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Grenada

Grenada is an island country in the West Indies. It lies about 100 miles north of the coast of Venezuela.

It consists of the main island of Grenada and two smaller islands (Carriacou and Petite Martinique) along with several smaller islands which lie to the north and are a part of the Grenadines. 

Grenada is also known as the “Island of Spice” due to its production of nutmeg, allspice, clove and cinnamon and mace crops.

The first thing that strikes you is that it is built on the side of a mountain. From the port, everything that there is to see is basically vertically straight up. Jill being Jill meant that we (of course) had to walk everywhere. My calves were screaming at me for three days after walking up and down that damn mountain.

Grenada is one of the smallest independent countries in the western hemisphere and you can drive around the whole island in 5 hours. The blurb says that Grenada is an island where you can find spectacular waterfalls and beaches, lush botanical gardens, mystic rainforests, and friendly people at every turn.

It is described as the perfect mix. It is not off the beaten path but neither is it considered as a mainstream tourist haunt. The mountainous interior remains unspoilt and the white sandy beaches are still relatively uncrowded. But there is a good range of hotels on offer along with the usual mix of cafe’s, restaurants and nightlife on offer.

St Georges

The first thing that we did upon arrival was to cut through the Sendall Tunnel to head towards the Carenage. Using the tunnel cuts out at least one arduous hike up and over the damn mountain that splits the centre of town.

The Carenage is the lively waterfront promenade in St. George. It is more of an active and functioning fishing dock than it is a promenade but here you will find great views of the boats, shorefront, blokes preparing the boats to leave for other islands, or welcoming them in, cleaning fish and of course…tons of cats.

Sadly, there was only one way to go from the Carenage, and that was up. There was a hugely overpriced tourist train to take you up the hill but this was left to the fat or immobile oldies on the cruise and we did the hike. In reality, the distances were not that great but the steepness was brutal. The town was relatively compact so it was only about 350-500m between sights, but every move was either up one side or down the other of a damn mountain. And of course, the things to see while up there were churches.

Sadly we were unable to make it to Fort Matthew, an 18th century fort and the the largest of its kind on the island. It was named after the then governor. It offers amazing views of St. George and the Cruise Port.

While we did not make Fort Matthew, we did climb the hill to Fort George. Perched high above the town the fort is now the police headquarters. The only real remnants of the fort are the odd wall and a pair of cannons. Hardly worth the huge uphill trek to find.

fort Frederick was another that we missed. Quite a way out of town, and on a grey and murky day we had to settle for the images of others.

On arrival the weather was pretty crappy, but as the day progressed it did make an attempt to clear up. This meant that our photos were not as grey as the original ones from the port or the Carenage.

Concord Waterfall is made up of 3 different falls at various altitudes. The lowest one is relatively easy to get to but the other two call for a bit more walking and hiking (45 minutes or more).

Black Bay Beach is actually black due to the volcanic sand. It is considered one of the most stunning beaches in the Caribbean. There is a cave to explore but you have to do a 20-minute trek from Concord to get there.

The Grenada Underwater Sculpture Park was created in 2004 in the wake of Hurricane Ivan. It was the world’s first underwater gallery and is an attempt to attract divers away from fragile coral reefs. The statues are made with high-grade stainless steel and pH-neutral marine cement. they are designed to act as artificial coral reefs, with holes and shelters to attract marine life such as octopuses and lobsters, creating a rather spectacular looking habitat.

In 1651 the last of the native Carib Indians fiercely resisted French colonisation by committing a collective act of sacrifice: mass suicide. Together, they all jumped off the cliff and into the ocean. The area where they jumped to their deaths is now known as Carib’s Leap.

Grenada was ok, without being amazing. The prices asked for items were a bit over the top for what they were and the weather was not really our friend on the day we came. The people were friendly and the town was nice, but I think that hiking up and down that mountain all of the time would keep me away from spending too long here (maybe we should have paid for the damn train).

Samoa

Samoa is a Polynesian island country (officially the Independent State of Samoa) and until 1997 was known as Western Samoa.

Between 1899 and 1915 it was a colony of the German Empire. It then came under a joint British and New Zealand colonial administration until 1962, when it became independent. The nation is made up of two main islands (Upolu and Savai’i), two smaller, inhabited islands (Manono and Apolima) and several smaller, uninhabited islands.

Samoa gained its independence from New Zealand in 1962 after more than a century of foreign influence and domination, but it remains a member of the Commonwealth. The country was known as Western Samoa until 1997. Its capital and main commercial centre is Apia, on the island of Upolu.

Fale is the Samoan word for all types of houses, from small to large. In general, traditional Samoan architecture is characterized by an oval or circular shape, with wooden posts holding up a domed roof.

All of the building elements are ‘lashed’ or bound together, originally with a plaited rope made from dried coconut fibre. The fale’s open structure allows strong winds to pass straight through it, and the complex system of lashing offers flexible movement and strength in the face of ever-changing winds. The roof is curved allowing the winds that hit to move around its surface without meeting resistance.

The population of the Samoan Islands is around 225,000. However, there are another 240,000 in the United States, a further 183,000 in New Zealand and around 100,000 in Australia.

Upolo

Our arrival saw us land into the airport in the capital, Apia, on the island of Upolu. Apia is not seen as a town but 45 separate villages, but they are so condensed that it would be hard to make out the difference between them.

The overnight flight and lack of sleep saw us napping fairly early on after our arrival.

Thanks to Fiame, a close friend of my sister’s -and now close family friend- we had an offer of accommodation and even an airport pickup (at 5am) and unofficial impromptu tour guide (her cousin Pam).

On our first day after napping, Pam took us on a tour of the southern half of the island.

There is a ring road and a cross-island road so doing loops is a pretty easy and sensible way of splitting up your sightseeing.

OK so meet the Banded Rail. These speedy little suckers are all over the place and while driving along they dart out onto the road, in front of the car and cause minor heart palpitations as you keep waiting for the bump (which never comes).

These cute little suckers are the next to meet as they are ubiquitous as they float around free range throughout the island.

The next thing that you have to meet is the Samoan local bus. These are highly colourful, with locally manufactured (typically wooden) cabins stuck onto old truck chassis. To say these are old clunkers is being very generous, but they do reek of style. To catch a bus, just wave it down – there are no bus stops. And when you want to get off, pull the cord along the roof of the bus. Simple!

All buses are named with their destination, but you may want to make sure and ask the driver if you are unsure. They run on ‘island time’, so using it for the airport run may not be advisable (unless you are leaving plenty of time).

The first among all of the tourist attractions in Samoa has to be the To Sua Trench. This is a spectacular 30-metre deep swimming hole. The blurb tells me that the hole was formed when an ancient lava tube caved in and thousands of years of erosion did the rest. And of course today it is full of bikini-clad tourists and an impossibly steep set of stairs to get down into the pool.

Around the To Sua is an amazingly lush landscaped area looking out onto the ocean. Some of the greenest grass and bluest skies that you will ever see combine to make this place simply amazing.

A short way down the road we found a nice secluded quiet beach near the village of Lotofoga where we were able to have a nice little dip, with the beach to ourselves (and Pam’s grandkids).

We checked the tourism “what’s on” and as luck would have it we were in town on the last Friday of the month, which meant that we were here for the Waterfront Night Market. So we headed on down to check them out. Unfortunately, the markets were not really supported and were little more than a sad bouncy castle, a couple of tents selling lavalavas (the Polynesian version of a sarong) and some carved wooden items (which customs would not let us bring into the country).

We did however get to see a very inventive version of a kid’s train.

The things you can do with a used 44 gallon drum.

The market was held in the heart of town, at the Samoa Cultural Village. The Cultural Village features tapa making (traditional cloth), traditional tattooing (tatau), carving cultural artefacts, and the preparation of the “umu” (earth oven). Here is where you can learn about the Samoan Way (Fa’a Samoa). It is the essence of the Samoan culture and dictates how Samoans are meant to behave and their obligations to their elders, superiors, family, community, church and the environment.

The Sopo’aga viewpoint is similarly easy to access off the Main South Coast Road and is probably the prettiest waterfall – it’s majestic in its dense jungle scene.

Papase’ea sliding rocks is a waterfall that has been worn smooth(ish) by the running water. While it is only 16 foot high, the slide has made it a favourite.

The Papapapaitai (I gave up even trying to pronounce this sucker) viewing spot is just off the cross island road.

These spectacular falls plunge 500 feet into a volcanic crater, surrounded by a lush rainforest. For these reasons, it is one of the most photographed falls in Samoa.

The next morning we were up early and did the schlepp to the fresh fish markets. Advice from the barflies was that this was definitely worth the effort so at 5 am we were up and walking the 2.2 km (each way) to buy ourselves some fresh seafood. Our haul saw us bring home about a 1.3 kg slab of yellowfin tuna, a fresh crab, and a couple of bugs, all for the princely sum of about $22.

A few days after our first trip of the southern part of the island, Pam again picked us up and we did the northern loop. This included a stop at one of the flash resorts for lunch, as nice as it may have been, that sort of thing just didn’t do it for me. The weather the second time around was not as kind with intermittent rain for most of the day (not enough to keep Jill out of the water though).

The Museum of Samoa is housed in a historic colonial building in Apia which used to be a German school. It contains a huge collection of artefacts and images which tell the story of Samoa’s history and rich culture. according to the blurb the museum is home to a pottery and stone adze which was discovered in Samoa and thought to be 3,000 years old. Given my love of old pottery, I skipped this.

The famous Scottish author, Robert Louis Stevenson, spent the last 4 years of his life here in Samoa and is buried high on the hill overlooking the island.

His former residence has been converted into a museum that is dedicated to his life. On chatting with Pam my question was “is it worth going to or is it just a pretty colonial building”? Her answer was “just a pretty colonial building”. So we did the obligatory loop of the driveway, got a photo or two and left.

Church is at the centre of almost everything that it means to be Samoan. Every village has at least one church, and people actually attend them (religiously). The main show in town is right on the waterfront and is the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

But quite literally, there are churches everywhere throughout Samoa. All of differing shapes and sizes. It is estimated that there are over 310 villages in Samoa and every one of these has (at least one) church. Going to church is central to everything that happens here in Samoa. So much so that virtually everything is closed on Sunday. Our chat with our impromptu tour guide Pam informed us that Sunday is for going to church, having a meal with your family and sleeping.

The Palolo Deep Marine Reserve is only five minutes walk from the centre of Apia (head east to Vaiala Beach) and importantly was about 150 m from our accommodation.

After a few days to ourselves and with Pam ferrying us about, our hostess returned from an overseas trip. Up until now we had been just milling about in her house as rather uncomfortable interlopers (being looked after by Utu the chef and Grace the part time cleaner). But after her arrival we were finally able to have a good catch-up (punctuated by amazing food yet again) and all was right with the world.

Talking to our hostess we were told that the Piula Cave Pool was her favourite and that it should not be missed.

So the next day we were up again and Pam picked us up and ran us out to this beautiful crystal clear freshwater spring pool and cave. The pool originated from an old lava tube and is now a crystal clear (if a little cold) pool to swim in.

This was followed up by another nice lunch and another great day was had.

Savai’i

Savai’i is the larger of the two main islands and at it’s centre is lies the volcano, Mount Silisili, the highest point on the island. Talking to the local bar flies (cos that’s where we hang out) they reckon that visiting Savai’i was like going back to the flintstones era.

In Polynesian mythology, Hawaiki is the original home of the Polynesians, before their dispersal across Polynesia. According to legend, Savai‘i island is said to be Hawaiki, the Polynesian homeland and is therefore known as the “Cradle of Polynesia”.

So we called on poor Pam once again, who met us at about 4:30am so that we could drive the 1 hr to the ferry terminal in time to make the 6am ferry to Salelaloga. A 90 minute ferry ride and we were on the big island and on the hunt for a rental car. The two main attractions that are on the island are the Lava field and the blowholes. Given that the blowholes were only 45 mins away (and it was low tide) the lady at the rental place suggested a right (rather than left) turn at the only set of lights. this way we circumnavigated most of the island seeing the sights while the tide rose.

Saleaula Lava Fields is a quick and easy stop as you traverse the island. A remnant of the 1905-1911 volcanic eruptions of Mt Matavanu the lava flowed northwards towards the coast destroying villages in its path. The lava flowed over 100 km2 of countryside and the depth of the lava flow in some parts was 400 feet. For a measly WST$10 (about $6) you can walk on the lava flow and see the impact it had on the village (including the swallowing up of the church). There is also a quick and informative history from the ladies on-site. 

You used to be able to follow the lava flow down to the ocean but as it was aging the lava was becoming brittle in parts and they could not guarantee your safety so this was discouraged.

The next main attraction was the Falealupo Canopy Walk. I am finding that as I get older, the thought of heights is getting less and less appealing. Unfortunately, this one fit in firmly into that category. While I am happy to admire this, the thought of heading out along this walkway just didn’t tick any boxes for me.

Alofaaga Blowholes – These impressive blowholes are a major treat to see in real life.

Situated in the village of Taga on south-west Savai’i the blowholes shoot a roaring jet of water hundreds of feet up into the air.

They were created by lava flows making a series of tubes connecting a flat clifftop of lava rock with the ocean below.

As the waves break against the lower end of the tubes it sends water at high pressure up through the tubes making fountains that spray every few seconds.

The amazing thing was that there was no safety rails, just a red line spray painted on the rocks saying ‘stop here’. If the red line didn’t stop you then the roar of the water and the power of nature surely had to make you think twice. I am certain that some vacuous Instagrammers will push the bounds but the aussies and kiwis who were visiting when we were there all seemed to follow the very sensible advice provided by the spray paint.

Our accommodation on Savai’i was an issue and it started very poorly. Having booked our room (for 220) and paid our deposit, we were told our room would be 260 as the owner had put the rates up on the 1st of the month. After an argument that was poorly understood, we just paid the extra 40 and headed to the restaurant for a late lunch. At this point we were greeted by a menu of about 25 items to be told that all but 3 of them were not available.

We tried to ascertain whether more food would come before the dinner service (as there were very few restaurant options). After another unsuccessful chat, we ordered a burger and a club sandwich. When these arrived there was some bizarre salmon paste on both of them. Needless to say, salmon paste doesn’t work that well on a cheeseburger and Jill only managed one bite of her club sandwich.

As it turned out, dinner was a steak (that was ok) and the next morning the owner found us and apologised for the mix-up (for the room rate) and refunded us our extra 40. We felt infinitely better in the knowledge that the place did not suck, just that they were struggling with the training and retention of decent staff.

Samoan Food

Samoan food is relatively simple on first glance with the appearance of taro, breadfruit, rice and green bananas as staples. Add to this some various local fruits, salads and thin soups and the basics are done. But even the simple stuff is kicked to another level due to the appearance of coconut cream. My first foray into breadfruit and taro were pretty tasteless and were just a starchy filler. But the addition of coconut cream makes them both super yummy and not bland at all. And of course, then the rest kicks in.

Our first taste sensation was Palusami. A simple dish of taro leaves, onion and coconut cream.

Granted it didn’t look like much but the taste is amazing.

The next was Oka which is a Samoan version of ceviche.

It is basically a raw fish salad with the recipe changing from place to place and no two alike.

The main thing is fresh raw fish, coconut milk/cream and citrus with the option of chilli and anything else you may wish to add.

Being on an island, the seafood is to die for and by Aussie standards is dirt cheap. It is truly the catch of the day, both at the markets and in the restaurants. It has been clear, from our time here in Samoa, how little of the fish that we get back at home is truly fresh.

The main thing that was eaten was fresh fish, often raw, in a Japanese sashimi style or as oka. And it was magnificent. Then you add the cooked stuff and it too was amazing. For a bloke who has always loved seafood (especially the shellfish) this fish stuff is pretty ok too.

As one of our last meals, we were taken to the other side of the island where we had lunch on the water at a Filipino beach shack. This brought into play the crispy pork goodness that is Lechon and crispy pata. Add this to the fish and selection of dips with taro chips and another fantastic meal was had.

Samoan beer was a bit hit-and-miss.

We only found two real beers and one was good (Taula) and the other (Vailima) we had one and never tried again.

If I was to be harsh, the only real detraction that we came across while in Samoa was the free-range dogs. This was also an issue in Sri Lanka and many parts of Asia. But here we were met with some that were a touch more aggressive than those elsewhere. For the most part, they just wander about harmlessly, but others…not so much. it got to the point that if we were going out after dark, we would have to walk with a stick to protect from the dogs.

The thing that really needs to be mentioned is the Samoan people. At no point in time did we ever feel upset or unsafe (except maybe from the dogs). Everywhere we went we were met with huge smiles and welcoming tones. Our first foray into the bar saw us best friends with almost everyone and when we returned the next day we were welcomed like old friends.

On 31 May 2023 the central bank of Samoa issued the commemorative 60 Tala note, commemorating Samoa’s 60th Anniversary of Independence.

It honours the first Prime Minster and Independence Day in 1962 while embracing the future with the first female Prime Minister 60 years later.

The banknote honors and recognises Samoa’s core strength as its foundation in God.

We enjoyed every second of being in Samoa, and the extended timeframe allowed us to truly embrace the place rather than just dart about seeing the tourist highlights. This is a place we would both (and likely will) return to.

Bulgaria

Bulgaria is a southern Balkan country bordered by Romania (north), Serbia and North Macedonia (west), Greece and Turkey to the south.

Bulgaria is renowned for its diverse terrain that includes the Black Sea coastline, a mountainous interior and rivers, including the Danube. Based near the European crossroads it has long been a cultural melting pot with Greek, Slavic, Ottoman, and Persian influences.

Before I get into the exploring, I need to talk about first impressions. This place is fantastic. We got off the plane and onto the Metro for a run into town for our hotel. A slight mishap with the ticket scanning saw me through the barrier and Jill stuck on the other side. Seeing the dilemma some random woman came up and swiped her card, letting Jill through and just wearing the cost.

We then got to our hotel and were met by the friendliest and most helpful dude that we have come across thus far (and that bar has been set pretty high). This friendliness was genuine and extended the entire time through our stay. So much so that on the morning that we were due to leave he even offered to wait around for us (after his overnight shift) and drive us to the bus station, so that we didn’t have to lug our heavy bags.

Our room had a fridge so we popped out to the shop on the corner and bought 4 large beers (2x500ml and 2×1 litre) and a soft drink each and got change from $12 Aussie for the lot.

I’m really gonna like this place.

Sofia

Sofia is the capital of the Balkan nation of Bulgaria. It’s in the west of the country, below Vitosha Mountain. The city’s landmarks reflect more than 2,000 years of history, including Greek, Roman, Ottoman and Soviet occupation. When doing our early research it looked a bit light on, but on arrival we were happy to see that there was much more on offer than the tourist blurbs suggest.

Hopping off the Metro we landed right on top of one of the listed landmarks, the Lions Bridge.

Well that was easy.

It is a bridge over the Vladaya River that was built 1889–1891 and connects the Central Railway Station with the city centre.

It has 4 very large lion statues on it.

Just around the corner from our hotel, we randomly happened upon the Church of St Paraskeva which is the third largest church in Sofia.

It is a Bulgarian Orthodox church dedicated to Saint Paraskeva,

We were aiming for something else but sure enough this popped up and was pretty cool.

StAlexander Nevsky Cathedral was what we were actually aiming for. It is one of the 50 largest Christian churches in the world taking up an area of 3,170 square metres and being able to hold 5,000 people inside. Construction started in 1882 but most of it was built between 1904 and 1912. The cathedral was created in honour of the Russian soldiers who died during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878 when Bulgaria was liberated from Ottoman rule.

Virtually across the road, you find the Saint Sofia Church which is the oldest church in Sofia. The floor of the church is covered with Early Christian flora and fauna-themed mosaics. 

Just down the hill a bit and you come across Saint Nikolas Russian Church (Tsurkva Sveta Nikolai).

It was built in 1882 on the site of the Saray Mosque, which was destroyed during the Russian liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire.

Having ticked those boxes we hunted for dinner but were rejected from the first place (Armenian) as I was dressed like a grotty backpacker. They claimed that they were full but really they didn’t want the likes of us in there. So we went somewhere else, got online and made a reservation for the next night, where we dressed similarly. Having done all of that, their snootiness did not translate into good enough food to justify the price (it was OK) and as a protest, they made sure that their service sucked.

A later check of reviews from other people found many similar experiences.

On our walk back from dinner (the first night) we stumbled upon the Opera House that we had walked right past and completely missed on the way up the hill (it was tucked around a corner).

Also on the walk home, we came across roving packs of teens and 20 somethings in the park looking for things to do. Some were drinking, but for the most part, they were just hanging out and discussing the issues of the day. Not protests as such, just exchanges of ideas.

National Museum of History is Bulgaria’s largest museum and was founded in 1973. Set at the end of a very nice park with some lovely fountains it was worth the short journey to get here.

St. Nedelya Church is an Eastern Orthodox cathedral dating back to the 10th century. It has been destroyed and reconstructed many times through the ages. 

The Rotunda Church of Saint George is buried in a courtyard behind other buildings. It dates back to the late 3rd and early 4th centuries.

It was originally built as Roman baths. It is the oldest surviving building in Sofia.

The Regional History Museum is another landmark in the centre of Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. It was built in the early 20th century near the former Turkish bath and was used as the city’s public baths until 1986.

Almost across the road you will find the Banya Bashi Mosque. This was built in 1566, during Ottoman control of the city. It was built over natural thermal spas and at times you can see the steam rising from vents in the ground near the mosque walls.

The mosque has a 15m diameter large dome and prominent minaret.

The Sofia Synagogue opened in 1909 in the presence of King Ferdinand I of Bulgaria.  Buried away in a backstreet it is tough to get a good camera angle for better photos, sorry.

And just down the road and around the corner you will find the Gypsy Markets. The description that we got from our hotel dude was it was a bunch of gypsies selling the things they had stolen or found in the trash that day. He also suggested not eating there as the meat was likely to be cat or dog.

We were here on a Saturday and Sunday and for the most part, the place was closed. Shops and restaurants worked normal hours, none of this I must be open the whole time. It was an interesting throwback to when people had lives.

A little inconvenient at times but hey.

The only places that were always open were the alcohol and tobacco shops.

As with everywhere, the place had a bunch of statues dotted all over the place. But these ones seemed funkier and edgier than the usual ones that typically haunt big cities.

This is the Eastern Europe that we had been hoping for all along. The place is fantastic, cheap and friendly. The food is good and the sights are worth seeing without being mind-blowing. But mostly it is about the atmosphere. The place feels right. You could happily settle in and spend a month here just soaking up the culture and getting a sense of the place, and importantly you can do so without destroying the budget.

Serbia

Serbia is a landlocked country in the Balkans. It shares land borders with Hungary (north), Romania (northeast), Bulgaria (southeast), North Macedonia (south), Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina (west), and Montenegro (southwest), and Kosovo.

Serbia has about 6.6 million people.

Having loved our (240 km and 8 hour) bus ride into Bosnia and Herzegovina we decided to fly out for a 40 minute puddle jump into Serbia, more specifically Belgrade.

Belgrade

Belgrade is the capital and largest city of Serbia. It is located at the junction of the Sava and Danube rivers with a population of around 1.6 million. Belgrade is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world with the first dated records of habitation going back to the the 3rd century BC.

Our accommodation saw us perched between the old and new town directly opposite the old main railway station and associated park.

The park is amazing with an incredibly impressive monument to Stefan Nemanja (over 20m high).

He was a medieval Serbian nobleman who together with his son Sava (who the big church is named after) are considered the fathers of the Serbian Orthodox Church).

As it was early enough we dropped off our gear and headed out on a walk to see the sights. We chose to hit the ones that were away from old town, where we would be spending most of our time the following day. So we turned the corner from our hotel and started our way up the hill aiming towards St Sava Temple.

But within two blocks we had already landed upon the railway museum, which was incredibly impressive in its own right.

Half a block up and across the street we came upon the Government of the Republic of Serbia building.

This was built in the 1920s and was the first public building built in Belgrade for the purposes of the public administration of the newly formed Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.

Next came the Department of Defence, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Belgrade city museum, public health department. And they were all housed in amazing soviet era architecturally designed buildings that were incredibly impressive.

Anyway, we did eventually make it to St Sava Temple which again, blew our socks off. The church is dedicated to Saint Sava (son of the dude with the big statue opposite our hotel), the founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church and an important figure in medieval Serbia. It was built on the location of St. Sava’s grave.

The next morning we were up and off to the 160 acre Belgrade Fortress. For many centuries the entire town existed within the walls of the fortress. It sits at the meeting of the Sava and Danube rivers.

As with all of Europe, the warring tribes saw this piece of land change hands many times over the millennia. The romans had their turn and according to wiki “in the period between 378 AD and 441 the Roman camp was repeatedly destroyed in the invasions by the Goths and the Huns. Legend says that Attila’s grave lies at the confluence of the Sava and the Danube (under the fortress)”. In the following centuries the fortress suffered continuous destruction under the Avar sieges. 

The name Belgrade was first mentioned in AD 878 by Bulgarians. The fortress kept changing its master as Bulgaria had it then the Byzantines and then Bulgaria again, in the 11th century it was given to the new Serbian state as a wedding gift. In the 15th century it was conquered by the Turks (with short periods of Austrian and Serbian occupation), but it remained under Ottoman Empire rule until 1867, when the Turks withdrew from Belgrade and Serbia. 

From the fortress you got a fair view of the Gardoš Tower or Millennium Tower.

It was built and opened in 1896 to celebrate a thousand years of Hungarian settlement in the region.

Within the walls is St Petka’s Chapel which was built in 1417 and was allegedly erected over a sacred spring. At one time it held the holy relics of St Petka. With all of the destruction of the fortress over the years, the exact location of this chapel is not known so a replacement was built on the grounds in the 1930s.

The amazing thing for us was that to visit and walk through the fortress and associated grounds was 100% free.

There was one odd children’s playground area with dinosaurs in it that had a small fee.

But as we did not want to play on the playground, we avoided that cost.

From the fortress, you spill out into the remainder of old town and the main tourist and shopping district of Belgrade. This part of town is full of funky old buildings with tons of character.

As you wander through you come upon the Cathedral Church of St. Michael the Archangel or simply St Michael’s Cathedral. This is a Serbian Orthodox church in the centre of the old part of Belgrade. It was built around 1840, on the site of an older church dedicated to Archangel Michael.

The Historical Museum of Serbia is currently in this building but it has been granted the building opposite our hotel (the old main railway station) as its permanent home and will be moving soon.

The Stari Dvor or old palace was the royal residence of the Obrenović dynasty (1800’s).

Today it houses the City Assembly of Belgrade. 

Novi Dvor or new palace was was a royal residence of the Karađorđević dynasty (late 1700 & 1800’s)

Today it is the seat of the President of Serbia. 

House of the National Assembly was built in 1936 and has served as the seat of parliament for the Parliaments of Yugoslavia, Serbia and Montenegro and since 2006, Serbia.

For the most part, Serbia has been great. The food is good (if not exactly heart smart), the prices are reasonable, the beer is well-priced, and there is plenty to see and do (mostly without charge). I would certainly not hesitate in coming back.

The Golubac Fortress is somewhere that looked amazing but sadly (at about 120km from Belgrade) we could not get to. It was a medieval (fortified) town on the Danube 4 km downstream from the current town of Golubac. The fortress was built during the 14th century and has ten towers. Most of these started square but evolved to get many-sided reinforcements to accommodate modern firearms.

Austria

Austria is a small landlocked country that is bordered by Germany (northwest), Czechia (north), Slovakia (northeast), Hungary (east), Slovenia and Italy (south), and Switzerland and Liechtenstein (west).

With a population of around 9 million the country has a history that dates back to pre-roman times.

Vienna

Before I get into the post proper there are two points that have jumped to the surface virtually straight away. Number One. We have massively underdone our timing for this place and will absolutely need to come back at some point. Number Two. One post is not enough for this city. As soon as we got to town and took a look at St. Stephens Cathedral we quickly realised that to do it justice this church warranted a post all on its own. Same goes for the palaces.

The first thing that struck us was the price. We can live again. Having left Switzerland where everything was obscenely priced, Vienna was quite reasonable, cheap even. Our beer price was cut in 3 and the food prices were similarly reasonable. Don’t get me wrong, we still probably paid back home prices for our meals, but we weren’t being anally probed every time we left our room.

Vienna has been called the “City of Music” as many famous classical musicians such as Schubert, Beethoven and Mozart called Vienna home. It was also home to Sigmund Freud (the world’s first psychoanalyst).

Vienna’s history dates back to the Roman era but most of what is there today came about under the rule of Empress Maria Theresia (1740 – 1780) and later Franz Joseph (1848 – 1916), who was largely responsible for the monumental architecture in the city’s centre.

St. Stephens Cathedral

This was the first sight that we visited and quickly realised that we were going to undercook this post. Originally built in the 1100’s and then further added to in the 1300’s this cathedral is phenomenal. Every wall, every aspect, every angle has a different story to tell. Built right in the heart of town, to say this place is popular would be an understatement.

The Hofburg Palace was the one time principal palace of the Habsburg dynasty. Smack Bang in the middle of town it was built in the 13th century and has been expanded several times since. Since 1946, it has been the official residence and workplace of the president of Austria.

Within the Hofburg Palace you can see the Imperial Apartments, the Sisi Museum, Imperial Treasury (with the crown of the Holy Roman Empire), State Hall of the National Library, the Spanish Riding School and the World Museum.

In front of the palace is the Heldenplatz or heroes square.

Also in the middle of everything is the Museum Quarter. This is a huge area with massively impressive buildings on all sides.

The Schönbrunn Palace (meaning “beautiful spring”) was the summer residence of the Hapsburg dynasty. The palace has 1441 rooms and vast gardens and is the most visited tourist destination in Vienna, and once again we undercooked out time and this could have been an entire post on its own.

The Ringstraße is a 5.3 km ring road that was designed by Emperor Franz Joseph to replace the old city walls. It was built in between the 1860s and 1890s. Some of the main buildings that occupy space on the Ringstrasse include: The Vienna State Opera, Academy of Fine Arts, Palace of Justice, Austrian Parliament Building, Rathaus (Town Hall), Burgtheater, University of Vienna, and Wiener Börse (Stock Exchange).

The Rathaus (City Hall) of Vienna  was built between 1872 and 1883 in the gothic style, with a tower similar to cathedrals.

The Votive Church is a neo-Gothic church that was built and consecrated in 1879, on the day of the Silver Wedding of Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth.

It was apparently built as a token of gratitude after a failed attempt to assassinate Emperor Franz Joseph.

The Liebenberg Monument was made in 1887 to honour a civil servant dating back to the 1600’s.

It is a nine-meter tall red granite obelisk with the goddess of victory on the top and a portrait of Liebenberg with two angels and a life-sized bronze lion on the base.

Austrian Parliament Building was completed in 1883.  It has over one hundred rooms including the Chambers of the National Council and the Federal Council.

Belvedere Palace

This one we were unable to get to as time saw us way too pushed. But the Belvedere Palace was built as a summer residence for the prince Eugene of Savoy. The complex actually contains two Baroque palaces (the Upper and Lower Belvedere), the Orangery, and the Palace Stables.   It is now home to an art museum

Long story short, Vienna was amazing, but we did not heave enough time to see all of the things that were on offer. I guess the worst part of that scenario is that we will have to come back and spend some more time exploring, more fully.

And on a final note, Vienna really knows how to put on a horse statue.

Paros

Getting here was a 50 minute ferry ride from Mykonos (which was delayed multiple times). The ferry itself was great, a speedy catamaran with comfortable seats.

A side note here is that virtually every ferry that we have booked has had numerous changes (of either ship or time). Because of this, the original seat allocation may as well be thrown in the bin before you even start. They will find you a couple of spare seats and sit you down. This is fine if there are just 2 of you, but becomes a nightmare for large groups who want to sit together.

Paros became famous for its white marble called ‘Parian marble’. This is a fine-grained semi translucent pure-white and entirely flawless marble and was mainly quarried here during the classical era (500-336BC).

This marble was used in both architecture and sculpture. Some of the masterpieces of ancient Greek sculpture were made with this pure white, translucent material. Notably these include (L-R): The statues of Hermes by Praxiteles, Venus de Milo (i.e. Aphrodite of Milos), Nike [Winged Victory] of Samothrace, and the Caryatids, (the pillars holding up the patio of the Erechtheion on the Acropolis).

As soon as we arrived on Paros, I knew that I would love this place. It had all of the beauty of Mykonos (without the huge prices and plastic people) and Syros (without the stairs). We settled into our hotel and went for a late afternoon stroll, which turned into a few beers watching the sunset. And followed onto a dinner on the waterfront promenade.

Paros is one of the bigger of the Cycladic islands and it offers the same narrow streets, bougainvillea covered buildings, seaside promenades, cafes, restaurants and beaches as most of the other more famous islands of the region.

Parikia is the capital town and main port of Paros, as well as the centre of commercial and cultural life (and our home for the next few days).

There are no big resorts here. Your only option is staying at a smaller family-owned type hotel. We somehow managed to get the one that takes tour buses of 18-25 year olds doing the Greek islands tour. This meant that every 2 days a new busload of around 50  noisy millennials would turn up. On average about 30 of that 50 were Aussie girls. The early pool infestation was loud and noisy in the afternoons, but they all headed out to the promenade for sunset and partied into the evening. Our next real interaction was the next morning when we heard the moaning as they dealt with their hangovers.

Given the size of the island, the next day we chose to hire a car and see all the extra bits that were tough to reach. This was new for us as usually we just wander around or hire motorcycles or scooters. Add to this it was a left hand drive, driving on the right, mad-ass Greek drivers, a 1 litre Peugeot with no power, no ability to read Greek and no real idea where we were going. So that was us – and off we went.

Our first major stop was the town of Lefkes where we wandered the small narrow streets until we found ourselves at the main church of Agia Triada (Holy Trinity), built in 1830. We did stop at a tiny (any guesses?) blue and white church along the way.

From here we found ourselves at a local winery where Jill proceeded to sample the wares. Given that I was driving and I had enough going on I chose not to partake. But the wines were nice and the setting was very nice indeed.

We saw the church of Agios Ioannis (Saint John) Detis (built in the 17th century). It was very nice, but when in Greece the sight of a whitewashed church with a blue domed roof is a dime a dozen and you pass one every 10 minutes or so on the road. A few more stops saw us checking in at Lageri Beach, Santa Maria Beach and driving through millionaires row (on the other side of the island) where there are some truly stunning villas (obviously holiday homes for the rich and famous). The most striking thing that we saw was the quality of the stonework that was in place all around the island. Masonry in Greece is not a dying art and is alive and well.