F•R•I•E•N•D•S

To re-cap; I am up early to catch a bus from Seville, heading to Portimão, Portugal, with no watch, no map, no phone, no iPad (and not even a bloody compact hairbrush). (I had been robbed the previous afternoon – in case you had the audacity to forget the barbaric recent state of affairs.) So I am sitting on the Alsa bus, which is just as stuffy, uncomfortable and travel sickness-inducing as ever, with the added bonus that I don’t know where we are, I don’t know what the time is, and I don’t know when we will be arriving. A testing situation, one may surmise.

We pull into a bus stop at an unidentifiable port, and after shouting “Portimão?” enough times to enough of my fellow passengers, I come to the conclusion that this is where I am to depart. (Fingers crossed.) Twenty-kilogram backpack donned and I’m off in search of my next resting place: best-friend Rachel’s parents’ brand-spanking-new holiday home in a state of the art complex with electric gates and private pool. Oh my. I must have been in purgatory ‘cos yesterday had been hellish and I sure was on my way to heaven. In amongst the panic of last night’s HORRIFIC attack (did I mention that I’d been robbed?), Rachel, back home in England, had screen-shotted and emailed to my hostel the route from the bus station to the apartment, which they then printed for me (attempting to charge me 10p per sheet (which, as you can imagine from someone who was somewhat out of sorts, was politely declined, followed by a succinct explanation to the jobsworth behind the reception desk that the mere mention of a paper charge to someone who had NO BLOODY MONEY was totally (fucking) preposterous)). So I had my print-outs and I was at the (what I dearly hoped to be correct) bus stop and set off on the last leg of that day’s journey.

It was hot. Like, really hot. Like, t-shirt-has-absorbed-all-it-physically-can-and-now-you-are-just-dripping kind of weather. Not the ideal environment for a sleep-deprived, cantankerous, knotty-haired mess.

Off I went in the direction of the apartamento. Or so I thought. (It transpires that I had got confused between the start and finish pins on the map – and had been walking in exactly the wrong direction for circa twenty minutes. (This may not seem like much of a big deal but add the weight of twenty sacks of potatoes, an evil sun and the aforementioned prior events (the brutal robbery at gunpoint and near death experience) and you’ve got yourself a bloody great catastrophe.)) I did not realise my mistake alone, though. After walking seemingly off the map for a good while, I came across a rather posh looking hotel on the opposite side of the road, and decided to chance my luck at an English speaking front-of-house. I was in luck. Trying vehemently not to judge me on my dishevelled, and quite frankly humiliating, appearance, the receptionist whipped out a local map, drew on my route and bid me (a rather relieved) farewell. (I was doing nothing for their chic and classy image.) Back on the road I made my way back to the bus stop and on (in the correct direction) to the complex at which, after a few more minor hurdles here and there (backpack, tired, hot – you get the picture), I finally arrived. Fina-fucking-lee!

Once the keys were collected I went straight to the apartment and straight to…bed. (I sure know how to celebrate.) Now I just had to wait for my friends to arrive (Rachel (whose parents owned this amazing abode) and Claire (here for the free holiday). Between napping and unification with my two favourite blondes I decided to take a (braless) nip to the nearest supermarket to pick up some provisions for dinner. (I don’t know if you have ever been for a braless supermarket shop yourself (obviously I hope that this is customary for the male readers) (my reasoning was that it was far too hot to warrant any extra clothing than absolutely necessary) but I would very much recommend! It is a very freeing experience and, in such warm climates, comes with no worry of any evidence of your braless nip, if you no what I mean. Anywho. Said supermarket shop was (unsurprisingly) not all plain sailing. Again a recipe of no internet access, no idea, (no bra) and heavy bags made for a rather sweaty, rather cantankerous, and still rather knotty-haired mess (but at least my boobs felt free from their usual confines). I bobbed back slowly (literally), contemplating after every five steps whether to hitch hike home, but concluded that given my recent ill-fortunes, and my current state of (un)dress, this might not be the best idea.

What seemed like three hours later I returned to the pad, with just a few hours left before my bezzies were to arrive. Thank God for that. Arriving that evening with iPad and iPhones (and hairbrush!) galore, the next three days were spent – in a slight change to proceedings from our planned care-free girls weekend away – sorting out my insurance claims and money situation, while drinking A LOT of Portuguese green wine to remind ourselves that we were, in fact, on holiday, and that nothing can get in the way of us enjoying a bottle (or fifteen) of the region’s local vinho verde. Cheers, you blonde, boobtastic, mega-babes.

[Sangria also helped us stay in the holiday spirit]

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Pie Yay Ya

If you thought Barcelona (or my cooking class instructor Alfredo) might have paella’d me out you would be very, very wrong. Turns out it had merely whet the old appetite. Because the next destination on my list was in fact the place in which paella was born (, raised, and catapulted into a national, neigh – international – superstar. (I’m sure Simon Cowell has shares in that partnership somehow.)) And when one is in the home of such a renowned (and often butchered) dish, one simply has to taste the original creation (or one of the three hundred claiming to be at least). Now let’s get the technicalities over and done with right away. Paella is not a dish. Well. It is. It is a dish. Literally. It is the pan within which the cooking happens. The contents therefore are referred to by ingredient: seafood paella, chicken (? 😱) paella, vegetable paella, etc., etc.. One must never go to a Spanish (particularly Valencian) restaurant and order just ‘paella’; the best outcome would be a hearty side portion of ridicule and pity, the worst being presented with an empty pan with which to cook your own meal. So that’s your first piece of insider know-how. (You’re welcome.) Second up is timing. Paella is always eaten at lunch time, never in the evening. The (very sensible in my opinion) reason for this is that YOU SHOULDN’T EAT A BLOODY GREAT (in both senses of the word) PORTION OF RICE JUST BEFORE GOING TO BED! Seems sensible, hey? The Spanish prefer to have their bigger meal at lunchtime to allow themselves the time necessary to properly digest the heavy food (and then snack on a little tapas in the evening if the tummy rumbles start to holla (or should I say ola)). So never order paella (seafood / snail / something else) in the evening as a) you will again be served an appetiser of mockery and shame, and b) you will be served the lunchtime service’s scraps. So (to recap for the over 60s readers 😉) go at lunchtime, order a ‘seafood paella’, and celebrate with a jug (or five) of sangria (you always deserve it).

I became a member of a very bizarre threesome during my stay in Valencia. (NOT sexual in ANY way, THANK THE LORD.) The first member of the group was the Danish post-grad student Johannes. Never out of his royal blue football shirt (literally never (we were in the same dorm which makes me a reliable eye witness (even post-shower (of which I was definitely not a witness) the shirt went straight back on))) and barely ever out of bed (I arrived at 5 pm and he was still napping), Johannes had (in the least offensive way possible) wild, unbrushed, overgrown hair; a questionable wardrobe; and a less than impressive conscious to unconscious state ratio. However. Appearances can be deceiving, and luckily, despite the very tangible, questionable hairdo, dress sense and sleep pattern, Johannes was fun and chatty and, most crucially, up for some tapas for dinner. Completing the trio was the American bartender Chad. At just 21 years old he was a calm, contented and cheery traveller (after the first 30 minutes of our co-existence, during which he made no noise whatsoever, made not a second of eye contact with anyone in the room (which was probably just me and sleeping Johannes, though, to be fair to him) and kept his headphones firmly in his ears). But with my friend-making neurones furiously firing I soon got beneath the near silent exterior and had myself a dinner date for three at a local tapas bar. (Chad was even up for sharing some sangria which gave him multiple bonus points.)

Following our calamari-fuelled bonding session, naturally we attended the city’s daily free walking tour the next morning as a well-established posse (we definitely gave the current Sugababes line up a run for their money). If you have never before partaken in a free walking tour you will be unaware of the fate you put in the hands of your guide when you sign that sheet / scream your nationality / walk with the group to the first talking point. You will either have signed up for two to three hours of entertainment, insight and great recommendations, or two to three hours of annoying, unfunny, cringeable jokes, boring history about the city (featuring the country’s past three thousand Royal Heads of State) and unjust, clearly paid-for, plugs for the most touristy spots in town. This tour was unfortunately one of the latter. Let’s start with the guide herself. A perfectly chirpy young Spanish woman (my word do you need to be chirpy to get through multiple hours worth of Civil War stories without wanting to shoot yourself in the head) led our group, but who’s ill-fitting attire was so offensive to me that I do believe it negatively impacted my overall enjoyment of the outing quite substantially (or at the very least added to the shitness). Her bright orange company t-shirt (I know I can’t blame her directly for that) was not only blinding the old retinas, but also showed off her three-cup-sizes-too-small bra which housed (just about) her buoyant bosom, which got more and more animated as the climax of each story neared. I honestly didn’t know where to look. And it wasn’t just the bazookas that had me bewildered. For the first HOUR (no exaggeration) we did not move from the main square in which we initially gathered. We did move within the square (by distances no greater than 25 metres each time) which just made things even more disconcerting. Eventually we (and the bouncy boobs) moved from the main square to other areas of the city, and for a further two hours were fed (un)interesting facts and dried fruits (I kid you not – pulled out of dear María’s rucksack (actually one of the highlights of the tour)), before the three-piece dream team made a run for it without paying the voluntary (100% expected by every tour guide there ever was and ever will be) tip, and escaped to find some lunch in the home of the sacred paella.

And oh was it pie YAY ya. Seafood paella for three, served in one large paella (the pan, remember), after enough of a wait to suggest they definitely made this thing from scratch and to order. It was sticky. It was chewy. It was dark and tempting. Spread thinly across the vast pan it had just the right amount of char and crunch around the edges while being comforting, rich and melt-in-the-mouth. We scraped the dish clean in ten minutes flat. And thus the tour, the square and the jubilant jubblies were all forgiven in a matter of mouthfuls.

As for the city itself? Beautiful cream, brown and rose gold hues adorned the decorative buildings, and every spare wall was crammed full with the most bizarre and wonderfully grotesque street art, creating an enticing, almost hypnotic juxtaposition which I, for one, ruddy loved. Right up my street, honey. (Literally.) Adding yet another dimension of magically misplaced construction was the Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències (I’ll let your translation skills flex with that one), just a short walk away from the central (bloody) square. Comprising of futuristic, spaceship-type structures (one of which I’ve now (almost three months later) discovered is a huge digital 3D cinema (!)); large hatted-head sculptures (my personal favourite being a rather serene and eloquent lady donning an oversized, slanted cowboy / floppy sun hat hybrid, named Pamela); and a great expanse of water filled with multiple human-sized hamster wheel / bubble type sphere situations, each of which inhabited by an energetic youngster trying to stand up and roll around on the water (a great invention by frustrated parents wanting a break from the little rascals if you ask me). A relaxed sunset stroll through the seemingly never ending stretch of adjoining parks and gardens took me along the outside of the city and back to the hostel in the intriguing and beautifully mis-matched centre. Surely it was time for some more paella by now?

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.)

Mezzogiorno

Mezzogiorno, for those of you who don’t know (I didn’t – I’m not judging), is the Italian term for Southern Italy (which I was drawn to for its resemblance to melanzane (and we all know how much I like aubergine)). The first part of my Italian itinerary was exploring this area; heading south through Puglia and then up and across to Campania to visit the marmite city of Naples. I’m thrilled to confirm I bloody loved it.

First stop was Puglia’s capital, Bari, selected unashamedly not for any of its merits but for its airport into which I flew from Romania. As I got into the city it was hot, there were palm trees and it was full of Italian accents – I was a happy girl. After a run, a Greek salad for lunch (oh the irony) and a costume change I headed into the Old Town which, as Bari (and probably the whole of Mezzogiorno) has a 1 – 5 pm siesta, was pretty dead. I wandered along the sea-facing wall of the Old Town, excited to finally be at the actual sea (as opposed to a lake (man-made: Berlin; natural: Bled); a dirty river (Serbia); or the mother of all ice baths (Vintnar Gorge)). As I made my way to Bari’s small, and somewhat underwhelming, beach I spied police tapes blocking off the sea from the sand. Hmm. At least I could still smell the sea air. (It transpires that after heavy rainfall the sea at Bari gets very dirty due to a bad sewerage system – delightful.) I set up shop none the less and began my first – real beach!!! – sunbathing session of my trip. I hadn’t been lounging for long before it became blazingly apparent just how forward Italian men are… I was lying on my front, minding my own business, working on the back tan. But of course one wants to keep their achingly slow-to-develop sun-kissed glow even on both sides. So over I turn, to be greeted by the outstretched arm and ready-to-shake hand of a comically typical, and a little cringeworthy, Italian male. Swimming shorts? Short. Body hair? Clearly a keen shaver (legs included). Confidence? Overflowing. This prickly, tanned, almost nude creature was Marco, a Bari born and bred Italian who had a penchant for Russian girls (I think it was the blonde hair) and a lack of knowledge of (or interest in) socially accepted norms surrounding the personal space of strangers in public. That said, he was a great font of information on Bari and the surrounding area (every cloud). With my milky white skin now 0.5% less creamy, my stomach rumbling and my local knowledge topped up sufficiently, I headed back to my hostel to cook dinner (brown rice with prawns (that turned out to be crayfish (I think)), veggies and a sprinkling of crushed peanuts: yum).

As recommended by Marco, the hostel staff, and indeed any other individual who has ever been in the vicinity, I went on a jolly day trip to nearby town Polignano a Mare. The Old Town reminded me of a small version of Mykonos (just cream rather than white). It consisted of a rabbit warren of narrow winding streets in which to get wonderfully lost, and snack on delicious pistachio gelato. (I don’t believe there is a location unsuitable in which to snack on pistachio gelato, but this sure was an idyllic one.) The town’s biggest draw was its teeny tiny rocky cove which was packed – almost entirely – with brightly coloured towels laid out on the rocks, umbrellas poking out at jaunty angles and a spectrum of cream to caramel to chocolate to red velvet skinned bathers placed like candy crush pieces on every bit of available land. I found a free spot (all ten centimetres squared of it), dumped my stuff, de-clothed (bikini already in place (it wasn’t that kind of beach)) and headed straight to the glisteningly clear turquoise water. I say ‘headed straight to’… more accurately I ambled unsteadily in my flip flops across the rocks – and sunbathers – trying vehemently not to fall over, injure myself, or grab hold of anyone’s body parts in the unfortunate event of either of the former two coming to frightful fruition. Thankfully I made it to the water with no cuts, no bruises and no groping allegations (albeit a handful of near misses). The rocks continued once in the water – not most appreciated by my flip flop-less feet (OUCH), but once I was far enough out that I couldn’t touch the bottom I was in paradise.

Next pin on the map was Lecce, a university town not so different to Bari. It was here that the heat went from holi-yay to holy fucking shit (so the delicious gelato (dark chocolate with orange – my new second favourite flavour) was very much a necessity rather than an indulgence (ahem)). During my time in Lecce I met the cutest of poodles – two-year-old Mickey (as featured on Facebook) – in a traditional papier-mâché trinkets shop. I was much more interested in stroking the dog than eyeing up the handmade goods, and I think the owner (doddery old Italian man with very little, if any, English) rather took a shine to me, that is before I almost destroyed his entire window display (and my dignity). As I positioned myself to capture Mickey at his best angle (envisage legs squat, arse out, mouth open with utmost concentration on my subject) I backed into what I feared at first to be multiple shelves of the craftsman’s precious, delicate goods. In this split second I had visions of glass shattering, shelves caving, hundreds of euros demanded on the spot for damages. Thankfully I had just backed into the shop door! But even so, with my pugshot captured I swiftly left the shop with a red face and sweaty palms (both of which had nothing to do with the weather), at which point I indulged – I mean recouperated – with the decadently rich gelato with its luscious citrus hint.

My final stop in the lower half of Italia was the opinion-splitting, pizza-inventing, traffic law-disobeying, Unesco World Heritage Site of Napoli. And – oh my – what a city. The traffic is crazy busy with cars, taxis and vespers galore taking no prisoners when it comes to getting to their destination in the quickest time possible. You have to walk out boldly into the constant stream of traffic if you want to get across the road at an point (anyone timid would struggle to move more than five metres), but, surprisingly, I never felt like I would be hit; the drivers are clearly insane, but very much on the ball. And given it’s probably the street theft capital of the country, I luckily did not once feel unsafe or at risk of being mugged / kidnapped / raped – which is always a plus. 

And as for the pizza… The mother of all pizza. The pizza before pizza became a thing. The magnificent, heroic, simplicity-at-its-best, humble, handmade, wholly-loved – and loved to be eaten whole – Pizza Margherita. Well. Prepare to feast your hungry ears. Napoli, home to this game-changing delicacy, has, unsurprisingly, no shortage of pizzerias claiming to serve the best Pizza Margherita of all time. So I had some investigating to do. If I were to follow the advice of a fellow traveller in my dorm room, my station-to-hostel taxi driver, and Julia Roberts* herself, I would head to L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, (apparently) much hyped as ‘the best pizza in the world’ and featured in the American rom-com Eat Pray Love (I’ve never seen the film but still a claim to fame, right?). And so that’s exactly what I did. Luckily enough I met a fellow solo traveller on that morning’s walking tour, so I was able to enjoy the gigantic carb cookie with company (and also learn a great deal about the American fraternity / sorority system – equally fascinating and bizarre). Arriving at the pizzeria to a crowd of hungry tourists and locals waiting for their turn to be seated, we collected our ticket, bought a couple of beers, sat on the sidewalk (😉) and waited for our number to be called. After not too long a wait we got called, we were seated, and the mouth started a watering. The menu had the following options: Pizza Margherita (normale / media / doppia mozzarella) / Pizza Marinara (normale / media / maxi). Obviously we were both going to get Margherita (need that even be a question?): normale pour moi and doppia mozzarella for him. They came. They were beautiful. They were photographed. They were demolished. Perfectly textured dough (not thin and crispy but not thick either), perfectly oozy toppings, and a perfect Italian palette (basil-mozzarella-tomato). Perfection itself. (From now on and forever more I am going to be the snob of all pizza snobs: I apologise in advance.)

To continue the food talk (why change the habit of a lifetime?), along with the best pizza I’ve ever eaten (not an exaggeration) I also enjoyed – on the same ruddy day – the best gelato I have ever tasted too. (Apologies again if I return to the UK unable to fit through any doorways due to rapid Italian weight gain.) Made from buffalo milk, it was the creamiest ice cream, like, ever, and the pistachio really didn’t disappoint. (Mennella for anyone in the region.)

With my extra baggage well and truly secure (an additional wobbly layer just under my skin), I left the chaotically cool Napoli for the country’s romantic capital, Roma. At least the abundance of arduous sightseeing ahead might go some way to reverse the Napolean naughtiness (I can always live in hope).

*For this whole time I thought it was Sarah Jessica Parker that starred in Eat Pray Love, who’s photo was hung proudly in L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, and who’s wise tastebuds I was paying homage to. Lol.

Rome to Rio

Well, not exactly… Budapest (take two (this time Buda fckn BEST)) to Sibiu (Romania) …but that doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. Not only experiencing two very different countries and cultures, I went from polar opposites in terms of hostel. In Budapest it was my first stay at the hostel chain Wombat’s – think multiple floors of bunk bed filled dorms, key card locker access, ‘computer says no’ type staff. And in Sibiu it was the home of a Romanian man – Padre – in which I stayed along with a handful of other (just as bemused) fellow travellers (as well as Padre himself).

I arrived at Hostel La Padre to be greeted at the door by the main man, a dozen fresh apricots scattered across the floor (being clumsily collected by said hostelier), and a German father (retired) and daughter (at high school) duo who peered down at me from their bed (yes this startled me a little too) which sat on a mezzanine above the main entrance room, which turned out to be my bedroom. I had a whole bloody double bed to myself, so I overlooked the fact that my mattress was practically the reception desk. The grand tour with Padre began with the locking-of-the-front-door lesson, practical exam included (I passed first time with no minors), before he led me into his cave, asked for my money and took a photocopy of my passport (exactly as in all hostels, just much more suspect in this bizarre situation). After enquiring whether I smoked (I don’t) he assured me that smoking would be confined to his patio, which lasted all of fifteen minutes before he, and any smoking lodgers, proceeded to chain smoke throughout the property, with a full ashtray to keep the kitchen infused when there was any inhalation downtime. Lovely.

But it wasn’t all bad. Sibiu was a beautiful little city full of pastel coloured buildings and jaunty cobbled streets, and my first evening’s dinner of salmon fillet, roasted vegetable gratin and a lovely (much needed) glass of Sauvy-B set a better tone. And Padre wasn’t all that bad either. Despite his favourite (of limited vocabulary) English phrase being “fuck you, stupid”, he was actually a rather charming old man who had a heart of gold (even if he did have dirty mouth and lungs in desperate need of Kim & Aggie). On learning that I didn’t eat meat (not a recognised diet in Romanian culture) he offered to take me food shopping at the vegetable market and help me cook a veggie barbecue on his makeshift outdoor wood burning oven. (Think old school dirty dishes trolley with wooden rulers used as firelighters and an old hairdryer plugged into a long extension cable to provide air. Seriously.) So off to the food market we went, in his van, where we bought about a million aubergines, courgettes, tomatoes, mushrooms, etc, etc. After completing some other shopping chores (DIY stuff for him, sun cream for me) we headed back to the ranch where he had to check some new guests in (Slovakian and highly annoying) and then begin firing up the barbie. I contemplated we would eat around 8.30 / 9.00 pm… oh how wrong I was. In amongst cleaning charred aubergine, frying onions and slicing courgettes – to cut an excruciating long story short – the police were called by an angry neighbour around 10.30 pm, and at this point we were yet to eat for what turned out to be AN HOUR AND A HALF. And the stuffed mushrooms? They didn’t make an appearance until 1 am !!! The only reason I held out was because that was the only dish that involved something other that a vegetable – a small slice of mozzarella placed inside. Clearly Padre’s understanding of vegetarianism was a little too literal. So I was tired and hangry (possibly the worst combination?) but I couldn’t blame poor Padre with his smoke infused charred aubergine salad, which he went on to top with individual heart shaped slices of tomatoes for all the single ladies. Bless.

I would like to say I was sad to leave Padre’s pad(re), but I wasn’t. I was tired of feeling sick from all the cigarette smoke and unsure whether each time he spoke to me (or anyone for that matter) in English he was being highly offensive or highly inappropriate (either way no one was winning). So I booked myself onto the earliest train after my third and final night à la Padre, and set off to Romanian stop numero duo: Cluj Napoca.

Rather than boring you, I will just say that Cluj didn’t involve much to write home about. I didn’t feel great while I was there (I don’t think the lethally strong Tokyo Ice Tea helped the headache situation) so I spent a lot of time napping and eating Nutella. (Sometimes you just need Nutella.) Luckily for me the hostel staff (all male) were mostly on the 7+ end of the good looking scale, which helped my decision to stay indoors and get myself better. And my Jewish / American / Berlin-based accelerator tycoon who was highly annoying, highly talkative, highly self-righteous and highly cringe worthy did cheer me up by going for a run in a bee costume (it was serious active wear for him (tight bright yellow top, even tighter black shorts) but I for sure was entertained), and buying me said jar of hazelnut chocolatey goodness.

I had an early start on my last morning in Transylvania with a taxi for the airport booked for 5.45 am (yikes). After frantically booking extra baggage weight the night before the flight, for fear I would go over the 23 kg limit, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my backpack weighs just – just! – 18.5 kg (which I’m not sure if is average / above / below, but at least if I start performing luggage-laden lunges I’ll know exactly what weight I’m lifting). I made it to the airport, had a good (albeit delayed) flight, and am now en Italia, beginning my five-week exploration travelling South to North, looking forward to some of my best British babes coming to join me as I work my way up the country. But for now, folks, ciao!

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.

I am Sixteen, Going on Seventeen*

My two-stop tour of Austria started in the home of The Sound of Music and ended in that of the Sachertorte. Salzburg is a charming and playful bric-a-brac city, the centre of which is made up of a rabbit warren of cobbled streets and alleys, with beautiful gems along every path and around every corner. Delicately intricate shop signs hang above each and every window, filling the narrow passages with a homemade sense of character; a maze-like map of your surroundings overhead. And all of this simply the opening scene for the magnificent backdrop of endless mountains disappearing into a hazy pastel-coloured sky. In contrast, Vienna is like its bigger, more sophisticated (and less fun) older sister. The streets are wider, the shops more glamorous, the architecture more grand. The city feels more secure in itself, but lacks the quirky, handmade feel of its younger sibling, to whom life still feels an adventure to explore.

After lunch with latest new friend for life Justyn (of Kraków fame) at understated and delicious vegan kitchen GustaV (I had the house salad with cashew cheese – highly recommended), I embarked upon one of Salzburg’s most famous sights: Festung Hohensalzburg (a whopping great fortress atop a whopping great hill). Given that it was 32°C (and rising) I went for the funicular option, which whizzes you up (and down) in a jiffy. Marvellous. The grounds were historic and interesting, but the best feature by far was the spectacular view. A sea of blue, green, grey and cream hues paint an idyllic scene which you could gaze at for hours without getting bored. I spent the rest of the day wandering, wondering if my eyes would survive looking at a mere averagely beautiful city after what they were just exposed to. The jury’s still out…

Along with some obligatory modern art exposure, the rest of my time in the baroque city was very much The Sound of Music focussed. Shown at 8pm EVERY SINGLE NIGHT at my hostel, it would have been rude not to spend one of my two evening’s watching the classic in the place it was filmed. And boy it did not disappoint. (With the addition of ordering a pizza to be delivered straight to my armchair midway through; things couldn’t have got much better.) Full of the rays of golden sun (and pizza), I endeavoured to hit up as many of the famous featured locations as I could the following morning before catching the train to Vienna. I leisurely do-re-mi’d my way through Mirabell Gardens. The luscious green lawns embellished with millions of bright blooms would have given some serious garden envy (if I had a garden (or even a house (or even a damp basement flat)) to my name). I took far too many photos of the Pegasus Fountain where Julie Andrews and her troops do-re-mi’d before me (and you’ll be relieved to hear that I didn’t reenact the scene, playing the part of youngest and cutest von Trapp, Gretl, with my selfie stick to capture it all on film (or did I…)). Having exhausted Mirabell (and my vocal chords) I headed to Nonnberg Abbey (to beg for forgiveness for my sins against music). Situated ‘at the foot of’ the whopping great Festungsberg (felt like at least halfway up as I clamboured towards it), the convent itself was closed! Looks like I wasn’t going to be granted forgiveness after all, but at least my pedometer would be thankful for the trip.

Then – to Vienna! The hostel – not that I thought possible – was to overtake Munich to claim Worst Hostel Yet, but the city was large and there was lots of exploring to do. A looong walk to the city centre from said hostel took me down a pretty trendy street full of cool and quirky bars and cafés with fairy lights galore (anything sporting fairy lights gets a thumbs up from me), with plenty advertising reasonably-priced Hugo Spritz (my new fave heatwave tipple). So that was my evening sorted! As I made my way into the heart of the city everything got bigger and more exaggerated – the size of the buildings, the width of the streets, the grandeur in general. Gelato in hand (pistachio, every time) I strolled the stylish streets, constantly gazing up at the impressive architecture, soaking up the Viennese sun. I soon realised that no matter how beautiful the architecture, there are only so many churches / palaces / politically important buildings a girl can take. I’m sure they each have their nuances and significance, and in isolation would be fantastic places to explore, but I was finding going from city to city to city was getting a little boring. On this realisation, it was definitely time for some prosecco. That helped. A lot.

My remaining few days in the Austrian capital involved visiting Schönbrunn Palace (lovely, but see previous paragraph); an ‘alternative’ free walking tour (meeting place was in a super dodgy area, where I waited (next to the sausage stand, as advised) for a total no-show); my first try of traditional Viennese Sachertorte (wasn’t that taken); and free outdoor opera broadcast live from the opera house (seemed a great opera, but sang in French with German subtitles – so I was a little none the wiser).

Now I’m all citied out, I’m heading to the mountains in Slovakia for some relaxing, trekking, and generally just frolicking around in nature for a bit. I can’t wait!

*Just kidding (but that’s clearly how old I look – sans make-up (and, for that matter, avec make-up) – having induced more than a handful of heart attacks when I confirm that I’m actually twenty-five).

Munich… Meh

My latest escapade back into Deutschland was… a bit disappointing really. The hostel (nodded to in previous post) set the initial tone – one akin to a perpetual headache  – but I won’t bore you with the details. (Just a few quickfire bullets to set the scene: extremely rude and annoyingly good looking Romanian receptionist; full-to-the-brim fridge of old forgotten food; the bed bug scare of 2017.)

And now for the city. To me, Munich felt like just another big city. From it I didn’t get a sense of charm or personality, just a handful more bier gartens than usual and an abundance of laiderhossen-clad legs in the main square (the city celebrated its 862nd birthday while I was there, and I think they use any excuse to don their famous trouser). The biggest and most renowned brewery, Hofbräuhaus, was a huge indoor chamber of ornately decorated curved cream ceilings with dark wooden panelling; old fashioned streetlamp-esque light fittings hanging down from the high arches; an expanse of great long wooden tables and benches set out in dozens and dozens of rows; and crammed full of thirsty / hungry / merry / replete Bavarian beer lovers and wide-eyed tourists. Beer by the bucketful splashed here, there and everywhere; gigantic mega-portions of meat-based German delicacies were scattered across the tables at varying stages of demolition; and a jolly, beer-bellied brass band took centre stage to cheer on proceedings. I imagine if you’re a hungry, meat-loving beer enthusiast in the depths of winter this would be your holy sanctuary. (Being more of a wine-drinking pescetarien in what felt like the peak of a European heatwave, I decided to decline on a hearty portion of whole roasted knuckle of pork and litre of Hofbräu Dark.)

A little out of town is the BMW Welt (not quite sure what the heck ‘Welt’ means) and museum, where you can pretend you are an extreme off-road motorcyclist, the owner of many a swish new model of BMW car, and shopping for your latest Rolls Royce to add to the collection, all in the one convenient visit. A little too embarrassed to clamber onto one of the fierce looking motorbikes (I was wearing a pink bardot top under a twee denim dungaree dress after all), I did make sure I sampled some of cars (one of the few girls getting into the driving seats in a roughly 20:1 male:female visitor ratio, and inspected the roped-off Rolls Royces scrupulously (in my expert opinion they looked pretty freakin’ awesome). After a morning of automobilic day dreaming I headed to next-door Olympiapark for lunch and a chill in the sun. Tumbling hills of bright green grass surrounded a large, glistening, pedalo-filled lake; a pretty acceptable view with which to enjoy my sandwich and rest my legs (impersonating a filthy rich car shopper is tiring work).

Along with the UK, the temperature in Munich was ever-increasing so for my last full day in the city I decided to explore Englischer Garten (when I say explore I mean find a nice spot for which to conduct an exhausting day of lying in the sun) (it’s a hard life). The garden was INCREDIBLE. Acres of grass, woodland, rivers and waterfalls intertwined to create a chunky slice of paradise away from the stuffy centre of the city. (Of course in the epicentre of this natural haven was an extensive outdoor beer garden.) The streams rushed by at such a pace that there were a number of surfing spots where amateur surfers came to practice their skills, lining up along the bank and in quick succession taking it in turns to ride the narrow waves for as long as they could before being swept away then clamouring back up to rejoin the back of the queue. It was fascinating to watch. All of them clearly talented, you got the egotistical know-it-alls who hogged the limelight with one too many turns, and then the unfortunate cringe-inducing non-starters who were swallowed up by the rapid current almost as soon as their boards hit the water. But they were still having a great time! After watching them all go I am definitely going to take surfing lessons in Portugal… Here’s to being a wetsuit-wearing cringe-inducing non-starter!

***

Postscript 

Am starting to feel a little poor and lonely. If any of my lovely, loyal and generous readers (did I mention that you’re lovely?) would like to send a gift – perhaps a handsome, charming gentleman (nationality unspecified) to take me out for a candlelit romantic dinner for two – it would be gratefully received. (You could even share the postage cost of my ‘lost’ interrail tickets being sent to me in Budapest which, it transpires, I did in fact leave (BY MISTAKE) at my dad’s windmill, for him to find 6 weeks after I left the UK… Ooooops 🙈)

Czech Mate

Back to life in a hostel (worst one yet) sharing the midnight hours with seven fellow travellers (worst ones yet (after Callum and Rory’s departure (not bitching about you two (yet))) staying for my first time in yet another new city (one of the best ones yet). When I arrived into Prague’s central bus station* (one hour behind schedule) the sky was overcast and heavy and with it a hum of humidity accompanied me on my walk to the hostel. Not the best first impression. Check-in was standard (now that I’m such a backpacking pro an’ all). By the time I had dumped my stuff I was absolutely ravenous. It was almost 4 pm and I hadn’t eaten lunch. What a travesty! I needed to find somewhere quick. And I needed to find somewhere good. A thirty-second stroll along a winding alleyway from my hostel entrance brought me to the most idyllic looking restaurant. Seating in an outdoor garden, a menu that was right up my street, and – to my surprise – prices to match the budget of someone who had recently lost £438 worth of travel (if you’re lost see asterisk, below). Warm chickpea salad with spinach, courgette, aubergine and sundried tomatoes. That had my name written all over it. And it didn’t disappoint. (I even went back two days later for round two of the same.) prague was taking a turn for the better.

Aside from the obvious – beautiful buildings to admirably gaze up at, narrow cobbled streets to get wonderfully lost in, delicious ice cream to indulge in around every corner – I had insider info that made my stay in Prague even more spectacular than it might  already have been. I’d met a Praguer (correct – I looked it up) at my first hostel in Ghent, and dropped him a quick line in preparation for my stay in the Czech capital. Expecting a few quick bullet points of tourist hotspots, I instead received a long email detailing all of his favourite spots in the city (including how to get to them) which opened up my stay to a whole new world of the real city behind its touristy facade. This was bloody brilliant. Following said advice I discovered the most amazing secluded secret garden full of perfectly preened bushes, perfectly sculptured statues, perfectly placed pretty pink flowers, and about two other people to share the whole place with. It was like stepping into a different world of serenity amidst the hectic selfie stick clad tourist filled streets of the city centre. And relax. A chilled evening on the shore of the Vltava river with a couple of beers and a catch up on life since Kraków with Californian babe Sophie was another recommendation that made me feel like I was way cooler than all the other tourists who didn’t have the local lowdown. And to top it of, the best recommendation of all was an incredible rooftop bar, just steps away from the Old Town square, which had fabulous views over the city centre. We arrived up at the fourth floor terrace and as we were being seated were amazed to find that we were the only people up there! The whole bar to ourselves, delicious cocktails, wonderful views and the early evening sun as a lovely warming blanket of happiness. It was pretty perfect.

But it wasn’t just the insider spots I checked out. No. I totally did the tourist thing too. On the heaviest day (31,873 steps taken, 18 km covered) I walked up to the gigantic Prague Castle complex (the largest in the world I’ll have you know), making my way around the extensive grounds, exploring the cathedral, basilica, palace… They were all great to see, of course, but I’d definitely overdosed on my quota of historical buildings that day. Now for some of the great outdoors. I embarked upon the tall, steep and sweat-inducing Petřín Hill. And if climbing its hefty 327 metres wasn’t enough, I decided to tackle the lookout tower poised at the very top. ‘Loosely inspired by the Eiffel Towel’ (slightly offensive to the Eiffel Tower – it is actually quite ugly), I conquered its 299 steps and got yet more beautiful views across the whole of Prague and beyond. Thank God a breeze got up as I was seriously sticky. After a successful descent I made my way back to the dorm for a quick power nap before more fun and games in the evening with new Scottish pals Callum and Rory.

First stop: renting a pedalo to cruise around the river. Wahoo! (My long-awaited first time on any waterway during this trip.) I suggested bringing my selfie stick with trepidation and was received with unanimous positivity. We were definitely on the same page. After dinner (and much pissing about time, on their part) we made our way down to the river, chose our pedalo, and off into the sunset we went. With three in a boat it was a bit of a balancing act (literally) but the selfie stick got a lot of love, and our thighs a much needed workout. We avoided the danger zones successfully, rounded the island (Shooter’s Island to be precise) and made it back to the pontoon in three (whole) pieces (after some interesting mooring navigation from one of our party. (Not me. Or Rory.) Now it was time for football. It was the England friendly against France and, as I was with Scots, they were going to support the French, obviously (they were still wounded from the Scotland / England draw the previous weekend). But first we had to try the city’s gelato-en delicacy: trolo – rolled dough that is wrapped around a stick, grilled, topped with a sugar and walnut mix, and filled with ice cream and a whole host of other calorific delights. I went for the ‘King’. It truly was regal. The deep fried dough spiral was filled with vanilla ice cream and topped with – wait for it – chocolate brownie pieces, walnuts, salted caramel sauce AND chocolate sauce. I mean… trés bon. Trés, trés naughty. Now for the footy. We found a cosy Irish pub from which to watch. The game, although disappointing (on my part), was fun to watch, and we got the added extra of a live Irish band post match. We just needed someone Welsh to complete the kingdom! After a quick costume change à la hostelle we headed to the Jewish Quarter for a cocktail in airplane-themed bar Hanger. Interesting. The cocktails were inordinately strong (maybe that was the altitude), and the waitress was wearing a rather comical and kitsch stewardess-wannabe outfit (tilted hat included). We survived the gin-induced turbulence and called it a night before being dragged out of our double-booked seats kicking and screaming.

For my final night in Prague I decided to treat myself to the opera, darling. An interesting performance of Rusalka (basically the story of The Little Mermaid) awaited me, with even more interesting English subtitles alongside. I wouldn’t say that it was the most earth-shatteringly exsquisite artistic performance I had ever been witness to, but it was rather jolly. (The merlot I ordered during intermission #2 was barely drinkable, but that’s another matter.) And that concludes my stay in the Czech Republic! 

I’m now in Munich, in a hostel that strongly contests the first bracketed clause (of many, I’m aware) in this post. I’m midway through my stay here (I started this post while on the bus two days ago but couldn’t power through the travel sickness enough to type), so will get back to Bavaria and fill you in in due course (wish me luck).

*Now that my mum knows, and the associated worry has been and gone, I can disclose that there was in fact another mildly infuriating event in the Polish capital (this one unfortunately less mild) which, previously unstated for fear of inflicting unnecessary maternal worry, was the cherry on the dumpling-filled cake that was my trip to Warsaw. As I started packing my valuables back into my backpack in preparation for checking out I soon came to realise that I could no longer find my month two and three interrail passes… How mildly  i n f u r i a t i n g.  As I emptied my ENTIRE backpack onto the dorm room floor (much to my room mates’ delight) I checked every pocket and zipper (thrice each) to no avail. Warsaw really had run out of luck. So obviously the first thing I did in this situation was go to the hostel bar and order a beer. (Well it was happy hour.) As I – all at once and in a hurry – offloaded to new Dutch gal pal, emailed every hostel I had stayed in so far to see if they had the passes and downed a bottle of Tyskie, the panic began to subside (that’s Polish beer for you) and I calmed, ready to tackle this latest revelation with positivity. Now I didn’t have to begrudge paying compulsory reservation fees; didn’t need to always get the train because of my pass, even if the bus was more convenient; and didn’t have to carry around the stupid ruddy old fashioned paper (paper!) ticket and fill it out by hand for each and every journey. No. Now I was free to travel whichever way I wanted. Now I was officially a bus wanker. (And thus I celebrated with my pierogi dinner (and you know how that ended).)


Vrots-wahf

Wrocław (pronunciation above (I bet that’s not what you were expecting)) was a very different stop compared to my previous destinations. The first place I have not stayed in a hostel, I instead booked an Airbnb for three nights. I could pretend that this was because I wanted to treat myself; stretch out in a double bed, do yoga in the comfort of my pyjamas, be free from the incessant snoring / door slamming / alarm clocks of fellow travellers. I could. But that would be a lie. (And, in the infamous words of Jeremy Atkins (daddy dearest for those who have not yet had the pleasure), “I never lie”.) Truthfully it was because I left it until my last day in Kraków to book a hostel, and there were absolutely none available (not even with my rating and price filters well and truly out the window). So an Airbnb it was. I was very much looking forward to some luxury and privacy. A movie night, perhaps, or maybe even a full on pamper evening with face mask and cucumber slices – why the hell not?! (Obviously my backpacker budget would not permit buying a whole cucumber for two measly eye patches, but it adds a flourish to the story so…) But this was when I thought I had booked the whole apartment. Ohh no… Definitely misread the blurb. I arrived to a nice enough flat in a great location, but with 4 separate bedrooms and a shared kitchen and bathroom. Definitely wasn’t going to be doing downward dog in the nude in the entrance hall.

Nice cobbled streets, large main square, interesting buildings, multiple churches / museums / baroque architecture, hundreds of cafés / restaurants / bars, etc., etc. Wrocław ticked all the boxes of a good small Polish city, and did so with ease. And the added extra? Scattered around the city were over 300 little dwarves carrying out day-to-day activities (posting letters, checking oneself out in the mirror, chilling on a bench), posed outside hundreds of doorways and entrances, just waiting to be spotted. Maybe I was suffering from a lack of social interaction; I made it my mission to meet as many of these gnomes of possible, and obviously introduce them to the art of the selfie. (Unlike real people who can be who can be fiercely opposed to this modern form of photography, the dwarves didn’t give me any grief about my selfie stick.)

Unfortunately for the blog, not a lot of momentous events took place during my time here. I mean, I can tell you about the food (always). I treated myself to sushi (solo) on my first night, after two failed attempts to eat at a recommended sushi bar in Kraków (attempt 1: I took us to the totally wrong building (I blame maps.me); attempt 2: fully booked (agh)), and it really was deliciouso. Five pieces of sashimi; five pieces of uramaki (inside out sushi roll) filled with aubergine (totally my favourite vegetable), spring onion and turnip, topped with raw tuna; about a dozen different dipping sauces; a glass of sweet choya = very happy girl. One lunch I tried out a vegan burger joint and it was the best burger (vegan, vege, cow (or buffalo)) I have ever eaten. Magnificent portobello mushrooms, creamy coleslaw (still vegan), sensational sauce… just trust me on this one. If you ever go to Wrocław – try it: MO. And last night I celebrated cooking my first ever baked sweet potato (filled with spinach, red onion, cherry tomatoes and cottage cheese: yum.

Now my time in the land of the Poles is over and I am currently en route to Prague. Never (ever) thought I would say this, but… I can’t wait to return to staying in a hostel!