Tallinn’s NUKU Puppet Museum is Creepy as F*ck

I like puppets. I like their colourful costumes and emotive faces. I like the magic that happens when a seasoned puppeteer (or even a passable amateur) interacts with and animates a piece of wood or clay or plaster or cloth. One minute you are looking at a toy–the next, a living object. I like the blurring of the line between the mind/personality of the puppeteer and that of the puppet. It can be creepy, I suppose, but deliciously so. [Note – my admiration of puppets excludes ventriloquist dummies, as a strange veneer of exploitation has always soured that particular puppet-puppeteer relationship for me. The dummies are also scary-looking]. Over the years, I’ve taken an amateur’s interest in puppets and their history (specifically Punch and Judy) and, well, I just think they’re neat.

Three weeks ago, on a sunny afternoon in Estonia’s capital city of Tallinn,  my husband and I were wandering the twisting cobblestone lanes of the Old Town and having a lovely time. On the corner of Nunne and Lai, just out of the shadow of the hilltop area of Toompea, we found a cheery yellow building with a cheery orange sign–the NUKU Theatre and Puppet Museum. We thought about going in, in fact, I even popped my head in to check out the price of admission (5 € for an adult ticket), but for some reason we decided to move on and continue enjoying the exteriors of these medieval buildings, gorgeous in the pale Baltic sunshine, rather than enter the comparative gloom of their interiors. Travelling is like that–full of small choices about what to see or not to see, the gentle violence that occurs as you pursue one possibility and eliminate another. And so it goes.

But fate apparently had a hand to play in favour of the NUKU Museum. Although the sun had set the night before in a pink and cloudless sky (we know because we watched it from our hotel’s 8th-floor relaxation centre), the next morning rain was hurtling onto the city, scuttling our plans to visit the Estonian Open Air Museum (and so it goes). Instead of braving the rains and the open skies of an outdoor museum, we popped into a nearby cinema to watch Mad Max: Fury Road (English with Estonian/Russian subtitles; it was great), and by the time the film was over, the rain had stopped and it was after 2:00 p.m.; too late, we felt, to see the Open Air Museum (which probably would have been extremely muddy after a morning of rain anyways), but certainly enough time to revisit the charming medieval Old Town we had enjoyed so much the day before.

And so that’s how we found ourselves once again under the walls of Toompea, once again on the corner of Nunne and Lai. The Puppet Museum beckoned. Why not?, we thought, so we went inside the yellow building with the orange NUKU sign, paid our admission, and slipped through a narrow hall behind the cashier.

After taking us by an immense and empty cloakroom, red stickers placed on the floor directed us through the dim and empty lobby of the NUKU theatre, where a huge model of the purple dragon from Shrek (I assume from a previous production of Shrek: The Musical) was displayed. Though its website refers to the many interactive exhibits at the museum (both electronic and human), I think we must have been visiting during an off-period. What I mean to say is, on the whole, the museum was empty. The only other visitors we saw that day were a tired looking couple dragging their disappointed toddler away from the light-up buttons he’d been playing with, and of the few NUKU personnel we saw, most appeared to be working for the theatre, not the museum, and their eyes passed right over us as if we were little more than shadows.

Speaking of shadows, the museum was dark. Really dark. After the lobby, the red dots directed us downstairs and into what I assume are the medieval cellars that run beneath the theatre. There, dim blue lights displayed an example of shadow puppetry (the silhouette of an elaborate city on one side of a screen is revealed on the other to be just a collection of carefully arranged junk), and also a “wishing” well, which according to the signage, was part of the original structure of the building. A slit in the well’s plexiglass top allowed visitors drop in coins to make wishes, which TC and I did (in hindsight, perhaps I should have wished to be visiting a less creepy museum, but it’s too late for that now).

Farther along the passage (and again, in what was almost total darkness) there was a small screen mounted in the wall and surrounded by an array of a hundred or so buttons (these were the buttons the toddler was so upset about leaving, and this was the only interactive display that actually worked). Pressing a button would display a video clip of Estonian puppets/puppeteers at work (usually on Estonian children’s television shows, and usually juxtaposed with shots of the bewildered-looking faces of the children in the studio audience). We watched three or so clips and when we stopped, an animation of the NUKU logo appeared, beseeching us in his little Estonian voice to continue pressing buttons. I hope this display was motion-activated, as I hate to think of the poor NUKU logo all alone under the theatre, trapped in his small screen, calling to absent visitors in the dark.

At the end of this passage we found an adequately-lit stairwell (hooray!) taking us above ground into a small atrium (housing a couple of large puppets on display), and presenting us with a choice: go right, and see displays of puppets from different countries and also puppets used in shows throughout the theatre’s history, or go straight, through a black doorway and down a winding staircase into what a small NUKU sign called the “Cellar of Horrors: The sanctuary of unhappy, evil and scary puppets.” A sign like that is more like a dare than a warning–besides, what could possibly be scary about a children’s museum in the middle of the afternoon?

As we descended towards the Cellar, the staircase twisted down into the darkness as long strips of black fabric, hung lower and lower the farther we went, brushed the tops of our heads and arms. We stooped to avoid them and, at the bottom of the stairs, found ourselves in a low vaulted room with a stone pillar in the middle, dimly lit by small halogen lamps and by a single shaft of sunlight that entered the room through a small window near the ceiling (it looked as though this window was actually supposed to be blocked by a piece of cardboard, as the only other window was, but luckily for us this cardboard had fallen off). Though the room was small, the darkness and the pillar meant we could not see all of it at once, and so we did walk slowly around the circumference of the space to see which unhappy, evil and scary puppets had made their home here.

As we stepped out of the stairwell, we heard a whirring and clicking noise to our left, and a light began to flash. It was a three-dimensional zoetrope, motion-activated and fairly sensitive. A circular glass cabinet contained luminescent green stick puppets, dancing as the zoetrope spun and its strobe flashed, occasionally appearing to be missing arms or heads. The machine would begin again every time we moved, even on the other side of the room, and it scared me every time.

Many of the inhabitants of the Cellar were the expected goblins, vampires, and devils. They were small and cartoon-ish, propped up in little coffins, and they didn’t seem that scary. What I found more creepy were the puppets that looked perfectly normal–a sad-looking old woman, a giant face leaning against the wall, a little postman who, on closer inspection, had his feet on the wrong way, but seemed otherwise very ordinary. What are they doing there, I wondered, What have they done? I don’t think I saw every puppet–they crowded in the shadows, tucked into corners and along the walls, hard to see on first glance. Were they there before? I wondered. I really didn’t know. With each step the whirring and clicking and flashing of the zoetrope would begin again, confusing our vision, and as we took no pictures in the Cellar of Horrors, I can’t even say with certainty what was down there.

What I do know is that once we decided to leave the Cellar, we did it fairly quickly. I wouldn’t necessarily say I “ran” back up the stairs, with no concern for the fate of TC, who was following, but it would probably be an accurate statement. I’m nearly 30 years old but I’m not ashamed of not wanting to spend a great deal of time in a sanctuary for unhappy, evil, and scary puppets, especially one where a ghostly machine full of faceless green stick-men sits in the dark, waiting for an unsuspecting visitor to walk by so it can dance its ghoulish dance.

The rest of the museum, being empty of visitors and staff, could not shake the eerie feeling that had crept along our spines down in the catacombs. Life-sized dolls perched on windowsills and around corners. Non-working display screens flashed at us, or made futile clicking noises as we walked by. Everywhere there were eyes peering from behind glass panes. Everywhere seemed abandoned, like a room where children used to play but don’t anymore.

And then it stopped. The museum just stopped. There weren’t any more rooms or anymore passages. To leave we had to go back through the display halls we’d just been in, past the doorway to the Cellar of Horrors (gaping like an open sore in the stillness of the atrium), down the other staircase, back into the tunnels with the buttons and the wishing well and the shadow display, up the stairs again, past the dragon and the empty cloakroom and the girl at her cash register and–phew! Into the sunlight.

I’ve no doubt that on a different day, when it is full of children and their parents and staff leading the puppet-making workshops and holding small puppet shows, and the puppets in their cases have an audience that appreciates them, the NUKU Museum is a neat and magical place. But when it is empty, and dark, and just waiting, the NUKU Puppet Museum is creepy as f*ck.

The following are some of TC’s photos from our visit and his captions, which I found quite amusing:

NUKUCellarSign

We went to a bizarre puppet museum. There were some extremely unsettling puppets in the “Cellar of Horrors”. I took no photos there. The following puppets somehow did not qualify for “The sanctuary of unhappy, evil and scary puppets.”

not terrifying at all

Not terrifying at all.

not scary in the least

Not scary in the least.

Nope, not evil.

Nope, not evil.

[Lauren’s note: this last one is Punch, one of my favourite puppets actually.]

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Baltic update: Riga and Tallinn

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Sveiki! I feel that a post about my Eastern European travels is long overdue, however, though opportunities for writing have presented themselves, I have found that I have been either too jet lagged (last week) or having too much fun visiting with family (this week) to make productive use of them. Downtime is an important part of travelling, and one that I have usually used to journal or blog about my experiences, but this time I simply haven’t found myself alone often enough to really be able to frame my thoughts or articulate my impressions.

What I can say now is that the three days TC and I spent in Tallinn (the capital city of Estonia) last week were incredible. It was the only leg of the trip we were going to be on our own so we splurged and stayed at the luxuriously comfortable Nordic Hotel Forum a stone’s throw away from Tallinn’s Old City. Since we were there both in mid-May and also mid-week, there weren’t very many tourists around and the winding streets crowded with medieval houses unfolded as if they were just waiting for us to turn the corner before revealing yet another delightful point of view. Tallinn’s Old Town is very compact (the boundary, for the most part, is clearly marked by the old city wall), and very consistent (there are very few modern buildings to be found once you pass between the guard towers of the old city gate and venture up into the city). We got fairly lucky with the weather and generally speaking, the small area we saw of Tallinn seemed clean, bright, relaxing, and romantic. Just what a vacation should be!

The Latvia leg of our trip has been vastly different. It’s not that Riga isn’t beautiful or romantic (what with its art-nouveau edifices and cobblestone streets), but returning to a place you lived in nearly 20 years ago is not the same as experiencing a new city for the first time. Instead of simply going out to see what we could see, my family and I have been going out to see if we could see what we saw in 1995. Sometimes we found it, sometimes we couldn’t. Overall I am left with the sensation that what I had taken with me 20 years ago were parts of Riga–snapshots of this building or that monument. I don’t recognize the city as a whole and I don’t really know my way around it. Nostalgia is great but when it competes with new experience it’s just…different. Which Riga is better, the one I’ve spent the past week enjoying, the one that is much safer and in in much better repair than the Riga of 1995, or the city I remember, which was both bigger and smaller, more frightening but more marvellous? How is it that I can be disappointed to find something the same, proof that it was real after all?

Back to Latvia

Wearing a crown of daisies at Jani, Latvia's midsummer celebration

Me in 1996, wearing a crown of daisies at a Jāņi celebration.

For me, it all started with an episode of the 1990s television program Travel Travel. My mom loved watching Travel Travel (we only had two channels so there wasn’t much choice) and when I was eight years old the program aired an episode on Latvia. It was pretty exciting for me because I knew that my grandparents were from Latvia and that my uncle had recently moved there after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the restoration of Latvian independence in 1991. Though I could never speak Latvian, it is my mother’s first language and Latvian phrases and folk songs had always been a part of my life. The country looked great on TV too, with a picture-book castle poking out behind a green forest (it was probably Sigulda Castle featured in the show). Watching the Latvia episode of Travel Travel is the first memory I have of my parents saying, “Wouldn’t it be nice to live there for a year?”.

And then we did.

It seems weird to think of now, almost like a magic trick, the way the pieces fell together to facilitate this adventure. In reality, it wasn’t at all easy and I know my parents had to do a lot of research and phoning and faxing and writing letters in order to obtain jobs and visas and housing and the rest of it. But I’m still mystified by the way it just sort of worked. My parents applied for teaching positions at the English-speaking International School of Latvia and were hired (my mom,who taught elementary music, was even given a budget to order instruments for the school). My sisters and I were able to attend the school free of charge. My mom applied for a year-long leave from her current teaching position and got it. We needed someone to rent our place and take care of our pets for the year and a decent renter was found. Now, the idea of looking at a map and saying, “I want to move my family here” and actually DOING IT is astounding to me.

So my family spent my 4th-grade year living in Latvia. And it was one of the most wonderful and important experiences of my life. Not only were we living in another country, our school that year was housed in an old seaside mansion in Jurmala and everywhere we went we saw castles and palaces, ancient springs in the country and colourful buildings in Old Riga, huddled over cobblestone streets and dripping with art-nouveau detailing. Though newer, Soviet-style architecture (like the gargantuan concrete apartment complex we lived in) was both ubiquitous and ugly, my imagination was always busy erasing those details, taking me into the past and furnishing splendid palaces in my mind.

My Latvian-ness, which had seemed a somewhat intangible thing growing up in rural Saskatchewan (where you will find many folks of Ukrainian descent but not many people who had even heard of Latvia), became real to me when I was able to visit the farm where my grandmother was born and where my great-aunt now lives (as a young woman, she’d become separated from her family as they fled to England and was sent by the Soviets to a work camp in Siberia, where she met her Ukrainian husband and started a family) and to which my great-grandmother had returned to spend the last years of her life (I was lucky enough to meet her that year, even though I wasn’t able to do more than say hello and sing a couple of folk songs in Latvian). I started to understand that leaving a place is one thing, but being forced to leave is quite another–it leaves an ache that never goes away, even if you eventually make a new life for yourself somewhere else (as per his wishes, a Latvian flag stood beside my grandfather’s coffin at his funeral last summer, and he had been adamant, the week before his death, that we attend the Jāņi celebrations at the Latvian centre in Toronto, even though he couldn’t go himself).

Zolitude

Zolitude, where my family lived (the little blue X was our balcony).

And there were souvenir shops selling amber and “Latvian mittens” and amusements parks blasting techno and tiny shops selling “Mars-bar” ice cream on Jurmala boardwalks. So many things, though strange and sometimes scary (and perhaps in real life even brash and ugly, some of it) seemed kind of fantastical to me. No wonder that year is like a dream now–everything was different from what I had known before and nothing had the benefit, as many other parts of my childhood did, of being later seen and understood through adult eyes. [I did go back once, for Christmas when I was 14, but it was absolutely freezing cold and I don’t remember much apart from staying inside at my uncle’s house, visiting and playing with my little cousins. It was simply too cold out to see the city and besides, Christmas isn’t really about being a tourist anyways.]

Which is why it will be so interesting to go back. Tomorrow, my husband and I will board a plane and late Monday night (after a looong stopover in Frankfurt), we will be in Riga. This trip is a wedding present from my grandmother and once again, the pieces have fallen into place to allow my whole family (grandma included) to join us there for parts of it. I’m nervous and excited and worried that too much will have changed. I want to be able to step back in time and catch a glimpse of my nine-year-old self, blonde hair and red coat disappearing through the trees or around the corner of a twisting cobblestone lane. I want to find what she found. I want to show my husband, and myself, “This is who I am.”

London Sightseeing on a Shoestring

Chim chim che-ree!

After a Christmas spent pleasantly in Ontario, TC and I are in London for a few days, ringing in the new year and toasting my big sister and her soon-to-be husband.

While I must admit that my first day of 2015 was spent napping and watching Mary Poppins on BBC One, we have been able to fit quite a lot into those days in which we have been out and about. One of the nice things about London is that you can actually do and see a lot of nice things for free (plus the cost of public transit of course). This can help offset the generally high prices of everything when travelling in Britain, and especially its capital. I’ve started to prefer NOT having too many specific goals when I travel, and if you can keep yourself relaxed (even amidst the press of the Christmas-holiday crowds), London has a lot of experiences in store.

The British Museum (admission free, donation encouraged):

My only real complaint about this museum is that its major attractions are set front and centre, meaning in order to get to anything you first need to push through dense packs of tourists craning to see (and photograph) whatever it is that is considered a big feature. When I first walked into the halls that housed the Egyptian sculpture collection, I thought, oh no, there’s going to be huge crowds around every damn rock. And then my dad told me I was looking at the Rosetta Stone. Fair enough. The crowds thin as you move farther into the side corridors and there is a lot to see–more than you can do justice to in a day, and certainly enough to keep you interested for a couple of hours. The placards beside each exhibit are pretty informative and you actually learn things on your visit.

LDN_EgypianHead

British Museum. Photo: Brayden McCluskey

 

I quite liked the large collections of Egyptian, Assyrian, and Greek sculpture, the Victorian jewellery, and the general splendor of the museum with its covered courtyard and high-ceilinged halls. I was not as into the mummies (I don’t know how I feel about looking at actual dead people) or the artifacts from very early civilizations (or, as my mother calls those exhibits, “pots and pots and pots”).

Covent Gardens (totally free to browse!):

Full of buskers (silver men, the Mad Hatter with a tea party and a mouse, unicyclists, etc.), food stalls (roasted nuts and mulled wine at this time of year), and curiosities for sale, Covent Garden’s atmosphere makes it worth a visit even if you don’t end up buying anything. I went back to the discovery I made on my last London visit, Benjamin Pollock’s Toy Shop. It’s full of toy theatres and shadow puppet sets, paper dolls and puzzles, and although it’s a bit pricey (and the toys, many of them little works of art, would be hard to transport back to Canada), I still love this shop, because toys SHOULD be little pieces of magic and wonder, not just rectangular screens that do all the thinking and imagining for us.

Trafalgar Square (free):

Like a lot of famous places in London (Picadilly Circus, for example), Trafalgar Square’s not really a place where you can DO anything, but it’s got nice big sculptures of lions, more of the aforementioned buskers, and nice views of the London landscape (including Big Ben) from the steps of the National Gallery.

From the steps of the National Gallery. Photo: Brayden McCluskey

From the steps of the National Gallery. Photo: Brayden McCluskey

The National Gallery (admission free, donation encouraged):

We didn’t have a lot of time in this particular gallery (really just a quick run through some of the halls on the main floor), but I like art galleries better if I DON’T make a beeline for whatever is famous and it’s interesting to catch sight of a familiar-looking Renoir or Monet on the walls as I saunter around. Particularly arresting was Paul Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey because although I’d seen a poster of it before in the history wing at SFU (as well as other places, I’m sure, when I studied Early Modern literature), I had no idea how incredibly massive it was. I also loved the equally large Bathers at Asnières by Georges Seurat.

The Tate Modern (admission free, donation encouraged):

I’ve been to the Tate Modern before but it was really nice to go again. After three years it’s interesting to see some of the same works I saw before, and take note of the ways in which how I see them, and art in general, has changed. The last time I was in London, Salvador Dali’s Metamorphosis of Narcissus was on loan to another gallery. When I finally clapped eyes on the original for the first time, I must confess I was a little disappointed. It’s kind of small! And the frame overwhelms it. But it’s still an incredible achievement so, you know, I guess it’s alright.

I liked Max Ernst’s Moon in a Bottle and the painting Marguerite Kelsey by Meredith Frampton. I don’t understand sculpture at all.

Walking (free):

Quite simply, London doesn’t look like any city in Canada. It looks like London. Which makes it a great place to walk around. Parks are cherished by the British and many of London’s parks are huge and very well-maintained (Holland Park is a nice one and my parents really like Hyde Park). Walking across one of the Thames’ foot bridges gives you lovely views of Parliament, Big Ben, the London Eye, and St. Paul’s Cathedral, depending on where you look. A walk across the bridge and along the bank just before sunset it quite romantic, if I do say so myself.

Double decker bus (under 2 quid if you’re not going far):

There are, of course, double decker bus tours in London which often include a guide and go by all the famous sights but if you don’t want to pay for that and you’re not too fussy about what you see it can be nice to take a break from hoofing around and just take a little ride on the top level of a public transit bus. There are sometimes better views up there than you’d have walking on the street and sometimes I just like watching the pretty things go by.

Though I’m beginning to get a bit sleepy and worn out by all the hustle and bustle, on this trip I’m liking London more than I ever have before, and I think it has a lot to do with relaxing and just enjoying having family around and my TC by my side.

Our Giant Walk (Giant’s Causeway to Carrick-a-Rede)

Bird_CliffsWhenever you travel, there are always things you planned to do, things you hadn’t planned to do but ended up doing, things you didn’t plan to do but should have, and things you planned to do but sadly couldn’t. There are things you planned to do that you shouldn’t have bothered with. There are things you didn’t plan to do that were amazing. And then there are the things you planned to do, absolutely HAD to do, so you did them, and they were as awesome as you’d hoped.

One of the things I wanted, absolutely HAD, to do on our honeymoon was walk the Causeway Coastway in Northern Ireland, between the Giant’s Causeway and the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. Amazingly enough, the one day we’d set aside for doing this was sunny (which for Northern Ireland is nothing short of miraculous) and all in all, TC estimates we walked upwards of 25 km that day.

Believe it or not, the walking was the easy part. In order to give us as much walking time as possible, I decided that we should stay someplace quite near one of the two attractions we were walking between. The community I settled on was Bushmills, an adorable bunting-filled town a couple of miles from the coast and the Giant’s Causeway (also home to the Bushmills Distillery, a plus for TC). We booked a room for two nights at Finn MacCool’s Guest House on the main drag (I describe their awesome friendliness at the end of this post), and then just sort of forgot about it.

Until we realized that there is no rail line to Bushmills, and no line between Galway and Coleraine (the nearest train station to Bushmills), or even Galway and Belfast. We had to book a train from Galway to Dublin Heuston (opposite side of Ireland), catch a tram to Dublin Connolly, take the train to Belfast, and hope we could buy a ticket for Coleraine there before the next train left. Once in Coleraine, we would ask about the next bus through Bushmills and do our best to be on it.

Though we stayed up later on our last night in Galway planning, and had to wake up earlier than I would have liked the next morning (some cries of “But we’re on our honeymoon! We’re supposed to be RELAXING!” may have been uttered), our crazy, multi-train + bus travel plan actually went off without a hitch. We JUST missed a Bushmills-bound bus in Coleraine, but the next one was only 25 minutes later which gave us time to regroup and eat a sausage roll.

Once in Bushmills we needed maps and bus schedules (helpfully provided at the guest house which is good because the websites for such things were somewhat hard to use), and we needed to figure out where to start, how to get there, and how the hell to do this big long walk anyways. We discovered that part of the cliff-top walking path had been blocked by a landslide and that we would need to detour between Dunseverick and Portbraddan (luckily, the walking map we had, issued by WalkNI, was really more of a booklet with smaller maps of each section we were going to walk and descriptions of where to turn, etc., including for the detour section. It’s worth noting that their published literature was more useful than their website. Huh). We also checked the high tide times for White Park Bay to make sure that stretch of coast would be accessible when we wanted to reach it (it was). TC made the call that we would walk from Bushmills to the Giant’s Causeway and go towards Carrick-a-Rede, as opposed to busing to Carrick-a-Rede in the morning and not getting to start our journey until likely past noon.

So that is what we did. At the suggestion of the lovely Tracy at Finn MacCool’s, we walked to the Causeway by way of the old Bushmills Railway (there’s a good path along the tracks) and from the end of the railway went past the spendy visitor’s centre and down the long and winding road to the Giant’s Causeway. Which is really effing cool. We could have spent a good hour climbing all over those hexagonal rock stacks and taking photos but we had a long day of walking ahead of us and we wanted to get going.

There was a bit of panic and swearing and furious fast-walking (mine) when we realized that the Shepherd’s Steps path, which connects the Giant’s Causeway to the Coastway above, was closed, and that we would need to do a couple kilometres of uphill backtracking to get back to the clifftop. We weren’t sure how to join up with the rest of the walk and I was getting a bit weepy at the prospect of potentially missing out the ONE THING that I had REALLY wanted to do (and the thing I had put the most planning and effort into). Luckily, I remembered that the walking guide mentioned that you don’t need to go down to the Causeway to do the Causeway Coastway, which meant that obviously the path should be accessible from above, and it was. Glory be.

Of all our experiences on our honeymoon, this was by far my favourite. After that little bit of morning adversity, the sun shone warmly on our faces and the sea was blue as a jewel. Topped by farmers’ fields (with the occasional sheep or cows), the cliffs were sometimes sheer, sometimes craggy, folding into islets and inlets that were breathtaking at every turn. It was important to remember to look behind us every once in a while so we would not miss the equally impressive views unfolding at our backs. Very little (almost none) of what we saw that day would have been visible from the motorway. No sirree. This kind of North Irish beauty is reserved for those on foot.

And so we walked. And walked. And ate bananas. And walked ever so much more.

Eventually our feet and knees and hips did begin to get tired and sore (especially when we had to detour onto asphalt roadways, ouch) but once past Dunseverick (where the last bus stop is before the rope bridge) we really had no choice but to continue on to Carrick-a-Rede and to be honest, it would have taken a lot to make me to give up my goal of walking from the Causeway to the bridge.

And so it was that we reached the car park at Carrick-a-Rede just before 5 p.m., feet like hot lead and joints like old wicker chairs. We could have caught the bus back to Bushmills right then and there, especially when a little signpost pointed towards the rope bridge, still a kilometre away. We thought, is it worth it just to see a rope bridge? And then we thought, we’ve come this far.

So we went to the booth and paid our admission and walked the kilometre and stood in the line and walked across the bridge and looked around the little island (and at Scotland, about as far away across the sea as Vancouver Island looks from Vancouver) and stood in the line again and walked back across the bridge and back along that kilometre of path to the car park and had a scone with jam and cream (well, I did) and at 6:10 in the evening caught our bus back to Bushmills. And all that, TC estimates, was more than 25 km of walking. We did it!

Tips and thoughts and other things if you want to do the same walk we did:

  • The walk between the Giant’s Causeway and the Carrick-a-Rede bridge is just a section of the much longer Causeway Coastway. You don’t necessarily have to begin or end where we did (or travel in the same direction), but you should make sure you know where you can catch a bus, etc. at the end of your day or if you need to abandon your walk early. We kept a bus schedule with us along with our maps. People who walk the whole Coastway do it over three days or so and stay in accommodation along the way.
  • Dressing in layers is strongly recommended. It’s generally cool and cloudy in (Northern) Ireland, even in the summer, but we found the weather changed hour by hour during our trip, sometimes minute by minute. You definitely need a shell that can keep out the rain, preferably one that has a hood. I started our walk wearing five layers on top, at some point was down to two layers, and ended the day at four. Layers are the bomb.
  • We were SO tempted to just hop the fences and scramble across the land-slide blocked trails. We chose not to for our own safety of course, but also the safety of anyone below. How terrible would it be if you hurt someone (or damaged the beautiful natural landscape) below you just because you couldn’t be bothered to take a little detour?
  • If you are staying in Bushmills and don’t have a bunch of money for the fancy Bushmills Inn, I heartily recommend Finn MacCool’s Public House and Guest Inn. The rooms are fairly spartan but they were clean and warm (or as warm as it gets in such damp climes) and I can’t praise the hospitality enough. Though Finn MacCool’s has a pub and does breakfast, they have no restaurant of their own so they let us bring our take-out into the pub, gave us plates and cutlery and napkins, and cleared up after us as if we’d bought the food there. TC got to try a 16-year-old Bushmills single malt on the house and after we checked out on our last day, Tracy let us leave our bags behind the bar and continue to hang out in the pub and watch TV and use the wifi for a few hours while we waited for our bus. We’d bought strawberries for lunch and she gave us a bowl of whipped cream for them (I assume they had it for Irish coffees). We didn’t want to take up a table for nothing so I bought a soda and TC had a cup of tea but when we rose to leave Tracy just waved us off and wished us well. Thank you Tracy!
  • The Giant’s Causeway is amazing (and free, as long as you don’t go into the Visitors’ Centre), but the Carrick-a-Rede bridge is a little underwhelming, especially as you have to wait in line for a lot longer than it takes to actually cross the bridge. If you aren’t going to do the long walk we did the trail from the car park does have some nice views but honestly, we saw better!
  • The websites for Northern Irish transit and transportation are not as good as those in Ireland or North America. It’s best to organize travel in Northern Ireland ahead of time and find up-to-date hard copy published material if you can. On the flip side, people are so nice there we had help and suggestions at every turn.
  • White Park Bay (and the 2km of beach pathway on it) is not accessible during high tide. You should definitely check high tide times before going out; we found them on a surfing website.
  • The train between Belfast and Coleraine is not very fast. There is a bus that goes from Belfast right to the Causeway via Bushmills but only once a day. We used it to get back to Belfast and it is much faster.
  • Bathrooms on the walking path are few and far between (I believe Ballintoy Harbour maybe had one, and there’s one at Carrick-a-Rede). The cliff path is mostly wide open, with fields on one side and a sheer drop on the other. The Emerald Isles are not known for having an abundance of trees and the low bushes along the trail were so thick and prickly they were a definite no-go for bathroom cover. There were some taller grasses along the cliff edge, but I didn’t fancy falling to my death with my pants around my ankles. You might just have to make sure no one’s coming along the path and go for it, which is more or less what I did.

And on that note, happy trails.

Killarney, Galway, and Connemara – Ireland is very pretty

A few days ago, I was sitting on a low stone wall by the side of the river in the little village of Cong, in County Mayo. As I was sitting there enjoying the rare Irish sunshine, I saw two ducks hurrying along the bank towards me.

The first duck said “Quack! Quack!”

And the second duck replied, “I cannae go any quacker!”

This is my favourite joke of the many told to us by Michael O’Malley, bus driver and tour guide extraordinaire, with the Galway Tour Company (he told this joke as we were leaving Cong by way of a road which passed the aforementioned low stone wall and river). But I am getting ahead of myself.

Before Galway and our lovely bus tour through Connemara, we were in Killarney, touring ourselves through the beautiful Killarney National Park on rented bicycles. In 1932, Arthur Bourn Vincent donated Muckross Estate, which was comprised of his parents’ 19th-century mansion and extensive property, to the country of Ireland. The mansion, Muckross House, has been restored and the public can tour inside for a fee (we didn’t do this but we did eat our lunch and take a walk through the massive and well-maintained gardens). The grounds were eventually substantially expanded through further land donations to create Killarney National Park, Ireland’s first national park.

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The bike tour suggested to us by the tourism office in Killarney had us on a nice day trip around Muckross Lake and down then south of Killarney town for a detour to Ross Castle. In total we probably put in about 20 km, occasionally on the roadway but mostly on the bicycle/walking/jaunting car trails in the park. Though the park as a whole is quite hilly (with mountains I’m sure would be gorgeous to explore by car or on foot), our trip was quite easy and relaxing. We stopped several times for pictures, to eat, and to look around. Apart from having a sore behind at the end of the day, the fact that I don’t cycle much in Vancouver didn’t seem to matter much–the bike paths are not hard and the bikes we rented were great.

Though there are nice walking paths accessible from the town of Killarney (Ross Castle and the jaunting cars there are not far away if you want to take advantage of them), if you don’t have a car and want to see the park I really recommend renting a bicycle. There are bicycle rental shops all over town and most give out free maps (the one we used also gave us helmets). As I mentioned before, you don’t need to be a hardcore cyclist, but it does help to make the couple more boring patches (when you’re on a roadway, for example) go faster. It’s a fun and relatively inexpensive way to sight see around Killarney.

After spendy Dublin, we decided to do Killarney on the cheap and booked a couple of beds in Neptune’s Hostel. We were in a 6-person dorm room in a brand new section of the hostel. As hostels go, I thought Neptune’s was pretty great. The room was clean and comfortable (with real duvets, a hostel first for me). We had a big kitchen in the hostel and a Tesco supermarket across the street, so apart from some late-night fast food after a night at the pub, we didn’t eat out in Killarney.

What we did do was go to a pub for a couple of pints and to take in a session of Irish music. Of the live music we’ve managed to catch on our trip to Ireland, this was the first session and probably the most casual. Three musicians sat around a table, drinking pints and playing on a guitar, fiddle, and accordion. When the fiddler got up to go the restroom, a local in the pub took over his fiddle for a song or two (the same thing happened with the guitarist as well). There were some traditional Irish tunes but also songs that people in the pub seemed to know and could sing along to (like You Are My Sunshine). It was relaxed and homey and musically great. And I got drunk without meaning to because in Ireland, the pints are really pints.

After Killarney, we were on a bus and off to Galway on Ireland’s west coast. We stayed in the Forster Court Hotel, just off Eyre Square. Galway itself is a very pretty albeit touristy town (like Killarney in that way), and it was here that we finally did some shopping (great High Street for that). I was tempted to buy a Claddagh ring since they originate in the area, but apart from the rings related to my marriage I’m really not much of a ring wearer so I was able to resist. I was not able to resist a tin whistle.

Our/my real reason for visiting Galway was to see if we could find a day-tour into Connemara, which our Lonely Planet refers to as a “kaleidoscope of rusty bogs, lonely valleys, and shimmering black lakes.” This beauty was surrounded by grey and red-tinged mountains and stone walls, and liberally dotted with old stone cottages and sheep. As it turns out, there are several options for tours and we decided to go with the Galway Tour Company. Our guide/driver was sweet and funny, and kept the landscape alive through his funny and knowledgeable commentary. I learned how peat bogs were formed, what happened to all the trees in Ireland (they were cut down, which is why people started burning peat), where the fairies went (underground), and a plethora of jokes with which to regale my friends and loved ones.

We stopped at the impressive Kylemore Abbey, the cute village of Cong, and the ruins of an old friary, but for me the best part was just the drive through the interior of Connemara. The beauty of this region cannot be overstated. As the clouds (and there are so many clouds in Ireland) pass overhead, the sun dapples the green and red valleys. The mountains with their grey peaks and empty slopes encircle the landscape and create an effect that feels at once spacious and cozy, timeless and firmly rooted in the passage of the seasons. I highly doubt the farmers who live in these valleys have an easy life, sheep’s wool being an almost zero-profit industry at the moment, but I do envy them the beauty in which they live and work.

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Sadly, we did not really enjoy dining in Galway (we ended up in an underwhelming and expensive tourist trap the first night and in a pub for basic pub fare the second), but our night at the pub did give us a chance for TC to watch Chelsea beat Burnley in the English Premier League (on the TV, obviously) and for us to listen to some more live music (two fiddles and two mandolins, three or so tables over). It’s so nice to watch people who are really good at what they do in such a casual setting. The musicians seemed quite young this time and I began to become terribly jealous of anyone who can play an instrument well enough to make such satisfying music. Oh well. I’ve got my tin whistle.

My biggest regret about our time in Galway is that we did not give ourselves more time enjoy the area. What we saw was only a small fraction of the amazing scenery and experiences Ireland’s west coast has to offer. We also needed to get from Galway up to Northern Ireland, which meant a lot of our evenings spent planning this leg and an early morning after our second night. Luckily, Northern Ireland had more than enough to offer.

In Dublin and Well-Fed

On Saturday, my TC were wed by the sea on Salt Spring Island. Though our wedding day was perfect, it was sandwiched between days of preparation and recovery, and two full nights during which I did not sleep. In my infinite wisdom, I had long ago decided that I wanted us to leave on our honeymoon directly after our wedding. This is why, not five days after getting hitched, I am sitting in the Fleet Street Hotel in Dublin, preparing for our second night in Ireland’s capital city but also for our onward journey to Killarney tomorrow. So far, married life is a bit of a whirlwind for this happy couple.

What drew us to Ireland for our honeymoon? For the both of us, the country’s reputation for beauty, charm, and friendliness. Additionally for me, my love of folklore and the fairy stories of my youth. For TC, his love of whiskey (or whisky, but here in Ireland it’s always with an “e”).

_DSC0216.JPGThough jet lag and exhaustion have prevented us from venturing out far (or late), Dublin is an incredibly walkable city with most attractions crowded south of the River Liffey (with a few places, like the Old Jameson Distillery, situated on the north side of river). Upon our arrival in Dublin around noon yesterday we made napping our immediate priority, however, we were still able to sneak in a walk through the Grafton shopping district and down to St. Stephen’s Green (my favourite part was the ducks) before dinner.

This morning we made sure to tick off something on TC’s Ireland wish list by taking a tour of the Old Jameson Distillery on Bow Street (we booked our tour online which is good because by the time we arrived it was sold out). No distilling actually occurs on Bow Street anymore (the new massive Jameson Distillery now operates in Cork), but with our amusing guide and some scaled-down models of distilling equipment, I was still able to learn a lot about how whiskey is made (TC already knew everything but since he was picked for the special comparison tasting at the end and got a certificate with his name on it I think for him it was just about fun). Did you know that the smoky taste you get in a Scotch whisky is from using peat to malt the barley (versus Jameson whiskey which used odourless coal and now uses natural gas)? I didn’t (well, I knew peat was involved though I wasn’t sure how), and now I do. The tour itself is pretty quick for what you pay (14€ for an adult ticket, cheaper online), but you do get a drink of Jameson Original at the end (either straight, or, if you prefer, with gingerale and lime), and the building itself is kinda cool.

Our next stop was at the campy museum, Dublinia, just across the street from Dublin’s Christchurch Cathedral. At this point in our trip, this is the attraction I probably could have done without. Though our Lonely Planet: Ireland had mentioned that the museum was decent, “at least for kids”, I sort of ignored the “for kids” caveat and dragged the jet lagged TC through three floors of kitschy interactive displays about Vikings, medieval Dublin, and archaeology (where the kids can try on hard hats and boots!). Though I like to think we’re young at heart, my new husband and I did not have the energy for posing in pretend bearskins and writing our names in runes (I tried and got frustrated). The medieval level with its re-creations of Dublin’s quayside, markets, and merchant home life was actually pretty impressive, but I think the museum maybe overdid it a little with their mannequin displays (like the cart of dead plague victims or the man sitting on a latrine seat, accompanied by an audio feed featuring his groans of satisfaction on the crapper). If you ever travel to Dublin with kids they’ll probably get a kick out of Dublinia, but otherwise I’d give it a miss.

Not being much of a city person (or a James Joyce fan), I can’t say I’m blown away by Dublin but I think it’s fair to say that both TC and I like it and are enjoying ourselves, exhaustion aside. Our hotel is within walking distance of everything I want to see, the shopping (if I were here to shop, which I’m not) appears to be excellent, the streets seem safe and the buildings quaint, and our dinners have been superb. Taking Lonely Planet‘s advice and steering clear of the Temple Bar area with its faux-Irish tourist traps, we have ended up eating at French restaurants on Exchequer Street both nights and have not been disappointed.

Last night we took advantage of the “pre-theatre” 2-course menu at Fallon & Byrne (a fancy restaurant above an only slightly less fancy grocery store). Despite being part of a deal, our evening was not cheap, though it hardly matters when the food, cocktails, and service were so excellent (despite our being obviously underdressed, wearing what we’d been wearing on the plane). On something special like the first night of our honeymoon, I don’t really mind spending a lot of money if the food is worth it, and it was: chicken terrine with mango chutney, fresh bread and butter, roast chicken with red onion relish and shrimp butter, mango sorbet with pieces of mango, pineapple, and meringue, topped with whipped cream–it’s fair to say we waddled back to our hotel last night.

This evening we decided to try more French fare at the Green Hen. Slightly cheaper than Fallon & Byrne (though with a tighter interior and busier atmosphere), the food on their “early bird” menu (I guess a reward to tourists and locals who feel like eating early) is just as good. We should have made a reservation, but we didn’t, and were lucky enough to be seated at the bar. We started with cocktails and smoked salmon with capers before moving on to vegetable risotto (for me) and duck confit with blackberries and melt-in-your-mouth butter, I mean potatoes, for TC (I think the duck was better but my risotto sure wasn’t bad). TC declined dessert but I went for the passion fruit cheesecake with shortbread ice cream and it was even better than I hoped it would be. I would never say that TC and I are foodies but we do appreciate good food, and this food was very good.

So good, in fact, that for the sake of our wallets it’s probably for the best that we are moving on to Killarney tomorrow, where we will be staying in a hostel and partaking in natural, i.e. free, attractions instead of fancy French restaurants. Not that there’s anything wrong with French restaurants in Ireland. Evidently not.

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That time I went to a summer camp in Ukraine

Illustration by Sonja Kresowaty

When I was 10, I went to a summer camp in Ukraine.

I don’t mean that my parents shipped me off and told me to have fun with macrame and Ukrainians and that they’d see me in a few weeks. My whole family had been living in Latvia (the home of my mother’s predecessors) for the previous year, and after the school year and the Jāņi (Midsummer) celebrations were done, we hopped an overnight train to Ukraine, my parents rented a “microbus” van (complete with driver) and we drove into the Carpathians to visit the homeland (on my father’s side–where did you think “Kresowaty” came from?).

I didn’t quite realize this at the time, but by the end of our year in Latvia, we weren’t exactly rolling in money with which to tour another Eastern European country. This, I imagine, is why it seemed like a good idea to spend a few days staying in a cabin in a children’s summer camp, sleeping on the cheap and eating camp dinners with the kids. And for all intents and purposes, it was a good idea, since it worked out just fine.

The camp was pretty and the woman who ran it was very accommodating. After realizing that we spoke English, the children staying there treated us like celebrities, crowding around us to get a look (which was a bit scary for my sisters and me at first but wasn’t mean). Our cabin was large and bright compared to some of the hotels we had recently stayed in (or the hay-covered floor we had slept on after the Jāņi festivities).

As for the camp’s facilities, I remember only that I had to eat mashed potatoes (even though I hated them) because that was what was being served, and that the “bathrooms” at the camp were cement cubicles with small holes in the floor. My aim (as a child of 10 who was used to sit-down toilets) was not so great, so whenever I could I took advantage of the WC provided by the Great Outdoors. I can’t remember if we were ever able to shower while we were there, or whether we bathed in a river or something instead (there was a beautiful little waterfall nearby where we could jump off the rock into the pool below).

But no matter. My parents revealed to me this year that they’re pretty sure that a lot of the kids at the camp were from the Chernobyl contamination zone, spending a summer away from the ever-present danger of radiation (the disaster had only occurred about a decade ago at that point). That freaked me out a bit because I’ve read that to spend time living with a Chernobylite is essentially to spend time with a nuclear reactor (human bodies hold radiation just like everything else), but it also made their kindness all the more touching.

Despite my sisters and my shyness, the other kids (girls especially) were friendly and inclusive and those who could speak a bit of English seemed excited to try it out on us. An older girl took charge of us at the camp’s “Disco” night, asking us what music we liked (I told her Ace of Base) and making sure the teasing boys behaved themselves. On our last day at the camp, some of the girls presented us with little gifts they had bought from the ladies who sometimes set up little booths there.

I want to point out that these kids had nothing. Ukraine was a very poor country following the collapse of the USSR only five or so years before (running water only available some parts of the day, hot water hardly at all) and I think these girls were even poorer than that. I can’t remember how my sisters and I reacted to receiving the plastic earrings, bottle of perfume, and the small bottle of “Venus” deodorant we were given (I don’t think it was a slight, this seemed to be one of the prized items for sale). I think even as (comparatively) privileged Canadian kids we realized how nice this was. I don’t remember any of the girls’ names, but the memory of their generosity only becomes more amazing to me as I grow older. I don’t know many children, poor or otherwise, who would ever think to buy presents out of pocket for complete strangers.

Illustration by Sonja Kresowaty

On our last night, my sisters and I were roused from sleep. The lady who ran the camp was there, to feed us some type of corn porridge and sell my parents a heavy wool blanket (the “Ukrainian blanket” is the warmest blanket my family owns, popular on the couch in Saskatchewan winters or when camping). There was a lot of eating with strangers in Ukraine. Wherever we went, it seems people wanted to feed us. That’s just how it was.

Most of that trip through Ukraine feels like a dream to me now. Not because I was young (I have vivid memories of being much younger than 10), but because it was all so unusual to me. My memories of the country are just little snatches now: Fanta in sugar-rimmed glasses. The gilded opera house in Lviv where gorgeous women in stilettos went clack clack clack up marble staircases. Paying 1000 “kupons” (5 USD) for a carved wooden jewellery box. The cherries that looked good but had worms in them. The family we found who may or may not have been related to my grandmother (no way of telling since the village church records were destroyed by the Soviets) but who invited us for lunch anyways. Spending the night in a hotel that wasn’t open to the public yet (and didn’t have toilet seats). My mom celebrating her birthday on the train somewhere in Belarus and blowing out matchsticks stuck into a bun. Dill on everything.

On one of our last nights in Ukraine, we stayed in the apartment of relatives of our travel agent (for free, I think). They had a great big book of Ukrainian folktales in English. The folk art illustrations were stunning. The owners of the apartment gave the book to us, maybe just because they didn’t have use for an English book, maybe because they wanted to give us something. I have it on my shelf now and it is one of the possessions I am most careful with (especially because it belongs to my sisters too, not just to me).

I don’t know why I am thinking of Ukraine today. Maybe because my friend Aliya (who is also half-Ukrainian) mentioned that she would like to go. Maybe because the warm sunny weather and my recent trip to the Prairies has me dreaming of blue skies and yellow fields. Maybe because I encountered some of the most generous people I’ve ever met in my life there. Maybe because there’s a tiny part in me, however small, that cries for the home of my blood.

Or maybe because today I just wanted to tell you, in case you didn’t know, about the time I went to summer camp in Ukraine.

European Travel Nifty-style: Some Recommendations

Porto, Portugal

Howdy Travel Fans! NiftyNotCool here, back in Canada and feeling fine. I survived a month of hostel living, train riding, and living out of a backpack, and I managed to tear myself away from the charms of Portugal and Spain and return to you all to give you my recommendations for European travel Nifty-style (lucky you!).

I. Preparations

Guidebooks: I bought a Lonely Planet for Portugal and also one for Spain. At first they felt a little pricey (about $30 a pop) but they were absolutely invaluable. A lot of train and bus stations don’t actually have a tourism office or provide free maps of the city you just arrived in. Even though the maps in the books are rather small, without my Lonely Planet there are a few times I would not have found my hostel, the train station, the site I was looking for, etc.

I also stayed in Lonely Planet recommended hostels and hotels through most of my trip and I was not disappointed in them. They were clean, safe, usually centrally located, and, because they were recommended in the Lonely Planet, they helpfully appeared on the Lonely Planet maps.

Because I didn’t know all that much about that places I was going, my guidebooks were also invaluable in helping me plan my trip and decide where I wanted to go and what I wanted to see. They give an overview of regions, history, language, transportation, accommodation, safety, and just about anything else I would wonder to myself about the country I’m visiting. Even if you get to a place and decide to just wing it, get a guidebook. I consider mine practically life saving.

Travel insurance/travel medical: I got mine through World Nomads (recommended by Lonely Planet of course) and it only set me back around $150 for four weeks. Whichever company you decide to become insured with, do become insured. I think lots of people like to think nothing will ever happen to them, and usually nothing does, but when I was sick in Madrid I remember thinking that if I got much sicker I would need a hospital (because I simply couldn’t take care of myself in a hostel) and I was so glad that I had insurance and therefore had that option.

Passports: I usually renew mine as soon as it expires. It’s a good idea because they can sometimes take a long time to obtain/renew and you don’t want to have a whole trip planned and be worrying you won’t receive your passport/visas in time. As a Canadian and British citizen, I did not need a visa for EU countries.

Itinerary: I didn’t completely plan out everything I did, but I do think it’s a good idea to at least narrow your travels down a bit. For me, having an abundance of choice is paralyzing. Once I decided I wanted to work Portugal north to south, and then focus half of my Spanish adventure on the Andalucia region, it was far easier to choose the specific cities I wanted to stay in and the things I wanted to see. Which makes it easier to pin down accommodation, transportation, etc. down the road.

If you do want to try to get off the beaten path and out of the cities, make sure you do your research ahead of time, and make sure you won’t need a car, a certain time of year, etc. to access the nature you’re trying to see. This will save you a bit of heartache and quite a big headache.

Documents: I made sure I brought my flight itineraries and my statement of insurance with me. I also brought photocopies of my passports and credit card, along with the number to call if my credit card was stolen. I left a copy of all of these documents with my TC as well, just in case the bag these documents were in was stolen. I have also heard of people keeping a photocopy of their passport in their shoe, but I did not do this.

Guarda, Portugal

II. Packing

The pack: First things first– If you’re going to be living out of a backpack for a few weeks like I was, you should have a good backpack. Schlepping 40 lbs. around the Iberian Peninsula sort of took it out of me and I was incredibly happy I’d shelled out the money not only for a swanky Osprey backpack with a zip-off day-pack, but one that was a women’s size small (because I am a small woman). The fact that the bag was well-balanced and fit me properly made a huge difference in how easy it was to lug around.

The stuff in the pack: It’s a family joke that I am a terrible packer (like the time I brought only one t-shirt on a trip to the Rockies in the heat of July because “the mountains are cold”). Thanks to some consultations with them pre-trip I was actually able to do a pretty decent job packing this time round. I checked the weather in Portugal and Spain beforehand and saw it was going to be unseasonably warm, but it’s good to be prepared for anything. I brought one pair of long pants, two pairs of capri pants, and one pair of shorts. I also brought two sweaters, two long-sleeved shirts, four t-shirts, and four tank tops (given how hot it was for parts of my trip I’m glad I had the option to change my shirt often). I brought a pair of hiking shoes, a pair of walking sandals, and (at my sister’s insistence) a pair of flats to wear to nicer places, like the flamenco restaurant I went to in Madrid. I brought pajamas, one dress, a bathing suit, my Hat With A Brim, and a windbreaker jacket. AND underwear and socks of course. I must have done a good job packing this time because I wore everything I brought except one exceptionally fluffy pair of socks, and there was no article of clothing I regretted leaving at home. And all of this fit into my pack, which I managed to carry around with me for four weeks. So congratulations me.

My major packing regret is that I did NOT take my student card, which would have saved me almost 50% at some tourist sites. Sigh.

III. Transportation

Air travel: I can’t really say much about the actual booking of flights because I am a little sucky-poo and I have a mother who is really good at finding cheap flights and she booked my flights for me. I flew cheaper airlines because I’m not made of money but I do have this to say:

Thomas Cook Airlines (the airline you get when you book with Air Transat to London) is terrible. The seats are tiny and incredibly close together (I pretty much felt like a chicken in a crate for 10 hours). Every seat had a black electrical box mounted underneath it, leaving no room for your carry-on (or your legs). The seats did not recline, not because they were broken, just because they didn’t. Words cannot describe how disgusting the food was. Terrible airline food is a cliche but this really hit new lows. Not only was it all, without exception, revolting, the portions were tiny. Basically, they give you enough food-like substance to legally claim they didn’t starve you. And that’s all I’ll say about that.

Greenland (I think)

Condor airlines (the cheap airline I flew back from Frankfurt with following my connection from Barcelona) is, by comparison, fantastic. I didn’t get my own TV, but that does mean my feet actually got room. The seats were a little larger, and reclined. For our “hot meal” we received a cole slaw, a large vegetarian lasagna, a roll with a triangle of real Camembert, and a lemon square. Oh yeah, and a complementary alcoholic beverage (I declined) and all the fruit juices were REAL juice. Then we got a snack and more juice. Then for our “cold meal” a breaded chicken cutlet, potato salad, and rye bread. I know I’m gushing a bit much for a charter airline but compared to Thomas Cook it was absolute heaven. Flying over Greenland and seeing a landscape that was simply pure untouched snow as far as they eye could see was pretty great too.

Train travel: The train is a very civilized and pleasant way to see Europe. My train days allowed me time to relax (i.e. have a nap), slow down, and think grand thoughts while watching beautiful countryside fly by. It’s more expensive than busing though (in some cases a LOT more expensive) which is why I bought a Eurail Pass.

The pass was rather convenient, but in the end I don’t really think the Eurail Pass saved me much money. I bought three travel days in Portugal and six in Spain, but only used four of my Spanish travel days. To use a Eurail Pass properly, you really have to make sure you are going to be covering a lot of ground, and plan your trips carefully. I overestimated the amount of travel I’d be doing and ended up making day trips just to use my pass. Since you have to pay in Spain and Portugal to reserve seats on trains anyways, even with your pass, if you aren’t making many trips you may as well just buy individual tickets for the journeys you want.

Bus travel: Bus travel is MUCH cheaper than taking the train and the bus usually reaches more locations. Being a romantic, I definitely preferred the train but I enjoyed the three bus journeys I did take during my travels and both Spain and Portugal seem to have rather good long-distance bus services.

Real Alcazar, Seville, Spain

IV. Accommodation

Hostels: Most of the time, I looked to my Lonely Planet for accommodation recommendations (the Madrid hostel where I saw bedbugs was NOT a Lonely Planet suggestion). One hostel group I can certainly add my thumbs up to is Oasis. (I stayed in the Oasis Lisboa, Oasis Sevilla, and Oasis Granada.) These hostels were slightly pricier but they all included breakfast, free access to wi-fi and computers with internet, and safe storage (the first two had electronic safes and Granada had a locking cupboard). They had cheap food in the evenings, cheap booze, kitchens, and information about all sorts of tours, activities, and sites. The friendly atmosphere helped me meet a lot of cool people and I was probably more social and had more fun in these hostels than anywhere else.

Because I was travelling solo, I really appreciated hostels not only for their affordability (they’re SO much cheaper than staying in hotels I’m really not sure how anyone my age could afford to travel without hostelling). but also so that I didn’t have to spend my entire trip eating alone and talking to myself. That would have been quite lonely. I also appreciated the informative and helpful staff I encountered in most places I visited who could provide me with maps, tours, admission booking, and transit info.

What to bring if you are staying in a hostel: I am glad I brought a luggage lock (my combination lock was too big for all of the lockers I encountered), a flashlight (there’s ALWAYS someone asleep in the hostel room, at all times it seems), a travel alarm clock (no wake up calls in hostels!), and a facecloth (works as a towel when you don’t have one). I’m also glad I brought camp laundry detergent so I could wash things by hand. I wish I had brought a travel towel, a better luggage lock to use on the lockers, and a pair of flip flops to wear in the hostel showers.

Granada, Spain

V. Food

I believe that eating is a very personal experience, so my recommendation for food is simple but mighty: go to a grocer or a supermarket, buy food (esp. fresh fruit which I found an abundance of in both Spain and Portugal) and have some food and water with you at all times. There’s nothing as tiring and frustrating as trying to look for a good restaurant or cafe when you’re already so starving you’d eat at McDonald’s even though you’re in an exciting new city. So take food and water with you so you can hold out for an eating experience you really do want (P.S. I never did eat at McDonald’s thank the gods).

VI. And one last recommendation…

Travel itself: I recommend it. If you want to go, I recommend that you go. If you are scared to go, I recommend that you go. For some (like me), the idea of four weeks of solo travelling in Europe would be daunting. For some it would be no big deal. And that’s fine. The journey is personal, it’s what you make of it, and for me it was exactly the balance of challenge and security I needed.

This was the right trip at the right time. The reasons I had for going changed as I planned, but the good I knew it would do me stayed the same. I returned to Vancouver not disappointed with the city and the cold as I expected I might be , but rejuvenated and able to see the beauty of my West Coast life afresh. The thing I had hoped to find on my journey was right here where I left it, right where I hoped it would be. And that’s worth searching for.

Beautiful Barcelona, Figueres, Good-bye

“Beautiful Barcelona!”

It’s a cliche phrase I know I’ve heard somewhere before and I was hesitant to use it. And then I thought, what the hell, it’s cliche because it’s true. Barcelona is beautiful. This is what struck me about the city. It’s actually a bit small, a bit crowded, a bit touristy, but my god, it is beautiful. Emerge from the Metro–beauty. Duck into an alley–beauty. Turn a corner–beauty. And that’s when you’re not even looking for it, so imagine the gob-smacking beauty you encounter when you actually make the effort to go to a park or a touristy site.

My relationship with Barcelona began as anything but beautiful. When I climbed out of the Liceu metro station onto La Rambla it was pouring rain. This rain became even harder once I checked into my hostel (located most conveniently right in Placa Reial, though I was too dejected at the time to notice). I knew it would be a bit hard to return to a hostel after my two nights at the Holiday Inn in Madrid, but I was unprepared for how hard I’d actually take it. The internet in the hostel was expensive. The hostel was a party hostel and all I could hear when I checked in, tired and hungry, was noise noise noise. The hostel didn’t rent towels, just sold them for 10 euros. My trip almost over, there was no way I was going to spend 10 euros for a giant towel I didn’t have the room to bring home again, so I was forced for four days to dry myself with the Doctor Who facecloth I had bought as a souvenir in London (it has a picture of a Tardis on it, and, Tardis-like, there was more to this tiny flannel than met the eye because it actually did not half badly). And to top it all off, I couldn’t even escape the noisy stupid no-towel hostel, because outside it was raining and thundering and being as miserable as I felt.

Basically, at that moment, I was emotionally done with my trip. I didn’t want to spend five more nights in Barcelona, I wanted to go home. To hell with the Sagrada Familia and the pretty streets. I wanted my kitchen and my bed and my glorious bathroom filled with glorious towels.

Luckily for me, all storms pass over and my emotional one subsided as soon as I met some people from my room, ate a decent dinner, and spent the better part of the evening discussing the finer points of Harry Potter with an Australian and a Brit (note: Dobby would win in a cage fight against Dumbledore). Fun fact: the Brit is a boom operator on Coronation Street! Wow!

On Tuesday morning the sun came out and I am sure glad I didn’t say to hell with the Sagrada Familia because it is the most beautiful building I have ever seen. From the outside it looked pretty cool, I mean, I’d certainly never seen a church before that replaced gargoyles with giant lizards, but it is also still under construction and cranes and scaffolding sort of take away from the general splendor. Waiting in line, I was impressed but wasn’t really sure what the church’s insides would hold.

Sagrada Famila, Barcelona

Beauty. Exquisite, unconventional, organic beauty. The Alhambra was beautiful, but the Alhambra is heavy and saturated with luxury and tradition. The inside of the Sagrada Familia is a surprising forest of pillars and light. It is open, it is airy, and it is incredibly incredibly joyful. Even the crucified Christ is suspended beneath a circus-like tent hung with grapes made of glass, and bathed in so much natural sunlight that it makes his predicament seem, again, joyful. Each angle inside the church reveals a whole new sense of wonder. The architect, Antoni Gaudi, carefully studied natural supportive structures formed by mineral crystals and plant growth in order to create his designs, and it shows. The Sagrada Familia does not feel built, or human-made. It feels like it grew. I met people in my travels who saw the Alhambra and were unaffected, but I have not met one person who has seen the inside of the Sagrada Familia whose eyes do not light up when retelling the experience.

I soaked up every bit of the church that I could, visiting all of the museum areas (highly recommended, especially the exhibit relating to Gaudi and nature) and taking the lift into the towers. I decided that after my Gaudi morning I wouldn’t mind a Gaudi afternoon so I made a point of visiting Barcelona’s Park Guell, a park designed by Gaudi whose gates are flanked by two Hansel-and-Gretel style houses. It is an interesting and very pretty park (and free!), and I was pretty much obsessed with everything Gaudi at this point, but the place was crawling with tourists and illegal souvenir vendors and after the devout and tranquil beauty of the Sagrada Familia it was a bit anti-climactic.

Candy stall in La Boqueria

The Sagrada Familia and the Park Guell were my only real goals for Barcelona, so on Wednesday I made loose plans for myself (the best kind of plans when travelling) and basically wandered around all day loosely achieving them. I wanted to check out the beaches of La Barceloneta so I wandered down there and did that. Kneeling on the shore to touch the Atlantic a giant wave came and soaked my sandals so I was forced to sit on a beach chair and read in the sun for half an hour while they dried off (poor me!). Got lost and wandered around some more, ate a doughnut, bought some fruits and vegetables at La Boqueria (St. Joseph’s Market) just off La Rambla. Ate a muffin and read a TIME magazine.

Parc de la Ciutadella

Wednesday afternoon: visit the Parc de la Ciutadella. Lovely fountain. Inexplicable giant statue of a woolly mammoth. Another pond with rowboats. Ducks. And then, music. Two guitarists sitting under a tree playing extremely well. Someone on the grass saw me watching and waved me over. When they found out I could sing I was brought to the guitarists and we had a magical musical hour or so. We sang the Beatles. We sang Bob Dylan. We jammed (vocal improvisations on my part…not my finest moment probably but I did my best). I think our best numbers were “I Will Survive” and “Eye of the Tiger” with amazing guitar solos courtesy of Pedro, a Venezuelan who moved to Barcelona ten years ago and was, the day I met him, on day four of being sober and delighted to discover he could play the guitar without alcohol. While I couldn’t quite shake my self-conscious caution throughout our jam session (I never took off my backpack) and insisted on excusing myself as soon as it began to get dark, jamming with these open-hearted musicians, total strangers to me, was a new and wonderful experience. If you know me you’ll know that while I am loud and talkative with those I know, I’m actually a little frightened of those I don’t. Opening myself up and being brave is actually something I’m a little bit proud of.

I knew that Thursday would be rainy so instead of spending it in the hostel or tramping around Barcelona pretending not to mind being wet and cold, I took the train to nearby Figures to see the Teatre-Museu Dali, the museum Salvador Dali built in his home town. My two-hour train ride also gave me lovely views of the interesting (and old-looking) city of Girona, which I would love to explore sometime.

Painted ceiling, Teatre-Museu Dali

I am a fan of Salvador Dali’s paintings and jewellery and I enjoyed those displayed in the museum (for example, I was surprised, though I shouldn’t have been, to realize that “Atomic Leda” is obviously a painting of Dali’s wife, Gala, with whom he was artistically obsessed). I am not sure I like the museum itself. Housed in Figueres’ old theatre, the passages between the rooms were narrow and crowded and many of the spaces seemed cluttered and full of installation-type art that felt….junky. As if you hung Dali’s paintings in a gallery space and then you had your tacky “artsy” grandmother fill the rest of the space with old brocade, velour, and stuff she found in her garage.

Mae West Room, Teatre-Museu Dali

Do I think my trip to Figueres was a waste? Nope. If I hadn’t gone I would have wished that I had. Besides, captivating art is captivating art no matter how you feel about its surroundings. (By the by, Figueres also has a Toy Museum, which, if you’re looking for something to tack onto your day in the city, is a cute, and kind of creepy, attraction.)

Friday was my last full day in Barcelona and I decided to check out of my loud crowded party hostel and check into the super pricey Hotel B, just off the Placa Espanya (right near a stop for the airport bus) for my last night. Before I did that, though, I visited the beautiful Santa Maria del Mar church. I sat in a pew and stared at the stained glass oriel window above the altar for a long time and thought many thoughts. I thought about the past year and those I have lost. I hoped that wherever they are, if they are anywhere, that they have peace. I thought about the people I know who are struggling with difficult circumstances and I hoped that those things would get better. I thought about the trip I had taken, and how lucky I was that I had the opportunity to travel for a month on my own, how lucky I was that I had been safe and, for the most part, my plans had worked, and how lucky I was that I was going to return the next day to the people who loved me.

I do not practice any faith. But I do like a nice, quiet place to reflect once in a while and an old Barcelona church did the job nicely. After four weeks of constant movement to return to a point of internal stillness and contemplation helped prepare me to say good-bye to my adventure, good-bye to the beautiful city that had been so good to me, and say hello to my old life as the new person I have become, a person who is older now, more independent, less anxious, and has more beguiling images stuffed in her memories than anyone should be allowed to have.

So until we meet again, my beautiful bewitching Barcelona, gracias. Thank you so very much.

View from my hostel room, Placa Reial