In The Words of Ed Sheeran

We’ll dance around La Sagrada Familia
Drinking Sangria
Mi niña, te amo mi cariño
Mamacita, rica
Si tú, te adoro, señorita
Nosotros, vivir la vida
Come on, let’s be free…

Yep, you guessed it (and if you haven’t: shame on you), I was in… Barcelona! (A series of fiesta- and food-related emojis here seems nothing short of inevitable (💃🏼🍻🎇🍷🥘👯).) (I hope you appreciate that as much as I do.) After my well below average stays in Toulouse (so far out of town you could have been mistaken for being in Spain already) and Montpellier (so far below average it could barely work out average’s gender, let alone its eye colour), I was more than ready for five nights of top-notch paella and tantalisingly toxic punch in the Spaniards’ party capital. (It was initially meant to be four nights but, after suffering for thirty-six long hours at Jimmy’s boot camp, and then getting rapidly more infuriated with the whimsical (read: intolerable) landlady at the so-called Toulousian auberge, I decided to cut my losses (a few days late I will admit), throw caution to the wind and double book my last (pre-paid for) night in Toulouse with an additional night – a prelude, if you will – in the Catalonian capital before the city’s main event: A Night with (well, four if you are counting) the one and only, the inimitable, the inspirational (drum roll please) Big Sissy Louise! (Although she far prefers to go by her middle name, so henceforth she will (lovingly) be referred to as Deborah (pronunciation: deh-BORE-rah).

But first I must tell you about the most wonderfully unexpected amuse-bouche (or, to keep things culturally correct; aperitivo) which came in the form of a fleeting foxtrot with my longest-standing (and equally probably the longest (in length) when standing) best friend Charlotte. Not quite as overtly welcome as the chance encounter itself was the fact that meeting up with her (away with the girls for a birthday weekend) highlighted the shameful truth that I am – truly – a terrifically terrible (read: boring) traveller. The previous evening I had microwaved myself a jacket sweet potato (topped with spinach and two poached eggs (a rather cracking combo if I do say so myself)) and hit the sheets at approximately 9.57 pm. Charlotte, and her four mates (all (bar Charlotte) over the age of forty may I add (does nothing to help my street cred in this story)), on the other hand, was partying in a rooftop club until 5 (yes FIVE) am! To make matters (my speedily diminishing credentials) worse, I turned up at their hotel in ripped jeans, sneakers, make-up-free face and my borrowed-from-mum day backpack (the one redeeming fact being that I forewent the dusty pink cap) to be greeted by five of the most glamorous Brits abroad La Rambla had ever caught sight of. ALL in maxi dresses (and, to add insult to injury, ironed), with their hair freshly styled, their make-up perfectly in place, wheeling lovely little cabin bags behind them as they clutched their handbags (in colour coordination with their frocks) gracefully in their manicured hands. And all of this was seamlessly achieved on a severe hangover and about three hours of sleep. I could barely manage a matching pair of trainer socks following eleven hours of shut-eye. Anyway. After the obligatory introductions (Charlotte, I provide my sincerest apologies for any embarrassment caused when unveiling me to your perfectly preened pals) the six of us went for the most amusing brunch and coffee (obviously I (most probably to everyone’s dismay (/ expectation following the shoddy appearance)) whipped out my supermarket-bought banana and yoghurt (still riding the budgetmobile)), where I simply sat back and was thoroughly entertained by the hilarious stories from their booze-fuelled weekend in the city. By the time the bill came my cheeks ached from laughing and, although far too brief, I was thrilled to have miraculously been in the very same city at the very same time as my chica, on a very well-deserved break from the everyday (which, as I’m sure you’ve gathered, is my current speciality).

Now back to the holiday in hand. I arrived at our accommodation first, with Deborah (remember: deh-bore-rah) meeting me circa three pm. With my banana and yoghurt brunch and her Pret at the airport munch, we were both teetering towards the tapas side of the hungry scale when we met. And oh weren’t we in the best place for this rumbling-a-tumbling scenario. (We did endeavour to spend the entirety of the rest of our four-day trip remarking “we definitely need to eat there” to every tapas bar we walked past (and in the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona these are far from infrequent). However. Our first snackette of the day (we certainly weren’t going to classify it as a meal and reduce our future eating capacity) was rather underwhelming (Deborah and I would go so far as to deem it wildly dissatisfactory but I suspect we are a touch more unforgiving in the culinary department than the general populous). But we really only have ourselves to blame. (And our growing hanger (which can be to blame for many a fateful decision).) Firstly, the restaurant (if it deserves that title) was in between one of the most touristic streets and one of the most touristic squares in the whole of the city. Secondly, there were no other punters there (not even any chavvy British ones who might mistake the customary Spanish omelette for a spicy Mexican wrap). Thirdly, it looked really rather shit. Anyhoo, we allowed our (by this point) screeching stomachs to seat us down and tentatively ordered one portion of patatas bravas and another of some questionable ‘house style’ octopus. The potatoes looked far inferior to any patatas bravas I had ever ordered in UK, with the unsightly (but, taste-wise, critically redeeming) addition of a splat of white gloop and a splot of burnt orange (in colour) gloop, with no frills, no finesse and – God forbid – no sautéed garlic or shallot. (It transpires that this rendition of the famous dish is, in fact (and unfortunately), the traditional recipe which is used here, there and everywhere in Spanish kitchens (including that of Alfredo Rodriguez (our cooking class guru) (which just proves the sad reality to be true)). And as for the octopus? Tasted more like meat than seafood. Which is not the ideal taste sensation for a budding pescatarian (now verging on full-on vegetarian (due to this and other (similarly nauseating) fishy situations)). So we had learnt our lesson the hard way, and from that point forward did not deign to dine anywhere highly touristic, entirely empty or clearly a little bit shit.

With a large chunk of our time spent eating delicious Spanish delicacies (excluding the first fateful forage into the country’s characteristic cuisine) I have the very tempting opportunity to tease your tastebuds with titillating tales of each and every bite we savoured around the city. I could write lengthy prose about the bold homemade aioli- and pesto-smothered toast; the delicately crafted scallop ceviche; the sumptuous and juicy prawn topped polenta. But don’t worry. I won’t bore you with the intimate details. I will simply surmise with one piece of advice: go (to Barcelona in general) hungry and you will (one hundred percent guaranteed) leave full. (And then I will write in unnecessary detail about one of our favourite foodie encounters: our Master Cooking Class with the fabulous Alfredo.)

The class started at 10.30 am (a little strange to me (the cooking class virgin) but actually totally normal (according to the cooking class maestro (Deborah))). We put make-up on for the occasion (naturally (think of all the tapas-titivated selfie opportunities)), made the four-minute stroll from our hotel to the Master Kitchen, and knew as soon as we were buzzed in and entered the kitchen / living / dining room bonanza that we had picked the right class. The space was big, bright and airy; beautiful light fittings hung down from the high ceilings; bottles of the finest wines adorned the walls; and fairy lights were aplenty. I was in heaven. We were the first to arrive (eager as always when there’s food involved), shortly followed by a South Korean marketing man, an American nurse / engineer couple, an Australian couple of which the man had no culinary flair except for insane egg-cracking skills (which had been developed during a part-time stint at McDonald’s in his teenage years) and the most hilarious retired American couple who’s constant bickering and general conversation proved comedy gold for the entirety of the class. With introductions out the way we approached the cooking station – an enormous central island surrounded by swivelling high stools, took our seats and were greeted at the table by ten incredible looking tapa, pre-made for us by Alfredo himself, who was going to talk us through each of the small plates (with the help of his glamorous assistant (sous chef and Spanish-English translator, Maria)) before we got to taste. Oh. My. God. Each one was friggin’ delicious. My personal favourite was the (I acknowledge rather boring) mushroom croquette, but other highly recommended morsels included the tomato- and toasted almond-topped mussels and anchovy-topped slices of creamy manchego…😍 Unlike most other classes, here we cooked together; each appointed by Alfredo specific tasks in the making of the dishes, which seemed, to me, a brilliant way to run things. You could laugh at other people making a hash of things (which, in our lively yet down-to-earth group, was really rather fun); it gave more time for the all important sister selfies (while not falling behind our classmates on preparation of our meal, of course); and – most importantly – it allowed plenty of time for drinking the continually-flowing crisp white wine (I think we probably averaged one bottle per person by the end of the class). On the menu (after the endless tapas) was Spanish omelette, seafood paella and Catalan cream (crème brûlée for all the British (and French for that matter) folk). Each course was expertly taught, expertly made (😉) and expertly devoured. Up my sleeve there are now many a culinary trick and tips for cooking the above three courses, as well as general kitchen genius (including removing the garlic smell from your hands without using any soap (!!!)). You may now and forever more refer to me as Delia / Nigella / Ping (from MasterChef…remember?!).

Along with the consumption of the entirety of Catalonia’s tapas supplies we did some sightseeing activities (bloody good sightseeing activities come to that). First up was La Sagrada Familia. (Which we did not dance around (like Ed) (sorry to disappoint).) With pre-booked tickets (I’m now somewhat of a professional when it comes to religious building queuing time reduction) we swanned past the ill-prepared swarms, gawking unapologetically at the magnificent (yet TOTALLY FUCKING RUINED BY CONTINUAL BLOODY CONSTRUCTION) exterior with its fairytale-esque bone-like structure adorned with bright, glistening pieces of fruit (not real (they would be awfully off by now)), almost enticing you in to see what treasures are to be found inside. After the obligatory (and extremely unflattering) Sagrada Selfie (imagine the camera angle required to include all of the ruddy spires) we crossed the threshold and were instantly transported into another world. The basilica is vast, the ceilings are tall and the decoration is exquisite. (I am aware that this description is fitting to every basilica that has ever been built.) But this one was different. It felt modern even though its construction started 135 years ago. The stained glass windows were totally unique, like nothing I have seen before (and (not to brag, but) I’ve seen quite a few stained glass windows in my time) and the illumination they created as the sun shone through was something quite spectacular, which, I have no doubt, would have been in Gaudí’s creative vision. We were so in awe we even watched the infomercial that was playing on repeat in one corner of the church. It was actually very informative! Did you know for example (in the voice of Jimmy Carr), that Gaudí was actually killed by being run over by a tram?! And not only that, no taxi driver would pick up the injured man and take him to a hospital because they thought he was a beggar, unaware of his real identity?! (I am not condoning tram hit-and-run cases on beggars.) But can you bloody believe it! Imagine! (Having now lost one potential question for my Christmas quiz I won’t reveal any more juicy facts for fear of ruining the festivities altogether.) But just trust me on this one: go (with a pre-booked ticket) and you won’t be disappointed. (Although the infomercial may be more mercial than info following that super saucy (and obviously super tragic) leak.)

Continuing with the Gaudí theme we visited Park Güell. (This was booked in for directly after the cooking class – which overran – so was reached after a rather stressful (mentally), rushed (physically) and uncomfortable (food baby-ly) journey involving slow metros, uphill paths and an extremely unwelcome wrong turn (of which I did not let on to Deborah (I was navigator) for steam was already escaping from her delicate little earholes).) But we eventually reached the gate (indigestion in tow) thirty minutes after our booked slot but (thanks to my natural Spanish charm (or possibly the fact that they allowed for a thirty minute grace period (although the fluttering eyelashes can’t have done any harm))) gained legal access (to Deborah’s visible relief) and entered the magical world of Gaudí’s creative genius (again). However. It was a bit too crowded for my liking. Don’t get me wrong; the mosaics were great, the Hansel and Gretel houses were very reminiscent, and the guided tour (done by me for dearest Debbie) was truly second to none. I just would have preferred a private visit with the architect on hand to answer any queries, but I guess you can’t have everything in life.

Once we had completed the park, and wandered the hour-long route back to our pension, it was time for our final evening. (Why is it that this always comes around far too quickly?) Obviously dinner was surplus to requirements, so with my love of a good sunset and the beach close to hand we decided to partake in a ‘last night spent watching the sunset on the beach’ scenario. Two factors rather scuppered this plan. Firstly, due to one party pooper named geography and another named architecture, one cannot actually see the sun set while on the beach in Barcelona. (Bit of a bummer.) But we weren’t going to let this tiny, insignificant detail ruin our night. So to the beach we headed, drunk with the joys of the last night of holiday (and also with a little of the remnants of the morning’s white wine). And guess what bloody happened along the way. We only bloody bumped into Cris from Brazil whom I had met two months prior in Lake Bloody Bled! Shouting out “Cris!” I confused my sister no end (also the name of her husband whom we had just been talking about (all good, Chris, no need to worry)) who suddenly thought that either she had been ambushed by her lovely other half, or that I had developed some kind of rare family-member-name-calling Tourette’s Syndrome. I soon explained and introduced her to the present Cris, who we invited to come and join us at the beach. He was waiting for a friend and so would maybe join us later. (Pfft.) So on we went, stopping en route to collect a cheeky couple of cans and packet of cheesy Doritos (for sustenance as we watched (pretended to watch) the sun go down over the beautiful Balearic Sea). Soon we were on the beach, the blanket was down and the can’s were popped. Before we even had the chance plant our delicate derrières we were joined (a little suspiciously speedily?) by Cris and his new mate Sunglasses*. To introduce both with thoughtful details: Cris = lovely, interesting, normal; Sunglasses = inappropriate, immature, and clearly a little bit horny. A lovely conversation developed between myself, my sister and my recently reacquainted Brazilian friend. Then Sunglasses piped up. He wanted to introduce us to his friend, Mary. We were all rather perplexed. Magdalene? Berry? The mother of Jesus? All wrong! Turned out he wanted to introduce us to his stash of Mary-juana. We were still all rather perplexed. (Since when did it stop being just teenagers that smoked weed (and gave it a rather unfitting, dated female pet name for that matter)?) Anyway. Out came Mary, off came the sunglasses, and now came the awkward monologue surrounding his lady friend’s aphrodisiacal qualities. It was an interesting five to ten minutes… Suffice to say we three all politely declined a drag, and Deborah and I made a quick dash for it at the soonest possible moment. (Sorry, Cris!)

Thus, all that was left for us to do was to go for a drink (obvi, babe) and reminisce about our week of unbeatable food, breathtaking architecture and our baffling encounter with the potty (pun intended) young man.

*I cannot remember his name for the life of me, but he was wearing a rather large pair of sunglasses, which is what he shall now be named. (This was a good look and he even appeared quite handsome, until he took them off and we realised, unfortunately, that it was purely a good pair of shades.)

DID SHE GET ON THE PLANE? (A Ross and Rachel Situation*)

Rossie (see asterisk, bottom) and I have been friends for almost exactly five years now. Evidently a supreme being felt that this half-decade-versary was the time for us to be having exactly the same experience, at exactly the same time, a mere 1,000 kilometres away from each other (and each totally none the wiser). I will start with my morning (definitely the more embarrassing of the two). As you know (and if you don’t – why not? – scroll down and read my ruddy last post (I hope you’re feeling suitably chastised)) on my last night in Nice I enjoyed a classic Salade Niçoise et un verre de vin rosé. What you don’t know as of yet is that I had been attempting to complete four nights of absolute sobriety in Nice, and also that the vin rosé was just the first drink of the evening. Following dinner I moved onto the dingy Irish pub down the road (only because I wanted to watch an England World Cup Qualifier (I promise I’m usually much more of a classy bird)), and consumed two extortionately priced and (for British standards) extortionately alcoholic half pints of La Chouffe (which happens to be the very first drink I had when I arrived in Ghent at the very start of my trip (no wonder it got off to such a good start)). With my new friends in toe, and England 4-0 up, when the match was over we headed to a nearby cocktail bar to celebrate. Here I had a mojito. And that is all I drank. Period (said in an annoying American accent). However. The Salade Niçoise (as delicious as it was) was not overly substantial (no new potatoes in sight (was it even an authentic Niçoise?)), and I had had a few days off the old travellers’ Achilles heel – alcohol errrday. This all conspired against me the next morning to equal an horrifically hungover Rachel whose alarm went off at 6.45 am and who had to get an EIGHT HOUR coach to Lyon (and I suffer from travel sickness at the best of times).

The first sign that this was more than just a sore head was when I arrived at the airport (from where I was catching my coach). I needed something (anything) so bought a cappuccino (with sugar (and I never have sugar in my coffee)) whose froth made me feel positively queasy. I love a cappuccino and I love a cappuccino’s froth: something funky was going on. But I kept my composure. I boarded the coach, it got on the road, and I got started on brekkie: natural yoghurt with blueberry compote and whole blueberries. It was rather good! I thought this had turned things around for me (blueberries are a superfood afterall). Fast forward thirty minutes and things had taken a severe turn for the worse. I was feeling very travel sick. Like, EXTREMELY nauseous. I put my earphones in for some distraction. I managed about twenty minutes of Ed Sheeran’s ÷ before I had a rush of OH MY GOD I AM ACTUALLY GOING TO BE FULLY SICK RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW. This was not overly desirable as I was one hour in to an eight-hour bus ride, with plenty of passengers surrounding me that would not, I believe, take kindly to being vomited all over. I had to act quickly. I ripped out my headphones (sorry Ed), undid my seatbelt (yes I do wear my seatbelt) and made a dash for the onboard toilet. Luckily it was vacant (the potential outcome of this story had the toilet been engaged is truly not worth thinking about). I got in, I shut the door and I was violently sick. EVERYWHERE. And it was full of half-chewed blueberries and compote. It was like a live-action Jackson Pollock creation in the confines of the FlixBus WC. And when I say it went everywhere I’m not exaggerating. Some of it went in the toilet, no problem, but cleaning up the 40% that was splattered all over the seat, walls and floor was not the most enjoyable activity I’ve partaken in. (Especially on a hangover.) (Sorry for the detail (just feel glad you didn’t have to experience it).)

Back in my designated seat, feeling rather delicate but definitely better than before, I got back to my most overplayed album of all time. I was going for the eyes closed, music load, breaths deep strategy to survive the rest of the journey. And then my phone pinged. Rossie had been having a somewhat below par morning as well. Turns out this sickness bug I had picked up had made its way over to the UK. (At least we were both suffering I guess – we could share stories later.) Rossie’s sickness, however, was a bit more unrelenting than mine (although ferocious, my episode in the toilet was, thankfully, the extent of my indisposition). Her’s was almost debilitating and, after hours of trying to help it subside, there was a big question mark as to whether her flight to Lyon booked for later that day would be caught. (I tried to ease the situation by regailing her with the story of my similar ailment – gory details and all – but I’m not sure whether this helped or made things a lot, lot worse.) We were in no man’s land for a period before I received the confirmation that Rossie would (extremely regrettably) not make it over for our long weekend in Lyon. Obviously I was super bummed, but in a seriously groggy state myself I could understand the lack of will to get on an airplane, on your own, when feeling utterly shoddy. I was sad, but I got it. (We had booked an Airbnb so I had a private apartment and a DOUBLE FRIGGIN’ BED all to myself to look forward to!) Some more time passed (it’s hard to remember exact timings as I was still severely hanging) when my phone pinged again. (I thought maybe it was Ed, just checking in.) It was Rossie. The message read as follows (with no punctuation, emojis or kisses (so I knew this was serious)): I’m gonna try again. What the…?!? Next thing I know – she’s through bloody security and about to board the plane!!! And in four hours time I was meeting her from the airport shuttle in Lyon to begin our long weekend away. Now that’s what I call girl power. 💪🏻❤️👯

Now onto the city in hand: Lyon. Wonderful. Just wonderful. It reminded me of Britain a bit (in a good way) and I can definitely imagine myself living there. (I am seriously considering moving to France for a year (while I still can (thanks Boris)) and Lyon is a serious contender on the location front.) The city is cool, quirky and creative, and not really very touristy which, after four months of Tourists R Us, was a big plus. I decided to walk the forty minute stretch from the bus station to the Airbnb (due to the still very prominent hangover), which did me the world of good (fresh air plus a little exercise (I can call it exercise when there is an 18 kg backpack involved) was just what the doctor ordered after the longest eight hour bus ride), that is until I reached the street on which the apartment was located and the heavens opened like a shark’s mouth at the faintest hint of blood. Once more in the run up to welcoming a guest from home I was thoroughly drenched and a quivering, sodden mess. Marvellous. It didn’t help that I also couldn’t actually find the entrance to the apartment for a good five to ten minutes, so I was now a cold, wet, frustrated and still marginally hungover backpacking embarrassment. (The cold that ensued from this less than ideal quarter of an hour is still not fully gone now (three weeks later) (please send lots of healthy thoughts (and a stash of lemon and honey strepsils)).) 

I eventually managed to locate the apartment, find the keys, make it up the flight of stairs and unlock our pad for the next three nights. And what a lovely little home it was. The biggest studio I have ever seen, there was a huge double bed, huge flat screen TV (not that we even tried to turn it on (too much gossiping to do)), kitchen area, breakfast bar situation (love a breakfast bar situation) and loadsa loadsa floor space so we weren’t cramped at all. Too good to be true? Well, yes, there was a little hitch. A little hitch which came in the form of the flush for the toilet. I went to the toilet before Rossie arrived and struggled so much to even work out where the flush was that I had to contact our Airbnb host with the humiliating question: how do you flush the toilet? (I was praying it wasn’t something obvious that would make me look like a total wally.) The reply came: Sorry I forgot to tell you! [Not the most reassuring first line of the answer to that specific question.] You have to press the bottom several times 🙂 [Not quite sure a smiley is appropriate here.] don t worry press lot. First thought: I bloody well hope she means the bottom of the toilet as opposed to the bottom of the user. On closer inspection I think she actually meant ‘button’, but it was oddly enough situated on the bottom section of the toilet, so who knows what she was actually referring to. Anyway, I pressed away. A lot. I actually counted 60 presses before the flush choked into action. When Rossie arrived I got her to try, to see if it was just me doing it wrong, but she struggled too. I went with the index finger and her approach was the thumb. We were both getting sore. One time I got to two-hundred presses and still no joy; Rossie had to begrudgingly take over. And then we figured out the trick: it was pure speed. That was all the was too it. Hammer away at it with enough momentum and you could get it going in fifteen pushes, maximum. Sometimes – if you were really lucky – it even went on the first press (we both achieved that once and couldn’t have been more thrilled for ourselves and each other). I couldn’t work out whether this bizarre, enforced flushing ritual felt more like pleasuring or resuscitating the lavatory, but, in any case, neither is best carried out in the bathroom, especially when there is a fresh whiff of excreta in the air.

I realise I have digressed – again – to toilet-related nightmares. I do apologise. On a more savoury note, we had a thoroughly great time exploring the city and catching up over delicious food, cocktails and wine, making a name for ourselves throughout the entire city as Those Bloody British Selfie Stick Wankers (the day I can successfully take a selfie without the stick ruining the shot will be a very proud day indeed). Other than visiting a beautiful basilica (the most beautiful basilica I have ever visited) we didn’t really do that much, which is often when you have some of the most precious moments while travelling. And Lyon has definitely been a highlight. Unfortunately she did get on the plane home at the end of our stay, so I was back on my own once more (for two brief nights in Grenoble before guest number four came to join me in Marseille…).

*Similar in every detail, except: Ross was a girl (let’s call her Rossie); it was Rossie getting on the plane, not Rachel; the desired outcome was that Rossie did get on the plane. (Glad that’s sorted. Now for all of you who don’t have a clue what I’m referencing: we are no longer F.R.I.E.N.D.S.)


Nice is, well, really rather nice

Following a flying visit through Turin (Torino in Italian – how much nicer) (I wouldn’t recommend), I left Italy behind me (weep) and moved onto my next country of exploration: France. As I had been learning French for the previous forty days (I worked it out – forty exactly), I assumed conversing with the natives (just on the basics, of course) would be a bit of a breeze. It had taken me a couple of weeks in Italy to perfect asking for a table in a restaurant, so I figured that all the practise I’d had (with my iPad) in French would stand me in great stead for hitting the ground running en français. Wrong. Turns out as soon as I crossed the border I was suddenly fluent in Italian. It was like I was born bi-lingual! I was all “buongiorno”, “si”, “grazie mille”. They were my defaults over even bloody English! This would have been great had I still been in Italy… but trying to buy a bus ticket from the airport to the city centre in Nice with my newly-contracted Italian pharyngitis was, quite frankly, highly embarrassing. (Disembarking the bus at the other end was in fact even more embarrassing: timing the backpack donning to the exact moment the bus driver performed a sharp hit on the brakes led to a near-catastrophic backpack vs. Rachel situation, which, however embarrassing for moi, was, I’m sure, highly entertaining for all other passengers. I won the battle (with the help of a stocky Frenchman) through the skin of my teeth, stepped off the bus and walked gingerly to my hostel, praying that my string of embarrassing incidents wasn’t going to advance to three.)

Reaching the hostel with no additional mishaps – thank the lord – I checked in, dumped my now despised backpack (I had forgiven it for the Slovakian trip (literally (the scars are still quite shocking)) but the bus incident had triggered my negative thoughts regarding the backpack to resurface (and I know it’s not the backpack’s fault, but one can’t help but blame those closest to them)) and met the first of my five new roomies. Alex (pronounced ah-lex (with a brief but definite emphasis on the first syllable) was a Russian thirty-something male who spoke as much English as I do Russian, as much French as I do currently (although none of the same words), liked to sleep in nothing but his boxer shorts, and developed an excruciatingly irritating favourite sitting position of top-bunk-leg-overhang (and I was the lucky bugger who had to dodge his smelly feet if I wanted to use the bathroom). I wouldn’t say his presence made my skin crawl, but he definitely wasn’t husband material. The other lucky inhabitants of dorm 15 over the four-day duration of my stay featured two French Canadian students (great banter), a Spaniard now living in Dublin (who I would have bet good money on being an Irishman living in Malaga) called Jesus (even better banter*), a young British couple who joined me for the England v Malta World Cup Qualifier (great banter), a Hungarian Wizz Air cabin crew member who got hit on by the director of Cartier while buying a train ticket to Monte Carlo (great legs), and a South American whirlwind of a girl who – immediately on entering the dorm – took the piss out of Ah-lex for his ridiculously burnt schnozzle (clearly the best banter of them all).

With my newly ignited love of hiking in indecent heat through beautiful coastal scenery at its most passionate, I could not not seize the opportunity to do just that on my first full day in the city. On consulting with reception on the best route to take to hike to the beach at Eze (a village a little further east) I was met with (as opposed to the admiration and ‘you go girl’ spirit I was expecting) a bemused, dazed look, a gaping mouth and an unmistakable double take. “You want to HIKE there? In THIS heat?” [ARE YOU MAD?] (Subtext.) I did indeedy want to hike there (and probably was indeed a little bit mad). Anywho, off I trotted in my sportswear, backpack and cap (always) to embark on the coastal hike from Nice to Eze, of which I had no idea on distance, duration or possible deathly hazards. (Because clearly no one had ever contemplated let alone completed this hike in all of the Côte d’Azur.) But I was feeling optimistic. Six hours, twenty-four kilometres, three suncream reapplications, two dodgy-smelling toilets, a wrong turn through the most swanky of seaside estates, a sandy apple and a now-warm homemade houmous and avocado sandwich later, I reached Eze beach. Ha! Obviously first on the agenda was obtaining ice cream, so the extortionately priced double caramel magnum from the roadside shack went down a treat. Then it was to the beach! By now – around 5.30 pm – the heat was fading and the crowds were thinning, with just a handful of others enjoying the last of the afternoon sun. Once I had licked off all the chocolate and caramel from around my mouth I performed my now-perfected clothes-to-costume (bikini) manoeuvre, with no sight of (not even the flashest of flashes of) any private parts. The quick dip in the water was great – relaxing, refreshing, reinvigorating. The getting out of the sea was not. With a strong tide and a sharp, rocky sea bed, my chances of executing an eloquent exiting were slim at best. My strategy was slow and steady. Slow I mastered like an Olympic champion. Steady… not so much. As I approached roughly one-and-a-half metres away from the shore I took a very slow, very steady and very embarrassing tumble to the right. (Now just imagine how shallow the water is at this point.) And all of a sudden, I was sitting. Literally sitting. Sitting in about one foot of water, alone, in front of three old Frenchmen resting leisurely on the beach (I have no doubt that there was humour and pity in their eyes, behind their dark glasses), wondering how on earth I was going to get up, let alone with an eloquent execution (that was both me and the locals pondering this conundrum). So I continued with the slow and steady gameplan (I really couldn’t have achieved anything of speed even if had I wanted to) and – somehow – launched myself up from the floor (physically and symbolically), got to my feet and continued my slow, hesitant and painful journey to my towel and pile of clothes. Ouch. Having had such a physically exhausting day, followed by such a mentally exhausting five minutes, I lay back on my towel and fell into a blissful near-REM level snooze, in which I was able to forget the day’s most recent incident and instead bask in the achievements of my long coastal hike.

Along with exploring Nice itself (obviously) one can’t take a trip to the biscuit-named city without visiting it’s two exceedingly exclusive neighbours. The Edina Monsoon and Patsy Stone of the French Riviera, if you will. First up was Edina (Monte Carlo / Monaco) (which I didn’t realise, until after my visit, is in fact a different country – not just a pretentious, self-obsessed French city as I had initially thought). I took a packed lunch (budget bitch) (fresh baguette, carrot sticks and, of course, hou-hou (houmous)) and ate it perched on a big concrete slab looking out over Hercules Port. Everything was absolutely fabulous until a rather rotund seagull took an interest in my picnic, clearly used to hoovering up all of the uneaten lunches of the super-skinny WAG-type inhabitants who, I judgingly assumed, spent their diamond-encrusted days wining (and evidently not dining) at one of the region’s many swanky bars and bistros. But me? Mais NON are you getting your grubby beak on my full-fat hou-hou (did he not get the memo on my feelings towards the king of all dips?). I successfully guarded and guzzled my lunch, and set off to explore the city state’s capital. It was like something out of a film. The main feature – Casino de Monte-Carlo – attracted a swarm of shameless tourists and millionaire wannabes, photographing, posing with and pouring over the array of seven-figure priced cars parked enticingly outside. I don’t really see the appeal of having your photo taken while standing next to another person’s car (and I do like cars), but it was a spectacle to watch none the less. However, my sneakers and cap weren’t exactly the most appropriate attire for such a wealthy environment, so after absorbing a little of the glitzy [definition: attractive in a showy and often superficial way] atmosphere I headed back to the station and back to more normal civilisation.

Next was the turn of Patsy (aka Cannes). A little less head-in-the-clouds that her best friend, but still housing a decent amount of decadence, it was much more up my street. And this time I dressed up for the occasion. In my ‘sophisticated’ dress (no denim shorts and stained tee), sandals (no Nike tick), handbag (no hiking backpack), made-up face (no spots or uneven skin tone) and NO CAP IN SIGHT: I was much more in keeping with my lovely surroundings. I window-shopped, wandered and whiled away the time (all the while paranoid of my scalp burning, my mascara running and tripping up in my non-supportive footwear). But I thoroughly enjoyed it. The shops were interesting without being intimidating, the people were well turned out without being total twats and there were food and drink options that wouldn’t break the bank (along with lots mixed in that most definitely would (one of the menus I perused charged €20 for a non-alcoholic cocktail…)). 

After a successful afternoon (pretending to be) living the high life in Cannes, I headed back to Nice to enjoy the final evening of my stay. I decided to treat myself to a night out of the hostel kitchen, instead sampling the city’s most famous dish (Salade Niçoise), the region’s most famous tipple (vin rosé) and the country’s most unauthentic nightlife (an Irish pub in which to watch England play footy). Every element was really rather nice.

*Jesus (Spanish name and pronunciation) works as a nurse in Dublin. (This is a true (slightly upsetting but equally hilarious) story.) He had just taken a patient up to be x-rayed on the top floor of the hospital. The next of kin asked the patient’s doctor where their relative was. The doctor looked down at the patient’s notes and confirmed: Jesus has taken [said patient] upstairs. (The initial reaction of the family member was not the most joyful.)

Mamma Mia!

Somehow, without planning it this way, I have a near-constant stream of amici e famiglia coming to join me for a slice of the action until the end of September. This has both its advantages and disadvantages. Pros: I can be my true weird self and I know that I won’t be judged (they have already accepted me into their lives and PAID to have the pleasure of spending time with me); I will be wholeheartedly congratulated on the progress of my tan, rather than asked (by those who are unfamiliar with my milky complexion) if I am averse to exposing any skin to the sun as I am “really rather pale”; I can experience a luxurious style of travel which can only be achieved through an injection to the accommodation budget – privacy, cleanliness and some ruddy air conditioning (or at least an electric fan). Cons: I can no longer pretend I am a successful travel writer / degree holder / Parisian (the latter perhaps more in my dreams) or any other profession / nationality of choice when introducing myself to new people; I now have competition when it comes to seducing the handsome Italian waiter / French linguist / Dutch engineer…; I have a constant companion with whom to blow my already stretched budget on delicious food, wine, aperitivo… (and get treated to the odd glass of prosecco because they feel sorry for me in my crumpled clothes and bulging backpack). It’s a hard life. But someone’s gotta do it.

First on the guest list was the one and only Moo Moo. Hooray! Finally someone to do the sun cream on my back! We met at the confusingly named Hotel Bologna in the centre of – Pisa. (I thought the same.) I arrived first (I was determined to utilise every possible minute I could in hotel accommodation) and entered the lobby slightly nervous that they would catch sight of this make-up-free, bite- and bruise-covered, backpack-laden globetrotter and dial direct for the Italian authorities to pack me up and take me back to more appropriate lodgings. But somehow with my eyelashes on their best fluttering duty and my charm at its most Italian (and my mother’s credit card) I was able to gain entry into this other worldly haven of marble flooring, double beds and, no – it couldn’t be, COMPLIMENTARY SLIPPERS!!! As soon as the door closed behind me the Nike’s were off and the pantefole were on, the king sized bed was well and truly launched upon, and I took a series of shameless selfies posing alongside the Hotel Bologna branded pillows to send to Moo Moo who was en route from the airport. Ah. This was the life.

Half an hour later (just enough time to complete that day’s French homework (I’m learning the language, mon ami)) the hotel room door creaked open and a lovely little lady came peaking through the opening. It’s the maid with complimetary chocolates! I hear you all say. Mais non! It was of course ma mère, ma missing monopoly piece (figuratively speaking (she’s not a recently retired iron)), ma multi bueno mumchkin, ma magnifico Moo Moo. The reunion hug was just like the best traditional Italian pasta – warming, comforting and oozing with goodness, leaving a satisfied glow on the inside which lingered for hours after the main event. Of course there has never been a better reason to have a glass of prosecco than the reunification of mother and daughter, so off into Pisa we went, in search of a glass of bubbly. The rest of the afternoon consisted of catching up on all the latest breaking news from the UK: the last three months’ ups and downs of the Parish Council; the state of the flowers on the patio (and the state of the patio itself for that matter); and, most importantly, the current mental state of my most treasured possession: Bimbo – the best teddy bear of all time. (He is suffering from separation anxiety (as expected) but doing well all things considered.)

After one full day exploring Pisa, taking comically badly lined up Leaning Tower photos and generally just trying to prevent mother dearest from keeling over from the heat (a vast contrast to the murky midlands), we got an early night and set off the following morning for stop two: Florence. Getting the train was an interesting experience. If you think finding the platform, boarding the train, stowing your luggage and obtaining a decent seat was hard with an 18 kg backpack imagine doing it with an 18 kg backpack, a 15 kg wheely suitcase and a 65-year-old mother… Getting all three into the overhead compartment was a nightmare! But we made it there in one piece and, after nearly throttling each other while trying to find the hotel, we arrived, and – my God – had we ARRIVED. The hotel room turned out to be a hotel suite. My mother turned out to be the bloody Madonna. Along with the maxi king sized bed there was the seating area (a sofa EACH); a bathroom with shower AND BATH; and a complimentary bottle of the nicest chianti I have ever tasted. I’d give it a six out of ten for facilities. And then there were the breakfasts. Mamma Mia. I had the same combo every morning, I fell in love with mini frittatas a little more everyday, and I now know what I will provide for breakfast for every guest I ever house ever again when I am back to real life and back to the kitchen. I won’t reveal the full bonanza as I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but, friends, you are in for an eggcellent treat.

Our time in Florence was spent eating, drinking and doing lots of walking – pretty much my standard everyday life as I now know it. We even had a houmous, bread and cheese (and chianti) picnic in the suite (😉) to make me feel more at home. (In our complimentary dressing gowns, naturally.) We ticked off the Uffizi (lots of underwhelmingly endowed male sculptures), the Mercato Centrale (delicious octopus salad and even more delicious prosecco) and climbing up a hill to watch the sun set over the River Arno (a near mother faintality situation, but nonetheless a must do in any city).

Third and final stop was Stresa, a lovely little holiday town on Lake Maggiore. It had a definite air of older generation about it. The hotel was like something out of a film from a previous century. The entrance lounge was a meadow of a dozen different pink and red hues of floral apolstery, including on the walls, with the biggest chandelier you’ve ever seen hanging grandly from the ceiling like an upside down cake of cascading champagne classes (luckily no drips). I did consider hiding during check in to avoid embarrassment on my mother’s part but, once more, her credit card afforded me a temporary new identity of landed gentry with a penchant for all things kitsch.

Relaxation was the purpose and itinerary of this section of our Northern Italian mini tour, and boy did we do it well. I don’t think we veered off course for more than four minutes per day (and one has to brush their teeth, darling). The pool and garden area were as perfectly manicured as the nails of Amy Childs’ vajazzlist, with a sunny yellow theme to the towels, umbrellas and bar cushions which went fabulously with my floral yellow bikini. A solid two days were spent lounging, bathing, dipping and sipping. Aperitivo was a never-missed mealtime, during which I introduced Moo Moo to the Dolomitean-born (apparently) Hugo Spritz – my first successful convert to my favourite holiday tipple. The hotel also housed a spa and wellness centre which was unexpectedly about two decades ahead of the rest of the complex in terms of design, providing an additional escape for us when soaking up the Piedmontese sun became a little too much. I am a self-confessed spa snob and this one was pretty high up there. The lounge beds were sleep inducing, the lighting ambient, and the pool just big enough to do lengths, but not so big as to disturb the perfectly placid pulse rate. When you had completed your vigorous five lengths you could sneak around the corner to find a secret cave housing a delicate jacuzzi (none of this water in every facial orifice malarkey) in which to sink away into a deep state of gently bubbling calm. Experiencing this level of almost-meditative relaxation is what I love most about #SpaLife, and mother and I certainly achieved our quota of Vitamin R here, that is until we heard / felt a large splash from the pool and I received the following WhatsApp from the lounge bed to my right: Stop press! “Large guest causes tsunami at 4* hotel in Stresa by jumping into the pool” 😂. Oh mum. I do love you.

And before you chastise us for our utterly self indulgent three days, we also partook in a boat outing – yes a BOAT outing (for those of you who know Babsy babe) – to visit three of the nearby little islands on the extensive Lake Maggiore. They were all very beautiful and got progressively more interesting which made for the perfect three-stop tour. On Isola Madre we pootled; on Isola Superiore we pootled, had a drink, pootled, had some lunch; and on Isola Bella we explored (too strenuous to be defined as a pootle) the island’s magnificent palatial house and even more magnificent gardens, had a drink, and had a second near mother faintality situation.

Our last evening together was slightly scuppered by one of Stresa’s infamous storms (mum had been looking forward to one all week) so, like all good adventurous holiday goers with one last chance to explore the town, we decided to have nice long baths, get into our robes and order room service for dinner. Delicious. We parted ways the next day at Milano Centrale, and I felt like a proud mother waving off her child who was travelling abroad alone for the first time as she boarded the train to the airport. With mother, and mother’s credit card, now gone, it was back to the budget life for me. Grazie mille, mumma mia!

Five Guys

All the best things in life come in sets of five*: the Spice Girls; the number of days each week during which you can countdown to the weekend; golden rings. And the five villages making up the Italian Riviera’s Cinque Terre are certainly no exception. In fact, even better than the brightly coloured bric-a-brac towns themselves are the spectacular hiking trails which take you from one coastal haven to the next.

Staying just outside the five official chosen ones (I’m on a budget, darling) in La Spezia, I visited the nearest of the quintet on my first afternoon – the picture-perfect Riomaggiore – before (bravely or foolishly) attempting the remaining four, adjoining hikes included, the following (very hot (31°)) day. After an initially frustrating start to the morning (requesting laundry be done by the most away-with-the-fairies hostel volunteer I had ever come into contact with (who turned out to be the manager (I was flabbergasted to say the least)), followed by said manager attempting to help me (loosely used) pre-book my ‘Cinque Terre travel card’ online (categorically unsuccessful), I headed to the train station – much more willing to stand in line to buy my ticket in person over dying a little bit more inside with every confused nonsensical noise which escaped from the hostel manager’s cake hole. (Rant over.)

I bought my ticket (allowing for train travel between each of the villages (if I got lazy) and entry on foot to two of the payable national parks through which the last two hikes ran (if I didn’t)), boarded the train and set off for numero due dei cinque: Manarola. And – man-alive-a – it was beautiful. As in Riomaggiore, the jaunty, pastel-coloured, lego-like houses sat sweetly along the dramatic and menacingly jagged charcoal grey cliff side, with the luminous turquoise sea glistening cheekily at its feet. My reward, if I completed the four-stop hike, was a swim at the last resort, so I resisted the temptation of a quick dip and got on my way to the start of the first inter-village hike. It started on a somewhat uphill leg, and as I completed the first few hundred metres (of twenty nine thousand) with my clothes already sodden, my cap positively stuck to my head, my panting akin to an overweight Elmo on a treadmill for the very first time, and my water bottle at near depletion, I doubted my chances of a successful completion of the self-set task (doubting also whether I would indeed make it to the next village alive). But then I saw Manarola from above and realised: I was totally going to smash this. The views were breathtaking (literally – the pants were audible), and, once I had decided I was definitely going to complete the feat, my newest worry was making sure I stopped to take in the scenery instead of moving and musing simultaneously (which is never a good combination for me). (Visions of newspaper headlines echoing ‘Girl Prone to Accidental Damage Not Paying Attention to Feet Trips and Falls to Dramatic Death Between Village Three and Four of the Italian Cinque Terre’ did enter my thoughts on more than one occasion.)

Arriving at the third village – Corniglia – in one (rather sweaty) piece (imagine a cone of melting strawberry gelato and you’ve near enough got it) I headed boldly down about 673 steps, along a path about one hundred miles long in search of the secluded swimming spot (which would most definitely make a ruddy good photo). Was it at the end of this twenty-five-minute sortie? Of course not. I don’t believe anything ever touched by mankind was at the end of that trail. So back I went, and up (UP 😭) I went, to find the lovely little town, and secluded little swimming spot, just a three-minute sortie from the starting point. (It wasn’t a mistake. It was a learning experience.) Consoling myself with the now warm apple I had stolen from the breakfast buffet, I had a wander, got my snaps and got back on the road, headed to the fourth wonder of this magical coastline.

Vernazza (quattro dei cinque) was going to be my lunch stop so, naturally, I picked up pace and had a renewed determination with the thought of eating food in the back (front) of my mind (one of my three favourite hobbies along with cooking and restaurant research). 🐷. Another beautiful hike was had and I made my way into the main thoroughfare in search of a suitable place to eat (you know me). I settled on a lovely little café / restaurant cum wine bar. Caprese salad and small beer plus complimentary crisps and bread consumed (nothing better than a complimentary nibble (or two)) I was rejuvenated, replete and a touch on the tipsy side – the perfect state in which to commence the day’s final hike. 

I navigated the last stretch in record time (undoubtedly the easiest climb – thank the lord) and made it to Monterosso al Mare – CINQUE DEI CINQUE – just shy of 7 pm. I did it!!! And I was bloody well going to have my swim. I bought a towel / blanket situation from one of the tourist shops, found a shady corner, and did a highly embarrassing Mr Bean-esque change from my sportswear into my swimwear. (I think one or two passers by may have caught a glimpse of a buttock (or two), but hopefully they were in good shape from all the uphill action.) Bikini on, bystanders bemused and BO at its best (disgusting but true) I immersed myself in the Ligurian Sea (never heard of it either) and floated away into a hazy dreamlike state of elation and exhaustion. There was only one thing for it: pistachio gelato. I got my cup (with half a scoop of peach (much regretted)) and walked to the station to catch the evening train back to La Spezia.

One of the most strenuous, sweatiest and sublime days of my 6 months so far. High five to that.

*They don’t. It was very tricky to even think of three examples. Any better suggestions very welcome.

S-love-nia Stole My Heart

As I type it is 9 pm on a mild Sunday evening. I am sitting in the beautiful central courtyard of Ljubljana Castle, cocooned in the softest pink blanket, having just nurtured my soul with a scoop of mint chocolate gelato (may not be pistachio, but I am sticking with the green theme), waiting to watch this evening’s Film Under The Stars (Paterson (I hadn’t heard of it either (but it is in English) (post-film note: not everyone’s cup of tea, but I thoroughly enjoyed it))). Mellow classical piano plays through the speakers as the audience slowly choose their seats, and all of this set me back less than €5. The sky is a watercolour wash of the palest, calmest blue; a deeper, richer hue waiting in the wings to bleed across the picture-perfect backdrop before darkness settles and the stars come out to play. The evening feels simply magical, which serves as a charmingly apt illustration of the past week I’ve spent in this Balkan paradise.

Bled (home to the famous Lake Bled (and the infamous Bled Cream Cake)) was my first stop, my thinking being that I would need somewhere calm, relaxing and beautiful to recover from Exit Festival. And oh Lordy was it calm, relaxing and (Lake) bleddy beautiful. The town of Bled is lovely in itself – lots of little tavernas and cafés; a fine medieval castle; cream cake on tap – but it was the central lake and surrounding nature that were the real highlights. If you are familiar with Lake Bled you will no doubt be familiar with the perfect postcard image of the tranquil turquoise waters surrounding its own (Slovenia’s only 😉) island, all framed effortlessly by dark green woodland, brighter green grass, hazy Alpine mountains and a never ending turquoise sky. Well. This image is reality. This place really is that beautiful. And after hiking to Slovenia’s most visited photo opportunity (made up fact but I wouldn’t discount the idea) Ojstrica (the third of three viewpoints we clamboured to after making a number of wrong turns) I was able to have my time in the limelight, and take an exact replica (or twenty) of the photograph found on every man, woman and dog’s smart phone who have visited this area. And of course we all then felt like National Geographic photographers who had just discovered the world’s most hidden natural beauty, and were documenting the until now unseen landscape for the world’s eyes to revere forever more. Well, maybe not, but we did all have a banging new iPhone screen saver.

During my first full day I visited Vintgar Gorge with new best mates Adele (unfortunately not the Adele, but a lovely Australian substitute) and Mark (‘red neck’ Canadian who liked to talk (a lot)), who I had met while misdirecting myself (and subsequently them) to Ojstrica. With me in charge of the directions once more (what were we thinking?) we made it to the gorge via a hop, skip, jump (and a kind-hearted Slovenian taxi driver who took pity on us). We walked the walk, oo’d and ah’d, and took dozens of photographs before reaching the pièce de résistance: the mighty 13 m high Šum waterfall. After a bite to eat perching uncomfortably (but not letting on – obviously) on the jagged rocks, watching Mark (at least three times) and Adele tackle the jump into the emerald green pool of ice cold temptation, it was my turn and I took my position on the side of the cliff (and then fannied around getting scared to take the plunge). With the prospect of a great action shot photograph to upload to Facebook, I made the leap – plugged my nose and shut my eyes tight (I might have been jumping off a cliff but I was going to do it sensibly) – and plunged into the ARCTIC waters. I surfaced with my contact lenses intact, my bikini secure, and my street cred at an all time high. (That was before the shrieking as I couldn’t get out of the ice bath quick enough (but luckily for me the photo didn’t capture that part).)

As beautiful as Lake Bled is it does have some competition, which comes in the form of Lake Bohinj – its larger, less well known sibling which lies just 26 km to the southwest. I decided to investigate the Bled vs. Bohinj debate myself. The weather during my visit to Bohinj wasn’t great, but I did still manage to get a swim and sunbathe (and cappuccino) while I was there, so not a total damp squib. The situation felt more remote in comparison to Bled, which was great for a ‘back to basics’ morning of walking (and even better when I desperately needed a wee lakeside, with no public toilet in sight). The water was just as clear, but appeared slightly darker and lacked the jewel-like vibrancy of Bled (which knocked off a couple of points in the Lake-off, but was a welcome attribute when Mother Nature was calling…). The water was also colder than in Bled (increasing the latter’s lead), but the scenery surrounding Lake Bohinj was more extensive and less developed (closing the gap considerably). When I had dried off from my swim the heavens, quite abruptly, opened their doors for all eternity (or at least it felt that way). But with a quick forage into my bag I whipped out my trusty Pac-A-Mac (always prepared) which saved the day, my hair and the public from spying my bra through my ever-transparencing top, and got me to safety (the pub) semi dry. Once the coffee was down and the storm had cleared I made my way back to the bus stop, still just as unclear on the winner of the Bled vs. Bohinj Lake Championships 2017 as I had been when I set off.

Following my leisurely few days immersed (literally) in nature, I travelled to the country’s capital, Ljubljana (or, my preferred prounounciation, jubble-jarner). I hummed and harred about stopping off here at all, and Boy George am I glad I did. I would actually contemplate emigrating here. I thoroughly recommend a visit to anyone who likes a small but perfectly formed European city (and of course I’ll offer you a cup of Yorkshire Tea if I have upped sticks by the time you visit). Its size enables it to feel both explorable and interesting while remaining non-intimidating. There are shops, bars, a castle and a park. Beautiful Braoque architecture lies around every corner (I sure was paying attention to that free walking tour), and the intricate facades and statues remained enjoyable to discover (unlike my ‘not another old building’ attitude provoked by a number of other, indeed much more prominent, capital cities).

As well as wandering the city, eyes wide and neck arched back (quite lucky I didn’t have any further mishaps to be honest), I spent one morning away from the centre, at the ‘world famous’ (not convinced) Postojna Cave. It was quite a pricy trip (entrance plus transport almost double my daily budget), but so so worth it. After arriving too late for my booked timeslot (filling the subsequent hour wait with an apricot croissant and cappuccino certainly softened the blow (and my ever decreasing muscle mass)) I made it to my re-assigned slot with bags of time, and was entertained as I waited by an OAP Slovenian dancing squad complete with traditional dress (I don’t know how they coped in the sweltering heat), traditional musical instruments and traditional (I’m guessing) random whoops and whistles by the long navy sock wearing men. It was quite a spectacle. As we made our way through the ticket scanner we were each photographed (with no warning or explanation) like paparazzi-choked celebs going through customs, only to have these mugshots very crudely photoshopped onto a cave background, waiting for us like bored babysitters in the school playground when we finished our underground adventure. I made the foolish decision of looking for my photo – I’ve never looked so pissed off to be in a cave in all my life. But as for the cave itself… BUDA FCKN TASTIC! We were transported into the depths by a very speedy, very rickety old train (I’m quite amazed that none of the normal to tall visitors were deposited beheaded from the low stalagtatic ceilings) before making our way through a series of enchanting underground rooms and walkways on foot. It was flipping fantastic. Freezing, but fantastic. I couldn’t decide if I felt more like I had been transported back to my magical sixth birthday at Disneyland Paris, or had landed a leading role in the Harry Potter franchise. Either way I felt like a child again, wandering the caves eyes wide and neck arched back (and delighted to report – quite miraculously – no embarrassing trips, falls or stalagmite altercations).

Back in jubbly-jonga, there was time for a run in the sun-drenched Tivoli Park (the first since Bratislava – three (!) weeks ago – I’m ashamed to admit) before heading to the castle for the Film Under The Stars – the perfect end to my week-long date with Slovenia.