You desire a dark and creepy bamboo forest experience? Read on.
When visiting Kansai and Osaka, it’s easy to think of the whole region as a purely urban conglomeration. Which it is to a degree, but large parts, especially outside Kyoto, Nara and south of Osaka, are very peaceful and rural. Add the great transport connections to this and you have endless opportunities for day hikes!

I’m not a big hiker, but do enjoy long walks and easy hikes every now and then (and I hate mountains!). I had been meaning to hike the Kisen alps for a long time, but heard reports of the bad state of the trail and decided not to go by myself. I’m so glad I didn’t, as this turned out the scariest hike I’ve ever taken. It was easy enough to find the trail from Yamanakad station, and the instructions provided on the Hiking in Japan Website were on point… to a certain degree.

After a very steep initial climb up, the trail was in very poor shape, with a lot of warning signs about slippery slopes and other kinks in the road. One we reached what the website described as a large park, we were indeed rewarded with some great views across Osaka bay and Kansai airport as well as further into Wakayama Prefecture. As it was already 4 pm at that point, we decided to go for the shortest route towards Kii station… from where the path got even worse. We ended up having to virtually slide down the last mile of bamboo forest during dawn, which in retrospect is the funniest, but also scariest experience I’ve had in Japan. There was construction going on at the end of the trail, so we had to walk through a really creepy tunnel to get to the station in the end. If we hadn’t met other hikers along the way, I would have sworn the path had officially been closed.



choose your way out!

Was it scary? Yes, but an experience I won’t ever forget. Absolutely go for a hike here when you’re staying in Osaka! From current updates, it sounds like the trail has been reinstated a month or two after our experience. But do go early in the day, make sure it didn’t rain the day before, and do wear proper gear. Trainers and shorts or a skirt will not cut it here. It’s an easy hike on a physical level, but you do need some proper boots and trousers in case you end up on your behind at some point. You should be able to read some survival Japanese or bring someone with you who can. The warning signs are definitely not to be ignored and there is absolutely no signage in English… you absolutely must be able to read the names of the places you are going. Also, this is not for the arachnophobes! There were lots of spider webs on the way.


However, if you want to rural Japan with a touch of eeriness like out of a Ghibli movie, this is probably your best chance in Kansai.



If you like the traditional sides of Japan and have already seen a lot of temples, yet might not have the time or confidence to travel in rural Japan by yourself (English is rare there), a visit to the UNESCO heritage villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama is highly recommended. They are located in the area of Hida, near Takayama, which is also a beautiful town worth spending a few days in. There are a few different small villages, with Shirakawa-go being the biggest. Suganuma is another one we visited, which was a lot more quiet and peaceful, yet also had some small museums and souvenier shops.

This area is one of the most remote of Japan's main island of Honshu. The villages are only reachable by bus or car. The new tunnels built between Takayama and the villages have cut the travel time to about an hour and a half - before it took 3 - 4 hours or more to get there, and it winter, the villages were often completely cut off from the world. The villages are famous for their special thatched roof houses, which are several stories high and traditionally were heated by an open fire burning in the lower level. The smoke eventually turned the wood on the inside of the building black, which supposedly helps to preserve the material.



The thatched roof has to be renewed every couple of years - and this is the main reason of the UNESCO status, as the material for thatching has become very rare today and has to be brought from other areas of Japan. This means the average price for a new roof, including labour, is around $200.000!

Several of the buildings in the villages can be visited for small entry fees. I especially recommend the temple and the biggest of the thatched houses in Shirakawa-go, which houses an exhibition on the area. The temple museum focuses on the local rice wine festival, and you can even try some of their local rice wine (like a very high alcohol Korean magkeolli) for free.

Of course, this being Japan, there are also local delicacies! Everywhere sells chestnut ice cream, but the best local product is their pickled smoked burdock (gobo) - I've not seen this anywhere else in Japan and it's incredibly tasty, a bit like BBQ sauce. Don't forget to get some for Japanese friends :)

If you have some more time, several houses also offer a homestay. I'm not sure if they are English speaker friendly, but I've never heard of anybody receiving anything but kindness and hospitality in rural Japan - so it shouldn't be a problem if you don't speak Japanaese.

You can visit the villages with a rental car, but I do recommend getting a good tour guide, who can make the hstory and traditions of the area, including the many handicrafts and festivals unique to here, come alive for you.

We visited on a tour with Nohi bus, and it turned out that three of us had the English speaking guide to ourselves. The lady was outstanding - I've never met a tour guide who knew so much about a place and could answer even the most pesky (and critical) question. She even went out of her way and tried to get us another bus ticket back in Takayama, when the bus we wanted to get on was sold out.

Nohi bus is the local bus company that runs buses from Shinjuku to Takayama, some also continue to the villages, and on to Kanazawa City as well as all the way from Kanazawa to Kyoto and Osaka.







a gravestone and sculpture of a fencing champion



Paris, Buenos Aires, Manila, London... I've become an inadvertent fan of visiting cemeteries. Not so much for a pilgrimage to famous people's graves, but for the artworks that many of the gravestones and monuments are in these places.

Lychakiv Cemetery is located a 20 min walk from Lviv's medieval city, walking past the very impressive university campus. The entrance fee was 25 hryvnia, plus 10 hryvnia if you want to take pictures (and trust me, you will want to!). 

Lviv belonged to Poland for a long time, so there are many Polish graves in addition to Ukrainian ones and a large monument in addition to the Ukrainian war monument located there. 

I have to be honest, I was a bit worried how much I would get out of this experience, as I know exactly one of the famous people buried there (Ivan Franko, who, among many other things, translated Shakespeare, Byron, Goethe and Schiller into Ukrainian). However, the pictures will speak for themselves! 


We spent about an hour and a half wandering around - I imagine you can spend much longer if you can actually read Cyrillic. The art was fantastic, much unlike anything else I've seen at "western" cemeteries. I'm not sure if that's due to Soviet, Orthodox or Ukrainian influences or a mix of it all. After a week in Ukraine, I have to admit that this nation has its very own ideas and is incredibly creative in terms of visual art.

Ukrainian flags and colours were everywhere


A lot of gravestones showed people playing harps


The trident is one of the oldest symbols of Ukraine, which hasn't been an independent nation for long, although people have been fighting for independence for centuries

the angel rising above the cemetery and the surrounding hills was simply mesmerizing!


many monuments are surprisingly modern!

actually, only few looked classically orthodox



sleeping beauty

Lady in waiting...

This monument to an archbishop was so big, it reminded me of Chinese style necropoli

some statues were classic in style but used more modern materials

apart from harps, pianos featured heavily, too




Ireland is definitely one of my favourite, it not my favourite European country to travel in. I keep going back for over a decade now! 

During the off season, Ireland can be very affordable and about the same price as some Eastern European countries – but lots of places will be closed and the weather can be miserable. A good time to go is April or May, or September and October, when prices are lower and the weather is about the same as in the summer. Sorry to be so brutally honest, but I’ve travelled and lived in Ireland and seeing more than a week of actual warm (i.e. more than 20 degrees) summer weather is rare. July or August are not guarantee for good weather. But if you want good weather, maybe you should go to Spain…

On our last trip to Ireland in July 2015, I experienced high season prices for the first time. So be warned: This is by no means a ‘how to do Ireland on the cheap’ guide, although I believe we managed quite well, considering a lot of things went wrong on this trip. Also note that our transport cost almost doubled because the rental car we had reserved didn’t exist and we had to go for another one on the spot (avoid Enterprise in Cork!). On the other hand, the weak Euro in summer 2015 worked in our favour for accommodation and food prices.

Itinerary

We flew into Cork, where we spent four nights. On our last morning, we rented a car and drove via a detour of Killarney and Muckross along the Ring of Kerry to County Clare. There, we spent six days in a little cottage, exploring the county, taking in some of the more famous sights (Cliffs of Moher, the Burren) and some of the less known (Lough Derg, random little towns with pagan influenced churches). We had planned to go to the Aran islands, but the ferry was cancelled due to bad weather, so we spent a night in Galway instead, taking a quick detour into Connemara National Park. We then drove to Dublin via Clonmacnoise. Having dropped the car at the airport, we spent another two nights in Dublin.

So, this could be a pretty typical Ireland itinerary, although first timers might want to spend more time in Dublin and less hanging out in a cottage (although I highly recommend it!).

Accommodation

monasteries kept Irish culture alive during the dark ages
I’m not usually one for B&Bs, but I think they are a quintessential part of the Ireland experience – even if you are on a hostel budget, try to spend at least one night in a small B&B that does a proper breakfast and offers proper Irish hospitality! On this trip, we spent one night in a place in Galway. Other than that, we rented our own magical little cottage, with kitchen, peat heating and cat in Clare for just £14/$20 per person and night (the cottage would have had space for three people). This was definitely our cheapest stay, but keep in mind that it was in the middle of nowhere and could only be reached by car. Even the next shop was 5 miles away.

Our most expensive stay was the apartment in Cork, which at £38/$ 54 pp really wasn’t quite worth it – there was no dining table, the kitchen and bathroom were barely functioning. Alas, Cork is extremely popular, mostly due to the silly Blarney castle. To be honest I’d skip it in high season next time, although it’s one of my favourite places in the country.

We also stayed in a 4-star hotel in Dublin, after the 3 star I usually go with had no running water on arrival (welcome to Ireland!). Actually, changing our booking short notice made it a pretty good deal as many of the pricier options in Dublin offer rooms at low rates last minute. Yet, £50 per night and person without breakfast is not cheap by any means, but ok if you consider that it was a weekend during high season.
On average, we paid £29 per person and night for accommodation, although only one night had breakfast included.

Transport

I am a big fan of public transport, and while it’s quite functional in Ireland during the high season, this is the one country where nothing beats having your own four wheels. In my opinion, it’s not about the
We rented a little automatic car, which should haven ben £500 for the week, including insurance. However, on arrival at Cork our car rental company informed us that no cars were available. As our next accommodation was in the middle of nowhere, we had to suck it up and ended up paying around £900/$1140/1000 € for 7 days, which included the extra fee for dropping up the car at a different destination. Petrol for the week cost us about 120 €. We also took a taxi from Cork airport to the city and back, which was just under 20 € one way (the bus connection is very patchy, I think hourly).
In Dublin, we just used the bus to and from the airport, which is around 3.50 € per person one way – that is, if you take the local bus instead of the tourist “fast shuttle” which takes exactly the same route and time, but costs three times as much. Just pick up bus 16 from the airport and/or O’Connell Street in the centre instead. Otherwise, central Dublin is easy for walking.

Overall, transport cost us £34/$48 per day and person. Keep in mind that without the car incident, it would have been under $30. Many of the places we visited are not or only difficult to access without a car.

Food

a classic Dublin lunch :) 
If you think of Irish food as the same as British food, think again! There’s a very vibrant and modern food culture here, and local produce, such as dairy, fish and seafood as well as bread is excellent. Especially seafood that’s expensive elsewhere, like salmon, clams, mussels and scallops are very cheap in Ireland. Soups and bread alone can keep you pretty happy, too, and will fill you up for around 6 €. Supermarkets, on the other hand, are more on a Scandinavian price level and quality often isn’t that great. I’d recommend finding an ALDI or Lidl discount supermarket. Dublin used to be horrendous for eating out – quality has always been good, but just a few years ago, you wouldn’t have gotten a meal under 25 €. The same will now cost you around 15 €. The key in Dublin is NOT to eat Irish food. This is a fairly cosmopolitan city and many of the traditional places are tourist traps. We had a great Korean meal for 18 € per person, which was probably our most expensive, too. Middle Eastern, North African and Asian food is also good and well-priced in Dublin.

On this trip, we mostly self-catered, but usually had lunch at a pub or café somewhere along the road. Sometimes it was soup and salad, sometimes seafood and bread, sometimes a smoked salmon bagel and a sweet treat. Pubs in Ireland are not as expensive as they used to be, either, but wine is ridiculously overpriced. Our cheapest meal was probably in a small pub in Connemara, where I had a soup and bread and Celine delicious mussels in tomato sauce with red wine – for under 15 € for both of us.
Without drinks, we spent on average £8/11.50$/10 € per day and person on food. Thank you, ALDI ;)

Activities and other costs

The best things in Ireland are free – just exploring the country on food or by car, walking and hiking are the most rewarding things you can do. There are many places, especially in Dublin and Cork, that will ask for hefty entrance fees. Go choose the ones you’re interested in, but do stay focused on the outdoors, people and food.

As we’ve been to Cork and Dublin before, we skipped big ticket items like Blarney Castle (overrated anyway). In Dublin, we visited Dublinia, which is a really fun take on the city’s history for any age group – at 16 € not cheap, but to be honest, much better than any of the free museums I’ve visited in Dublin. We also paid to visit the Caherconnell Stone Fort an the sheepdog demonstration in the Burren. I highly recommend the fort to learn about the history of the area, and the sheep dog show is great fun for any dog lover. Their café is also very nice, and it’s so hard to believe the fort is privately owned and run – it’s well worth supporting these folks! The joint ticket for both was 9.60 €. The other place we paid for was Clonmacnoise monastery, which I highly recommend for anybody travelling from the west to Dublin or the other way around – it’s located midway and gives you a great idea of what medieval Ireland was like. The place has a very special atmosphere that’s hard to describe… it did feel sacred even to this pagan! Overall, we paid 2.50 €/day and person for activities, but of course, that’s not everything we did!

We drove through Connemarra and the Burren, marvelled at ancient tombs, hiked around the lake at Muckross Estate in Kerry, explored Cork’s quirky neighbourhoods, amazing market and the port town of Cobh, stopped at countless church ruins and did a lot of countryside and lakeside walks, all for free.

it's easy to drop off the Cliffs of Moher! We even managed to spot dolphins during our walk!

Cliffs of Moher for free & without crowds: There is a fancy visitor centre here and everything that will charge you 12 €, but you can visit the cliffs for free (well, almost, there’s a 2 € parking fee) if you have a car and are willing to walk 8 km and back from Liscannor (it’s well signposted). It’s an easy, incredibly scenic walk if you have no issues walking, but the road is not accessible for wheelchairs or baby strollers.

Overall, our two weeks in Ireland cost us £75 per person and day, which is $106 or 93 € per day and person. This is definitely more of a mid-range holiday price than a cheap trip, but we had a great time and it didn’t feel like money wasted (well, except the extra cost for the car…).
the Burren is my new favourite, such a crazy landscape!
From having travelled in Ireland before, I know you can cut this cost in half if you are willing to travel in the off season and use public transport, or simply manage to get a cheaper rental car than we had to.

Ireland is a special place and while the high season doesn’t offer the best value for accommodation and transport, the views and experiences, as well as the amazingly friendly locals (it’s a cliché, but oh so true) are just priceless.


Have you travelled in Ireland? Planning a trip next summer? Let me know, I’d always be happy to help with itineraries and tips in North Western Europe’s most touristy nation.


a windy day in Sirmione


March was a crazy busy month! I think I have broken several records: Most countries travelled to in one month, highest amount of new countries to visit in one month as well as the highest workload I’ve had since I started freelancing 5 years ago, longest and most frequent runs since I started running. Still, it didn’t feel that exhausting.

Tunisia

We departed Tunis on the third after a pretty chilled out week and a bit. As mentioned before, there wasn’t an awful lot to do due to most tourist sites being closed. I’m still a bit undecided whether I want to return or not – I know Tunis is not representative of the rest of the country, but it didn’t manage to inspire me to get to know more of Tunisia, either (the lacklustre food didn’t help, either). There are other places where the capital made me much more excited to get to know the rest of the country.

The fair city of Verona

the cheese course - I usually hate cheese, but this was amazing!
We flew return from Tunis to Rome, from where we hopped on the next train to Verona. Oh my, this city has definitely stolen my heart! It might seem quite similar to Florence at first sight, but lacks the high amount of tourists. It’s a very wealthy city and it shows – people dress well and many frequent problems in Italy (begging, littering, lack of recycling facilities) didn’t exist. The river allows for great walks and is very running friendly, which is rare for Italian cities. I did like that Verona doesn’t have any high profile tourist sites but it just a very pleasant place to be.
We also went on a one-day wine and food tour with a short excursion to Sirmione at Lake Garda. Having grown up with, always lived and worked with Italians I’ve often been disappointed with the food in Italy before, but what we tried this day at the agriturismo and winery was just fantastic. EVEN though the main was essentially steak and chips, two of my least favourite foods, and the winery focuses on white wine, which I try to avoid. Everything was just out of this world tasty and very balanced.

Austria

views in Salzburg are outstanding!
We stopped over in Verona because this is the city from where you can most easily get to Salzburg (via a short detour and change in Germany). This is also the train line that the media loves to report on as being problematic and crowded by hundreds of refugees with high police presence every day. Let me tell you, on the whole 5-hour trip, we saw maybe three Arab or African looking guys. The media blows things up beyond belief!
Salzburg is a beautiful town, but I couldn’t help feeling ripped off. It was also weird to be there as a German speaker with a non-German speaker, as the whole “Sound of music” tourism means the city seems to exist twice: The regular Austrian town with Bavarian heritage, and the “Sound of Music” picture perfect romantic parallel Alpine universe. German speaking visitors focus on completely different sites and things in this town.
I had read before that there are many rip-off restaurants and cafes and that the quality of everything is pretty bad, but realised quickly that only applies to the places that promote themselves towards foreign visitors. I’ve never had such good and affordable tradition yet modernised food anywhere in Austria, Switzerland or Germany. Service was surprisingly good, too, and yes, of course they all have an English menu and staff can speak English. The one place I would warn anybody about in Salzburg is the fortress, which is privately owned and the biggest tourist rip off I’ve seen (and I live in London! – 16 € to visit a virtually empty space with little information, no map, completely modernised interior and the worst “guided” tour (a 20-minute snooze fest where you are herded around some empty rooms, listening to a deathly boring audio guide). On the other hand, the walk around the Mönchsberg was money free and rip-off free :) 

If you have some extra time, you can go for a half day trip to Berchtesgaden and the Königssee in Bavaria, half an hour’s bus ride away from Salzburg. There’s a nice 5 km walking route around the lake (and many more challenging ones open in summer once the snow is gone). The bus ride there will show you the Germany you’d imagined (i.e. rural Bavaria), and the local ski taverns do very decent Bavarian food (says the Bavaria hater). A day pass for the bus from Salzburg was 9 €.

After Salzburg, we spent a week in Graz, the second biggest city of Austria. It’s a bit like the Manchester of Austria, if you imagine Vienna as Austria’s London ;) It’s got a beautiful old town and city “hill”, as well as a walking and cycling trails along the river that lead all the way to Slovenia. But to be honest, there isn’t an awful lot to see or do if you aren’t fluent in German. Graz has a fantastic theatre and literature scene, and I went to see two plays during our week there and spent quite a bit of time catching up with the German language publishing industry, and ran over 25 k in one week.
I highly recommend Graz for any long term traveller looking for a nice city to spend some time and work in – it’s very liveable, but short on tourist sites (unless you really love modern art, design and hipstery stuff – then definitely make it a priority to visit).

A whistle-stop tour of Ljubljana

Like Verona, Ljubljana was just meant to be a stopover between Austria and Croatia, but damn, it was a delicious bite sized morsel. I meant that in terms of the city centre and its beauty, but also the food. On our first night, we went on a food tour (you’ll notice a theme here), and I was blown away by the quality and variety of the food and drinks. If you take all the best parts of Northern Italian, Austrian and Balkan food, with a smattering of Hungarian, you’ll get Slovenian food. The wine and seafood especially were to die for, but there’s lots of hearty stuff too. Sadly, I discovered a new favourite wine (Terran), which is only grown in this very small corner of Europe.

we might have gone overboard...
Now I absolutely understand why people rave about Slovenia and Ljubljana in particular – it’s got a bit of everything of all surrounding countries and can feel like “Europe in a nutshell”. For this European, it was still very interesting, although the food wowed me more than the city itself. The Slovenian countryside (we crossed the entire country by train) is very picturesque, too, and I think I might be back another time if I’m close.



Croatia in the off-season

How do I start? Croatia is very popular with tourists, and has been for a very long time, and it shows in people’s attitudes: They don’t care an awful lot about quality regarding food, accommodation or other tourist services. I’ve never seen such massive delays in transport in Europe. A lot of stuff didn’t quite work and was not worth the money we paid, even in the off season. It’s often touted as a cheaper alternative to Italy, but we found prices to be on par and value much worse than Italy. On the other hand, we were very surprised at how everybody, even bus drivers, seemed to speak English very well!



We went from Ljubljana to Plitvice Lakes National Park via Zagreb, which has the most inconvenient bus station I’ve ever seen – full of steps and other obstacles, few facilities and entrances/exits.
Plitvice was definitely beautiful and it was fun to walk around the paths leading across the lakes, but even in mid-March, it started to become crowded with tourist groups – even though we went first thing in the morning. I would say go if you are in Zadar or Zagreb, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to visit.

We then spent 4 nights in Zadar, which is very pretty but was extremely empty. It seems Croatia seems to live on tourism, and 90 % of places in the old town as well as further along the coast and the transport to the ferries didn’t run. Then again, it’s a pretty small old town and I can imagine the place being freakishly crowded during the summer.

From Zadar, we went back to Zagreb (that nasty bus station again!), where we spent two nights. Our overpriced apartment was the best part of it. If you’ve never seen any Austrian built city, you might be impressed, but mostly you’ll notice how run down the place is. People in Zagreb were extremely weird – they would stare in a very angry and condescending way, and run right into you as if on purpose. Even though the city is very relaxed and not crowded, people constantly tried to bump into us. I’ve never seen this kind of passive aggressive to outright aggressive behaviour anywhere, not even places like India where it’s normal to be started at as a visitor.

As for the food… Croatia only surprised us in terms of its saltiness. Seafood was nice and similar to Slovenia, everything else a bit low quality and over salted. Maybe Croatian food held little surprises for me because most of the chippies where I grew up where owned by Croatians? Overall, the three places we’ve visited don’t make me want to return to Croatia – the first time I’d say that about a Balkan country.


Back to London and arrival in Ukraine

We were extremely happy to be back to London after the not so exciting time in Croatia. After five days of catching up with work, admin stuff, friends and our little storage to pack this year’s spring collection, we were off too…
Kiev! We’re spending two weeks in Ukraine, a bit more than I had planned for, but the first 5 days here already make me wish I had planned a longer time.
However, I can say that the 3 hr flight with British Airways was very nice and smooth (we weren’t impressed with them long haul, but prefer them for short haul – turns out medium distances are good, too). Ukrainian immigration was the fastest I’ve ever experienced, including EU countries. More about Ukraine in next month’s roundup!


April is going to be a little bit slower, although we’ll still manage two new countries. The rest of the year will be a lot more relaxed!


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