A Travellerspoint blog

TIME FOR ART, CULTURE AND MOVIES

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Before heading home to Colombia we decided to visit the island of Cuba in the Caribbean. It was a nice experience to be in the hot weather again after winter in Europe and we were once again close to the sea. The latin culture was evident from the moment we landed. This was the airport where our luggage took the longest to collect, and I think it was because everything is done manually. It also took an incredibly long time to exchange money from euros in to Cuba’s two currencies and by the end we didn’t think we would ever get out of the airport.

We had organized for a Cuban friend of a friend to pick us up and when we walked out into the arrivals area of the airport it was great to meet them and see their car. To be in Cuba was like going back many decades in time. With the old style cars, buses, and buildings it seems like a movie from the 50’s or 60’s.

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Cuba is a peculiar place. The political system that they have used for the last 50 years is Communist, however they are in a time of change at the moment and are moving more toward the Capitalist system. Everybody here gets a portion of food every month like a form of welfare, which includes products like rice, red beans, oil, sugar, coffee, etc. All cheap and accessible products grown in the country. If people want different things they need to buy them, and this is one of the big problems for this country because they have to pay for the extra products in a different currency compared to the one they get paid in.

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The Moneda Nacional is the currency the Cubans gets paid their salaries, which on average is around 500 pesos moneda nacional, or equal to $20 USD per month. The second currency is the covertible peso, which is used to buy and sell most of the non-Cuban products, and is the one used primarily by the foreigners. One convertible peso is equivalent to $1 USD. For instance, to buy a kilo of meat can cost $3 to $5 USD, a liter of milk can cost $3 USD, and a nice dinner in a restaurant is around $10 USD.

The situation with two currencies has made life for Cubans really difficult, and they are often forced to create some kind of business to be able to get convertible pesos, like renting rooms to foreigners, buying and selling things, renting cars, sell tabacco to tourists, etc.

I realize how easy our lives have been in the sense that if we want something, or we need to repair something at home like a freezer, a stove, a tv, etc, all we need to do is save some money and repair the device, or buy a new one. For Cubans it is not possible, firstly to buy anything is really expensive, and to be able to find it in the country is nearly impossible. For this reason these people are really good at repairing things and finding ways to make things work for longer or simply doing things in different ways to get what they need.

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It is definitely a really special place. We were so blessed, as always, that when we arrived in Cuba we found out the International Festival of Cinema was on, and the pass for entry to 16 movies cost less than 50 cents total, so we decided to include a movie week in our itinerary. We enjoyed it so much, and saw 2 or 3 movies per day, every day, in these grand old style cinemas. If you get the opportunity to see movies like Gloria, The longest road, Metegol, Gold Fish, Gun in two hands, or the Gold Cage do not hesitate to watch them (with subtitles).

Cuba is very famous for their music. It was really interesting to see the number of shows in different places that were put on every night, some of them incredibly cheap and others getting a bit more pricely. We had the opportunity to listen to concerts with trova cubana, salsa, latin music, and rock. We were lucky the Festival of Jazz was on during our visit and we could enjoy this kind of music as well. Something new for us was the number of Cuban people who like Rock and Heavy Metal music. Every Sunday there is a place which promotes bands that play covers of famous rock groups.They are called “Pena of Rock”; and this type of music is really popular in Cuba because in the 70s the only music they could listen to on the radio was from one
station in Florida that was close enough for the signal to reach Cuba, and this was the type of music the station played.

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Cuba can be expensive if everything is paid for in convertible pesos, so as soon as we arrived we managed to get moneda nacional and try pure Cuban cuisine at an economical price. Pizzas, sandwiches, ice cream, fruit and juice could be bought for less than 50 cents and big lunches for around $1 USD. Of course, the local favorites the Mojito Cubana and Daiquiri were some of the cocktails we needed to try in this country.

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Havana was the place we spent most of our time and was a great place to explore. We visited the old Havana are where you can find many Cuban people offering tabbaco, cigars, rum, handcrafts, music, food, and many other things. There were also museums of chocolate and beer, and many small markets in the plazas that were part of our daily walks. Outside of old Havana things change and the poverty could be seen, as well as the ancient buildings, and some very crowded buses.

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We had a fun time, and feel Cuba is a place which is easy to fall in love with, however there were moments when we were really tired with this culture because everything requires a lot time here. Our patience was tested a couple of times. For instance, unfortunately our Ipod was stolen and to be able to get the police report for the insurance it took us three days, after visiting four different stations, talking to lawyers and investigators and telling the same story to about ten police officers.

Posted by erika_simon 13:08 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

THE MOST DANGEROUS DAY OF OUR TRIP

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During these six months travelling we have had several special memories that involved adrenaline, such us riding a motorbike in Vietnam, biking around the busy streets of Cambodia, getting a flat tyre in the middle of the Angkor Wat temple complex, travelling for more than 6 hours across Nepal on a terrible bus, taking the wrong bus and getting off in Palestine, arriving in the middle of the curfew in Egypt, being witness to a riot while riding in a minivan in Alexandria, having a standing only ticket on a train in China for 22 hours, coming close to missing a plane in Istanbul, etc, but the universe had something more challenging for us during our last days in Europe.

After a warm couple of days in Italy of around five degrees we had made plans to visit another of our ex-flatmates in Switzerland. We had a short stopover in Milan train station which is one of the most beautiful in Europe and after that a train to Zurich. I was really exciting to do this second trip by train because I knew the landscape would be incredible because we would be crossing the Alps. It was a gorgeous trip where we started with green scenery, moved on to green with a white landscape and finished with totally white views.

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The mountains and little towns were completely covered with snow. I felt like part of a calendar, ha ha ha. Everything was gorgeous but it looked freezing cold outside. In Zurich we met with Ringo and went for a short walk around the city. We saw the World’s most expensive Christmas tree decorated only with diamonds, and also the old city, the churches, lakes, people playing chess with really big pieces in the park, and of course the famous Swiss banks.

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We then carried on to Bern which had a temperature of zero degrees, and we were really cold. Bern is a gorgeous city, with towers that have these funny cuckoo clocks, narrow cobblestone streets, shops and these little restaurants set in the basements of the buildings, a river running around the city, a large bear enclosure in the middle of the city, and this time the city was white with snow.

Ringo is a really special person who had told us “do not worry about anything in Switzerland, you will be picked up at Zurich train station and dropped back at the train station at the end and I will take care of everything” and he really meant it. The first night we went to a gorgeous restaurant to eat local food: cheese melted over potatoes and bacon and of course the beer. On the menu there was the option of a sample of four beers, and we thought they would be small glasses but look at the photo taking by Ringo -we looked like alcoholics with all these glasses of beer on our table, four big glasses for each of us.

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The second night we had fondue, which is melted cheese eaten with bread and fruit. It was delicious and we had a great time with Ringos’ friends while they prepared it. It is a mixture of cheese, vodka, and corn flour. The smell for me is strong, but it tastes yummy.
Ringo had asked us if we preferred skiing or hiking and he also asked if my ski abilities had improved. In New Zealand he was witness to how good I am at this sport, therefore we chose hiking.

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But the universe had something more challenging prepared for us. The hiking track that Ringo wanted us to do was closed for winter so the plans changed and we decided to go sledding. I did not have any idea what it was, but I said ok lets do it, and oh God it was so much fun.

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Firstly, the views we had while we were in the Alps were magical. The landscape was absolutely breathtaking. It was a combination of the blue sky, the high mountains, the gorgeous wooden houses, the smoke from the chimneys, the snow everywhere, many people with skis and snow boarding equipment, the gondolas, the pine trees, the trains, …..it was an unforgettable day.

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At the beginning I spent most of the time falling down in the snow and getting snow everywhere in my clothes. Initially when we rented the sleds the lady told us a number of times that whatever happened, if you get too much velocity just fall over but do not lost the sled, hold it firm and strong, because if you lost it the replacement cost is only 350 Swiss franc. And guess what I did during the first hour, the sled went out of my hands and down a slope and disappeared between some pine trees.

My first reaction was to run and try to catch up to it, but after five steps in the snow I was buried up to my waist, and of course at that moment I was alone because Simon, Ringo, and Ringo’s friends were always waiting for me further down the mountain. When I arrived with my sorry face on they knew what haf happened and we went to look for it, and thank God it was not too difficult to find. From that moment on I attached the sled to my trouser belt and it never happened again, although I understood the risk of losing the sled and seeing it going down the mountain with my pants being dragged behind it, ha ha ha.

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It was so much fun learning to sled, braking with my feet, turning right and left, passing people safely, seeing the tracks, enjoying the views, and laughing and laughing. When we hired the sled we asked how many people had died sledding, and the lady said this year only one person has broken a foot. We thought it must be a safe sport as we were in December, so in nearly 12 months only one accident, great. However the “year” she referred to was actually the ski season which had started only two weeks ago, ha ha ha. Now after some experience we understand it can be a really dangerous activity - when the sled gets some velocity it can be nearly impossible to stop.

The four guys were always waiting for me, but at the end I managed improve my sledding abilities and I was not falling down all the time. Finally we decided to head down from the mountain by sledding instead of taking the train when it was around four o’clock, knowing that it would be dark soon and the way down was only around half hour for an expert, therefore for me probably more than one hour. It was amazing, I knew I did not have time to crash or anything otherwise I would be in the dark in the Alps and I did not think it would be great idea, especially when we had to catch a train to Frankfurt the next morning.

Also, the sled route was really difficult to follow as it became darker, but I had to sled down as fast as I could. I followed Simon for the last half an hour and we were going down so fast, it was incredible, I did not have time to plan how to do things or anything, I knew we had to be down at the main village (the finishing point) as soon as possible.

These moments were incredible. Many times I saw myself in danger as we took the corners, I saw myself falling down off the side of the track, and the last five minutes on the steepest part we were just going too fast, I could not break and had to crash into the snow, ha ha ha; it was an unforgettable experience, a little dangerous but full of energy, adrenaline, memorable views and great friends. The opportunity to live life at 100%, and of course being outside at minus 5 degrees in the snow for ten hours. A great way to say goodbye to Europe, contemplate the beauty of nature and share time with people who will always have a place in our hearts.

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We are going to a mystery place for the next 10 days, where the internet is going to be difficult to find. A break for all of you before you can read about our next adventure!!!!

Posted by erika_simon 13:08 Archived in Switzerland Comments (0)

SPECIAL BUT CHAOTIC CITIES

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After our great days in the cities of Vienna and Budapest, we headed to the warmer city of Rome. It took 14 hours by train, and as we are always blessed people, on our night train we could have three comfortable seats for each of us that we used as nice beds, so it was great night on the train.

Rome is a marvelous city with a lot places to visit and appreciate. The old parts of Rome with the famous colisium, the Trevi Fountain, many ruins, old buildings with columns, etc. There are churches absolutely everywhere with stunning architecture, and inside are some impressive paintings and sculptures. The Vatican city with Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican museum and the Cisteen chapel. It was also amazing the number of high quality museums and galleries there were.

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However, it is really crowded city, with too many people trying to sell things on the streets, pushing hard to sell anything that you can imagine: flowers, bags, scarfs, food, drinks, tickets, clothes, souvenirs, toys, etc. Also a large number of artists showing their abilities to sing, dance, stand still for a long time or wear a costume to pose for photos, sometimes only a few meters apart on the same street. It was nice to see but it was, for us, too much.
There was no space to walk and we had become used to having our space and uninterrupted peace.

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Something unforgettable in Italy is the shocking way the people drive. The locals are prone to taking crazy decisions while driving, such as overtaking cars on narrow streets, not indicating when turning, crossing on red lights, driving too fast, etc. As an Italian told us, before you cross a street, you need to pray, make the sign of the cross and run, ha ha ha. Now we know why Italians are good in the Formula one. Of course, they all think they can drive incredibly well, but seem oblivious to the truth of things.

Our major highlight in Rome was the place where we had the opportunity to stay: The Monastery of Trappist Monks. Simon and I have visited a monastery of Cistercian Monks in New Zealand for a couple of years and they recommended this place to us, and it was a stunning experience.

The Monastery is located 20 minutes from Rome, which was wonderful as Rome is really busy, noisy, and full of tourists. The guest house is simple, warm, secure, and provided us with great views of the countryside. The monastery and the guesthouse are in the middle of some large vineyards; although it was autumn/winter and the leaves of the trees and the grape vines have fallen off, the view of the branches was really great. Actually, getting lost between the long rows of the grapes branches was an adventure for us one afternoon.

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The life of the monks is really hard; they pray eight times per day in the church, and between the prayers they have to study or work. Most of them have minimal contact with the community, and there was only one monk who was in charge of the guesthouse and arranged everything for us.

We met two young handsome men who were joining the monastery for three months to decide if they would choose this life of service; I really admire them for making this decision. As you can imagine, Simon was not happy to have to come with me to the prayers, especially the one at 3:30am. It was really difficult to attend this first prayer and we managed to do it only twice, ha ha ha. In addition, everything was spoken or sung in Italian; at least I could practice my Italian (which is minimal) and learn many new words, but it was a big test for me to be there for five days in a total immersion with an Italian community, and listen to this language all the time.

During the prayers the monks sing the psalms, which is gorgeous to see and listen to them singing like angels. Nowadays, the community has around 12 monks, and I was so impressed with the number of young monks in the monastery. The guest master, Brother George, is a Maltese monk who was adorable; he was the only one we talked to and we had a really good time with him and his jokes.

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After our good time in the Monastery, seeing an example of lives of service, and visiting one of the most beautiful capital cities in the world, we took the train to Venice. Venice is the city of the gondolas, and canals. It was a relaxing and enjoyable two days. Venice is not a big city and it was easy to walk around, but it was also easy to get lost a couple of times; to find the way to cross the canals was really difficult sometimes and took us in some unanticipated directions. It was hilarious walking around the little streets and arriving in dead-end alleyways, then turning around to look again for a different bridge to cross over.

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This city was really special, seeing the postman carrying the letters and parcels on their boats; the police and the ambulances on boats; the people transporting building materials, food, and everything you can imagine on boats. It was a particularly gorgeous city. The elderly people were often asking for help to carry their shopping cart to the other side of the bridges, the same for the families with prams, and other people carrying heavy stuff.

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The famous Sant Marks square (piazza) was beautiful. There wasn’t a lot tourists this time of the year, so to walk around the square was easy and enjoyable. The basilicas with their stunning paintings was a highlight and the churches with their beautiful architecture, and the many parks were places special to visit too.

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The Jewish quarter was an interesting place to visit. The country let the Jews take refuge in Venice with the condition that they could only live in the Jewish quarter. For this reason, this is the only part of Venice that has tall buildings (seven or eight floors) where a lot Jewish families lived in overcrowed conditions.

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To take the boats around the island was an experience. I could not believe that the local cemetery is on a special island. They have to take the body to be buried by boat. The famous Murcano island where the glass factories are located was also amazing and you can see all their products for sale in shops around Venice – and a little expensive too. Venice is so famous for the glass products and their amazing masks for the theater and fancy dress.
Rome and Venice were two wonderful cities to visit. The walks around Rome and its ruins, and around Venice with its canals and its sunsets were magical. Finally, we found in Italy the smallest cup of coffee we have ever had. It was not more than half a mouthful of coffee in a minuscule cup, but it was really strong, and yummy, so something quite memorable.

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Posted by erika_simon 12:19 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

A LONG DAY ON THE TRAIN AND MORE GREAT MEMORIES

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After our stay in Holland we headed to Vienna on a long train trip. The train was really comfortable and it was a nice experience to see the beautiful landscape. We had an initial trip to Munich and after a few hours to look around a second train to Vienna. The first train was fine, it was around 8 hours, but when we went to get the second train we encountered a little problem.

We had bought our second ticket from an Austrian train company, and I did not think this was important at the time. The email confirmation of the purchase indicated we should collect our tickets at the train station, therefore we arrived happily in Munich and walked to the counter for them, but the nice lady told us, “sorry this is the German train company we cannot print your tickets, they are from the Austrian rail company, so you have to go to Austria to print and collect them, and come back to take you train.

It did not make any sense at all because we were on our way to Austria, but we have to go to Austria to print our ticket to be able to travel on the train to Austria, pardon???? After a long discussion with the lady and looking for alternatives (buy a new ticket to Austria and come back, or stay in Munich, or????). We decided to take the train through Germany without the proper tickets and tried to explain to the train manager the situation – we had bought our tickets, here is the proof (our email that was printed) but we could not print the ticket, ha ha ha. Thank God, the guy looked at us and thought we were trustworthy and said go to the front the train and do not move from there.

I forgot to mention that in the morning on the way to take the first train at around 6am, we could not buy our metro tickets to get into the city because the machine did not accept our big currency notes or any of our debit or credit cards. We had to explain this to the person who checked the tickets on the metro. This was the day of the train excuses and lessons, the day that we had to learn to smile, say sorry to the meter/train staff and learn to carry smaller change and check what company the trains’ ticket were bought from. Trains in Europe!!!

Anyway, we finally arrived safely to Vienna and we had a wonderful time. The temperature was really low, during the day only 7 or 8 degrees, and at night close to zero, so we were wearing all the clothes that we had in our backpacks (believe me, after the Way these clothes are down to only a few pieces, ha ha ha).

We stayed when a nice German lady named Katja. She taught us a lot about German and Austria architecture, buildings, traditions, and she cooked like the angels (if angels cook?) She made something wonderful for our last night, a special German dinner with a delicious Afghanistan desert, absolutely wonderful.

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We were so blessed that we arrived in Vienna when the famous Christmas markets were just opening. They are incredible, the lights, the shops, the lovely hot drinks, the music, the atmosphere, etc. Vienna is a beautiful city, as somebody told me, it is like Paris but with fewer people and easier to walk around. Certainly it was really easy to walk and enjoy the beautiful architecture, churches, parks, gardens, museums and the stunning palaces.

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After a couple of days in Vienna, we headed to Budapest. I felt in love with this city, it is such a marvelous place. Wherever I looked there was something to appreciate, the architecture of the buildings was absolutely stunning. The palace and church on the hill let me see the entire city, the river Danube and the bridges in all their splendor. Walking around the city the smell of mulled wine, cinnamon and cloves was exquisite. The families with children and pets and the other tourists were interesting to see too.

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Also the ruin pubs in the Jewish neighborhood was something unique. They are famous bars located in buildings that were left empty after the Second World War. People have done amazing work on these buildings, and while the outside look is like the normal old streets inside they are special and enjoyable bars and pubs.

Hungary has had a special history, when during the Second World War many Jews were killed, and after this they were under the rule of communisism for almost 50 years. Hungarians say they have always joined the losing side of every conflict, but it has made people strong and has taught them to enjoy life to the most, and look for different ways to do things. Hungary is the country with more inventions and Nobel prizes per capita than anywhere else.

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They are hard workers, and they have invested heavily in educating their population. While New Zealand is recognized for its dairy and meat products, Hungary’s most famous asset is its “knowledge”. Many of the big inventions have been created by Hungarians or a Hungarian has been part of their development, such as color TV’s, Microsoft Excel, the ballpoint pen, the spice paprika, etc. They are really clever people.

We had the great opportunity to meet two Colombian musicians undertaking their masters degrees in the musical instruments the Violin and Obo. They prepared some wonderful Colombian food for us, and also shared with us their talents - we had a private concert of classic music. Lucky us!!!

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Also we were so blessed to meet a famous Hungarian author and economist Krisztian Hackl. He is this kind of person who we could have talked with for days and days. His talent, experiences, generosity, and simplicity were something incredible. If you have the chance please read his book: The personality guide I am in the middle of it now, and I am loving it. He took us to the second biggest city in Hungary, Miskov, where we could see a different style of architecture, cuisine, and culture.

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Hopefully we can come back to this country again because we did not have enough time to visit and see many of the highlights in the city of Budapest or in Hungary. I am in love with this part of Europe!!!!

I forget to mention that on our third day here it snowed and the temperature dropped to one or two degrees during the day. We walked more than three hours with our new friend “snow”, which was another big present from the universe. It was freezing cold but we enjoyed the change so much. Finally, Kristzian gave me one of the best gifts of my life: a blue-sky day. He said “I have ordered this gorgeous day for you this morning, I hope you enjoy it”. Indeed I enjoyed today after more than ten days with dark winter skies!!!!!!

Posted by erika_simon 13:09 Archived in Austria Comments (0)

TIME TO RELAX, VISIT A FRIEND FROM SCHOOL AND EX-FLATMATES

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After our amazing experiences while undertaking our Camino we decided to go to small town in Galicia called Caratona to a small B&B called The Little Fox House. It is a special place owned by the writer Tracy Saunders, who invites ex-pilgrims to pass some time and relax a little bit after they finish the camino. For us, it was a nice way to finish the Way, meet some wonderful ex-pilgrims and have time to recover.

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We then started our lives as backpackers again and headed to Barcelona by train. The trip took around 12 hours and it was really similar to our walk to Santiago, but this time in reverse; I could not believe the distance that it took us more than 30 days walking was only 12 hours on the train, ha ha ha.

Barcelona is a gorgeous place and is quite big as a middle-sized city. We had a wonderful time, although it was so funny having the feeling of again being surrounded by a lot of people and so much noise. It was like being in another world. We visited the famous church/cathedral/basilica of La Sagrada Familia, the old city, parks, listened to talented musicians, etc. The Picasso museum was a highlight in Barcelona and it is one of the best museums we have visited in our lives (maybe the best). It has around 4000 works painting by Picasso and there is a great room with photos about his life. This museum was special, it was well organized, easy to follow Picasso’s life and work, and it shows the happy normal life he led.

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In addition to this amazing museum, we could visit the sea. The beaches in Barcelona were full of life, with many people walking, swimming, surfing, and sleeping. It was a great place to relax and contemplate life.

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Simon was very lucky in this city and had a lovely gift. In London, his favorite ice cream was the Chunky Monkey flavor by Ben & Jerry. During our stay in London a couple of years ago, he used to eat this ice cream every week until this flavor got discontinued. But, during our walk around Barcelona we found this ice cream for sale in a small shop. Simon was like a little boy with a new car, he ate one litre of this yummy ice cream in least than 15 minutes, and he had a big smile all afternoon afterwards, ha ha ha.

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After this great city, we flew to Amsterdam to visit an old friend from my high school, and the first flatmates we had in New Zealand. It was time to be with friends, recall some fond memories, create new memories and have fun with some old friends. Firstly we went to The Hague and had a brilliant time with Andrea. This city was a little place, and we had the opportunity to bike around on two of the famous Dutch bikes - it was an experience. They do not have the brakes on the front, the brakes are activated when you pedal backwards.

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It took me a while to learn to use this kind of bike, my brain has to think before I can brake, but it was good exercise for me. We could really see the culture of Holland where most of the people bike everywhere, and some people have all the family on one bike, with the father biking, two children in the front in a wood basket and another child on the back, incredible.

The wind mills, rivers, sea, stunning landscape, and good friend made our visit unforgettable. Of course the jokes and laughs with Andrea were our best memories. After our visit to this small city we carried on to the town of Weesp, a small place close to Amsterdam. We visited Irene and Pierre, who stayed with us during our first year in Palmerston North after buying our home.

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To see them after so many years was amazing, and we had such a good time with them. They showed us around Amsterdam and its beautiful canals and parks; prepared great food in their numerous new cooking devices: a Chinese hot pot and some sort of small portable grill. It was a unique and delicious experience. Simon and Pierre played video games and Irene and I chatted and chatted, just like in the old times.

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This week was full of gifts: visiting old friends, contemplating nature and some more beautiful scenery, and having more new experiences.

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Posted by erika_simon 16:21 Archived in Netherlands Comments (0)

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