Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Best of BOSNIA: A troubled, yet captivating land.

I’ll begin by addressing the huge elephant in the room – Bosnia has not upheld the best reputation in recent decades.  Whenever you hear the country’s name mentioned in the media, it’s usually for the wrong reasons.  And it’s quite safe to say that it’s not your typical destination for British jetsetters.  Despite all this, I’d been intrigued by the country for a while and jumped at the opportunity to visit! 

Whilst I’d usually try to avoid spouting facts and figures in these articles, I think it’d be difficult to fully understand Bosnia without briefly touching on its rather bumpy history.  Condensed down, the country’s timeline looks something like this: Ottoman Empire; Austro-Hungarian rule; world wars; Yugoslav communism; declaration of independence; Bosnian War; post-war recovery.  

Modern-day Bosnia is made up of three major people groups - the Muslim Bosniaks, the Orthodox Serbs and the Catholic Croats.  Tensions between these groups culminated in the brutal war of the 1990s, which tragically saw the loss of 101, 000 lives – mainly civilians.  Whilst fighting broke out in all corners of the country, the capital Sarajevo endured the longest siege in modern history - residents were effectively trapped in the city for a terrifying 1425 days, whilst Serb forces would relentlessly and indiscriminately fire artillery from surrounding hills. 

War damage near Mostar

Unsurprisingly, reminders of war are everywhere.  Travelling in Bosnia can be emotionally draining, but massively insightful.  I found myself becoming so appreciative of my comparatively peaceful life when speaking to individuals, of my own age, who’d lived through this sheer terror and come out the other end. 

A lot of the buildings in central Sarajevo have been repaired or replaced since the end of the war, but you don’t have to venture far from the centre before bullet holes in walls become the norm.  Every other building is scarred to varying extents – it’s really quite haunting.  War cemeteries are so extensive that they form white blankets across the hillsides.  In Mostar, the damage is only more blatant; collapsed buildings simply blend into the now thriving streets.

Šehidsko War Cemetery - Sarajevo

I started my journey in the country’s capital – Sarajevo.  If there’s any place in the world where east and west collide, it would have to be Sarajevo.  It really is a place where cultures fuse together, in the most intriguing way.  The city is a metaphorical ‘onion’, formed from three very distinct ‘layers’ radiating outwards from a very picturesque historic centre.  Each of these layers is fascinating its own right, each depicting its own chapter of Bosnian history.

The city’s historic core – known as Baščaršija - is thankfully much easier to explore than it is to pronounce!  This small tangle of Ottoman-era lanes and alleys is where most of Sarajevo’s ‘must-see’ sights can be found. It’s like a mini, less hectic İstanbul. Don’t miss the stunning Gazi Husrev-beg mosque, the old clock tower, the bezistan covered markets and the Morića Han caravanserai.  With towering minarets, old stone buildings and colourful bazaars, this is an enchanting district to explore.  There’s a good chance you’ll hear the Muslim call to prayer, which echoes through streets five times a day.  It’s a truly beautiful and magical experience.

Baščaršija - Sarajevo

Traditional copperware in Baščaršija - Sarajevo

Baščaršija - Sarajevo

Perhaps the most famous sight in the old town is the Latin Bridge.  The assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand took place beside this bridge in 1914, sparking World War I.  A plaque marks the exact spot (which is actually on the adjacent street Zelenih Beretki, not on the bridge itself). 

Latin Bridge - Sarajevo

Walking outwards from the old town, you’ll reach the next ‘layer’ of Sarajevo.  This is the Austro-Hungarian district.  In direct contrast with Baščaršija’s quaint, olde-worlde atmosphere, this part of town is bold and modern.  Wide European-style boulevards replace narrow lanes and churches replace mosques.  The intersection of the two districts is abrupt and quite bizarre; it’s like walking from İstanbul to Vienna along the same street!

Continuing outwards along the main street (it may be an idea to hop on a tram at this stage), you’ll reach the outermost ‘layer’ of the city.  This is the communist-era ‘grey belt’ which developed during the Yugoslav years.  It’s essentially an endless corridor of brutalist grey-concrete apartment blocks (if you’ve visited any of the Eastern bloc countries, you’ll know what I mean).  It’s visually unattractive, but offers an insight into an authentic Bosnian neighbourhood. 

Communist-era cityscape - Sarajevo

Sarajevo is quite unlike any city I’ve ever seen.  The mix of mosques, catholic and orthodox churches and even synagogues makes the place unique.  Scarred deeply by war and suffering, the resilience and ‘lust for life’ of locals is hugely admirable.

My second stop was the western city of Mostar.  I didn’t have as much time here as I’d have hoped, but I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to visit and managed to do a whirlwind tour!  The journey from Sarajevo carves its way through a gorge of the Dinaric Alps - it’s a very pretty ride.  I really loved Mostar, right from the moment I stepped off the bus.  The vibe here was so upbeat - perhaps it was the sunny weather - I can’t quite put my finger on it!  Despite its troubled past, Mostar has a real vibrancy.  It’s such a charming place to explore.  The historic centre is idyllic, with its rustic Ottoman-era architecture and towering minarets.  The city is by no means ‘touristy’, but the people here seemed to be much more accustomed to the sight of backpackers, probably because of it’s proximity to the Croatian border. 

Mostar’s star attraction is its world-famous Ottoman bridge – Stari Most.  Asides from being very pretty to look at, this bridge is so symbolic. It physically and metaphorically bridges the gap between the Muslim and Christian 'worlds'. It was deliberately destroyed by artillery fire in 1993, but rebuilt as an exact replica in 2004.

Mostar is beautiful

Both Sarajevo and Mostar are small cities, which can be covered easily by foot over the course of a few days.  There’s a small, but well-established backpacking scene in Sarajevo and a bigger scene in Mostar - you’ll have no problem meeting like-minded travellers in either place.  There are some excellent free walking tours in both cities.  The country is very affordable - expect to pay 15-18 BAM a night in a hostel dorm (1 BAM = £0.45 GBP at the time of writing) or around 45 BAM for a budget hotel.  Food is very cheap by western standards – expect to pay between 10 and 15 BAM for a local Bosnian dish in a mid-range restaurant.  Alcohol is widely available and extremely cheap – a beer should cost around 2.50 BAM. 
Bosnian polenta in yoghurt sauce

I'll never forget the time I spent in Bosnia.  It's had such a profound impact on me - more so than most places I've visited.  It was a huge learning experience.  It's a captivating and intriguing land of colliding cultures, beautiful architecture and rugged natural beauty, but it’s also troubled and scarred, picking up the pieces of brutal conflict.  The atrocities the Bosnians endured during the 1990s are on a scale that my mind is unable to comprehend.  I hope with all my heart that this country's future is brighter than its past.

Thanks for reading!

Elis Griffiths. x

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

A Backpacker's Guide to GEORGIA.

‘Where’s that?’ was the most common thing people asked me when I told them I’d be visiting Georgia. ‘Is that in America?’ others would ask. Whilst an American state goes by the same name, my adventure was in fact headed in the opposite direction. Georgia is a part of the Caucasus region– a small and diverse cluster of nations squashed between Russia and the Middle East.  This incredible and rarely-explored country straddles the cultural and geographic boundary between Europe and Asia, showcasing the best of both worlds. 

I gazed in awe from the plane window as the seemingly endless sun-baked grasslands and distant rocky peaks drew closer; the country felt different from anywhere I’d ever been before right from the start.  Passport control was quick and easy and the bus journey into the city cost pennies.  The trip was off to a good start.

My adventure began in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.  It’s is a fascinating place to explore - so many influences fuse together to shape this city into the cultural and architectural patchwork it is today.  Pretty buildings with colourful, wooden balconies hug the Medieval fortress in the oldest part of the city, whilst grand European-style boulevards dominate the newer neighbourhoods of Rustaveli and Marjanishvili.  The Soviet influence is most notable in the suburbs, with the characteristic and uninviting ‘grey belt’ of apartment blocks. 

A good place to start exploring is Tbilisi’s old town.  Take in the uplifting atmosphere and historic landmarks then cross the Mtkvari River via the futuristic ‘Peace Bridge’.  From here, you can take the cable car (for 2 GEL each way) up over the city to the Narikala Fortress and the imposing Mother Georgia statue.  From up here there are panoramic views over most of the city.  On the other side of Tbilisi, it’s worth walking up the hill to see the impressive Holy Trinity Cathedral.  Georgia is a deeply religious country – around 86% of the population identifies as Eastern Orthodox Christian.  It would be difficult to fully experience Georgian culture without visiting some churches – they’re all so beautiful. 

Crossing over to the newer part of the city, you’ll come to Freedom Square, which is essentially the city’s beating heart.  Rustaveli and Marjanishvili are home to most of the major shops and theatres along with some of the city’s grandest architecture. 

Perhaps the nicest thing about Tbilisi is the fact it’s not completely overrun by tourists.  It lacks the pristine feel of the western world; it’s gritty, chaotic and parts of the city are in disrepair.  It’s a ‘real’ working city which gives a truly authentic view into life in this part of the world.  It’s also one of the friendliest places I’ve visited – I found the Georgian people very welcoming and hospitable as well as being deeply patriotic.

Undoubtedly the easiest and most popular day trip outside of Tbilisi is the ancient UNESCO-listed town of Mtskheta, the ex-capital of Georgia.  Mtskheta is one of the most important spiritual centres of the South Caucasus.  The Svetitskhoveli Cathedral and Samtavro and Jvari monasteries are fantastic both inside and out.  It’s such a peaceful place.  The 6th century Jvari Monastery clings to a hilltop above Mtskheta, giving amazing views over the town and surrounding countryside. 

The easiest and most informative way of seeing Mtskheta is through an organised tour from Tbilisi – these generally run for half a day and should cost around 25 GEL (when I visited, 10 GEL = 3 GBP).  For the more adventurous, marshrutky (local buses without set routes) travel between Tbilisi (outside Didube Metro station) and Mtskheta several times a day and cost around 1 GEL.  Whilst public transport is unfathomably cheap, it can be difficult to use as destinations are usually shown in the fabulous squiggly letters of the Georgian alphabet (and occasionally in Cyrillic). Few drivers will speak English.

Georgia is a beautiful country with so much to offer its visitors.  There’s both ancient and recent history, pretty towns, great food and friendly people just to name a few.  But the absolute highlight of my trip was the stunning natural landscape.  The Greater Caucasus mountains are natural beauty on a scale I’ve never seen before.  These mountains are colossal - rugged peaks poke up to 5068 meters into the sky.  It quite literally took my breath away.

I took a group tour which followed the Georgian Military Highway from Tbilisi to Kazbegi, stopping just short of the Russian border.  Once outside of the city, the scenery along the entire route was utterly spectacular.  The route passes the fairytale fortress of Ananuri before climbing high into the Caucasus range.  As the road climbs to an elevation of 2379 meters, the landscape transforms quickly from scrubland, to forest to steep, bare slopes.  The views become more and more spectacular the closer you get to Kazbegi – the mountains get taller and taller. 

From Kazbegi, we took a jeep up to the Gergeti Monastery.  If you’ve ever seen a picture of Georgia, it was probably taken here.  This beautiful monastery is a sanctuary of peace, nestled at the foot of the 5033 meter giant that is Mount Kazbek.  Gergeti feels like the roof of the world – the beauty of the place is outstanding.

Georgians will often tell you that their country was the birthplace of wine.  Whilst the sincerity of this claim is up for question, I did really enjoy the wine here.  There are a little under 400 grape varieties grown in Georgia, so there are a lot of wines to choose from.  Those with a particular interest in Georgian wines may like to visit the Kakheti region where most of the vineyards are found. I didn’t have time to visit Kakheti on this trip but there are lots of organised tours from Tbilisi.

Low prices and a weak currency make budget travel exceptionally easy in Georgia.  A bed in a shared hostel dorm should cost between 10 and 25 GEL per night - this usually includes breakfast.  The cheapest hostels can be very basic.  Food is also extremely affordable – expect to pay around 15 GEL for a main course in a mid-range restaurant in Tbilisi and slightly less off the beaten path. Flights to Tbilisi can be hard to come by, with most connecting in Ukraine or Turkey.  Georgian Airways have, however, just started a new direct route to London with two flights a week.

It amazes me that this beautiful and fascinating country attracts so few travellers.  It has everything you could wish for in a destination – ancient history, spectacular landscape, low prices and friendly people just to name a few.  But it still manages to slip under the radar.  But maybe this is what makes the place so special – it’s undiscovered.

Have you been to Georgia or thinking of visiting? Let me know in the comments section below!  Thanks for reading!

Elis Griffiths. x
[Footnote:  Most of Georgia (including all places mentioned in this post) are very safe to visit.  However the UK Foreign Office currently advises against all travel to the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  Seek advice before attempting to travel to these regions.]

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

A Guide to Summer Tourism in ANDORRA.

European microstates have always intrigued me.  The mere existence of these tiny sovereign countries and their unrelenting will to survive is admirable.  Andorra’s remoteness and inaccessibility just compounded my fascination.  I’ll take any excuse for an adventure, so I eventually gave into temptation and decided to visit!  I really enjoyed exploring, but found some aspects of the place quite odd.  As such, I’ll attempt to provide a balanced account of my trip along with some guidelines for budgeting.

Roc del Quer

To give some context, Andorra is the world’s 16th smallest country, perched high in the Pyrenees mountains between France and Spain.  It’s the world’s only remaining co-principality, with the bishop of the Spanish city of La Seu d’Urgell sharing power with the French Count of Foix (now the French president). 

Much to the distaste of its neighbours, Andorra could be considered as somewhat of a tax haven.  Low duty on most items draws flocks of people over the borders from Spain and France in search of cheap clothes, electricals, alcohol and just about anything else you could wish to buy.  Asides from being morally questionable, this low-tax political strategy has led to the proliferation of unsightly shopping centres which seem to have popped up anywhere and everywhere.

A lot of travel writers seem to give Andorra a tough time (some more so than others).  The main complaint seems to be overdevelopment.  Whilst this is sometimes a little overplayed, I do agree to an extent.  The recent mass construction of modern high-rise apartment blocks, banks, offices and shopping centres has taken much of the character away from towns and villages.  Much of the capital Andorra la Vella is glass, steel and concrete with only small remnants of history remaining.  This is a real shame to say the city has existed since before the Middle Ages.  As for newer towns such as Pas de la Casa, I’d avoid these altogether unless you’re after cheap electricals or booze.

Andorra la Vella

In spite of its negatives, Andorra has a real trump card – the landscape.  It’s utterly amazing.  The entire country is dominated by the jagged high peaks of the Pyrenees, which poke almost 3000 meters into the sky.  There are excellent hiking and mountain biking trails almost everywhere.  My absolute favourite place in all of Andorra is the Roc del Quer view point above the village of Canillo.  This seemingly precarious metal platform juts out from a sheer rock face into mid-air.  At nearly 2000 meters in altitude, it feels like you’re flying like a bird above the valleys below.  The viewpoint can be reached by road, so unfit people like myself needn’t worry!

Andorra's landscape took my breath away!

I’ve previously mentioned Andorra’s lack of historical buildings, but the real exception to this is the abundance of beautiful Romanesque churches.  Most of these are built in local stone and are decorated on the inside by the most incredible artwork.  All churches in the country are worth seeing, but some notable examples are Sant Joan de Caselles, Santa Coloma and the Meritxell Sanctuary.  The first two are historical Romanesque-style churches; the latter is modern but equally captivating.

Sant Joan de Caselles
Modern arches at the Meritxell Sanctuary

The historical centre of Andorra la Vella is small and for the most part anticlimactic.  But the old Andorran Parliament ‘Casa de la Vall’ is a real gem.  Dating back to 1580 AD, it’s one of the oldest parliament buildings in the world.  Tours cost EUR 5 and give a fascinating insight into the past and present of Andorran politics. 

Casa de la Vall - Old Parliament building

The country is tiny and I reckon it’s possible to see the main sights in a couple of days.  For those without a car, the best way to get the most from Andorra is through an organised tour as getting between the sights can be tricky.  The Andorra Tourist Board offer a daily bus tour for EUR 15, which I really enjoyed. 

The overall cost of travel in Andorra is moderate.  Backpackers’ hostels are difficult to come by and can be quite pricey as a result.  Expect to pay between EUR 16-20 per night for a bed in a shared dorm.  Interestingly, hotels are quite cheap here and a budget hotel in Andorra can actually offer better value for money than a hostel; expect to pay between EUR 20-30 per night for a twin room in a 3* hotel.  Food costs are comparable to those in other western European countries; expect to pay EUR 10-14 for a main course in a mid-range restaurant.  Alcohol is very cheap though, due to the low rates of taxation. 

Getting to Andorra can be tricky as there are no airports or train stations in the country – road is the only option.  Daily buses run from Barcelona and Toulouse airports with a journey time of around 3 hours from each.  Andorra is not part of the EU or Schengen area and border patrols are in place.  Immigration is generally hassle-free, but customs checks can be thorough – particularly upon leaving the country.

I’ve given Andorra a ‘backpackability’ score of 3/5, meaning it’s somewhat suitable for backpackers and budget travellers.

Concrete jungle or natural paradise?  I’d say Andorra is an odd mix of the two.  Love it or hate it, there’s no denying this place is unique.

Have you been to Andorra or thinking of going?  Let me know in the comments section below!

Elis Griffiths. x

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

MALTA: A Story of 'Love at First Sight'

I fell in love with Malta as soon as I stepped off the plane.  It’s difficult to find a bad word to say about this tiny nation; there’s history by the bucket load, the people are great, it’s affordable and to top it all off it’s almost always sunny!

With over 7000 years of history under its belt, Malta has developed a rich and unique culture.  The islands sit in a strategic position at the crossroads of Europe and North Africa, with countless historic invasions and colonisations each adding their own ‘layer’ to the cultural fabric.  The romans left the Catholic faith, the Italians left the laid-back way of life and the Arab legacy lives on through the fascinating Maltese language.  But perhaps the most obvious influence comes from the British.  Malta was under British rule between 1813 and 1964 and this period has undeniably left its stamp upon Maltese life.  Iconic red phone boxes and Royal Mail post boxes can be seen on every corner; vintage English buses are a common sight on the streets and the English language retains co-official status alongside Maltese. 

The thing I love the most about Malta is the abundance of history.  The islands are like an open, living history museum – history is everywhere!  Every street, every building and every harbour has its own story to tell.  If you only visit two places whilst in Malta, my best recommendations are Valletta and Mdina.

Valletta is Malta’s bustling capital and the hub of island life.  The UNESCO-listed old town of is surrounded by huge walls, bastions and ditches making it one of the most heavily fortified cities in all of Europe.  It’s a small city which can be easily explored by foot in a day.  The place has a great energy - it feels so full of life.  I became fixated on the brightly coloured enclosed wooden balconies which every building seems to have – I’m not really sure where or when they originated, but they are beautiful to look at.  Whilst in Valletta, don’t miss the view of the old harbour from the Barrakka gardens – it’s stunning. 

Alongside Valletta, Mdina (pronounced ‘im-deenah’) is the second jewell in Malta’s crown.  This small hilltop city is ancient – the area has been occupied since the 8th century BC, but the city’s current name was given by Arab invaders in 870 AD (‘medina’ is an Arabic word meaning ‘city’).  Like Valletta, the fortifications of Mdina are very impressive.  I really enjoyed getting lost in the charming maze-like streets and alleyways.  The golden colour of the buildings almost glistens against the cobalt-blue summer sky.  Mdina occupies the highest point in Malta which gives some fantastic views over the countryside.

To say Malta is an island nation, there is a surprising lack of beaches (the most notable exception being the village of Mellieħa - don't ask how this is pronounced!).  Which is a shame as the water is warm and crystal clear.  Malta’s real coastal charm comes from the scattering of small fishing villages, where the peaceful way of life has gone seemingly unchanged for years.  My favourite of these is Marsaxlokk (pronounced ‘marsa-shlock’).  Asides from the outdoor market and hordes of seafood restaurants, there’s not a great deal to do in the village, but it’s very picturesque and a lovely place to relax.

Malta is small and getting around is cheap and very easy.  There is an excellent government-owned bus network, which uses Valletta as a hub.  Just about everywhere has a bus stop and buses on most routes are frequent.  Single fares cost EUR 1.50, but for those staying longer than a few days a travel card costs EUR 15 and allows 12 journeys.  Allow plenty of time for bus journeys as the roads in and out of Valletta are often congested.  The three islands (Malta, Gozo and Comino) are well-connected with boat services.  Budget airlines Ryanair, EasyJet and WizzAir offer cheap flights to Malta from many UK and European airports.

Budget accommodation is easy to find in Malta – there’s a good scattering of backpackers’ hostels mainly in Sliema and St. Julian.  Expect to pay around EUR 10 per night for a bed in a hostel dorm and between EUR 8-10 for a main course in a mid-range restaurant.

I absolutely loved my time in Malta and would rate the nation very highly as a travel destination.  There’s absolutely loads to see and do, it’s affordable and it has an excellent public transport network so I’ve given Malta the maximum ‘backpackability’ score of 5. 

For such a small country, Malta has made a big impression on me.

Have you been to Malta or thinking of visiting?  Let me know in the comments below!  Thanks for reading,

Elis Griffiths. x

Thursday, 11 May 2017

A Guide to MARRAKECH, Morocco.

There are few places which polarise opinions quite like the Moroccan city of Marrakech.  People either love it or hate it; I’ve never heard anyone describe Marrakech as ‘just okay’.  I had an incredible experience in the city but found it a challenging place to visit.  As such, I’ll attempt to give a balanced report of my time in the city along with some budget guidelines.

To give a background, Marrakech is a historic city nestled at the northern foot of the Atlas Mountains.  It is the most-visited city in Morocco, and for good reason.  The entire medina (the city’s ancient fortified core) is listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site and remains one of the best preserved historic cities in north Africa.  It’s often called the ‘Pink City’ because its distinctive ochre-tinted buildings.

Morocco is an extremely exciting country to visit.  It’s hectic, lively and colourful; a real hair-raising roller-coaster for the senses.  From the fragrant aromas of incense and spices of the souks to the foul-smelling stench of the tanneries, there really is a surprise around every corner. 

A stroll through the medina really is a stroll back in time.  There’s so much history here and the city has done so well to cling on to its old-world character.  Walking through the city walls is like stepping into another world – the culture shock is very real and at first a little overwhelming.

Upon entering the medina, the first sight you’re likely to be met with is the spectacular Koutoubia mosque.  This impressive landmark is a very fine example of the style of Islamic architecture typical to Morocco.  Unfortunately, non-Muslim tourists aren’t allowed to enter the mosque, but it’s certainly worth seeing from the outside.  The richly-decorated minaret towers above the rooftops and can be seen over most of Marrakech – a useful tool for navigation in the maze-like streets of the medina!

Opposite the Koutoubia mosque is Jamaa el Fna.  This huge city square (one of the biggest in all of Africa) is the life and soul of Marrakech.  And it’s absolutely crazy. Traditional music echoes around all corners whilst hordes of street performers, story-tellers and snake charmers scuffle for space amongst street-food stalls and market traders.  The hustle and bustle is like nothing I’ve ever witnessed - the atmosphere is electric.  It’s so full of life - so vibrant.  Each time you visit this square you’ll see different things, but each time it’ll take your breath away

Keep walking through Jamaa el Fna and you’ll come to the souks.  These are the centuries-old markets which fill the narrow streets adjacent to square.  For me, the souks are the best thing about Marrakech.  This is typical Moroccan culture in full force.  You can buy anything you could ever want for in the souks; spices, belts, shoes, incense, fruit, lanterns, carpets, meat, teapots and traditional remedies just to name a few.  It’s hectic and chaotic, but it’s a wonderful experience.  The golden rule in the souks is to bargain for EVERYTHING!  As a Brit, haggling doesn’t come naturally but in Morocco it’s expected and embraced.  It can be a lot of fun for both the customer and the stall holder.  

The medina is a dense tangle of narrow, cobbled alleyways.  It’s huge – you could fill days wandering around the ancient streets and never become bored.  Some interesting landmarks include the El Badii Palace, the Bahia Palace, the Saadian tombs and the Medersa Ben Youssef Islamic college.

I had an incredible time in Marrakech and fell in love with the fantastic city and the rich Moroccan culture.  But I found it quite a challenging place to visit.  I came to develop somewhat of a love-hate relationship with the city.  It’s an extremely exciting place to visit and the atmosphere is so full of life, but the hassle from pushy and occasionally aggressive touts is relentless.  And it starts as soon as you leave the airport. Taxi drivers will try to rip you off, stall holders will try to rip you off, faux-guides will try to rip you off – you must have your wits about you all the time.  It can become exhausting after a while.  Have in mind an acceptable price and stay firm.  Always agree a price beforehand and don’t feel obligated to pay over the odds for anything or to buy anything you don’t want.  ‘No, merci’ is perhaps the most useful phrase you will use whilst in Morocco.

Morocco is a very budget-friendly place to visit.  Expect to pay around 60 Dh for a hostel dorm and 100-150 Dh for a main course in a mid-range restaurant.  Whilst taxi drivers will often try to push their luck, a taxi ride from the airport to the centre of town should cost no more than 100 Dh, or alternatively take the airport bus for just 30 Dh.  When I visited, 100 Dh was worth 7.81 GBP.

The rich and exciting culture, fascinating history and exotic landscape coupled with reliably sunny skies, good food and cheap cost of travel make Marrakech an ideal place for backpackers and budget travellers.  Although deeply rewarding, travel here can be tricky at times, particularly for solo travellers.  As a result, I’ve given Marrakech an overall ‘backpackability’ score of 4/5.

Have you been to Marrakech or thinking of going? Let me know your experiences of this fascinating city in the comments section below!  As always, thanks for reading.
Elis Griffiths. x

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Backpacking BELGIUM

Chocolate, waffles, beer, fries and history all come to mind when Belgium is mentioned.  I usually try to avoid travel stereotypes, but the Belgian delicacies were just too difficult to resist. I thought I’d share some thoughts based on my recent trip to Brussels and Bruges (Brugge).

To give a quick background, Belgium is a small and very diverse country sandwiched between France, Germany and Holland. French is spoken in the south and Dutch in the north with the capital Brussels being bilingual.  The linguistic and cultural divide soon becomes clear when traveling here; neighbouring cities can vary so drastically making Belgium a fascinating place to visit.

I took a while to warm to Brussels – it wasn’t love at first sight.  The weather was grey, the roads congested and I’ve never seen so many office blocks.  Brussels is not as uniformly elegant or pretty as Paris or Amsterdam and it’s not packed full of star attractions.  But the more time I spent in the city, I came to realise that these ‘downfalls’ actually make the city quite a charming place to visit.  It’s a real, working city and not a tourist trap.  There’s a good foodie scene and lively nightlife and there are some pretty cool things to see.  Even if you come to Brussels and only see the dazzling old town square - Le Grand Place - it’d be worth the trip!

It’s worth a trip to the edge of the city to see the futuristic Atomium tower, which looks as if it’s fallen from outer Space.  Built as a plus-sized replica of an iron molecule, the structure has become symbolic of the city and of Belgium as a country.  Entry fees are a bit pricey (12 EUR when I visited) but the views from the top are stunning and the exhibition is interesting.  Take Metro line 6 to Heysel.

My next stop was Bruges.  I can’t express how much I love Bruges – the medieval centre feels like an open-air history museum and the backpacking scene is thriving here.  The city is idyllic and charming.  There is such a positive energy - just walking around the old cobbled streets is so uplifting.  A stroll through Bruges is a stroll back in time.  An extensive network of canals and rivers is the lifeblood of the city and a wonderful way to see Bruges is by boat. 

Bruges is a chocoholic’s dream - there’s a chocolatier around every corner.  The temptation is constant when walking anywhere in the city.  For me, the Belgian chocolate definitely lived up to its reputation - I must have come back half a stone heavier!  And because there are is so much competition, the chocolate is priced quite reasonably.  I really enjoyed the chocolate museum, which delves deeper into the history of chocolate and how it became synonymous with Belgium.

Unsurprisingly, Bruges is a tourist magnet.  In fact, the city’s population more than doubles in the summer months as hordes of tourists flood in from around the world.  For those who wish to get a more authentic experience of the Flanders region, Ghent and Antwerp are good alternatives to Bruges.  Whilst not as idyllic as Bruges, both cities have interesting historic centres without the mass tourism.  Trains in Belgium are excellent and relatively inexpensive, so it’s easy to see multiple cities in one trip.

Belgium is a great backpackers’ destination.  There are tonnes of things to do all over the country and travel is very easy.  However, it can be quite pricey, particularly for food and accommodation.    Expect to pay 15-20 EUR for a bed in a hostel dorm and about 18 EUR for a main course in a mid-range restaurant.  Despite the relatively high prices, budget travel is definitely possible in Belgium.  French fries (which actually originate in Belgium, rather than France) are a good cheap meal which is readily available anywhere in the country.  I also made use of supermarkets and cooked a lot of my meals in the hostel which brought the costs down considerably.  And most importantly, beer is cheap and plentiful!

As such, I have given Belgium a ‘backpackability’ score of 4, meaning it’s ‘mostly favourable’ for backpackers and budget travellers.

Have you been to Belgium, or thinking of visiting?  Let me know in the comments section below! Thanks for reading,

Elis Griffiths. x