Category: Europe

Brunch in Australia – the good the bad and the ugly

Brunch figures a lot in my eating out in Australia. I have written before about my love affair with brunch – a meal that Brits, IMHO, still haven’t got right.*

In the UK, a cooked breakfast is usually a fry up be it the English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish or even regional breakfast. You will see all day breakfasts on some menus, often dressed up as brunch. My local pub in the UK, The Dog, has recently added brunch to the menu – yet finishes serving it at 12 noon and only offers it on a weekend. That is not brunch. Brunch needs perfectly poached eggs, sourdough, good bacon and excellent coffee. And served at least till 3pm if not all day. A full English and bacon sandwiches is not brunch. That is breakfast. I like breakfast, I do, but I like brunch better.

In Australia they know brunch. Smashed avo, corn fritters, beetroot and spinach with free range poached eggs. This is one of my favourite brunches offered at Coin Laundry only a few minutes walk away from where we are currently housesitting in Melbourne. Available from 7am to 3pm. For two of us, with a latte each, the bill is Aus$42.

Seven Seeds. A Good Morning Breakfast Burger and Eggs and Waffle Benedict, two items from their current, all day menu. Proper Brunch. With speciality coffee. Aus$45. Great atmosphere, great staff, excellent food, awesome coffee. We have got to go back as our table companions had the Brioche French Toast and it looked, and they said it tasted, amazing.

And then there is Triim.

Phil and I were hungry, we had just been in a hot, dusty substation, looking at ACDC things. (It was Open House Weekend). We needed brunch. Seven Seeds seemed too far to walk to. It was Sunday and would probably be a line. Instead we wandered up Little Bourke street, looking for its sister cafe, couldn’t find it and then saw Triim on Hardware Lane, a studenty/backpacker district of the city and chose to brunch there.

Oh dear. At first it seemed ok, it was busy, all ages, shoppers and students, backpackers and families. Efficient staff. But. You knew there would be a but.

We ordered a Big Breakfast and a Morning Glory. Yes they can poach eggs. However the mushrooms were slimy and the sausage, I can only assume it was a chicken sausage, was horrible. The bread was poor quality. Butter is served in plastic pouches. We left feeling bloated and later felt quite headachey as if we had eaten poor quality food. Bill came to Aus$42.40. Hardware Lane is an interesting place to people watch. Go watch them from someplace else.

Was this the worst breakfast we had in Melbourne?

No. Because we went to McDonald’s. I know, I know. Phil and I had an early start, we were off out on a tour and had to be at Fed Square for 8.55am. Macca’s is nearby the pick up point. We had not had a Macca breakfast for over a year. Indeed it was at this Macca’s and for the very same reason. We do not learn.

Aus$18 for two sausage and egg muffins, with a hash brown and a latte. Not half a good as Triim, but nearly as good people watching as commuters dash from Flinders Street Station. Not anyway near the quality, ambiance or service levels of either Seven Seeds or Coin Laundry.

I know, it is McDonalds, I don’t expect silver service. Yet, at just under half the price of the other brunches Phil and I have had in Melbourne, this is an expensive and insubstantial breakfast. The only good thing I can say is that they have baristas in McDonalds in Australia (at least at this branch) so the coffee is not awful. It is not awesome, better than coffee in an English McDonalds. Not hard to beat that. Oh and surprisingly I didn’t get headaches like I did with the breakfast from Triim.

What really concerns me that this is the everyday breakfast for many commuters and school students. Melbourne has the best coffee in the world and Melburnians are now buying coffee here. And adding a McMuffin to their order. I don’t see any struggling indie coffee shops in Melbourne, somehow there are enough coffee addicts to keep the good ones going. I do see more coffee shop chains in Melbourne though. And that is not a good thing.

So, if you are in Melbourne, find a good brunch spot. It is not hard.

To help you, here is a list to help you out.

*There are exceptions. Birmingham Breakfast Club occasionally arranges special breakfast events in the city. Only I would call them brunch because there is usually alcohol involved and they don’t start at the crack of dawn.

If you want to know more about these wonderful Breakfasts in Birmingham here are some links. I include these only because I am fed up of people Bashing Birmingham. We have good food in Birmingham. We have good other things too. Such as the two towers that inspired Tolkien.

Full to the Brum  – an award winning Brummie Blogger

Eat with Ellen  – one of my dining companions at Nomad now re born as The Wilderness

Breakfast at Simpsons

Waiter there’s a bug in my brunch

Birmingham Breakfast Club 

 

Packing it all in – 7 days in Skiathos

Greece is still my favourite destination

My love affair with Greece started in 1979. Skiathos in 2016 rekindled the romance.

Back then I travelled overland with my uni friend, through the former Yugoslavia by coach. We then met up with Rob in his VW van. After staying in Athens with some millionaires went on to stay on Hydra and Crete.

We ran out of money, almost got arrested and discovered the friendliness of Greeks and the fabulous food. Since then I have visited Greece more than I have visited any other country. I have seen it change, not always for the better, yet like the sirens it continues to call me back year after year.

As life has been hectic this past few months and Sorrento while enjoyable wasn’t exactly a restful holiday, I decided that Phil and I needed another holiday. Greece was in my mind when I went in search of a cheap deal to anywhere. Greece was top of the cheapest first list. Yes!

I dashed to the travel agents and said ‘I would like to go to Skiathos please and my budget is under £400 for two of us’. They laughed, how they laughed.

And then the computer not only said yes but also said this holiday has been reduced by £800 to £324 for two in a self catering apartment. After the travel agent had recovered from the shock (these were 1990 prices after all) it was booked and we were off to Skiathos, thank you very much.

Plane spotting

Skiathos is a small island, with one of the shortest runways in Europe.  If you are a transport geek and like me a little bit crazy,  you can stand on the road at the end of the runway and wave to the pilots before they take off.

Warning, they are not waving, they are telling us to move back because the thrust from the engines will literally blow you away. Totally worth it for shots like this.

Cash is king

We took lots of Euros with us as cash is still king in Greece.  Despite hiring  a 4wd to explore the island, eating out in many excellent tavernas, splashing out on boat trips and walking tours, we struggled to spend £500 in the week we were there.

Resorts and where to stay

We were based in a small village called Agia Paraskevi. There are a few small hotels and a number of self catering apartments, set off the main road along narrow lanes, that are too small for coaches. If on a package, you will be dropped off on the main road and then walk to your apartments up to 15 minutes away, past fields and a few apartments and tavernas.

The village is small and relatively uncommercialised, much like what I recall Greece was like in the 80’s. Not quite My Family and Other Animals but there are goats and chickens in the fields and you will see women dressed in black gathering greens and herbs.

Sitting on my balcony early evening the only sound I could hear was the jingle jangle of the bells around the goats necks.

Both Troulos, the next village/resort along the road, and Koukounaries, where the main road ends, seemed to be more holiday resort than Greek village. Shops selling beach toys were absent where we stayed. Perhaps because the beach was relatively small? Anyway, I liked where we were. And outside Skiathos, it seemed it had the best tavernas, cafes and restaurants.

We stayed at Marialena, and while they were clean and in a good location, I would not rush to stay there again.

They were spacious, had hot water, a pleasant balcony but the owners just did not seem to care that you were there. See below what I thought of the food at Marialena.

If I were to return I would like to be based in Skiathos town for some of the time to experience the bustle of the harbour, day and night. I would also return to Agia Paraskevi as it offered good traditional food, a peaceful location and a bus service to town. I would look to stay at Green Park or Dream House.

If beaches are your thing, there are probably better places, however the beach here looked perfectly fine to me.

Koukounaries seemed to be the beach lovers resort, with Big Banana beach and Little Banana beach, the naturist beach, if that is your thing. There is also a nature reserve there which makes for a very pleasant walk. (See walking below).

Eating and Drinking

On our first day we parted with €10 for a litre of wine and two souvlaki at Oneiro (attached to the Dream House apartments). This was to become our favourite place to chill out. It is a friendly, family run taverna, serving traditional food in a cool, modern setting, with  wifi.

Elsewhere beer was between €3 and €4 in most places for half a litre or €1.50 in the supermarket. We paid on average €25 for dinner with wine. Sometimes we splashed out, mostly we didn’t.

Jimmy’s on the main road is a traditional taverna, and the guy that waits tables is excellent. We went at Sunday lunchtime, the taverna was full, one guy managed all the tables, big family group comes in and all tables are moved around, just like the old days.

The only place  where the food was just not great was at Marialena Apartments, where we were staying. We arrived at lunchtime and decided to eat there. I had Kleftiko covered in cheesy chips (never had that before). This was the dining area and most days it was this busy.

A few days later we thought we would give them a second chance with breakfast. The bread rolls came out warm and then hardened to such an extent that I could have used them as a cricket ball.

There were too many good places to eat in Agia Paraskevi for us to waste our money here.  All with better ambience and wifi.

The two restaurants that came highly recommended were Calma and Green Park. I cannot disagree with those recommendations although for my money Green Park was the best food I have ever had in Greece or at any Greek restaurant I have ever eaten at. And there has been a few. Calma was good, it was just that we had eaten at Green Park first so the bar had been set very high. Both served traditional Greek food with a modern twist.

Another outstanding meal in Skiathos Town. Fresh Prawns and Calamari in a traditional taverna overlooking the harbour. There were a number of them all vying for business, with fixed price set menus. Prices were around €8 to €12 depending on what you chose. Good value for a prime location.

We ate at a different taverna every night and usually went for the special of the day. Without exception food was good to excellent, service always good, house wine around €8 a litre and very drinkable. Traditional food was on offer everywhere, even the children’s menus were smaller portions of the normal menu.

There  were no fast food joints (phew) unless you count the Giros on the street corners of Skiathos Town. Pizza at Boubounakia was excellent, traditionally cooked in an open oven. Share one, they are enormous.

On the buses

When we were not eating, we were exploring. The bus service on the island is cheap and reliable. There is a conductor on every bus so no faffing to find who sells the tickets.

The terminus in Skiathos Town is next to the port and buses run about every 20 minutes to all stops to Koukounaries. Each bus stop is numbered and that is how you state your destination. Simples.

While waiting at the bus stop taxi drivers will stop and offer to take you and will offer you a price and it is worth bartering. They may start at €8 and you can get them down to around €4 or €5 depending on the distance. A single to Skiathos on the bus was €1.60 so €5 in the taxi for two of us was reasonable. They may stop to pick up other fares on the way. It is a little faster than the bus. The buses run every 20 minutes or so, if you are not in a hurry use the bus, if you are buddy up with fellow travellers and share a taxi.

My view is that the Greeks have gone through a financial crisis and I will contribute to the economy and support local enterprises everyway I can, so I used taxis and buses and hired a car for one day.

Explore

Yes this holiday was R&R. It rained for the first two days and while other complained to the rep (because they can stop the rain presumably) we read. And planned our exploring because we are not sunbed by the pool types. We decided to join an evening walking tour of Skiathos, a boat trip visiting Skopelos and Alonissos and hire a 4WD to see more of the island. We booked all through the rep because we were lazy. I am pretty sure that these could be booked independently and cheaper. As it was we met three people on the walking tour that were lovely and they were also on the boat tour the next day, so we had the bonus of excellent company.

The Skiathos Town walking tour

Michael Evans is an English man who has made his home in Skiathos. Like Tamara, our lovely guide in Sorrento, he has turned his passion into his job.

To say he has a big personality would be an understatement. We met him at the harbour and the walk around the town lasted about three hours, winding up for snacks and wine at his house.

This is a good tour to orientate yourself with the town, as it is easy to get lost in the winding, narrow streets. Skiathos was built this way to foil the pirates who frequently attacked the island. You will learn about the history of the island including the aforementioned pirates, why the capital moved to Kastro and back again, the importance of the church in the community and what it was like being an extra on Mama Mia.

Anyway, book it, it is brilliant. He is hilarious. We and the young couple we met were the last to leave and we probably could have spent the rest of the evening there with Michael partying. Our sensible heads told us we had a boat to catch the next day.

The Mama Mia connection

Did you know Mama Mia was filmed on Skiathos and Skopelos? If you didn’t you will soon find out. There are Mama Mia boat trips and the local outdoor cinema still shows the film once a week.

This boat trip will take you past the church featured in the film. Apparently the local priest is overwhelmed by requests to marry there and does his utmost to put brides to be off. They don’t factor in that a walk up the steps in summer will finish them off physically and their hair and makeup will be a mess.

It is a pleasant boat trip with optional guided walk on Skopelos and a bus to the small village of Chora on Alossonius. Low season both are charming and quiet. The views are stunning and the twisting roads and lanes climbing up Skopelos through the shops then to houses and tavernas make for a lovely walk.

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After grabbing a less than satisfactory toastie for lunch in The Bookstore Cafe in Chora, on reflection I wished we had waited to get some food at the harbourside. The ice cream made up for the disappointment. The town is small, there is only one baker and one ice cream shop, not hard to find.

A bonus was the dolphins joining us for the ride and all in all it was a lovely relaxing day. On reflection I would book this directly with one of the boats rather than with a rep as the guide though lovely was superfluous to the tour. The beauty of the islands need no explanation. The only thing I wished I had visited was the Pirate Museum on Alossonius which Michael had told us about. If the bus down from Chora had stopped there, that would have been ideal.

The best place for a pre dinner or post boat trip drink

Bourtzi.  Reviews are mixed. Yes it is expensive. We only had beer here at €6 for a small glass. The views are probably worth it.

Go, have a beer, decide for yourself. The best time, when the fishing boats come in early evening.

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Visit the loos.

Hire a 4WD

There is only one main road on Skiathos, and if you want to explore further afield a 4WD is recommended. We wanted to visit Kastro, and while a smaller car would probably have sufficed, I am glad we got a jeep.

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We had a map, a vague idea of where we were going stopping at The Monastery of Panagia Evangelistria which is incredibly peaceful on the way. It is impossible to get lost on the island because eventually all roads lead to Skiathos town.

Two tavernas are clearly marked on the map we had and we had lunch at Platonos and iced coffee at Panorama. The views from both are stunning, service and food good.

Walking and Hiking

We picked up a walking guide at the dog shelter. All the walks in the book are well marked.

The only one we did was around the nature reserve at Koukounaries. I would suggest that you embark on these in low season, have sensible shoes, lots of water and a hat. Some of them are very ambitious, such as the walk to Kastro. I am glad we did this trip in a jeep. But if walking is your thing, it is a beautiful island for it. There are lots of guides available online.

Take a rescue dog for a walk

Skiathos Dog Shelter opened in 1995. Visitors to the island are encouraged to visit, donate and take a dog for a walk. So we did.

Top tip while waiting for your plane home

Leave the airport, walk 10 minutes along the side of the runway toward Skiathos Town and watch the planes take off and land from the safety of a lovely cafe.

On arrival, the rep made a joke that Skiathos was known as boomerang island, as people come back every year. I can see why.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Packing it all in – 7 days in Sorrento

  • Sorrento Transport

Italy had been on the someday list for too long

In 1979 I travelled, by coach, through Italy on the way to and from Greece. I recall that the service stations had good food and served wine. I had an ice cream on a bridge in Venice.

About 18 years ago (that long ago?) Mom took us all to Croatia for a family holiday. We took a day trip to Venice from Porec. I again had an ice cream on a bridge. I said then I ‘d like to take a holiday in Italy, someday. It has taken this long to actually get there.

Cinque Terre is calling me

One Christmas I got a 1000 piece jigsaw to occupy the family,  chosen because I liked the picture. A beautiful, colourful village, tumbling to the sea. I had no idea where it was, but I wanted to go there. Turned out to be Vernazza one of the Cinque Terre villages. Again, I put it on the someday list.  And you know what someday means? Never. Cinque Terre is now on the Big Europe Adventure list planned for next spring.

Adding Sorrento to the list

While stranded in Majorca by an Icelandic volcano we (me, Phil and our son) met a couple from Teignmouth who had got married in Sorrento. They had loved the place and planted the idea of going there in my head. Looked at it on and off over the years, but compared to Greece, Spain indeed anywhere in Europe it was eye wateringly expensive. Until May 2016 that is.

We needed to get away for a break

Browsing, as I do, though package holidays online I listed them from cheapest first. Phil and I wanted a break  after a particular exhausting and emotional time (moving house, illness, clutter busting)  and he had holiday to use up, so a cheap week in Crete or even The Canaries is what I had in mind. A package holiday because we didn’t want the hassle of booking flights and accommodation or even cooking. R&R was all we wanted.

Affordable Sorrento

And up popped Sorrento. All Inclusive, adults only hotel, £300 per person. This was Tuesday, the flight was Friday. Phoned Phil and asked him if he could book holiday for Friday. He couldn’t, but he could next Friday. But that sweet deal was not available next week.

The lovely people in my local travel agents, Thomsons in Bearwood, set out to find me another hotel. And they did. 4* half board  in a central location, Hotel Conca Park. My review on TripAdvisor is here.

I was glad in the end that we didn’t stay at the AI hotel as it was a long way out of Sorrento. The Conca is centrally located. While it had its drawbacks (mostly the food) being in the centre of town is preferable to relying on a shuttle bus or, as others staying in hotels just on the edge of town had to, walk along a very busy road with no pavement.

This was the view from our hotel room window.

Mount Vesuvius

Travellers travel, tourists do package holidays

I read a lot of travel blogs and find many bloggers are sniffy about travel agents and package holidays. You can get better prices online they say (beat the price to Sorrento I say) and package holiday makers are like sheep (yes some may be, but not all are). I don’t get why these self styled travellers are so disparaging about package holidays. Not everyone wants to backpack the Himalayas and get Delhi Belly in India. Different strokes for different folks. I like to travel independently and I like package holidays too. I like holidays. I love airports. I like the sun.

Not everyone wants to/can book online

Here’s the thing, there is only one travel agent on my local high street. Use them or lose them. If they close where will people who don’t book online go? Not everyone can or will book online. Older people may not feel confident, others like the interaction with people. And oh the mistakes people make when booking on line….

The staff in this branch know their regular customers well. They know that I have annual travel insurance, won’t book extra legroom or seats together so don’t try to sell me those ‘extras’.

They also know that when on holiday I don’t sit on a sunbed and read. They are also familiar with my holiday disasters and that I am a traveller, who goes off on extended trips, so packages are just the fillers in between to treat my farsickness.

Finally the bit about Sorrento

So back to Sorrento. For under £500 we were booked into a hotel and flying from Birmingham. The weather forecast was for a mini heatwave.  I discovered that there was a local train the Circumvesuviana that would take us to Naples, Pompeii, and Herculaneum, so no need to book expensive trips with tour groups.

Recommended tours

However, clever Facebook knew I was off to Sorrento and kept suggesting things for me to do. One tour, the Sorrento Walking Food Tour, was highly rated on Viator (TripAdvisor’s booking arm). Places and times were limited, so uncharacteristically for me I booked in advance.

Best. Decision. Ever.

Sorrento Food Tours

If we get back to Sorrento and I hope we do, I would do this tour again. There were eight of us in total, six of us were English and two from America. The one thing we all had in common was we liked food and were most definitely not sheep. One couple planned their holidays around their love of sport and theatre and were off to see a football match in Rome and an opera in Sorrento. The American couple were on their honeymoon and were backpacking around Europe.

Tamara, the American guide, was brilliant. She lived, breathed and loved Sorrento. What she had done is what we all need to aim for – she turned her passion, for food and for Sorrento, into her job.

The tour consisted of three hours of visiting speciality, family owned, independent food retailers and restaurants. We would be tasting pastries, arancini, cheeses and meats; discovering the oasis of calm in the bustling Sorrento, a hidden lemon grove and learning about limoncello, and tasting locally produced beer at the smallest deli I have ever been in.

When not eating or drinking (which we did nearly all of the three hours) Tamara taught us a bit about local history, recommended other places to eat and drink and showed us the Cloisters that were popular for weddings. After a wonderful lunch at Da Gigino we then indulged in gelato from Davide Gelateria and the magnificent views of Naples Bay and Mount Vesuvius.

When I shared some photos the couple who had recommended Sorrento as a destination were delighted to see that the man who had made their wedding favours was included on the tour. The singing almond man.

Sorrento Walking Food Tour

This tour is currently 75 Euros per adult. It is worth every cent. If you do book it, go at the beginning of your stay in Sorrento. It is a good way to orientate your way around the town, learn where to avoid and more importantly where to eat, and familiarise yourself with the food of the area. My review of the tour on TripAdvisor is here. Other reviews rate it as highly as I did, with one notable exception. Worth reading the professional response from Tamara.

The Thomson Tour

This was a free walking tour of Sorrento, following the meet and greet aka sell you as many trips as we can event. I usually avoid these as I don’t want to be sold to, but the walking tour was a reason to attend, as was research for the blog.

Although we were going on the food tour the next day, we went along as we had got lost the day before. Sorrento is small, getting lost is hard to do, but we had forgotten what road our hotel was on, had walked miles and completely lost all sense of direction.

Our rep was Italian and experienced. She knew she was here to work and not like some others we met, who thought they were on a paid holiday. More of them later.

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For a free tour, it was good. We got to know our way around, tasted gelato (at Davide) and had a bit of a hard sell from some limoncello peddlers. You will learn much more about limoncello on the food tour.

The rep signposted us to Da Franco Pizzeria,  which was also on the Walking Food Tour. We chose to have lunch here (go early, there are queues by 12 noon) instead of the flashy, expensive place they took us to at the end of the Thomson tour. For what it was, the free tour was good. We learned that all the so called Tourist Offices dotted around the town were not official and were tour operators, which was useful.

Of course Thomson wanted us to buy tours through them, that is what they do and how they make money. I don’t have an issue with that especially as they use local tour companies to deliver the tours.

Vesuvius and lunch in a vineyard

We booked this via Thomson. Vesuvius was a boyhood dream for my husband. 32 years of marriage and I did not know that. We chose this tour as it ended with lunch in a vineyard and we would also be travelling through the National Park in crazy giant jeeps.

We could have made our own way to Vesuvius, via the train to Herculaneum and a bus, and it would have been cheaper but not as much fun.

The tour guide was excellent, the trip on the crazy jeeps was fun and the climb up Vesuvius, challenging but worth it. You are told to wear sensible shoes. Heed this advice. I was wearing good, solid sandals. I wish I had worn trainers or my shoes, as the path is very gravelly. The tour guide brings trainers with her and if you are on the tour, you can change your shoes on the coach for the walk and then back to sandals afterwards, when you go to lunch.

We had a clear view of Naples, Herculaneum and Pompeii from the top of a volcano. How cool is that? It is due to erupt in the next few years so is constantly monitored.

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Lunch was very good indeed. We had a mini tour of the vineyard, then lunch accompanied by lots of wine. There is a shop and we bought some of their bubbly as we liked it, but there is no hard sell. The only drawback? I wished I could have stayed there longer talking and drinking with fellow travellers as they were so interesting.

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Ah, there was another downside to this tour. We had the dubious pleasure of being joined on the tour by rookie Thomson Reps. They were on ‘an educational’ and had just arrived in Sorrento, and thought they were on holiday. Two of them spent the whole trip moaning about their apartment, one was ostracised by the other reps and the lad with them disappeared at the vineyard, not even bothering to listen to the guide.

They talked over the guide as we walked up Vesuvius and made no effort to talk to other guests. Only one (she who was ostracised) suggested they should stop talking and listen. Not once did they engage with the tour guide and ate lunch on a table by themselves. They seemed uninterested in the tour. Such an opportunity to talk with guests and get feedback on the tour, which would help them sell it to customers, missed. Will they hack it? I don’t think so.

The Amalfi Coast

Another one booked via Thomson. I don’t know what it was but I really was disappointed with this tour. Yes it is a stunning coastline, the towns are prettyish, but it was not as amazing as I expected it to be.

Positano is full of expensive shops selling art and linen. Maybe I could spend a day or so there if I had an apartment overlooking the beach.

Amalfi, I liked. However the traffic queues between Positano and Amalfi are renowned. Tour buses, too big for the narrow roads, contribute to this. (Yes, I was on a tour bus but a small one, it was still too big, and yes I get that I too was contributing to a negative side of tourism). This was low season, in mid May. Goodness knows what it is like in high summer.

Amalfi

If I could have stayed in Amalfi for lunch and people watched I would have been happy. Instead we drove into the mountains, to a small village, for some mediocre pizza and pasta. Then drove all the way back down to the coast road.

Last stop was Ravello.  The Thomson website says this about the town.

A town famous for its terraced gardens and sumptuous buildings like Villa Rufolo – the house that inspired Richard Wagner – it has some of the best views over the Gulf of Salerno.

I was underwhelmed. Also the tour guide got it in the neck from one of the miserable punters (they nearly all were miserable on this tour) that she had misinformed us and that the entrance to the church was not as she had said free. It appears that now you can buy one ticket to visit all the main places of interest. The tour guide should have known this. Me? I lay on a bench in the square and dozed. It did look vaguely familiar, as if I had seen it on a film set, but meh.

More traffic on the way back and this was where we got the real entertainment, with Italian car drivers getting out of their cars shouting at the bus driver, who handled it with much restraint. Finally I saw some personality and humour escape from the guide. A quip about needing some HRT and an explanation that neither she nor the driver understood the shouty lady as it was a dialect they were not familiar with. We then had a lovely chat with her about her family and the area she lived in and her school, family and work.

Do it yourself

Anyways, there is a local bus that you can catch to these towns as well as a tourist hop on hop off bus. Save your money and catch a bus, have lunch in Amalfi and people watch. You still get to see the coastline, enjoy better food and go at your own pace.

One other thing, we had the option of a boat trip along the coast. They showed us where Roger Moore and Sophia Loren once had villas. And a bridge you are supposed to kiss in front of. Ten Euros for ten minutes. Avoid.

Pompeii and Herculaneum

Enough of the organised tours. We used our own steam to visit Herculaneum and Pompeii on the hottest day of the week.

In May the temperature is meant to be about 20c, we were in the middle of a heatwave so it was closer to 26. Take a hat, sunscreen and water. I did and still got sunburn.

We used the  Circumvesuviana and confusingly had to buy three tickets each. One to Pompeii from Sorrento, one from Pompeii to Herculaneum and one from Herculaneum back to Sorrento. No day ticket was available.

Thomson reps warn you not to take the train, telling you that they are crowded, hot, uncomfortable. Sorrento Food Tours point out the railway station and urge you to use the train to explore. Thomson charge you quite a lot for a bus to Pompeii, and I guess some people prefer to be in the comfort of a bus. Of course this also restricts the time you spend at your destination – and you also arrive with the crowds. The train was right for us.

It was hot, it was crowded, the train is basic and between Pompeii and Herculaneum you will have to endure travelling musicians, usually playing an accordion. If you are lucky you will get the young boy who drums. He really got the crowd going. Then mom sends the young girls (about 6 years old) along the train asking for money. Commuters ignore them so I reckon they get the money from the tourists. However hot and crowded the train was, I am still glad we used it. It is the train that the locals used to get to work and school and university. Medical students revise on the journey, school friends meet up and it is a good way to see the real Italy not just the tourist Italy.

We arrived at Pompeii at around 9 am well before the big coach tours and cruise excursions arrive. For about an hour or so it was not too crowded.

By 11 am the main thoroughfare was heaving with people. Cruise excursion groups wearing matching bandanas, school kids, students from all over the world with guides speaking in French, Japanese, English, Spanish and Italian.

There were a fair few people like us who were self guiding (and eavesdropping on multiple tour guides). We were using the free guide book provided at the entrance. It helped, however, I wish I had done more research and cherry picked a top 10 things to do at Pompeii. Because it is huge.

The one thing that I found fascinating was that the concept of street food and the takeaway is not new. On every street corner of Pompeii there had been a takeaway and a bakery. Many poor households had no kitchen so got their food from these.

As it was we probably saw more things than many other visitors see but missed out on what are considered the ‘must sees’. Also it is very hard on the feet, very little shade and not many places to sit and rest. There were places to fill up water bottles and toilets, but it is impossible to see everything in one day.

By the time we were ready to leave 3 hours later we were at the wrong end of the site to get the train. It took another 30 minutes of retracing our steps to exit. Many thoroughfares are closed off so we had to fight our way through the crowds at the hottest point of the day.

We were tired and hungry and could have been tempted to stop for lunch at one of the many fast food cafes on the street between the main entrance and the railway station. We made the right decision of not doing so, got the train to Herculaneum and found a small family run pizzeria, Ristorante Caffetieria, opposite the entrance to Herculaneum serving traditional food and cold beer. Nonna told me off for not having enough clothes on. She then proceeded to show me the multiple layers she was wearing including a woolen vest. It was hitting 28 c by then!

Herculaneum is far more manageable than Pompeii. We were there between 2pm and 4pm and there were perhaps 50 people there. There was an Anglo French family and one of the two boys was reading aloud to the family around from an excellent guide book. It was great to see his parents letting him take the lead and guiding them around the site. If I go again I will visit the bookshop there first and use the guide book to enhance the experience.

It is also better preserved than Pompeii as it was covered in ash as opposed to lava and there is much more shade.

After visiting both in one day we were absolutely exhausted by the time we got back to Sorrento. Of course we just had to stop off for an expensive beer and people watching in Piazza Tasso. Totally worth it.

We went to Naples to eat the best pizza in the world

According to James Martin the best pizza he has ever eaten is to be found at L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele.

They make two pizzas, one with cheese and one without. To ensure you get a seat at lunch time be there by 11.30 am. The place was full with backpackers, students, business men, and all nationalities.

The young American backpackers sharing their table with the middle aged Neapolitan man (who backed up James Martin claim that this was the best pizza in Naples) had come as it was featured in Rick Steves guide to Naples. As it seems had almost everyone there as many had this guide book.

Me, I had a scrap of paper with the address on and it was sheer fluke we found the place. It is tiny, the chef comes out and goes around all the tables and asks what you want. He doesn’t write it down as there is only two types to remember. About 10 minutes later these appear.

 L'Antica Pizzeria da Michele.

The Americans declare it to be the best pizza ever. I don’t disagree.

Naples is a sprawling, city, full of faded beauty

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Lots of bookshops, narrow streets and stunning architecture.  Dirty and noisy. Community space, galleries, cafes. Yet it was clear that the recession had hit Naples hard. Many buildings were derelict, dirty and in need of a lot of TLC. A place to visit not a place to stay.

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We travelled to Naples by train from Sorrento and here is a useful tip I picked up. There are two stations in Naples. Porta Nolana and Stazione Garibaldi. Don’t use Garibaldi, as it is crowded and busy, stay on and alight at Porta Nolana. Most people use Garibaldi as it is the main station and where you get connecting trains. When travelling to Sorrento from Naples, if you get on the train at Porta Nolana you will get a seat as it is the terminal and therefore the train is empty here. You won’t get a seat if you use Garibaldi. Arriving at Porta Nolana, you will think you are in the middle of nowhere, but turn right from the station and in 5 minutes walk you are at Stazione Garibaldi. There are lots of cafes on the square and useful maps to orientate yourself.

Sorrento has so much to offer

We explored this town by foot (when not off on trips to Naples etc) and grew to love it. Crazy busy with traffic and crossing the road can be challenging. In the evening many of the streets are closed to traffic and that is when locals parade, shop and then eat and drink.  It seems lemon is the colour to wear this year.

The range of food on offer is amazing, although I hope the fast food options

don’t put shops like this out of business. That would be a shame.

Then there is Marina Grande. It is a steep, but interesting  walk down some wide steps from the main part of town.  I liked this part of Sorrento, quieter and more relaxed.

We had lunch at Five Sisters. Mediocre, and not such good value. It was our first day and we were hungry and I wanted to be by the sea…anyway I don’t recall what I ate. That memorable. Sorrento Food Tours recommend Bagni Delfino and Ristoranto O’Puledrone. One other reason to go on a food tour before eating out in Sorrento. If I go back these are places I will eat out at.

As we were half board we did not eat out very much but decided to do so on our last night. Stuffed from lunch at lunch time at the vineyard, we were not very hungry, but had pre booked dinner at O’Parrucchiano, where cannelloni is said to have been invented.

Two mains and a bottle of wine came to 50 Euros. The service was excellent, there were flowers on the table, it is a romantic setting. The food, compared to what we were served at the hotel, was good, yet compared to other cheaper places we had eaten, average.

While we were in Sorrento there was a food festival, Tickets purchased for 10 euro bought you your own walking food tour with entertainment.

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On Saturday and Sunday there was a flea market.

Overall I really loved Sorrento. It wasn’t a relaxing holiday, as there is so much to do there. Lots to go back for, Capri, Ischia, more pizza and to get a good meal in Marina Grande to name but a few. And I would liked to have stopped off at some of the places that the train stopped at to explore more. Would I go AI or HB again? Probably not unless it was such good value, but I would plan to eat out more. The food at Conca Park was bland and unadventurous, which is a shame in the foodie town of Sorrento.

 

 

 

 

 

Go travelling while you can – don’t wait for someday

I have to go travelling while I still can.

Travel is in my DNA.

“When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age… perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ships’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping… I fear this disease incurable.” – John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

My aunt, the day before she died, said to me ‘I wish I had seen more of the world instead of looking after everyone else, and doing what I thought was the right thing’. My mother, the traveller, had no such regrets.

And while we had the concerns over the health of the his mom, my mother in law, Phil and I knew that we will continue travelling.

She died while we were away in Sorrento. Phil had spent two days and nights at her bedside in hospital before we went away. The nurses said that he must still go on the planned holiday.

Phil has a brother. My local minister and former work colleague reminded me of this when I expressed my concerns about our forthcoming extended travel plans, before Val passed. At the time she had just gone to a nursing home and we hoped her health would improve. As the minister said, Chris, the brother,  will be there while you are away. Phil discussed this with his brother. What they will do if this happens while we are away, hence the aforementioned family commitments.

My 84 year old friend, who travelled extensively after her retirement said much the same. ‘You cannot put your life on hold, the outcome will be the same whatever you do. Travelling was the best thing I did, it enriched my life so much’.

And so before the extended travel commences in July we booked some time away as Phil was exhausted with driving 3 hours to visit his mom every other week. With hospital visits and worries about finding a nursing home that didn’t smell. He was anxious about her and needed a break.

Val had had a lovely day with her family the weekend before she passed away.  She went home, gave her granddaughter a beautiful ring  and went to her local pub for dinner. She did seem to be in better health. The timing seemed right to go away for a few days.

But Sepsis had different plans and by the following Tuesday the nursing home had to admit her to hospital.

We had been in Sorrento one night and she passed away, with her son Chris by her side. Yes we felt sad and guilty but we knew it was going to happen but not when.

We stayed in Sorrento and filled the days with extensive sight seeing and walking. It helped. Chris did all the necessary and immediate things that needed to be done, and on our return we joined him and supported him to do everything else we had to do.

Now, a few weeks later, we have had the funeral in Winchester and the remembrance service in Yorkshire. We have spent more time with family than we usually do. Caught up with people we haven’t seen for many years. This happens when people die. We have cried and we have laughed. Shared happy memories. Discovered interesting things when sorting through possessions including some amazing photos on old slides.

These pictures were the turning point in their grief, for Phil and Chris. They rediscovered their childhood. Saw their parents at happier times, as they remembered them. The mom and dad they grew up with. Having spent months seeing their mom getting older and unrecognisable at times, took its toll on both of them. Discovering these photos and sharing them with people in Yorkshire who went to school with their parents evoked so many happy memories. Talking about the old days, the happy times, it healed them.

I met the minister again yesterday and told him about this. Thanked him for his wise words. They had helped us to remember that we have support from family. We don’t have to do everything, we can ask for help. And remember to laugh. Death is sad, of course it is. As the minister told me yesterday, it is good to recall happy memories and laugh. That is what we did, I told him, dinner with the family, we cherished our times together and laughed.

There is still a lot to do. Paperwork, mountains of it. A house to clear, major decluttering (so far 30 bags to charity and the same to the tip) some more legal stuff, a house to sell. We had made a start when she was in hospital. It is a big job. 80 plus years of memories in dusty boxes.

Phil was making lists of lists and worrying  about all we had to do. He got stressed again so I booked another, more relaxing, holiday to Skiathos after the funeral.

We cannot tick all the things off before we go to Australia in July. We can’t. So we won’t. We will do what we can. Prioritise the legal things. Trying to fit everything in  a tight schedule will exhaust all of us. And will make use feel failures because we won’t succeed. Our health and well being, and that of the family, has to come first.

We will carry on when get home in November. We can put some things on hold. Just not life.

 

 

 

Breakfast at Forte Cafe in Winchester

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Phil and I love our brunch, and I am getting to grips with using my smartphone to post to my blogs.

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The quality of the photos are pretty good for a cheapish android phone.

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But back to brunch.

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I uploaded some photos to Instagram and played around with the Gallery options.

Then tucked in to a very good breakfast indeed. Poached egg test passed.

If you are ever in Winchester, I can recommend this lovely cafe.

Packing it all in – in defence of package holidays

Travelling Coral.

Package Holiday Coral.

Are you a traveller who plans their own itinerary or a package holiday fan?

I ask because I want to know what defines a traveller.

I started my blog, Travelling Coral, to document my first round the world trip in 2011. It turns out I like this blogging malarkey, so I carried on. I like travelling, eating and I like package holidays. I love to have the sun on my back and writing about where I have been, what I have eaten and I like writing about other stuff too. It is my therapy.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with a package holiday.

The beach bums

When I was on a tour in SE Asia, we stopped a few nights at Langkawi. The resort I stayed in was full of long-term travellers and beach bums, who were just like my brother. Because he had lived on a remote island in Thailand for a few years he had a travellers superiority complex. Like the people at Langkawi he viewed tour groups as fake travellers, unlike themselves, the true travellers.

The digital nomads

We are all digital nomads. I can text on the bus and read my email in a cafe. I can work from home or someone else’s home. I can write my blog in Birmingham and Brisbane.

The travellers that describe themselves as digital nomads mostly work in Chang Mai. The package tourist is everything they wish not to be associated with and don’t we know it.

Travellers sleep on the floor/dorms

When I reluctantly let my brother stay in my home for a couple of nights he refused the bed. He slept on the floor and made a big thing about it (saved me washing sheets). He moaned about how unhygienic western toilets were preferring to squat and wash rather than to sit and wipe.

He sneered at every aspect of my life. My kids (too much of a drag, man) my house (still wanted to stay there) and like those languishing in Langkawi, thought westerners who chose to go to work and pay taxes were somehow inferior to him. My package holidays were nothing like what he did (drug dealing and cadging cash off the mothership) he was cool and I was not because he travelled and I did not.

The Carry On Brigade

Then there are the travellers who have lived on the road for six years with backpacks that they carry on to planes. Like carry on is the only way to travel. Self proclaimed digital nomads that never check their bags. They boast that they only carry seven days of clothes, yet manage to pack in the ipad/applewatch/macbook air and a mirror camera whatever that is. They write e-books about it and feign disdain at people who for whatever reason book a package holiday.

Sexy travellers

You will see this same group of bloggers featured in the top 10 sexy travellers lists (no one likes an old frumpy traveller do they?) selling online courses to enable you to have a six figure income on the road. If I were making a six figure income on the road I would upgrade to first class travel and check in my luggage and not work out of a café in Chiang Mai.

Not all of us can carry on

The type of people who respond with ‘oh we never go on packages’ when I mention on their Facebook Page that there is no way I could travel from Birmingham airport with carry on only.  It always gets weighed and the limit is 5kg, so no I can’t, package holiday or otherwise.

I have travelled with carry on only. Twice from the UK, both times with Easyjet out of Gatwick. Once they insisted that a tiny sling purse counted as a second item of hand luggage and I had to put that in my bag. Crazy, but rules are rules. #jobsworth .

*update

In Australia last year (August and September 2016) we travelled carry only on domestic flights to Tasmania/Darwin/Alice. Checked in online and hoped we were not stopped at the gate. I am more pro carry on now. Also had to dump 11kg of clothes in Melbourne as I overpacked for the 4 month trip.

Not a travelling snob 

While I go on package holidays I rarely have anything in common with most of the passengers on my plane. Particularly those with names on their t-shirts who clink on all the duty-free they can and buy perfume and makeup in the sky, I don’t really get them at all.

I genuinely hope that they are not in my hotel. I do. That is not me being a snob, it is me being me. I would not want to spend a week with a bunch of saga louts nor a bunch of toffs who snort coke. It is not who I am. I do like meeting new like minded people and as such have made friends with ambulance drivers, tube drivers and someone big at Weta on my travels. I am interested in people but not ready to fill my life with buckets of booze and karaoke. Except for that one time in Krabi. We don’t talk about that.

When I go to Turkey the ‘I have my name on my t shirt in case I forget who I am in Bar Street’ brigade get on the big packed bus to Marmaris, while I and my family are the only ones on the minibus to Dalyan. Phew. Dickhead Dave, Saucy Sue and Peter the Plonker who had beer for breakfast at the airport pub may visit Dalyan to wallow in the mud for the day at some point, usually as part of a transfer deal with the tour company, but that is it.

I get my Dalyan with the locals and the Dutch who have made it their second home. I watch the sleeping Dalyan Dogs and live like a local.

Husky on Ice

I go have a beer with Fatih, say hi to his mom Rose (one of the best cooks in Dalyan) and Aycut and his jeep, that frequently breaks down, gets our business every time. When he gives lift to random strangers and pops to see his mom when taking us on a trip, that is a bonus. The rep for my hotel invited us to his family home. The owners of Metin, the family run hotel we stay at, entrusted me with their daughters passport renewal forms. That is how we do package.

What we don’t do is lie on a sunbed, work on our tan, eat English breakfasts, drink Carlsberg and stay in the hotel complex. We catch buses and go for long walks. We get lost in thunderstorms, narrowly avoid being struck by lightning, get woken by earthquakes and run the bar for Fatih when he joins in the water polo match. And yes some days we may swim and sleep because we can. Because we are on holiday.

In Malta we got the cheapest hotel and were out all day exploring by bus. We went there to sus out whether we would want to live there. We don’t. Another package because it suited us at the time.

Our first All Inclusive was in Marrakech, which we loved. Our second in Tunisia, we hated. Before that it was usually self catered to keep the costs down and meant that I didn’t have to dress for dinner.

And that is the point. We do what we want to do. If Carlsberg and chips is your thing, good for you, enjoy. Just don’t call me a snob for choosing not to.

If sitting in a cafe as a nomadic blogger in Chiang Mai is your thing, great. Go write that book about how you travel with only one pair of knickers and flip flops. I won’t buy it.

None of us are superior to anyone, tourist or traveller or staycation lover. No, not at all. It was a digital nomad, What’s Dave Doing,  who gave me the best advice when I was planning my first big trip. Supportive and informative. He is still travelling (slowly now) and I am pretty sure he checks his bags. Dave goes home and sees his family and likes western toilets and comfortable beds, but will sleep on the floor if he has to.

Sorrento here we come

Next week Phil and I are off to Sorrento for a week. I went to Thomson Holidays, after some research on the interwebs, and booked a package holiday.

Yes I could have booked it online. I didn’t because there is only one travel agent on my high street now. Use it or lose it, be it butcher, baker or holiday maker. The staff there are lovely, remember my holiday disasters and know why I don’t do cruises.

Sorrento is a holiday. A much needed holiday after a downsizing house move, a bereavement and every other weekend visits to a hospitalised terminally ill mom/mother in law.

And I will not be taking carry on only. I am packing a posh frock, and some real shoes. I will take sandals and linen tops and trousers and jeans and shoes and as the weather is warm in the day and cool at night, some scarves and a cardie. I may even pack my trusty kagool.

Housesitting in Melbourne

In a few months we are off to Melbourne to house sit, travel in Australia a bit and then after three months there, we go to New Zealand for a month. I sketched out a plan on the back on an envelope, went to STA, and now flights are booked and not much else. I have no idea how we get from Sydney to Brisbane yet. We will work it out. That to me is travelling, a mix of part planning and part seeing what happens.

Packing light

This was my packing for Greece in 2014. A seven day unpackaged holiday, where we flew to Crete,  took a night ferry to Piraeus,  had a day in Athens and then cruised to Santorini for a couple of nights. All the others dragged their huge suitcases to their hotel and stayed in one place. At the airport on the way home I asked some of them if they had been to Knossos. They asked me what Knossos was. #sigh

I pack light. This wheeled backpack from Ikea is just over the measurements for hand luggage on most domestic flights from the UK. And while we travelled light, it was over 5kg.

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Package versus DIY

Before booking the Sorrento package, as an experiment, I checked out skyscanner and various booking websites to see if I could organise a break cheaper than the package. I couldn’t. I could get cheap flights and if I had wanted to backpack in hostels, I probably could have just beaten the prices. Room only in modest hotels were around £80 per night. I could have got a 7 night all inclusive package for £600 if we had been able to go this week. We couldn’t due to work and family commitments. For less than that we have 7 nights half board and, as Sorrento is renowned for being expensive, that is good enough for me.

Spend my tourist dollar in the community

When we go to Sorrento are we going to lounge around the pool? Probably not. We will catch the train to Naples and find the pizza James Martin raves about. We may take a water taxi to Capri and explore the island. Visit Pompeii and Herculaneum at the very least. We will use public transport where we can and maybe take a trip to a farm and make pizza. The food walking tour looks fun too. I like tours, I like meeting like minded people and sharing the experience. Phil and I also like going off on our own and exploring.

What is important to me is making sure some of my tourist dollar is spent locally. Booking a package and eating only in the hotel, it isn’t. If I am AI and never leave the complex, only RIU and TUI make any cash. In most cases Thomson and Thomas Cook have bed blocked the hotel for a knock down price and the staff are paid the minimum wage.

In Malta we ate in a family run pizzeria and bought pastizzi from the pie shop. We used local buses and put our money into the economy.

This was almost impossible to do in Tunisia and boy did it need the tourist buck. Even our taxi driver worried for us when he took us to Sousse. It was a country in crisis. So sad now that those hotels, the main source of employment, lie empty.

An ex work colleague once moaned to me about her holiday in Kenya, how dirty everything was outside her hotel. She was horrified at how the locals lived and she didn’t want to see that. I explained to her that while tourism may offer the locals employment, the big hotel chains offering AI deals are in effect, stealing the business from the local small traders. And it doesn’t make any difference what the business is, holiday, retail or the coffee shop. Ask yourself why McDonald’s pop up in almost every resort and city now? Why, when in Melbourne, would you choose a Big Mac over the many wonderful burgers this city offers? Think where you spend you money, please. If you spend it with a local independent, the money stays in the community.

I do sometimes steal McDonald’s wifi though. When a bed bug ridden Maltese hotel charges for it.

Find the family business

This is why I seek family run businesses when I can when travelling. At home I choose indies over Costa and the corner shop over Tesco, Meatshack over Maccie Dees. If I stay in an AI or half board I make sure I get out to the local businesses be they cafes or tour companies and use them. For my forthcoming Australia trip I am using Aussie based tour companies and where I can, family run companies such as Melbourne Coastal Touring and West Oz Active.

Travelling with grannies and children

When the children were young, we almost always booked package holidays. It was easy, my children learned to swim in the sun, made holiday friends, and I had peace of mind. Both Phil and I had stressful jobs and all we wanted to do then was flop. We did once take our then 3-year-old daughter island hopping in Greece, with 50 something granny aka Travelling Sylvia leading the way.

Santorini post card

We found accommodation as we got off the boat. The owners held photos of their rooms for rent and took us there on the back of mopeds. Of course now we use booking apps but I still see rooms for rent signs in Greece.

Holidays at home can cost more than a package

I also have unpackaged holidays in the UK, using small independent Bed and Breakfast accommodation. When our Nile trip was cancelled in 2011 we took a tour around Wales and stayed in some excellent rooms. It cost nearly as much as the Nile cruise though, with food and petrol on top of the £80 or so a night accommodation.

And that is why package holidays are popular, they are mostly affordable. That is what many people want. If they have busy lives and only two weeks off to have a break, most people will probably choose what is generally a safe and predictable option for a holiday. Eat, drink, relax. And so do I, sometimes.

Yet now I have travelled more I choose packages that will offer me the adventure and independence I prefer.

We chose Sorrento because we have never been before, it offers a variety of things to see and do and because we needed a break. It was cheaper than 7 nights B&B or hiring a camper in England and I am saving my dosh for our Antipodean adventures.

The point of this post is not to praise package holidays, nor denigrate people who take them. I have friends who for environmental reasons won’t fly. My carbon footprint with three long haul flights in the past 5 years is huge. I do my best to balance this with using public transport and walking as much as possible. I don’t waste food. I turn off lights and use environmentally friendly products. I am not perfect nor strive to be.

Love them or hate them

Package holidays are like Marmite, love or hate them I suppose. But don’t think you are superior if you call yourself a traveller not a tourist. Because I will see you at Pompeii and at Knossos, at Hadrian’s Wall and on a beach in Krabi. That is what people who are interested in the world do, tourists and travellers.

I am a traveller, a tourist, a holiday maker who wants to see the world, feel the sun on her skin, taste new food, discover new places and people and return to places I love. Package holidays have made the world accessible to people who would never had left the comfort of their own back yard otherwise. Who knows, one day they may push past their comfort zone and go further, go independently and go travel. Or they may just sit by the pool and work on their tan, because that is what makes them happy. Who am I to judge?

So don’t judge me. I like package holidays. Sometimes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conversations at the corner cafe – Xenos my friend

As I entered the corner café, a stranger said hello.

Saying hello to strangers is not what the British do.

I said hello back and we fell into conversation.

We discovered we had at least one person in common.

And that we both loved Greece.

We talked about other cafes in the area, how another café had told him about the corner café. The best Greek food, and where to get it, the best tapas and SE Asian food. And how Moussaka from the corner cafe had won me a day with James Martin.

We talked about afternoon tea.  How a local café turned a poor review on TripAdvisor, due to them handling it professionally, into a success and brought more customers to the café.

He recommended two places for afternoon tea, one in Edinburgh another in Bournemouth, in the Echo building. Where Bill Bryson used to work I said. Yes, that would be right, he said.

I had been thinking of following the trail of Little Dribbling as a holiday idea before I go on the next big trip. And here I am getting café recommendations. How did he know?

We agreed that Tilt needed sofas.

Our conversation – it was as if we were speaking in code. A language no one else knew or could understand. We were not intentionally excluding anyone, yet this conversation of shared experiences,  no one else in the cafe that day understood.

I told him my story of the church in Santorini. He never questioned that I was led to the spot by my mom, she chose where I was to scatter her ashes. People with faith who know the story tell me God was guiding me. I think that connections with people you love don’t end at death. I think he thought that, too.

We talked about great places to eat, how he visited islands in Greece where no one speaks English. That this was the best Stifado he had eaten outside Greece.

He needed to take his own advice and book his trip to Greece he said. Make it happen instead of talking about it.

Two hours we talked. Two strangers.

I don’t believe in coincidences.coincidence

Later that day I sat down to start working through the Life Purpose Alchemy workbook that Lisa Cherry Beaumont asked me to review.

And I thought about my conversation with the stranger.

Because when he got up to go he asked if he could give me his card. I recognised the name, he is a life coach.

The person we both know is a life coach. I told him about Lisa, my life coach and how much I had changed since being coached.

He wants to live in Greece, as do I. I thought that we may end up working together in Crete combining our talents and skills. Not knowing how.

Today in the workbook I have been working on the section where Lisa asks you to

free-write some ideas about what you could do to earn a living. Play with ideas, without restriction. Don’t worry if it sounds crazy or too “way out” – put all your ideas down and don’t limit or edit what you write. Use more paper if you need to

and I thought about that conversation with the life coach in the cafe.

How comfortable we were sharing information with each other. How defined our goals were. How we believed that anything was possible. How open we were to possibilities. How positive our language was. How we said what we thought. How we went with the flow.

It struck me that this can make some people uncomfortable. We have been conditioned to limit our self belief. From childhood. The day you sing for your teacher and don’t get chosen for the choir you stop singing, perhaps forever. You fail a test and label yourself a failure. If you are not in the ‘gifted and talented’ stream at school, you believe that you will never be gifted or talented at anything.

Two strangers, not limited by can’t. People who don’t wait for someday. Who have dreams and make plans. And put a date on it. This scares people because they like the comfort of limited self belief.

That way they can’t fail.

If there is only one bus a day, I will get it. The first ferry of the season that will get me back just in time for my flight, could be cancelled if the weather is poor, book me on it. Get on the wrong bus, fate will intervene. Telling me I can’t do something is merely laying down a challenge.

The stranger too found himself on islands with one bus a day with no one who spoke English. He discovered he could speak Greek better than he thought.

I guess that if you get on the wrong bus in Corfu, a bus full of locals with goats and chickens and not tourists with sunburn, and two minutes later the bus that gets stopped by the police as it is unsafe, you realise that it has happened for a reason. And when there just happens to be an English girl on this bus (she is teaching English in a remote village) who directs you to the right bus, you just know that things have a way of working themselves out.

Yet somewhere along the way, in between being a carefree student, and becoming a mom and getting a mortgage and jumping on the work, watch, spend treadmill, I forgot this. Instead I opted for safe choices, because that is what I believed I was supposed to do. Get a job, get a house, get married, have kids, get into debt, watch the news and get depressed. Be normal.

Don’t talk to strangers.

In Greek the word for stranger is the same as for friend.

Xenos (Greek: ξένος, xénos, plural xenoi) is a word used in the Greek language from Homer onwards. The most standard definition is “stranger”. However, the word, itself, can be interpreted to mean different things based upon context, author and period of writing/speaking, signifying such divergent concepts as “enemy” or “stranger”, a particular hostile interpretation, all the way to “guest friend”‘ one of the most hallowed concepts in the cultural rules of Greek hospitality.

In my workbook I wrote:

A social media language café, where people can learn Greek and English, life coaching, I could coach people to declutter, fulfilling my need to socialise and help people clear their lives of whatever is holding them back.

I told Lisa that going through the workbook was like playing pass the parcel and unravelling the layers to get to the prize.  The prize? A map of my life. Yet the map is a jigsaw, that still needs to be assembled. I haven’t completed all the exercises yet, I’ve unraveled the layers, found the jigsaw, now I have to build the map.

What I have discovered is that everything that I have done and everything good that has happened to me, the lovely people I have met, the crappy things and the horrid people, has made me who I am now. I needed to unravel those layers. To find my purpose. The map is a jigsaw and I can’t find my way until I put the pieces together. When I am uncomfortable it is because I have forced the wrong piece in the wrong place, as if my shoes are on the wrong feet. Sometimes pieces are missing and we have to go find them.

Or they find us.

The conversation in the corner café was a the missing piece I needed to place in the jigsaw to discover what my authentic life looks like. It is pretty much how it looked at age 23 as I got off the bus full of chickens and goats in Corfu and thanked a stranger.

I asked the life coach if I could write about our conversation.

He said yes, but only if I didn’t say he wolfed down Stifado like a wild animal. I don’t think he will mind.

Addendum 3/6/16

Recently, while in Winchester, I met a Greek bar man and talked about the word Xenos. He told me the word I was looking for was this.

Hospitality, the official English translation of ‘philoxenia‘, doesn’t do justice to the concept as it does not encompass its main element, which is generosity of spirit. The Greek noun ‘xenos’ initially meant ‘guest’, acquitting the meaning of ‘foreigner/stranger’ at a later stage.

I have recently returned from a week on Skiathos. Yes, Greece still feels like home. Never a stranger there, always a guest.

 

 

 

Cooking with Ping at Chi Kitchen

Chi Kitchen

a contemporary pan asian restaurant created as an exclusive departmental brand for Debenhams

The menu for Chi Kitchen has been created by Group Consultant Ping Coombes, 2014 MasterChef UK winner.

I was fortunate to be a guest at a masterclass with Ping on Sunday 20 March 2016 at the restaurant on the third floor of Debenhams, Birmingham. As I could take a plus one I dragged my husband along. There was food – he was not so reluctant tbh even early on a Sunday morning.

While I didn’t get on with SE Asia on my travels, I did get on with the food. The fusion of Malaysian cuisine particularly impressed me, with so many influences, from Indian to Chinese. The hot curries in Little India, KL and the delicious steamboat in the Cameron Highlands are particularly memorable.

When this invite to the masterclass popped into my inbox I was delighted. While I love SE Asian food I am not very confident when cooking it nor familiar with the ingredients or the techniques. And now I was going to learn from a MasterChef. How brilliant is that?

And that is why on a sunny Sunday morning I was meeting Ping in Chi Kitchen, Birmingham, desperately trying to hide my excitement at meeting an actual MasterChef winner. I am an avid watcher of TV cooking shows and I was a little bit star struck.

Ping was delightful. She warmly welcomed me and my husband Phil and she recalled that I had tweeted about the event. She remembered everybody’s names, which is a great skill.

We all had a welcome card, with details of the food we would be making during the masterclass.

The staff at Chi Kitchen were friendly and attentive. Water was brought out straight away, tea offered while we waited for the other guests and nothing was too much trouble for them.

Meanwhile Ping was securing a couple of glasses of bucks fizz for us.

The Executive Chef was already making Roti Canai for us to snack on.  Ping told us that we would be making it later on.

Never I thought, could we produce this in one lesson.

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We did. Well Phil did, he made the dough comprising of flour, water, condensed milk and sugar and did a decent job for a first attempt.

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I thought making the Money bags would be easy.

I have seen women making these in the food malls in Melbourne, they produce hundreds in a matter of minutes,  it took me 5 minutes to make one. Not going to be getting a job in a food mall in Melbourne anytime soon.

Then it was on to the Nyonya Salad with King Prawns.

Lots of individual ingredients, rice noodles, bean sprouts, tomatoes, cucumber, onions all into one bowl and massaged.

Add the chilli sauce and massage some more, and you are left with a salad that zings. Beats the limp lettuce and tasteless tomato salads that I was brought up on.

Once we had finished cooking, more food was brought to us. Everything was delicious.  Fresh, clean, spicy, a riot of flavours, yet delicate on the palate.

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To be able to eat food of this quality, in a department store, demonstrated just how the food scene in Birmingham is improving. As a child, my Grandmother used to take me to Lewis’s restaurant as a treat. This was when we had waitresses in black dresses and white aprons serve us. Proper posh.  Then department stores restaurants adopted the canteen style of cafes, offering chicken nuggets, congealed lasagne and chips.

Debenhams has realised that this no longer good enough for the discerning diner. The food offer in department stores needs to be more than a refueling stop for shoppers, in store restaurants need to be a destination to meet friends over lunch or after work. They have also realised that Birmingham is the place that this can work. We Brummies are foodies and we want great food.

Over the past few years I have observed Birmingham’s food scene getting better and better. While the councils PR and Marketing will always mention the Balti Triangle and how Birmingham has more Michelin starred restaurants than any other British city outside London in every press release, as will any London based journo who writes about Birmingham, there is a middle ground for us foodies. And I am not talking Mr Egg.

The Birmingham street food scene brought us Digbeth Diner. This showcases the best street food in Birmingham, including The Original Patty Men (which I have yet to experience) Meatshack dirty burgers and Andy’s Low and Slow, to name but a few of the many wonderful purveyors of amazing food

Indies started to fight back and it became easier to avoid chains selling identikit mextex when Bodega and Habeneros came on the scene. Urban and Six Eight gave Brummies decent coffee. Jake popped up in his telephone box, opposite Starbucks, selling great coffee, amazing sausage rolls and cake. Jake also gave us Tfor2, a way for his customers to pay it forward and buy a suspended coffee for rough sleepers.

A food scene was slowly and surely being established in Brum. Hoo flippin ray and about time too.

And all of a sudden it exploded, in a good way.

Birmingham has some excellent Tapas restaurants, the aforementioned dirty burgers from Meat Shack, innovative burgers at The Original Patty Men in Digbeth, great bread from Peel and Stone and Loaf. And then there is the innovative The Wilderness. Add to that the Michelin starred Adams, Purnell’s and Simpsons and the Birmingham Breakfast Club, Birmingham we have got food covered. Almost. There is still a shortage of mid priced good food that is not Beef Eater but I am sure we will get them soon.

With the opening of Grand Central, Brummies who may not have braved Digbeth for street food, Chinatown for SE Asian food, or tried tapas in Spain, are stepping out of their comfort zone of fast food and are experimenting with new food experiences. This is a good thing. Having tasted pho and lush pork belly tapas, in Grand Central I hope they will want to explore the street food scene, visit the Birmingham Foodies Festival or the Colmore Food Festival, showcasing the best food Birmingham has to offer.

The choice of food at Grand Central is staggering. Yes, they are chains, some small chains, some family run. Yet this is food we used to only be able to get in London. My personal favourites are Pho, Tapas Revolutions and Leon. There are eateries to meet the requirements for almost everyone in a safe environment, restaurants without doors in a shopping mall. It is a food court, a good food court, above a railway station. There are no toilets (if there are I’ve not found them yet) which for family dining is a nightmare. They are all busy, which is good for the retailers, yet one often has to wait in line to eat at Tapas Revolution and Pho.

Well now you don’t need to. Leave Grand Central, take a short walk to the Bullring and visit Chi Kitchen in Debenhams.

Attentive staff, authentic food, good music, open kitchen, uncrowded with a big picture window, clean toilets and no queues. Yet.

Disclaimer

I was a guest of Chi Kitchen. I was not asked to write about the experience, I chose to. I was not asked to say only lovely things  when I told them I would be writing about them. Ping is genuinely lovely. She told me to say that.

I am that easy to read am I? I just wanna have fun and want the same for my guests 🙂

All the photos were taken by Phil and me. Please don’t steal them.

And we got a goodie bag.

 

 

 

 

 

Waiter! There’s a bug in my brunch

And it was meant to be there.

I was at a special brunch at Nomad organised by The Birmingham Breakfast Club. The last one I attended was at Simpsons, which was superb. This time I took my husband Phil as a treat for our upcoming wedding anniversary.

I had checked out the website and I knew they offered food that was not the run of the mill fare. I read seasonal, foraged, but I must have missed the bug bit.

It was only when Laura aka Full to the Brum asked if there were any insects in the cereal boxes and the waitress declined to answer that I thought I would investigate.

Phil had already started to enthusiastically tuck in to the fourth course of caramelised milk mousse and tipped the contents of the cereal packet and had not noticed the bugs. I decided to tell him. I thought it was only fair.

It seems odd to start a post about a breakfast with the final course. However you do need to know that Nomads does bugs.

It also does bloody good food and drink.

So as Maria says, let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. Do-Re-Mi.

Coffee and tea on arrival and a cocktail of English mead wine, forest garden honey and Spanish Cava. A little bit of fizz is always a good way to start brunch.

Then as an appetiser, eggy bread with tansy, an edible flower, reindeer moss, forest garden honey, reindeer moss, bacon, eggs and baked coffee and sea buckthorn. In a little pot there was homemade fresh yoghurt.

Small but perfectly formed, this was a lovely start to a brunch. I love yoghurt and honey and bacon and egg and eggy bread and here they were all on one plate, with reindeer moss. I like reindeer moss now. Together the individual flavours complemented each other beautifully.

This was followed by a plate of pearl barley and spelt kedgeree with sea buckthorn and poached eggs. The sauce had a hint of cumin to it.

The pearl barley evoked memories of family suppers our parents or grandparents cooked. We reminisced about hunting for the pearls on our plates and the comfort of good old fashioned, home cooked food. To serve a kedgeree replacing rice with spelt, with the twist of the old school pearl barley, was a very clever use of ingredients. If the plan was to get us to recall memories of food from our childhood, this did the trick.

The egg was perfectly poached, the sauce beautifully spiced and for a brunch, just the right balance of breakfast and lunch.

Between courses we were served a mimosa and fresh apple juice.  Cleansed the palate marvelously.

And now back to that Caramelised Mousse with a crunchy topping. And toys. A course that got people talking.

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The mouse was light and cream. The crunchy cereal was honeycomb coated. As were the bugs. It was lovely, and it was fun to include some toys in the packets. It was as if the team behind Nomad were saying, ‘we take our food seriously here, but not too seriously, go ahead have some fun’.  And we did.

Brunch is my favourite meal. Sharing food with like minded people, who love food and writing about food and being actively encouraged to take photos of food. What’s not to like?

I already knew award winning blogger Full to the Brum, and it was lovely to meet James and Ellen aka Eat with Ellen and Ryan aka  Brummie Gourmand. In addition to eating great food we also talked about food and blogging and learning how to use proper cameras and the pros and cons of the iPhone to take photos of food. It was a very social brunch.

This was my first time to Nomad and I thoroughly enjoyed the food and the company. The menu changes constantly, and with advance notice, Nomad can cater for pescatarian, vegetarian and gluten-free diets.

Disclaimer

The bugs were crickets and had been added to the crunchy honey concoction that is a Nomad secret recipe. Probably. You will not find them in any cereal packet you buy at the supermarket. The boxes used by Nomad are for serving purposes only. Although I have heard of infestations of moth pupae in porridge oats. But not at Nomad.

I ate them, Phil pulled his to the side of the plate. They were dead, crunchy and sweet. I still would not eat live insects, although I may have once accidentally swallowed a small fly. I have never pulled wings off anything.

I paid for the brunch and was not asked to write about it or say good things about it. But it was good, otherwise I wouldn’t say it was. And I like writing about food, meeting other bloggers and eating.

Addendum

Nomad is no more. It is now The Wilderness. Apparently there is another place called Nomad something in America and they didn’t want to share their name. So the Birmingham Nomad changed theirs.

 

 

Luxury in Ludlow – Hopton House B&B

Phil, the DH, and I needed a weekend away. It was May, he had a long weekend off work as it was the Bank Holiday weekend and of course everywhere I wanted to stay at was booked. Despairing of not finding a bolthole to escape to, I trawled all the Facebook pages of B&B I had liked for inspiration.

Hopton House had  a last minute cancellation and I clicked and booked before anyone else had a chance.

Karen, the proprietor, runs a B&B Academy for those thinking about setting up their own B&B. I knew I had managed to secure a gem of a place to stay.

Located in a rural setting just a short drive from Ludlow, it was  near enough from Birmingham to drive there on the Friday night so that we could enjoy two full days unwinding.

Weekend destinations, in my opinion, need to be near enough to get to in under 90 minutes, but far enough to know that you have escaped the city. The journey to Ludlow is an enjoyable drive, especially over Clee Hill where you are treated to stunning views.

There are a number of evening dining options nearby however we chose to pre book a ploughman’s supper so that once we got there we could completely relax in our room.

Indeed the next evening we decided to have another picnic supper to savour the best that the Ludlow Food Centre could give and Karen thoughtfully provided butter, plates and cutlery.

The thoughtful extras at Hopton House,such as home baked shortbread and lemon drizzle cake, in your room with a selection of teas on offer and a silent fridge to keep your wine and cheese in, is what makes this B&B special.

Hopton House is possibly the best B&B I have ever stayed at. The quality of the finish of the rooms, the comfort of the beds, the amazing breakfast with home baked bread, freshly made hollandaise sauce and perfect poached eggs from the chooks roaming the garden, all contributed to a relaxing break.

The location is perfect too. Very peaceful yet within easy reach of Ludlow and a number of National Trust properties.

On Saturday,  our original plan had been to visit  Powis Castle as Karen had said this was her favourite place to visit. Due to a road closure, we couldn’t get there without a huge detour,  so we made a U turn and headed into Ludlow.

Ludlow is a traditional market town that to a large extent remains unchanged from when it was built. Yes the big supermarkets have infringed on the outskirts but Ludlow fought back with the Ludlow Food Centre, showcasing the best of locally produced food. We called on a day of a food festival and the place was incredibly busy. It also goes to show that despite the Tesconisation of the country town, quality, locally produced food is still very much in demand.

In the town there are plenty of cafes, at all price points, bakeries, gift shops, and  in a back alleyway we found a music shop selling vinyl.

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There is also the best hardware store in the world.

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Four Candles anyone?

We then visited Croft Castle a short drive from Ludlow and spent most of our visit debating whether we had been there before. We decided we had but possibly over 30 years ago which is why we had the debate. Not only have we been to bed since then we have had two children, moved house six times and had over twenty jobs and five redundancies between us.

Despite the senior moments, we thoroughly enjoyed our visit.

We also managed to squeeze in a visit to Hopton Castle just a few miles up the road from Hopton House.

After a long and enjoyable day exploring, we dived into the food loveliness from Ludlow.

After another beautiful, filling breakfast on Sunday morning we headed toward Clun and The Green Man Festival. Our friends from Birmingham were dancing there.

Clun is a place we used to stop off at on the way to family holidays in Wales. It is perhaps 45 years since I was last there. I remembered the river, the bridge and not much else although the public toilets looked familiar. I can see why my aunt chose Clun to break a journey. Toilets and a place to stretch our legs, the essential sanity break.

Our family holidays were epic in that there would be at least three generations, a minimum of eight children and five dogs all piled into mini buses and Land Rovers. My aunt would hire huge houses in Tenby or three caravans at Poppit Sands.  Wales sighed  a relief and put back up the vacancy signs when they heard that the Goughs and the Johnsons were going to Devon instead.

Clun is tiny, one road in and one road out, and those roads are narrow. We climbed up above the town to the castle.

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Old shops selling vintage, new shops selling high end crafts, pub, some closed up and others thriving, it is rather a lovely place to linger awhile.

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As the stall holders began to set up the village was buzzing.

The animal man was possibly the biggest hit of the day, with children and adults alike.

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Although we were there to support our friends who dance with the Jockey Men’s Morris.

Shropshire and the Welsh Borders are so close to Birmingham, both are easily a day trip away. However, if you can make it a weekend break, do and stay if you can at Hopton House.

Disclosure: I paid full price to stay at Hopton House and have not been paid or asked to write this post.

 

 

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