Solo in Sri Lanka; Kandy to Dambulla

So after just over a week of taking in the cultural sights and ‘must-see’ landscaped treasures of Sri Lanka, paying altogether a hell of a lot more money for absolutely everything than I have been for the past month in India, I have arrived in Arugam Bay (aka probably the hottest and most touristic place I’ve ever been). Even in Uganda, I don’t remember it being this sweltering, although admittedly the lifestyle and everyday activities differed quite a bit, yoga and surfing being the order of the day here coupled with a sickening amount of loved up couples and families intent on spending every moment browsing for elephant pants and drinking cocktails on the beach. Not a bad life, in fairness. But far more expensive than what I’ve become accustomed to.

After a night at First Hostel in Negombo, I travelled East to Kandy in the hopes of witnessing the infamous Esala Perahera festival – a yearly occurrence which as a happy accident fell during my stay in Sri Lanka this year. I was excited, to say the least, with the promise of a traditional Buddhist elephantine ceremonial festival, the kind with lights and music and costumes the likes of which I’ve only ever seen on tv (and let’s face it, Instagram too)!

I won’t go into it too much, but suffice it to say that as a spectacle the Perahera amazes and does what you’d hope it to after crowds beginning to gather along the streets from 2 in the afternoon to wait hours in their spot until sunset. It’s fascinating and mesmerizing to watch the never-ending troupes of dancers, drummers and fire acrobats proceed up the street interspersed with extravangently dressed and decorated elephants. The feet of these elephants are chained so tightly they can only take tiny steps of about one foot a time, while their eyes somehow see out through slits in heavy, embroidered material draped over them from trunk to toe and making them resemble giant blundering tea cosies. Very beautiful giant blundering tea cosies. But let’s not forget that these are extremely intelligent, graceful, and powerful animals. Moreso than humans, when in their natural habitat.

How would you feel being forced to wear a tea cosy draped with Christmas lights and made walk up and down streets to be photographed night after night??
This, combined with the inherent whipping of the ground which signalled the beginning of the procession and more than likely served as a means of terrifying the elephants into complying, was distressing to witness and I instantly disconnected from the whole experience, festival atmosphere dwindling as each depressed and gloomy looking elephant blindly lumbered past. As I said, the spectacle of the parade was great, and the lights and costumes enough to warrant the fame and draw of the Perahera. I just couldn’t see past the chains.

From Kandy I took a public bus to Dambulla for only 100 Sri Lankan Rupees (less than a euro) which was fine considering the trip was only 3 hours long and I actually managed to get a seat. The journey back was a different story. More on that later.
Robert’s Inn in Dambulla proved a welcoming and entertaining guesthouse stay, with tours and excursions to the surrounding area available at the mere mention of a temple (Robert is very enthusiastic), and a very hospitable family in general. The town of Dambulla itself is fairly downbeat and local, but there are hundreds of tiny guesthouses and homestays tucked away down dust roads such as the one I stayed, nearly all of which offer independent guided tours and jeep excursions to the things to see in the area, which are all quite spread out and make jeep and tuk-tuk rides an unfortunate necessity. They’re not all that bad though, and considering I saw some wild elephants and climbed a pretty cool rock I wasn’t altogether bothered to have to fork out some extra rupees on transport.

This brings me on to my next point – Sigiriya Rock. Don’t do it. Several travellers I met in India had warned me about it and the expenses of Sri Lankan tourist attractions as a whole, but like anything else, the full extent and expense of the place was lost on me until I had spent a few days here and experienced it for myself. Sigiriya Rock is one of the most recognised attractions in Sri Lanka, and is part of the ‘cultural triangle’, of which I only completed one acute angle, as expenses convinced me otherwise. Because of this (as is the case with a lot of India) the entrance fees and add-on taxes for foreign guests have become extortionate in recent years. In order to dodge this in Dambulla, myself and some friendly Slovenians opted to climb Pidurangala Rock – directly opposite Sigiriya and substantially less swamped with slow-paced tourists with deep pockets and thoroughly unsuitable footwear.
This thirty-minute climb – steep steps for the first ten, and thereafter a curious toddler’s dream on hands and knees up through rocks and crevices in an unclear direction,is ultimately completely worth the uncertainty as soon as the peak is reached, the rocks disperse, and all of a sudden you can see across the plains to Sigiriya Rock and beyond to the ends of the earth (or so it seems). I couldn’t help but be awestruck. Smugness materialized then as my eyes adjusted and I spotted clearly the winding line of tourists meandering the way to the summit of the overcrowded sister rock to the one I’d just conquered. The handful of likeminded climbers who had also chosen Pidurangala took turns holding each others cameras and attempting to capture the beauty and isolating freedom of the place – which proved difficult!
The descent was much quicker, and we were back down on the dust track road by 11am.

 That afternoon our host also took us out (for a fee, of course) to Minneriya National Park, a great place to spot elephants in their natural habitat, no chains or silly costumes or lights attached and a terrain that reminded me of Jurassic Park from the get-go. We were lucky to catch huge groups of them grazing peacefully and cutting across the dust paths ahead of our open-topped jeep, in search of more grass and pretty much doing whatever the hell they liked. In the wild!

We also saw herds of wild buffalo, deer, and hundreds of different species of colourful birds and dragonflies, which flitted through the open sides and top of the jeep as we trailed home through the dust. It was pretty magical!
After a night spent fulfilling necessary maintanence work like washing my clothes and budgeting for the unexpected new expenses I’d encountered, I mentally prepared myself for the inevitable day of uncomfortable cross-country travel that lay ahead….

 

Electric Essentials – Five Revolutionary Camping Necessities To Pack In Your Picnic Basket

Twas the week before Picnic, and all through the shops, not a camper was thinking, ‘I’ll bring my flip-flops’…”

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With only a week to go to Electric Picnic 2015, here are five revolutionary camping necessities to pack in your picnic basket:

  1. The Baby Wipe.
    An invaluable source of cleanliness and refreshment at any time of the day, Johnson’s would do well to produce a festival-special pack where the pudgy, cute baby pictures on the packaging are replaced with muddy, drunken and denim-clad festival hunzos; flower crowns askew as they search desperately for something to get the muck off their brand spanking new Penney’s boots that haven’t stopped leaking since they fell in that puddle 2 days ago.
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  1. The Extra Layer.
    Layers are key – like a cake. – Do not kid yourselves. It may be a festival. There may be flowers and twinkly-lights and colourful hubs of facepainting, dancing, and streamers twirling and music and general happiness everywhere you cast your gaze (oh-my-God-I’m-so-excited) – but this is still Ireland. It is cold here. There is still every chance that the closest we’ll get to this so-called impending ‘Indian Summer’ is a good ‘ol chicken curry from one of the festival stalls. Here’s hoping Met Éireann pull through, but I’m still packing that extra hoodie just in case.
  1. The Banana.
    Cheap, cheerful, and full of genuine unprocessed, uninstagrammed and natural goodness, there is genuinely no better food to re-energize after an uncomfortable nights’ sleep (or lack thereof) on the ground. In a field. In the rain. In Ireland. Oh God why do we continue to do this to ourselves?!? One precaution to take when packing the sunshine fruit-of-the-Gods is fairly obvious – they go on top. Nothing worse than wasted energy being squashed all over the eight or nine other outfits you’re not going to wear.
    banana
  1. The Power Block For Your Power Block.
    Despite electricity being part of the name of this particular festival, don’t get your hopes up when it comes to keeping your smart phones on a satisfactory percentage of charge – and that goes without saying about any festival. While last year there were charging facilities and lockers with cables available at EP, it came at a fairly steep price. If you were prepared to sacrifice a good chunk of hard-earned cash for a few hours’ battery life on a phone you’ll be continually checking is still in your pocket and hasn’t been nicked (see #5), then at least the poor workers in the stalls having to go without sleep so you can check your emails at 2am are getting well-paid. While phones are handy to locate lost or drunken friends who’ve gone astray in search of the rave in the forest, chances of their phone being on them and still functioning are equally as slim as yours. It’s a lot easier to just get a backup festival phone and leave the iPhones at home. My trusty black €20 Samsung flip-phone still has it’s charge from last year. I’ll meet you at the inflatable wobbly-men.
  1. Basically, Anything You Don’t Mind Getting Nicked.
    When it comes to personal belongings and valuables at festivals, it literally could not be any more of a case of ‘enter at owners own risk’, and I don’t blame security getting cranky when people come wailing about a stolen FCUK bag. If you bring your designer gear or Macbook Pro to a festival, heroicly guarded and protected by the thin lining and single zip of your Aldi-bought tents (which by the way are surprisingly sturdy when assembled correctly) – you don’t deserve any pity. The unfortunate craze of ‘festival fashion’ creating unecessary pressure to render oneself presentable after spending the night in a field is honestly just damn unfair, and no amount of designer rainjackets or wellies are going to fix frizzy or scraggly wet hair, or dry-up any of the puddles. Embrace the festival-face and Penneys’ shorts, and work the bedhead look.
    Festival. Ireland. Rain. Remember!? Gadgets are no use in this kind of environment; the less you pack, the less chance you have of losing, breaking, or having to worry about it. Simples.

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European Vs Irish Music Festival – What We’re Missing Out On

Okay, so it’s not as if I’m pretending to be an expert or hardcore attendee of music festivals all over the world, but I like my music, I like my festivals, and I just thought I’d express some opinions and realisations I’ve had here after attending Sziget festival in Budapest last week.
As someone whose general vision and experience of music festivals has up until now included multiple layers of clothing, umbrellas, ponchos, muck, and copious amounts of alcohol, the differences between this European festival and the likes of Electric Picnic or Forbidden Fruit at home were something that hit me at every single colourfully signposted and culturally unique corner.

 First of all, and probably most obviously; the weather. Having gone from being a total newbie to the interrailing lifestyle, my opinion of European climates ranging from varying extremities of heat to cold and ‘home’ as a default becoming all jumbled up in my head all meant I hadn’t given the temperature much thought before I left. Luckily my instincts overpowered at this point as the word ‘holiday’ seems to have been engrained upon my brain, triggering an unconscious reaction to pack only Summer clothes.
The weather in Budapest at Sziget this year rarely dropped below 30 degrees, something which makes or breaks a pale ginger Irish fresh-air junkie such as myself, especially considering the lack of air conditioning available whilst camping (I’ll give you a guess – there’s none!!). Not to mention the constant battle with our neighbouring ant colony to keep the tents clean and cool enough to actually provide some sort of respite from the blaring midday heat. I’ve gotten to the stage now where I know better than to even try to withstand a sun like that for longer than a few minutes at a time, and dreams of attaining an actual tan from it are frankly laughable, so my bottle of factor 40 came with me everywhere I went.
My one main complaint with festivals at home has always been simply that it has been too cold. There’s only so many times you can justify standing waiting for one of your favourite bands, shivering beneath layers of soaked plastic ‘waterproof’ jackets and squelching along miserably back to a tent that may or may not yet have been flooded, trampled on, or worse – inhabited by unknown drunkards mistakenly thinking they’ve found their own resting hovels. Of course, this may be where the tendency to over-indulge in alcohol comes into play at Irish festivals – any excuse to keep warm and be able to sleep somewhere you usually wouldn’t put your dog to rest is surely going to sound like a good option after dutifully standing in wait for hours in unpredictable and rowdy crowds at varying levels of intoxication.
But this is what I mean. The good weather lent itself to every aspect of the festival abroad. Not only did it allow us to enjoy the daytime activities and decorative features for what they really were – a makeshift ‘beach’ and volleyball courts adding hugely to the ‘holiday’ feel of the place – but the sun and warm weather put everyone around in a good mood, and generally just brought out the best in everything. In that heat, tolerance for alcohol is down, so one or two drinks is all that was necessary to obtain a good buzz; even at that there were days where I completely avoided the bars, not by choice, just by sheer preoccupation with the amount of things there were to do and see around me. This in itself is a huge contrast to any festival at home, where the general consensus once entry has been successfully gained and tents hurridly pitched is to ‘head for the bar’ or ‘meet back here for pints’. Starting as you mean to go on only really works when the festival itself only lasts a day or two – a week of that kind of debauchery would be enough to cripple even the most seasoned festival-drinker.
Even so, it was amazing to see all those different walks of life and nationalities merging together in one place like a giant Noah’s Ark, as representatives of each country arrived and set up camp in twos and threes. All this in the love of music, life, and having a good time really succeeded in cementing in my head that life is for living, enjoyment, and sharing that love through a balance of art, music, and a general understanding of one another.

If there is one thing human beings from all corners of the globe love more than anything, it’s having a good fucking time and enjoying the fuck out of what little time we have here.

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The experience of the likes of a week-long festival such as Sziget being condensed down into a 3-day pissup in a field in Laois is something which really opened my eyes to the state of Irish festivals and our attitude towards them in general. Although Sziget is very much a limbo kind of paradise in that many travellers attend as a stop-off on an interrailing trip, it still manages to stand alone as an ‘Island of Freedom’, as they call it, and I spent a few content mornings alone wandering the island as the sun came up and many of the hardcore stragglers stumbled home or collapsed under various trees and bushes dotted in the mainstage area – none of the bars or DJs in the arena stopped until 5.30am, something we sadly discovered after setting up camp less than 50 metres away from one.
This closing time is something that in Ireland would only tempt fate and end badly, yet here it somehow worked with such a culturally diverse crowd of attendees merely looking to meet new people and share in the delights of such a positive and interesting atmosphere. Again, this idea of music and the arts bringing people together is more successfully executed and appreciated due to a better attitude towards alcohol comsumption and social norms – people actually talked to one another in these ‘clubs’, and I found the best place to make new friends was literally – anywhere you wanted to do so. All you had to do was look around, smile, and ask someone where they were from. Of course, this might just have been the incredible holiday-atmosphere and general happiness of everyone in attendance, but it’s difficult to imagine getting a similar reaction everytime at a festival in Ireland – people would think you’re either extremely drunk or just really creepy.

Of course a lot of this is all a massive generalization, as I’m still 100% going to attend Electric Picnic again this year, and more than likely enjoy it immensely. The main difference will be that this time I’ll be making sure to keep a broader mind when it comes to evaluating my understanding and appreciation for it, and hopefully experience more of the cultural and artistic side of things than I have before. Maybe this time I’ll also try to be aware of the various nationalities that (I’m sure) are always in attendance. Sziget has opened my eyes to the world through musical and creative displays of individuality, yet contrastingly has also helped me draw many parallels between myself and other human beings; this European melting pot (in 39 degree heat, this sometimes became literal!) and hub of life, activity, and 200,000 people roaming about a field in their own filth and excessive food and drink consumption, all just silently in search of love or some other form of connection with someone else – because in the end that is what we all seek, is it not? Not necessarily love, or a partner, or a means of procreation – it is merely companionship; likeminded souls who share a similar disposition and understanding of our situations, regardless of background, heritage, culture, or previous successes or failures. These are all just things which become wrapped up in negative and unecessary tension. They do not really matter. For a week on end I shared a common location, contentment, and various experiences with walks of life I never could have dreamed of encountering were it not for this fantastic festival.

As eye-opening as most travel can be in this respect, there was something extra special about the context in which people came together at Sziget. It wasn’t just to satisfy a niggling wanderlust, or to escape from a hometown or a job for the weekend, or even just an exuse to get drunk – it was out of a genuine love for music, life, and a celebration of all the good things there are to be had from this combination if we just do it right and balance it out. While it differed immensely from my experiences of music festivals at home, I’m certain now that when I next attend an Irish festival, I will do so with a completely different attitude, between expectations, enjoyment, and ability to sit back and enjoy the show, the acts, and the surroundings – even if the Irish weather is promised to put a dampener on everything!

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48 Hours in Bratislava

 

This day last week I was in the middle of a 48-hour stay in the city of Bratislava, a pitt-stop on the way to Sziget music festival in Budapest (more on that in the next post!).
As a ginger who hasn’t been on a proper sun holiday since the cringy days of family package deals to Majorca where any hotel without a kids’ club wasn’t worth batting my glitter-glued eyelashes together at, I’ll admit I may have slightly underestimated the European heat – this was only the beginning of my knowledge of Slovakia proving itself to be extremely limited. The heat struck like a wall of dead, sweaty air when you walk into a heavily populated gym, and I immediately thanked myself for having left my warm jacket at home.

After stumbling our way through the barrier of sweat, hastily-applied suncream, and unhelpful Slovakian bus drivers, we eventually made it to the tram station which would take us in the direction of our hostel. What I hadn’t anticipated was the large amount of dodgy-looking characters who roamed the streets – drunks, cripples, barely-clothed scrawny faces who revelled in approaching young unaccompanied travellers at the stations. I’m not saying it was extremely dangerous, just slightly less civilised and more suburban than many of the other European cities I’ve visited – and this was only in the first few hours or so. Still, we had to avert our gaze as a man covered in dried blood boarded the tram and sat staring at us, making no obvious inclination or cry for help, and seemingly oblivious to the extremity of his unknown injuries.

On finding our hostel (Patio Hostel, Bratislava), a wave of relief swept over me at being briefly removed from the sun’s preying rays, and also at finally being able to remove our backpacks. Shoulders aching, we attended a welcome BBQ downstairs in the garden, accompanied by several hen and stag parties, complete with inflatable and edible items of memorabilia…apparantly Bratislava is a serious hotspot for European pre-nuptial celebrations, who knew!

After locating the local Tesco and stocking up on some essentials, we went wandering in search of ‘Rock OK’ , a lively and dimly-lit underground bar, advertised as the starting point of a nightly pub crawl aimed at integrating the many socially-awkward and party-seeking backpackers who pass through the city during the Summer months. (Rock OK)

Considering it was a Saturday night, the streets were fairly quiet and we found ourselves wondering did such a pub crawl even exist. The streets were buckled under roadworks, with cones, railings, and upturned earth blocking off the streets which Google Maps had set out ahead of us. I got the impression that the entire city was very much a work-in-progress, as the roadworks were central to much of the scenery and background of the busiest areas we encountered.

After a rather sexist drink allowance of ‘Free glasses of beer, or wine for the women’, we got talking to our fellow travellers in the Rock Bar, and did our best to mingle – I’ve found that in situations such as these it is one of the best things you can do to be open, friendly and inviting – we were all in the same boat, after all, and so there was no point in being shy.
Many of the other travellers, some from Spain, New Zealand, England, and Italy, to name but a few, were also stopping off in Bratislava on their way down to Sziget, so a common topic of conversation was easily established.
Making friends with a group of Australians proved to be one of the highlights of the night, as well as typically rejoicing together as we realised there were two other Irish lads on the crawl – although unfortunately they lived up to the ‘drunken Irish’ label the other nationalities muttered to one another. We didn’t stay for the entire crawl however, as after the third ‘pub’ proved to be more of a nightclub than anything else, we decided it was time to navigate our way back through the dilapidated streets, sleeping JCBs and makeshift gravel footpaths.

After wonderful cold showers and a brief annoying realisation that someone in the hostel downstairs had stolen and eaten the bread we’d bought, we set out for a day of exploration in the city. We decided to decline the appeal of a walking-tour of the city purely because of the heat, our timeframe, and also because we much preferred the idea of discovering things independent of tour guides and plans.

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Using some of the roadworks as points of reference, we meandered down the main streets which proved a lot busier during the daytime, a large quarter of the city around the church and fountain being pedestrianised to accommodate travellers. The Old Town proved to be extremely inviting, the ‘Alstadt’ area full of great picture opportunities, innumerable bars, cafes and restaurants that looked good enough to stay in all day. The former Palace of the Hungarian Estates surrounded by the many little cobbled streets proved extremely enjoyable to wander about, despite the midday heat!

We voted in favour of a Pad Thai style lunch instead of sampling some of the local cuisine, and were thoroughly impressed by the service and food of The Green Buddha, close to the main square.

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After impulse-buying another pair of ‘Uganda-pants’, as I call them, (my first ever pair having been purchased in Uganda) in one of the many little craft shops along the street, we took the 83 bus to the end of the line, and got off at Temantínska, and followed the beach-ready stream of locals and tourists alike down a short distance to Drazdiak Lake. This freshwater lake was the first experience I’ve had of an inland lake in Europe, and it didn’t disappoint! Although there were hoards of overly-exposed sun-worshippers and naked children throwing rocks at the (extremely patient) swans, the atmosphere and simplicity of the place really appealed to me. We secured ourselves a beer after hopping the language barrier of the bar, and for the first time since the trip had started we felt really at ease as we chilled in the sun (or in my case, the shade and beneath a light throw cardigan).

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That evening we wandered back through the city and had an early night, as the prospect of a busy day navigating our way to Budapest loomed ahead of us.

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Travel Checklist – One Week to Go

I’ve always been early off the bat to prepare for trips away- when I was younger I’d often pack my bags two or three weeks in advance of my family leaving for a 2-week holiday, out of pure eagerness and impatience for it. I’ve managed by now to learn to stifle some of the excitement that comes with anticipating a trip abroad, yet still find myself indulging in the odd splurge into my savings to buy something that I’ll ‘definitely use’ whilst travelling – even if I end up completely forgetting to pack it and only realising when I get home that it’s been sitting on my desk the entire time I’ve been away (Captain Hindsight is a killer).

With a week to go until a short break in Europe, I thought I’d start some of this travel-blogging craic early and share my checklist for the next week with regards to packing, saving, and preparing myself both mentally and physically for a trip away. In order to do this successfully I’ve broken the list down into various important aspects of travel that I feel should be taken into account when trying to plan and pack for a spell abroad.

Time Managment:

Given that I’m working everyday until Friday, today (Sunday) might be the only chance I’m going to get to head into town and pick up any necessities before flying on Saturday morning. If I hadn’t considered this and taken my potential free time into account I would most likely be left rushing about on Friday evening trying to source everything in time before shops close – taking the risk of forgetting something vital. I know I will have access to a computer and printer during the week, and so will have the opportunity to print off tickets, boarding passes, and other necessary travel documents well ahead of schedule.

Holiday Type:

I’m attending a music festival in Budapest for a week, and so packing light yet intuitively is going to be key. In order to save money I’ve already sourced a backpack that I can borrow for the week, and although I own a small and portable tent, the research I’ve done on the festival has told me that there are ‘camping packs’ available for 20-30 euro on the festival grounds. These contain a tent and other necessary items that would be awkward and cumbersome for campers to travel with, many festival attendees (like ourselves) opting to fly into the city and spending a night or two in hostels before roughing it in the campsite.

Health and Diet:

This is a big one for me, as I’ve always felt that the way I’ve been treating my body and mind in the lead up to an important event, date, or period of time always has a direct correlation to the successes or failures of it. In other words – if I’ve been eating and drinking like crap a few days before I have to undertake something as substantial as an entire day spent travelling, I’m not going to feel my best and will be more likely to make silly mistakes and forget to do things that would hinder the smooth flow of the journey, and ultimately impact the enjoyment of travel negatively. It might seem like a no-brainer, but if we consciously eat well and maintain a balanced mindset in the lead-up to as unpredictable a life event as travel can be, we will at the very least possess the ability to know ourselves and trust our own intuition to maintain calm in the midst of chaos should a crisis occur.
Not to mention the importance of being correctly fueled and energised to navigate busy airports, train stations, and strange cities without burning out and ending up sitting alone, lost and emotional in a bar in Rome (I wish I wasn’t speaking from experience).

Budgeting:

Yet another aspect of travel where I have previously failed miserably, budgeting for even the shortest trip away is so key when your available funds fluctuate regularly between a healthy and comforting 3-4 digit number, to a minus figure that should only be used to describe the depths of Winter in Antarctica. At the beginning of this month I wrote down exactly what funds were available to me at the time, how much I was guaranteed to earn by the time the trip came around, and also took into account the minimum amount of money I could allow myself to get by on day-to day until my departure. If I felt I ever exceeded this amount, or if something came up that I hadn’t expected to need money for, I kept a mental tally of this until I got the opportunity to write it down so I wouldn’t forget. This is the first time I actually feel like I’ve been on top of my spending habits and in control enough to maintain such a balance – the only thing I regret slightly is depending that my latest paycheck will come through before Friday, but it’s never been late before!

Research:

As well as researching the available facilities at the festival itself, we’ve also arranged to fly into a neighbouring city instead of directly to the nearest airport, as we found we saved money that way. It’s worth looking these things up in advance and researching the options for reaching your destination, as quite often (especially in Europe) it can prove cheaper to fly into somewhere else and get a train to where you want to go – an added bonus to this is that you get to see a whole other country on your travels!

I’ll probably think of more things that I should have written here in a while, but for now I’ll leave it at that and head off to find some insect repellent…

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