virtual walking tours

Easing back into real life after a holiday is always tough, especially after an extended vacation of endless summer days in a sunny daze. What I find is a healthy alternative to pining for white-sanded beaches while curled up in a ball in a dark room is going on virtual tours of my favourite places on Google Maps.

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Portovenere

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Rugged and rocky beaches, twisting cobble roads and gelato stores on every corner; Portovenere is my favourite hidden Italian gem. It sits on a shagged outcrop, nestled high above the Mediterranean in Northern Italy – just down the road from the picturesque (and tourist-saturated) Cinque Terre. As the coast continues from Riomaggiore, the railway veers into La Spezia, taking the tourists with it, making a cramped bus trip the easiest way of reaching Portovenere. Snack on focaccia and breathe in the warm, salty air – if you’re lucky, you might even see a wedding in the shady piazza.

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Lisbon

Lisbon is a city of great variety; flat coastal promenades and buildings perched on hilltops, wide open plazas and windy little side streets. Essentially there is something for everyone. I love walking along Avenida Ribeira das Naus; watching the ferries crossing the harbour, revelling at the Praça do Comércio and visiting the markets. The best thing about visiting the city on street view is that you avoid all of the throngs of tourists!

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Vienna

One day in Vienna and you are without a doubt that that this city was once the centre of Europe; the opulence and elegance of each buildings’ façade is unlike anything I have ever seen. Even though it’s not as easy to virtually walk about the city as most other places, it is one of the easiest places in the world to just sit and stare at the chalk-white buildings and watch the world go by.

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how to not get mugged

They say that it happens to every traveller at least once as they meander across Europe; getting mugged is almost seen as a rite of passage, an event that upon surviving means that you have transcended the threshold of tourist and become something bigger.

Garnering some real travel nouse may seem great, but getting mugged isn’t too fun. While I managed to make it in and around the continent without getting swindled of anything valuable, I did witness one or two criminal encounters along the way and have come up with a couple of pointers to avoid any unwarranted visits to the police station.

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  • This goes without saying, but I am going to say it anyway – don’t be flashy with your brand new iPhone. Keep it in your front pocket when you’re not using it, not waving about in your hand as the sunlight reflects off the screen, attracting unwanted eyes. And don’t use it as you walk down that derelict, yet picturesque side street, especially at night and especially if you’re alone. Better still, just don’t have an iPhone. No-one was ever interested in stealing my phone, probably because it looked like it came straight out of 2004.

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  • Invest in a sturdy bag. I’m not saying you should walk about with a fanny pack everywhere you go; that will probably just draw more attention to you as a tourist. A friend of mine once had a little bag that she would throw over her shoulder by a thin little strap, one strong tug and the strap snapped and the bag was whisked down the street by un voleur, never to be seen again.
  • Another one that should go without saying is not to carry your passport with you unless you’re actually going to another country. This rule won’t really stop you from getting mugged but it will save you a lot of hassle and peace of mind if you do. Hostels have lockers and getting a new passport is a rather difficult, expensive and time-consuming ordeal from what I’ve heard.

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  • If you’re visiting a non-English speaking country, chances are the locals won’t like you. It’s a bold statement but it’s true; maybe because often tourists are annoying or maybe because there is still a bit more xenophobia in the world than we would like. To avoid sticking out as a monolingual foreigner, don’t speak loudly in English amongst yourselves and don’t flail about as you do it. A gaggle of excitable young English speakers can make for an easy target – so if possible, refrain from having any fun in public.

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A lot of this is easier said than done, so I think the sagest piece of advice is to have your wits about you, look out for your friends and hope for the best. And if it happens, you’ll come away with an interesting tale for years to come about police officers making the culprit apologise to you before leading him off in cuffs, or chasing someone through the windy streets of a little port town while the locals gawked at you.

a summer stroll in the gardens of versailles

Le Chateau de Versailles; a symbol long associated with the opulence of Imperial France turned symbol of French tourism, also known as the place Kimye stayed before they got hitched. But tourism more importantly; so many tourists, all the time.

I am no rookie to tourist attractions; I have done the Disneyland thing, I have walked under the Eiffel Tower and seen both the Tower of London and the Sagrada Família yet I was still blown away by the sheer numbers that flocked Versailles. We went in mid-April, it was not school holidays and there was no guarantee that the weather was going to behave, yet we joined the multinational queue snaking its way around the outer courtyard two hours before we walked through the inner gates.

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This brings me to my first piece of advice: Book online and turn up early. I think it is safe to say that the chances of you missing the lines altogether are slim-to-none, as soon as you step off the train and into the tidal throng moving towards the palace gates, any minute saved will be a minute cherished.

Always the optimist, I used this spare time to explore another of my passions; people watching. You will be amazed at some of the odd behaviour you will witness in public if you pay a bit of attention. My favourites were a trio of ladies whose delicate skin could not handle the midmorning sun any longer; so they has wrapped scarves around their heads instead of simply applying a layer of sunscreen.

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The palace gardens are all you could imagine, and then a little bit more. Elegantly shaped trees and orderly hedges, a scattering of life-sized sculptures centred around on ornate fountain; meticulous order can come with a hefty maintenance fee – both in monetary terms and labour, it is barely imaginable how people worked day in and day out to uphold these gardens’ prestige. At 800 hectares and 210,000 flowers planted annually, imagine that bill!

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The palace and surrounding gardens are separated from Le Grand Trianon and Le Petit Trainon (more on them later) by extensive woodlands, miniature trains run between the two, but I much preferred walking; the wind rustling through the trees as you wander past an extravagantly sized man-made pond evokes an incredible feeling, I enjoyed imagining all of the whispered secrets shared between ladies-in-waiting along the pond’s edge and the scandalous, romantic escapades those trees would have seen!

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Anyone who has seen Marie Antoinette will recognise Le Petit TrIanon as the Queen’s haven and place of solitude. By any normal standard, this little cluster of buildings is as majestic as they come; detailed carving in a stone of pale pink, filled with soft silks and luxurious furnishings on the inside. However, in comparison to the palace, it seems almost, dare I said it, quaint. We meandered around the delicate flowerbeds and gazebos, and soaked up the tranquillity of the nature well into the afternoon, and could have probably sat there, basking in the sun, for a lot longer.

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Growing up in a rural setting, I didn’t really feel the need to visit the Hameau de la reine; the queen’s farm but did so more on a whim. Extensive restoration of late has attempted to bring the farm back up the Marie Antoinette’s standard and enliven it as a working farm – much to the delight of the more sheltered (mainly American) tourists. We witnessed one gentleman go to rather extreme lengths to snap a photo of a duck. I am quite sure we would have waded into the pond if it had come to that!

After an exhausting day filled with wonder, walking and tourists, I returned to our hotel to collapse into bed before rewatching Marie Antoinette for good measure. I invite you to do the same!

PS I know this isn't actually her..
PS I know this isn’t actually her..

un marché provençal

Anyone who has never visited Europe often makes the very common misconception that everyone in France spends at least a portion of their day wandering around a farmer’s market. The sun is shining; no matter what time of year, every second stall sells homemade cheeses, someone has bought their chickens which are laying eggs right in front of your eyes, you shout slightly over the clucking while bartering over a bunch of earthy carrots, you take your change from the farmer’s wife’s rough hands before running home to chop up the carrots and throw them into your boeuf bourguignon.

Don’t get me wrong; French famer’s markets are exquisite, and while there are some that are open every day, most happen once a week and most people; the city folk in particular, get their produce from the supermarché.

When I first arrived in France, I too was under the impression that I would be able to buy vegetables that still smelt like soil right outside my front door, but sadly the closest I got was an open-air garage sale selling secondhand skirts and tacky jewellery around the corner from my apartment disturbing the peace on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Being an expanse of green pastures, New Zealand has its fair share of pretty remarkable farmer’s markets so I have made it my mission to visit as many markets as I can around Europe looking for something comparable that I can add to my list of foodie must-sees. After getting off to a bit of a rough start, I would soon find something not too far from my front door.

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Le grand marché in Aix-en-Provence is every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings, people come from all around to shop, eat and absorb the atmosphere; especially on Saturdays, which are by far the busiest. Aix-en-Provence is a picturesque rural town in the Bouche-du-Rhône region of Southern France and its geological placing makes for a sensually overwhelming variety of fresh, artisanal products. The city itself is a mere stone’s throw from the banks of the Rhône river, just 30km from Marseille, you can count that any fish at the market will be freshly caught, and the olives, grapes and vegetables are grown on the sun soaked plains that surround the city.

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The Aix-en-Provence markets are not something you just pop down to to pick up a few things, it really is a whole day event! Roads are closed, squares are packed with as many stalls as they can fit and everyone wanders at their leisure. The warm Mediterranean air mingles with the pollen of the bright flower bouquets, fresh bread and cured meats, creating an intoxicating aroma almost too good to imagine.

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We began the day early. Walking out of an ancient stone corridor, we were greeted by mounds of exotic spices, all different shades of an autumnal rainbow piled in neat little rows. Past stalls of old records and paperback novels, we found what we had come for: food! And what a variety of food there was; four of the main squares were condoned off and filled with row upon row of vendors. We wandered for the rest of the morning, our eyes as big as our stomachs as we tried any sample we were offered; bread, salami, cheese, fresh fruit, sundried tomatoes, stuffed olives and roasted nuts. By the time we had tried everything, fearful of missing any morsel, we were faced with the challenge of choosing what we wanted to buy for lunch, only to realise that we were so full that we didn’t need lunch.

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After a bit of sightseeing- the cathedral is dauntingly beautiful and constantly filled with the sound of the organ echoing off the dimly lit stone walls- we settled on a capsicum relish, a crunchy loaf of bread and a chunk of gooey cheese. It is fair to say that we had a well-deserved nap on the train home.