Chicago, USA.

We hopped back across the US border to Chicago, a city that has a number of our friends singing it’s praises! It is easy to fall into the trap of having an expectation of a city – more often than not you are disappointed with it once you actually experience it for yourself.

Chicago skyline from the river

Chicago skyline from the river

We were pleasantly surprised with our time in Chicago. With everything from the deep-dish pizza to the architecture, it definitely had that Chic-ahg-oh attitude: upfront and unapologetic.

It is certainly up there with America’s most impressive cities, in the sense that it has so much to offer both it’s people and the tourists! We had a fantastic time on an architectural cruise of the river where we learned about the great Chicago fire and how the city was so rapidly rebuilt. While I have always tried to appreciate buildings and their architectural style in all the cities we have visited, I found Chicago’s buildings to be not only beautiful but also striking. Each building we saw had such a clear architectural message. While this was pointed out to us in detail by the architect leading the tour, it was not difficult to be impressed by the buildings before we knew why they were built.

We also spent a day at the Museum of Science and Industry, an amazing museum just south of Chicago’s downtown. It had everything – a 747, a model of downtown Chicago complete with intricate train system, a hurricane and tsunami demonstration wing AND a chick hatchery! Believe it or not, I had never seen a chicken hatch from an egg. Have you?! I was embarrassed to find that I was more visibly alarmed by the process than the primary school kids also watching the baby chick tumble from it’s eggshell. I don’t know who was more shocked by the whole thing – the chicken or me? ANYWAY…if you are in Chicago, you MUST go to this museum.

We decided that instead of catching the bus back downtown, we would hire a bike from the stands dotted around the city. We spent about two hours cycling along the lake shore, admiring the water on our right and the city skyline on our left. I was so pleased that this bike ride passed without incident (take that Amsterdam!) and I thoroughly enjoyed taking in the view and the vibe of this grand city.

But the best part? Doing all of this with Jez.

Chicago on wheels

Chicago on wheels

New York, USA.

Jez and I love big cities. New York is not the biggest city we have visited on this trip (statistically behind Beijing, Moscow and Istanbul) but it certainly is a place where you know you are experiencing, or in the epicentre of, something significant.

Personally, I love being caught up in the rush of people as they flit from office buildings; from lunch; from the subway; from their tiny apartments to shops, restaurants and galleries. New Yorkers always walk with purpose! During our 12 days in the city we walked with purpose and at length (as we often do!) to see a number of amazing sights.

One of the best experiences was visiting the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island. On a gloriously clear day, we caught a very crowded ferry across to the island to see Lady Liberty up close. We went without an audio guide, preferring to take in the view back to Manhattan and across to New Jersey with quiet appreciation. Our online tickets gave us access to the inside of the pedestal, which housed a museum and the original Liberty torch.

Lower Manhattan from Liberty Island

Lower Manhattan from Liberty Island

We spent one afternoon walking along the famous Highline, an elevated rail system that has been turned into an urban oasis running from Midtown, through Chelsea and finishing in the Meatpacking district. This park in the sky literally runs through buildings and beside skyscrapers. It’s a popular place for people to picnic and people watch or just admire the views to the sky.

View from the high line.

View from the high line.

Another beautiful afternoon was spent walking the entire length of Central Park. Yes, the entire length! We caught the subway to the Upper West Side and walked from 110th street, Central Park North, through the Observatory Garden with manicured lawns and up over the baseball diamonds nestled between rocky outcrops. There was plenty of activity in the park, as it was Saturday afternoon, so there were families riding bikes and enjoying the sunshine. We walked through a particularly wild and woolly section of the park called the Ramble which had a beautiful view across the pond and up to the buildings of Times Square.

Walking through Central Park

Walking through Central Park

We arrived in New York just in time to help celebrate the end of summer, the Labor Day weekend, at a festival called Electric Zoo. We had an amazing time and met a bunch of awesome people. We were astounded at the number of people who approached us, out of nowhere, to chat about the music, their city and where we were from. It was so much fun!

Even though we left New York with many souvenirs of our adventures, I know one of the most special memories will be experiencing the first chill of Autumn in early September. To feel the heat and humidity disappear from the air and the sun’s glow change ever so slightly, was to experience something significant. Something we will always share with this big city.

Madrid, Spain.

Madrid was the last city we visited in Europe. It was only a short flight from Ibiza and it was a key hub for our onward destination – New York.

The Palace and surrounding gardens.

The Palace and surrounding gardens.

It was still hot and steamy in Madrid, shops and their powerful air conditioning providing temporary respite from outside. The city has beautifully ornate architecture as well as many impressive buildings like the Palace and museums like The Prado. We joined a walking tour at Plaza Major to explore the city and we learnt a lot about Spain’s history while admiring the cobblestone streets and numerous squares around the city.

The Toledo Cathedral

The Toledo Cathedral

We took a train to the nearby town of Toledo where Jeremy’s family were staying in a beautiful hotel known as a Parador (which was originally an old manor house) overlooking the ancient town. It seemed like Toledo was a very popular day trip from the city as the train ride, being only half an hour, was packed with tourists reading guide books. We were very impressed with the rail network in Spain, despite the awful accidents earlier this summer.

One of the first stops we made in Toledo was to the grand cathedral whose colourful past meant that it had also served as a Mosque. We had lunch (and a quick dip in the pool) at the resort before catching the train back to Madrid and backing our bags.

We spent almost three months jumping around Europe, experiencing new cultures, languages and customs every week. Even though we knew there was one enormous country still to discover, packing our bags reminded us that a huge part of our trip was over.

Cologne, Germany.

Jez and I caught the train from Brussels Midi station to Cologne on a Thursday afternoon and were met by the beautiful Bianca. We located our hotel, dropped our bags and then went to explore Cologne together.

Love locks in Cologne.

Love locks in Cologne.

We crossed a steel bridge covered in love locks, some impressive and others simply small tributes to their love. Afterwards, the three of us visited the observation deck of a tower looking out over the city of Cologne which from above looked like a small but perfectly formed city with parks and the Rhine river.

Yummy dinner!

Yummy dinner!

Hungry and a little thirsty, we had dinner in a beer house along the river and chatted away before waving goodbye to Bianca at the train station as she went home.

Our brief stop in Germany got us thinking about our favourite German foods and we quickly decided that a half hour walk was a small trade off for the best schnitzel in the city. We visited Bei Oma Kleimann and ordered two very tasty schnitzels, both ridiculously large. Tummies full to bursting point, we waddled back to the hotel via the main shopping precinct.

The Koln Dom at sunset.

The Koln Dom at sunset.

Throughout our stay in Cologne, we loved looking at the Koln Dom, the Cologne Cathedral. It is a beautiful building that was only finished in the 1880’s despite construction starting in the 15th century. The cathedral caught the light of the setting sun on our afternoon with Bianca and gave a spectacular show of it’s towers and spires.

Brussels, Belgium.

After Tomorrowland, we had scheduled another few days in Brussels to recover and to see the quaint and very international city. We were staying near the offices of the European Union, Brussels being the unofficial epicentre of the European Parliament. It was amazing to overhear conversations that switched from French, to English, then to Dutch in a matter of moments. Belgians truly are multi-lingual!

We walked into the centre of town and the famous main square which must be one of the most ornate squares in Europe! The statues and frescoes and gold-gilded figures were quite imposing.

Brussels main square.

Brussels main square.

We managed to withstand the constant onslaught of signs telling us that the best waffles and chocolate and biscuits in the world were right in front of us, we settled for Belgian potato frites instead. For a small country, Belgium seems to have their fair share of famous food!

We were also fascinated by the architecture in Brussles, most houses designed in the style of Art Nouveau. There were so many beautiful buildings overlooking lush parks and rivers that we decided Brussels was a very attractive city.

Amsterdam, Holland.

Amsterdam looks good on paper. It’s got everything a tourist could need, some bikes and a few more canals than other cities (for the perfect photo opportunity!). There are museums and beautiful buildings and there was a lot of stuff I wanted to see.

In an effort to embrace this unique city, we enrolled for a bike tour on what the locals were saying was the hottest day of the year (actually, it was the hottest day of the past few years at 37 degrees Celsius). Amsterdam is THE city of bikes so it was all smiles as our group set off to see the sights of the city on two wheels.

Our guide had warned us that there would be some busy parts of the city, but that we (all twenty people on the bike tour) would all be able to stick together and as long as we all watched the person in front, he hadn’t lost anyone yet!

Well, I got separated from the bike tour.

Look, I know what you’re thinking. I can ride a bike. I can go fast but I generally like to go at a leisurely pace. I hate riding a bike in traffic. I won’t tell you the particulars but I returned safely, in one piece, pride slightly bruised.

The Prinsengracht canal - Anne Frank's House is next to the church.

The Prinsengracht canal – Anne Frank’s House is next to the church.

My favourite part of Amsterdam was our visit to the Anne Frank House. It will remain a very special part of the trip for me for many reasons. I read The Diary of Anne Frank in the lead up to our visit to Amsterdam because I had actually never read it before. I knew the premise of the diary but nothing could prepare me for how heartbroken I felt when I finished it – I felt as though I knew her.

The Anne Frank House is the house where Anne, her family and four others, hid from the Nazi’s. It is now a museum and if you have the chance to go, I would highly recommend it.

We also spent an afternoon at the Van Gogh Museum, admiring brilliant works of art. We found that Amsterdam was, in itself, a very lovely museum and art gallery all rolled in to one.

The sun setting in Amsterdam.

The sun setting in Amsterdam.

Devon, England.

We have never felt the saying ‘time flies when you’re having fun’ more keenly than during our stay in Devon. We had kept referring to our stay in England as a point so distant to us at the start of our journey back in May, it seemed to come and go so quickly!

We spent time with Jeremy’s family in both Teignmouth and Ivybridge, seeing lots of the Devon countryside and visiting wonderful places. There were National Trust houses, the wild moors, vintage steam trains, village pubs and of course, a Devon cream tea.

Brian and his partner Patsy took us on a ’round robin’ experience. We got on a ferry at Totnes that took us up the river Dart to Dartmouth. Along the way we saw tiny fishing villages, grand homes and wildlife. We had lunch at a pub called the Cherub, before catching a steam train along the coast to Paignton. Along this stretch we saw beautiful views of the coastline in the most amazing weather. From Paignton we then caught a bus back to Totnes taking in the rolling fields and hedgerows.

Dartmouth from the ferry.

Dartmouth from the ferry.

We visited two very beautiful National Trust buildings during our stay. One was Buckland Abbey, which was once home to Sir Francis Drake, and Cotehele, a grand building with gardens and a flour mill overlooking the river. I couldn’t help but imagine the Antiques Roadshow theme song in my mind as we twisted through the tiny hedgerow lanes of Devon, the music reaching a crescendo as we drove through the entrance!

National Trust building Cotehele, from the top garden.

National Trust building Cotehele, from the top garden.

At the top of Cotehele tower, in a paddock!

At the top of Cotehele tower, in a paddock!

Another highlight was our trip to Plymouth with John and Clare. We walked along the port and took a tour of the Plymouth Gin Distillery which has been in operation since 1793 and was the main supplier for the Royal Navy. At the end of the tour we sampled the products, including a delicious variation – Sloe Gin!

On our last full day, we gathered for Brian’s birthday in Exeter for a very lovely lunch.

Happy Birthday Brian!

Happy Birthday Brian!