Travels in Europe

September 13, 2015

Last month my girlfriend fianc√© Elissa, her mum and dad and our son Harry embarked on a trip of a life time. It could also have quite easily been a suicide mission, considering our schedule, and the fact that Harry wasn’t even one year old yet.

We notched up about 60 collective hours on planes, trains and automobiles during our time visiting 8 different cities in 4 different countries. Harry has now traveled more as an 11 month old than most of my Aussie mates.

That’s the cruel thing about living in Australia though. Although I’ve loved being¬†in Sydney for the past 8 years, one thing that always gets me down is the distance of this vast¬†country from anywhere else. I really feel isolated and detached from what’s going on in the rest of the world. Country hopping in Europe this past month reminded me how lucky we Brits are to live¬†so close to so many different countries, with so much variety in¬†people, history, culture and experiences right on our doorstep.

A train ride in Europe throws you deep into a different world. A train ride in Australia takes you to… well, another town that’s pretty much identical to the last!

Before leaving, Olympus kindly leant me one of their latest small cameras to test, the OM-D EM-5 Mark ii. I normally take a heavy dSLR on holiday, so it was refreshing to use something half the size, and I consequently shot far more photos than I ever would do normally on holiday. For those interested in the technical details, I wrote a lengthy review on it here.

So without further ado, sit back while I bore you with the modern day equivalent of a holiday slide show, aka the greatest holiday that Harry will never remember.

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#1 The Plane Ride from Hell

I exaggerate – it wasn’t bad at all. We were lucky enough to get a couple of Singapore Airlines’ newest planes, which meant loads of room, and the flight was split up perfectly with a layover half way through in Singapore where we caught up with my half sister Georgie and her family.

For those mums out there wondering how long flights are with babies, our experience was fine. There’s no doubt it wasn’t comfortable (either having Harry sleep on us Elissa, or having to constantly entertain him), but I think at pre-walking age, they’re far easier to handle. One side note – the bassinets can be rather annoying since you have to remove your sleeping baby every time the ‘fasten-seatbelts’ light comes on.

Warning – there are lots of Harry photos from this point in! If you persevere a bit though, I think the photos get more interesting later on…

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#2 London

Every time I return to England, I inevitably stay a few days in London. I’ve never lived there and I usually treat the city as a tourist, amazed at all the changes every time¬†I return. I also try and go back home during their summer, and have had incredible luck the past few visits with sunshine and perfect weather every day.

I know¬†what people say about the weather in the UK, that it’s grey 90% of the time (and it pretty much is), but trust me – that remaining 10% of the time makes for one of the best summers in the world, especially in London.

Imagine a place that’s predominantly grey and gloomy, cold, short days, depressing tube rides… then suddenly it’s hot enough to swim in lakes, the sun’s strong but you can stay outside all day without burning (I burn after 15 mins in Aussie sun), days are incredibly long (dusk at 10pm!?), pubs are overflowing, everyone’s happy as it’s that 10% time, making the most of every second while it lasts – you get the idea. When you have a little of something good, you appreciate it 10x more!

In London our¬†good friends Ben and Katie from my uni days in Bath, so kindly put us all up in their house in Balham. Ben and Katie have the perfect family and home. I love spending time with them all so much, and have a lot of respect for Ben for how far he’s come¬†since his¬†uni days of living day to day off¬†a student loan.

I wanted to thank Ben and Katie for their hospitality, so took the whole family to a park¬†for¬†a portrait session. It was actually the first time I’ve ever photographed friends in this way, and it meant a lot to me to be able to capture a special moment of four special people. I need to do it more! GoldHatPhotography_0039 GoldHatPhotography_0040GoldHatPhotography_0702 GoldHatPhotography_0018 GoldHatPhotography_0019 GoldHatPhotography_0020GoldHatPhotography_0017 GoldHatPhotography_0022 GoldHatPhotography_0024 GoldHatPhotography_0025 GoldHatPhotography_0026 GoldHatPhotography_0027 GoldHatPhotography_0029 GoldHatPhotography_0030 GoldHatPhotography_0031 GoldHatPhotography_0700 GoldHatPhotography_0032 GoldHatPhotography_0033 GoldHatPhotography_0034GoldHatPhotography_0701GoldHatPhotography_0087 GoldHatPhotography_0089 GoldHatPhotography_0090 GoldHatPhotography_0091

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#3 Nottingham & Surrounds

Next stop was of course my mum’s home in good old Nottingham. Ever the athletes,¬†Cate and Jeff embarked on a 5 day cycling tour of the Peak District while Elissa, Harry and I hung out with my mum. Harry went to his first wedding (which lasted less than an hour – never again!), met a few of my mates for the first time and visited some stately homes, including Chatsworth House and Newstead Abbey.

England also kicked the Aussies’ asses in cricket at our local Trent Bridge cricket ground, something I was completely oblivious to having zero interest in sport, but this meant our little town of West Bridgford was abuzz with energy in a way I’ve never seen it before.

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#4 Florence

One cheap (but terrible) Ryan Air flight later, we were in an apartment in the historical Santa Maria Novella area of central Florence. Joined by mum and her partner David (aka the backup baby sitters!), we spent the days wandering the streets and the nights being cooked meals by my superstar mum.

Lunchtime highlights included pizza and gnocchi at the awesome Mercato Centrale, whilst restaurants in the evening were pretty much spot on with local cuisine too.

As Elissa and I¬†had already been to Florence before, we didn’t bother with the Uffizi and other tours, which I was secretly happy about since museums and tours bore the crap out of me.

The extent of our ‘sightseeing’ was to climb the 463 steps of the Duomo, the highlight being Harry letting out an ear piercing, echoey scream at the top, resulting in a booming (and contradictory) SILENZIO PER¬†FAVORE!! over¬†the intercom. Jesus¬† doesn’t appreciate loud noises.

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#5 Cinque Terre

We’d heard nothing but good things about this region of 5 old seaside villages¬†on the Italian Riviera, but unfortunately it didn’t live up to our expectations.

Things got off to a bad start with a tiny AirBnB apartment and terrible first night restaurant experience, and it didn’t really improve when we discovered that Ligurians are not known for their politeness.

Bearing in mind Italians are renowned for being rude, when one Italian tells you that Ligurians are very rude people, you better be ready for some of the most unwelcoming, condescending, stubborn and downright arseholeyness of every local you have the misfortune of needing to interact with.

Not to be perturbed by the locals, we did our best to ignore the swarms of tourists in the narrow streets, and did admittedly really enjoy the hour long treks between the towns. I have a newfound respect for Elissa’s strength, carrying a 10kg baby the whole way, all in 30 degree heat. And yes, I did offer!!

The treks were actually the one saving grace of the entire area in my opinion; a shame considering the natural beauty of the location. It’s the kind of place where no matter the locals’ attitude and how rundown each town is becoming through lack of upkeep and a general ‘don’t give a crap’¬†attitude, tourists will continue to flock there, and the shitty beach-side restaurants will continue to prosper with their overpriced menus.

Do I sound bitter? I was ready to punch that restaurant manager on the first night!! Anyway, enjoy the photos…

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#6 Lucca

We actually cut our stay in Cinque Terre short by one day to escape¬†to the beautiful Renaissance city of Lucca in Italy’s Tuscany region.

Lucca features a massive 16th century wall encircling its historic city centre, with tree-lined pathways and cobbled streets, perfect for cycling and strolling. We hired bikes to cruise on top of¬†the 4km city wall – Harry’s first experience on two wheels!

Whilst our AirBnB experience wasn’t on par again, we had a great time and thoroughly recommend this small town for anyone visiting Italy.

Sidenote about AirBnB: Inevitably¬†with unregulated accommodation such as this, there are bound to be some bad¬†grapes in the bunch. Also, the cheaper-end of the spectrum tend to cater more for¬†backpackers rather than families with crawling babies (Harry’s knees and hands were black!) I guess you get what you pay for, but my advice would be to stick to the AirBnB accommodation that’s managed by a company – the standards are way better.

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#7 Rome

The last time I’d been in Rome, my mum had had a very unpleasant time in a local hospital, so my memories were marred by the experience. This time however in totally different circumstances, I fell in love with the city, especially one neighbourhood on the west bank of the Tiber called the Trastevere.

It had such an impact on me in fact that I decided that it’d be the perfect place to propose to my then gf, now fianc√© Elissa. My original plan of a hot air balloon in England didn’t work out, so instead she got a rather ordinary alley way in an otherwise beautiful neighbourhood!

It turns out, rather unsurprisingly, that finding a quiet street in a popular area of Rome during summer is nigh impossible, so you can imagine Elissa’s confusion upon being led away from all the hustle and bustle, down a side street with nothing spectacular about it. My story was something about ‘taking the perfect night photo’, but even that didn’t make sense!

Anyway, one very short drop of the knee later (cobbled streets are painful!), Elissa had a ring on her finger and the romantic city of Rome had taken another two victims.

As for the sightseeing,¬†the scale and detail of the¬† Pantheon blew me away. It’s mind boggling how it was built thousands of years ago. The Colosseum is very impressive too, but way too touristy to be enjoyable.

Other than that I just really enjoyed walking around the city, along the river banks and through the markets. On the final day I bought some vine tomatoes and a clove of garlic from¬† a local stall, fried them up with some olive oil and a touch of salt, and created¬†the most amazing spaghetti sauce I’ve ever eaten. This is how tomatoes should be!!

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This blurred photo is special since it was taken moments after I proposed :D
This blurred photo is special to me since it was taken moments after I proposed!

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#8 Istanbul

By this stage, we were ready to leave Italy. We’d had an awesome time, but we were after a new cultural experience, and were keen to see if Istanbul lived up to all the hype.

All my good friends said they loved Istanbul, so I feel a bit weird being the odd one out, but¬†it just didn’t do much for me. We visited the mosques, the markets, did the Bosphorous river tour, got a Hammam massage, ate street¬†food, spent time¬†over the bridge into Beyoglu… maybe we only scratched the surface? I’m not sure but it didn’t really leave as much of an impression as I was expecting.

One thing that we did love was the people. Every single person we encountered was great, and most surprising of all, everyone loved Harry.

When I say they loved him, I don’t mean the usual “oh how cute” tug-at-the-cheek routine that’s a given for anyone who wants to sell you something. I mean asking to hold him, babysitting him while we shopped, taking photos with him… and most surprising of all, it was mostly the guys. Young guys too, who you’d not expect to be interested in a baby.

Of course it wasn’t just Harry either – the Turks absolutely adore children, and express their feelings very¬†openly. It was a small thing, but it just made our entire time in Istanbul as a family very pleasant.

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#9 Athens

To be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to our final destination. I’d even contemplated extending the Turkey leg to include Cappadocia in favour of skipping Athens, but in retrospect, was so glad I didn’t.

Athens, or rather Plaka, the neighbourhood in which we were staying, was amazing. With all the recent economic woes, we weren’t expecting what we found – streets bustling with smiling locals, overflowing restaurants and bars, crowded¬†shops, popular¬†sightseeing tours… it basically looked like a thriving town at the end of their hottest summer ever.

We hit the bull’s eye with our final AirBnB apartment too, the penthouse in an apartment block with a view over Athens and the Acropolis.

Alike Rome, the architecture and detailing of the ruins was mind-blowing. I just couldn’t get my head around how something so enormous and intricate was built so long ago! I mean, the Parthenon was built 4,000 years ago and looks better than most structures built today using computers!?¬†Apparently they even took into account the lay of the land to create an optical illusion whereby the pillars look straight, but in fact they’re technically not. Mind=blown.

The photos of the old guy with long hair is a homeless Irish man called Tom. Tom sits all day outside his squat selling miniature bicycles he makes out of electrical wire for 1 Euro each. He told me on a good day he can make 30 Euros! Jeff exchanged a set of his old sports clothes for a custom built wire racing bike, and on the day we left Tom was dressed head to toe in Jeff’s gear. I’m guessing next time we’re in Plaka he’ll be wearing the same outfit!

On our final day we ventured out of Plaka to Lake Vouliagmeni on the Athenian Riviera. The thermal waters of the lake are home to Garra Rufa, otherwise known as Doctor Fish which nibble at your dead skin. I also ate¬†the best sardines¬†I’ve ever had! Or maybe they were Doctor Fish…

So that was it. 5 weeks later – end of holiday. SAD FACE. I hope you enjoyed the pics!

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