Going Home

‘The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.’

-Into The Wild

Our year of travel began with a one way plane ticket to Rekyavik purchased at 3am after a long, hard Saturday night at work and ended with the sunny beaches of Cuba.

We did not go into this year with any ‘plan’. We had a budget, a vague idea of where we wanted to go, and a set date when we knew we had to be back in Canada. Our plans formed as the days went by, often deciding last minute to go to different countries or cities based on deals we found or advice from strangers. We certainly could have done things ‘better’ or planned more, but not knowing where we would be in a week or a month was half of the adventure.

We purchased no new ‘gear’ for this trip, packing only our worn out clothes and shoes that we knew could be discarded as we went. On much of our journey, we had only a 35 litre backpack (and always less than 100ml bottles of liquid!) to avoid paying for checked baggage. While we did stay in amazing five star resorts (always free!), most nights were spent sleeping on pull out couches, in hostels and in guesthouses. If not for the unending kindness, support and hospitality of our family and friends (you guys!), we would not have been able to manage this journey. You helped to feed us, house us and entertain us, and for that we cannot thank you enough.

We have seen and done amazing things, from watching Phantom of the Opera in Toronto to Orpheus and Eurydice in Valletta; from lobster dinners in Trinidad to hostel dinners in Bratislava; from street food in Krabi to Pope-approved pizza in Naples. Watching sunsets from Zadar to the islands of Thailand and Mount Vesuvius, and sunrises from Cologne to Luang Prabang.

This has been an amazing journey, one that included many unglamorous days hunched over the computer booking and budgeting, but that formed itself in the end.

I believe that this past year has taught us more than anything to let the world unfold as it should, to slow down and appreciate the little moments that make up the big picture. This experience has included so many wonderful introductions and new friends, but also so many goodbyes.

The world continues turning no matter what you are doing. I will not sit here and say that everyone should dump their apartment and belongings and spend all of their money on a year of unplanned travel. Looking back, we can absolutely understand the apprehension and disagreement that most people had when we chose to do this. But it gave us a full year of much needed time with family and friends, and with each other. It gave us experiences and opportunities that we otherwise would never have had. And yes, we are going home to empty bank accounts, but money will be made and new furniture will be bought. And when we go back to home and to work, we will make sure to take the time to swim in the ocean and to watch the sunset, because those special little moments are what make life so amazing.

Back to Canada we go!

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-Chelsea & Ben

In total:

We have taken 14 ferries, 1 cruise ship, 4 boat rides, 22 airplanes, 44 busses, 9 long distance trains, 11 motorbikes, 2 rental cars, uncountable subways, tuk tuks, songtheows, city busses and car rides. We have travelled approximately 82,000 km in 354 days and have been to 19 countries (including stopovers). We have stayed in 66 hotels, hostels, Air B&Bs and guesthouses (plus a lot of couchsurfing).

 

 

 

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Cuba: Cienfuegos – Trinidad – Varadero

The long drive to Trinidad was monotonous and hot. We had not yet figured out the air conditioning in our van, and we searched for ways to break up the journey. Ben had read in a German tour book that the Havana Club factory was on our way in a city called San Jose. After driving around for more than half an hour, we realized we were not in the friendliest city in Cuba. It was a city of extreme poverty not used to seeing a van of tourists driving through, and we were apprehensive to ask where the factory was actually located. After finding it on our own, we were told by the guard out front that no one was actually allowed inside. He let us sneak a photo of the exterior and we continued on to Cienfuegos.

Cienfuegos was a beautiful little Spanish era town and is often referred to as the pearl of the South. We wandered around soaking in the boiling sun and checking out the nick nacks in the tourist market. The people were as friendly here as in San Jose, so we left to continue on towards Trinidad.

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The drive to the city of Trinidad crosses through the Valle de los Ingenios, or ‘Valley of the sugar mills’. The green and mountainous landscape was astoundingly beautiful, and the air began to feel cooler outside. The city itself is a UNESCO World Heritage site. We arrived after dark and found our casa before walking into the city to find dinner at a fancy place nearby and live music and mojitos at Plaza Mayor.

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The following day brought us back to the beach (a beach is never far in Cuba) to enjoy the ocean before the mid-day heat. We explored the city and all of the markets selling needlepoint and textiles, and ended the day with a double-lobster dinner on a gorgeous rooftop. The following day was much of the same: live music, mojitos, beach time and exploring the stunning ancient city and its winding streets.

Ben decided that the relatively short drive from Trinidad to Varadero should be taken on a ‘yellow road’ (aka a road that is possibly not paved or correctly labelled), so we set off in a new direction up a steep and windy mountain road, stopping at a viewpoint over the valleys and stumbling upon a boy with a giant tarantula and very long snake in the grass. Our only other stop was in Santa Clara, hometown of Che Guevara and home to his memorial. The grand scuplture and memorial wall were expected, but the actual museum and mausoleum containing the remains of Che and the other twenty nine combatants killed in Bolivia in 1967 were understated, informative and peaceful.

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In total, we had thirteen days to spend in the touristy beach town of Varadero. Most people would call us crazy, but we needed some time to come down and just relax after a year of complete chaos and rushing. The first few days were spent at a wonderful casa run by a girl our age which was walking distance to lovely, inexpensive restaurants and white sand beaches with warm water and no other tourists. My mom arrived a couple of days after us, and we all spent a week at an all inclusive hotel enjoying some family time. My mom and I took an Oldtimer into Havana for the day, and had a wonderful guide who taught us a lot about the history of the country and brought us to some unique sites I had not seen during our first week. Bens parents left, with my mom following a couple of days after them.

I had first experienced an all inclusive resort a few years ago in Turkey and had hated how boring it was, but knowing what to expect, I enjoyed myself much more this time around. We met some great people from the Czech Republic, Canada, Slovakia and Germany. We drank bad mixed drinks and Ben bribed the bartenders for bottles of wine for me even after they were ‘out’ (even the all inclusive hotels in Cuba have a limited supply of quality food and drinks, which shocks people coming from places like Canada who expect the same luxury as Mexico or the Dominican, not realizing how the people actually live outside of the resort gates).

Even after we left the hotel for another casa in town and our parents had gone, our new Czech friends came to meet us to spend the day at the public beach and go for lunch. We went for a hike through the Varahicacos Ecological Reserve and took a hop-on hop-off bus tour to the end of the peninsula before saying goodbye to our new friends over mojitos (of course).

Finally on our own, our last days in Cuba and on our trip were spent the way the should have been spent: laying under palm trees, swimming in turquoise water, and screaming at the casa owner and roofers who began hammering and stomping directly over our heads every morning at 6am.

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We outran a massive rain storm in our 1965 Barbie pink convertible on our way to the airport, and that was it… back to Canada!

-Chelsea & Ben

Cuba: Havana -Vinales

Our flight from Frankfurt to Havana was one of our longest yet, but we lucked out with a free upgrade (we actually received a refund on part of our initial ticket because the prices had gone down) to Premium Economy which meant blankets, pillows, three course meals, leg room, drinks and movies. Our arrival in Havana was rough: the driver never showed up and we spent nearly two hours standing outside in the sticky heat of the night with every bag we had carried around the entire year; we found a lovely taxi driver who took us into the city and drove around in circles trying to find our apartment (we were given the wrong directions); and after finally arriving it was close to 11pm and we had no food or water. Off to bed we went!

Havana greeted us with a smile when we woke up early the next day. We found a wifi hotspot (Cuba has extremely limited internet. One hour cards must be bought for anywhere between $2 and $10 and used at certain hotspots, usually town centers), and found a fabulous restaurant on the eleventh floor of a Soviet era apartment building. We walked along the famous Malecon and visited the grocery stores and bodegas to scrounge together enough food to build a meal (groceries the way we know them are difficult to find and expensive in Cuba. Most stores only offer a few basic items like evaporated milk, pasta, canned fish and rum). For the first three days we walked as much as possible, exploring the old hotel district along the Malecon and getting lost on side streets in modern downtown Havana. We met a very friendly man named Mike who insisted on being our guide, and he took us to the art street Hamel which we never would have found otherwise. There was a samba festival every Sunday, and the tiny street was packed with locals and tourists. From our apartment it was a thirty minute walk to the Jose Marti Memorial and the Plaza de la Revolucion where Fidel would deliver his epic seven hour speeches to an audience of thousands.

By the time Bens parents joined us a few days later, we knew our way around the massive city and had figured out the two types of currency. We took a taxi downtown and visited all of Havanas main sights: El Capitol, El Floridita (the bar where Ernest Hemmingway famously enjoyed his daquiris) and the Havana Club museum. We had lunch outside with a live band playing and took a 1954 Oldsmobile back to our apartment. The day ended with dinner and drinks at the best restaurant we would visit in Cuba: La Cathedral, a family-run business just down the street from where we were staying that offered amazing meat, fish, generous portions, top notch service and $1.50 mojitos. We met a friendly family from the US who were visiting Cuba to meet long lost relatives.

The rest of the week in Havana was spent exploring the city and searching for lesser-known sights like the Habana 1791 Perfume Museum, La Bodeguita (Hemmingways favourite for mojitos), majestic old hotels, the Colon Cemetery and La Guarida (a very fine dining restaurant located on the top floor of a building that should have crumbled years ago).Our last dinner at La Cathedral was enjoyed in darkness: the winds had come in and we were leaving Havana just as the rain arrived.


 

Bens parents had visited Cuba many times, and his dad decided it was best to rent a car for the rest of our journey. Ben and his dad hailed a $1 Oldtimer into the city to pick up our car (which was actually a 9 seater van, big enough to hold all of our luggage) and we hit the road. Somewhere between Havana and Vinales we were stopped by a ‘security guard’ who informed us there had been a bus breakdown nearby and asked if we would mind taking one passenger back home. Unsure of what to do, we loaded him into the van and continued on our way. Whether he truly was stranded on the side of the road or not we’ll never know, but he ended up being a very well spoken young man who brought us to his workplace: a tobacco farm directly on the way to our final destination. He arranged a free tour of the farm, offered us free coffee, rum and cigars, and carefully guided our driving around a bus filled with prisoners being shipped from Havana to another prison in the south (with windows wide open and criminals hanging their arms out, our new friend insisted we speed past, eyes forward). Although they wanted an insane $250 USD per box of fake Cohiba cigars, it was a fun stop and we left without spending a cent.

After the unexpected detour we continued to Vinales, our home for the next few days. The town is located in a valley that resembles a Nabob commercial, greener and more lush than any forest I can recall and surrounded by jagged, high mountains and hills. Small, wealthy and very touristy, Vinales was an interesting contrast to Havanas history and poverty. Nearly every house was a Casa (a private accommodation similar to a bed and breakfast) and it seemed impossible to find a quality restaurant. We enjoyed a feast of lobster and local specialties at our Casa before checking out a touristy street market on the way into town to listen to music.

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Vinales was beautiful, but it was time to pile back into the van and drive two hours on bumpy, broken roads (max speed 20km per hour) to the hidden beaches of Cayo Jutias. It was worth the drive: 3km of fine white sand, clear turquoise water and barely any people greeted us right when we were beginning to think we had gone in the wrong direction. We spent the day laying in the sun and ordered lunch from a man hiding in the bushes with a small grill and a giant pile of lobster tails fresh from the ocean.

It was a long drive home past spectacular scenery was spectacular and we stumbled across the big tourist trap of Vinales: a huge ‘prehistoric’ mural painted on a rock face just outside of town (the artist, a follower of Diego Rivera, was somehow allowed to create this monstrosity which costs $7.50 to see despite being visible from miles away). On our last night in Vinales we met the US family once again and had a terrible dinner which we ended up walking out on (pizza down the road saved the day). We were off to bed early to prepare for our nine hour drive South East to Trinidad.

 

Italy: Pisa – Viareggio – Lucca – Bologna – Venice

The Tuscan city of Pisa is basically only known as being home to a poorly built tower, but it turns out there’s more to it than that. The leaning tower itself is quite small, and the stairs to the top can be climbed for a horribly high price (for a long time it was so structurally unsound that you could not even approach it). More entertaining, however, was standing back from the crowds of tourists and watching while people climbed and maneuvered to get the perfect ‘leaning tower’ pose.

Pisa, it turns out, is a university town filled with expensive boutiques and young people who mainly are involved in cultural studies. It holds the 19th oldest university in the world, and despite its small size is full of churches and piazzas as beautiful as any others we had seen.

We had a long lunch of wine and pizza and found a huge mural tucked away on a side street which is the only permanent work of the artist Keith Haring.

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After decent pizza and silly pictures, we drove to the posh beach town of Viareggio. A free night at the five star Best Western awaited us, and the weather was perfect for a walk on the beach.

Viareggio holds an annual carnival and many prestigious events, and the wealth of the city was very evident. Our hotel was pure luxury and directly across from a white sand beach where we enjoyed a perfect sunset before (yet another) pizza dinner.


The following day was our final driving day in Italy, and it was set to be a long one. The hotel had an extravagant breakfast and we headed onto the road early. Lucca, a city very nearby Viareggio, was our first stop. There was little to see other than the piazza, but we took the opportunity to explore the side streets knowing we had a long drive ahead.

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Hours in the car on side roads to avoid tolls brought us to the city of Bologna, famous for the typical cuisine of Tuscany and a halfway point to Venice, our final stop. We arrived in the afternoon hoping to find the abundance of meat shops and markets we had come across elsewhere, but the tight streets were mostly filled with expensive restaurants and clothing shops. There were dozens of delis selling charcuterie platters and wine, but the parma ham, parmesan cheese and balsamic vinegar were priced for tourists and we weren’t able to find exactly what we were looking for. Bologna was exceptionally busy and seemed more expensive than anywhere we had visited so far, but i’m sure it would be different if we had spent more time in the city itself.

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The sun was starting to set, rain clouds were gathering in the sky and we knew we had a long way to travel in order to reach Venice by nightfall. When we finally arrived at Venice airport to return our rental car, the rain was pounding down and the air was freezing cold for the first time in almost two weeks. We took a ridiculously expensive bus ride into the town of Mestre (the mainland city beside Venice) and tried to find our hotel in the pouring rain wearing summer clothes at nearly 10pm. Mestre, what a lovely city! I recommend never going there unless you are absolutely forced to. Our hotel appeared closed from the outside, and once we were ushered into our room we had to avoid loose floor tiles and do a deep bedbug check before falling asleep, wet and exhausted (this was one of the worst places we had stayed in during our year of travels, the cheapest hotel in the vicinity of Venice, and also the hotel we paid the most for). It had been far too long of a day, but tomorrow we would be in Venice!

The bus into Venice was quick and easy, and our hotel was a two minute walk (over bridges, of course) from the bus station. We were able to enjoy one last free night of luxury in the Best Western Hotel Olimpia, directly on the canals in the center of Venice. The sun was shining, and we were able to check in early. You know your hotel is fancy when everything is gold and the wallpaper is made of fabric!

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Venice is a city impossible not to fall in love with. It is everything you imagine, from every book, movie and love story. The canals are filled with gondolas and the streets hold shops selling Venitian glass and carnival masks. There are an unbelievable amount of tourists there during the day (mainly from the much despised cruise ships), but once the sun sets everyone goes back to their cruise cabins and horror hotels in cheaper Mestre, and the city belongs to the locals and those wealthy enough to afford the fancy hotels.

Twice in one day we walked across the city to a fast food fresh pasta restaurant I had found online called Dal Moro’s, which served the best pasta I’ve ever had. We sat beside the canal and ate our hot pasta while watching the world go by for 6€ each, better than any touristy restaurant! The owner spent the day working the till and became a quick friend, and we visited on the second day as well. If you’re ever in Venice, eat here!

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Thankfully Venice was our last stop in Italy and one of our last stops on this year of travel, otherwise I would be coming home with a full suitcase of leather, olive oil, glass and clothing. I had no idea Italy was such a wonderful and cheap place to shop, and ended up with hundreds of photos of couture clothing that I’ll dream about until we go back and I have shopping money.

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Staying in downtown Venice allowed us to go out in the evening, and though most things were closed, we spent hours getting lost in the narrow streets and having a picnic of pasta and wine at St. Mark’s Basilica. I was able to Skype with my dad as we walked along the canals, and we slept in the next morning in our fancy hotel. We visited our pasta shop one more time before leaving and after sunset, made our way to the Mestre bus station to catch our 12 hour ride back to Frankfurt.

Italy was amazing, and though it strained our budget much more than we thought it would (so expensive!), it was absolutely worth it. I can understand why almost 50 million tourists visit every year.

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Back to Germany, and then off to sunny Cuba!

-Ben & Chelsea

So far:

We have taken 10 ferries, 1 cruise ship, 4 boat rides, 19 airplanes, 43 busses, 9 long distance trains, 11 motorbikes, 1 rental car, uncountable subways, tuk tuks, songtheows, city busses and car rides. We have travelled approximately 65,250 km in 326 days and have been to 18 countries (including stopovers). We have stayed in 59 hotels, hostels, Air B&Bs and guesthouses (plus a lot of couchsurfing).

 

 

 

Italy: Rome – Vatican – Perugia – Siena – Florence

Our night at the highway hotel in Naples was less than pleasant, but we had a decent breakfast and ventured out on the 230km drive to Rome. Because we had opted not to take the highways, we drove through tiny towns and villages that gave us an interesting glimpse into Italian life. Most roads were narrow and very poorly maintained. I started to worry about the undercarriage of our rental car, as we had chosen not to get extra insurance. We drove through very poor cities at the foot of huge mountain ranges where immigrants from Eastern Europe and Africa tried to wash our windows and sell us packages of kleenex at every stoplight. Prostitutes dotted the roadside the way I assumed we would see fruit stands. Each girl had a foldable chair and sat in her designated area waiting patiently for the truck drivers who had diverted off the highways. We saw many men pulling over without a second thought (It turns out that despite the mainly Catholic population, Italy has legalized prostitution as long as it does not take place within a brothel).

Our accommodation was just outside of the city, and once we got settled and changed, we hopped on the subway and rode thirty minutes into the city center to begin our whirlwind tour of Rome. The subway brought us directly to the Colloseum, which was as massive as you imagine and full of three times as many tourists. We had lucked upon yet another very hot day with clear skies, and the lineup to get in was massive. We chose to buy the Roma Pass, which entitles you to 48 hours of perks like free transportation, one free museum entrance, and no lineups for attractions. We ran back over to the Colloseum and quickly got in (avoiding heat stroke and a two hour wait was well worth the extra money). There was not a ton to actually ‘see’ inside, and there was far less information posted around than I expected, but when in Rome, it’s something that can’t be missed!

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Rome, the capitol city of Italy, was founded in 753 BC (according to the myth of Romulus and Remus). It is the 14th most visited city in the world, and we definitely felt this as soon as we entered the downtown area. We left the Colosseum and its hordes of tourists and spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the Pantheon, Forum, and the Altara della Patria.

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Our evening ended with a coin tossed in the Trevi fountain (which is said will bring you back to Rome one day. Fun fact: around €3,000 is collected from the fountain every night in high season) and a romantic sunset on the Spanish Steps.

Because our trip was booked last minute, it was a bit of a struggle to prebook tickets to the sights we wanted to see (which is apparently completely necessary even in low season). We had tickets to the Vatican museums scheduled for the awkward time of 11:30am, so we woke up early and took the subway to a nearby area of town with a pretty piazza and a surprise clothing market. While the piazza was a bit of a letdown, I did find a beautiful new shirt and some postcards!

The Vatican area was the biggest tourist trap I had ever seen, and as we walked towards the museum we saw countless people being lured in by ‘Vatican employees’ selling ‘VIP’ tickets and offering rides to the ‘other entrance’. We waited until our designated time and were finally ushered in to the museum after security more strict than most airports.

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I was incredibly surprised that cameras were allowed inside the museums and quickly began snapping away. Everything was so gold! So grand! So bejewelled! The museum itself holds pieces from Raphael to Da Vinci, Carravagio to Corregio. The Gallery of Maps was one of the most astounding things I have ever seen, and there was a huge amount of non-religious work. I can only imagine (and hope) that the Pope must spend hours admiring all of these treasures once the tourists leave!

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The most famous work here is of course the Sistine Chapel in the Apostolic Palace, a huge room located under the museum. As German writer Goethe said, “Without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.”

The chapel truly is a place of quiet contemplation and prayer, more than anywhere else I think i’ve been in Europe. But there were so many people it was hard to breathe let alone appreciate the art. No photos are allowed here, thankfully, but I will stick to the pictures online when I want to appreciate Michaelangelo’s frescos rather than braving the crowds.

Vatican City was exactly what you see on TV: hundreds of chairs in front of a gigantic church surrounded by normal businesses within a wall. Unfortunately the Pope was in Georgia while we were there, so we toured through St Peter’s Basilica before leaving to find lunch.

Eating out in Italy can be pricey, especially around areas like the Vatican, but we found a great traditional Italian buffet for €10 and had a relaxing meal and glass of wine before our next stop: the Castel Sant’Angelo. This castle-turned-museum used to be the highest building in Rome, which meant gorgeous views over the entire city for us! It has had many incarnations since it’s building around 135 AD, originally intended as a mausoleum but most recently used as a Papal residence.

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Our action packedtime in Rome came to a close with a cup of gelato in the piazza watching an Italian Michael Jackson impersonator dance his heart out.


 

We left on the long journey to Florence early in the morning (after finding a nasty scratch on our car from the parking lot). Our first stop was the town of Perugia, a university town in the hills of Umbria. I had heard of Perugia only from the infamous Amanda Knox trial but recalled noticing beautiful scenery on the news, so we stopped for a couple of hours to walk through the streets and take in the views. A small organic market was set up beside the university where we bought a big bag of delicious apples and had a picnic overlooking the valley below.

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Our next stop was Siena, a Tuscan city known for the Palio horse race which takes place twice a year. We looked through cool vintage shops and delis before coming across the Piazza del Campo, a magnificent square in the center of town with sloped ground perfect for relaxing on hot summer days. Evening was coming quickly and we still had a ways to go to get to Florence, so we headed back onto the road.


 

Florence is the capital of Tuscany and holds more art, culture, fashion, amazing food and history than you could enjoy in an entire lifetime. We arrived late in the evening after a very long day and were greeted by our Air B&B host whose home we would spend the next three days sharing. He spoke no English, but our room was comfortable and clean (and 45 minutes by bus from the city center). We rushed out to find a bottle of wine and a bad takeaway pizza.

It was an easy bus ride into the city center, passing the rougher parts of town but getting a good feel for the city itself. I had been disappointed that we couldn’t buy tickets for the art galleries as they were all sold out, but the day we arrived was free museum day, which meant massive lineups but no cost!

We explored the Palazzo Pitti, a Medici palace which now houses some of the best art, costume and porcelain in the world. There was a fabulous Karl Lagerfeld photo exhibit, and our free tickets included entrance to the Boboli gardens which were a peaceful retreat from the busy city.

By the time we made our way to the Uffizi gallery, the massive lineup had died down enough that we decided to wait. After only a few minutes we were able to enter and walk among the Da Vinci, Botticelli, Raphael, Michelangelo, Carravagio, Dürer and Rembrandt pieces (among thousands of others). I was able to stand as close as I wanted to the Birth of Venus while tourists took selfies around me (I must be in a lot of photo albums by now).

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The sights of Florence greeted us on every street we went down, including the Ponte Vecchio, Santa Croce, Baptistry and Medici Chapel.

We also stumbled upon a leather school where we were able to watch as students from all over the world hand sewed purses and belts.

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The food in Florence, and Tuscany in general, was amazing. We drooled over every stall in the Central Market and ate fresh pasta prepared with whatever sauces we wanted, topped with a heaping pile of freshly grated parmesan. Pizza, while not as good as in Naples, was best at a small and crowded restaurant called Gusto which has been featured on many tv programs all over the world. Paired with the best table wine served in a plastic cup you can imagine, the Margherita with fresh fiore de latte cannot be beat.

On we continue towards Pisa!

-Chelsea & Ben

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Italy: Bari – Gravina – Pompeii – Naples

After a short time in Germany enjoying a family holiday in the North and a wonderful day trip to the Pfalz wine region of Germany and France, we started to consider where we could go next. It was my dream to visit Italy, and when we found a 20 € flight to Bari, we bought it without another thought. We had ten days to drive from Bari (a fancy port city in the Apulia region) to Venice, where we would return the rental car (hopefully still intact) and enjoy a couple of days in the city of canals.

After a short flight from the closest airport, we arrived ready to pickup our rental car. While scratched up, it seemed to be in good condition and when we finally figured out the Italian GPS system, we were on our way. Our first night was spent at an overly expensive bed and breakfast located beside the airport on a sketchy side street. We left early after a strong espresso and croissant and drove into the city to explore.

After finding parking and hoping we hadn’t driven into any forbidden zones (Italy is known for their insane and dangerous driving, and for the steep penalties for driving in the city centers), we spent some time walking near the water while being reminded of the capital city of Malta.

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We made a short stop in the ancient city of Altamura (where a fancy wedding was taking place) and continued to Gravina, a small farming town about two hours from Bari where we had found decently priced accommodation (Italy is not like Asia, it turns out, where our average room price was $16 CAD per night). We ended up in the middle of farmland in a beautiful ‘agrotourismo’ hotel, with a large living room, bedroom, bathroom (with hot water heated by solar panels) and a terrace overlooking the fields. Off we went to find a grocery store to stock up on water and food to create a picnic at the hotel.

After driving out of the city, we reached a supermarket with a completely empty parking lot. The store was entirely empty save for three employees. It was 5pm. While ordering a little bit too much Parma ham, we asked the deli server where all the people were. Was it a holiday? Was the store closing soon? No, we were too early, it seemed. Italy comes alive in the evening, and we were crazy to be out shopping at only 5pm.

Gravina was beautiful, but we left early the next morning to continue towards Pompeii, passing the bustling Amalfi Coast along the way. Pompeii was a special request of mine and it definitely lived up to my expectations.The ruins are perfectly intact, there was no line to get in, and there was a strangely large and busy city just outside the gates of the ‘tourist attraction’. We spent three hours combing over the time-frozen city, and it was exactly as grand as I imagined it would be. How beautiful and strong this city must have been, directly on the coast and at the foot of a beautiful mountain (which turned out to be a destructive volcano, but still).

Once again, our hotel was located outside of the action in a city just outside of Pompeii called Ercolano. Little did we know when booking, we were directly on the way up Mount Vesuvius! Our accommodation was nothing special, but the views over the bay of Naples, the island of Capri and the volcano was truly breathtaking (there were also two tiny kittens who made their way on to our dinner table and on to our pillows, which always helps!).

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Not wanting to miss the opportunity, we hopped back in the car and drove up to the peak of Mount Vesuvius to watch the sunset. It was freezing cold, windy and quickly growing dark, but I will never forget that night for the rest of my life.


 

Naples, a city of around one million people in the Campania region, was our next stop. Known as one of the poorest cities in Europe, there is a large local mafia presence and a serious petty crime problem. Walking from the parking lot to the city center, we witnessed a local man being ‘brushed against’ by a would-be thief who caused him to drop his newspaper while grabbing for his wallet. Welcome to Naples!

I quickly understood the charm of the city, however, in the crowded cafes and cheap, trendy shopping. People didn’t seem to have anywhere better to be than in the streets, even on a midweek morning. Pizza places dotted every corner and there was barely a tourist in sight. We waited half an hour at the Pope’s personal favourite pizza restaurant (which had also come highly recommended by our previous hotel owner) where we ate the most delicate, delicious pizza we’ve ever had in our lives (I will dream of this pizza for years).

The weather was gorgeous (close to 30 degrees every day so far) and we spent the day walking along the promenade people watching and stopping for a strong espresso when we started to get tired. We climbed to the top of the Castle Nuovo, with sweeping views over the city, and made our way back to the car to continue on to our hotel (which turned out to be a lovely hourly trucker hotel directly on the highway, but at least they gave us a welcome bottle of sparkling wine to numb out the sound of our vomiting neighbours).

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Next stop, Roma!

-Chelsea & Ben

Indonesia and Thailand: Lombok – Bali -Bangkok

We took a thirty minute flight from Bali to Lombok and arrived at the airport ready to haggle for a cheap taxi. Our young driver swerved around sharp corners, narrowly missing kids walking down the road as the sun went down and everyone gathered on the street to burn their garbage from the day. Our guesthouse was basic but new, with only a bed, toilet, showerhead and sink (not even a garbage can or table!). We ate dinner at the small warung out front and settled in for the night.

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Lombok is an island between Bali and Sumbawa, known mostly for its quiet Southern beaches and amazing surf spots. There were very few tourists on Kuta beach where we stayed, and it was clear that the island has not yet boomed in the way Bali has. The turquoise water was perfect for swimming and the sand was made entirely of tiny coral beads.

In the afternoon, the beach filled with local kids trying to sell their bracelets after school and stopping to sit and talk with the few tourists around in order to practice their English. We spent every day relaxing on the beach overlooking volcanoes and drinking from fresh young coconuts. Breakfast was enjoyed at the warung beside our hotel and consisted of a plate of never ending all you can eat banana pancakes and local coffee (mixed with rice and meant to be a meal replacement, this will give you a mighty stomachache if you drink too much!).

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As a special treat for Ben’s birthday, we ventured across the island of Lombok to Sengiggi beach, a more touristy area with a grand Sheraton resort which I booked on loyalty points for the weekend. Our bus shuttle turned out to be a private car that drove us through the main city of Mataram, a bustling Muslim hub of markets, mosques, schools and donkey carriages mixed into the terrible traffic. The hotel was located directly on the beach, and we immediately jumped into the huge swimming pool surrounded by palm trees. Ben’s birthday dinner was spent at a restaurant nearby with our feet in the sand and the sunset directly in front of us. We ate far too much (Australian steaks, fish tacos, tuna salad, and a dessert that was delivered at the wrong time but was still delicious!) and splurged on a decent bottle of Indonesian rosé.

After two nights at the Sheraton resort (and a major ant infestation in our room on the second night), we moved over to a smaller hotel down the road for our last days on Lombok . It happened to be close to the best warung we had come across on the island. The daughter of the owners stole our hearts and sung us the songs she had learned in school while we waited (far too long) for our food to arrive, watching the rats running across the ceiling.

As one of Ben’s birthday gifts, I booked a snorkeling tour which brought us out into open ocean and to the Gili islands for an entire day. Our guide was a young Mexican guy who had been diving his way around the world, and we shared our tour with people from all over the world, old and young.

We were some of the only snorkelers (my migraines prevent me from diving, unfortunately!) but we saw even more sea life than the deep divers on our tour did, as we were able to swim directly over the coral reefs and into shallower water. We saw ten fully grown Hawksbill sea turtles, a small reef shark, a lion fish, angel fish, puffer fish, parrot fish, clown fish and blue gruby. After street food on Gili Trawangan (a tiny island seemingly only inhabited by partiers drinking very poisonous homemade alcohol), we had one more dive before going back to the mainland exhausted but happy.


 

After our time in Lombok came to a close, we boarded the public ferry back to Bali. The five hour journey was long, hot, crowded and tiring but we were blessed with a dolphin pod sighting at sunset and the company of many German travellers (who are always up for a good chat, no matter where you are).

Our final nights in Indonesia were spent at a gorgeous Sheraton hotel minutes from the beach and the action of the town. We spent our final days in Bali back at the same beach spot as before with our new friends relaxing in the sun, releasing baby sea turtles (that we now knew could grow up big and strong), swimming in the pool and eating amazing food. On our last night in Indonesia, we indulged in a traditional buffet dinner and dance show.

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Indonesia is a special place. It is a country that I can fully say I fell in love with as much as Germany, Thailand and Cambodia. The people are genuine and kind, but more than that, fun. The food is beautiful and simple. The scenery is breathtaking, and the culture can only put a smile on your face. We are already planning to visit again.

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As the song goes, One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble. Not much between despair and ecstasy. 

Our flight back to Germany left from the great city of Bangkok, which meant a five hour flight from Denpasar to Don Muang Airport. Using my remaining AirMiles, we booked the Royal Orchid hotel overlooking the Chao Praya river in downtown Bangkok. We quickly enjoyed the pools and sweeping city views before heading out for a quick Thai massage and a trip to the infamous Patpong Night Market, home of the pingpong show (don’t ask if you don’t already know what it is). Souvenirs were insanely overpriced, we were overly exhausted, and it was time to eat. We settled on a street restaurant that served beer in wine glasses and took extra pad thai for the airplane home. After an insanely long day, we said goodnight to the city lights of beautiful Bangkok and prepared for our next adventure: Autumn in Europe.

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Goodbye Asia, it’s been a blast!

-Ben & Chelsea

So far:

We have taken 7 ferries, 1 cruise ship, 4 boat rides, 18 airplanes, 42 busses, 9 trains, 11 motorbikes, uncountable subways, tuk tuks, songtheows, city busses and car rides. We have travelled approximately 59,764 km in 283 days and have been to 16 countries (including stopovers). We have stayed in 48 hotels, hostels and guesthouses (plus a lot of couchsurfing).