Treasures of the Vatican

The Vatican, Rome, Italy

You could say that the Roman Empire lives on though the Vatican. It was Emperor Constantine the Great who converted the whole of Europe to Christianity and built the original church on Vatican hill, over the grave of Saint Peter himself.  After the Western Roman Empire fell, the Catholic Church acted as the principal force of unity in the Western World. In the Middle Ages, the Pope was considered greater than all the kings and rulers of Europe. Even today, the Pope is the head of the Roman Catholic Church with more than 1.2 billion followers. Vatican City has become one of the most popular attractions in the world, drawing over 5 million tourists a year to its priceless works of art and opulent architecture. Despite one’s religious beliefs, one cannot deny the cultural and historical importance of the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican. Continue reading

All Roads Lead to Rome

Rome, Italy

Throughout our European travels we have found evidence of the greatness of the Roman Empire; from Hadrian’s Wall in the misty isles of Britain as far as Ephesus on the Aegean shores of Turkey. Every church, every castle, and every European city we visited was built upon the foundations of Roman temples, forts, and towns. Roman language, culture, and technologies spread all across the western world and are still used today. Needless to say, I was ecstatic when at last we had arrived at the centre of it all, the birthplace of western civilisation, to which all roads once led: Rome.

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Bamberg’s Smoky Charm

Rathaus, Bamberg, Germany

Mural exterior of the Altes Rathaus

Bamberg has stumbled out of a medieval fantasy, trailing the seductive, smoky scent of Rauchbier behind it. If enchantment is the game, Bamberg is top of its class luring you in with hearty food and Bamberg’s distinctive smoky beer. The entire Aldstadt (“Old town”), with its medieval flair and distinctive photo ops,  has been designated a UNESCO heritage site. Each of Bamberg’s seven rolling hills are topped with its own church and often a bevy of other historic landmarks. Our couchsurfing host from Nuremberg dropped us off one sunny day, and I couldn’t have been more excited to get started exploring.

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Five Must-Visit Spots in Croatia

So you’re heading to Croatia for your next vacation? Great choice! Croatia is an incredible blend of everything you could want in a destination; beautiful natural spaces, rich history, turquoise water, tranquil islands, lively cities, I could go on and on. The list of places you could visit is almost endless, so I’ll simply start you off with a few of my favourites!

Split

Split, Croatia

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The Grand Canals of Venice

Venice, Italy

Ahhh Venice… a labyrinth of stunning architecture and alluring attractions, riddled with canals and trampled by 20 million tourists each year. Everybody wants to come to Venice and realize that romantic image of Italy we have in our heads: wandering the secret campis or grand piazzas, sipping espresso at canal-side cafés, and, of course, riding the gondolas as the drivers sing, “Thiiis is the night, what a beauuutiful night…” Although the dream of Venice has long been propagated through popular media, the reality comes pretty close to meeting expectations. Like Paris or Rome, Venice is a historical masterpiece, a wealth of architectural wonders that will continue to draw the masses for years to come.

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Into the Heart of Istria

Motovun, Istria, Croatia

In the land of Istria: a broad peninsula jutting from Croatia’s northern coastline, one can wander through seaside fishing villages, clamber up to hilltop citadels, and rediscover leftovers from the might of the Roman Empire. Among the many medieval and Roman fortified towns dotting Istria there are four that stand out as wonders of Croatia: Porec, Rovinj, Pula, and Motovun. Though we had been lucky enough to explore most of Croatia’s southern coastline, the Istrian Peninsula promised unforgettable treasures that we couldn’t pass up when the opportunity came ringing. Continue reading

Plitvice Lakes National Park

Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia

Because we’re a bit silly, we decided to abandon Italy for the time being, go BACK into Croatia and visit a God’s honest paradise–Plitvice Lakes. Nestled in a valley between densely-forested mountains is a stairway of sixteen, turquoise lakes. Each pool is fed by many small streams and brooks that spill over in foaming cascades and roaring waterfalls. Over the millennia, the eroding waters of these lakes have dissolved the limestone rock and carved out the magnificent valley in which they now lie. Plitvicka Jezera National Park is one of the most stunning, natural wonders in Europe. Don’t believe me? You can go on their website and experience a virtual, panoramic tour or better yet, go to Croatia and witness this true paradise!

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The Healing Waters of Lake Bled

 

Lake Bled, Slovenia

A cliff-top castle, an island monastery and alpine surroundings add to the wonderment of Lake Bled. The enchanting scenery of this placid lake, under the colossal presence of the Julian Alps, looks stolen from fairy tale. Visitors from all over the world come to Bled for a day of hiking in its forests, boating to its island, and bathing in its thermal waters. The mineral springs at the north-eastern section of the lake are famous for their healing abilities and have attracted many wealthy tourists over the centuries. All in all, Lake Bled is one magical place.

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In Fair Verona

“In fair Verona, where we lay our scene…”

Verona… The family finds themselves in a city alive with romance, drama, and the shadows of two of the world’s most famous “star-cross’d lovers“! Ah, William Shakespeare, who doesn’t remember reading at least a few of his works in school? While Verona sets the stage for three of Shakespeare’s plays, Romeo and Juiliet (of course), The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and The Taming of the Shrew, there is much more to it than the famous writings of an Englishman.

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The Leaning Tower of Pisa (and more!)

Piazza dei Miracoli, Pisa, Italy

The bell tower peeks out from behind Pisa Cathedral.

Italy’s infamous Leaning Tower of Pisa attracts over a million tourists a year, so we thought it was time to join the flock and see what all the fuss is about. Embarking with a caravan full of Ashleigh’s family we left the gorgeous shores of Tuscany and proceeded inland to the province of Pisa and its capital city. With Fred behind the wheel of our monstrous bus-van, Braeden navigating and the rest of us back-seat driving, we carefully piloted through Italy’s narrow streets, avoiding reckless Lamborghinis along the way. Continue reading

Cinque Terre, a Photographer’s Paradise!

Lerici, Italy

Lovely Lerici

After ecstatic hugs and a flurry of gleeful giggles, the whole family piled into the rental van and away we went! There were some hairy moments puzzling out the toll booths (our van had a Goldilocks-situation where the upper toll was too high but the lower one was too low), but soon we rolled into the sun-soaked coast of the Italian Riviera. We were staying in the Liguria region (just north of Tuscany) where, fun fact, pesto originates (mmm, basil)! My parents had found a beautiful apartment with a balcony overlooking Lerici, our hometown for the next several days. Nearby the incredible Cinque Terre was waiting for us, but for now it was time to bring out the wine! Pouring our first glasses of Tuscan wine, we clinked glasses to our family vacation and watched the sun setting over the harbour. Continue reading

The Imperial City of Milan

Milan Cathedral, Italy

Fixed like a giant spider-web on the map, Milan stands out as one of Italy’s greatest, and most dazzling, metropolises. We had heard people say Milan’s a commercial capital without much else to do but shop for Gucci purses and dine in exclusive restaurants. Yet I was pleasantly surprised by the abundance of renaissance art and architecture, marvellous churches and green spaces Milan has to offer. You don’t have to be ‘rolling in the dough’ to spend a couple of enjoyable days strolling around the city (or using its cheap transportation system), revealing the cultural riches of Milan around every corner.

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Split City and the Emperor’s Palace

Split, Croatia

The city of Split is filled with time-worn wonders, but where most monuments have been left uninhabited, this 2400 year-old colony is still fully-functional and bursting with energy. The stronghold of Emperor Diocletian has been adapted into apartments and cafe-bars, while storekeepers have set up shop its cellars. Halfway up the coast of Croatia, this thriving, harbour town attracts visitors from all around with its well-preserved Roman relics, lush parks, and a sunny-side harbour front. Continue reading

Behind the Battlements of Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik, the “Pearl of the Adriatic”, has been the most impressive “old town” we’ve ever visited on our incredibly long journey. An extraordinary citadel set on the rocky shores of the Adriatic Sea, built up out of bleached stone and capped with red terracotta roofs, the splendour of Dubrovnik glistens in the rays of the Croatian sun. The three days we had in Dubrovnik were spent simply meandering through the old town’s maze of corridors, peeking into its limestone dwellings, and striding upon its battlements and bastions (we didn’t even have time for a swim!). It would be hard to find a city that can compare with Dubrovnik’s lavish, Venetian architecture, scale of fortifications and the excellent condition of its ancient monuments.

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Beyond the Bridge of Mostar

The Mostar Bridge, Bosnia

On its way to recovery from the Bosnian War, the beauty and mystery of Bosnia-Herzegovina has been revealed to the world. In the Herzegovina region the town of Mostar lives and breathes again as one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Balkans. With its fascinating blend of medieval European and Islamic architecture, cobblestone alleys and slate roof tiles, Mostar is a picturesque town settled peacefully on the crystal clear Neretva River. Continue reading

Five Reasons You Need to Visit Romania

Top Five of Romania

Romania is wrapped in an aura of mystery and timelessness. Even today when we mention Romania, people still seem a bit in awe by that sense of wildness we take away from the old stories of strigoi, Vlad Tepes, and Dracula. There’s something darkly romantic about the forests, castles, and the villages standing still in time with their horse-drawn carts and superstitions. We were very excited to visit Romania, and it didn’t disappoint! I would go back and wander those quiet, mountain trails and dark castles in a heartbeat. For now, here were a few of my favourite parts of our time in Transylvania, Romania!

Sighișoara

Sighișoara, Transylvania, Romania

It was love at first sight as Nathanael and I hiked uphill towards the old town of Sighișoara. It had this dark romanticism to it that I love about Romania combined with a pastel palette everybody loves about these medieval towns. The old town is perfect for walking around, but don’t bother with the restaurants. The prices are ridiculous (think double to quadruple what is typical), and just down the cobblestone road running beneath the clock tower are plenty of affordable options. We had some fantastic sarmale and a pork dish with a paprika sauce (which I NEED to learn how to make) in a little place tucked just beneath the old town, yum!

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The Idyllic City of Brașov

Brasov Old Town, Transylvania, Romania

The city of Brașov, with its medieval towers and Saxon architecture, surrounded by gorgeous mountains and ski slopes, stands out in my memory as being a idyllic place to live in Romania.

We were very fortunate to have met Bogdan in Casa de Cultura Permanenta— our temporary home in Cluj-Napoca. Bogdan owned an apartment in Brașov and was gracious enough to give us a place to stay while we were exploring the city. For five nights we had a wonderful home in Brașov, as well as a room-mate named Eduardo who brought us to some of his favourite restaurants and pubs. Eduardo was a young man from Australia who had moved to Romania to start an online business. With Romania having one of the fastest internet speeds in the world, as well as cheap living expenses, settling in Brașov is certainly a tempting idea for anyone who can make their income online.

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The Medieval Charm of Sighișoara

Sighișoara, Transylvania, Romania

Just before leaving our home in Cluj-Napoca, in the spur of the moment, we were convinced to hitch a ride with a friend in the direction of Sighișoara: a brightly coloured citadel overrun with medieval architecture.

Like something out of a German fairy tale, the Transylvanian-Saxon village of Sighișoara rests on top of a steep plateau, wrapped in ancient fortifications, and furrowed with twisting, cobblestone passageways. This UNESCO-claimed heritage site, founded in the 13th century, is among the best preserved medieval towns in Europe.

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My Five Favourites of Slovakia

Top Five of Slovakia

Ahhh Slovakia! Imagine the dramatic peaks of the Tatra Mountains, hearty food, and medieval castles– does it get much better? Modern, thriving Slovakia is a popular destination for skiers, hikers, and those in search of a little peace and quiet, but if a good party is more your style go no further than Bratislava. Bordering five other European countries (Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, Ukraine, and Poland) makes it a great platform to explore from, so don’t miss out!

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Lviv is like a Box of Chocolates

Lviv, Ukraine

“So then I said to the guy, that’s no dragon, that’s my wife!”

It’s always fun to take pictures with random sculptures, especially when they seem to invite people to pose with them. Who could resist this guy? No one wants to sit alone! Lviv is a fun, quirky little city with a charming, cobblestone heart. It’s hard not to fall in love with a city where you’re stumbling across surprising, little treasures, like this guy, around every corner.

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Witness the Glory of Kiev

Independence Square, Kiev, Ukraine

Independence Square in Kiev

After spending some time workaway-ing at a nearby farm, it was time for us to get back to the big city and enjoy the sights and charms that Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine, had to offer. Life was simple back on the ol’ farmstead, and we enjoyed the daily chores of milking the goat, feeding the animals, fetching water from the well and scouring the property for eggs never laid in the same place twice. Evgeniya, our host, had bought this large property in the village of Bobryk and started a farm in order to independently sustain her family. Pretty much all the food we ate was grown from her land, including the delectable chicken eggs (when we could find them) and fresh goat’s milk. As much as we enjoyed having a break from being a tourist, a time to let our minds rest with a few chores to keep us busy, Ashleigh and I were eager to find out what was beyond the outskirts of this small village.

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Storms a Brewin’ at Castle Spiš

Spisske Podhradie, Slovakia

A cold wind was already blowing when we arrived in Levoča, a medieval, fortified town that became part of the UNESCO Heritage List in June, 2009. Spiš county was our final stop in far eastern Slovakia and we were eager to take a walk-about through Levoča’s historical sites before the day was through. A hideous, dark cloud was building in the distance and rolling out in our direction, so made haste like soldiers on a mission.

“Winter is coming…” I whispered to Ashleigh with a sidelong glance as another gust of cold air spewed icy needles into our faces.

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Viennese Cupcake Trees

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Vienna?

Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna, Austria

Schönbrunn Palace bathed in the sunshine of a nice day in Vienna

For me, hmmm… the Grandeur. Stately, Baroque palaces and government buildings lit by crystal chandeliers, grand ballrooms attached to richly furnished lounges. Considering the area has been inhabited since 500 BC, it’s not surprising that they’ve had some time on their hands to build such a beautiful city. Esteemed artists would come to Vienna from all around to live and work, surrounded by inspiration. Mozart, Beethoven, and Strauss (I and II) are just a few superstars I could name that have filled Vienna’s cobbled streets with their music. Continue reading

The Krampus Creeps through Salzburg

St. nicholas, Krampus, Salzburg

St. Nicholas consoling the children

When we arrived in Salzburg, Austria on Dec. 5th, Christmas had already come! The streets were lit up with brilliant lights and the smells of baked goods wafted deep into our senses. Around every corner Christmas carollers galore sang traditional tunes, accompanied by brass bands and accordion players. Mulled wine was being quaffed in sickening amounts and temporary stalls, set up in several of Salzburg’s squares, were selling a multitude of bees-wax candles, holiday decorations, and mountains of sugary sweets. Little did we know that all of these familiar festivities were leading up to something strange…. and possibly terrible.

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Five Things I Loved in Montenegro

My Top Five of Montenegro

As I’m sure every visitor has said before, Montenegro is SO beautiful. I would go back again in a heartbeat. There’s something about the fact that there are hikes everywhere but no map to any of them that feels like uncharted territory. While the coastlines are dotted with some pretty ugly hotels, the incredibly blue waters make up for it. Our time in Montenegro was short, but oh so sweet, and here were some of the best parts!

Stari Bar

Stari Bar, Montenegro

Stari Bar is a romantic, ruin of a town perched above the modern sprawl of today’s Bar. The fortified town has had a tumultuous history, including sieges, explosions, and earthquakes! Today, people can wander through the ruins and learn about the city’s history in the little museum at the entrance. Nathanael and I found modern Bar a bit boring, but Stari Bar was well worth the trip by itself. We loved climbing over the old walls, trying to grab pomegranates sprouting in an overgrown kitchen, and exploring the ivy-strewn alleys. The views of the valley below are beautiful too, in a stomach-clenching, feet-tingling, please-don’t-let-me-fall kind of way. If you’re heading to the coast, check out the enchanting old town of Bar!

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A Night Ride through Budapest

The Parliament Building in Budapest

        Our very first Couchsurfing experience began in Budapest and we were privileged with meeting such a wonderful host! Gabor met us at the train station and took us into his family home, a hundred-year old apartment building with a beautiful, enclosed courtyard, quite near to the Danube. His parents were extremely friendly, offering us tea, biscuits and breakfast, and Gabor himself was a wealth of knowledge about the history of his city.

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Free Walking Tours in Sofia

  All roads in Bulgaria lead to Sofia, the capital city, so we were bound to cross paths eventually. As it turned out a friend of ours, whom we met in Makvarket, Denmark, was passing through Bulgaria on her travels and so we timed our visit to Sofia to meet up with her. Kat had just finished exploring Istanbul with her companion, Elena,  and we were excited to swap stories as well as discover a new place together.

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Walking the Streets of Troy

Brad Pitt’s Trojan Horse

          We leapt excitedly off the bus to find a familiar row of stalls and shops set up along the dusty road into the archaeological site of Troy.  Avoiding eye contact and all forms of acknowledgement we sped past the sellers waving cheap trinkets and prepared ourselves for an amazing journey through classical literature. Wow, I made that sound really boring.

The Illiad, one of the two epic poems attributed to Homer, is an ancient Greek story set during the Trojan War: the ten-year siege against the city of Troy. This is probably one of the greatest tales of all time, retold for centuries in the courts of kings and before the thrones of emperors, enjoyed by all and still a favourite of today. If you have seen the movie ‘Troy’, starring Brad Pitt, you should at least get the gist of the tale. Though Homer stirred many fantastical and outlandish deeds of mighty heroes and angry gods into this great legend, the Trojan War is believed to actually have occurred in the 12th century BC and the ruins of the ancient city of Troy still exist today. Continue reading

The Marble City of Ephesus

          Sometimes more powerful forces than your own direct you down paths you wouldn’t otherwise go, and our plans always seem to change. This time, the great forces of “cheap airline tickets” directed us to Izmir in Turkey. Apparently many Finlanders travel there during their summer holidays to get a bit closer to the sun and work on their non-existent tans, thus there were many different airlines offering thrifty flights to Turkey. Climbing on-board the Sun Express, we set off on our own holiday towards a whole new world under the blazing sun.

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Krakow and the Wawel Dragon

Lair of the Dragon

           Poland was a thrilling, financial break for us. After being traumatized by a $30 bowl of soup at a fish-market in Oslo, not to mention the ludicrously lavish living expenses in Copenhagen, Stockholm, and London—Poland was a pleasant dream that just kept getting better. Suddenly, a pint of beer at a bar cost $2.50 instead of $12. Milk Bars, a cheap and excellent source of perogies and sauerkraut, could be found around every corner and offered decent meals for as little as five dollars. In the end we likely spent more money than usual, surrounded by a sea of “good deals”, but we certainly felt better about it.

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Five Things I Loved in Poland

My Top Five of Poland

Poland is a country rich in culture and full of surprises. Nathanael and I spent about three weeks in Poland, but easily could have spent more if the Baltics hadn’t been beckoning. For people interested in history, Poland is a great country to visit; not only is it so rich in historical sites, but they’re easily accessible even for those on a budget. Just staying in Krakow for a few days we felt like we saw and learned much about Poland’s history and the people of today. Let’s not forget, the food is fantastic, don’t forget to check out the Milk Bars for hearty food on a budget! Anyway, without further ado, here were my favourite spots in Poland!

Krakow

Krakow

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Top Five of Czech!

My Top Five of the Czech Republic

The Czech Republic! What an awesome country; beautiful, rich in history and culture, and we can’t forget the great beer! It was tough to narrow down my Top Five favourite things/places in Czech because we had so much fun. I didn’t even want to start delving into how much I loved the food and beer, because that would never end. But I did my best, so without further ado, my Top Five of Czech!

Prague

Prague, Charles Bridge

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My Favourite Spots in England!

My Top Five of England

I knew that we would be spending more time in England with my brother so I decided to postpone judging my favourite spots in England, and I’m glad I did. The three of us saw some spectacular places on our whirlwind tour of southern England, so I hope you all enjoy!

Bath

Roman Baths, Bath, England

Bath is such a pretty city, full of beautiful Georgian-style buildings and wide promenades. The Romans built the original bath house and temple complex around the natural hot springs, though they were likely enjoyed in its natural state long before they came. The Roman Baths have been modified several times over the centuries, but you can still find some remnants of the Roman structure within the foundations. If the admission fee to the Roman Baths is a bit steep for you, The Mayor of Bath Honorary Guides offers a great free walking tour which (at least on our tour) takes you to see the Sacred Spring from above. It’s also worthwhile just wandering around and admiring all the beautiful buildings, including the Royal Crescent and The Circus.

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Top Picks of Ireland

Ahhh, the Emerald Isles! Ireland is one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen, and I felt like we had barely enough time to scratch the surface. Still, enjoy checking out some of my favourite things we saw/did in our short stay!

Glendalough Valley

Glendalough Valley, Ireland

Glendalough Valley is a glacial valley nestled in the Wicklow mountains south of Dublin. Filled with spectacular hikes and scenery, it’s also home to the Monastic City. The Monastic City is the remains of an early Christian settlement established in the valley n the 6th century. In addition to it being free to enter the Monastic City (always a plus), you can also use the ruin as a starting point for a walk along the lake or into the nearby mountains to get an even better view of the Round Tower. To top it all off, the nearby fields were filled with adorable new lambs when we went! So cute!

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Top Picks of Finland

My Top Five of Finland

Nathanael and I spent about a month in southern Finland and absolutely loved it! Find below a few of the highlights (check out the rest of Scandinavia too with Norway, Sweden, and Denmark):

Suomenlinna, Helsinki

Suomenlinna, or Sveaborg, is the sea fortress on a series of islands near Helsinki. Work on the fortress began in the 18th century, and today is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. People actually still live there! The district of Suomenlinna has a population of 800 permanent residents. Nathanael and I had a blast trying to find all of Suomenlinna’s secrets. A fair number of the doors and tunnels have been left open, so the public can wander freely through the rooms and passages. There are also a couple of cute cafes and museums on the island to round out the whole experience. This is one of Helsinki’s most popular tourist sites, and it’s definitely worth a visit!

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In the beginning… there was Bergen!

Hiking in Bergen

At long last the countdown is done and the time has finally come to disembark. Our plane left from Vancouver at 1:30 in the afternoon on October 23rd, through Seattle and then Iceland, arriving at last in Bergen, Norway around noon on the 24th. The night was short as we sped forward through time zones across North America and the Atlantic Ocean. Getting any sleep was difficult, even after popping Gravol pills that were supposed to make us drowsy; no matter what sleeping position I took I couldn’t get an hours rest in that cramped little seat.

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