Sleeper Train from Budapest to Bucharest

One of the best things about making your way through Eastern Europe is being able to do so on the extensive train network rather than relying on flying or buses, and one of the longest routes is the Budapest-Bucharest
I’ve listed some tips / things to be aware of for the trip below but, in summary, whilst its not the most comfortable of sleeps because of the number of stops, I’d say it’s overall worth it based on the scenery you see in Transylvania (in particular crossing the Transylvanian Alps), the savings on hotel costs for the night and the lessened environmental impact from flying.  But more than anything else, it’s just quite good fun.  Again, detailed tips below

Eger – wine tasting in the Valley of the Beautiful Women

Eger’s central square is very pretty and worth sitting around in whilst looking at the views of the Minorite Church, but it is the wine tasting in the Valley of the Beautiful Women that gains the attention.
To manage expectation though … it’s not quite what you’d expect.  There doesn’t quite seem to be the hoards of beautiful women helpfully grouped together in one picturesque valley.  It’s also not quite a valley …. more like a park around 70m x 35m / 230ft x 135ft with a few wineries round the outside.  False advertising? Yes for sure, but it is worth a visit as once you get past the initial surprise at what you’ve taken a 2 hour train from Budapest for, it does kind of grow on you.   Firstly, the wine cellars are deceptive – there must be around 40 of them and most have cellars / drinking / eating areas that go back around 100m / 330 feet under the hills, which makes for quite a lot of wine drinking area around such a small park.  And secondly, the Valley of the Beautiful Women attracts locals and tourists alike to generate what must be quite an atmosphere in this compact spot in the summer festivals (sadly we missed one by a couple of days)
Worth a day trip / overnight trip, but manage expectations
Some high level tips:
  • Getting there – trains leave every hour or so from Budapest’s Keleti station, and it’s less than a 10min taxi into the centre of Eger / the Valley of the Beautiful Women
  • Accommodation – we stayed at the Hotel Senator which had a perfect location and felt like going back in time a bit.  Slightly overpriced (USD100 per night) and maybe a tad basic in places, but worth it for the location and the randomness

7/8 week itinerary for the highlights of South East Asia

South East Asia has to be the premier world traveling region.  A big call?  For sure, but consider what genuinely world class offerings it can provide:

 

  • World class beaches and coastal areas – think of THAT beach in Ko Phi Phi and HaLong Bay, one of the Natural Wonders of the World
  • World class food – think Thai, Vietnamese, Malay and the genuine fusion into the mix with the large established Indian and Chinese communities
  • World class ancient sites and history – think of the temples of the “8th Wonder of the World” of Angkor Wat, and the breathtaking site of the pagodas stretching across the plain in Bagan
  • World class cities and party locations – think of Singapore as the city of the future and the Full Moon Parties on Ko Pha-Ngan

 

And all this in a place that is super safe, outrageously friendly, easy and cheap to travel in.  A must for any keen traveler and the below itinerary will give you the highlights – enjoy!

6 months trip of a lifetime around Latin America

My girlfriend and I went on a 6month trip around Latin America (excluding Brazil).  Started in the far South in the Tierra del Fuego in Argentina and, broadly, made our way up the west coast to the Yucatan Peninsular of Mexico.  Best large scale trip I’ve done, and wanted to share the overall itinerary and tips here to hopefully help those who are considering something similar

A few high level points:

  • Other than the flights there and the first hotel, there were only three things we booked in advance: the Inca Trail (which we knew we needed to for permits); plus for Patagonia a trip through Torres del Paine National Park and a ferry through the fjords (as we were going at peak season and only a couple of weeks after we landed).  Everything else, we booked when in Latin America and, in our opinion, that is the best way to do it – gives you the freedom to relax in the places you find that you love and be super flexible to do what you want to do
  • Total costs – my girlfriend and I went in our 30s, with no kids and on sabbaticals from work.  We’re not poor, but certainly not mega wealthy.  We didn’t stay in super expensive hotels (other than for the occasional splurge), flew economy and used a bit of common sense for timings of certain expensive items, but never held back on doing the things we wanted to do.  Some examples of big ticket items: US$5k for a week diving in the remote Wolf & Darwin Islands in the Galapagos; US$1.2k for 4 days in Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia; US$800 for a helicopter trip to see the El Mirador Mayan ruins in the Guatemalan jungle; US$700 for the Inca Trail.  Total cost of the whole trip was US$34k each.  This included all flights, transport, hotels, activities, food, drink, guides, screwing things up, credit card fees – the lot.  Expensive, but so are most Experiences of a Lifetime
  • It’s not about trying to “do everything” – in a place as large as Latin America, you couldn’t even if you tried – so don’t think of things as a big tick box exercise.  Brazil, for example, we knew we couldn’t do justice whilst also trying to enjoy all the other amazing places we’d heard of, so left it for next time
  • In the similar vain, make sure you give yourself big chunks of time to chill out.  Not only to recharge the batteries, but also because most places are enjoyed when you spend time to soak up the feel for the place.  There were some places . . . like Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, Buenos Aires in Argentina, Isla Mujeres in Mexico, Bocas del Toro in Panama . . . where I could have spent weeks there just because the general vibe of the place was so wonderful
  • Safety – we weren’t robbed, but many people do either having a bag stolen or, unpleasantly, get robbed face to face.  Other than a couple of cities, we generally felt super safe the places we went and tried to just apply common sense to reduce our risks
  • Learn a bit of Spanish before you go – the app DuoLingo was great for getting us to a basic level that made a lot of difference.  But also don’t be afraid to pull out google for simultaneous conversation translations to really be able to have a conversation with someone – some long trips became some of our highlights just from being able to properly talk with the driver / locals.  I particularly remember a long taxi ride in Colombia where we went back and forward for 2 hours with the driver on everything from his home town to politics to football to his favourite movies to his family problems- never could have done that without Spanish or google.  In a similar vein, and using the right level of common sense, don’t turn down an invite for drinks / dinner / house visit with locals.  There are some truly unforgettable natural and cultural spots to see, but similarly an evening with a local family will be something likely to be just as unforgettable
  • Whenever checking out a place or must-do-site, its easy to get templed / churched / ancient site / beached out.  Always do a very basic bit of research to see if there is a more out of the ordinary way to experience it – by bike / drinking tour / kayaking / helicopter / whatever.  Thats what we tried to do, and I hope it reflected in some of the cool stuff listed below

Panama City and the Panama Canal

Panama City is definitely worth a visit.  First up, you get quite the pleasant surprise when you arrive at just how developed it is with its shimmering glass skyscrapers all the way along the Pacific coastline and an efficient, clean feel that is very different to any other city in Central America.  But its the colonial architecture of Casco Viejo Old Town on the waterfront and the great engineering feat of the Panama Canal that are the highlights

Considering you often have to fly through Panama City to get to where you’re going in this part of Central America, I’d actually say the city itself its a must visit if in the region.  As someone who’s a bit geeky when it comes to engineering, I personally found watching the ships pass through the docks of the Panama Canal mesmerising

Although sorry for the particularly poor photos for this one!

A week in Japan from Tokyo, to Mount Fuji and Kyoto

Japan is my favourite country to travel through.  A big call I know.  Whilst it may get pipped by some of the bigger countries when it comes to natural vistas and cultural pursuits, there are three things that cement it as number one:

  1. The people and surrounding culture is one of respect, politeness and calm – just travelling through Japan you find your blood pressure dropping, being more considerate and the pleasures that come with this
  2. Stuff works in Japan – it’s not just the trains being on time to within the second, it’s everything!  I know there is something wonderfully memorable about travelling with a few hiccups as part of the adventure., but there is also something rather pleasant about having a country like Japan to explore knowing it’ll be super easy (and safe)
  3. The food!  I know the French think they are the best in the world.  They are not
There’s a lot to see, but if you have a week, I’d recommend this itinerary which lets you see 3 highlights of Japan and with a bit of adventure thrown in

Cycling around Kyoto and sampling whiskies in the Suntory Distillery

Kyoto has been Japan’s Imperial capital for a thousand years and has . . . a thousand temples.  If, like me, you can get a bit templed out, its quite easy to get tired walking from one temple to the next and, honestly, whilst I enjoyed the trip to Kyoto, I don’t remember any of the specific temples.  So, my tips for a visit:

  • Rent a bike to cycle around the temples, and generally around Kyoto.  It adds a different angle to the day as you can see areas outside of the standard temples, including the large gardens, are not restricted by a driver, and Kyoto city centre is very safe to cycle, including being able to cycle along the canals
  • Unless you are a Japanese history geek, one day is more than enough for the temples
  • The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove in the west of the city is definitely worth checking out as it’s super dense green bamboo forrest makes you think you’re in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon
  • I’d highly recommend taking a half day trip to the Suntory Whiskey Distillery just outside Kyoto.  Even if you are not a whiskey fan, it’s a nice experience as they show you how the whiskey is made, tell the history and give you some free samplings at the end.  Considering the standard of these whiskies and their recognition internationally (they won many of the world’s best awards), this is very generous.   It’s only a 25min train ride (which is fun on its own) from Kyoto Station and has very pleasant surroundings nestled in a glen
  • As with all things Japan, try and stay somewhere with an Onsen – coming back and relaxing in them at the end of the day really adds to the overall Japanese experience.  You’ll find your blood pressure dropping quickly and even catch yourself dropping in a small bow to people in the lifts
  • We stayed near the station, which was a perfect location
  • For more details on how Kyoto can fit into a week itinerary for the highlights of central Japan, see the individual travel entry for – A week in Japan from Tokyo, to Mount Fuji and Kyoto

The East Lancashire Railway Real Ale Trail

For train pub crawls across the North of England, most people will naturally turn to the Trans Pennine Real Ale Trail (and see further details here –The Trans Pennine Railway Real Ale Trail), but also consider the East Lancashire Real Ale Trail which is far quieter (less stag dos / bachelor parties), shorter with only 7 stations and includes some of the trip being on an old steam train.  Its a much more chilled out experience

The Trans Pennine Railway Real Ale Trail

Trains, local villages, real ales, lashed locals – a proper Northern experience!

 

Most people when they visit the North of England go to the usual sights of The Lake District, Durham, York etc, which are great, but for something more unusual for a tourist, consider the Trans Pennine Real Ale Trail, also known as the Trans Pennine Pub Crawl.  The idea is to take the Trans Pennine train route that passes through 9 local villages and towns scattered across the Lancashire and Yorkshire countryside and stop in each one to visit one of the local pubs for a beer.  The pubs themselves are cute and with a focus on real ales, but the overall trip itself has turned into something bigger than just the ales and you’ll find a real mix of people up for lash (partying) itorrelevant of what they’re drinking.  More than anything, its a great way to meet some of the locals outside of the standard tourist settings

 

To get started, you realistically want to start in Leeds or Manchester Train Stations.  The route itself technically starts in Staleybridge and ends in Batley, or visa-versa, but in reality you’ll be getting to the main city train stations to start and finish.  From there, just head off and keep an eye on the timetable.  You’ve typically got between 40mins and an hour between trains so plenty of time for a drink and maybe stay a bit longer for lunch.  Enjoy!

 

For something in the same theme, but a little quieter, shorter and involving an old steam engine, try The East Lancashire Railway Real Ale Trail

Luxor, Valley of the Kings and the Temple of Hatshepsut

Not everyone will have heard of Luxor, and it is certainly less famous than those Wonders of the World up near Cairo, but I found them the highlight of an Egypt trip.  Wandering through the exotic stone columns of Karnak, exploring the resting spot of Tutankhamun, gawping from one of the mountains above at the seriously underrated Temple of Hatshepsut, and finishing one of the days watching the sunset from a boat on the Nile.  A wonderful few days