Venice

Venice, Venice, Venice!!! Who doesn’t know about Venice? Probably the most famous city on Water everyone dreams of visiting. I saw many a people go there for honeymoons and weddings and heard a lot about this gorgeous city and finally in the spring of 2016 I packed my bags to run to the airport in excitement because I was heading to Venice or Venezia as the locals call it…

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Venice is made up of small islands and the old city is entirely standing on these islands with canals serving as streets and while I imagined only water streets and no actual streets it was not correct. The space between these small islands (118 in total) is served by canals with a major canal in the middle of city called Grand Canal with that famous Rialto bridge standing in the middle..

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Venice has so many claims to fame throughout its history that you will run out of tme and I’ll run out of energy but the list won’t end. The city was built on marshy lands with some ingenious engineering. The city literally stands on a massive number of vertical logs that support the structures above in this soft marshy land. From those humble beginnings the rise of Venice is unparalleled where they built and empire, a navy so big it made the English navy looks like ‘some ships’. There was no end to the wealth of Venice. While it stands as a city in Italy today Venice is nothing like other cities in the country. It was its own empire and its own trading routes, a system of government and a very ‘modern’ society.

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The famous silk route ended in Venice which made it the gateway and the heart of trade in Europe with Venetians monopoly over exotic goods and spices as well as trade with East.
Fun Fact: Venice was known as the sin city in Europe because of its casinos, brothels and very liberal environment. At one time 12% of the population of the city was made up of prostitutes and unbeknownst of its time Venice used to serve women just like men giving them a somewhat equal status..

All things Venice

To and From Airports

The closest airport to Venice is Marco Polo Airport which is 20 minutes away by bus or you can walk 5-10 minutes and take the water taxi which is expensive (roughly 35 euros per persona nd you have to wait for the taxi to get full. The other option which I used was to get in through Trevisa Airport which is 25 km from the Venice city. You can take the local bus there that runs till mid night and is quite cheap. The bus dropped us at Piazzale Roma which is the main bus station and from there we took the water bus to Rialto bridge where we stayed.

Public Transport

Imagine your life without any ground traffic, pollution, honking cars, long queues outside stations and you will arrive at Venezia. The city has only one main station which takes you to the Venice on mainland and the other functional station which serves the whole of region.

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Venezia Santa Lucia Station

Now the structure of city is important, you have the Grand Canal in the middle branching out into small canals in each direction. You have small streets on islands with a lot of bridges connecting islands on each street so walking is just as convenient or probably more than taking public transport.

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The Grand Canal

You have the option of taking public boat bus called vaporetti which has set routes like any city but I’d highly recommend buying a day card instead of individual tickets which are expensive to say the least. (A single ticket is €7 at least..).
You can download the official ARTE app that runs these water busses in Venice, its is pretty good and has the map as well. You can download it here.

The second option is taking Water taxi but I think they keep the merchants of Venice in mind when quoting the price because a single ride will cost you at least €40-50.

The third option is the least practical and that is to take a gondola (the long boats) but they mostly for a romantic ride to see the city and its inner canals rather than going from Point A to Point B. Additonally a single ride will cost you at least €85.

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Gondola

Walking and Water bus are your best friends here unless you have a personal gondola which used to be the case in old times and almost every building in Venice has a water gate to get in and out of a gondola.

I find this oddly satisfying because no matter how rich you are in modern you have the same means of transport, slightly ironical for a city built on riches for the rich…
The main train station in Venice is Venezia Santa Lucia Railway station which is very convenient to go to the train station on mainland and it also has trains to neighbouring cities.

Gondola Ride

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A Gondola Ride

Like I mentioned above Gondola rides are mostly for pleasure than practical purposes. You can do this through people selling tours which will be slightly cheaper versus getting a ride on your own unless you want to be alone for romantic reasons.. The ride lasts roughly half an hour and tickets are easily available from the stalls around Piazza San marco.

Free Walking Tour

There is only one free walking tour of Venice and you can find the details here. You need to definitely book it well in advance as we were turned away on the first day as we didn’t have the booking…

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Starting Point of the tour

The tour was pretty mediocre to be honest but it was still good in order to understand the city it is still not a bad option and remember it FREE if you don’t like it and are free to go at any point.

p.s I was searching the link to free tour that I attended and I can see plenty of free tours in Venice now so take your pick, hopefully yours will be better than mince.

Vaporetto dell’Arte

This is a hop on hop off bus version of Venice which stops at different important stops related to art and you can see the most important sights along the Grand Canal. You can buy the tickets online with different validations here.

When to Visit?

When to visit Venice is trickier than you imagine and I would definitely go for late spring. This is the perfect time because in winter the city is ridiculously cold because of all the water. In summer it stinks because of the polluted water and the putrefying junk in the canals of Venezia. That leaves autumn which is not a bad option either but I would imagine the smell lingering on till winter cools the process.. Since you are heading to venice you should familiarize yourselves with Acqua Alta. I have copied the explanation below from wiki but it basically mean high tide which submerges some of the streets when water level is high.

Acqua alta (high water) has become a fact of life in Venice. The lagoon water level occasionally rises above the level of the squares and streets, flooding them. This can happen several times a year, at irregular intervals, usually in the colder months. Acqua alta usually lasts a few hours and coincides with high tide. You’ll see raised walkways in side alleys ready to be pulled out when acqua alta hits. When the city begins to flood, sirens will sound to warn residents and businesses. If you speak fluent Italian, tune into news programs since their predictions of the times the flood begins and ends are usually on the spot. Normally, the tide rises and falls in six-hour cycles.
You can get an acqua alta map at the tourist offices either at the railway station or St Marks. This will show you the higher, dry routes and the ones with walkways set up during the various flood alerts. There is a tide measuring station at the Rialto vaporetto piers, and a noticeboard at the base of the Campanile in the Piazza San Marco that shows a live tide reading and predictions for the next few days.

Fun Fact: Perhaps it was high tide or the infestations that travelled through Silk Route Venice had a lot of outbreaks of plagues and Black Death. They created an ingenious system which today we call Quarantine. They used to separate people with symptoms on a different island hospital which till this day remains as a macabre souvenir of those days. Additionally merchants coming in to Venice had to spend 40 days on an island in isolation to make sure they weren’t bringing any plague with them. What fun!

Food

Venice is a very touristy place and most of the places are very touristy unless you find a good Osteria which were traditionally small cafes with homemade food. Today they are not present in traditional sense but the name refers to smaller establishments. My favourite was Osteria Antico Giardinetto and I’d recommend a reservation for dinner. The food was delicious and the way to this small restaurant is through those beautiful streets of Venice which you love even more when you just had some good food.

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Entrance

Another place for some cheap local food is Osteria ‘Ai Osti with a more canteen like atmosphere and good pasta with fisha and seafood. It is a perfect stop if you want to stop on the way.

Near Rialto Bridge I’d recommend Da Mamo for some good pizza and risotto. Most of the restaurants lined around the Rialto and Grand canal are pretty poor quality with high prices and tourist traps and I got food poisoning from a seafood pizza from one of these places (which shall remain nameless to protect you from all of them..)

Fun Fact: Pasta didn’t originate in Italy as most people believe, it came from China with Marco Polo and to shake you a bit more, risotto isn’t Italian either..

Gay Venice

Like all cities in Italy, Venice doesn’t have a dedicated gay area and the dedicated gay establishments are few and far. There are a few gay hotels in the city but the bars and clubs side is pretty limited. There is a retro bar owned by a lesbian couple called I Due Girasole with music from 70’s and 80’s. Another famous bar is Porto de Mar but that’s pretty much it for Venice. Most gay guys head to nearby towns for the gay scene but Venice is generally very tolerant and friendly and at no point I felt threatened or judged or discriminated.

Grindr and scruff however have a good crowd and most guys are quite nice and friendly (DUH we are talking about Italians here, who doesn’t love these guys!).

Accommodation

Accommodation in Venice is not cheap by any means especially the hotels and if you want a good deal head to Airbnb like me. The best area to stay is around Rialto Bridge because it has good links and you can travel in most directions from here in equal time.

Things to Do

You can spend weeks in Venice and places to visit won’t end. We saw some of them with the tour and the rest here and there. I highly recommend booking your tickets for most of the attractions in advance because every day hordes of tourists descend upon Venice with cruise ships and the queues just eat in to your day.

Grand Canal of Venice

Grand Canal runs through the whole city and you will come back to this every time you want to go in or out somewhere unless you go through the bridges. It is really beautiful especially at night and the houses that line the canal are stunning. It is very busy during the day with cruise ships coming in and tourists running around but that has its own charm, surely it wasn’t any different in the old trading days..

Rialto Bridge

Rialto Bridge is the main and the biggest bridge in Venice and it is a good example of Venetians trading minds. The bridge is lined with shops on both sides with the left side disappearing into smaller streets that eventually take you to St. Mark’s Square. On the right hand side there is a small square with a local market with fresh stuff . I liked it because it presented some form of normality in this town completely modified for tourists..

Piazza San Marco

The walk between Rialto Bridge and Piazza San Marco or St. Mark’s square is short and sweet with many a surprises typical of Venezia. Every street, every canal opens up to a new scenery with gondolas floating around. The upscale shopping area is also on the way and it is called Le Mercerie.

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Basilica from the Square

We arrived at the main square with a massive queue in front of us to enter the St. Mark’s Basilica. The piazza is big but not the biggest in Venice but it is the lifeline of Venetian life now and even back then with the Basilica in front and links to terra ferma or mainland from here and Doge’s palace on the right hand side of the Basilica. The buildings in the square today have been converted into restaurants and cafe’s and while I wouldn’t recommend food there, these are perfect places to get a drink or coffee and enjoy the beautiful Venetian spring sun..

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Panorama of Piazza

Fun Fact: The top floors of the buildings in past were brothels for visitors, which is quiote fascinating considering how the place was supposed to be ‘Holy’ with the Church as the focus of Piazza.

St. Mark’s Basilica

The main church has such a beautiful facade it glitters from a distance. It is the symbol of all the wealth. The whole church is made of golden murals and it is a stunning sight inside and out. We walked inside and then headed to the upper floor to see those beautiful horses standing atop the western facade of Basilica. The view is staggering and you can see the beautiful roofs of houses on each side. I will definitely recommend this and to avoid wasting time in long queues I reserved us the spot on the official site. You can do it here.

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Golden Delight?

Fun Fact: Saint Mark was originally buried in Alexandria in Egypt under Muslim rulers but Venetians were dying to have his body back because he was the patron Saint of the city. Two merchants cleverly dug his body up and hid it under pig meat. Muslims don’t like touching anything pig related and they were allowed to go out and this way St. Mark came here to Venice to this beautiful church. A dignified funeral? Perhaps not.

Warning: if you are not ‘appropriately’ dressed they will refuse entry and that means no bare legs or shoulders…

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Campanile

We came down satisfied to have seen this beautiful church and headed to Campanile, the tall bell tower with stunning bird eye views of Venice. Unfortunately the queue was ridiculously long and there is no way to pre book these tickets so we passed on these but you shouldn’t miss the lion; the symbol of Venice standing on top of a column on the far right in front of Doge’s palace.

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The queue went much longer…

Fun Fact: The lion that represents Venice and St. Mark was actually looted from Turkey and not something original, Venetians bought some of their wealth and the rest was simply taken by force. I think this is where they use the proverb ‘by hook or by crook’?
Doge’s Palace

Doge’s Palace

The next stop was Doge’s palace which is a massive complex and obviously it has a massive queue in front as well. You can avoid that as well by buying the tickets here. Unfortunately the ticket has to be combined with other museums which you can choose at  the link even if you don’t want to see the rest like we didn’t.

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The looks reverse completely inside..

You need a good hour or two to the beauty of this ridiculously beautiful palace. Every room is more beautiful than last and while Doge was head of the Venetians state and this was his palace, it has an awful lot of space for the rest of bureaucracy and even some dungeons and torture chambers…

Fun Fact: Venice had a very complex Government system and while the Doge was the head of city state of Venice his power had a lot of checks with different councils and bureaucracy. In the main hall there are portraits of all the previous Doges with one blackened out, he was the Doge who tried to get too much power…

Bridge of Sighs

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Not my fav bridge in Venice..

The bridge of sighs connects the palace with another prison. It is called bridge of sighs because it was often the place where the prisoners saw their last views of Venice before executions. Nothing romantic the story is rather gruesome but the bridge is beautiful but smaller than I had thought..

Basilica de Santa Maria della Salute

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The best of Venice

The floating church across from Piazza San Marco and my absolute favourite! Coming in and out of Venice it just puts life into the view. The interior absolutely matches the exterior, both grand and elegant.

Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

Venice is full of churches one more gorgeous than other. We were brought here with the tour and there is something really beautiful about this church that separates it from the rest, definitely worth a peek..

Carampene

Carampene is the old red light district and the bridge right in front of it is called the bridge of tits; how fitting! There isn’t much to see around but the area is really beautiful and quite devoid of tourists..

Fun Fact: Venice was the Las Vegas of Middle Ages with Casinos and brothels everywhere. This is where Jacomo Casanova got his fame as the womanizer…

Venetian Ghetto

Venetian Ghetto is the ancient area where jewish population lived. Venice had a slightly liberal stance towards Jews but they were still confined to a few jobs like banking and lending money. With time the Jews grew in power and influence and built beautiful synagogues hidden in plain sight..

The Jewish population of Venice was sadly deported during WWII but synagogues remain there and you should definitely check one in the area.

Fun Fact: The English word Ghetto comes from ghetto in Italian and it comes from Venice from this conferment of Jews in a single area.

Squero di San Trovaso

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Panorama of Venice from the other side

This is the area where they build gondolas and you can see the workshop in front with gondolas in production. Quite an interesting experience. The houses here are slightly different because the labour came from different areas and they preferred wooden houses to the brick ones in Venice..

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Gondola building site

Fun Fact: Venice established the first manufacturing assembly line in the world, 500 years before the modern manufacturing boom. They gave specialised tasks to teams with standard measurements and the ship was combined at the end with a staggering amount of 3 ships per day. No one had the same capability in Europe and even the Tudor Kings’ naval fleet seemed like ‘a few ships’ in front of Venetian Navy which they fiercely used to protect the city and their trade routes. You can still visit Arsenale to see this old shipyard.

Murano Island

No visit to Venice is complete without a visit to these two beautiful islands. You can either go with some tour which might add Torcello as well to the list but we wanted to be independent and do it our way so we took the bus from San Marco Piazza and headed first to Murano. The ride is peaceful and you get to see some more of this beautiful city from different angles. In 15-20 minutes you will arrive at Murano famous for its glass factories. There are quite a few around the landing area and you can walk into any one of them, buy the ticket and see them blowing glass and forming some beautiful shapes and animals. I’d recommend coming towards the end of the day so you are not rushed and there are less tourists. It is a quick and commercial experience and there isn’t much else on the island honestly so we headed to Burano, the prettier sister of Murano.

Burano Island

The boat will being you to the docking area which is beautiful but nothing compared to when you walk in the streets and get to the central canal. The houses lined on both sides, the beautiful balconies and everything around especially those flowers pots neatly decorated in balconies are just so beautiful. The food situation here is also better. We stayed there till it started getting dar and then headed back to Venice. I’d recommend heading back before it gets dark so you can see these colourful houses from a distance, it is such a beautiful rich coloured spectrum, it is etched in my memory forever along with the beautiful dream we all call Venice…

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Burano, the colour box island

You can spend ages in Venice and not be able to discover all the jewels of this beautiful city but it was time to go so we packed our bags and headed to the Railway station to take the train to Trieste, another beautiful surprise and the views of Italian North East coast reduced the sadness of leaving Venice very fast, give it a try as well…

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Romania

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Bran Castle (Dracula Castle)

Romaniiiiiaaaa will always be special for me because it is the 30th country I visited as part of my 30 before 30 challenge. Romania is exactly what I didn’t expect it to be. A former communist country added recently to EU and to makes things more interesting the country has three main regions all with different past.

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Bucharest

Times before Romania was united based on language and culture, the country was part of Ottoman empire, Russian empire and Austro Hungarian empire. The province in South called Wallachia was ruled by Ottoman appointed ruler (Vlad the Impaler was one of them), Moldovia was the same but has had some Russian influence. Transylvania with its castles was part of Hungarian and then Austro-Hungarian empire. Things change quite rapidly when you move from one region to another and you can clearly see the difference between Bucharest and Brasov for example.

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Romanian countryside

Romania still bears scars of the communist past and slowly and steadily it is coming out of the shadows and part of modern Western Europe. It is a beautiful country with gorgeous landscapes, endless opportunities in terms of things to do in every season and best of all it is super cheap!

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Brasov

I decided to go in Winter because I wanted to see the Bran castle covered in snow and also because it was off season and best of all I had never been anywhere as cold as this. (It was -17C at worst which I absolutely loved and hated at the same time).

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Peles Castle

The Racism Factor

Romanians are not friendly or warm people by any measure but they are not racist. I saw people going about their business all around me without any chatter or laughter almost in a mechanical fashion (reminds me of the scenes of movies shot for communist era) but I didn’t feel threatened because of the colour of my skin. There was a certain curiosity and inquisitiveness in the eyes of people which I quite enjoyed but again I didn’t feel discriminated against even in the rural areas or on the road.

The Gay Factor 

Despite being part of EU and signing up for the Human rights charter Romania is quite conservative. I think it is the only country in Europe still building churches. Things are not so bad in Bucharest but other cities are still quite conservative and based on a conversation I had with someone they feel they shouldn’t be subjected to acceptance of LGBT equality because they don’t think it is right.

There are no dedicated gay bars and clubs. In Bucharest there is one clubs that does gay nights only on weekends. I have been told abut gay clubs in other cities but I am not entirely sure. There are a few gay friendly establishments but I don’t think I’d feel comfortable roaming around with a guy’s hand in mine especially outside the tourist centre. You have to be careful about being gay in this country and I wouldn’t go to Romania for its gay scene, not for another 2 or 3 decades at least.
Grindr on the other hand has guys and some of them are gorgeous and friendly and so does scruff and hornet so take your pick while you’re there..

Value for Money

Romania is cheap as hell. You need very little to do a lot. You can eat well, party and go around very cheaply. I couldn’t believe this country lies in Europe. A very good meal will cost you no more than £20 and we are talking the best restaurants in Bucharest. The road side places serve food for £2-3 with massive portion and good quality. Similarly accommodation is quite cheap and so is fuel and recreation (£8 for a manicure, eh!)

Itinerary

I spent 4 days in Romania, 2 days for Bucharest, 1 day to see Bran and Peles Castles and 1 day for Brasov.
Bran is in Bran city and Peles castle is in Sinaia. In the winter Transfigurasan highway is closed (It opens only from July to October) and in summer you can add another couple of days for that. Other famous towns to see are Timisoara, Sibiu and Sigisoara.

Food

Romanian food is quite different to what I’d thought. I had a very Polish image of Romanian food owing to my ex who was Polish. The food leans more of Hungarian side and differs from region to region. It lacks fresh vegetables massively and is very pork based in typical Romanian restaurants which made it a bit of a headache but it was fine in other places. They do use veg in stews and soups though. Romanians like Hungarians love Paprika and you will feel the taste in pretty much all stews which were delicious.

There are quite a few places in the big cities that are introducing modern take on Romanian food and I just loved trying a few of them out. Apart from that I loved trying the sweet bakery cum shops. Around towns you will see the pastries and different pancakes in trays on display with a small window on the side and ladies baking things at the back. You can buy stuff here from a good variety. It is really good and very, very cheap. I had those rolled pancakes with jam in the middle for breakfast every day and they were really delicious.

Phone & Internet 

Phone reception is quite good throughout the country and data speed much better than expected. I used my roaming but I saw plenty of places selling SIM cards. For details you can check here.
Internet on the other hand was another story, Wifi was quite slow and at times even painful so we relied on our data. It was a bit bizarre because Mobile data ran fine but Wifi crawled, I think they will catch up soon, who knows!

Cash & Cards

Romania is part of EU but they still haven’t switched over to Euro. The official currency is Leu and it is denoted by RON. Like I mentioned earlier, it is super cheap and all currency notes are plastic instead of paper. You will need cash at most places in Romania. While a lot of places take cards now and the number is rising but for majority of places (including the parliament) you will need cash.

Cash machines and exchanges are quite common especially around city centres and airports. Be careful of exchanges though, someone was telling me about the scams that these guys can be involved in.

Fun Fact: Part of modernisation for EU inclusion meant a financial system upgrade and someone said “You need to move to plastic (meaning cards of course) but the government took it as plastic currency notes and they plasticized the whole currency notes. The locals still laugh about it, although they quite like it. They are much better than paper one’s for sure.

Tips

  • Based on the weather you need lots of warm clothes or lots of sunscreen. Romania gets both winters and summers with quite high intensity.
  • The old town in Bucharest has building at huge risk of collapse during even smaller scale earthquakes. Use this link to check the buildings by address before booking.
  • Get a car, it is a much better way to see this beautiful country than train or busses.
  • Romania has amazing ski resorts and if it is your thing, you are in luck with cheap hotels and great ski slopes.
  • While taking taxis, always note the taxi number and text someone, I have heard some horrific stories of taxi drivers scamming people although I didn’t come across one who was nasty.
  • You will need some extra time at the airport in Bucharest especially during the day.
  • The queues at security are long and it took us 45 minutes to get through the security alone and almost missed our flight back.
  • Gypsies are the biggest minority in the country and it is a sensitive issue to be called a Gypsy for a Romanian, be careful around the subject.
  • The most comprehensive source of information on Romania is Romaniantourism.com, although it is for Americans, the information remains the same and it helped me a lot during the planning.

Argentina

The silver mine of South America; literally! The word Argentina comes from the Greek word Argentos which stands for silver. Argentina was famous for its silver mines with Spanish colonisers and it is the second biggest country in South America. It is the eighth biggest country in the whole world and in days not in distant past, it used to be one of the wealthiest as well.

Argentina is blessed in every which way you can think of. It has magnificent mountains ranges, a massive coast line, gorgeous beaches, glaciers, wild life, jungles, desserts and the highest and the lowest points in South America are both located in Argentina.

This elongated paradise is every travellers envy for the opportunities it offers and Argentineans especially Portaños (Residents of Buenos Aires) and very proud of their mixed South American and European origins. The country has so much to offer you cannot stop yourself from going back. I do wish to go back and enjoy this beautiful paradise outside the capital. To sit on the beach one day and watch the whales and go hiking next day on a glacier and look at penguins; opportunities are endless!

Argentina is relatively safe for foreigners and tourists are generally treated well despite the political unrest in the country. During my visit I saw massive protests about the change of power with new president but it was more interesting in terms of a discussion topic than anything dangerous.

The Racism Factor

Like Brazil and probably most South American countries the issue of racism is two tiered; locals and foreigners. South Americans love tourists but things are slightly different in Argentina compared to Brazil. Buenos Aires and the North of country is different from the mid and south because these centres were at the heart of immigrants settlement from Europe and the population is more blonde, ginger-ish and fair skinned with light eyes.

The locals have a symptom almost all former colonies do; they try to be more European than the Europeans themselves and this sometimes comes off as embarrassing especially when they haven’t been to Europe. The reason I say this is because the immigrants were mostly from Italy and Spain and we all know how chilled out these two countries are!!!

Fair skin, light hair and eyes are superior mostly and more aboriginal features are considered almost subhuman which was sad to see. If you’re foreigner and white you’re golden but Portaños are still not as warm as Cariocas by any standard.

Now how did they see a stranger from Middle East roaming around was another thing! I got almost an inquisitive and curious reception. It’s almost like they couldn’t place me in any category and were trying to creat a reference point but I didn’t feel like I was being discriminated against and in older parts of city people were nice and warm. The taxi driver who picked me up from airport gave me a few extra tips to be nice and curiously asked about my origins. After all that essay, I would like to conclude that racism isn’t much of an issue in this beautiful country so roam freely you beautiful people..

The Gay Factor

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Portaños can be seriously hot and with open air gyms with shirtless guys working out almost throughout downtown in the evenings, there’s plenty of eye candy. The areas around Soho are the gay area and there are some very nice bars and clubs as well. I’ll add them to the Buenos Aires section.

Now the thing about the guys here! They are hot yes but so are Brazilians and pther latinos but Portaños are slightly colder and less accessible compared to others which honestly doesn’t appeal me much. Almost everyone I met in Argentina that I had good time was from other South American countries especially Venezuelans which you will find loads of since their beautiful country is going through such turmoil.

The general population is fairly nice and I don’t think anyone would feel threatened here based ons Excalibur although it’s nowhere close to Brazil in terms of openness.

Value for Money 

Argentina at one point was the seventh wealthiest country but the political instability that still reigns the country brought the economy down. It is quite cheap to travel around and get food in Argentina other than the posh areas of Buenos Aires.

Food is generally cheap as well and you can easily visit this beautiful country without feeling like you need to sleep on the streets now.

Things have also gotten much better recently with the new predefined who do very much trusted by international community and prospects are looking great. The rampant inflation is also seemingly slowing down so a big thumbs up for Argentina.

Itinerary

I spent roughly 5 days in Buenos Aires but you can see a lot more of you have time but Argentina is massive and you should consider the huge distances before planning anything more extensive. Even in 4 days you can’t see all of Buenos Aires but sadly that’s all the time I’ve had.

Food

All aside perhaps the biggest disappointment in Argentina was steaks! The Parillas are many and despite trying a LOT of them I came to the realisation that Argentinians don’t like blood on their plates at all. The steaks were almost always nearly well done with a hint of pink even when I asked for rare to medium rare. The second issue was lack of seasoning. It felt almost embarrassing to pour so much salt on steaks but I came back quite disappointed.

The general staple food is a lot of pizza and pasta and the Argentinian pizza is a good mix between American and Italian pizzas. Thinner crust with lots of toppings especially cheese And it is generally super cheap. The savoury pastries are also quite good and small shops and bakeries do them best.

The last mention that just had me in grip was Dulce de Leche and I gained so much weight after endless rounds of this sweet heavenly dessert. It is made with milk and lids of sugar. Basically you add sugar and some stuff to mil and cook it till it becomes a thick, viscous stuff that’s a very soft solid. Try it with milk cookies and please I seriously don’t take responsibility if you cannot stop eating this. I asked my best friend to get me some from Brazil and still have it in my fridge for those moments when you need a hit of sugar. (Do it with good stuff if you must) 😉

Phone & Internet 

Getting a SIM card is easy but setting it up a bit of a struggle in Buenos Aires and he tariff system is quite complicated. You can buy the sim card or Chip (as it is called in Argentina) from any number of shops but make sure they activate the relevant package and set it up for you. Internet reception is quite patchy even in the centre of Buenos Aires and Wifi is slow to put it nicely. Data is quite slow pretty much wherever you are! My accommodation had internet reminded me of days of dial up which was adorable yet extremely frustrating and annoying. You can have a detailed look at the phone options here.

Cash & Cards 

Argentina uses Peso as its currency but owing to its rapid depreciation and rampant inflation dollar is the king here.

Argentina put strict foreign exchange controls in the PST to avoid the rapid depreciation of peso which meant there was a massive black market where you could get much more than official rate. These are called blue dollar and most travellers were told to carry dollars instead of pesos to exchange there. The central areas around xxx were the hotspot of ‘Cambio Cambio’ pitches as you walked in.

I was given the same advice and I carried dollars and I ended up losing more money because capital and foreign exchange controls had been recently lifted and official rate was almost the same as black market rate. Don’t bother than random conversions and best to convert though usual means than waste money between conversions.

Cash is your friend here and card payments are accepted only at established places like international chains, restaurants and hotels. Cash machines are quite easily available in central areas but you won’t find many in slightly dodgy areas or old parts of the towns.

Tip: When travelling always divide and carry cash in 2 or 3 divides. Never keep it all with you especially in one place.

Tips

  • Bring some money with you and haggle with the taxi drivers because the airports are quite far from the cities and drivers try to take advantage of that fact.
  • Bring lots of sunscreen and an umbrella with you.
  • Remember Argentina lies on the Southern Hemisphere so reverse the season if you’re going from season. (Their summer is from November to March but that again changes on the location since the country is huge).
  • Learn some basic Spanish because majority of the population doesn’t speak to understand English.
  • Try to make some local friends even through Grindr. (It is slightly harder here compared to Brazil). Buenos Aires is a lot more fun with local friends.
  • Be very careful with money because pick pocketing is quite common in busy areas.
  • Buenos Aires is massive and public transport is a bit of a shock, take proper comfortable clothes with you as well as sturdy shoes.
  • Don’t forget to go to some local markets. Bargaining and haggling makes it a lot more fun than up market places.


Granada

Granada is home to Albaicin and Alhambra and you don’t need any reason more than that to visit this city. It exists in another dimension altogether. Every single time I hear or say the name I just feel this pulse shooting up my spine that lights my head with all the beautiful memories of the city, the breathtaking views, Semana Santa (Easter) processions and the most important, Alhambra.

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I got fascinated by the city when I was younger and read a travelogue about the place and somewhere inside the desire kept kicking to visit and finally when I decided to go to Andalusia it was only for Alhambra and Mezquita cathedral (Córdoba).

Granada offers not only the sprawling palaces of Alhambra and beautiful gardens of Generalife you can also go skiing in Sierra Nevada; the highest mountain range is Spain. The city stands at the foot of this mighty mountain range. No matter what your reason Granada fails to disappoint. Everything about this city is exquisite and beautiful.

I visited Granada during the Easter time and I think it was a good decision because I saw these very ‘Moorish’ towns in a catholic light and the contrast was this beautiful amalgam of two religions living in harmony with all the history in today’s world of intolerance and prejudice.

Granada is a university town and I saw many a students around the streets, bars and cafes and a night out is outrageous fun with great food, good drinks and many gay and gay friendly bars and clubs.

All Things Granada

Airport

Granada airport is quite small and it is mainly used for national flights but I think recently a few more international flights but when I was checking direct flights were quite expensive and there were no direct flights from London but Skyscanner is a good start to get an idea. Easyjet is planning on starting flights to Granada in early February 2017. I flew in and out from Malaga airport which is convenient and transport links between cities are very good.

The airport is located outside the city and you can take a bus to the city centre. The journey takes roughly 45 minutes and costs around €3. The busses are not very frequent though and there are only 10 a day. You can check the time table here.

Bus and Train

Train is not a good option to get to Granada from surrounding cities especially Malaga and Cordoba and you should use bus. It is also not on the fast line so it will take you ages, bus is a much better option and my local friend advised the same when I asked him. I bought the tickets from Malaga to Granada by bus through ALSA.

The bus from Malaga airport is slightly more complicated because you need to take the bus from airport to Malaga bus station and then take a bus from Malaga main bus station to Granada.

The bus station and train station both are fairly central and with good links to centre of the city through public transport. I got to Granada from Malaga in 2 hours quite conveniently and the bus to Cordoba from Granada was also quite easy and convenient.

Public Transport

Public Transport is quite reliable and frequent and covered under Granada card but honestly everything is so close you won’t need to use it. There are some lines that run through the old district Albaicin. Taxis are also quite easy available.

Granada Card & Alhambra Tickets

Granada card is like any other city tourist card and gets you access to a lot of locations with discounts to other locations and free public transport. I ended up buying this card because I didn’t book the tickets to Alhambra early enough. You can purchase the full or basic card and both include access to Alhambra and Generalife. To purchase a Granada card use this link.

Warning: You want to book your ticket to Alhambra as early as possible especially for weekend visits. The ticket has two parts and while the general area can be entered at any time based on the ticket type (morning, afternoon or evening), the entry to Nasrid palaces is only restricted to 30 minutes at exact time. If you don’t do this you will have to purchase Granada Card which is way more expensive.

You can also arrange for tours but you have to be absolutely sure and be on time because tickets sell like hot cakes and because visitors per day is limited, you cannot just go and buy more tickets. Use this link to purchase tickets and tours.

Food

Granada has a typical food scene of any city in Andalucía; a great mix of local food with that charming touch of Moorish style. Tapas is quite common and you will find a huge list of places that server great food.

Albaicin has a lot of small cafes tucked in that have amazing balconies and terraces epically at night to enjoy the food with a view of Alhambra and I ate at a few places. Surprisingly snails are quite common here but I didn’t like the way they make it here, French definitely do it better!

At the foot of Albaicin is an endless maze of cafes, restaurants, bars that offer endless options and the places are always full. You get a lot of variety for Tapas. Just a little outside around Plaza de Mariana Paneda, the small twisty, turny streets have some hidden gems. In the evening most of the tapas bars will be full and you will find people eating and drinking on the street.

The custom is to get a small portion of food (tapas) with every drink you get and surprisingly most of the restaurants only offer this style of food and you need to ask them for A la Carte menu. I spent an evening with a friend in La Botilleria and then headed out to the bars on the other side for a good night out.

Accommodation

If you want a magical experience at the cost of some stair climbing Albaicin is your area. The old Moorish quarters still have the same style, balconies, architecture and lifestyle. Perhaps the highlight of my trip was to see the Easter procession from the terrace heading towards the main cathedral with a full moon shining on top of Alhambra. It was so beautiful I just enevr wanted it to end. Alhambra sat there is a elegant old woman watching its kids acting like adults with a sly sense of amusement that only shows love and care.

For a more practical approach you can stay around the city centre but I didn’t like the idea, after all what’s more important than Alhambra in Granada?

Free Walking Tours

I definitely recommend getting a tour of Granada and the tour I did was Historical tour which shows not only around Albaicin but also the city centre. I definitely recommend getting a tour of Granada and the tour I did was Historical tour which shows not only around Albaicin but also the city centre. You can book it here. The guide was awesome and gave an amazing account of history and how Granada is today based on that.

The same company offers a Sacromonte tour which is the tour around Roma gypsies and Flamenco. Don’t forget some sturdy shoes because it is a lot of hiking and climbing.

Gay Granada

The birth town of famous writer Fredrico Garcia Lorca, Granada has come a long way from those days to the town which welcomes every sort with open arms. Granada is no Ibiza or Barcelona but you can still have a good time here. The guys here are absolutely gorgeous with that typical Spanish charm and warmth and every single one of them I met has been a pleasure. I am really proud to have made such beautiful in just a few days.

Grindr and Scruff are both quite openly used and while being gay is quite acceptable Andalucía is still relatively conservative so a lot of guys are not out. You will get a good mix of travelers and locals and most guys are friendly. I didn’t see much of a drugs scene so that’s another plus point for Granada and Andalusia in general.
The party scene starts quite late with dinner around 9 or 10pm, bars around 10 to 11pm and clubs around 1am; pace yourselves accordingly. I went to La Sal one day and Six colours the other day and both were quite nice and friendly and I could walk back home to Albaicin easily at the end. Most of the bars and clubs have mixed crowd but everyone is really friendly and being a university town you will meet people from all corners of Europe and outside. The scene here is clearly expanding and despite Easter weekend, the places were busy..

Day 1

Granada can be easily seen and enjoyed in two days but if you want to go skiing you’d need a couple more days ideally. You definitely need to dedicate the first day to Alhambra and to admire the beauty of this place you need a structured plan. The entrance to areas especially Nassrid palaces is restricted between certain times and the daily visit numbers are limited, you don’t want to miss this opportunity coming all this way..

I spent the first half of the day in Alhambra and the second half in Albaicin..

Alhambra

Alhambra needs no introduction! This beautiful palace and fortress complex was once described by an Arabic poet as a “A pearl set in emerald” because of the colour of Nassrid palaces and the surrounding greenery. Alhambra literally means ‘The red one” and comes from Al Hamra in Arabic or Qalat Al Hamra (The red fortresses). The fortress was build on top of ancient Roman fortress which then fell into ruins. In mid 13th century when the Emir landed here as the capital last outpost of Moorish empire and the golden days of this beautiful ruby started with a beautiful maze of palaces, gardens and fortifications.

Fun Fact: This is where Ferdinand and Isabel finally gave their go ahead for Columbus for the expedition which lead to the discovery of Americas.

A good starting point is Plaza Nueva at the bottom of Albaicin and you can take public transport or taxi all the way to the entrance of this stunning beauty. Take Cuesta de Gomerez all the way up to the entrance. The walk is uphill and will take roughly 20 minutes but I’d recommend taking a bus so you save your energy. Live C3 takes you right to the entrance from Plaza Nueva. You will need to have your ticket on you. I would recommend getting them from the atm machines or the best option is Tourism office in Plaza del Carmen.

The walk from the main entrance to Nassrid Palaces in about 15 minutes and you go through quite a lot of change in scenery so I would recommend entering at least 30 minutes before your entrance time to Nassrid palaces. I almost ran from the entrance to the queue which forms every 30 minutes.

The staff checked our tickets and led us through from the beautiful corridor. The doors and walls are piece of art which is so intricate you are scared to touch it. From courtyards to gardens through an intricate maze of rooms and corridors you arrive at the Lions courtyard. I could imagine the Emir with his people sitting and enjoying the evening breeze by the fountain. The beautiful balconies and arches just enhance the beauty and the domed ceilings magnify the rooms despite their size which are surprisingly small especially considering they were built for the kings.

The imagination takes you through some weird and interesting thoughts. I almost felt like I could touch the people through the building. It also brings a certain sense of melancholy for buildings remain and will stay for a lot longer than people. They always turn into dust with some names remaining that do not mean much other than labels of who did what. Depressing thoughts aside, the time spent here is like magic, I felt like I was in a different dimension, oblivious to all the people around me, lost in my thought and when I woke up the dream was over. I sat there to soak in the spring sun and after filling my bottle I wandered around to enjoy Alhambra.

I won’t spoil the fun of discovery for you but if you have the time you can spend the whole day in this massive complex. There are plenty of areas of military importance and palaces from both Christian and Moorish eras but you don’t need to be an expert to figure out which one is which. The intricately designed ones are Moorish and the big blobby ones are from Christian era. The palace of Carlos V is a good example. It stands almost like a big ugly mole on the face of a beautiful woman, grrrrrrrr!

Generalife

Walking around the neatly trimmed gardens and fountains, you will get to Generalife which was the summer palace and this exquisite palace with its gardens creates an atmosphere of tranquility. The gardens and fountains cool the breeze and you feel attached to this striking panorama. The scenes of Albaicin from here and around are so amazing, I could only think about it when I was watching Alhambra from Albaicin in the evening.

I spent a good 5-6 hours in Alhambra and despite my urge to spend the whole time here I was short on time so I took the bus back to Plaza Nueva to start my tour of Albaicin. I really wanted to see the sun set on Alhambra from the other side..

Albaicin

The old Moorish Quarters of Granada are full of intrigue, mystery and charm. I stayed in Albaicin and the walk up and down from this hill top paradise opens a new path, a new intrigue every time. I loved getting lost here and finding myself again like some magical journey through the maze of time. The houses are constructed in the same manner and most of the area retains its beautiful structure.

Albaicin didn’t get much attention in the early rule of Moors because it was not the seat of Emir but after they lost the rest of Andalucia, the Emir and nobility descended on this and turned it into the beauty it is today. It truly is marvelous how they dug the wells and supplied water to the top of hills where two grocery bags today can almost break your back.

I stayed close to Plaza San Miguel Bajo which has the San Miguel Bajo church on one side and some cafes and restaurants on the other. I tried a few of the cafes and it was a bit of hit and miss honestly because of the touristy nature of place. The narrow streets on the other hand have clear signs of a lifestyle that’s local and has been there for centuries. Clothes hanging to dry on the balconies, children playing around, the wells almost in working condition and those beautiful pots full of flowers all shout that this isn’t a tourist area alone you just know how to get lost here and you will find it.

Albaicin is full of amazing monuments one more interesting than other but I have mentioned only a few. A few more you will learn and hear about during the walking tour but to see them all requires a few days which unfortunately I didn’t have..

The main points of interest are San Miguel Bajo Church (Iglesia de San Miguel Bajo) and its square which I have already described above. The square also houses Dar Al-Hora Palace which is the last residence of Aixa (Aisha) who was the mother of last Emir of Granada. The small palace is part of Monastery of Santa Isabel la Real but most of the original decoration has been conserved and the central courtyard and its square pool have the typical Nasrid style despite being taken over by the Christian monarchs after Reconquista. It is a small stop and doesn’t take long to see.

From Dar Al Hora Palace you want I walked towards Mirador de San Cristobal which has some amazing panoramic views of the city and from there walked to Plaza Larga. The square has lots of food options or just some coffee or ice cream along with Arco de Pesas. The plaza used to be the heart and soul of Albaicin in 16th century with lots of shops and main market here.

The Arc on the other hand is much older and used to be part of the old Moorish Albaicin and was built for better communication between Albaicin and Alhambra. Its horse shoe arches are gorgeous.

I grabbed some lunch here and headed to Ermita de San Miguel Alto which is a hermitage. It has some great views both of Alhambra and Albaicin but feel free to drop this one of the list if you are short of time. Another point of interest nearby is Ziri Wall.

I walked back to catch the sunset at San Nicholas square and on the way made a brief stop at San Salvador church which was built on the ancient grand mosque of Granada. The bell tower was a conversion of mosque minaret.

Finally arriving at San Nicholas square I made a discovery that makes your heart melt for the people of Granada; The Central Mosque of Granada. After 500 years the Muslims of Granada heard the same Adhan (call to prayer) from the minarets of a mosque facing Alhambra and it all came through with the help of Granada city and its people. This was quite a surprise because even today the people of Granada and around perform baptism with the old blessing, “Here is your child: you gave him to me a Moor, I hand him back a Christian”.

The mosque isn’t accessible during prayer times but you have the best views of Alhambra from here. The square in front of San Nicholas square and church was absolutely jam packed with tourists and the restaurants with good views were rather touristy and quite full. I sat in the courtyard of the mosque to watch the sun set on this beautiful city and it somehow felt very sad like I am Boabdil (the last Emir) and I am seeing the sun set on this city for the last time but the lights started coming to life and the view just stunned me.

Then I heard the chants and drums of the Easter procession starting in the city and the whole scenario changed. The rose gardens of Alhambra, the full moon on its top, the courtyard of a mosque on top of Albaicin and the drummers walking towards the cathedral, it isn’t really possible to explain the feeling, you can only experience it but it is one of the most cherished moments of my life..

I grabbed some dinner in El Albaicin district and came back to the terrace of my house to feel the night. It was slightly chilly but not uncomfortable. I sat there till the procession ended in the Granada cathedral and the music died down. I went to bed a happy and satisfied man because today I had seen Alhambra and Albhaicin.

Day 2

After a nice relaxing sleep I sat in the sun enjoying the views of Granada city centre from the terrace with coffee and toast. I finally picked my tote bag and headed to the city centre leaving my laziness behind for the desire to see Granada was far greater than being a slob.

This day was more about seeing the Christian era and modern Granada and exploring the food and shopping scene of Granada with a good night out. You can add the hammam or Arab baths to this day if you want to relax a bit.

Plaza Nueva

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I walked down the steps from Albaicin to reach Plaza Nueva which is probably the most misleading name ever! Plaza Nueva or New Square is the oldest square in Granada and was built in the Christian era and it still is the centre of town. The square was used for bull fights, tournaments and all sort of public events. The Easter procession still goes through here. The square is built on top of the river Darro which still runs underground. Granada has always been full of ingenuity!

There are plenty of shops, restaurants and bars around with added souvenir and tourist related shops. Day or night, this square is buzzing with happy people especially students. You can also walk to El Albaicin district which has a lot of bars and restaurants right from here to through the narrow streets.

Plaza Isabela la Catolica

Walking from Plaza Nueva to Gran Via to start my tour of the day I came across this smaller square with a very interesting marble statue. It shows Queen Isabel bestowing her permission to Columbus for his journey. The square doesn’t have much other than banks and shiny glass building and a fountain but it leads you to Gran Via de Colon and the main shopping street Calle Reyes Catolicos.

Fun Fact: The locals also call this Columbus square because it was himwho was the discoverer. The queen merely provided her with permission. The money part os funny because she was really short after funding the Reconquista wars and borrowed it from a jew who was expelled from Spain a couple of years later without any repayment..

Calle Officios

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The Gate

The street opposite the statue is Gran Via and a few buildings later on the left you will arrive at Calle Officios. The queue of tourists waiting to go through the narrow but beautiful door and hoards of them taking pictures just announces you are entering the main area. The street is a wonder and has so many important landmarks you almost get dazzled..

Madrissa Yusufia

The first one on the left is Madrissa Yousufia or Madrissa Palace. It is also called Madrasah or Granada. It is currently part of University of Granada. The Madrissa used to be an Islamic style mosque school. In the ancient Muslim world Madrissas used to be the schools and unbeknownst to modern folk that is where most of the Muslim inventions and philosophy comes from. These were not just religious school with theology as main focus.

The building is gorgeous and has the signature Moorish interior with a central courtyard and fountain. Next to the cathedral it does look slightly out of place but then again the area started of as a Muslim area and after the re-conquest it was turned Catholic…

Granada Cathedral

The central cathedral of Granada is a mammoth and was placed right in the middle of the Muslim area which was turned Christian later. It was originally supposed to be Gothic in style but later turned into Renaissance and 2 centuries later Baroque elements were added to make the interior and exterior more magnificent. It took ages to build this mammoth because of money problems and also because the later kings like Philip II were interested in Madrid as base rather than sticking to Andalucia.

The square outside is a beautiful place and someone was playing this little drum like instruments which just made me want to sit there with some ice cream and enjoy the stillness, Granada really knows how to captivate you in each district…

The main street outside the cathedral was full of seats for the Easter procession events and it took some of the view away but after seeing the procession, I was fine with paying this price, it was a one off experience that I’ll never forget.

Plaza de Bib-Rambla

Located on a few minutes walk this is one of those places that arise mixed feelings. The name means ‘Gate of the River’ because it was originally built on the shore of Darro River which flows underground now. The square has a baroque fountain in the middle and it is another centre of local life. It was used during the Christian era for bull fights which lead to not only the deaths of bulls but p to 40 people in one incident, so glad this barbaric practice in the name of sport has been stopped. Today you will see it as a square where normal urban life goes on with tourists enjoying the sun but this square was used to showcase public punishments in order to purge Spain or Muslims and Jews and as many as a million books, artefacts, manuscripts and other valuable documents burnt in this square and who knows how many secrets were burnt that day. I could see the pain in the eyes of our guide when he told the story, Granada still mourns that day…

Al Caiceria

The silk market from Moorish times today is AlCaiceria and what used to be the silk and spices market in old times today sells souvenirs. The spicy aroma still wafts through these narrow streets and you could imagine the merchants selling exquisite silks and exotic spices from around the world here while staying in Corral del Carbon. The streets are narrow and cool and the balconies around full of potted flowers that go high up these narrow buildings. It was built in this particular way to prevent thieves from stealing stuff and the whole market could be guarded with a few people on each entrance. The souvenier shops are quite expensive and honestly I didn’t see anything that looked like it was from Granada but there’s a subtle irony in there.

In old times most of the silk and spices came from the silk route originating in China and looks like that part hasn’t changed at all..

Corral del Carbón

This beauty is the only building saved in its entirety from Nassrid times and it used to be a market in those days. The facade is signature Moorish design with an arc and rich plaster decoration and walking through the entrance I arrived at the central courtyard.

Because it used to be a central wholesale market, merchants those days kept their stuff here and stayed in the small rooms located on all sides of this courtyard. It is meticulously taken care of so you won’t be able to see all of it but it is a wonder nonetheless and gives you a perfectly preserved picture of the trading life back in the day. There are certain music and flamenco festrivals and events that still take place here during different times of the year..

El Sacromonte

The last part of the day was spent in El Sacromonte. This quarter houses the Roma community of Granada who still live in the caves. This is also the birthplace of flamenco. I went with the tour and the whole experience was quite amazing.

Located on the eastern side of Albaicin, the cave houses are absolutely gorgeous and you can see glimpses on Indian culture in these gorgeous houses. A lot of it is commercial and touristy now a days and you can have flamenco seating by paying a little but some of it is still in original condition and provides a fascinating view into the lives of gypsies..

Granada is a fascinating mix of Moorish and Christian past and modern present and the people here respect their history without distinction of religion. As much as I loved the idea of spending more time here, I had the Mezquita cathedral waiting in Granada so after some more delicious tapas and a couple of drinks I headed to bed to take my bus next day for Cordoba..

Vatican

Vatican and the Holy See is one of the six micro states of Europe. It was established because Mosulini wanted to separate religion from state and today it is one of the smallest, holiest and wealthiest countries in the world.

St. Peter’s Square

The Vatican has a special place in Catholic belief and the holiest person in Christian belief system lives here. Of course I am talking about the pope who’s office and residence is inside the Vatican.

Vatican is so small it lies almost entirely inside the city of Rome and while Rome used to be the seat of Pope almost entirely throughout the history of Christianity and it’s take over of Roman Empire, the gap is widening every day where Vatican sticks to tradition and history and Romans are trying to move forward..

There are two distinct categories of majority of people who come to Vatican; religious enthusiasts and tourists looking to explore the history and the wonders of this wealthy and yet very holy state.

The Racism Factor 

With a population of 842 people in all and that too almost entirely made of priest folk, racism isn’t really an option for men of God. In these tough times when religion is threatened by media and a keen eye magnifying every small scandal, every one is treated equally. In a strict traditional sense this isn’t a country so the normal rules don’t really apply here.

The Gay Factor 

I almost laughed when I started writing this part and I’m still smirking. I don’t really need to explain the position of Christian church on homosexuality but like I said as long as you’re respectful, you will be treated nicely but no chance of PDA. I think things have also changed  dramatically since Pope Francis took over. He’s quite a rockstar with his moderate views but don’t expect any welcome treatment if you come wearing a rainbow flag.

Value for Money 

Vatican isn’t really a place where you can spend a lot of money other than donating to the church, entrance tickets, a little food which is quite expensive for cafeteria food and what you can spend on the souvenirs shops..

Itinerary

Vatican is a one day affair unless you have special access to more areas and most of the area is done with a guide ideally.

Accommodation

Nope, you have to stay outside the walls in Tome with rest of commoners 😉

Food

The food outside the entrance is very touristy and they charge prices accordingly. I didn’t see much food options inside but the canteen type places are equally expensive because they are for tourists.

Phone & Internet 

The phone reception is flakey like Tome in general and I don’t think God promised free wifi throughout his house so church is offering it at all but there are no special carriers for internet and phone for Vatican.

Cash & Cards 

Cash and cards both are accepted here both for tickets and purchases but donations are cash only mostly 😉

Tips

  • Book your tour and buy your tickets as early as possible and I really mean it. As the time gets near you have fewer or no options and you might have to queue outside for hours.
  • Arrive early for your visit because you will go trough proper security scan.
  • Don’t bring massive bags or trolleys with you, it will just delay your visit.
  • Despite your issues with religions, Christianity or organised religion, you are a visitor, respect everyone and everything.
  • Make sure you’re dressed appropriately or you won’t get entry at all. For girls and guys you need to cover you shoulders and legs and it must be considered ‘decent’.
  • You will find Vatican to be a much better place with the guide but you should book a registered guide from Vatican they are much cheaper. Link is inside the main Vatican page.

Trieste

Trieste is a the capital of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Located close to Slovenian border this amazing city is on a few hours drive to Croatia, Slovenia and Adriatic sea is right at its doorstep. It is one of the richest cities in Italy and it was an important port in Habsburgs dynasty and Austro Hungarian empire. Not a lot of people know this but this beautiful city played a pivotal role in WWI. The city is at the north Eastern top of Italy at the border with Slovenia and Croatia and has a mixed culture with a lot of influence from these Former Yugoslavian countries.  The whole region of Istria was divided after WWIIand Italy gained Trieste whereas the rest of region was located to Yugoslavia which mostly lies in Croatia and some part in Slovenia.

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I happened to be in the city by mistake when I booked my flight back to London from Venice for wrong date. An Italian friend suggested checking out Trieste airport and I booked a flight back through Trieste and I’m ever more thankful for the mistake and Marco’s suggestion. The flights from Trieste are ridiculously cheap and it is barely a couple hours drive from Venice.

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I stayed in Trieste for a day and a half but the time was dramatic enough to remember a lifetime. I got food poisoning from Venice from a seafood pizza and that unfolded rather unpleasantly in Trieste but convulsions and stomach cramps aside I learnt two amazing things:

1- The people in this city have hearts of gold. I was looking for a pharmacy and a passer by walked 10 minutes with me to make sure I was safe and got to a pharmacy safely. He translated the notice outside the pharmacy and put me in the cab and instructed him to take me to the open one near the exchange. My grindr friend who I met for dinner took me to hospital and made absolutely sure I was fine when he left 3 hours later because he was the only one who could translate my problem to Italian being a nurse.

2- The best and most amazing spot to watch the sunrise is right at the top of mountain in from of Cattinara Hospital where you can see the city in the as well as a large chunk of the region.

All Things Trieste

Venice to Trieste

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The coast

The train ride from Venice to Trieste takes roughly 2 hours and the scenery is so beautiful I felt my heart sinking at times. The train takes you through the beautiful north east coast winding up and down the mountains through lush greenery and luckily the sun was setting so the sky was a beautiful orange/red/magenta combination. These are moments I consider myself lucky to be able to travel.

To and From Airport

OMFG! Trieste has the cutest airport ever!!! I arrived quite early and lay down on the grass next to the airport in this big garden, where else could you do that? It is a very small airport with a small security check point and a big room and barely a few flights. It is called International Airport of Ronchi dei Legionari and it is roughly 30 km from the city. You can take bus 51 from the main bus station (very close to the Train Station and few minutes walk from Unita Plaza). The bus takes you around the coast and through very scenic green towns and villages and in roughly an hour you will arrive at this cute little airport, so exciting! (Never thought I would love an airport so much!)

Accommodation

I stayed in an apartment next to Piazza Unita in the centre of town with windows facing the sea which is calm and deep velvet blue. You can walk around, lay down next to it and enjoy the sound of waves like it’s your mothers lap…

Food

The streets of Trieste up and down in the city centre have lots of small and very cute cafes, bars and restaurants but beware they all close quite early. The area around Via Luigi Cadorna and Via Armando Diaz is full of good restaurants. The restaurants on the other side of Plaza Unita around the hills are also quite lively especially in the evening with the bars around. I loved Chimera di Bacco and its location after some sightseeing.

You can try the pastries here and a surprising variety of Austrian cakes like Sacher and Strudel and my favourite gnocchis stuffed with plums. Seafood is also very good and you get a lot of variety. I would highly recommend walking into some small cafe and trying some food yourself. It is quite cheap and clean throughout the city centre.

Gay Trieste

Trieste is quite a small town and the gay scene is very small to almost non existent. The guys on Grindr and scruff all have no face photos and are quite far off but there are a few nice guys there for sure. There are a couple of gay bars and a monthly gay party which is straight friendly but it is mainly a family oriented town and judging by the number of kids playing around everywhere it is not a very gay city. Italy generally isn’t great with gay life and there are hardly any gay quarters in any big city unlike other europeans and North American cities. Checking online there is a Russian bar near Sant’Antonio square in the city which is gay and another entry suggests Iguana bar to be a good gay spot. There is another club called Jota Assassiana that organises a gay night once a month but overall I wouldn’t go to Trieste for its gay scene.

Trieste in a Day

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You can easily see most of truest in a single day but this city is more about the serenity and call than magnificent churches and grand mansions even though there’s no counting of those either. A big part of city was developed under the Austro Hungarian days and the buildings are grand and very elegantly placed and made. The city centre is small and if you stay another day (which I should have) you can also travel to Miramare Castle which is not far from the city. The trams in the city centre are also quite fun and I’d definitely recommend riding one.

Piazza Unita a Trieste

Unity Square or Grand Square is the biggest square in Europe by the sea and it directly faces deep blue beautiful Adriatic sea. The square is used for all sort of public life events for the city and it is an amazing spot to listen to people playing music in the evenings. It is close to pretty much everything including train and bus station and is quite easy to walk everywhere from here and this is the perfect start for a day or night out. It has the main city hall and other public buildings and it is gorgeously lit at night.

Apparently Plaza Unita is a bit of an anomaly because in almost all Italian cities the main square has a church in it with the exception of Trieste which is host to the principality buildings.

Trieste Commodity Exchange Palace

Walk a few minutes from the side street in Unity square and you will reach the very lively Borsa Square which has one of the oldest Commodity Exchanges in the world located within a gorgeous palace. The palace is impressive along with the beautiful square with lots of shops, bars, restaurants and the walk to the back of city centre. It is still a functional exchange. I had some breakfast here after an agonizing night and the spring sun felt really good on a crisp morning with some Adriatic breeze.

Roman Theatre

The Roman theatre is located behind the Unity square through a small walk from the Borsa square. It was built in 1st century AD and it is quite big and in good condition. The city organises concerts and events during the summer at the Roman theatre and when I was there they had some school thing going on with a few girls singing in their sweet little voices. I sat down and heard them and saw them trying to impress their parents which were standing around, it was another beautiful moment, a reminder of sweet childhood.

Sanctuary of Santa Maria Maggiora (Santuario Santa Maria Maggiore di Trieste)

Behind the Roman theatre, a few stairs up stands the biggest and most impressive church of Trieste. There are plenty of churches throughout the city but this is the biggest and the main centre of worship. It was built in 17th century by Jesuits and has an impressive nave. Right next door is another interesting find, a small Romanesque church (Church of San Silvestro) which kind of reminded me of a pair of women; a middle aged daughter holding the hand of her old mother with love). I am way too romantically involved with Trieste I guess, not a bad thing at all..

Trieste has been one of the most tolerant cities in Italy with signs of religious freedom very evident. You can find ancient mosque, synagogue, protestant and catholic churches all in one city with a lot of religious tolerance. Years of incomings from all different part of the world being an important port has hd some effect on this city which is a welcome change in this day and age.

Giardino di Via San Michele

Trieste is generally quite hilly and the trees that cover these hills create a very calm and tranquil environment. I have had some food and felt much better instantly and then walked a few steps up through Via della Cattedrale to this little beautiful garden. The best part is the view from the top. (If you take the other side you will have to come up through a lot of stairs so use this street). You can see the whole city and the harbor with a beautiful garden to chill out in. Grab some green tea or wine and make your afternoon great.

Harbour

Come down through the stairs and walk toward the harbor where you will find a massive calm blanket of deep blue that stretches till it meets the sky of slightly lighter colours. The waves come and go in a calm, easy fashion. I lay down on the concrete bench next to the statues on Molo Audace listening to the waves slowly healing my inside traumatized by last nights ordeal and the tiredness that surrounded me. I watched people come and go without disturbing the equilibrium and finally when it was time, I went to grab my bag from the place which was pretty close and headed to the bus station to catch my bus to the airport but there was one last stop on the way..

Canal Grande

This canal is the Venetian influence on Trieste. Located between the Unity square and the train station it is a beautiful corner of city that you admire every time you pass by it. The canal has a square at the end called Piazza Sant’Antonnio Nuovo and some museums and churches that make it an impressive spectacle, Carlo Schmidl Theatre Museum, the neoclassical church of St. Anthony Thaumaturge, Caffè Stella Polare, (a historic café); St. Spyridion’s Orthodox Temple to name a few..

A few more minutes and I reached the bus station and it was time to say Arrivederci to this stunning city which had taken such good care of me and which I fell in love with in a single day, I shall miss the beautiful sun set by the harbor, the sunset by the hospital and the pleasure in pain that I gained here.

Habsburg palace Miramare castle

Miramare Castle is picturesque, beautiful and after seeing Habsburg residences in Vienna I can imagine the grandeur of this place. The best way to get there is to take bus 6 or 36 from train station or taking an uber or taxi which are quite cheap here. You could spend the whole day there. It has the old stables, palaces, throne room and gardens which are really well kept. In summer it is also served a sealink. You can find more information here.

Italy

Mamma Mia! It will be very difficult to introduce a country that needs no introduction at all!!

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Rome

It all started with Romulus and Remus; the two brothers raised by a wolf who founded Rome which expanded to become the Roman Empire that spanned half of the globe and that gave the world so much of its current form ending up with the current Italy.

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Trieste

The world and especially Europe owes so much to this country in countless fields from arts, law, engineering, fashion, football, culture, literature, theatre, opera, food, city planning and many more that are a gift of Italy throughout its history and its present form.

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Milan

Italy has world famous cities that have no parallel elsewhere; Rome for its history, Florence for its arts and sculptures, Milan for fashion and finance and Venice for its beauty. Italy is truly blessed with a diverse geography with Alps on one side and Sardinia and Sicilian beaches in the south, you can ski one day and lie down on a beach next day enjoying some amazing pizza and pasta with world class wine and not to forget those beautiful gorgeous Italian men, what else do you want from life?

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Florence

Fun fact: Italy has two micro states landlocked within its boundaries; San Marino and Vatican.

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Venice

The Racism Factor 

Italians are generally quite open and warm people and I didn’t feel any racial hatred towards me all the way up north in Trieste to down in Rome. They are very used to tourists in all colour and types and you can easily make friends in any bar in a few minutes, such is the warmth of these lovely people.

You can easily meet and befriend Italians everywhere, the only slight hang up will be the language but most of the younger generation speaks Italian but it is quite funny how easy it is to converse with Italians because of the famous hand gestures.

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Rome

The Gay Factor 

Despite being the country with pope in it (well not technically but who cares?), Italy is quite liberal and they share these habits and openness with Spaniards rather than the clergy. They like being happy with good food and vino and generally people do not show homophobic behaviour. Italy is beautiful and so are the hearts of people living in it.

Grindr is teeming with hot men and every big city has plenty of gay bars and clubs. In the rural areas and South the older generation might not like the sound of being gay but so many of my friends from these areas are gay and out, the landscape has changed massively in recent years.

Generally Italian cities do not have particular gay quarters and gay scene is quite scattered but in most of the big cities you will find bars and clubs or at least

Tip : For a lot of bars and clubs you need a membership card called Anddos Card which you can buy at the entrance of most clubs and bars but you need your I.D. for it and afterwards you can simply use this card. You can get more information and buy it here.

Value for Money 

Italy can be quite expensive especially in bigger cities but it is quite easy to control your budget here. You can easily get good food on good prices and the general provisions are not very expensive The south of the country is generally cheaper compared to north; Venice and Milan being quite expensive along with Rome.

If you book in advance flights, accommodation and city transfers are all quite reasonable and even within bigger cities you can easily spend quality time on budget. I think Italy is one of those places where you can easily be happy in a hostel with lot of friendly people. (Sadly hostels don’t cut it for me so I’d love to get some feedback on this from my readers).

Itinerary

You need at least 3 days in Venice, 4-6 days in Rome, 2 days in Florence, 2 days in Milan and 1-2 days in Trieste to actually see and appreciate the beauty of these cities. While my visit was slightly less than most of the timelines but I am ever so glad I did my research especially for Rome and spent the time really well instead of trial and error. I hope the itineraries in the posts help you as well.

Accommodation

Milan is the city of fashion designers, photographers and models and understandably the gay scene is rich and established. Throw in a few bankers and it becomes fancy as well. Milan being the second biggest city of Italy has a huge population but the gay scene is quite scattered and the only area with relative density is Porta Venezia which is also close to the city centre and the Milan cathedral in the centre of town. We stayed around the Palestro metro station through airbnb and loved how close it was to everything.

For Rome, I’d recommend staying near the central train station because it is really convenient and is very easy to go around from especially with really horrible public transport. Again there’s no particular gay area in Rome.

Florence is quite small and I would highly recommend staying through airbnb in some small city square. I still remember waking up to the window with sun coming out with the square in view and felt like the most blessed person alive. Anywhere in the city centre will do.

Moving on to my other two destinations; Venice and Trieste. In Venice the closer you stay to Grand Canal and Rialto bridge the better it is because Rialto is a convenient place to go everywhere from and in Trieste the best option is staying near the Piazza Unit at the seafront. It is not only close to most places, it is also close to train and bus stations with lots of good food options.

Food

When I travelled to Italy my idea was that Italians only eat pasta and pizza in every part of the country but boy was I proven wrong! Every region has a specialty and they love eating local food which does include some pasta and pizza but it also includes a lot of sausages, meat, fresh vegetables and rissotto.

Food in different regions takes different shapes and forms but it all has one thing in common; it is incredibly delicious and Italy is probably the country with best food options at the lowest rice for budget travellers.

Phone & Internet 

Internet and phone service is quite bad in the country with patchy service pretty much throughout the country even in big cities. Internet is quite slow and wifi connections take ages to load stuff. I would recommend using your roaming because it connects to the strongest signal but if you have to buy a sim card here is a good guide.

Cash & Cards

Cash is generally your friend in Italy and while a lot of places accept card payments there’s still quite a lot who don’t. Because the internet is quite slow most merchants do not bother with it and I would recommend keeping some money especially for smaller places. In this regard North of Italy is much better than South.

Cash machines and money exchange shops are quite common on the other hand and you can easily withdraw money without a lot of issues.

Tips

  • Sunscreen, beach towels, hats and swimming trunks…
  • If you really want to enjoy Italy and Rome you need to familiarise yourself to the history of this impressive empire. You can watch this amazing 8 part detailed series on youtube or this 3 part documentary or my very favourite 3 part series by Mary Beard here.
  • Italy is always packed with tourists in every season and you should always reserve your places and book your tickets in advance.
  • Be careful with your possessions especially on the train and bus stations, my friend lost her bag within seconds on Rome train station. There are also a lot of pickpockets around especially in Rome.

Cordoba

My dad was way more excited about me visiting Córdoba than me but that by no means mean I wasn’t! The poem I read from Allama Iqbal about the Muzquita Catheral of Córdoba when I was young just stuck and it was an object of immense fascination for me. An added advantage was a friend I had made last year in Madrid who’s from Cordoba and he was around as well during my visit which made it simply awesome (Having a local with you is the best thing ever!).

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Cordoba at night

Cordoba is the capital of province of Cordoba and the city used to be the centre of education in Europe back in the day during the Muslim rule with medical schools, universities and schools. You can clearly see it deeply ingrained on the architecture of this beautiful mid-sized city. It’s Moorish past and Christian present have generated a city that considers a mosque beautiful and cathedral hideous on the land of inquisition, how much more honest do you want a city and its citizens to be?

In terms of its size Cordoba is fairly small and you can easily walk around especially in the city centre which is part of UNESCO world Heritage sites with old style cobbled streets, small cafe’s serving great food and people drinking and being merry in the streets outside the bars in small squares.

All Things Cordoba

Getting to Cordoba

Cordoba has an airport but it isn’t functional and the best way to travel to Cordoba from outside is either from Seville or Malaga which are both international airports with excellent connections.

The train to Cordoba from Malaga takes roughly 2 hours. I took a bus from Granada to Cordoba and within 2 hours I was in Cordoba. The views on the way are simply marvelous, you see vineyards, olive groves and open fields and the veer changing landscape didn’t let me get bored at all. The train and bus stations in Cordoba are right opposite each other and at a walking distance to the city centre.

Both the train and bus station are neat and clean and quite modern and have good connections to the rest of the country. I would recommend booking your tickets in advance though. For this part of Spain a really good website is ALSA. For trains you can use Trainline Europe.

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Train Station

Food

In Cordoba you will find a good variety of food and a lot of options from typical Andalucían style Tapas to rather contemporary cafes in old town with great food. You generally get free tapas with a drink and that’s how the night is run.

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Churos

Churrossssss with hot chocolate is the perfect breakfast and it is so readily available around, try some small cafe though, their food is almost always amazing.

Rabo de Toro is a specialty of Cordoba which is a bull’s tale and my god it is amazing.Another awesome thing to try is the fried aubergine with honey and you will get an amazing and wide range of Wine here if that’s your thing.

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Bodegas Mezquita had the best Rabo de Toro

Mercado Victoria is located on one tip of the city centre and I would definitely recommend spending a night here. It is a modern food market with lots of good food options and there is a couple of bars, a club upstairs and even a shisha cafe within its boundary. You will get whatever you desire at this one stop shop.

I wrote the reviews for three quite good restaurants during my visit, have a look here.

Public Transport

I didn’t bother with it and most probably you won’t either. Everything is at walking distance that you want to see other than Medina Azahra which you will need a bus or taxi for. It was a bit far and I wasn’t bothered so I didn’t go there. Besides I didn’t think I’d be impressed after Alhambra and Generalife anyway.

Free Walking Tour

The Free Tour Cordoba guys were really awesome and provided detailed infor on the city and its past linking it to current day, quite a feat in 2 hours but very well done! You don’t need to book in advance but I’d recommend it. The guide was informative and local and kept things very light and bright throughout the tour.

Patios and Flamenco

Cordoba has amazing and beautiful patios especially in the old town and the Jewish quarter and a lot of these places have been turned into restaurants and cafes where you can watch Flemanco shows. I bought the tickets from the tour guide and it was a good enough experience. (I didn’t expect to understand the intricacies of the dance or music in one night anyway).

Gay Cordoba

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You will come across a lot of hot guys on Grindr who are extremely sweet and friendly but there aren’t many gay bars or clubs in the city though the gay scene is vibrant and you won’t feel uneasy. The whole city was plastered with images of almost naked men which was part of some theatre production. You should try Glam and Rush if you’d like to visit some gay venues.

Day 1

You can easily see everything in Córdoba in a single day but I have divided it into 2 days like I did to relax and enjoy the friendly vibe of this city. I visited during the Easter period so it was extra festive and I got to see the Easter processions as well which were quite awesome.

Plaza de las Tendillas –> Roman Ruins City Centre –> Plaza la Corredera –> Plaza del Potro –>  Catedral Mezquita de Cordoba –> Roman Bridge –> Mercado Victoria

Plaza de las Tendillas

Plaza de las Tendillas is the central square of the town and you can see why. It has the famous clock tower which rings the guitar sound ‘Soleares Accords’ recorded by guitarist Juanito Serrano.

The square used to have small shops around the square which is where it gets its name (tiendas). The modern face of square has ornate buildings. People of Cordoba consider this the heart and soul of the city and this is where Christmas market, fairs and events happen especially NYE when the whole town counts down from 12 seconds with the clock music. (So bizarre I am writing this on 1st of Jan, 2017).

The square is completely pedestrianised and you can head out to any of the main avenues in the city from here with plenty of options to shop and eat around here. There is a statue of Don Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordoba also known as The Captain in the middle of square which is where I met the waking tour people and we started our journey through this beautiful city. Another statue lies on top of another building and you can see two fountains in the square.

Tip: There’s quite a few places to get breakfast around here especially the small cafes have amazing churros which come with a espresso sized cup of hot chocolate, dip it or sip it..

Roman Ruins City Centre

Córdoba is a prehistoric city and the Romans conquered it in 206 BC and you will see the ruins of Roman temple in the middle of the city next to city hall with excavation still going on. The structure stands quite tall and has a different and impressive presence. The city centre is UNESCO world heritage site. This is the only Roman temple in Cordoba with archeological evidence and it was dedicated to the cult of the Emperor.

In the evening it was a different site though when the procession was passing through this street (Calle Capitulares) and with the Church of San Pablo (Iglesia de San pablo) in the background it is a solemn and sober affair. You can see the ornate and decorated floats passing through but they are kept in a different church not so far away and you are more than welcome to go pay your respects or take pictures which I gladly did.

Plaza la Corredera

Through the red bricked streets of Córdoba unwinding and opening, we arrived at this square which is an awesome place to chill out for the locals with the buildings around converted into bars and the open area in the middle used for seating.

The square takes its history from Roman times when it used to be the Roman Forum and then it was used for bullring and you can clearly see the corridor from where the poor bull ran in to the square to its death. Bull fighting is no longer allowed and I’d recommend heading there before Mercado Victoria to get a feel of local social life. It feels very rural, very cordial and very chilled out, I am ever so glad my friend took me there and the evening was spent eating pumpkin seeds and drinking cocktails. (I’m sorry but no matter how hard I try I just can’t drink beer so if that’s your thing it will be much easier).

Plaza del Potro

The way from Plaza la Corredera to Plaza del Potro has cobbled streets, old style moorish houses and small squares with palm trees and houses laden with bougnevalia vines with flowers half pink and half white flowers on the yellowish walls, it is so romantic and charming you just want to give up your life and stay in Cordoba.

The Plaza is relatively small and has a plinth in the middle with a statue of a Potro (colt) on the top and a few tourist restaurants around. I wouldn’t recommend eating here because they looked very touristy.

Tip: If you see any place with pictures on the food menu, skip it.

The Plaza used to be the place where cattle was bought and sold and later it got famous because of the paintings and the artists that decided to stick around. There are two art museums on each side of the square. another claim to fame for this square is its mention in Don Quixote.

 

Catedral Mezquita de Cordoba

Finally we reached Mezquita Cathedral and you start feeling the scale and beauty of this wonder of a building. When we arrived it was after lunch and there weren’t as many people around so we got the tickets quite easily without standing in the queue.

Tip: The street next to Mezquita cathedral has some really cool and interesting places for lunch and dinner.

This grand building is also called The Great Mosque of Cordoba, Mezquita and its proper name is Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption (Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción). This was originally a church in Roman times and when the Moors conquered Cordoba they converted half of it in to a mosque and the other half remained a church until the Caliph bought the other half and the whole site was converted into a mosque. The central courtyard is designed for a mosque. I could see the structure with its solid wooden doors, the beautiful arches and the detailed calligraphic work that adorns the arches with Quranic verses on the outside towards the right outer wall next to the roman bridge.

The church tower was a replacement of a mosque style minaret and looks slightly out of place with the surroundings.. Taking the dense air in, I walked inside and the poem just kept ringing in my ears like a a mesmaraising chant.

In the chronicle of Love there are times other than the past, the present and the future;
Times for which no names have yet been coined…

You can find the full poem here.

The mosque is divided into sections based on the expansion done by successive caliphs with 856 columns. The arches inside are symmetrical and wherever you go you see the same jungle with their red bricks , onyx, granite and marble until you reach the middle with the cathedral nave standing in all its vengeance for Moors. It is an impressive construction and had it been elsewhere I would have loved it but standing between the mosque, I realised in an instant why the people of Córdoba think it’s hideous. It’s like someone wear a chic evening gown and then added 10 different jewellery pieces to show off; a complete disaster.

I slowly walked towards the central arch where the cleric leads the prayer and it was just jaw dropping beauty with so much simplicity in its surrounding you can’t stop looking at it. The detailed work with beautiful calligraphy in gold with alternating colours is covering the whole of arch.

I sat there taking the beauty of this place in and I didn’t realise when an hour passed and the light getting mistimed with the sun moving away towards the west. I slowly picked up my tote bag and said good bye with a heavy but content heart, I have had the privilege to live it, breath it and take it back with me in my mind forever.

 

Roman Bridge (Puente Romano) 

The roman bridge is right behind the Mezquita Cathedral and with Calahorra tower on the far side and a statue of San Rafael in the middle. The bridge connects both sides of the city on river Guadalquivir and the views on both sides are unparalleled especially at sunset and sunrise. The bridge was built by Romans and then expanded and restored by the Moors making it one of the most beautiful bridges in Spain.

I sat there watching the sun go down and sky turning red t orange to purple hue and the light coming on in the city lighting up the night sky. I would definitely recommend watching the sunset here.

Mercado Victoria

Finally the day was over and I met my friend at Mercado Victoria to get some dinner and drinks. There were many options to choose from and you can pick and mix a variety of food here in small portions.

The market has a few bars, a shisha lounge and later at night a night club on the top floor; how handy! Later that night we headed to Glam and then rush for the gay nightlife in Córdoba and finally hit the bed at 4am.

Day 2

Alcazar –> Jewish Quarter –> Puerta de Almodovar –-> Medina Azahra

Alcazar

I woke up and after a shower and lazy breakfast headed to see the rest of the town. Some coffee sorted my head and the pleasant walk to Alcazar brought back the tourist spirit.

Alcazar comes from the Arabic words which means The palace and while this is explicitly called Alcazar of Christian Monarchs the design and style is very Moorish with gardens and ponds and Royal baths made in the typical Moorish style.

The queue outside was very long for the tickets but luckily I had bought my ticket in advance so walked through and then the beautiful tour began (which I accidentally deleted pictures of and hated myself for it).

The palace, towers, Royal baths and the beautiful gardens make it just the right place to spend an amazing few hours and finally when I’ve had my fill and felt energised, I walked to the Jewish Quarter.

Jewish Quarter (Juderia)

The Jewish Quarter of Cordoba is one of the biggest in Europe and is probably the best preserved part of the old town in Cordoba. It is home to the synagogue and souk (market) and a walk around will tell you how prosperous the Jews were ironically during the Muslim rule. ice the christians took hold, a lot of Jews were expelled and the downfall began. The most notable name among those who migrated was Maimonides who was a revolutionary thinker and philosopher and you can see his statue in the Jewish quarter.

 

The Almodóvar Gate (Puerta de Almodovar)

This gate is the only one left out of 9 built by the Moorish kings and the views around it are very beautiful. You can see the city walls and the gardens around it with a statue of Seneca on one side of door. It is usually the entrance to the Jewish Quarter and it does give a feeling that the city centre is over because as soon as you step out tiny streets are replaced by massive ones and scale of things change dramatically.

Medina Azahra

Now I spent the rest of my time with my friend and his friends you also have the option to go see Medina Azahra which is a little out of the city centre and I’d recommend getting a taxi, uber or taking a tour there. There’s plenty of tour operators in town and I think it only takes a few hours.

Cordoba is a beautiful mix of modern Spain, Moorish past and Roman history that go together so well you can’t help fall in love with the city. The people of Cordoba especially the guys make it even more difficult to leave but it was time to pack the bags because the beach was calling from Malaga and I had to get rid of the winter pales badly, I’ll see you guys there…

Switzerland

Switzerland is the most beautiful on this planet and I don’t know anyone who would disagree. Despite being landlocked this small country has been blessed with so much natural beauty and such dedicated people that it is almost impossible not to fall in love with whichever corner you visit.

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River Rhine in Basel

This small country has 26 cantons and 4 main regions based on the 4 languages spoken; French, Italian, German and Romansh. The country has a different name is each language; Schweiz in GermanSuisse in FrenchSvizzera in Italian and Svizra in Romansh and in case these are not enough the name on the currency is Helvetia, which is the Latin name for the country.

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Zurich

It is quite a bizarre thing but most Swiss feel a closer association to the bordering country than other parts of Switzerland that speak a different language and yet everything is running very smoothly. So smooth infact that it is the wealthiest country in the world per capita and Zurich is also always among the top 5 most expensive cities in the world and I never heard any one living there complaining. The infrastructure is kept in pristine condition no matter which part of Switzerland you are in.

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Chateau d’Oex near Montreux

Most cities in Switzerland have a lake in the city or nearby with more than 1500 lakes in this small country and the views in each direction are simply breathtaking. The French alps stand cover more than 60% of the country and the views are unparalleled with ski resorts and spas that let you enjoy the snow outside in hot tubs. The cheeses and chocolates of Switzerland are considered the best quality and without exaggeration I have seen massive stores full of chocolates with so much variety you want to live in there forever.

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Geneva

The country is also the birthplace of Red Cross and has the second biggest UN office along with probably the biggest luxury boutiques collection. If I were given a chance to see only 1 country in the world, I would choose Switzerland without hesitation but I would strongly recommend visiting in Winter and Summer to see the beauty of this place is different seasons and it will impress you, gauranteed!

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Lausanne

 

The Racism Factor 

Swiss are very reserved people, perhaps the most reserved in the whole of Europe and they don’t like showing emotions especially in public. I never heard any children crying or being loud and that’s not necessarily a good thing. I felt the certain air of coldness from people but that’s the character of Swiss rather than a racist behaviour. A few times that I did interact with people they were kind enough and guided me in as much detail as possible. People on the French side were a bit more cordial than the German side though. All in all Swiss are cold and reserved but not racist, at least not to your face.

The Gay Factor 

Switzerland is a very liberal country and with a near perfect literacy rate homophobia is very uncommon in the society. There’s a lot of people on grindr and most of them are very hot. Well Swiss guys are quite good looking because they are mostly tall and athletic.

Fun Fact: The personal guards of Pope or the Swiss guards also come from Switzerland and there’s a strict criteria to be part of that elite group.

There is however a slightly more drugsie scene in bigger cities especially in Zurich and both the clubs I went to, people were off their faces on heavy drugs which was a little heart breaking. You won’t feel any threat in Switzerland for being gay and everyone is really liberal about it.

Fun fact: Switzerland is the first country that legalised gay civil unions and by massive public support through a referendum and not just a law in parliament. The mayor of Zurich is lesbian and is very loved.

Value for Money 

Woof! Switzerland is ridiculously expensive unless you earn in Swiss Francs. The standard of life is very high in Switzerland and so are prices. You really need quite a lot of money even if you are travelling on budget. The best way to avoid this situation is to be prepared and budget tightly. Luckily I stayed with my friends both times so they knew the ins and outs but on my own it would be quite expensive.

Itinerary

I visited Zurich in summer of 2013 and then Basel, Montreux, Lauzzane and Geneva in winter of 2014/2015 and both my trips made me fall in love with this place and I want to go back at every single opportunity. Zurich and Basel are located in the German region and the other three cities are in the French side, I have yet to visit the Italian side though.

Swiss cities are not very big and you can easily see them in 2 days but I’d recommend 3 days in each city so you can go out of the city to explore the nature as well which is an integral part of Swiss life so don’t forget to pack some sturdy shoes.

Accommodation

Accommodation in Switzerland is the biggest expense and I’d highly recommend looking at all options. For Zurich the best area to stay is around the city hall or Rathaus which is also the gay area in the city and very easy to move around from there.

For Basel the best area is around the central station and you can easily move from there.

For Montreux, Lausanne and Geneva I’d recommend staying in one city like Montreux and travelling around. The other cities are quite close by and very quick to travel to.

For Geneva I’d recommend staying near the central Geneve station which is in the centre and has some good gay venues around but also easy to travel around from.

Food

Chocolates and Cheeses! Swiss know how to use both of them and there is so much variety of fondue in this country from white wine to champagne that you can have a different one for each meal and it still won’t be enough after a month and the condiments are endless but extremely delicious. The Swiss also take pride in the whole set up of Fondue eating just like the Japanese tea ceremony; the table is set and there is special cutlery and then the cheese pot will arrive and you will be served with bread and baby potatoes and then the condiments (My favourite is Bresaola beef).

Tip: You shouldn’t drink cold drinks with Fondue because it will harden the cheese in your stomach. Order or make some green tea and a brisk walk after fondue won’t let you feel heavy and queasy.

Another fun thing to try is the Raclette cheese which is used for melting. Large slices of cheese are melted is special trays and then eaten with boiled potatoes and pickles and the way this cheese melts is just mouth watering.

The third thing to try is another Swiss specialty; Rosti. It is like potato fritters and it is mainly a breakfast dish. I tried it with half fried eggs and it was my favourite breakfast throughout.

And last but by no means the least, Chocolate! You will find each size, type and variety of chocolate in this country. Supermarkets have whole sections dedicated to chocolate and you just can’t have enough of it from Chocolate pizza to chocolate fondue to chocolate fountains with marsh mellows and fruits.

If you love chocolate you should try the one with chilli and sea salt, my two new discoveries and my new absolute favourites!

Phone & Internet 

Phone and internet reception is very good in Switzerland in big cities. The signals do tend to be weak in far off places especially at higher altitudes but that’s understandable. You can find full details of pre paid sim card here.

Now since Switzerland is neither in EU or EEA, the roaming charges caps do not apply so be very careful using your phone in this country. It is best to buy a local sim card but you have to be careful there as well. You need to activate a package and after initial 4GB your internet speed is reduced to almost nothing and you will have to wait till next month or pay 5 Francs a day which sucks.

Wifi and internet is really good and quite easily available everywhere so use Wifi instead of mobile data or heat stuff like watching videos, downloading stuff or uploading pictures and videos.

Cash & Cards 

The official currency of Switzerland is Swiss Franc and it is denoted by CHF. Card payments are accepted almost universally in the country and you will find card and cash machines almost everywhere although you don’t need cash for most of the stuff.

Currency exchanges are also fairly common especially the city centres and tourist hotspots. You won’t need a lot of cash to rely on but I think Taxis and public transport requires cash especially public transport requires coins to buy tickets.

Tips

  • Plan your trip and book your accommodation in advance, Switzerland can be very expensive last minute.
  • Preparing one meal a day or two will keep your budget in check.
  • Book your tours in advance as well as ski tickets and reservations are done months in advance.
  • Pack for heavy winter because at higher altitudes it is extremely cold.
  • Instead of taking flights, drive or take a train and you will see some amazing views.
  • Sunscreen and sunglasses area must at higher altitude to protect your eyes and skin from UV radiation.
  • Don’t forget to go hiking, the views from mountain tops are a sheer and utter pleasure.
  • In summers don’t forget to visit some lakes, most big cities have one in the middle.
  • Always check the temperature outside before stepping out, it could be ridiculously cold one day and quite temperate the next.
  • Keep some change on your for the public transport.

 

Turkey

Turkey is the land of Rumi, an association so close to my heart I always feel a sense of deep respect towards the country. Sandwiched between Asia and Europe the country’s capital, Istanbul is the only capital in the world that exists in two continents at the same time.

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Istanbul

With some gorgeous neighbours and access to both Mediterranean and Black sea Turkey has a diverse geography and cultural heritage. I also love the fact that my name is the same as the empire of Ottomans; a very proud association which makes me feel very royal 😉

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Denizli

Blessed with beautiful beaches, clear seas, long sunny days and natural beauty Turkey has something to offer to everyone whatever your budget and your desire. People are so incredibly beautiful and warm you never feel uneasy or alien.

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Izmir

The country is in a bit of turmoil at the moment but this once mighty empire changed the course of history and the map of Europe so many times it is inseparable from the history of both continents and it is playing a central role again. Until recently Turkey has been a model of progressive modern Muslim country where you could see the headscarves and bikinis right next to each other without any prejudice towards either. I sincerely hope things get better for this little paradise and very soon.

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Pammukale

Despite a very Middle Eastern identity Turks always had a distinct culture in the region with ties to both Farsi speaking Persia and Arab speaking Syria and Lebanon without sectarianism affecting this mutual respect and love. Turkish is a distinct language and Ataturk romanised the script to align the country more to Europe and liberal principles which worked quite well.

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Selcuk (Ephesus)

The Racism Factor 

Turks are very cordial and beautiful people inside and out and everyone greets you with so much love and warmth it is amazing. I never felt I was being discriminated against at any level anywhere be it smaller towns or big cities. This incredible warmth is mainly part of the welcoming culture especially in smaller cities and towns rather than a tourist grabbing trick, don’t be suspicious! Go in and enjoy this beautiful country without any hesitation no matter who you are.

The Gay Factor 

This is slightly tricky in Turkey. As a Muslim majority country Turkey has made incredible progress towards liberalizing sexuality, it still is a bit of a thorny area. In bigger cities no one cares if you’re gay especially if you do not flaunt and PDA is out of bounds.

There is a huge gay population especially in Istanbul with a few clubs and bars as well. Grindr has been banned from the country but people use Hornet or Scruff instead and they are teeming with hot and gorgeous guys that are very friendly and sweet. Language, however is an issue because a lot of them do not speak or understand English.

All in all being gay is absolutely fine but you need to give PDA some rest and turn down the sass level and you will have a great time in Turkey.

Another slightly worrying trend was the rugs scene in Istanbul which is expanding fast with a lot of people looking for these adventures which was a little sad to discover. Also majority of the guys smoke in Turkey, more than any other country I have been to so be prepared for that as well…

Fun Fact: Guys holding hands in public doesn’t mean they are gay. Straight friends will do that with Middle East being very touchy feely and you can easily hold hands in public without any backlash, smooching and kissing is another matter..

Value for Money 

Turkey is expensive and cheap both. The main centre in Istanbul can be as expensive as any major city in Europe but the smaller cities are quite cheap especially for food. If you book your accommodation in advance and get it cheap it can be pretty cheap otherwise. Visiting Izmir or other smaller cities like Denizli is a cheap affair. Food is very cheap and delicious and we didn’t touch any fast food throughout our stay.

Itinerary

I visited Turkey in summer of 2015 and visited Istanbul for 4 days, Izmir for 2 days and spent 1 and a half day in Pammukale, Denizli and Selcuk. While you can spend a lot more time in Istanbul the smaller cities can be easily seen in much less time. You definitely need to spend some times on the beaches in this country which are some of the best in Europe.

Accommodation

Accommodation in Turkey is probably the biggest expense and if you want a good place you should book it in advance.

For Istanbul you should stay near Istaklal avenue which is the centre of town on the new side of the town. We divided our time between the old city centre and Istaklal Avenue which gave us a good coverage of places to see in both sides of the town.

For Izmir, staying in the city centre is the best option from where you can take the public transport to the beaches. There are also some good options to stay in Cesme near the beach if you don’t mind staying a bit far from the city.

For other cities we stayed in a hotel at the bottom of the hill in Pammukale which was amazing.

Food

Imagine fresh BBQ meat with lots of grilled vegetables with baklawa at the end. Turkish food is very diverse and extremely sumptuous. The country has a very meat based diet but vegetarians and vegans won’t find themselves lost here because there are a lot of things you can have without meat.I love the mixed kebabs which includes bbq’d lamb and chicken in different forms with salad and rice.

In summer you have to try the Yogurt drink called Ayran. It does wonders and you will have the best siesta of your life on this stuff and there’s no alcohol in it.

On the sweeter side you will find so many types of baklawa, it is mind-boggling. Baklawa is the puff pastry with pistachios covered with sweet syrup and it is quite heavy. Another amazing thing is Turkish Delight which are small fragrant jelly cubes in a lot of different flavours. I loved the rose and pomegranate flavours. (I just drooled a bucket thinking about this stuff..)

Turkey is a big country and cusine varies quite a lot, I tried a few restaurants and you can find suggestions for each city below:

Phone & Internet 

Phone reception is quite good throughout the country and you can get working phones and good data speed everywhere not just in big cities. Internet and Free wifi is common in big cities but you will have to rely on mobile data for smaller cities. I bought a Vodafone sim card for my stay that worked very well for me although you need to go to a store or buy it at the airport but you need to take your passport with you. Ask the guys to set it up for you with the package because it can be quite complicated. You can find more info here.

Cash & Cards 

The official currency of Turkey is Lira and it is denoted by TRY. Although card payments are quite common in big cities but most towns will not take card payments and you need to keep cash. Even in the older districts card payments are not very common so cash is your friend here and it is generally safe to keep some on you.

Cash machines are quite common in cities and so are the currency exchange but be very careful of the one’s in tourist hotspots because they will rip you off massively.

Tips

  • Turkey is an Islamic country but drinking alcohol is not restricted but you shouldn’t drink in public. It is frowned upon and can get you in trouble.
  • Sunscreen, Beach towels, hats and swimming trunks.
  • Public transport is quite good, instead of booking tours use trains and busses especially for Pammukale.
  • Google Translate is very helpful because a lot of population doesn’t speak or understand English.
  • Don’t feel bad if a woman doesn’t shake hand with you especially the women with headscarves, it just isn’t part of their culture and you should ask men for info rather than women.
  • Getting a taxi to a gay club isn’t the best idea, ask for the general area and get off at a little distance, some of the taxi drivers can be quite rude.
  • Turkish people are generally very warm and a smile will take you a long way.
  • As always respect their culture because you are in their country and not the other way around.
  • If you want to shop for stuff go to the old town and stay clear of tourist markets.
  • Bargain, bargain and bargain, that’s the golden rule for shopping.