Júrmala

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Thanks to the unique way that Ryanair flights are scheduled (ie when no-one else wants to fly), on my recent trip to Riga I arrived 3 hours before the rest of my group and left 7 hours after them. This equated to a whole day on my own in Latvia. The first 3 hours I spent finding a health food shop in Riga, and generally getting lost in various parts of the city. The 7 hours I had spare on the last day I used to explore outside of the city.

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During our walking tour of the old town with our excellent guide Tom, he’d told us about Júrmala. About 25 kilometres (16 miles) west of Riga, Júrmala is a resort town that stretches 32 kilometres (20 miles) between the Gulf of Riga and the Lielupe river. The sea side of Júrmala has beautiful sandy beaches stretching along it’s whole length.

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Only about a 30 minute train journey from Riga city centre depending on where you get off in Júrmala (I’d recommend Majori), the resort is very easy to access. And if you’ve been wondering why Riga is fairly quiet for a city on the weekends, it’s because this is where all the inhabitants are hanging out. On the Sunday I visited I think it was particularly busy in Júrmala as we were experiencing a heatwave. The beach was the place to be. As with a lot of things in Latvia, it’s also very cheap. I’m not sure whether I bought a single or return ticket (I asked for a return but the lady at the ticket desk wasn’t the most communicative person I’ve ever met), but I paid less than 4 euros. Back home in Cardiff, 4 euros would barely get me to the train station on the bus.

Júrmala is also known for it’s buildings. All the guidebooks describe the architecture as romantic and classical, to me they just looked like something out of an American movie. Immaculate, pristine hotels that have been preserved in their original style stand next to abandoned houses that would be a renovator’s dream. Both are beautiful and intriguing, and I could have spent a whole day taking photos of the buildings alone.

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Away from the beach, the main shopping street is buzzing with tourists and Latvians. As I walked along eating my sorbet (I could have hugged the guy when he said he sold dairy-free), I could have been back in Skagway, Alaska mixing with the cruise ship passengers.

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As much as Júrmala felt comfortingly familiar, there is also a definite uniqueness about the place. I might not have known much about Latvia before I went there, but I definitely wasn’t expecting to find a beach resort with such character only a short train journey from the capital city. Purely by chance, I happened to walk past a derelict plot that was boarded up at 4pm. There was a group of people stood by the temporary wall, singing beautifully. A sign on the wall explained that a church once stood on the site, and even though it’s no longer there the congregation still gather at 4pm every Sunday to worship.

If you find yourself in Riga and you have a spare afternoon, I would definitely recommend an excursion out to Júrmala. And if it’s a hot day, the dairy-free sorbet is a must too.

Riga

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I kind of have a split personality when it comes to travelling.

I travel on my own quite a lot. There are a lot of advantages to travelling solo. For one thing, I get to do pretty much everything I want to whenever I want. I also tend to meet more travellers when I’m on my own and make friendships, however fleeting, that I wouldn’t otherwise have experienced. As a vegan traveller, when I’m on my own I will try and get to every vegan-friendly food outlet listed on Happy Cow. I also tend to research destinations intensely, and by the time I get there I have a clear idea of what I’m going to see and do.

Other times, I travel as part of a group. This version of me is almost the complete opposite of the solo traveller me. If someone else is planning the trip, I barely know anything more than which flight I’m on. And sometimes I’m not even clear on that. When I’m in a group, I’m happy to follow everyone else and see what happens.

My recent trip to Riga was as part of a group. Other than it being the capital of Latvia, I knew very little about Riga before I went there. Our long weekend was kindly organised by friends I first met when I travelled in Alaska. They planned a fun-filled, varied weekend for 8 of us and they couldn’t have done a better job. I got to experience the culture of Latvia, learn about the history and also party the night away in some of the best night spots.

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One of the advantages of group travel is that I get to experience activities that I wouldn’t be able to on my own. Bowling, for example, isn’t much fun if you haven’t got anyone to compete with. Whilst in Latvia, we took party in an Escape Rooms challenge and also enjoyed a relaxing afternoon in a top spa. The two activities could not have been more different, and both would have been more than a little awkward had I been on my own. I think it was a good idea we did the Escape Rooms first, after one of the most adrenalin-fuelled, stressful but also immensely fun 60 minutes of my life, I definitely needed that spa experience. I don’t want to give anything away about the Escape Rooms, but our group did manage to escape with 5 minutes to spare :).

Over the past year, I have developed a new obsession whenever I travel anywhere. I have to find a free walking tour. For the price of a well-deserved tip, you get to experience your destination at an easy pace with an enthusiastic guide. The free walking tour of Riga did not disappoint. Our guide Toms was very entertaining and informative. He gave us a potted history of the city, and also Latvia in general, and showed us lots of points of interest in the old town that we would have otherwise walked past without even noticing. I think the most interesting part for me was learning about The Baltic Way. Although I was alive, albeit a child, during this event, I have no memory of seeing it on the news at all. To peacefully protest their right to independence, inhabitants of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia joined hands and formed a continuous line through their three capital cities. If you want to learn more about this incredible feat, which was planned and executed in just one month, click on the link and watch the video made by a 6th grader. She does a much better job of explaining the history and significance of the event than I ever could.

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Bern

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Bern is the capital of Switzerland and, handily for me, also where two of my friends live. After spending a few days skiing in Engelberg, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to take the take the short train journey to explore Bern and catch up with my friends.

As an added bonus, my friend Miles wasn’t working whilst I was visiting, so I had my own personal city guide for the day.

Built in 1530, Bern’s clock tower is probably it’s most famous attraction. It sits on the first western gate of the city, and isn’t just a regular clock that will tell you the time. It is an astronomical calendar clock, and while I admit to having no idea how to read most of the information on the clock the detail of the design is incredible.

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If you’re feeling energetic, a walk up the hill to the Rose Gardens rewards you with incredible views over the city. What struck me most is the mixture of the very old with the very new in Bern. Traditional Swiss buildings with uneven, sagging roofs and not-quite square windows sit in front of large office blocks while bright red trains shuttle back and forth. In the city centre, high end retail brands are housed above creaky, wooden cellar doors that open to underground stores.

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Thankfully, the torrential rain we experienced in Engelberg did not follow me to Bern and I had a clear day to explore the city. A word of warning, though, don’t attempt to tour Bern on foot unless you are feeling active. There are a lot, and I mean a lot, of stairs. While they add to the charm of the city, you do a get a good cardio workout with your tour. No need to worry, though, there are lots of cafes to stop at for a break and a cup of coffee or a glass of beer.

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Engelberg

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I am very aware that a couple of weeks ago I teased a couple of photos from my recent ski trip, but didn’t actually give any details of where I was. Since then I have been super busy working on other things, and I’ve only just had the chance to sit down and share some more.

I spent 3 days skiing in Engelberg, Switzerland. Don’t let my photos of sunny, blue skies and fresh, white snow deceive you, I actually took all the pictures on our last day. Our first day on the slopes saw us skiing in some of the wettest conditions I have ever experienced. It took me back to my days working as a videographer in Kitzbuhel, Austria, where I would have to go out on the slopes no matter the conditions. It rained up to 2000m. Myself and my two friends I was skiing with were all soaked. And I mean drenched right through to our underwear soaked. When we stopped for lunch, we had to wring out our gloves. Visibility was also poor, I couldn’t see more than a couple of metres ahead and the light was so flat that I had no idea what my skis were hitting. Luckily, thanks to the ridiculous price British Airways wanted to charge me for ski carriage, I had rented skis rather than take my twin-tips. Although they were heavy to carry around compared to what I’m used to, a solid pair of carvers were definitely the better option. On our second day, the rain subsided but visibility still wasn’t great. We managed to do quite a bit of exploring on the lower slopes during those first two days, though. The snow was skiable, just hard work on the legs because it was a bit slushy (my calf muscles felt like someone was trying to stretch them and use them as a tightrope!).

Then, exactly as predicted by the weather forecast, the cloud disappeared, the sun came out and we got to see the beautiful landscape around Engelberg. As well as what was in front of our skis, of course.

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At 3,238m the Titlis is a fun ski area. Although the pisted area isn’t huge, there’s enough to keep you occupied for a few days. The area is famous for its off-piste skiing, although has had it’s share of avalanches. I saw quite a few people venturing off-piste, even when there were small avalanches still falling around them, but I wasn’t about to risk it.

Obviously not wanting to miss a tourism, and therefore money-making opportunity, the Titlis mountain is also home to Europe’s highest suspension bridge. Every day, busload after busload of tourists turn up to catch the gondola to the top and see the views from the bridge. There are also a lot of opportunities for them to part with their cash at the top station, including a very expensive Swiss watch shop and a photo booth where they can have a holiday snap with their favourite celebrity superimposed next to them. Most of the day trip tourists, ie not skiers, were visiting from Asia and seemed to be just as excited to have their photo taken in front of cloud as they were to see the actually scenery. I couldn’t help but think that if it was British tourists they’d be demanding a refund if the weather and the views weren’t anything but perfect.

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If you are lucky to be there on a clear day, the views from the top of the mountain are spectacular. And, from the point of view of the day trippers, I guess we’re the crazy ones for choosing to travel back down the mountain on two very thin pieces of wood with hundreds of other skiers whizzing past us.

Useful Info

To get to Engelberg I flew British Airways from Heathrow to Zurich £130 return (EasyJet also offer flights from the UK to Zurich).

2 hour train from Zurich Airport to Engleberg, changing at Lucerne, costs 44CHF one way.

I booked a bed in an 8 bed ‘crash pad’ at Spannort Inn for 60CHF per night. The Inn is right next to the train station, and they also have private rooms. There are no self-catering facilities, but they have a nice Swedish coffee shop and restaurant on the ground floor and you can pay extra for breakfast. There are lots of restaurants to choose from in Engelberg, but it is recommended you book a table to avoid disappointment.

The Garth

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After my night-time hike up Pen y Fan on New Years Eve, I was definitely up for putting my walking boots back on as soon as possible (or as soon as my legs stopped aching, at least). My wish was soon granted when a friend said she was looking for people to join her on a walk up Garth Mountain organised by Cardiff Council. For all the things we have to moan about our local council, we are lucky that they organise a programme of free events throughout the year. Part of that programme is a series of 3 hikes guided by the council rangers.

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At 307m, Garth Mountain is more just a big hill. ‘Garth’ in fact means ‘hill’ in Welsh, and locally it is simply known as ‘The Garth’. Only a twenty minute drive or train journey from Cardiff, it provides accessible walks from the city where you can enjoy incredible views over South Wales. We started our walk from Taffs Well train station. There are a number if routes up The Garth, and the one we took was a steep ascent with a more gradual descent. The path uphill was mainly stones underfoot, with steps cut into the hillside. We also followed the tarmac road for part of it. The route down was slippery thanks to the damp, grassy ground. I knew we had definitely taken the right route when we met a young man covered in mud at the top who was walking in the opposite direction to us. Sliding downhill on the mud may be a challenge, but it’s a lot harder to climb up a muddy slope.

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The weather in South Wales can be, shall we say, unpredictable. We were so lucky to have an almost perfectly clear day. On the city side of the mountains we could see the whole of Cardiff right down to Cardiff Bay. On the opposite side, looking up the valley, the skies were clear up to the start of the Brecon Beacons. And, towards the border, we couldn’t quite see the Severn Bridge. Some of the other walkers in our group are incredibly knowledgeable about the geography of the area. This really helped me as I’m short-sighted and I wasn’t wearing my glasses. They patiently answered my questions such as ‘What’s that white blob?’ and ‘Are they all wind turbines over there?’

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Experiencing adventures isn’t always about travelling thousands of miles and visiting other countries. Sometimes it is simply exploring what’s on your doorstep.

 

Pen y Fan: Conquered

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At 886m, Pen y Fan (pronounced ‘pen-ee-van’) is the highest peak in South Wales and the Southern UK. Amongst other things, it is famous for being the place where army recruits are pushed to their physical limit. However, on a sunny weekend afternoon you will also see family members of all ages hiking up the mountain to have their photo taken on the cairn at the top. Anyone in good physical fitness can tackle Pen y Fan, but don’t let that mislead you into thinking the mountain isn’t a dangerous place. One of the things that makes Pen y Fan an easier summit to conquer is that the road up to the mountain is already at a high elevation, deceptively so if you take the gently rising route from Cardiff. Only an hours drive from the city centre and the coast (that’s a short distance in Welsh driving time – we don’t really have motorways), you don’t realise how far above sea level you are. For those who have no interest in hiking up mountains, by the way, the drive through the Brecon Beacons is well worth a day out on its own and you don’t even have to step out of the car to experience the breathtaking views. Once you take on Pen y Fan, though, you gain more elevation very quickly and the weather and conditions can change almost instantly.

My first attempt at climbing Pen y Fan was about 3 years ago. We had endured a cold and icy January and February in South Wales, and it had even snowed in Cardiff (when you see actual snow in Cardiff, you know the rest of the country must be neck-deep in the stuff). In March, the weather changed suddenly and dramatically. The sun came out, skies were blue with barely a cloud to be seen, and most people were wearing shorts and t-shirts. One of my managers at work wanted to hike Pen y Fan as part of a training programme she was on for a bigger challenge up in Scotland, and she asked for volunteers to keep her company. As a non-native keen to tick another item off my ‘Things you have to do when you live in Wales’ list, I eagerly raised my hand. We parked at The Storey Arms, the most popular starting point for Pen y Fan. The first half of our walk went really well, and we all happily marched along enjoying the beautiful weather and incredible views. We did think it a little odd when two men passed us in the opposite direction wearing crampons and carrying ice axes, but we didn’t give it too much thought. Our route took us to the peak of Corn Du (pronounced ‘Corn-dee’), Pen y Fan’s neighbour, first. It’s one of those optical illusions that are common in nature that makes Corn Du look higher than Pen y Fan when you’re stood at the bottom. Although at 873m, there isn’t a lot in it. We were about halfway up Corn Du when we started to spot the first patches of snow. By the time we got to the top, it was like an ice rink. My manager still insisted it was fine and we should carry on to Pen y Fan, then she slipped and launched herself into my backpack. As I watched two black Labradors slide past me, desperately trying to get a purchase on the ice, I proposed we leave the higher, and therefore even icier, summit for another day.

So, for the last 3 years I’ve been dreaming of getting back up Pen y Fan to finish what I started. I could, of course, have just driven back up there on a nice sunny summer day and ambled up to the top with a packed lunch. But no, that would be far too easy. Instead, I decided to sign up for a walk up Pen y Fan, in the dark, on New Years Eve.

When you tell people you live in Wales, there are a few facts about the country they will relay to you. Some of these are related to famous Welsh people like Catherine Zeta Jones, Anthony  Hopkins or The Stereophonics. Another is that we have a lot of castles. Possibly the most well known fact about Wales, though, is that the country is not known for it’s great weather. As I looked at the weather forecast on the morning of 31st December, in the vain hope that it would say 20° and calm, I wondered what I had signed myself up for. Why couldn’t I have just gone to the pub on New Years Eve like everyone else?

Although it is of course free for anyone to climb Pen y Fan whenever they want (and a surprising number do on New Years Eve), I chose to sign up for a guided walk with SVL Adventures. For the small fee they charge, you get a fully guided walk with people who know the mountain like the back of their hand and have lots of knowledge and expertise to share.

My evening started off in a very covert fashion as I followed the directions to the meeting point that our guide Simon has sent me (only people who signup for the walk are allowed to know the location of the meeting point). There were 18 of us in our group, plus Simon and two other guides. We quickly got our gear ready and attached green glowsticks to each other’s backpacks so we could be counted in the dark. I briefly wondered if said glowsticks had any impact on the number of UFO sightings reported in the Brecon Beacons. At about 9.30pm we were all ready to set off on our adventure. I’m so glad that Simon was there to lead us, because in daylight I don’t have a great sense of direction, and in the pitch dark I didn’t have a clue where I was. Left to my own devices, I probably would have just walked laps around the car park. Climbing Pen y Fan at night obviously means you don’t get to see any of the breathtaking scenery, but I have to say, when it is all lit up, Brecon is quite a sight from above.

Most of the elevation in the route wee took is in the first hour of the hike. Along with the fact that the first section was sheltered from the wind, this made it much more manageable for me psychologically. We took regular breaks, and luckily the temperature wasn’t cold enough to freeze my hydration pack.

After the first steep climb, the ground levelled  out a little bit and we started to walk along a ridge (apparently – I honestly couldn’t tell in the dark). Simon warned us as we were approaching a much more exposed section, and a few seconds later I was almost blown off my feet. Fortunately it wasn’t a head wind, so I did at least feel like I was still getting somewhere as I put one foot in front of the other. Simon kept us all in check with helpful advice such as ‘Don’t go more than two feet to the left because you’ll fall off the mountain’ and ‘Don’t panic if you see green eyes staring at you in the dark, it’s only sheep’. I must admit, after hiking in bear and moose country in Alaska last year, having sheep as the only wildlife to worry about at least ticked one item off my list of concerns.

Because we were such an organised and efficient group (I bet Simon say that to all his groups!), we had plenty of time to reach the summit of Pen y Fan by midnight. It’s surprising how many other people you bump into up there, I dread to think how busy it gets during the day when only sane people hike it. We all queued up to get our obligatory photo on the cairn, someone shouted ‘It’s midnight!’, and then after a quick rendition of Auld Lang Syne we all realised we were stood on top of a mountain in freezing cold winds and decided it was time to head back down.

We took a circular route back via Corn Du, thankfully once again using the more sheltered areas of the  mountain. We did have light rain on and off throughout the hike, but it was never so bad that I had to put my waterproofs on and my walking trousers were dry again by the time I got back to my car at 3am. Later that same day, a friend of mine hiked to the top of Pen y Fan and it was covered in snow. We didn’t see one snowflake whilst we were there, so it just goes to show how quickly conditions can change on the mountain.

Climbing Pen y Fan was an exciting way to see in the New Year, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for an interesting challenge. Yes, I did go to the pub on New Years Day, but I felt I deserved that pint of cider after the work I’d put in the night before.

Why I’m OK with failing my 2016 challenge

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At the start of 2016, I set myself an annual challenge. Sasieology is about visiting new places and trying new experiences as a vegan. This year, I set myself a target of visiting 12 new places and trying 12 new activities, one for each month of the year. And I failed. I don’t mean I missed my goal by just one or two, either. I failed miserably. But do you know what? I don’t mind, because one of the big things I have learnt this year is to not give myself such a hard time when I don’t meet my own expectations. I probably could have pushed myself to visit more new destinations, and signed up for countless activities just for the sake of hitting my target, but I would have exhausted myself and no doubt stressed myself out about the whole thing. Instead, I just allowed 2016 to take me where it wanted to.

There are lots of reasons why I didn’t achieve my aim this year. Back in January, I had a whole list of places I thought I’d go and ideas for activities that I could try. But then, life got in the way. I got a bit distracted by my new job, which certainly isn’t what I want to do for the rest of my life but it is a whole lot better than my last job. I spent over 5 years working for a company that seemed intent on sapping even the last bit of energy and enthusiasm out of me. Now, I work for a company where my energy and ideas are encouraged and I feel valued and respected. And if putting more effort into my new job for a while means I’m not spending so much time on my blog, that’s a hit I can take.

And while I didn’t make many of the places on my intended list for 2016, the year did take me to a lot of new places that I wasn’t expecting. My sneaky friends got me to Amsterdam (not that I took much persuading) for their secret surprise wedding, and when another friend was packed off to Frankfurt to work for three months, I jumped at the chance to go and visit her and also explore Cologne whilst I was there. Then, I returned to Germany to meet up with some travelling buddies in Berlin.

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I also got the chance to revisit an area that I’d kind of side-swiped years earlier when I went skiing in Les Arcs and Le Plagne in France. Plus, I returned to some old favourites such as The Green Gathering Festival just down the road in Chepstow, and visiting my family in Austria.

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Although I haven’t got around to trying many new activities this year, I have signed myself up for some interesting past-times and workshops. Earlier in the year I learnt how to prune fruit trees, which has proved very useful in Plasnewydd Community Garden where I volunteer. I was also dragged in as a last minute replacement for a workshop where we learnt to upcycle our clothes as part of #LoveYourClothes week in Cardiff. They needed a couple of extra people to be in photos, but I actually got so engrossed with the vest top I was upcycling that I completely forgot the camera was there. Considering I was pretty much banned from Home Economics class at school because I kept breaking all the equipment (not on purpose, which my teacher understood, but still annoying very costly to the school), I thought I did quite well and I can’t wait to show off my new vest top once summer eventually arrives in Wales again.

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One of my big focuses of 2016 has been to increase my voluntary work, both by getting involved in more local projects and volunteering at vegan events. I flyered two vegan festivals this year. I have to admit I was expecting at least a little negativity from the general omnivore public, but everyone was lovely to talk to apart from one man who simply shouted ‘I love pork’ at me (clearly eating meat has done nothing for his articulation or communication skills). I am also part of a group formed to open the first library of things in Cardiff. The project is still in its early stages, but we are very excited and I can’t wait to tell you all more soon. If anyone in the Cardiff area would like to know how you can get involved, please let me know.

So, as you can see, although I didn’t hit my target of 12 new destinations and 12 new activities in 2016, I have still had a busy year. I’ve already got some exciting and new experiences planned for 2017, so please keep reading Sasieology for updates. I’d love to hear from some of my readers about your travels and adventures too. This is me signing off for 2016, but before I go I’d like to wish you all a very merrry Christmas and a happy new year wherever you are in the world x

 

 

Vegan in Berlin

I don’t want to write a huge post about vegan travel and my recent trip to Berlin, but I did want to share a couple of photos with you. The people I met up with in Berlin are all omnivore, so we ate in a variety of restaurants. Finding vegan and gluten-free food in Berlin was not difficult, though, and the city is very vegan friendly. I did get a chance to walk out to Schivelbeiner Strasse, which has an entire vegan block. Not only did I eat an amazing lunch at the Goodies café there, I also stocked up on some groceries from Veganz supermarket and spotted some cool street art.

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Berlin

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The first time I visited Berlin was 1992. It was my first ever trip abroad, and my parents had taken me on a coach trip. The Berlin Wall had not long come down. In fact, from what I can remember, there were large parts of it still up. Residents had simply bulldozed through the bits where they needed access. I don’t remember a huge amount else about Berlin. There are certain places that I can recall, almost like snapshots in my mind. I remember the Brandenburg Gate, but that image could have stuck in my brain more because of the jigsaw puzzle of it that my parents bought for me. I also remember that, along the avenue stretching out from the Brandenburg Gate, there were lots of people selling souvenirs from stalls. I think all of them gave you the opportunity to buy a ‘piece of the actual wall’. Even in my young mind back then, I realised that if you pieced all those little bits of cement back together, you could probably rebuild the Berlin Wall ten times over. I imagine there were a few building sites doing a roaring trade in construction trash.

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When I told friends that I would be returning to Berlin after so long, they all commented on how different it would seem to me. I was expecting the city to have changed a lot in all that time, and to have built up a lot more, but I wasn’t prepared for just how big a change it would be.

I was meeting two friends who had flown in from Switzerland, and when one of them suggested we meet at the Starbucks next to the Brandenburg gate, I should have had a suspicion I was in for a shock. Back in 1992, I don’t know if there was anywhere in the area you could buy any coffee, let alone a Starbucks. My memory of the Brandenburg Gate was that it was by far the biggest thing in the area, and stood out from the other few buildings around it. I was more than a little confused, therefore, when it took me so long to find the damn thing. I knew from my map that I couldn’t be far away, but I couldn’t see any landmarks that I remembered from my earlier visit. It was only when I eventually saw the Gate that I realised why. Not only has the city built up around the Gate, and I was soon to discover other landmarks in Berlin, they have literally built huge embassies up to within inches of it. The Gate is now dwarfed by the massive structures around it. And the long, empty avenue containing just souvenir stalls that I remember has been replaced with trees, parks and a wide, busy road. As I sat sipping on my soya milk latte, waiting for my friends, I wondered at how amazing it is that a city and community can change so dramatically in such a relatively short space of time.

I wish I could have had longer in Berlin, but unfortunately I was only there for less than 48 hours. To make the most of our time, and to see as much of the city as possible, my friends and I decided to go on a walking tour with Original Europe Tours. Free walking tours have become a bit of an obsession of mine this year, I’m now looking out for them every time I travel. Berlin has different walking tours that you can choose from. We opted for a traditional tour that takes you around the landmarks that tell the history of the city. Most of that story of course revolves around how Germany was once a divided country, and the reasons for building the wall and then destroying it again. I wish I could say that in Europe we have learnt from that experience, but unfortunately as I type this our government here in the UK are busy building a wall between England and France. As if that isn’t a crazy enough concept in 2016, it’s a border that we’ve already dug a huge tunnel under ourselves!

Although very little of the Wall remains in today’s Berlin, and what does is presented as pieces of art, there are reminders of it everywhere. Germany has done an outstanding job of embracing their history, both positive and negative. Where the Wall has completely been demolished, a simple line of bricks in the ground mark it’s location. This line once separated two very different communities. The poorer, decaying buildings of the east side of the city that I remember from my first visited can still be spotted here and there, but generally both sides of the divide have rebuilt and developed beyond what anyone could have dreamed in the 1980s.

Following our excellent guide Ben around the city, what fascinated me most is the individual stories. I can’t imagine the desperation that drove so many people to risk their lives by crossing to the west. One of the displays, of which there are many dotted around the city, shows an endless loop of film footage of an eastern soldier running over the border and jumping on a passing tram whilst he was carrying out maintenance. He literally just dropped the tool he was using and took his chance. Other people are known to have chopped the roof of their cars so they would fit under barriers. A lot of the stories are incredibly sad. One young man suffered a horrible, slow death caught on the barbed wire between the two zones because neither the east nor west soldiers could decided who should go in to help him. The last person to have been killed trying to cross the border was a man who was shot swimming across the narrow river, a popular choice of escape. He was killed only 10 days before the wall came down. It’s unbelievably sat to think that, if he had only decided to delay his attempt by another couple of weeks, he would have been reunited with the friends and family that he was so desperately trying to reach on the other side.

I was surprised that the original Checkpoint Charlie has all but been destroyed, to be replaced by a tacky, tourist-attracting version that looks like something out of a weird Disneyland ride. Checkpoint Charlie was one of the main crossing points on the border, and the most famous. Knocking it down completely is to me like knocking down the Brandenburg Gate, but obviously Germany has decided they would rather let two actors dress as soldiers and charge tourists to have their photo taken with them.

Making the decisions on what to keep, what to memorialise and what to get rid off must have been a tough task for Berlin and it’s inhabitants. I’m pretty sure that, if this was the history of the UK we were talking about, we’d still be at the stage of making ‘ideas committees’. They’ve done a really good job, though. Berlin today is as exciting for me as it was for that little 12 year old who had never travelled abroad before. It is a genuine city that never sleeps, there is something there for everyone 24 hours a day. And I feel honoured to have experienced the city at two very different  points in its life.

 

 

Vegan Food in Amsterdam

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I have a confession to make. Although I travel solo a lot, when I am travelling with other people I tend to be the one who just follows everyone else. When I was in Amsterdam, as part of a group of 18, I ate a lot of great vegan food but I couldn’t tell you where some of it was from as I don’t know. I would like to say thank you to my non-vegan friends for picking some tasty eating spots though. Here’s what I do remember about eating vegan in Amsterdam:

Vegabond – This tiny shop and café on one of the narrow side streets is a must for any vegan visitor to Amsterdam. They have an impressive selection of groceries to keep you going (including gluten-free beer 🙂 ) and the café serves the most delicious lunches. The open gluten-free sandwich with vegan cheese and pine nuts is delicious, and I washed it down with a refreshing red juice.

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Candy Freaks – I’d seen this shop on Happy Cow but wasn’t going to go there. Then I stumbled upon it by accident whilst I was exploring (ie lost) in the city. This is the most vegan-friendly sweet shop I have ever been in. Most of the sweets are part of one huge pick & mix, and they are all labelled as to whether they are vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free and a whole host of other dietary requirements. The guy running the shop is also super nice, and very keen to direct veggies and vegans around Amsterdam and recommend places to eat. When he told me they also do mail order, including to Wales, I knew me finding Candy Freaks was just going to be dangerous.

Intercontinental Amstel – Most of the recommendations I make on my blog are for travellers on a budget. Just to warn you now, this one isn’t. To cut a long story short, I thought I was going to Amsterdam to celebrate a 30th birthday but the hosts surprised us by getting married whilst we were there! It was a true honour and privilege to have been included as part of their special day, and to top it all off they took us to the 5 star Amstel hotel for an out-of-this-world dinner in their wine room. My friend had informed the restaurant that I am vegan and gluten-free, but none of us expected the meal I got. Every course was as equally thought through and presented as my omnivore friends’. Anything I write here could not do the food justice, and I really appreciate that the hotel staff did not make me feel different or awkward for one second that I was there. This is the first time I have blogged about 5 star luxury, but if you really want to treat yourself I would strongly recommend the Intercontinental Amstel. If you are vegan, gluten-free or have any other dietary requirements, simply let the staff know and trust them to deliver the best meal you have ever tasted.