Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Most Underrated Capital in Europe

A lot of bloggers use titles like the one above to lure their readers in, "click bait" if you will, but I do genuinely feel this way about this city, and not announcing it in the title above was merely an exercise to see if anyone might actually guess what it might be before entering the post. Just for the hell of it, I encourage you not to scroll down and to take a wild guess at what city I'm referring to based on the facts below:

In the city I feel is the most underrated capital in Europe...
  1. More than 30 percent of the population of the country lives there
  2. The Old Town is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (and rightfully so)
  3. It used to be known as "Reval" from the 13th century until just after WWI 
  4. It gets mighty cold in the winter
  5. It's location on the Gulf of Finland has made it relevant since medieval times
Whether you guessed it correctly or, more likely, scrolled down a little too far and saw the answer anyhow, the city that has recently taken over my imaginary city travel throne is...

Tallinn, Estonia

I love Tallinn like I love pizza - any temperature, any time. Briana and I made our first visit to this illustrious city this past November, and instantly fell in love with it. I've never seen an old town so well preserved, nor a city that was more decidedly walkable. Not to mention, despite covering a rather large area, the main places to eat, walk, have a beverage and indulge in general tourist activities is extremely manageable. In four days, I feel like we intimately got to know the city of Tallinn, and I miss it like I miss an old friend. Needless to say, one day I know we'll return - though perhaps in the middle of summer or the middle of winter. I'd like to see it either blossoming with flowers or with its rooftops covered with a soft layer of snow. 

Each and every alleyway was worth walking down, and that's more than you can say about a ton of other capital cities, especially particular capitals I've visited like Bucharest, Managua, or Manila ( and where it might just cost you your wallet.) But that's the point, whether we were in the bustling Town Hall Square, or taking the long walk out of town to the Kuma Museum, we felt very at home. 

There really aren't very many cities this size that I feel like I could explore for a lifetime, appreciating every nook and cranny. And beyond its physical appearances which have an innate charm, the history is fascinating, for better or worse. Tallinn is no stranger to occupation (both Russia and Germany raised their flag in this city in the 20th century), but they're also no stranger to rebellion, both quiet and loud. That's really only a small tidbit of what makes Tallinn interesting, they've been a city worth of mention almost since the turn of the first millennium. 

The history of Tallinn is one of resilience, which has formed this city into what I can safely say is one of the most pleasant and agreeable on the planet. So, hats off to Tallinn, what I'll confidently call the most underrated capital in Europe. As part of me tipping my hat to the city, I'll show off a little of what the Nikon captured along the way. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The 16 Photos that Prove Kruger National Park is Heaven on Earth

If you've noticed the moderately self-indulgent widget on the right hand side of my blog, which kindly reminds readers how many countries I've been to, then you'll know I've been lucky to see a lot. And, you'll be able to take the following sentence more seriously - there is nowhere on earth like Kruger National Park.

Areas of the now Kruger National Park have been protected since the late 19th century, but it was in the mid 1920's that Kruger received the distinction of South Africa's first national park. I'm not kidding when I say that visiting Kruger is a life-changing experience. Many with whom I spoke and asked for advice from before departure would actually argue that it's even a lifestyle. The people who truly know what magic this place withholds worship it with an almost religious exuberance, and it's entirely warranted.

The pre-departure/planning process was overwhelming in the sense that there's "so much to see." But, quickly, you realize that Kruger National Park isn't the type of place that you go to for a few days and rush around to see a few lions, and then promptly leave. At least not if you're doing it right. Bri and I were lucky to spend four nights there, but, if I had it my way, I'd spend four months there every year. Exaggeration aside, I can say with certainty we'll do everything we can to make sure we step foot back in the park sooner rather than later.

In brief, the park covers nearly 20,000 square kilometres, and includes almost all of the iconic African animals (and landscapes for that matter) that you could hope to see, especially the Big 5 (lions, leopards, buffaloes, rhinos, and elephants). During the day, you drive around the park with your eyes wide open searching for animals in your periphery. That's really the main goal for the day, along with cooking and the like, but it provides an inordinately fulfilling venture. That's certainly the case at least for a Canadian like myself, who was known to swoon over a loon or two in my childhood, but the closest I came to a lion was with the help of Disney and the Toronto Zoo.

We learned quickly not to speed and try to rush to see a ton of animals, as staying put and watching animals in their natural habitat could be considerably more rewarding than snapping photos and speeding off. Personally, we chose to stay in the south eastern region of the park, which tends to be pretty consistent as far as game sightings are concerned. For the first two nights, we stayed at Crocodile Bridge Rest Camp, and then for the following two nights we stayed at Lowie Sabie Rest Camp. Both were lovely in their own right. Croc Bridge offered a stripped down, more barebones experience I found, but Lower Sabie was nothing but pleasant, and neither offered a level of luxury that interfered with how "authentic" I felt the experience was, if that makes any sense.

I will say that, as far as planning, the official website for Kruger was helpful, but about a thousand times more helpful was the Facebook group, Camps and Roads of Kruger Park. The advice we got there was invaluable, and the selflessness of the people of the group in helping us, as well as their sheer devotion to the continued prosperity and preservation of the park, gave us a good indication of the community that existed in Kruger among those who visit (at least those who visit with the right intentions).

Alas, what I really wanted to share with you all was some of the photos we were able to snap, which do a good job illustrating our experiences. It's indeed difficult to capture with words what we were able to see and appreciate. I decided that I would go with 16 photos I thought truly captured what I wanted. 16 is my lucky number, and I know we felt nothing but lucky in terms of what we saw in Kruger, so let's go with 16 photos, shall we? The photos are a combination of the camerawork of both Bri and myself, as often one of us would pull over our big Toyota Fortuner while the other manned (or womanned?) the camera. As always, I hope you'll appreciate the experience we had through my words and photos.

I can't overstate this - put visiting Kruger up there with the great sights of the world, you won't regret it. Just remember to be respectful when you get there, because there's a lot at stake as far needing to preserve a place like this. A place like no other.

The truth is, with or without these photos, Kruger will forever be crystallized in my mind. However, I know Bri and I are certainly looking forward to blowing a few of these up on the wall, as a constant reminder of what exists, just on the other side of the world.