

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Every day that we are outside we see people walking dogs, usually 15 at a time. Dogs of all shapes and sizes, snuffling and scratching and panting and wagging and be guided by their walkers through the streets and around the parks. The owners obviously don’t walk the dogs themselves, and we are glad to see the dogs getting some quality time outside. It looks like an enjoyable job, but I guess the novelty wears off. One time I try to say hello to the dogs and the walker barks at me to keep away. I guess I understand that it would be frustrating to have people pat the dogs. Once they finish walking the dogs they take them to a section of the park where they tie them up around trees for a break. There is incessant barking and yipping of a hundred dogs, with multiple walkers all seeking reprieve from the heat in the shade.

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We spend Easter weekend in this part of Buenos Aires, and try as we might cannot find any chocolate eggs on sale. The local super market we head to is called Jumbo – and boy it is! We observe them cooking up a paella inside, in what would not look out of place as a spa! We find the Argentinian steak to be high quality and quite cheap compared to Australia, although the price of most everyday items is the same or dearer than back home.

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We enjoy a dinner out and opt for a more Americanised meal rather than the mixed barbecued meat that Argentina is famous for. We still get the high quality steak, but skip all the various sausages that normally come with a mixed grill meal.

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We catch the local metro train a few times into the city. The service is good, and it is air conditioned inside the train. It is also extremely packed every time of the day that we catch the train. So much so that when we line up to head out of town one day, we are in one of a multitude of lines back up to where the doors of the train will be when it arrive, each line growing to some 40m long over the half hour wait before the train arrives. Every waits patiently, and there is no pushing or shoving. The doors on the opposite side open and allow passengers off before we board.

Our final experience is waiting at the Bus terminal before our departure to Mendoza overnight. The bus station is a hive of activity, and the armed guards motion to us several times to keep a very close eye on our packs. Once we are on board it will be a 16 hour journey across Argentina.

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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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Ravensburg and Friedrichshafen – Delightfully quaint

Our short trip to Munich ended with a bus ride to Friedrichshafen, a ride that took just under four hours across the cold, dark and wet Bavarian landscape. The bus was sparsely occupied, and we found ourselves drifting off to sleep in the warm environment inside. Eventually we arrived at Friedrichshafen Bahnhof, some 15 minutes earlier than expected and walked across the train terminal to get out of the cold night. We were meeting our friend Ana, our short Portugese friend with a huge heart of gold and a gorgeous smile to boot! And there she was! Big hugs and kisses were shared and she packed us into her car and took us to her apartment in nearby Ravensburg where we would stay for the weekend.

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We had met Ana on a previous journey overseas, in the Amazon jungle in the north of Brazil. We were there for five days, on an eco-tour that showed us some of the huge range of flora and fauna of the Amazon, and how the local people lived in this wild place. Five days was long enough to cement a good friendship and we promised to visit if we ever came to Portugal. Fast forward to 2015 and Ana is working as Doctor in Germany and we were in the country!

Huge kudos to her – living in Germany and speaking a new language, while practicing medicine as an early career doctor! She is an inspiring, generous individual, and having her as a host and guide in Germany made our trip more memorable and developed our appreciation of the German culture. wpid-20150327_135021.jpg

 

She had a packed itinerary for us – this despite having a virus that had decimated her workplace – and she was insistent on joining us for just about all of it.

After a gentle start to the first day and a run through the local woods, we visited the town of Friedrichshafen, climbing the lookout tower that oversees that lake joining Austria, Germany and Switzerland. We also visited the local museum of Zeppelins, this is the area of the the world that they developed in. We were able to climb inside a real Zeppelin that was built into the museum, and there were some excellent physics demonstrations that explained the concepts underlying the construction of the Zeppelins and how they achieved flight. Looking at the scale of the Hindenburg was incredible – it was so much larger than any current aircraft at some 245 metres.

Scale

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Our second day there we visited Schloss Neuschwanstein, a modern castle commissioned by King Ludwig II of Bavaria. The weather made for a gorgeous day trip, even when the autobahn there was reduced to a traffic jam and everyone got out of their cars to stretch their legs whilst we waited for it to clear up.

Climbing the hill up to visit the castle you can see why King Ludwig II chose this area – it has stunning panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. The castle itself is impressive, and you might recognise it as the Disney castle, being the inspiration for Walt Disney’s castle. The castle is modern, being opened in 1886 to the public after King Ludwig’s early death and some of the design features would not be out of place in current buildings! Hot waste air from the kitchen was piped around the castle to provide ducted heating. The kitchen is impressive, with huge array of copper cooking apparatus. Water was piped into the castle under pressure from a local spring, allowing taps even on the higher floors. There were telephones as well.

The inside is decorated with scenes from Wagner’s operas, one of Ludwig’s contemporaries. Rumour has it they were particularly close, and looking at how much effort Ludwig went into to replicate the scenes from Wagner’s operas, suggest that something more than a passing interest was driving this! We were not allowed to photograph anything inside, but the exterior is just as impressive to view.

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Our third day was going to be a trip to Zurich, Switzerland. We headed into Friedrichshafen and were ready to board our bus a few minutes before it departed. Until we realised that we had left our passports at home. Apparently Switzerland is not part of the EU and therefore we would need them to cross the border. It was unfortunate to say the least! Claire asked if we needed anything else when we packing, I assumed that Switzerland was EU and Ana assumed that Aussies were smart enough to always carry passports.

We ended up going out for a slow lunch in Ravensburg instead, and then for a walk through some woods in the afternoon.

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This statue of a bus is located out the front of the psychiatric hospital that Ana is working at. It is a memorial for the many thousands of patients at such hospitals that were taken away by bus by the Nazi regime. It reads ‘where are you taking us?’.

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A cute part of Friedrichshafen.
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I did not take many photos of Ravensburg. It is a quaint town, one that missed the bombing runs during the great wars and still has the old fashioned cottages of a precious era. We were extremely privileged to have Ana as our host for our time there and to experience a smaller, quieter part of German life while we were there. Thanks Ana!

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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Zagreb – Nice but not enough

Zagreb is, well… nice?

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Nice but also a touch forgettable if sandwiched between Belgrade and Ljubljana which are in turn gritty and breathtaking. Zagreb by contrast is neither. It shows the hallmark Balkan architecture, old Austrian-Hungarian style influences on the buildings and impressive government or religious buildings. It is tidy and clean for the most part. There are good services and things to do. Good places to eat and drink. A quirky museum (more later). But remarkably forgettable…

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When we arrived at the station Claire went to the tourist information desk to ask for instructions to the tram. The person providing the instructions was curt and said “outside”. Not the most helpful response and stating the obvious you’d think. Maybe they were sick of tourists and travellers?

Once out of the station and waiting for the tram we were accosted by a man who helpfully providing some instructions on catching the tram. When I asked for clarification and then had to switch sides he obviously decided we needed more help. Following us on the tram like a bad smell he began sharing his life story. An ex engineer he was made redundant recently and was looking into tourism as his next source of income giving that this is taking off in Croatia. However his people skills clearly had been neglected whilst working on engineering projects and he peppered us with helpful yet unwanted information. Mostly we wanted him to leave but I’m polite to the point of accommodating annoying strangers, so we stayed. Once at our station I tried to wrap it up quickly but only after he had given me his phone number in case we needed a guide the next day.

Not off to the best start are we?

Our hostel was fine. Non-descript, but definitely a backpackers vibe unlike some of the other hostels we have stayed in. We went for a walk to find dinner and found a vegan restaurant which would be a welcome relief after the meatiness of cevapcici in Belgrade.

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Exploring through the city centre the next morning, we eventually found some places to get some coffee to start the day. As per usual, the cafe was full of cigarette smoke, and we could only endure for so long. We walked through the rain exploring the city until it was time to go for lunch. Claire tried the sarma, to compare it to what we had tried in Belgrade. But it did not measure up by a long shot. After lunch I had my second haircut whilst overseas, and I like to think they did a decent job!

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We were now in the historical centre of the city, and we climbed up the streets through some arcades until we reached the Cathedral at the centre. We wandered around observing the well signposted historical attractions. Eventually we came across a The Museum of Broken Relationships – full of artifacts and curios from relationships that had ended. It was cheap to enter, and relatively small, but the human stories behind each exhibit were well worth reading.

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Afterwards we found a small bar to sit in and share some wine and avoid the cold grey weather. It was remarkable comfortable and smoke free inside, a pleasant change. Dinner was at restaurant that was empty of all patrons except for us, and the meal was filling, meat dominated, fried, and mostly non-descript. The owner was very keen for us to write a positive review on TripAdvisor.

The whole experience was fine, but nothing more.