Sunday, 28 April 2013

Un poco de Madrid...

Bex couldn't resist trying on a new dress

Bullfighting, sangria and Madrid, el capital de Espana. Continuing on my Eurotrip, once again I used Eurolines bus transport. I made my away across the dusty french landscapes and, 18 hours later, found myself in the land of sexy senoritas and hunky hombres.

This is where the party really began and my taste for spanish nightlife kicked in. Myself and travel pal stayed in one of the best hostels I had seen thus far. Cat's Hostel is set in the city centre and surprisingly there are no cats in the hostel, thank god. In fact, the local Madrid people are nicknamed cats because they are always out and about, hence the name.

Located off a narrow alleyway, the building is an 18th century palace and boasts culture and history. It is adorned with quirky decor and archaic awnings making it a rather rad place to stay.  With a bar and common room we were soon making friends and heading out to numerous fiestas.  

On any trip a hostel can make a huge difference if you're able to pick a decent one. BEX FYI: Try to be based as central as possible, read reviews beforehand and a bar or common room is always a bonus as you're then bound to meet some new travel buds.

This hostel, like most others, offered a range of tours, including a free walking tour. However, if it’s your first time in Spain, a tapas tour is highly recommended. It gives you a flavour of the Spanish culture while gently introducing you to Spanish delicacies- pigs ear being one of the most popular. 

Eating and drinking aside, there is an array of culture to soak up in Madrid. On arrival I had thought differently. I couldn’t list anything I particularly wanted to see or do, with no famous landmarks pitching it as a competitor to Paris. But I was wrong and soon discovered the history that lay deep in old Madrid.

Dotted around the city are marks left by the years of conflict during the Spanish civil war, 1936-1939, and the dictatorship under Franco. The history walking tour details the role the city played during that time and is a recommendation for any history buff. 

Today, Madrid enjoys a monarchy and you can visit their residence in Madrid. The Palacio de Madrid is a tourist hot-spot and a more exotic version of our own Buckingham Palace. You can walk around the gardens and state rooms to sample a bit of the royal life.

The Museo del Prado is another site worth visiting. It is the country’s official art gallery and even for those with no artistic interest, it is worth a visit.

Palaces, museums and clubs, sounds like any standard european city. It may be that on each getaway you visit similar sites but, in my experience, each city is unique and has its own story to tell. A parisian church may have once been the home to Quasimodo and a Madrid church may have been home to a group shoeless sisters (The Covent of the Royal Barefoot Sisters).One may smell of croissants and the other of patatas. Either way when many claim all cities seem the same they would be wrong. They may all have churches and museums, night clubs and restaurants but it is the history, the people and the culture that make each destination unique and deserving of a click of our cameras.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013


Tour de Eiffel

By this point, I think we are all US-ed out. We’ve travelled east coast to west coast, and have probably devoured all the chunky chips and diet soda we can stomach. It’s time for a European twist. 

Cobbled streets and hidden art, a touch of glamour and a thirst for fashion, wistful romance and petit delights-Paris, a unique and sacred city that habours an elegance and charm that no other city has.

Thinking it was time I explored some of Europe’s own treasures, I decided to see what I could using Eurolines bus travel. The cheap and reliable service takes travelers across the continent from city to city. It’s an affordable way to travel, as long as you don’t mind enduring that blocked-toilet smell and an overweight stranger nestling into your shoulder. 

Once you reach your destination though, you soon forget the long and restless journey and are met with vibrance and colour, glamour and style. Paris is a bustling hub overspilling with stereotypical floppy-haired musicians and artists, interspersed with french beauties offering pastries and wine. 

The city has numerous hostels well-equipped for backpackers, however in the heart of a European capital they don’t come cheap. 25-€30 a night is the going rate but Aloha hostel was a good buy. It provided all we needed and was in a perfect location. 

BEX FYI: Location is key as you don’t want to spend precious time traipsing all over town.

It also offered a Sandeman’s free walking tour. As a tour lover, the fact that it was free had me spilling with geeky excitement. Led by young people, the Paris tour provided historical and cultural information tailored to a younger age group. 

There are all the must-see museums, like the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay. There’s also the spectacular monuments, like the Arc de Triomphe and the Sacre Coeur. The tour brings you to each of these famous faculties whilst also exposing the hidden jewels you never knew existed. 

A few days in Paris is certainly not enough, there is always more to see and do which is why many people never tire of the city. The Louvre itself could have you lost for days in the world of art and sculpture. After 5 hours, myself and Jenna had still not seen it all and so we returned the next day determined to find Miss Mona Lisa

And how could I not mention the Eiffel Tower. Of course it is not to be missed and you could see it time and time again and still be overwhelmed by its grandeur. Night up the Eiffel tower provides some of the best views of the city as it sparkles below- if you can find a few parisian hunks to accompany you then all the better. Myself and Jen did one better than that though. With my celeb spotting eyes on, sipping coffee in a cafe round from the tower,we found Jackson Rathbone (aka Jasper from Twilight). Oh yes, forget experiencing a moonlit Eiffel with a french fittie, we found ourselves a vampire...

I could spend hours detailing the quirky patisseries that need a visit, the famous museums that must be explored, the intricate artworks that must be discovered, but I would be here all day and you’d be clicking away. What I will say is that often the best moments in Paris are those of doing nothing. Forget all the things “you just have to see” and merely saunter through the rustic alleyways, pause to savour a sweet crepe and enjoy the entertainment poised at every corner. The stroll alone will have you tasting the Parisian flurry of passion that floats in the air of the city of romance.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

I wanna be a Harvard girl!!

Our "mini-me" Barbies getting cosy in Harvard's Admissions Office (Bex, Kerry, Whitney and Cathy)

After a third summer at camp, it was time to hit the road again and visit another big dog on the east coast. Boston is the capital of the state of Massachusetts and located only four hours drive away from New York City. It’s well known as the home to Fenway Park and Harvard University.

Megabus drivers must have wondered what was happening when fifty hungover and exhausted camp counsellors arrived at the bus depot, eager to clamber on board. After three days of non-stop New York action everyone had dark rings circling their eyes and a pasty complexion plastered on their face.

Once in Boston, many people did the usual and booked a single hotel room only to cram an extra 8 people into it. There are however, a variety of hostels in Boston, averaging at around $25 per night, so if you don’t feel like sharing half a pillow with a sweaty “I washed last week” kind of guy then there are other options.

Good Will Hunting, Legally Blonde and The Social Network are just some of the movies filmed in Boston and, more importantly, in Harvard. I was right there, sunglasses on, camera in one hand ready to snap away and Barbie in the other. Yes, you heard right. Before we left NYC, myself and my travel gals made a trip to Toys R Us and bought "mini-me" Barbies as mascots for our trip. At 21 we may have looked a little immature but Barbie Bex is a little reminder I'll always have of the Boston banter. 

Harvard is over 375 years old and is known for its Ivy League schooling that has educated the likes of Barack Obama, Matt Damon and Natalie Portman.

A little too keen, myself and the girls roamed around the big white buildings and pretty parks until we had to admit we were lost. Harvard does offer student-led, free tours-definitely the better option. After an hour of aimlessly wandering and finding ourselves in some second year canteen, we were reduced to inconspicuously tagging onto the back of a tour. The tour offers all the historical information on Harvard, highlighting key moments in its history and the people who made Harvard what it is.

The campus itself was regal, pretty and pristine. Every intricate archway and stone step possessed years of American history. As a typical geek, Harvard fascinated me with its traditions, rituals and stories. 

During the tour I came across an abandoned Harvard tie, and by came across I mean stole. I thought this might make me look more like a smart Harvard intellect and with my glasses on I almost blended in. The tie now hangs above my bed as a piece of Boston memorabilia.

The Red Sox stadium (Fenway Park) is another Boston highlight and, even if you don’t get to watch a game, the stadium is worth a visit to see where one of the best baseball teams is based. 

Boston Common was my favourite place in the city. Seeking some quiet and relaxation, it was the perfect place to chill out with a picnic and observe a a slice of Boston life. The 50 acre park is a hub for tourists, workers and students, and unfortunately the random crazies too. 

BEX FYI: People watching is a great way to get a feel for a place but be careful you don’t attract the wayward men that like to share their life stories.

Night time in Boston was a bit more lively. With so many of us in the one city, all the Round Lakers would meet for dinner, head to a Boston bar and the banter would begin. This involved creating a fake birthday in order to get some free cake, getting lost for hours while trying to find “the best club in Boston’ and busking with an Adele wannabe. Unfortunately, I don't think the girl whose performance we hijacked made any money off of our guest appearance but we definitely gave a crowd.

It’s often random moments like these that make for the best travel memories.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

"Obama, I'm On My Way..."

Reflecting Pool and Lincoln Memorial

Exploring the east coast, it was finally time to head to the capital of the United States of America, Washington DC- home of the White house, the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument.
I was excited to begin Obama spotting, start my quest to find Air Force One and sit on Lincoln’s knee. 
After touring for a few days with the guys, I ditched all but one and boarded back on the cheap and cheery Megabus. The journey from Philly to D.C cost around $14 and took two and a half hours.
Once again we lucked out on accommodation and ended up in a small motel in the heart of the suburbs. We had booked a standard hotel, as there are very few hostels, but unbeknown to us there were two of these hotels. One was located in the city centre and one on the outskirts. Typically, we ended up in the dodgy outskirts confined to the hotel each night for yet more safety precautions. Washington D.C’s nightlife would just have to wait.  
Getting into the city centre was easy enough. We took the local bus but, in a predominantly African- American area, we got more than a few stares, and with Robb’s bouncy blonde curls there was no way we were blending in. Although we felt like we were in a zoo, people were friendly and seemed mostly confused as to why two young tourists had ventured so far out of the city. 
In late August the weather was scorchingly hot, so going earlier on in the year is advisable so you can wander around without the guy standing next to you honking of B.O. 
First on the agenda, the White House. As an Obama fan I jumped up and down trying to get a glimpse of the president, but no luck. This did not stop me however, from telling my12 year old brother back home that I had had tea with the president. Used to my cheeky tricks, he asked for photographic evidence and luckily my picture in front of the white house with Obama’s head superimposed sufficed. I now await the day he turns and asks me about the time I met Barack- obviously we are on first name terms- and I’m forced to tell him the truth, that dining with B-dog is merely a dream.
Next was the Washington Monument leading up to the Lincoln Memorial. Just walking from site to site was a great experience. Washington is filled with gorgeous, green parks that are surrounded by perfect, white buildings. With the sunglasses on and ice lolly in hand it was bliss. 
The monument is the world’s tallest stone structure and was built in honour of George Washington in 1884. It is a great symbol of American history and situated perfectly between the Reflecting Pool and Memorial. The three create that iconic image we see on movies and this made me more than snap happy.
Moving on to Lincoln Memorial, here is a piece of info no one ever told me, there are lots of stairs!! In the sweltering heat climbing up to the Memorial makes you feel like your crawling in the desert with a monkey on your back. BEX FYI: water, water and more water; drink it, but make sure it’s bottled!
The deadly steps are worth the climb though. Inside the pillared building there is a cool breeze and an array of history to behold. Lincoln’s two most famous speeches are inscribed on the walls that encase the statue of Lincoln himself. This statue is huge and I was disappointed to learn that there was no way I’d be sitting on that knee. Aside from honoring Abraham Lincoln, the memorial also held host to a number of important speeches including Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream.”
I stood in the same spot thinking about my dream...“Obama, Obama...”

Monday, 1 April 2013


South Street's House of Recycling

After spending several months in Pennsylvania I felt somewhat guilty that all I’d really seen were the vance expanses of green that stretched across glittering lakes and woodland forests. I needed to see more of the state and Philadelphia seemed like the perfect place to go.

It is the second largest city on America’s east coast and is one of the state’s most visited locations. This could be because there’s something for the history buff, the ultimate movie fan, the food critic and the more bohemian type among us. 

To reach Philadelphia we took the two hour Megabus ride from New York which cost a mere $10-bargain! Bus travel across America is the cheapest way to get around and companies like Megabus and Greyhound are extremely reliable and offer regular services cross-country.

Whilst getting there was cheap enough, finding affordable accommodation was slightly harder. Philadelphia has plenty of hotels but only a handful of hostels that can be expensive.

We opted for the cheapest hostel we could find, and although it was located in the stunning Fairmont Park, it was a good while away from the city centre.  Chamounix Hostel is a beautiful, white building that depicts a classic, american suburbian home. The green bench hangs from the porch and a picket fence nests neatly around the garden. Set amidst the lush green park, woodland creatures surrounded the property and the only sounds that can be heard are that of the gospel choir practicing each morning. Paradise.

It was a great place to stay, but taking taxis in and out of the city bumped up our expenses. We should have weighed up the price of a hotel against the taxis we’d be paying for. BEX FYI: Do your calculations.

Nevertheless, we packed our days full of culture and all things Philly. That includes the renowned Philly steak sandwiches and the super soft pretzels; it was mandatory to get munching. 

The top attraction on our list, like most who visit the city, was the Liberty Bell. This is an iconic monument steep in american history symbolizing the US’s independence. Myths and legends surround the bell which is what draws thousands of tourists to the site each year. 

Extremely uncultured as I was, I wasn’t quite sure how excited I could get over a bell, but as I walked around I was fascinated by the history behind it. Visiting the bell and the centre is free and so definitely worth going, especially as the location offers great views of the nearby Independence Hall

Moving onto something for the boys...If you’ve seen the Rocky films, which I had not, you will know that Philadelphia is the home to the famous Rocky steps. Parts of the three Rocky movies were filmed here and it’s one famous scene in the movie that brings fans to this spot. It’s the moment Rocky races up the steps to prove some manly “I’m no underdog” thing.  

Traveling with a group of boys meant it was a must-see and, unfortunately, I was given the role of camera woman as they took it in turn to sprint up the 72 steps. These are located in front of Philadelphia’s Museum of Art and next to the bronze statue of Rocky himself. Of course this meant another great photo op for the boys to get their muscles out.

Aside from these top attractions, just taking a walk around the city is a great way to absorb Philadelphia’s quirky culture. The architecture and art work located at every corner makes it a beautiful and serene city and taking a dander is a cheap and cheery way to see what it’s all about. 

Love Park was a treasure we just happened to stumble upon, as was the Schuylkill River, and then there was South Street. This is a quirky, and extremely bohemian road that stretches across the city creating its southern border. 

Along the street is an urban mix of kooky shops and restaurants littered with unique art pieces and murals. Bright colours, original artistry and all to the sound of Bob Marley- South Street is Philadelphia’s true treasure and an absolute must.