Italy: What the heart wants…

“We are all pilgrims who seek Italy” – Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

View from the Tower of Mangia down onto the Piazza del Campo, Siena, Italy

From the moment I conceived the idea for this solo backpacking journey, I knew that it must end in Italy. In 1984, as a penniless 18-year-old first-time backpacker, I licked gelato in the shadow of Pisa’s Leaning Tower, climbed a lamp post in St Peter’s square to wave to the pope as he addressed the faithful on Palm Sunday, and stumbled through the catacomb’s eery tunnels. And the country bewitched me. Mention Italy and I am lost in visions of cobblestoned piazzas, ornate fountains, and operatic arias floating on warm oregano-scented air.

Ponte Vecchio spans the Arno River in Florence

But it is also a country feeling the stresses of over-tourism, with millions of cruise ship customers disgorged annually into Venice’s narrow streets and citizens fleeing their overrun, picturesque towns. So I searched for a lesser known Italy to appreciate – and found Bergamo. Founded by Celtic tribes circa 550 B.C., Bergamo became a Roman municipality in 49 B.C. and prospered until the 5th century when Attila, the destructive Hun, marched in. Today its 120,000 inhabitants enjoy a city where ancient and modern coexist, nestled at the base of the Bergamo Alps and just 30 km from the Swiss border.

View down onto Bergamo’s Piazza Vecchia and across rooftops of the Città Alta (Upper City) to the Citadel
Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. Construction began in 1137
Ornate interior of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore

Bergamo is divided into two distinct sections. The Città Alta (Upper City), surrounded by 16th century Venetian walls, is a warren of narrow, mostly car-free streets that invite you to wander until all sense of direction is lost. These streets open onto piazzas trimmed with gelaterias, tourist shops, and tiny family-run markets. The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore stuns both outside and in with its ornate gold trimmed ceiling and chiselled stone facade. Several tranquil parks circle the walls and the Citadel offers stunning views into the Lower City (Città Bassa) and across to the surrounding hills.

The main streets of the Città Alta, were relatively tourist sparse and I was the lone foreigner admiring the stunning Pepi Merisio photography exhibit in the Museo Storico. Even Bergamo’s most famous museum, the Accademia Carrara, offered crowd-free viewing. And the little pizzaria where a grinning elderly woman, resplendent in knitted wool toque, took my order after linguistic calisthenics and much laughter, served up the hands-down best pizza of my trip. My point is that Italy can be enjoyed everywhere so dare to flee the crowds and chart your own course.

View of Florence from the Giotto’s Bell Tower
Neptune Fountain in the Piazza della Signora, Florence

From Bergamo I bused south to Florence where, except for standing in an inordinately long line to visit Michelangelo’s David (and it is unbelievably worth viewing), I sought out lesser sights that soothed my mind and fed my soul. Strolling beside the sluggish Arno River I silently cheered rowers sculling across sunset flecked water. Narrow streets led to scattered ancient churches hung with Italian masters.

Basilica of Santa Maria Novella
Tombs in the Basilica Santa Maria Novella

For dinner a Peruvian restaurant materialized across the street from my hostel. And after an afternoon spent savouring fresh pasta and mingling at an outdoor market, an intimate evening of masterful opera at St Mark’s Church left me breathless with laughter (Daily shows – tickets through MusicTick – all proceeds go to charity).

One of Siena’s Vespa-lined streets
View of Siena and out into the Tuscan countryside

A day trip to Siena (Florence to Siena – 1.5 hrs by train) yielded panoramic views of the Tuscan hills and empathy for the horses that catapult around the historic piazza’s tight corners during the annual Palio horse race.

Some of the 666 porticos in the 4 km Portico di San Luca
Sanctuario di Madonna di San Luca, Bologna

I arrived in Bologna (Florence to Bologna – 1hr by train) with a violent cough that threatened to crack ribs, defied every cough drop, and that necessitated apologies to all my roommates for depriving them of sleep (no private rooms available). After a day in bed I emerged (looking more like a dung beetle than a butterfly, I assure you) to straggle down some of the 38 km of porticoed streets that comprise Bologna’s core, and to climb the 4 km Portico di San Luca (rumoured to have 666 arches because the building contractor felt cheated and therefore punished the church of San Luca with this evil and unlucky number into perpetuity).

Bologna’s main square – also with porticoes
Canale di Reno, Bologna

Bologna is also laced with 60 km of canals – not as visible as those in Venice, but picturesque and peaceful. Once a city of towers, Bologna now has fewer than 20 remaining – including the landmark Due Torre (Two Towers) – the Asinelli and the vertically challenged Garisenda, which leans at an even greater angle than its more famous cousin in Pisa.

Garisenda and Asinelli Towers, Bologna

From Bologna I hauled my aching lungs into two trains and a bus to reach San Gimignano, a hill town located one hour southwest of Florence.

View of San Gimignano

Something about San Gimignano felt like home – something ancient, earthy and confident.

Established in 3rd century BC, it was named San Gimignano in 450 AD (after St Geminianus who reportedly saved the city from destruction by – guess who? – Attila the Hun). The town still provides shelter for pilgrims hiking the Via Francigena – an historic trail stretching from Canterbury, England to Rome, and then on to the seaports of Puglia and ultimately to Jerusalem.

I spent a blissful Sunday hiking part of the Via Francigena – savouring the roll of Tuscan hillsides, the radiant blush of poppies, and the thrill of treading through history. In my 10 hours on the trail I met two other walkers, one guided hiking tour and a handful of cyclists. Moss covered stones mark the trail and maps are posted at major intersections along the way. A handful of cute coffee shops offered respite to weary pilgrims.

Via Francigena near San Gimignano
Stone marker – Via Francigena
Scenery along the Via Francigena

My day on the San Francigena was made sweeter by the knowledge that I would return to Maggie’s Million Dollar View – an Airbnb listed homestay with, as advertised, a truly million dollar view of San Gimignano and the surrounding olive grove covered hills. Inhabited by the same family for over 500 years, the stone house welcomed me in and gave me rest. Scrumptious Vegetarian meals, available on request, nurtured me and, for dessert, a quick jog to the Piazza della Cisterna for, literally, the World’s Best Gelato (choose from two world champion shops located here).

Pistachio-Passion fruit gelato
View from one of San Gimignano’s towers
Saint Fina – born 1238 – Stricken by a paralysing illness, she refused a bed and lay on a wooden pallet

San Gimignano too was once a town filled with towers. The few that remain offer a stiff climb rewarded by sweeping views. I chose to skip the museums of torture (isn’t there enough sadness in life?) but did visit the Collegiate Church and the Chapel of Santa Fina with its lovely frescoes of a woman venerated throughout her short life for devotion to God in spite of suffering.

Piazza Cisterna, San Gimignano

On my final day in San Gimignano, my usual peaceful morning stroll up the Via San Giovanni was thwarted by hordes of flag-following tour groups. Feeling disgruntled I ducked into a linen shop where I asked the soft-spoken shop owner how he felt about masses of tourists. “We love you (tourists) and we hate you,” he replied without any trace of malice. “We like the business but we are chased from our own homes.” With a wry smile he continued while wrapping my purchase, “My daughter is gone and will never move back. The only jobs here are tourist jobs.”

Saying good-bye to San Gimignano

With that dose of local honesty to ponder and the towers of San Gimignano for a backdrop, I shouldered my one dusty backpack, hugged Maggie goodbye, and hiked down to the main road to catch the bus to Poggibonsi and then on to Rome and home. (Once on the bus I discovered the homestay room key languishing in my pocket. Maggie’s brother graciously met me in the next town to retrieve it. Tourists. Sigh…).

Another view over Florence

In Rome, as I boarded my flight back to Canada, I thought – Here I am. This adventure is done. I’ve travelled thousands of miles on two continents, 16 weeks in 8 countries, in blazing heat and blowing cold. I’ve seen wonder after wonder, and yet, from the beginning it was Italy that my heart wanted. From the very start I had to end up here. And so, with a grateful heart, I leave you.

Nine excellent reasons to follow an Aquaduct into the Portuguese countryside…

(Templo Romano, Evora)

There are moments, while travelling, when I felt transported back home – like when the familiar red Staples button beckoned outside my train window or, when I sat contentedly munching a sandwich beneath the Subway logo.

But then you round a corner or glance up from your sandwich and the illusion is shattered by the sight of a centuries-old ruin or the fact that under your feet are cobblestones laid by the Romans.

And so it was in Evora, Portugal, a city shaped over 20 centuries (by the Celts, Visigoths, Romans, Moors, and Portuguese) where ancient architecture and modern businesses cohabit narrow, warren-like streets trimmed in yellow (to ward off evil spirits). Designated a “museum” by UNESCO, Evora’s historic centre is considered the best city example of Portugal’s golden age.

Once popular with royalty, Evora boasts a palace, several grand churches – including the 14th century Church of St Frances which houses the compelling Capella de Ossos (Chapel of Bones) – and an ancient Roman temple. But it was Evora’s Cathedral that made me smile – with its friendly volunteers, humble, earthy feel, rooftop architecture worthy of any dark medieval tale (I helped a very worried tourist find the route back to the hidden entrance), and a surprising art collection (My personal favourite – a painting of the last supper where a disciple slumps in front of a smirking Jesus).

(Top: Last Supper, Evora Cathedral; Bottom: View from the rooftop of the cathedral)

(Top: View of Evora’s Giraldo Square over my morning latte; Bottom: White and yellow dominate the streets)

I loved that, though there were tourists in Evora, we didn’t eclipse the landscape, especially if you strolled away from the main attractions. And since you cannot stroll through Evora without meeting the Aqua de Prata Aquaduct…one thing lead to the other until I found I could not resist its 16th century charm…and…

…here are the top 9 reasons why you should follow an Aquaduct into the Portuguese countryside:

9) It will lead you down obscure, pretty little streets – filled with children’s voices and flapping laundry – where houses are built right into the base of the Aqua de Prata.

8) You can seek shelter from the blistering sun in the shadowed entrance of the Santa Maria Scala Coeli Convent (founded in 1587) and eavesdrop on the nuns laughing within

7) You will have plenty of time to smell the flowers…or nuzzle horses…or ponder the existential questions of the universe. The Aqua Di Prata stretches for 9 km from Evora to the Ribeira do Divor (Divor River).

6) You will not have to fight for a great picnic spot (translate as pastry eating spot) in the shade of one of the mighty stone arches

5) You may be lucky enough to have two fighter jets escort you home, their signatures carved milky white in the brilliant sapphire sky

4) You will hike through cork tree groves (Portugal is the world’s biggest cork producer) and beneath giant stork nests perched atop every telephone pole.

(Cork: A sustainable harvest – the bark is harvested every 9 years and trees live roughly 270 years. It is illegal to chop down a cork tree without a government permit)

3) Hiking is great exercise and will render you ravenous for the vegetarian buffet at the Salsa Verde restaurant AND you will still have room for a couple (or even three) Pastels de Belém (custard tarts) or any number of delicious Portuguese pastries.

2) It will whet your appetite for more exploration – and the next day, instead of hanging out in the city, you will hail a cab with another solo traveller (who may happen to be a budding photographer from England), and drive 30 minutes west to the Almendres Cromlech (also called the Portuguese Stonehenge) – 95 megalithic stones that date from 5,000 B.C. (Making them 2,000 years older than Stonehenge) – while the sincere taxi driver, in shattered English, teaches you history.

1) You will go to bed that night with aching legs, a smile on your lips and a song in your heart.

And really, what more can we ask for?

the lazy traveller’s guide to Koh Chang Island, Thailand

(Top: Approaching Koh Chang on the ferry; Bottom: My feet enjoying Kai Bae Beach)

In the Gulf of Thailand, 300 miles south of Bangkok and near the Cambodian border, where turquoise water and sand kiss, rests Koh Chang. It is an island of curves and jungle-clad mountains, not yet overrun by tourists, with one main road that almost circles its coast but does not penetrate the forested interior. Access is by an open-decked ferry that shudders into the dock to be met by a string of Songtaew (pick-up truck taxis where passengers ride in the canopied cargo bed).

(Photo: Songtaew taxi)

Koh Chang is a reward. After weeks of temples and ruins, of history and hiking and 43 C temperatures, I crave a beach, a breeze, a view, and the chance to do nothing or something as the mood strikes.

Of course, rewards must be earned. Transportation to Koh Chang begins from Bangkok, which is why, on a humid Thursday afternoon I was on yet another bus into the humid heart of that city. I’d been instructed to stay on until the final stop but, mid-trip, decided to double-check this information. My question caused both the driver and his assistant to smack their foreheads simultaneously and declare, in two languages, that I had missed my stop. They deposited me street-side with instructions to walk back several blocks and “go right.”

My route lead through the Bang Lamphu area and down Khao San Rd with its tourist throngs shopping for deals or lounging at street-side bars. The sidewalks exploded with pop-up shops selling everything from beach clothing and bedazzled shoes to home baking, exotic fruit and pad Thai cooked while you watch and eaten standing amid the chaos.

(Top: Street food-vendor in Bangkok; Night view of one of Bangkok’s khlongs (canals))

After a restless night in a hostel where the bathroom temperature hovered close to 50 C, I arrived at the shuttle bus office to find an inebriated couple comprised of a young Thai woman seated in the lap of an older British man, she sobbing out her desire for a lost love and he repeatedly slurring, “Don’t get on the bus.” Their audience of one bored ticket taker had, unfortunately, seen this play before.

When the bus started to move (minus the girl after a last minute decision – really it could have gone either way) I found myself seated next to a family from France complete with young twin girls who shyly questioned me through their mother. Six hours later I drove off the Koh Chang ferry in a taxi full of young men on holiday from India and checked into my hostel room inhabited mostly by young Scandinavian women. A bountiful microcosm of the world in one day.

And here, beside a sparkling pool and on the sun saturated beaches, was where everything pretty much ground to a halt. You see, as per the title, this is really a post about all the things available to do on Koh Chang but which I did not, in fact, do. After all, this was my holiday from my holiday.

I started out, one blistering morning, to hike to Klong Plu Waterfall, but after losing my way and my will, along with several litres of sweat, I hailed a Songtaew and just went to the beach. I hear it is lovely (Klong Plu Falls I mean – along with several other waterfalls that dot the island). I almost investigated the Naval Memorial on Koh Chang’s southern tip, but that meant a half day’s journey north then back south (there is no road connecting west to east in the south) so I just lolled on the beach instead. Lastly, I considered a guided trek up one of Koh Chang’s jungle-draped mountains but, and you will notice a theme here, I ended up at the beach.

(Photo: Chai Chet Beach)

But lest you think me completely indolent, here are some Koh Chang activities I did muster the energy to thoroughly enjoy.

I did snorkel for an entire day on a jet boat tour – including five islands, a delicious lunch served under sway-backed palm trees, and with a guide who shouted “Most beautiful island IN THE WORLD!” at regular intervals – and fell in love the second I peered beneath the waves. I swam with parrot fish through undulating beds of rainbow coral, felt the faint flutter of tiny tail fins, and dove to the sea floor to examine a huge star fish.

(Top: Island in our snorkelling tour; Sea anemone with mighty spikes)

I also scored the worst sun burn of my life (Note: While snorkelling the backs of your legs are constantly exposed to the radiant light of earth’s closest star) resulting in a weeks worth of wincing and a new found respect for aloe vera.

I also spent two hours collecting all manner of trash on Chai Chet beach. The beaches of Koh Chang are cleaned regularly but each day’s tides hurl new crops of rubbish onto the white sand. And I admit to uttering quite a few choice epithets while the sweat blinded my eyes and my fingers harvested Qtips, straws, flip flops, gas cans, fish nets and tiny pieces of plastic from those beautiful shores.

(Photo: two hours worth of garbage harvested on Chai Chet Beach – please, I beg you – STOP USING STRAWS!)

And, late on my last afternoon on Koh Chang, I lazed over to a beach-side shop, rented a kayak, and paddled out onto the diamond speckled, azure waters. Fish played hide-and-seek in the coral below. A small palm tree clothed island beckoned across the narrow bay and I nosed my boat onto its shores alongside a gaggle of Thai nurses enjoying a break from their public health convention. One of them organized a photo shoot.

(Top: Communing with some sister RNs from Thailand; Bottom: Koh Chang’s shoreline viewed from a bay island)

To fuel all of this (in)activity I grazed acres of morning glory shoots sautéed in garlic and served over rice, and washed them down with litres of fresh mango smoothies. The perfect meals in a land where it is almost too hot to digest.

So there you have it – my lazy traveller’s guide to Koh Chang where you can ride elephants (but please, I beg you, for the love of all that is humane – don’t!), where a stroll through the mangrove forest is lovely (or so I hear) and where energetic travellers can zip line through the steaming jungle.

At the ferry dock early on my final morning on Koh Chang I was branded with a bright orange sticker printed with “BANGKOK” and herded on board, the only foreigner in a sea of friendly locals (This minority experience is one I enjoy and highly recommend. It never fails to humble me when I think, on a broader scale, of immigrants forced to start afresh in a new country). And make no mistake, those locals watch out for bumbling tourists like me.

Once the ferry docked on the mainland, I shouldered my very dusty backpack, disembarked, and began shuffling through the hovering humidity toward the distant bus stop.

“Madame!” called a voice, so of course I turned, because who else on that landing would a voice be speaking to in English? The speaker pointed to my orange sticker, shouted “Bangkok!” and gestured toward a waiting Songtaew – that drove me to a waiting bus – that rendezvoused with another bus (this one packed with tourists) that deposited me by a highway overpass leading to the subway that swept me to the airport. A very simple and mystifyingly complex journey.

I plan to return to Koh Chang someday, before too many tourists discover its charms. Maybe next time I’ll try scuba diving at one of its world class sites. Or maybe…I’ll just go to the beach…

(Photo: Koh Chang sunset)

Poland: Milk Bars, Walking Tours, Copernicus, and WWII

“He who saves one life, saves the world entire” – Talmud

(Top: Boundaries of the former Warsaw Ghetto memorialized; Middle: Wawel Castle, Krakow; Bottom: Memorial to the Polish children who acted as couriers, medics, etc, and died alongside the adult soldiers during WWII)

Poland is a revelation. For decades I have read about this country, and as a teenager I and the rest of the world watched the riveting drama of Solidarnosc (Solidarity) as Lech Walesa and his worker’s union lead the charge against communism. But this boots-on-the-ground experience offers me glimpses of real-life in a nation irrevocably shaped and scarred by the cataclysm that was WWII and by the subsequent years under Russian domination. Poland has literally risen from ashes to grapple with its complex past. It is a land of bold scars, where the soil remembers treachery, honour and the march of armies.

(Sigismund’s Column framed by part of Warsaw’s old town – faithfully restored)

On my first morning in Warsaw, a chill wind blows me, jet-lagged and freezing, toward Sigismund’s Column. The monument, located in Royal Square and topped by a statue of a king, caused an uproar in the 17th century because columns only ever exalted religious figures. Everyone calmed down when a cross, held aloft to signify God’s authority over man, was added. Today is Constitution Day and a cordon of soldiers flanks it’s base, scrutinizing the crowd of tourists and flag-waving Varsavians.

I join a group of other travellers for the Orange Umbrella Old Town Walking Tour and we shiver our way through the narrow cobblestone streets, dodging security details and road blocks, and listening intently as our thoughtful young guide attempts to educate us on what it means to be Polish. Here are some salient facts: Over eighty percent of Warsaw was destroyed during WWII. After the war the residents pooled their funds and working together, restored the Old Town, including the Royal Castle. The attention to detail is stunning and the pride obvious. After the tour, two other Canadians and I huddle together, discussing the fact that we have no real frame of reference for the Polish experience. Geography granted our country a pass from the physical devastation and deprivation visited on every citizen here.

(Top: Restored building with detailed paintings in Warsaw Old Town; Bottom: Order window in a Milk Bar)

The cold eventually drives me into a Milk Bar. Developed by the communists as a cheap way to feed the toiling masses, these simple kitchens continue to offer hearty, traditional meals at low prices. Fortunately I’m a big fan of cabbage, soup and potatoes (meat is available for carnivores) and I’m soon warm and full.

The next morning finds me at the Warsaw Rising Museum. Located in a Soviet-era style concrete neighbourhood, the museum offers an in-depth look at the Polish resistance movement and the 63 day battle that raged from August to October, 1944 and left Warsaw a virtual ghost town.

(Picture: Stone monument at the centre of the Warsaw Rising Museum pulsates with a heartbeat to commemorate those who fought and died. The museum opened in 2004 on the 60th anniversary of the Polish Home Army’s attempt to fight off the Nazis and free their capital)

With one tour and one museum under my belt, the history lesson is only beginning. Next is the Jewish Warsaw Walking Tour. Again, our international group tramps the streets examining for traces of a Warsaw where 375,000 Jews (one-third of Warsaw’s total prewar population) once thrived. We see the outlines of the Jewish Ghetto memorialized on sidewalks and everywhere daffodils bloom – symbols of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April, 1943.

(Top: Engraved stone marks the spot where the commander of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising died with his remaining fighters; Bottom: Plaque remembers Janusz Korczak children’s educator and writer who was murdered together with the children in his orphanage)

My takeaways from the tour are:

1) There was a lot of hatred. The Nazis hated the Jews and the Poles (and many others) and wanted them all dead. Many Poles also hated the Jews.

2) There was a lot of courage. The penalty for assisting a Jew in Poland was execution. Many took this risk

3) Misinformation was used to fan the flames of hatred

4) When you dehumanize someone you can rationalize any atrocity

5) Try as I might, I could find no difference between myself, the guide or any of the other people on that tour. Skin colour doesn’t count – it’s still just skin.

Back at the hostel, it is pieroghi making night, and I welcome the distraction from the sadness of history. Together four of us – all women – from disparate parts of the globe – form and cook the pastries, then sit down to eat and laugh and share stories from our lives.

Over the next few days I travel by train to Lublin and then Krakow. These cities remained largely intact during the war but their Jewish population too, was exterminated. Majdanek camp, framed by green fields and plainly visible to the citizens of Lublin, oversaw the murders of at least 80,000 souls and was the site of the largest single massacre of the war (Operation Harvest Festival). Large groups of Jewish tourists pace the grounds with me. I feel the need to read every word on the notice boards and to acknowledge every picture, as if, in some small way, to atone for these long lost lives.

(Top: Lublin’s Old Town seen through the Krakow Gate which marked the start of the ancient road from Lublin to Krakow; Bottom: Majdanek ditches where tens of thousands were murdered, while dance music played, in Operation Harvest Festival – Nov. 3, 1943)

To get to Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau, I join a self-guided day tour. Pickup is in Kazimierz, Krakow’s Old Jewish Quarter and we drive 1.5 hrs into the countryside to join the crowds queuing just outside the infamous gates announcing “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work sets you free). Admission is free (except if you hire a guide) – the state, I assume, not wishing to profit from so perverse an attraction.

(Top: The gate of Auschwitz camp; Middle: shadows on a wall at Auschwitz representing the disappeared; Bottom: Railroad tracks and gate at Auschwitz-Birkenau where over one million people were delivered to their murderers)

I wander first Auschwitz and then the vast expanse of Auschwitz-Birkenau in a sort of trance. It is difficult, on this tranquil, sun- splashed day sprinkled with birdsong and blessed by freedom, to understand the horrors – the despair, the screams, the stench, the starvation and brutality – of this place. I stand on the railroad tracks and try to imagine disembarking to whips and dogs – my children ripped from my arms – stripping naked in the cold, and filing into those showers. I can only partially grasp it, but enough to pray, desperately, that we have the wisdom never to let it happen again. It is a relief to exit the gate. For the drive home, our group is silent.

(Images of Krakow: Jewish cemetery behind Remah Synagogue; Hebrew graffiti on wall behind the Old Synagogue; sign points the way to Oskar Schindler’s factory, now a museum; Saints Peter and Paul Church; Jagiellonian University)

At the homestay in Krakow, my roommates include an older Polish woman who appears (based on accumulated items) to live there, a young and friendly Polish girl who has come to the big city in search of a job, and a fellow Canadian who is working at a nearby hostel for the summer. On my first evening I’m invited to share a bottle of wine with the family. The man of the house, I learn, drives for Uber and is blissfully unaware of any problems facing that company. I choose not to enlighten him.

Krakow is a city that demands to be walked. Around seemingly every corner are sights – graffiti, a hidden garden dedicated to the sport of fencing, a storefront display of The Little Prince, a farmer’s market – that surprise and delight. Planty Park encircles the Old Town, replacing the ancient defensive walls with a peaceful, but busy, green oasis. At the parks south perimeter, on Wawel hill overlooking the Vistula River, atop a cave where legend dictates that Prince Krak slew a dragon, sit Wawel Castle and Wawel Cathedral. A fresh-faced new priest named Karol Wajtyla (Pope John Paul II) celebrated his first mass here in 1943. (It also contains a crypt to the curiously named King Wladislaw the Elbow -High). The old centre of Krakow is larger and grander than that of Warsaw. Horse carriages queue up by the old Cloth Hall in the main square to provide rides to tourists.

(Top: Wawel Castle; Mid: Cloth Hall and main square, Krakow; Mid: Solidarnosc sign bringing back memories; Bottom: Framed photo of earth taken on Apollo 11 by Neil Armstrong and presented to Jagiellonian University on the 500th anniversary of Copernicus’ birth)

I am a nerd, so perhaps my happiest two hours in Krakow are spent at Jagiellonian University, alma mater of one Nicholas Copernicus. I browse such treasures as a rotating book holder the size of a small elephant, a musical clock with rotating professor figures, a photo of earth taken by Neil Armstrong on Apollo 11, and a facsimile of Copernicus’ theology-shattering De Revolutionibus Orbium Celestum which revealed the sun, not the earth, as the centre of our universe.

My final stop is Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory Museum – within whose walls hundreds of Jewish lives were saved by the the humanity of a single man. Sometimes it really does just take one.

(Photos from Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory Museum where hundreds of Jewish lives were saved)

My mind flickers back to the Jewish Warsaw Tour and a private conversation I had with the young guide. “I look at our current political situation,” she said, “and I think that we haven’t learned anything from history. I think we will repeat the past.”

We live in a beautiful world. I hope that she is wrong.

(The horizon from the plane window – Oh so beautiful)

Travelling Japan, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand as a solo female…

(Sunset on Kao Bai Beach, Koh Chang Island, Thailand)

I will never cease to be amazed by travel – the miraculous mechanics of it – that allow me to wake up beachside one morning in Thailand, and by the next afternoon deposit me on the streets of Warsaw, Poland.

(Warsaw’s Stare Miasto (Old Town) complete with singing organ grinder)

Of course, there can be glitches. After a seamless trip including an 8:00 a.m. ferry from Koh Chang Island, a 5 hr bus ride to Bangkok (where I got on the subway headed the wrong direction), and an 11 hr flight to Vienna, my final flight to Warsaw had to turn back due to “technical difficulties.” Fifteen heart-pounding minutes later, we re-landed in Vienna. Fast forward an hour and we were again airborne (on the same plane), this time without incident. Nothing like airplane troubles to remind you of your mortality.

My nine weeks in Asia flew by and having both survived (hurray!) and thoroughly enjoyed them, I feel qualified to offer advice.

First – ladies – you can do this. I mean that. There are so many women, of all ages, out here travelling solo. Not once did I feel threatened or afraid (I did, on occasion, feel like an idiot – like the time in Bangkok when the bus driver and his assistant smacked their foreheads in unison and told me I should have got off two stops ago). Japan, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand are living, breathing travel networks and you can traverse them safely, by every means imaginable. Here are some general tips on: A – Modes of Travel; B – Money Matters; C – Travel as a Vegetarian; and D -Solo Female Travel in General

A – Modes of Travel

Japan:

Trains: The train system here is legendary and for good reason – it is fast, punctual and all encompassing. Japan Rail Passes are available for 7, 14, or 21 days that allow you to just hop on and off the trains (peak travel dates you may also have to reserve a seat). If you are travelling any distance around the country these are a really good deal. You must order on-line before you go and receive a certificate which you then take to a railway office in Japan where they issue the pass. Within cities, buses and /or subways take you everywhere. Taxis are plentiful but more expensive.

(Top: View from train between Kyoto and Tokyo, Japan; Bottom: Wall of humanity at world’s busiest pedestrian crossing, Tokyo, Japan)

Cambodia: Travel in Cambodia is really cheap. Inter-city travel is done mostly by bus or van and can be arranged right from your hostel/hotel. Tourist Buses are air-conditioned. Travel within cities is by tuk-tuk or motorbike taxi (if you are brave or foolish – depending on how you look at it – you can also rent a motorbike and drive yourself around). Cambodia does not have passenger trains.

(Top: Tuk Tuk taxi in Cambodia; Bottom: My guide (and Tuk Tuk driver) prepares to play a trick on me by adding water to seeds that will pop like firecrackers in my hand – that pond is, incidentally, the bathing water source for monks at the monastery)

Vietnam: Motorbikes rule in this country – so much so that Hanoi has 7 million inhabitants, 5 million motorbikes and only 500,000 private cars. Crossing the street in Hanoi feels almost suicidal – you slowly move through the sea of traffic while muttering silent prayers. Many tourists rent motorbikes, especially out in the smaller cities and countryside. (You can also hire the motorbike with the driver like I did – believing his driving skills to exceed my own). There is also a vast system of buses that will take you anywhere – including sleeper buses with seats that fully recline and a bunk-like system (quite comfortable). Vietnam has a passenger train system that will take you from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi and many points in-between. This is a great option as the train is clean and punctual. Despite a soft-sleeper bunk with a mattress like concrete (seriously firm) I spent a good night on my 14 hr trip (despite the horrified looks from the elderly Vietnamese woman who shared my compartment when I walked on the floor in my socks – it’s the same look I give parents who let their children crawl on hospital floors). Cheap flights are also available within country.

(Top: Contemplating crossing the street in Hue, Vietnam – traffic lights are rare and not strictly adhered to by all; Middle: Sleeper bus bunk system in Vietnam; Bottom: Traditional round fishing boats, Hoi An, Vietnam – yes they can be a bit tippy)

Thailand: Again, this is a country that has many good travel options. Within cities, buses, taxis and tuk-tuks abound. Flights within the country are inexpensive by North American standards and can save you a lot of time. Passenger trains run between Bangkok and Chiang Mai (in the North) and many points in-between. I slept like a baby on my night train to Chiang Mai (and had no need to set an alarm as I was roused loudly by the attendants when they began their cleaning rounds).

(Top: View from Chao Phraya River ferry, Bangkok; Bottom: Children spraying pedestrians and motorists during Songkran, the Thai water festival)

Day Tours/Excursions: (I never did any day-tours in Japan therefore this advice applies to Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand). Unless you are travelling during a really peak time there is no need to book tours ahead. You can just arrive, peruse the tours available through your hotel/hostel front desk, and book. Generally you get better prices this way and you have the the opportunity to glean advice from fellow travellers on the best tours. Most tours include lunch, drinking water and pickup/drop-off right at your hotel.

B – Money Matters

It is good policy to arrive in each country with at least some local currency in your pocket. I also travel with a wad of Canadian cash, some U.S. dollars and some Euros. Each of these counties has plentiful currency exchange outlets and ATMs for removing cash. In Vietnam I was advised that the banks had the best exchange rates. One surprise for me was that Cambodia operates with two official currencies – U.S. dollars and Cambodian Riel. Everyone there will quote prices in dollars first, riel second. Credit cards are widely accepted in Japan (I travel with a Visa card) and at many places in Vietnam and Thailand (except smaller businesses) but most places in Cambodia are cash only. Always have cash with you in each of these counties as any public transport, admission to attractions, or street food/souvenir purchases will require it.

Japan and Thailand were the more expensive countries to travel in (that said, Thailand was still quite inexpensive). In Cambodia and Vietnam everything from day tours to food to entrance prices is vey reasonable – especially if you go outside major tourist areas. Street food is plentiful and cheap everywhere and the variety is mind-blowing.

C – Travel as a Vegetarian

Asia is a meat and fish loving continent so it can be tricky to find food that doesn’t have an animal listed among its ingredients. Surprisingly, I found Cambodia the easiest for Vegetarian eating. I say this because it is the least touristy of the four countries, yet even in the smaller centres menus included many meatless options and the fresh fruit smoothies could fuel me all day (let me recommend the fresh jack fruit smoothie – amazing!). Japan was wonderful for grocery stores where you can satisfy any food cravings and buy ingredients to make your own meals. Asia is also peppered (make that deluged) with 7 Eleven outlets where you can buy cheap meal options, including vegetarian. Thailand and Vietnam also boast quite plentiful Vegan-Vegetarian Restaurants, in major centres, that cater to tourist demands (many of the travellers I met were vegetarian). Most accommodations include free breakfast (full breakfasts – everything from omelettes and pancakes to fried rice and noodle soup) and there are always vegan/vegetarian options.

(Top: 7 Eleven on Koh Chang Island, Thailand; Mid: The feisty Ni (pronounced “knee”) showing us how to make soy milk; Mid: Traditional Vietnamese rice pancake made with my own two age-spotted hands; Bottom: Cornucopia in the market – shopping for fresh ingredients before our cooking class)

Another recommendation concerning food – while in Asia, take a cooking class. It is both fun and satisfying as you eat everything you cook (in fact we were so stuffed by the end that the final course was quite neglected). There were three of us vegetarian-type-people in my class in Hoi An, Vietnam, and we were well accommodated. Our instructor, the tiny but feisty, Ni (pronounced “Knee”), complete with chef hat, did a fabulous job of keeping us entertained and on track to becoming better cooks. To her I am ever indebted.

D – Solo Travel

This is my longest solo excursion and I observe that the solo traveller crowd (and there are many, many of us) are an independent lot. We tend to enjoy each other’s company in the hostel during breakfast or over a drink in the evening, but during the day we fan out and do our own thing. Solo travellers must enjoy their own company. That said, friendliness toward all and anon is a definite asset. I have met innumerable wonderful people – from the drunk young man on the train who was travelling to Kyoto to “find his soul,” to the kind Canadian who heard about a blood shortage in Cambodia and tried to donate, to the young female desk clerk in Phong Nha, Vietnam who also wants to travel solo someday, to the German tourist with whom I shared a drink in Hanoi – and have found that a smile and a friendly hello, in any language, will open many doors. Group day-tours are a wonderful way to meet other travellers. Often these morph into going out for a meal or hanging out by the pool together. Some hostels schedule shared meals that bring travellers together to swap stories over local food.

(Top: Leaping from the boat into Lan Ha Bay during a day tour in Vietnam; Bottom: Group photo on day tour to temples of Siem Reap, Cambodia. There are four nationalities represented. All but two were travelling solo)

I never felt unsafe in Asia and, in most places, could walk around freely, even at night (though sometimes wearing a reflector would also have been a good idea). That said, I was usually tucked up safely in my hostel bed well before midnight. But night markets abound and are colourful and packed with shoppers and vendors alike and you won’t want to miss them. Your biggest worry there are pick-pockets so loop your purse over your neck, hide some money in your bra and go.

Not only am I a solo female traveller. I am also Canadian, and have to add that this means something. People look in my passport and say “Ah! Canada!” What we have in Canada is perceived as almost mythic in some other countries.

One young Lithuanian man summed it up when he told me this story – “A group of us travellers from many different countries took a vote the other night on what is the best country in the world. Do you know who won? Canada.” He looked at me. “Do you know why?” I shook my head. “Because you are free, you can earn a good living, the world trusts you, and you are kind.”

Thus, as a solo female Canadian, I am both grateful for and challenged to uphold, this reputation. And to all of the travellers, tour guides, hostel employees and citizens who have spent the day or shared a meal with me, have laughed with me, booked my tours, helped me find my way, brought me soup when I was unwell, shared their stories, taught me to cook, transported me safely, and opened my eyes to new parts of our beautiful planet, I proclaim a big thank you. To all of you I am deeply indebted. I only hope that one day, you also will come to my country and find us the gracious hosts of your imagination.

(Top: Beach on snorkelling day trip, Koh Chang, Thailand; Middle: passenger train cuts right through a Hanoi neighbourhood. You literally move your stool indoors when the train passes; Bottom: Motor bike parked next to typical electrical wire tangle in Hoi An, Vietnam)

Bangkok to Ayutthaya, Thailand by train – a story and a surprise…

(Top:Bangkok waterfront and skyline; Bottom: Ruins in Ayutthaya)

Travelling from Bangkok to Ayutthaya by train is a simple matter: Go to train station, buy ticket, get on train, an hour or so later, arrive destination. End of story….But wait. That is the fairytale version and this is real life…

In reality, I shouldered my dusty backpack at 8:10 a.m. and eased out into the 34C heat. Armed with a map and with sweat trickling down my spine, I plodded to the bus stop where 12 TB (50 cents CN) bought me a ticket to the train station and a debate, conducted in Thai by the driver, his female assistant and another female passenger, about whether or not I was on the correct bus. The words “train station” spoken in English and on google translate in Thai did not eleviate the debate but a thorough perusal of my map settled the matter with smiles and sage head nodding. My “ThankYOU!” with emphasis on the second syllable, produced a chorus of similar thankYOUs punctuated with laughter while at each stop the assistant strode to the door, sang out the route to those waiting, then pointed to me and commanded, “No you!”

Six stops on the “No you!” changed to “You!You!” and I scrambled out, waited for the world’s longest traffic light (while marvelling at the heavily clad Thai biking team waiting on the opposite side) and crossed the street to the train station.

(Top: Bangkok train station; Bottom: Buddhist shrine next to ATM and luggage storage in Bangkok train station)

Now here is where I made my fateful error. Initially my plan was to catch the 10:50 a.m. express but, in a moment of delirium, chose the 9:25 a.m. local instead. The 15 TB cost should have been my cue to upgrade, but, well, after all, life is an adventure.

The six pink cars of train 201 lurched uncertainly from the station promptly at 9:25 a.m. as the temperature neared 38C and myself and an elderly Thai woman wrestled our window wider. Already we resembled wilted cabbages and I was asking myself questions like, “How could I make an ice pack that fits in my bra?” and “I wonder if there is still ice on the lakes back in Canada?”

These musings took on greater urgency as the minutes and then hours ticked by and train 201 failed to hit anything resembling speed. (Meanwhile the grandma beside me earned a gold medal minding her increasingly cranky grandson who regarded me with unsmiling fascination).

Finally at a little country station our little pink train decided it could do no more and ground to a permanent halt. No announcement was made, but a general rumour swept the train until we all piled out to sit on the station steps and to plunder the area for anything cool, cold or generally lukewarm. An enterprising youth scootered up, his cooler loaded with popsicles causing a short feeding frenzy (yes, yours truly was first in line). Reports circulated that a rescue train could arrive at 1:00 or 3:00 p.m. We wilted on, a crowd of generally silent human puddles.

(Above: Somewhat ironic (as it turned out) sign by railroad tracks)

By 12:30 p.m. a train was imminent – a slow surge to the tracks and another wait. Finally, a train. Not a mirage. A real train. The mantra in my brain turned to the swimming pool I knew to be waiting at my accommodations in Ayutthaya. I dared to hope.

Now – the surprise. I have travelled the world and know it to be a big place. But at any moment it will amaze you with its minute attention to detail.

You see, while waiting to board the rescue train, the young Thai man beside me asked, “Where are you from?” When I replied, “Canada,” he exclaimed, “Me too! Vancouver!”

“I’m from Sudbury,” I stated.

The young man smiled.

“My hometown is Ayutthaya, but I used to live in Sudbury,” he said. “I worked at My Thai Palace restaurant.”

The world made small, at a sweltering station in rural Thailand.

Tonight as I sit poolside (also not a mirage – a real pool – and I swear the water sizzled when I leaped in earlier this afternoon) in Ayutthaya, accompanied by a herd of racing geckos and a dive-bombing bat, I gaze at the moon and know it is the same moon that you will soon see, half a world away, from this huge, small, amazing planet that we call home. I also know how grateful I am. For everything.

(Top:Poolside at Nature Home, Ayutthaya; Bottom: Moon over me and you)

P.S. There are several daily trains travelling between Bangkok and Ayutthaya. Though I am thankful for my experience, next time I will no doubt choose one of the 200 TB ($8.40 CN) air-conditioned versions of this trip 😊. I am also in the early stages of patenting an ice pack bra-liner. I think it could really catch on.

Kamakura’s temples and Tokyo’s many faces…

(Top: Moss covered steps lead to Kamakura’s Sugimoto-Dera temple; Bottom: Street scene in front of Tokyo’s Sensoji Shrine)

First – an apology. For those readers hoping for an orderly place-by-place blog, that is not happening. I like to take the time to mull over my travels and let them age like a good red wine before attempting to write about them. Today’s mulling has lead me back to Japan.

Kamakura resides on Japan’s Pacific coast, a short train ride south of Tokyo. It is famed for its myriad temples, peaceful walking trails and for the Daibutsu – the Great Buddha (completed in 1252) that smiles benevolently from the courtyard of Kotoko-in Buddhist temple (incidentally this is the Buddha written about by Rudyard Kipling in his novel Kim)

(Top:Daibutsu Buddha sitting 13.35 m tall; Middle: Buddha’s hands – together like this signifies meditation; Common room complete with traditional heating coals sliding panels at the lovely Kamakura guesthouse)

Kamakura boasts an excellent bus system that will transport you to any destination – but wear your walking shoes because to reach the temples you must climb endless stairs and navigate stone walkways. (Let me add that yours truly did become lost several times navigating this bus system and required rescuing by Kamakura’s excellent citizens. This lead to lovely conversations about raising teenagers and one elderly lady who told me, her eyes radiating great sympathy, that she has been alone in a strange land before too).

Each temple nurtures a beautiful garden where, for a small fee, you can linger and ponder spiritual questions. The garden most talked about is the serene, towering bamboo forest at Hokoku-ji temple.

(Both photos above: scenes from Hokoku-ji temple bamboo forest)

(Top: Entrance to Tsurugaoka Hachiman-Gu Shrine, Kamakura; Middle: Traditional offerings of saki; Bottom: Entrance to another temple)

The only regret I have about Kamakura is in not spending more time there. It is a lovely city with a lot of character and my stay was made even more special by the Kamakura Guesthouse. This guesthouse affords tourists the chance to experience a Japan that is disappearing – one that includes sliding screens, creaking wooden floors and a traditional heating system of coals burned under a pipe that leads to the upper floors. I had the best night’s sleep sandwiched between the thick mat and heavy duvet – in a room shared with seven other guests. Even Japanese tourists come to experience this place. In the evening, seated on mats around the low wood table, a young french tourist, a Japanese tourist and I held an animated conversation using a combination of butchered French (me), questionable English (French tourist), google translate, and various crazy hand motions in which we may or may not have ascertained that he had just graduated as a French pastry chef, she (Japanese tourist) was a student and I am not a great cook. (He also shared a recipe for pastry which I have forgotten – it’s ok, I was never going to make it anyway 😊).

(Top: Kamakura guesthouse send-off; Bottom: Rickshaw driver training. The teachers appeared to include monks and there was a lot of bowing at each stoplight)

In the morning, with the fanfare of a departing dignitary, the staff and other residents of Kamakura guesthouse crowded around to wish me joy on the rest of my trip and wave me good-bye. I managed to find the correct bus to take me to the direct train to Tokyo station where I discovered that Tokyo employs guides, dressed in bright red shirts and equipped with iPads , to help addled tourists at their main train and subway stations. I could have kissed them but thought it might seem odd so did not.

(Top: Subway guide sign; Middle: Sensoji Shrine at night; Middle: View from Ueno Park toward Tokyo cityscape; Bottom: Wall of humanity waiting to cross on one side of the famed Shibuya crossing)

I thought that Tokyo, due to its sheer size would be more intimidating. However, I found a city that is easily navigable and is really several cities in one. Tokyo has many faces – Akihabara with its anime and gadgets, Shibuya with its youth culture, Ginza with expensive shopping and Kabuki theatre – and many more. I stayed in the Asakusa area, known for its traditional culture, the Sensoji Shrine and the walking streets where you can spot Geishas and where street stalls sell every manner of Japanese cuisine.

Tokyo is a city of extreme contrasts. Strolling in the Imperial Garden it is easy to forget that they open out onto traffic-laden streets lined with skyscrapers. After spending a delightful hour watching Kabuki theatre the mind has to readjust to the high end boutiques that greet you outside. The oasis of Ueno Park with its zoo, museums, temples and tree and blossom lined trails, is framed by high rises.

(Top: Courtyard in front of Sensoji temple with Skytree behind; Middle: Poster for traditional artist exhibit at Ueno Park Museum; Middle: brightly clad Buddhist statuary; Middle: Imperial garden; Bottom: Kabuki Theatre, Ginza district, Tokyo)

I am not a big city person but, against my will, I loved Tokyo. It’s extremes lend personality and it has an energy that lures you in with promises of fresh discoveries at every corner – aided by a 24 hour subway pass which for 600 yen will take you anywhere your heart desires.

Of course, no trip to Tokyo is complete without a visit to the Hedgehog Cafe and more plum blossoms lining yet another temple walkway.

As a Canadian in Japan, I must add that it is interesting travelling in a country that is known for its extreme natural disasters, from tsunamis and earthquakes to typhoons. This proclivity for extreme danger does sit in the back of your mind as you meander around – and is apparently something on the mind of Japanese citizens. While deep underground in the Tokyo subway, an older gentleman engaged me in conversation (a rarity in Tokyo as on the subways most people are quiet). In fluent English he ascertained where I was from and how I liked Tokyo and revealed that he was an engineer nearing retirement. “Have you been up the Tokyo Skytree?” he asked. “No,” I replied. He nodded sagely. “I don’t know why we build these tall buildings here,” he said. “We are due for a big earthquake. It’s coming.” Hmmm…

I’m sure that he is right, but would this stop me travelling to Japan – sincerely and resoundingly, no. Kamakura, Tokyo , plum blossoms, temples, serenity, skyscrapers, peaceful gardens, rickshaw trainee drivers, natural disasters – these are some of the many and varied faces of Japan. Minus the disasters, I am honoured to have experienced them.

(Note: Download the free Safety Tips app before you go. This app is directed toward tourists to Japan and provides alerts and evacuation flowcharts)