Chasing Castles and Extreme Weather en route to Romania.

Have you ever been faced with a mammoth challenge, just as you’ve started to come down with a heavy cold? Well how about tackling a 1,700 mile (2,735 kilometre) drive from Newcastle upon Tyne in the UK to Cluj, Romania? This feat, is something which I’ve just pulled off – coughing and spluttering my way across eight different countries, ploughing through countless rolls of toilet roll (for blowing my nose, you dirty buggers!!) and all the while, somehow mustering the strength to continually hurl abuse toward my travel buddy, Kathryn (don’t worry – she finds it all hilarious for some unbeknownst reason).

Kathryn is a professional photographer from the state of New York, and we met via couchsurfing and now here we are, hurtling our way across Europe together on a quest to find Dracula.

I’m in Romania to sample the delights that this country has to offer after being invited to visit by the good folks at Sano Touring. Along the way, we’ll be investigating all the top accessible hotspots within the country as well as reporting back to you guys on what’s awesome and what’s worth a trip over for!

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‘Castle on a Hill’ – Koblenz, Germany. Shot by Kathryn Cooper.

Two days ago I woke up in Koblenz, Germany and yesterday morning I arose in the middle of no-where, Hungary, at some run down motel on the side of the road – if it wasn’t for the fact that the motel had a quaint edge to it, I think we both would have felt a bit more uneasy as the place definitely also gave off a murderous vibe too – but it’s all part of the fun! The night before last we also drove a little off the beaten track in Austria and stumbled across a gorgeous castle on The Blue Danube River – which required a little extreme off-roading just to get a perfect shot – I never thought I’d be driving a Mercedes down a steeply sloped cycle path that ran right next to a river before; it was a little nerve wracking, but totally worth it.

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A spontaneous castle on the Blue Danube – shot by Kathryn Cooper after I illegally drove down a riverside bicycle path. 

Yesterday we stopped off and had some Vegan Goulash in Budapest at Napfenyes Etteren, which was really great and super delicious, although after growing tired of Paprika flavoured crisps in The Netherlands, all I could think about was those when tucking in. Napfenyes is perfectly located in the heart of the city. Those of you who follow me on either snapchat (@ hawkle) or Instagram might have seen earlier that we battled the wind and headed on over the main bridge in Budapest to take some snaps – all before jumping back in the car and heading across for the Romanian border.

Speaking of the Romanian border, we were almost turned away and refused entry because I didn’t have the appropriate documents for the car I’m driving. After much deliberation, the official on the border check decided to let me pass, but not before politely letting me know that if I didn’t have the correct documentation on my way out of the country, there’d be “big problems” for me. Yikes!

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Once over the border and into Romania, we just had to pull over to grab that shot – taken by Kathryn Cooper after we dodged the traffic and found a spot by the roadside. 

On the drive to Cluj we were subjected to all four seasons in one short three hour journey. What started out at 35 degrees Celsius, suddenly manifested into flash floods and hailstones so big that I was worried my windshield was going to crack – as cars pulled over and took shelter on the side of the road. At one point, the drainage system overflowed and the road and surrounding fields were awash with deep brown water… which made me nervous as it was definitely the deepest water I’d ever driven through and we were literally in the middle of nowhere. Hopefully the picture below illustrates it well enough.

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Flash floods and broken drainage systems; welcome to Romania – shot by Kathryn Cooper as I nervously drove through the quite deep water. 

We also passed through a rather heavy thunder storm and although Kathryn wasn’t able to capture any incredible lightening shots, we did snag this one picture of the skies illuminating and the wind turbines overlooking the highway.

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Illuminated Skies – shot by Kathryn Cooper (whilst I drove). 

Now we’re in Cluj and ready to begin our epic trip around Romania. I’ll keep you guys posted via the blog and through social media, so stay tuned!

Is Eindhoven the coolest city in The Netherlands?

Toronto, Sydney, Wellington, Eindhoven, – you’d be forgiven for assuming that the latter city doesn’t belong in such company, but then again, you’d be wrong. What causes me to group these four cities together has nothing to do with size, climate, or geographical location, but rather that all four of these awesome cities share the same hip and cool vibe, mixed perfectly with a dash of style and the arts and finished off with a healthy dollop of creativity and innovation. Eindhoven really does hold its own on the world stage, and is suited perfectly to the type of accolades that come along with other progressive cities around the globe.

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An epic shot of Eindhoven city centre, courtesy of the Eindhoven365 website. 

When the average person thinks of The Netherlands their mind almost instantly lands on Amsterdam, with a few also perhaps picturing Rotterdam too – at a push. You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who’s first thoughts of The Netherlands centre around Eindhoven; but all that is surely soon to change!

I was lucky enough to be invited to visit Eindhoven a few weeks ago and upon arriving, I was instantly impressed by the undiscovered beauty that this amazing city has to offer.

Reinvention

Eindhoven oozes creativity and reinvention, with the city that was once a hub for all things Philips now finding its own voice and putting the vast majority of old factory spaces to brilliant use.

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One of the many amazing Cafe’s that have made excellent use of old Philips warehouses.

Unlike other industrial towns that may have otherwise fell into derelict disrepair, Eindhoven has well and truly risen like a phoenix from the ashes and you only have to take a wander around Strijp S to see what a sprinkle of imagination can do for a place. Pop up stores, boutique cafes out of the back of old factories, giant food halls erected in old warehouses and even the odd hotel built inside an old light tower – Eindhoven really has stayed true to its roots and reused every last piece of space they can get their hands on.

Hipster

With so much choice in Eindhoven for everything from accommodation to where you’re going to eat dinner that night – it’s easy to see why this awesome city is far from conformative. Perhaps using the term ‘hipster’ is the wrong way of describing the general vibe that the people of Eindhoven give off, but what’s true to say is that folks in this city aren’t afraid to express themselves, in whatever way that might manifest itself. Oh, and another thing – for all you vegans out there, you’re sure to find plenty to eat and drink in Eindhoven, with almost all of the cafes and restaurant I visited having at least one or two completely vegan options on their menu!

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The Coffee Lab is right outside Eindhoven Central Station and offers some of the best coffee in town!!! Their Vegan Sandwiches and Cakes are also delicious. 

Steampunk

When walking through certain sections of Eindhoven, it felt like I was rolling through the set of a Mad Max film, with so much of the industrial feel that Eindhoven was synonymous for throughout the years, still being used to full affect today. The idea of steampunk is not lost on the eye when taking in all that Eindhoven has to offer, with this once bustling industrial town now home to some of the finest eateries and art cafes you’ll find in The Netherlands – and all built with expressionism and through a willingness to keep close ties with the cities humble beginnings.

Art

Art and design are strong pillars in the foundations that make up Eindhoven, with the cities resurgence centring largely on style, elegance, ingenuity, and sleekness.

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Piet Hein Eek at Strijp R infuses a fine mix of art decor and great snacks. 

Whether its immersing yourself in the culinary & sensory mashup that is Kazerne, perusing the magnificent craft and woodwork on display in Strijp R or relaxing and unwinding in Eindhoven’s fantastic Inntel Hotels Art Eindhoven (the artsy clue is in the name) – you’re sure in for a wonderful treat.  Needless to say, you will have had your fair share of daily art even before heading to the likes of the Van Abbemuseumwhich, if I may say so, is well worth paying a visit!

Architecture

Given the great uniqueness that surrounds Eindhoven and its regeneration, the architecture within the city is like no other. The inspiration that can be gained from Eindhoven’s buildings is so great that thousands of stylists, designers, and architects flock to the city each year to get a first-hand glimpse at the cities design. From train stations shaped like radio transmitters, to underground bike stalls that look like Metro entrances, to there even being a tunnel named the tunnel of silly walks which was opened by the legendary John Cleese, star of Monty Python.

Places to eat and drink

You’ll never be short of options for food and drink when spending time in Eindhoven – with at least 28 Michelin Star eateries scattered throughout. On my tour of the city I was fortunate enough to dine at both Kazerne and Calypso. The former offers a dining experience with a difference, as you indulge is absolutely sublime food, surrounded by art installations all around you in what looks to be an old warehouse of some sort. Calypso, on the other hand, is a much more intimate affair – but the food is no less exquisite and the throng of rather cool locals will leave you revelling in the ambiance.

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Kazerne really is something quite special, and the food is just simply amazing. (picture courtesy of Moderne Hippies)

In terms of something a little more café-esque, why not check out Piet Hein Eek, situated in the heart of artsy Strijp R and offering some rather divine cakes, cheese spreads and soft drinks, as well as the obligatory good coffee. The settings in which the café is housed aren’t half bad either. If coffee is your thing though and you happen to be nearby the train station, then you’d be a fool not to call by the Coffee Lab and try what is quite simply put – the best coffee in town – lovingly prepared by some of the greatest coffee Barista’s in the whole of Europe. Quite an accolade, I’m sure you’ll agree.

In terms of options for bars, you’ll seriously be spoilt for choice when looking for a place to drink in Eindhoven. To list all the amazing watering holes that you could possibly frequent would lead to a rather exhaustive list, so instead, allow me to wholeheartedly recommend three of my favourite bars. The Secret Garden leaves you feeling like you’ve stepped into another world, with so much going on around you it’s almost like a bit of a sensory overload. New York fire-escape style iron staircases trail off to the ceiling from behind the main bar and it’s simply fascinating just watching members of staff run up and down carrying plates of hot food or retrieving yet another bottle of prized red wine. Usine was another epic bar and was the one that I visited most, given its dangerously close proximity to the hotel where I was staying. It may be my poor judgement when it comes to style, or it might have been the several beers I’d had before entering, but there was something about Usine that reminded me of being in a 1950’s style American Diner, with a French renaissance twist added in there – either way it was very much like stepping back in time, which is probably why I loved it so much!

If you fancy yourself as a bit of beer connoisseur then the Stadbrouwerij (City Brewery) is definitely worth a shout. When I visited the kind folks that work there were awesome enough to allow me to have a couple of testers – and once you’ve tasted finely brewed beers, it does make you wonder why you’ve been wasting your time drinking generic Pilsners for so long. Seriously refreshing and delicious and with Stadbrouwerij being so close to Eindhoven’s longest and busiest bar streets, it’s the perfect place to start off your day/night of drinking (if you’re into that sort of thing!).

Where to stay?

I’ve mentioned already the Inntel Hotel Arts Eindhoven, which is smack bang in the middle of the city and not too far away from the main train station. Inntel Hotel Arts is definitely a spot of luxury, but prices aren’t too astronomical, so you can afford to treat yourself and indulge. Stay tuned on my blog for an upcoming post dedicated entirely to the Arts Hotel – as it’s certainly worth a honourary mention all by itself.

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Each of the rooms at the Inntel Hotel Arts Eindhoven is individually designed. 

Alternatively, you may wish to check out the incredible Student Hotel which is similarly situated in the heart of the city, just spitting distance from the train station. The tall building dominates the Eindhoven Skyline and you’ll find rooms there to suit every need – from short stay business trips, to long-term stays for students and young professionals. The design of the hotel is extremely modern, with all the popular amenities that you would generally expect to find in a hotel, plus many more – such as a communal kitchen, a fully kitted gym and an auditorium where – if you fancy – you can give a talk to, well… whoever will listen, basically.

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The Student Hotel Eindhoven is the right mix of essential and modern; perfect for those on a budget.

What to do?

Generally speaking, Eindhoven is just a wonderful city to look around and soak up the sights – but if you’re looking for something a little more specific, then why not visit one of the cities many awesome museums?

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For a real sense of what Eindhoven is all about, make sure you pay the Philips Museum a visit.

For example, the visiting the Philips Museum in the centre of the city, really helps to give you a better understanding of what Eindhoven is all about and how the city came about to be founded in the first place. Eindhoven itself was built to house all of the employees of Philips and their families, with a real Marxist feel and existence emanating from the city walls – as Eindhoven, in its creation, housed everything Philips Electronics employees could ever want, need or desire – from hospitals, to even a football team, with the grand PSV stadium still standing proud to this day.

Accessibility

Given the modern designs and feel of Eindhoven, it comes as no surprise that you’ll often find excellent accessibility within the city. For an accessible accommodation choice, the aforementioned Student Hotel Eindhoven has some brilliant rooms, with disabled friendly bathrooms that will match the needs and requirements of just about everyone. Unfortunately, the Inntel Hotel Arts doesn’t have a stand-alone ‘accessible’ room, but the suites are very spacious and if you’re able to get around without the aid of your wheelchair, then it’s certainly roomy enough to be deemed as reasonably accessible – I was able to fit my wheelchair into the separated toilet, for example, and if you were travelling with a portable hoist, then there’s stacks of space to squeeze this in there for usage with the bath etc, especially if you opt for one of the hotels beautifully spacious open-plan suites.

 

 

 

Tackling Tokyo in a Wheelchair

Since returning from Tokyo the most frequently asked question I’ve received has been; ‘how was Japan?’, and after carefully considering my response, my condensed answer is now always; ‘Japan was beautifully unexpected’.

Despite never having prioritised visiting Japan in the past, once I caught wind of the fact that Cathay Pacific UK would be keen to send me to Tokyo to investigate accessibility ahead of the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games – I was immediately sold on the idea.

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Due to not being terribly au fait with all things relating to Japanese culture, the result meant that I had the blissfully beautiful experience of discovering Japan’s richly diverse traditions from a place of genuine curiosity and learning. From the moment I landed my senses were instantly bombarded with all manner of delights.

There are a few positive stereotypes that I’d heard about Japan and these mostly (if not entirely) turned out to be accurate. For example; Tokyo is indeed an unfathomably clean city. The mind boggles when trying to consider that 13 million registered inhabitants across an insanely busy megatropolis can keep their city streets so neat and tidy.

Another social cliche that was quickly confirmed was how orderly and polite everyone was. Whether it’s queuing to enter a packed out Metro – or bowing repeatedly as diners vacate restaurants – Japanese folk offer an air of graciousness in an otherwise sickeningly fast paced world.

Even though Tokyo is densely populated, I rarely felt claustrophobic in any way. Naturally there are many famous areas that are extremely overcrowded – such as Akihabara (Electric Town) – but it all adds to the charm of the city and it’s easy to escape the madness.

Before arriving in Japan, I’d become increasingly concerned about just how expensive the country was meant to be. I was really surprised to find that compared to other westernised cities, Tokyo wasn’t actually that pricey at all. To give an example of how reasonable some places were – I ate a mountain of sushi at a random eatery somewhere in the heart of the city and my final bill came to less than £7. It’s hard to verbally contextualise just how much I ate, but the equivalent amount of Sushi in the UK would have cost me in excess of £30!

Many of the activities within Tokyo were actually free of charge, and you can gain a lot of memorable experiences – such as viewing the cities entire skyline at night at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building – without having to fork out a single penny.

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One angle from the panoramic view at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building.

What to expect in Tokyo in terms of Accessibility

Accessible Transport

The Tokyo Metro system is enough to turn even the most logical brain into mush. It’s complex, it’s chaotic and it’s anything but straightforward. It obviously goes without saying that as a wheelchair user it’s probably best to try and avoid the Metro during busy rush hour times – although certain lines still remain reasonably quiet.

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Not all Metro stations are barrier-free, although I did notice that several of the stations that didn’t have access were undergoing some form of reconstruction in what looked to be access adjustments ahead of the 2020 games.

You can find out more information as to which stations have barrier-free entrances, by checking out the Japan Accessible Tourism Center’s rundown on the Tokyo Metro System.

All of the local buses that I saw around the city had ramps and spaces for wheelchairs which was good to see, however, the coach from Tokyo to Mt Fuji was not accessible at all and my wheelchair had to go in the under-carriage with all the luggage. I’m fortunate enough to be able to get myself up onto a coach via the steps, but I know for many this would be nigh-on impossible.

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One of the many accessible buses that roam around the streets of Tokyo.

Accessible taxi’s – that are usually used for local disabled people within the city – can be chartered for sightseeing purposes. Regular taxi’s that operate throughout the city are usually old and small and may not be suitable for accommodating a wheelchair user.

Tokyo Accommodation

During the ten nights I spent in Tokyo I stayed in a wide range of accommodation types, from hotels and hostels, to couchsurfing and AirBnB. The latter offered an insight into the lives of local people, and I was impressed to find that a great number of AirBnB listings in Tokyo were moderately suitable for wheelchair users in the respect that they were often open plan and with elevators within the buildings.

All of the hotels I stayed in within the city centre of Tokyo were fully accessible, with disabled friendly rooms available and lifts, automatic doors and ramps at the entrance all in place to make your stay as easy as possible. Japan is famous for convenience and ease of living and this certainly extends into the field of accessibility.

I was pleasantly surprised by how affordable many of the hotels within Tokyo actually were. Compared to other major cities such as London, New York and Hong Kong, the cost of finding a place to stay in Tokyo was very reasonable and you can find a really nice place to stay for as little as £30-£40 per night.

Restaurants, Cafes and Shops

Tokyo is a city made for food, and with that, you’re never short of choices when it comes to restaurants. Contrary to what you might believe, sushi isn’t that easy to come by unless you’re situated next to the sea. The likes of Ramen and Katsu Curry being the main stables in Japanese cuisine and can be found just about anywhere you go. Although some of the restaurants were a little on the small side, I never had too much of a problem finding somewhere to sit that was accessible in my wheelchair and it was surprisingly easy to find restaurants that had toilet facilities for the disabled.

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It was a similar story with many of the cafes and shops that I visited – often the buildings would be narrow with not a great deal of room to get around, but fortunately for me there was never really any instances where I became stuck. Add to this the naturally kind nature of Japanese people and I was never too far away from being granted some greatly welcomed assistance.

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The view as we approached one of the gates to the Imperial Palace Gardens.

Recommendations on what to do in Tokyo…

I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find enough activities to fill all the time I was planning to spend in Tokyo – but boy how I was wrong. There is no shortage of things to do in this great city – so here are just a selection of the things I got up to – all of which were perfectly fine for me in my wheelchair.

Mt Fuji

Less than a couple of hours by train or bus from Tokyo and you’re suddenly face to face with one of the most famous mountains in the world – Mt Fuji. Unfortunately, as is often the case, the mountain is hidden above the clouds, but when I spent a night at the base of the mountain I was lucky enough to get full views of this majestic volcano and take in all of it’s gigantic beauty.

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Meiji Shrine

One of the major tourist attractions within Tokyo is the phenomenally beautiful Meiji Shrine which seems to appear out of nowhere deep in the heart of the city. The peace and tranquility that the shrine offers is a welcome relief from the hustle and bustle of the surrounding busy streets.

The shrine offers plenty in terms of walks and nature trails, with the obvious attraction of stumbling across ancient religious monuments and temples. Of course, the shrine itself is quite overcrowded as it is one of the most popular tourist areas in Tokyo.

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Senso-Ji

Senso-Ji offers a fantastic opportunity to indulge in a spot of memorabilia shopping as well as it being yet another fantastically awesome temple. If it wasn’t for the throngs of tourists, Senso-Ji would be a very relaxing setting for one to enjoy searching for a little bit of inner peace.

Here’s a piece of advice – if you enter the tourist information office opposite the walkway to Senso-Ji, you will find the most amazing lookout tower and cafe, with the best views of the sprawling magnificence below you.

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Tokyo Tower

For an awesome view of Tokyo’s skyline, I recommend visiting Tokyo Tower. There is a small fee to go upstairs via lift to the lookout decks but it is totally worth it and you can even enjoy something to eat and drink whilst you marvel in the horizon and the epic living portrait that infiltrates and energises your eyes.

The tower has almost a striking resemblance to that of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and it’s grandiose presence is only bolstered by the fact that Tokyo Tower is the second tallest building in the whole of Japan.

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Imperial Palace Gardens

The Imperial Palace Gardens in Tokyo dominates a vast section of the cities landscape, covering a hefty chunk of land enclosed by a walkway that tops 5 km. On any given day you will see hundreds of runners running around the outskirts of the gardens, making it a popular spot for both locals and tourists alike.

The gardens are extremely well preserved and easy to get lost in. It’s hard to believe that you’re smack bang in the middle of one of the world’s busiest cities. The peace and quiet within the Imperial Palace Gardens is astounding.

There is of course the famous Imperial Palace situated inside the gardens, but unless you organise a dedicated tour, you’ll be hard pressed to get anywhere near it (at least from my experiences) unless you head up to the viewing area within the gardens, which requires climbing a crazily steep hill – one which isn’t exactly wheelchair friendly, nor is it good for the hips for those who intend on walking it.

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There are a wealth of different activities that you can take part in whilst in Tokyo, and to list them all would be somewhat exhaustive. Needless to say, you’ll never get bored in the Japanese capital, even after spending a couple of weeks there – or even a month or two!

Other notable mentions of things to check out in Tokyo include:

  • Sumo Town
  • Ginza District
  • Tsukiji Fish Market
  • Tokyo Skytree
  • Tokyo Disneyland

Check the short video below to see a Time-Lapse I recorded whilst taking a ride on the brilliant Yurikamome Line which I can highly recommend. The trains are completely driver-less which gives a really cool dynamic to your ride and means you can also get really close to the front and rear of the train for those perfect shots!

In closing I would like to emphasise once again what an amazing country Japan is. I’m humbled by the fact that despite having no pre-existing hunger to visit, Japan has slotted itself nicely into my top 3 travel destinations – just pipping Vietnam into second place and narrowly missing out on my top spot which is currently held by New Zealand (personal opinions of course)!

I think what I appreciated the most about Japan was perhaps also one of the most subtle aspects of the country. Japan is the first place I have ever been to where I experienced no one staring at me. It probably has a lot to do with the Japanese culture of respect and humility – but it made a refreshing change from constantly feeling judged by the looks that others give me.

I would just also like to take a moment to thank Cathay Pacific for giving me the opportunity to find out more about this fascinating and beautiful country and for placing their trust in me when asking me to write about Tokyo on their behalf. Stay tuned for my comprehensive review of the airlines service – which is coming soon. I also have some great footage of my time in Japan which I am currently piecing together and I look forward to releasing a video on my YouTube channel in the near future.

 

 

Interviewed for a Podcast!

In 2016 I was approached by a lovely guy named Ric Gazarian and asked if I would be willing to be interviewed for one of his podcasts which he records in conjunction with his blog – GlobalGaz. The podcast features travellers of the same ilk – those who are on a quest to visit all 193 UN registered countries – and who’ll stop at nothing until their mission is complete.

Due to the nature of how popular GlobalGaz’ Counting Countries podcasts are, I of course felt extremely honoured to be considered and with that, I had great fun ‘chewing the fat’ over Skype and answering lots of interesting questions.

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If you would like to hear my interview, you can listen to the podcast on GlobalGaz’s website by clicking HERE!

You can also subscribe to the podcast via iTunes – so that you never miss a single episode of this thoroughly interesting series!

Don’t forget to show GlobalGaz some social media lovin’ by clicking on the following links:

Twitter – @GlobalGaz 

Facebook – GlobalGaz

Instagram – GlobalGaz

A response to being featured on the front page of the Dominion Post

Let me start by stating how grateful I am to have been featured on the front page of the Dominion Post today ( 10th January 2017) – it came as quite a surprise to me when I woke up and found my inbox full of messages from across the other side of the globe, letting me know. I do, however, want to set the record straight on a couple of points.

I was asked by my friend Emily Yates to write a short, three hundred word summary, on a city of my choosing that I thought rated highly in respect to accessibility – which I knew would then be used in a piece for The Independent. I did not, at any time, state that I thought Wellington was the most ‘accessible city in the world’, although I did decide to go with Wellington as my choice of accessible destination on the basis of my own personal experiences whilst in the city.

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Let’s be clear on one thing – no city is ever 100% accessible for all. Wherever you go in the world, should you have any sort of access needs, you’re going to come up against obstacles at some point or other.

People often seem to forget that the term ‘reasonable adjustment’ in respect to making buildings more accessible, is just that – reasonable adjustment. The term loosely protects listed buildings and/or buildings that would require severe reconstruction work in order to be deemed ‘accessible’. It’s just a fact of life – some buildings won’t be accessible, and with that, some restaurants, bars, cafes, places of work etc. will be extremely difficult for a disabled individual to enter. Wellington is no exception to this, and there are many areas that still require work – even little things, like when the main toilet doors at Wellington Station were closed and I used to have to sit and wait until someone was exiting before I could quickly sneak in whilst the door was still temporarily ajar.

Also, I’d be a fool to say that Wellington’s naturally hilly terrain isn’t tough on the old shoulders when getting about, but I stand by (excuse the pun) my claims that logistically Wellington is great – with electronic boards that notify you when the next low-level bus is arriving and excellent staff help on most local trains in and out of the CBD, I really did feel like I was spoilt for choice.

Out of all the city’s I’ve been to across the world, Wellington is by far leading the way when it comes to ensuring access is a high priority. Since I left the city in May 2016, I’ve seen wonderful progress continue to be made by the likes of Erin Gough – a Wellingtonian disability rights activist and all round super woman – who is striving to make every last stretch of New Zealand’s capital accessible for all.

From the massive array of services offered to disabled visitors at The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, to the simple fact you can pick up a mobility scooter to use around the city, for free, by simply visiting the Wellington City Council building down by the water front – I really feel like Wellington has a boat load to offer, not to mention the fact it’s one hell of a trendy city with breath-taking scenic views!

I think Wellington is fantastic, and also an extremely inclusive city, and that’s why I felt it richly deserved a mention in the list of top destinations to travel to in 2017 if you’re disabled.

If you would like to read the article that accompanied my face on the front page of the Dominion Post then you can do so by clicking HERE!

I’ll be creating an Accessible Guide to Wellington eBook later this year – so stay tuned for that!

2016 – a year in review

I saw in 2016 absolutely smashed, in a bar in Taiwan, chatting with a group of guys from a Kazakh circus troupe and impressing them with my limited Russian and my (apparently) humorous use of Russian swear words. That particular night ended in a hearty discussion with a guy named Steve – an awesome Kiwi bloke who was just full of knowledge on a mass array of topics, from rugby to the legend that was David Bowie.

The irony of speaking to Steve rang true just a month later when Emilija and I landed in New Zealand where we spent three months putting our degrees into practice by each completing an internship. But before reaching the land of the All Blacks, there were a few things to iron out ahead of our next journey – chiefly our Taiwanese visas which we’d overstayed on by over a month – that mistake resulted in quite a hefty fine for the pair of us. There were also some exams to contend with whilst finishing off our semester of study at the Southern Taiwan University of Science and Technology.

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Squinting in the Kaohsiung sun

Once we successfully departed Taiwan we first headed to Malaysia where we spent a mad 17 hours exploring the capital of Kuala Lumpur – all on the back of just 2 hours sleep that we’d managed to grab on the floor of KL International Airport’s arrival hall floor. After a whistle-stop tour of KL, Emilija and I hopped on another flight and made our way to Australia – all of the above took place before January was even over!

We landed in the Gold Coast and in true keeping with our regular travel form we then had to organise practically everything thereafter; on the spot! We elected to head to Brisbane by train, and from there – three days later – we connected to Sydney where we met up with our friend Eugene. We spent an incredible nine days with Eugene who treat us like royalty and made sure our every beck and call was answered to. To this date, Eugene is definitely the most hospitable person we’ve ever stayed with!

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Eugene and I at Darling Harbour, Sydney. 

One of the coolest moments of our time in Sydney, was when we got to meet up with our friends Ellie and Max. We knew these guys the same way we knew Eugene – through studying at Fontys – so it was really awesome to reconnect on the other side of the globe, especially considering their just thoroughly lovely people!

After a great time spent playing tourist, Emilija and I then departed and finally completed the last leg of our journey to New Zealand. We landed in Auckland, and after a very tense hour-long grilling at immigration (questions were raised over our possible 12 month ban from Taiwan) we were eventually granted permission to leave the airport. We then spent two nights in a rather underwhelming Auckland before the party really started and we travelled by bus overnight to Wellington where we’d be based for the majority of our time.

Crazy fact: the guy sat next to us had to forgo any opportunity to sleep as he was tasked with talking to the bus driver, constantly, as she’d dozed off a couple of times whilst driving only to be woken with a bolt as we scarily veered off the road.

Once we got to Wellington, we stayed with a chap named Michael who we’d chatted with via the couchsurfing website. Michael was kind enough to host us for several nights whilst we desperately tried to find a place to live more long-term. Michael also was trusting enough to allow us to stay at his place unattended, after he left on the second day to attend a canoe-polo competition which he was officiating.

Whilst at Michael’s beautiful home in Upper Hutt, we were also joined by a lovely couple named Jim and Dorothy – who we very quickly became firm friends with over wine, food and quality talks – even if Dorothy did freak us out with tales of murderous Australian’s!

The entirety of our time spent in Wellington was largely dedicated to completing our internships. I was working for WWF-New Zealand and I had an absolutely fantastic opportunity to spearhead an online fundraising campaign in aid of raising money for endangered Maui Dolphins.

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My ‘Goodbye Gathering’ after three wonderful months at WWF-New Zealand

Our living situation changed a couple of times, but our second host Charika was simply amazing. Not only did Charika have a gorgeous home with stunning views of Wellington Harbour, but she was also incredibly kind and gracious and really helped us out of a sticky situation by taking us in for almost two months. It was simply a pleasure to get to know Charika and her amazing family, and I know that both I and Emilija are eager to return to Wellington sometime soon and visit all the friends we made there.

During the final three weeks that we spent completing our internships we actually ended up moving in with my boss at WWF, who had kindly offered to house us free of charge. Once again, we were super fortunate to be welcomed in by yet another warm and loving family. Greg, Gina, Frankie, Aroha and their adorable little dog Benny are a huge miss for both of us!

In our final week or so in New Zealand, we decided to take a trip around the South Island – starting by taking a ferry from Wellington to Picton and then catching a bus down to Christchurch where we picked up an adapted rental car from Freedom Mobility. We had a breath-taking time driving from Christchurch to Dunedin – where we stayed at Dorothy’s (the lady from earlier) home, as she’d kindly left us the keys despite her absence – which was incredibly kind of her and we’re both indebted as a result. From Dunedin we headed west over to Arrowhead, and then from there we pressed onward to Milford Sound, Queenstown and Glenorchy. We even had time to stop off in a little place known as ‘Paradise’ which is where a lot of Lord of the Rings was filmed.

Bonus fact: whilst in Wellington I appeared in the local newspaper on two separate occasions and we MAY have also been featured in the production of a movie whilst happened to be being filmed as we walked with Wellington Station.

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‘Storm Trooper Emilija’ standing with our friend Kristine – owner of the best cafe/cake shop/all round goodness factory in Wellington; Sweet Release. 

New Zealand is on another level when it comes to travelling – it’s just simply sublime and every couple of hundred metres there’s a new opportunity to take that picture of a lifetime. Both Emilija and I rate New Zealand as the best country we’ve ever been to, and as we boarded a flight from Christchurch to Auckland, we were sad that our time there was almost up. From Auckland we flew back to the Gold Coast where we spent the night in the grottiest hostel we’d ever set foot in. We then flew down to Melbourne and spent a couple of nights there before catching another flight to Phuket in Thailand.

We were eager to check out what Phuket had to offer as the last time we were in Thailand back in August 2016, we’d wanted to head down south but never made it further than Bangkok and Pattaya (the latter being a bit of a grave mistake, hastily made after we were caught up in a terrorist attack in Bangkok). Whenever we visit Thailand we always seem to end up in the ‘wrong’ areas. I mean, don’t get me wrong… it’s still super enjoyable, but we somehow manage to miss out on all the cool picturesque spots that you generally associate with Thailand. Nevertheless, this only inspires us to travel to Thailand for the third time, and hopefully this time we’ll strike gold.

We spent two nights in Phuket and generally just soaked up the sunny vibes and ate plenty of amazing food. We then boarded a Thai Air flight to Bangkok and spent a night in the city where we met up with our University buddy Lilianna which was super awesome. Our evening together included a meal at a local restaurant followed by Lilianna exiting the building screaming as she noticed several mice scurrying around next to us!

From Bangkok we flew with Oman Air and stopped over in Muscat for 18 hours. It was a really fascinating time for us as we managed to bag ourselves visas for the day and we were able to explore some of Muscat’s old town which was just stunning beautiful. I’ll never forget how awe inspiring it was to sit beside the harbour, eating falafel and hummus, as the call the prayer rung out around us – bouncing and echoing off the many ancient buildings – some of which looked like either real life sandcastles or majestic palaces. Even the HSBC building that we spotted on our way from the airport to the city looked like it was fit to house a prince. It was the first time either of us had been in the Middle East and it certainly will not be the last. We both definitely felt like a part of us was longing to remain there and I can’t wait to return and discover more of the incredible architecture, the winding narrow streets and the generously hospitable people.

Once out of Oman, it was a non-stop flight to London – and to our surprise the flight was almost completely empty and we each got an entire row to ourselves where we able to sprawl out and relax. When we landed in the UK, I then took a train up to Newcastle to be with my family for a while.

I wasn’t at home long before it was time to head back to The Netherlands where a couple of exams awaited both Emilija and myself. We still needed to finish and submit our work placement reports from back when we were in New Zealand and we had to tie up some loose ends from the previous year’s study, too. We spent best part of a month in The Netherlands, with intermittent visits to Germany thrown in there for good measure.

After exams had passed we returned to the UK and I spent another couple of weeks with my family before me and my brother headed off on a road trip across Europe at the back end of June/the beginning of July. Before heading to the continent though, our first port of call was Brighton – as neither of us had ever been and we’d agreed to meet with Emilija and head there for the day. I was thoroughly impressed with what the seaside town had to offer and we spent a good amount of time walking around – and we even wasted some coppers playing in the arcades that can be found on Brighton Pier.

From Brighton we then headed through to Dover and caught the ferry to France where we then drove to Hagen in Germany and spent a couple of hours with my friend Olivia who fed my brother and I and let us sleep in her bed which was very much needed. Once we’d replenished, however, it was on towards the Czech Republic where my friend Peter was waiting for us at his home which is just an hour outside of Prague.

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Peter – one of my closest friends – contemplating life, deep in the heart of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s mountainous countryside. 

It was then that the road-trip REALLY began, and we headed from there down to Austria where we spent a night before picking up a fellow nomad who I’d spoken to over Facebook, on the Slovenian border. Once in Slovenia we camped for a night quite close to Italy and were able to have dinner Trieste which was my first taste of Italy – both figuratively and literally.

The trip then continued at almost lightening pace as we crossed through into Croatia, and then onto Bosnia and Herzegovina and then through to Montenegro. We spent the night in Montenegro and found our base in Podgorica, which despite being the countries capital, is rather unimpressive. Nevertheless, it was fine for a night and the next day we drove over the board and into Albania – where we decided to take things easy and spend two nights in a lovely airbnb apartment and just take stock of all the travelling we’d done up to that point. Before getting into Albania, however, we had to bribe an official at the border to let us cross without green card for vehicle insurance. This turned out to be quite nerve-wrecking as once we crossed the border and were in Albania, there seemed to be police checks every two kilometres or so. Thankfully we were never stopped and we never had to deal with the probable fine.

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Playing in the streets of Albania

From the Albanian capital of Tirana, we then drove in Macedonia and spent a night in Skopje – then we headed to Bulgaria where we stayed with a friend in Sofia, who gave us a brilliant tour of the city and generally made us feel extremely welcome. Viktoria, you’re the best!

After Bulgaria we crossed over into Serbia and drove north, stopping only for one night in the city of Nis where Alex, Peter and I got terribly drunk in celebration of Alex’s 21s birthday. I don’t remember much from that night, other than my brother apologising to a bunch of Serbians over the Karaoke machine, for the Brexit referendum result. I then vaguely remember that there was a mass exodus from the bar where we were all sat and we went down by the river where we congregated on these giant coliseum style steps and drank until the small hours.

We were all pretty hung over when we got in the car and headed north towards Belgrade and then finally onto Hungary where our next stop off was Budapest. From there it was then onto Slovakia, before stopping off once again in the Czech Republic.

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It was really excellent to finally be able to take a trip with my brother – here’s to many more in the future, Alex.

Our trip wasn’t over there, however, as we darted across Europe and made our way to Amsterdam where Eugene was scheduled to be arriving the following, from Australia, and joining us on our travels. Together we then headed down to Luxembourg for a night and then on to Strasberg in France before stopping again on the outskirts of Geneva, Switzerland.

We then had to re-mortgage my mother’s house to be able to afford the toll charge through the Mont Blanc tunnel and then once through, we descended upon northern Italy and into Milano.

Cool fact: the owners of the hostel we were staying at in Milan gave us all free Corona’s because we came back late and they’d decided to paint the floor in the hallway so we had to wait outside until it had all dried. Yay, free beer!

My own personal final stop on this particular trip was Venice, where I spent a little while trying to get around, but ultimately drawing a premature close to my part of the journey (for reasons that do not need to be mentioned on my blog) and so I elected to drive home to the UK through the night – stopping only once in France to catch a few hours rest which was much needed.

Once back in the UK, I generally just killed some time until September when I was due to return to Venlo and complete the final phase of my study. Emilija and I did take a couple of mini trips, however, including a weekend in Bristol and five nights in Glasgow which were both insanely enjoyable!

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One of the best things about being at home is getting the chance to play with this little one – meet Millie the Jack Russell! 

The last major trip I took in 2016 was a 16 day adventure in both the USA and Canada. I flew to New York City on my own and then a week later, after collecting a rental car from JFK Airport, I drove to Ohio to collect Emilija who was there attending her friend’s wedding. I won’t go too far into detail about the trip as I’m currently in the middle of writing blog posts about that particular adventure – but I will say that the drive from Niagara Falls to Montreal was a particular highlight.

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Whilst in Ottawa for the night, we stayed with our friend Liz and Nate, who also showed us around town. These two are amazing people and fellow travel addicts (but you’ll hear more about them soon on the blog!)

Yes, overall 2016 was a pretty insane year for me – a year which included 28 countries across 4 different continents, 3 epic road-trips, countless flights, trains, buses and ferries, and a whole bunch of utterly amazing people along the way. My blog has been going from strength to strength, and many more opportunities have been coming my way – a few of which you’ll see the fruits of during 2017.

I guess all that’s left for me to say is this – for those who were staunch enough to read this far – I wish you all the very best and toast to your health, wealth and happiness in the forthcoming year and beyond! Happy New Year!

 

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One of the final pictures I took in 2016, of two of my favourite people – Storm and Emilija. This was taken at one of Dusseldorf’s fabulous Christmas Markets.

Clinton Campaign Event, Visiting an Air Base and Sleeping in a Car!

Clinton Campaign Event, Visiting an Air Base and Sleeping in a Car!

So the last you heard from me I was recounting the story of stopping off in Pennsylvania and almost getting myself in trouble with the police. As mentioned in my previous post I then drove on through to Dayton Ohio and dropped off the passenger I had travelling with me, before making my way to the ladies house where I was staying for the night thanks to the awesomeness of Couchsurfing.

After a great first night and some really nice chats with Etana, I decided to follow Etana’s advice and drive over to the National Museum of the United States Air Force which is home to one of the largest collections of air craft and aviation equipment in the world. After spending a good few hours mooching around the place, I was so impressed by what this free museum had to offer that I even decided to go two days in a row. Etana had been kind enough to offer me an extra night at her place after hearing my sorry story of having no place to go, which meant I only had to find accommodation for a third and final night before collecting Emilija from Columbus Ohio. I also found myself being fed and handed a beer as I explained how little my funds were. I’d tried to tell the tale of how much money I’d been spending out of pride for my own budgeting skills, but I fear it came across as though I was a helpless bugger who needed help. Either way, it was super sweet of Etana to take such good care of me and she was an exceptional host!

I felt like I was at a bit of a loose end in the days leading up to meeting Emilija in Columbus. I didn’t want to venture too far because I was keen to save as much money as possible for the second week of my trip – so finding out that Air Force Museum was big to get lost in not once, but twice, was pretty cool. On reflection I probably should have crossed the border in Indiana and checked out Indianapolis, but oh well, there’s always next time!

I didn’t just spend all my time in the museum though, I also visited the Dayton cemetery which is where the Wright Brothers are buried. I know that it might seem quite morbid to visit a graveyard when travelling, but this one was a little bit special. You could take your car through the site, which was handy as it was very hilly, and I was pleasantly surprised by how pretty the landscape was. I had no idea where the Wright Brother’s grave was, but after driving around at a snail’s pace for a very long time, I eventually spotted a small sign that pointed me in the right direction. I pulled over on the side of the narrow road and assembled my wheelchair before tackling the mounds of grass that stood between me and the grave. I was determined to take a picture as a keepsake and to pay my respects to the guys who ironically made sure I was where I was on that day! Without their ingenuity, I would not have been able to take a flight to the USA, nor would I be travelling the world in the style that I do. Cheers boys!

On the second night I spent at Etana’s, she invited me to join her at a Hillary Clinton’s supporter’s event, at a house down the road from here. At first I was a little nervous and felt out of place once I arrived at this magnificent that looked perfectly like it had been taken from a scene in the movie Hocus Pocus. Dark solid wood staircase, carved furniture, autumnal plants, dashes of red green and gold – you name it, this place had it.

When we arrived I was made to feel welcome and was also offered a refreshment of my choice and I was also told to help myself to the food that was on offer. I was approached several times and asked about the (then) upcoming presidential election and asked to share my story on why I’d decided to back the Clinton campaign. I got quite a few surprised looks when I told them that I wasn’t voting – followed by raised smiles of understanding when I told them that the reason was because I was British.

Witnessing the event for myself was one of the most interesting things in my entire life. The passion of everyone there and the commitment to the cause of spearheading the Clinton Campaign in their area was just infectious. I’ve included a little video exert of the group meeting which was held just to give an idea of what I was witnessing.

Everybody there (aside from myself) was there for the sole purpose of signing up for canvassing and phone-calls to voters in the weeks leading up to the election night. Natasha (the girl speaking at the start of the video clip) was a representative of the Clinton campaign who had been drafted into Dayton and was staying with the folks who owned the house in which the event was held. It was essentially her job to make sure Dayton went to the Democrats come election day as opposed to the Republicans. Ultimately, we all now know how the election panned out, and I’m making an executive decision to keep politics out of my blog and so will say nothing further on the matter. It was a very enjoyable night though, nonetheless.

After my two nights in Dayton, I headed over to Columbus for the night where I’d be waiting it out for Emilija who would be joining me the following day. I had no place to go once I got to Columbus and all my attempts on Couchsurfing had fallen through. I was faced with a night in the car as I didn’t want to pay in excess of $50 just for a motel room.

I floated from McDonald’s restaurant to McDonald’s restaurant, all around the part of town which wasn’t too far from where I was supposed to be meeting Emilija. All the while she was at the wedding reception of her close friend. I think the staff in one particular McDonald’s must have thought I was homeless as they came and gave me some free food! Some might see that as a little embarrassing, but to hell with it… I’ll take free apple pies if they’re being offered! I only went there to leech the WiFi!

As midnight approached, I left McDonald’s and in my nervous state I asked the first guy I found if he knew anywhere that would be safe for me to sleep in my car. He strongly advised against it, citing that I would be an easy target for criminals and if the police caught me sleeping in the car I could even be arrested. Seeing as I had no other option I decided to go along with one of the suggestions I’d found online and so I drove over to the nearest Walmart and positioned my car between two huge lorry-trucks.

I’ll admit, it was a pretty rough night. It was bitterly cold and quite uncomfortable, but all the while I was mindful of the fact I was making yet another saving. I didn’t dare leave the driver’s seat, for fear of needing to make a speedy getaway at any moment, and much against my better judgement, I left one of the rear windows open slightly, because I had some irrational, paranoid fear that I was going to suffocate if I didn’t. You know that expression “sleep with one eye open”? Well I think I just about nailed that one.

I woke up at about 6am and looked around to see that it was still pitch black dark. I made my way to yet another McDonald’s to grab myself a coffee and wait for Emilija to wake up and message me with a time for when I could collect her. Little did I know but I would be waiting for at least another five hours before I was finally able to swing by her Motel room and collect her. Oh and if you’re wondering why I wasn’t able to just spend the night at the same Motel as Emilija, the reason was that she was sharing with a German girl who she didn’t really know before the wedding, so it wouldn’t have been appropriate. I don’t want you guys to think that she was just being a bit mean! 😉

NEXT UP: Breaking free of the USA and heading to Canada!