By , August 4, 2012 1:00 pm

What do you do with yourself when you’re living in a small industrial/farming town of 4000 people in Lower Austria?  You borrow a bike (preferably for free from your landlord), cycle the famous Donauradweg trail along the Danube (in the UNESCO World Heritage Wachau region), and explore all the nearby castles and abbeys.

Cycling the Danube

While you would be hard pressed to find more than a few tourists in Loosdorf at one time, nearby Melk (only 5 km away) is swamped with them.  Melk is located on the Danube River and was our starting point for our explorations.

Melk

Schloss Schallaburg

Schloss means “castle” in German.  Schloss Schallaburg is located between and to the south of Loosdorf and Melk.  While it’s not on the Danube River, it’s close enough to deserve mention.  Schallaburg Renaissance Castle dates back to the 11th century.  Originally a defensive stronghold, it was later redesigned as an artistic seat of power.

Schloss Schallaburg

Only a 7 km walk from Loosdorf, Schallaburg gardens were the perfect place for picnic lunches!  The entrace fee for the castle is 10 Euro (12,50 with guided tour).  The gardens are free.

Not a shabby place for a picnic!

Castle, seen from gardens

Schallaburg forest trails

Melk Abbey

Dominating the skyline of Melk, the impressive Stift Melk (or Melk Abbey) sits atop a hill overlooking the Danube River.  It has been run uninterrupted by Benedictine monks since 1089.  The Baroque building you see today was constructed between 1702 and 1736.  With 500 rooms and 1365 windows, it is impressive to look at.  While much of the Abbey is private – housing about 20 monks and a school of over 500 students – you can still walk through the museum, marble hall, library, and church for a fee of 9,50 Euro, (11,50 Euro with guided tour).

Stift Melk

Stift Melk

Chapel

View of Melk from Abbey window

Outside corridor

Inside the Chapel

Staircase in Abbey

The Library – no photos were allowed, but my finger slipped

Cafe in Abbey Park

Snail in Abbey gardens

Schloss Schönbühel

Schloss Schönbühel, a private castle on the Danube River.

Burgruine Aggstein

The ruins of Castle Aggstein are located on the top of a steep hill on the right bank of the Danube.  Originally built in the 12th century, the castle fell into ruins over the years.  Today, the ruins can be rented for weddings and medieval banquets.  Entrance fee: 6,50 Euro.

Burgruine Aggstein

View from Aggstein

By , July 31, 2012 11:51 am

An apartment of our very own. One place. One bed. One whole month. As we neared the end of the Camino, we knew that this was exactly what we needed. We were tired of being tourists – after constantly being on the move and having to orient ourselves in a new town or city every day, we were ready for a break from it all.

Enter Loosdorf, Austria. Population: 4000.

Why Loosdorf? Our access to internet was limited and unpredictable on the Camino, so when we decided halfway through to rent an apartment somewhere when we finished, we didn’t have a lot of time for searching and negotiations. We spent a couple of evenings searching for non-shared accommodations in our price range on sites like AirBnB, Roomorama, and some other subletting sites. Ultimately, AirBnb had the most options in our price range ($750 CAD per month or less). Using that site, we short listed our favourites from Germany, Austria, Spain, and Portugal and contacted all the owners. The owner has to approve your stay, even if the place is available, and we had been burnt on getting this done in time before. So we went with the first one that pre-approved us – Hohe Schule, in Loosdorf, Austria. And we couldn’t have picked better.

The apartment building

Loosdorf is a smallish town by Austrian standards (but large enough for us. We come from small towns of 200 and 650 people in Saskatchewan, and happily spent 3 month on the tiny island of Jewel Cay, population approx. 400, in Honduras). While Loosdorf itself doesn’t offer much in the way of activities, it is surrounded by walking paths, bike paths, forests, castles and abbeys. Vienna is only an hour away by train and Salzburg is two hours away (if you fork over the cash for an express train). So basically it makes the perfect home base for an extended stay. Originally, we planned to make small trips into Germany, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, but there was just too much to see where we were.

We felt at home immediately upon arriving. Our landlord, Wenny, was amazing. The apartment we wanted to rent wasn’t available for the entire month, so she gave us a free upgrade to a larger apartment for the first two weeks. We didn’t want to pay two cleaning fees for the two apartments, so she let us clean the first one ourselves. She invited us over for beer and supper on several occasions and we had a lot of interesting conversations about Austria, South Africa (where she and her husband live), and the Phillipines (where she’s originally from). She even offered us a few odd jobs around the place – like grass-cutting, assembling end tables for another room, and cleaning), generously compensating us for our work.

Mike cutting grass at the apartment

As we’ve mentioned before, we like to travel slow. Renting an apartment for a month is a great way to reduce costs (monthly rental rates usually work out to less than half the cost of weekly rates) and get to know an area. There are so many great things about staying put for a while, like:

1. Pickles. This may sound kind of silly, but I have really missed pickles while travelling. Although you can pretty much find them anywhere, small jars are expensive and big jars are, well, too big. An apartment means a fridge to store your pickle jar. Of course, this concept applies to all food items – you can buy in bulk, which allows for more variety and lower food costs.

2. Spices. We have pretty much carried salt, pepper, and curry powder around since we left home. But variety is the spice of life. So now we have a few more flavours we’ve been missing… dill, basil, oregano, cumin, coriander, and a pizza blend.

3. Dressers and Closets. My clothes were nicely folded on a shelf or hanging up, not rolled up in packing cubes. ‘Nuf said.

4. Bikes. Our apartment included bicycles that we could use without restriction. While we know we can walk 30 km in a day, we’d rather take a bike.

Cycling along the Danube

5. Board Games. In anticipation of some free time and table space, we bought a board game in Vienna. It doesn’t actually have a board, which makes it perfect to pack up and carry with us. It’s hard to say if we had more fun picking it out or playing it.

Mike, in the board game shop.  Talk about kid in the candy store!

Playing the new board game

6. Privacy & Space. It’s just plain satisfying to have a couch to sprawl out on, comfy chairs, a computer desk, and the ability to fry some breaded zucchini in the nude. While I wouldn’t recommend the last one, it sure is nice to know the possibility is there.

Our living room/bedroom…. so much space!

7. An Oven. Unlike Honduras, we didn’t spend all our baking time making baked goods full of sugar and butter. This time we opted to make such healthy and delicious items as homemade wholewheat pizza and baked stuffed peppers.

8. Hot Showers and Real Towels. I don’t ask much from a shower… the ability to control the temperature, not having to push a button every 5 seconds to restart the flow, and hot water… that’s about it. After over a month of semi-private to public showering in less than ideal conditions, I was happy to have a hot shower every day! And while light-weight, ultra-absorbant travel towels are amazing little creations, nothing feels so good as to wrap a soft, fluffy towel around yourself after a nice hot shower.

9. A Washing Machine! This is a luxury we hadn’t had yet on this trip. While I don’t mind handwashing our clothes, a month-long break from it was definitely a bonus!

 

By , July 28, 2012 1:59 pm

I’m in a bit of a rut… just like the title of this post suggests, I cut my hair every six months whether it needs it or not. That may seem like a long time to go without a haircut, but it’s not really. I get it cut short (probably because I’m frugal and I don’t want to pay for more hair cuts than I need) and don’t touch it again until it’s long enough to get knotted, and hangs in my eyes. That takes six months. Any more frequent and I’d just be cutting it for fashion’s sake, and I’m too utilitarian for that.

The first time I had my hair cut this trip, it was done by a professional in Utila, Honduras. He just buzzed it short and charged me $5. It wasn’t exactly my favourite haircut of all time, but it has lasted me until now.

The Professional Haircut in Honduras

The Professional Haircut in Honduras

This time around I resolved to cut my hair myself. This decision came around for a couple of reasons. First, I had thrown out my beard trimmer when I started the Camino de Santiago. It was too heavy to mail, it was broken, and I really didn’t want to carry it on my back. So I needed to replace it. What I found was a beard trimmer capable of cutting hair, so I had the tools.

Second, I couldn’t find a place to get a haircut for less than 10€. That seemed like a lot when I had my own set of clippers.

The Process

The clippers came with an instruction manual that explained what height to set the combs to for the various parts of the head to achieve a men’s haircut. It seemed pretty easy to me, so I snuck outside by myself and started cutting with the clippers in one hand and a small pocket mirror in the other.

When I thought I was looking pretty good I headed inside to show off my work.

The Results

You can take a look a the photos yourself. After the laughs, I was sent back out for touch-ups. It seems me and the instructions used different jargon. I had thought that the “nape” of the neck would refer to everything below the bump at the back of the head that is at about the same height as your ears. It turns out, the nape is the part of the neck below the hairline. So I shaved a bit higher up than I should have… Fortunately, as my grandfather used to say,

The difference between a good haircut and a bad one is about two weeks

Two weeks later, it looks okay again.

By , July 25, 2012 9:52 am

Mike’s biggest disappoint at Versailles, France was the absence of a hedge maze. In his mind, every self-respecting castle or palace should include a confounding labyrinth of greenery in its gardens. Preferably with a minotaur.

Forget chandeliers, intricate paintings, and fancy decorations… this is what every palace REALLY needs

So, when we found out that the gardens at Schloss Schonbrunn in Vienna had an area called “The Labyrinth,” there was no question about whether we would pay the 3,50 Euro entrance fee (the fee is for the Labyrinth, the gardens are free).

When we entered the Labyrinth area, we were greeted with a children’s playground. Wanting to squeeze every last bit of value from that entrance fee that we could, we played in it. Alright, alright, it wasn’t about the money – we’ve actually played in at least a dozen playgrounds since we left home. What can I say, we’re young at heart!

Part of the playground consisted of a series of “carnival” style mirrors that we naturally had to stand in front of while taking pictures of our distorted reflections while small children had to wait. Hey, we were there first!

Where did my body go?

And, of course, there were the mazes. Three of them.  Well, two and a twisting path with no deadends which I can’t bring myself to call a maze.

One of the hedge mazes

Mike, playing in the hedge maze

Mike, playing in the hedge maze

They each had puzzles and games hidden within their paths, but… alas!… no minotaur (sorry to mislead you with the title) – though Mike certainly tried to fill the void.

Mike as a minotaur

And even if we got shown up by a six year old in the maziest maze and stumped on the math puzzle in the “one-way path that we shall not call a maze” path, we had a great time. Definitely worth the 3,50 Euro. (As long as you’re a fan of hedge mazes, that is. If you’re not a fan of hedge mazes, crazy mirrors, or moving pteradactyl playground equipment, you might be better off staying home. Or, I’ve heard that there’s some sort of palace there that’s supposed to be a big deal. You could probably check that out).

Schonbrunn palace

I’m stumped

It’s left!  … or is it right?

We finally made it to the centre! (picture taken by the smarty-pants six year old kid that beat us there)

Mike, hugging the male harmony stone in the centre of the labyrinth

By , July 19, 2012 2:27 pm

After walking every day for a little over a month, we were ready to settle down. For the past three weeks or so, we’ve been renting an apartment in Loosdorf, a small town in the middle of Austria. To get here, we flew from Santiago de Compostela to Barcelona where we spent another lovely night in the airport. From there, we flew direct to Vienna.

Barcelona Airport

Vienna is the “city of music”. We gave ourselves three days to enjoy the big city before heading to our new home town (for a little while anyways) and checking into our apartment.

For those budget minded folks out there, our Vienna cost per day was $80.01 CAD for the both of us.

St. Marxer Friedhof & Zentralfriedhof:

If you ever wanted proof that Vienna deserves to be known as the “City of Music” just head on down to the graveyards. There’s a whole host of famous composers buried here including: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and a few Strausses…

Mozart’s grave (one of two in the city)

Mozart’s actual grave can be found in the St. Marxer Friedhof.  A monument to him, along with the graves of the other composers listed above can be found in the enormous Zentralfriedhof among over 300,000 graves and crypts (and over 3 million “inhabitants”). There are no entrance fees.

Stephansdom Church:

After walking 800km to see the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, it was kind of nice to be able to take the metro to see this church. We were lucky enough to walk in during the middle of a choir/symphony rehearsal. We stayed there for most of an hour listening. There’s something really quite special about hearing live classical music being played in a stone vaulted roof church. The ambience was fantastic, and it satisfied our need to buy tickets to one of the many, many nightly symphonies, operas, or chamber music sessions that Vienna is famous for (they all seem to cost between 35-45 euros for the cheapest tickets if you’re interested).

Choir Practice

Naschmarkt:

What better way to get a feel for the local cuisine than to check out the largest outdoor market in the country. The Naschmarkt is held every day of the week except Sundays. For the most part, it seemed a bit more expensive than the numerous supermarkets we stumbled into, but there was a very good selection of vegetarian and health foods at reasonable prices. The vendors seemed more than willing to give out free samples, so we indulged our taste buds a bit. In the end, we stocked up on various grains and beans, sampled the dried fruits (the dried apples were simply amazing!), cheese, falafel, and a spinach stuffed pastry.

On Saturday, there was a “flea market” attached to the Naschmarkt. We walked through it quickly, because there was nothing too exciting. There were tables and tables of “junk” on sale. The type of stuff you expect to see left behind at the end of a garage sale. Maybe the trick is to go early, or we just hit a bad weekend, but I wouldn’t be too concerned about being at the market on a Saturday to see the flea market.

Flohmarkt

Schloss Schönbrunn:

This palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s huge, and I imagine over the top luxurious. The large building and gardens brought back memories of Versailles in Paris, which we had just seen not too long ago. Because of that, we didn’t feel the need to pay to go inside. We did stroll through the garden however, and eventually came across a labyrinth and hedge maze…

The Gardens of Schloss Schönbrunn

Donauinselfest:

So here we are, in the City of Music and our timing couldn’t be more fantastic. Vienna was hosting a FREE music festival the whole time we were there! We spent most of our days and evenings listening to music and sunning on the grass. The festival is held on a man made island in the Danube rive and takes place over a space of about four kilometres. There was a large variety of music ranging from Austrian folk to English oldies to death metal. With 20 stages (each with back to back performances), we had a lot of choices. When we didn’t like something, or felt like a change, we just walked over to the next stage in line.

In proper music fest fashion we ate some fried dough (langos – A thick dough shaped into a large flat circle, fried, and brushed with butter and garlic. They were refreshingly not sweet), and fresh chips. Of course everyone else seemed to be eating bratwurst and sauerkraut, but we weren’t interested in that. Okay, maybe we were tempted, but we managed to keep our vegetarian diet intact. What we really wanted were mini-doughnuts, which they had at the crazy price of 0.50€ a piece. Alas, it was too much.

Thanks for a wonderful free weekend of music, Vienna. We really, really enjoyed it.  Though you may want to consider upgrading your washroom facilities on the island. There were something like 1.8 million people in attendance at the music festival over the weekend, and almost no washrooms. On top of that, the washrooms all charged an entrance fee. Of course this was no problem for me, I just walked into the bush and took a leak with 50 other guys. Ashley, however, waited in line with the other ladies for 25 minutes and had to pay 0.50€. In the future, Vienna, if you are going to have a huge music festival, put out some free porta-potties please.

Ashley in line for the ladies room

Liquid Glam Rockets (One of the many bands we didn’t know)

Sunset

Night Time

The Danube

By , July 13, 2012 7:23 am
We heart Paris

We heart Paris

One thing that we really wanted to do in Paris was have a wine, cheese, and bread picnic beneath the Eiffel Tower. So one fine day, we wandered down Rue Le Cler, stopping at the fromagerie, the boulanger, and the wine shop to pick up the necessary items. [FYI... while food generally isn't cheap, you can buy a fine bottle of red wine for about 1,50 Euros (about $2 CAD) and champagne comes as cheap as 1 Euro a bottle.]

Best. Picnic. Ever.

Best. Picnic. Ever.

Maybe it was the wine, or maybe this post from Don’t Ever Look Back was still stuck in the back of my mind, but after our picnic I felt the insatiable desire for some more cheese…of the photo variety.

Everyone wanted some cheesy Eiffel Tower pictures

Everyone wanted some cheesy Eiffel Tower pictures

You know what I mean… those really cheesy Eiffel Tower pictures where you’re holding it or pushing it down? We got a little more creative than most… and had a blast taking them. Luckily for me, Mike was a good sport (and a great photographer!) so we got some my favourite photos from our trip thus far…

Enjoy!

Holding the Eiffel Tower

Holding the Eiffel Tower

Push though you might, that tower isn't going anywhere

Push though you may, that tower isn’t going anywhere

Just hanging out

Just hanging out

It's all about balance

It’s all about balance

A little Eiffel Tower love

A little Eiffel Tower love

Not so much Eiffel Tower love

Not so much Eiffel Tower love here

Good to the last drop

Good to the last drop

Too much wine?

Too much wine?

Under the Eiffel Tower

Under the Eiffel Tower

Mike thinks he's King Kong

Mike thinks he’s King Kong

Pinching the Eiffel Tower

Pinching the Eiffel Tower

Makes a great leaning post

Makes a great leaning post

Uh... fail?

Uh… fail?

Playing with the wide angle at night

Playing with the wide angle at night

Smoochin'

Smoochin’

More smoochin'

More smoochin’

Hungry hungry Mike

Hungry hungry Mike

Cheesy photos aren't just for the Eiffel Tower... we got the pyramid at the Louvre in on the action

Cheesy photos aren’t just for the Eiffel Tower… we got the pyramid at the Louvre in on the action

Mike, pretending to be the pyramid

Mike, pretending to be the pyramid

Nap time!

Nap time!

Wow... anyone else notice how destructive Mike is in all these pictures?

Wow… anyone else notice how destructive Mike is in all these pictures?

Mike continues eating his way through Paris...

Mike continues eating his way through Paris…

 

By , July 9, 2012 11:00 am

If you know me and my love of numbers, you were probably wondering where all the stats were in our one year travel post.

Well, here they are!  I never meant to disappoint.  I simply had so many wonderfully awesome and arguably useless stats that they needed their own post.  And don’t worry… I’ve managed to contain myself to just a single pie chart.

The BIG Number: Budget

We (ok, I) have meticulously written down every penny spent in the past year… the cost of each hotel room, pupusa, dive lesson, tube of toothpaste, bandaid and bottle of water has been carefully recorded in a notebook and then transferred to the nifty little site, budgetyourtrip.com.

So, at any given time, I know our spending to the penny.

Drum roll please…

Your browser does not support the audio tag.

Total Spending after One Year of Travel (for 2 people): $20,040.68 CAD (16,013.46 €)
Average Cost per Day (for 2 people):  $54.76
(43.76 €)

Our original budget goal was $100/day, so it seems we’re doing pretty good spending wise.  Obviously, that goal was too high for us. Having realized that about 6 months ago, we decided to make it our spending cap goal for expensive places.  Our new budget goal is $50-55/day, but as with everything else on this journey, even that’s a work in progress.

Here’s a breakdown of where we spent the money:

Year One Expenses
But wait, there’s so much more…

Countries & Transportation

Countries visited: 11 (Visited means we spent at least 24 consecutive hours in the country) – Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, El Salvador, USA, Spain, France, Austria

Border crossings: 17

Number of times we were turned back at a border: 1 (in Costa Rica, but they let us through after making us spend $50 on overpriced return bus tickets)

Total Distance Traveled: 29,764 km

  • by plane: 9492 km on 6 flights
  • by bus/automobile: 9444 km on 98 buses/colectivos/pick-up trucks/vans/tuk tuks
  • by train: 185 km on 4 trains
  • by boat: 9662 km on 32 boats
  • by foot:  923 km
  • by bike:  58 km

Most memorable mode of transportation: other than walking the Camino, definitely hitchhiking and getting a ride in the back of a pickup with dozen other people in Mexico

Accommodation:

Average daily accommodation cost: $12.94 CAD

Most expensive bed: $78 CAD for dorm beds in Paris (but it included breakfast and supper!)

Least expensive bed (excluding free places): $3.65 CAD for a private room ensuite in San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala

Number of different beds slept in:  98 (39 of these were on the Camino)

Number of nights spent sleeping in:

  • Private Rooms: 146
  • Dorms: 95 (most of these, 52, were in Europe – while on the Camino and to cut costs in cities)
  • Apartments: 84
  • Five star cruise ships: 14
  • Work exchange programs: 11
  • Friends’ Homes: 5
  • Couch Surfers’ Homes: 5
  • Buses:  2
  • Airports: 2 (both in Barcelona… and let me tell you, it’s a lot more comfortable when you’re past security!)
  • Private Islands: 1
  • Climbing a Volcano (ok, there was no sleeping), then watching the sun rise:  1

Food

Average daily food cost: $10.51 CAD

  • Meals cooked/purchased in grocery stores & bakeries: 61%
  • Meals eaten out: 30%
  • Meals included with accommodation/tours: 8%
  • Free meals: 1%

Favourite foods:  tacos, Guatemalan pineapple, baleadas; Jewel Cay donuts, gingerbread, banana tarts, and pizza; pupusas, gallo pinto,  fried yuca balls, mangoes, cashews and cashew fruit, French Brie, Paris baguettes, aged Spanish sheep’s cheese, lentils (yup, our home province is the second largest producer of green lentils worldwide, and we had to travel halfway across the globe to try our first taste of them), chocolate croissants, dinkelbrot, and really any bread in any bakery in Austria

Health

Weight Lost:  56 lb (Mike – 22 lb, Ashley – 34 lb)

Sick Days:  20 (17 for Ashley, 3 for Mike)

Bouts of Traveller’s Diarrhea/Food Poisoning: 3 (Ashley – 3, Mike – 0… man with the iron stomach!)

Number of Doctor’s Visits:  1 (needed physicals for divemaster program)

Number of Times We Probably Should Have Seen a Doctor, but Didn’t: 3
Surprise, surprise, it’s all Ashley here – 8 consecutive days of Montezuma’s revenge in Mexico (should have self-medicated), nasty sinus infection in Utila (did self-medicate after I realized it wasn’t going away), and food poisoning on the cruise ship (they require that you report all gastrointestinal issues to the ship’s doctor, but I self-quarantined myself while I was sick instead of a forced quarantine)

Unintentional Changes to the Gear List

Number of Times We Were Robbed: 3 (camera pickpocketed in Quetzaltenago, Guatemala; bag stolen from overhead bin of bus in Costa Rica; wallet with ~$15 pickpocketed in Antigua, Guatemala)

Number of Items We Lost:  5 (Ashley’s hat, both our Nalgene bottles, camp soap, Ashley’s quick-dry Northface t-shirt)

Number of Items Broken: 2 (Ashley sat on her Kindle in Antigua, Guatemala and Mike’s (cheap) beard trimmer)

Other Stuff

Money Earned from Working:  Mike – $30 (divemaster job = $5, cutting the grass at our apartment in Austria = $25), Ashley – $0

Number of Photos Taken:  6071 (actually, this is the number we’ve kept… many many more were taken)

Books Read:  96 (Ashley – 56, Mike – 40)

Postcards Mailed Home:  34

Souvenirs Purchased: 0 When I left home, I fully intended to buy something from each country or region and mail it home.  That way, when we eventually settled down, we could have a house full of cool stuff from our travels.  I even made Mike promise me that he wouldn’t harass me about the money when I did the souvenir shopping.  But, to date, I never saw anything that I just had to have. I’m 100% satisfied with the memories (and maybe a few photos) of our experiences… no stuff necessary!

Number of Times We Paid to Get Our Laundry Done:  1 (Rio Dulce, Guatemala… I’ve never seen it rain so much for 3 days straight… we had no hope of hanging our clothes to dry)

Mountains Summited:  4 (doesn’t include mountains crossed on the Camino, as they weren’t summited)

Total Time Spent Underwater:  74 hours, 30 minutes (each)

UNESCO World Heritage Sites Visited:  19

Like these stats?  You can find just about all of them, updated year-round, on our permanent stats page.