Category: Europe

Three reasons to visit Birmingham now

Birmingham UK

Tram - Three reasons to visit Birmingham now

Not to be confused with Birmingham Alabama. People have. Such as the cyclist who thought the Velo was in America. He still came though and discovered our lovely city has so much to offer.

And there was once a leaflet printed, featuring the skyline of this American city for the skyline of Birmingham UK.

I digress, but you get my point. Mistakes have been made.

According to one USA so called expert Anglo blogger (who shall not be named) all there is to do in Brum is shop. They are wrong. There is so much more than shopping to do in the city I am proud to call home.

Recently I have done a bit of staycationing in Birmingham and these are my three reasons why you must visit Birmingham, England, now.

1. The architecture

Birmingham has some amazing architecture. And have demolished some controversial buildings too. Like Doctor Who Birmingham has a habit of regenerating itself every so often. And what it replaces the old with is not always a popular choice.

Which is why the city is in the midst of rebuilding Paradise right now. The Old Brutalist Library has been demolished (which caused some controversy) and the area is currently a construction site.

Unfortunately this is right in front of the New Library and the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. But don’t let this put you off. Look up and this is just some of what you will find.

  • Victoria Square Birmingham

2. The arts

I have already mentioned Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, housed in one of the most beautiful buildings in the city. It is worth visiting just for the building. However do make time to see The Staffordshire Hoard and the Pre-Raphaelite paintings, which are part of the largest public Pre-Raphaelite collection in the world. On my last visit I went to see Coming Out, a major exhibition that explores themes of gender, sexuality and identity in art. It is on until 18 April 2018.

The Ikon Gallery

There is always something new to see here. I had no idea what was exhibitions were on, but popped in anyway. And got to see the Thomas Bock exhibition. Thomas was a Birmingham born Tasmanian artist, having been transported there as a convict. His portraits of Tasmanian Aboriginal people are usually to be seen in The British Museum. However, I particularly liked this colour chart and the landscapes of Tasmania. More information about the Ikon can be found here.

Castle Galleries

Located in International Convention Centre, home to Symphony Hall. This gallery is a short walk via Brindley Place from The Ikon. I stopped off to admire artwork by Ronnie Wood and Bob Dylan. Castle Galleries is the only gallery in the UK to sell their work. I was, however,  particularly taken with the cityscapes of Paul Kenton and am putting them on the ‘if I win the lottery ‘list.

The Electric Cinema

I love The Electric Cinema. With sofas where you can get drinks and food delivered to, this is a real treat. The world’s oldest working cinema. As well as showing new releases it also show films that you won’t see at the local Odeon. It is a real experience, and doesn’t cost much more than your average multiscreen chain.

Once tucked away amongst seedy bars and Chinese takeaways, in a dark dingy street, the revamping of New Street Station and the Grand Central Development has meant that the area is now light and bright and being gentrified. I think this is a good thing. The Old Rep is in the same row of buildings and the lapdancing club will, I hope, close down soon. We will see.

The Hippodrome

Home to The Royal Ballet, this theatre continues to host top musicals, dance and panto. I went a few years ago to see Blood Brothers which was brilliant. This week I got to see Beautiful based on the life of Carole King. Spectacular. If you are coming to Birmingham, check what is on. If you can only get the cheap seats at the back, don’t worry. That is all I had and the view was excellent.

3. The food

There are more Michelin starred restaurants in Birmingham than any other British city, outside of London. Two of the finalists of MasterChef The Professionals 2017 work in Birmingham restaurants.

And if Michelin starred eateries are not your thing, here is where Chef Brad Carter (of Michelin starred Carters of Moseley) eats and drinks on his days off. Kebab, burgers and curry are featured.

With so many choices, from curry and burgers to posh nosh at one of our many restaurants in the Michelin Guide, you won’t go hungry.

This is where I have recently visited.

The Original Patty Men

I made a long overdue visit to the patty pimps and purveyors of filth that are The Original Patty Men. Once a regular pop up street food provider at Digbeth Diner they have been in the railway arches behind Moor Street Station for xx years now. And it is absolutely shameful I have not eaten their burgers before. Go. Probably the best burger I have ever had.

I feel so torn now because I also love the dripping filthy goodness that is The Meat Shack. You can find them next to The Hippodrome, one of our many lovely theatres, and home to The Birmingham Royal Ballet. I ate there just before Christmas and it was good.

Which is the best? Go try them both and let me know.

Cafe Soya

China town has a lot of choices. I did not know where to go so I asked my Twitter followers for recommendations. I wanted lunch in the Chinese Quarter before attending a matinée (to see Beautiful: The Carole King Musical) at The Hippodrome theatre. I wanted to eat authentic and affordable food.

Birmingham chinese - Three reasons to visit Birmingham now

Recommendations from local food writer Paul Fulford were Dzehou Braised Chicken, Min Min or Hometown China. Another friend suggested Chung Ying as well as Cafe Soya and Full to the Brum suggested Look In. Spoiled for choice.

All of these are less than a five minute walk from The Hippodrome, making them perfect pre or post theatre food choices. They are also near to the Bull Ring shopping centre and markets, so if you want something different to same same chain food, go to the Chinese Quarter.

Cafe Soya, at £7.95 for a set lunch was very good. Three recommendations from friends made it the winner this time. I will check out the others soon.

So why do you need to visit Birmingham now?

Don’t just take my word for it. It is not just me that loves Brum. And while ten years ago I would not have been Brum’s greatest fan, it has changed considerably in the past few years putting it up there with some of the top cities to visit. Photographer Verity Milligan reflects here on how much Birmingham has changed since she returned six years ago.

With The Commonwealth Games coming to us in 2022, the time is now to come and see the city now before the world finds out just what a great city Birmingham is.

If you still don’t think Birmingham is your kind of town, see what Telly Savalas had to say about it back in 1981. I did say it had changed right?

To summarise, what can Birmingham offer the visitor?


amazing art galleries

an independent cinema

The Birmingham Royal Ballet

an independent cinema

dirty filthy burgers

the Balti Triangle

Chinese Quarter

The Bull Ring and Grand Central for shopping

The Jewellry Quarter

great indie coffee shops: try Yorks by the tram stop, 200 degrees opposite the cathedral and many others

the canals

Birmingham Cathedral

More than three reasons to visit Birmingham then….


P.S Beautiful was amazing.

A walk in Warley Woods – The People’s Park.

All this week (December 11the to 17th 2017) my local park, Warley Woods, has been offering free guided walks as part of the National Lottery #ThanksToYou initiative. Warley Woods and Golf Course is run by a Community Trust and has benefitted from Heritage Lottery funding.

lottery week poster 1 427x600 - A walk in Warley Woods - The People's Park.

To continue to be able to finance he upkeep, The Trust raises funds from membership donations, green fees from the golfers and also by organising a number of excellent events all year round, including Picnic in the Park, All About Dogs and Open Air Theatre.

The weather has unfortunately caused much disruption to the planned walks. The West Midlands had heavy snow, -10 degrees overnight, rain, more snow and so the paths are still icy. Some walks were understandably cancelled because of this. Today, as the sun was shining, we had a beautiful red sunrise (yes, that warning about red sky in the morning needs to be heeded) so I decided to drag my husband away from the warmth of the log burner for a walk in the woods.

And so it was we were the only two who turned up for the walk, led by Trustee and volunteer Chris Ashford and his daughters, who also volunteer for Warley Woods.

Simon Lea, a local photographer captured the sunrise over my other local park (lucky me, two parks) this morning. Head here to see this photo, and if you like it, pop to The Pavilion shop and buy his calendar capturing Warley Woods at its best throughout the year.  These are what we took today (won’t be on any calendar any day soon).

The sun, long gone and replaced with icy rain, we wrapped up warm. As the saying goes, there is no such thing as the wrong sort of weather, just the wrong sort of clothes. I was wearing the wrong sort of shoes though, which was really rather silly of me. They are rather muddy now.

Chris gave us a potted history of the woods, pointing out things like the new benches that are beginning to replace the older wooden ones, due to age, wear and tear and vandalism. While the original benches were lottery funded, the new ones are paid for via the fundraising of the trust.

Warley Woods Benches

There is also a sculpture trail, an outdoor gym, all blending in the landscape, originally designed by Humphry Repton.

20171217 111249 - A walk in Warley Woods - The People's Park.

As a regular visitor to Warley Woods, I was surprised to find a new place to visit, The Wilderness. Today it was too icy and muddy to fully explore but I look forward to seeing it again when the ice has gone and I am wearing boots. It has a wetland boardwalk and home to plant species not found anywhere else in the West Midlands. Which is really rather amazing considering that in 2004 it was a location of an illegal dump.

25354095 10159970683170160 828571097773104521 n - A walk in Warley Woods - The People's Park.

I have been visiting Warley Woods since I was a child. This week it was full of families sledging, building snowmen and woman and snow dogs, as well as some skiers. Today, despite the wind and rain, there were many walkers, dogs being exercised and even joggers braving the weather.

What makes this place special is that there is something for every one. An excellent golf course, a newly refurbished playground, wonderful wildlife, a running club and both gentle and challenging walks.

25443332 10159970685110160 729084148447750636 n - A walk in Warley Woods - The People's Park.


It has had a chequered history, once home to the Galton family, has been managed/mismanaged by local authorities which led to the loss of The Abbey and The Ice House. Since being taken over by The Trust it truly is now a People’s Park. This was the intention of Alexander Macombe Chance owner of Chance’s glassworks. His investment saved it from being developed for housing in the early 1900’s.

If you are local to Bearwood, and have never visited, why not? But put on your sensible shoes first. Take a camera. Then pop to the cafe for a cuppa and some cake. And put a donation in the box, so we can keep this park for the future generations.



DSCN8937 - London - eating out and sightseeing on a budget

London – eating out and sightseeing on a budget


It doesn’t have to be expensive to explore this great city. As our daughter lives there the DH and I get free accommodation and that helps to bring the cost of a weekend down, but what we have noticed recently is that eating and drinking in London is not so nearly as expensive as it used to be. If you aren’t as lucky as us to have a friend or relative to stay with, you could consider housesitting in London and get free accommodation that way. Alternatively, look for cheap deals at some of the budget chain hotels such as Premier Hub or pubs with rooms such as The Tommyfield (see food review below for the link).

DSCN8777 - London - eating out and sightseeing on a budget

London is the city I was born in

So I know the city well. And I lived and worked there as an adult. I lived in Holland Park, Chelsea and Wembley in the 60’s until family circumstances resulted in me moving to Birmingham in 1966 where I lived until I was 18. In 1980, after graduating from Bristol Poly I moved back to London to live in Balham. In those days a Black Cab wouldn’t go south of the river. A lot has changed since then.

London has the biggest construction site in Europe (probably)

Our daughter lives in Stockwell. And now, Black Cabs most certainly go south of the river. Where she lives, on the Wandsworth Road, is the edge of what is possibly the biggest construction site in Europe. Nine Elms/Vauxhall will have a new London Underground station. The new American Embassy is under construction, Battersea Power Station is being redeveloped and there are multiple other buildings going up.

20170429 191135 - London - eating out and sightseeing on a budget

It has been just over a year since the DH and I last visited.  We were astonished at the number of buildings that have shot up and the numerous cranes that fill the skyline. Oh how we and many others wished we had bought property here ten years ago.


Where the DD lives there is a large Portuguese community. Just opposite her apartment block there are a number of popular restaurants and I have heard that sometimes a famous footballer pops into one of them. This is what she got home to just last week. A vibrant community to live in.

stockwell - London - eating out and sightseeing on a budget

Where to eat in London

Eating out doesn’t have to be expensive. If you know where to go. Having spent two weekends there recently I thought I would share a few places to go to eat and drink and visit that won’t put too much of a dent in the wallet.

Sunday Lunch in Lambeth

DSCN8946 - London - eating out and sightseeing on a budget

The Black Prince. The DD’s partner reckons the Sunday Lunch here is as good as (if not better than) his mom’s Sunday Lunch. And he is not wrong. A generous roast beef with fresh veg and enormous Yorkshire puddings all for  £12.50.

20170521 124555 - London - eating out and sightseeing on a budgetGuest Ale was £4 per pint.

20170521 123647 - London - eating out and sightseeing on a budget

The pudding menu is short and sweet. A Sundae on a Sunday. Why not?

20170521 133812 - London - eating out and sightseeing on a budget

The Black Prince is a good old fashioned South London pub with excellent beer and a great Sunday Lunch.

It is also the pub in the fight scene in the film Kingsman The Secret Service. So if visiting film locations, good beer and a Sunday Roast is your thing, this is the pub for you.

Dinner in Vauxhall

Carrying on with the Secret Service theme, just up the road from the bus and tube station at Vauxhall,  located in one of the railway arches on Vauxhall Embankment is Pico. It is family run and when we were there late afternoon (we eat at odd times sometimes) all the staff were tucking into their meals before the busy Friday evening rush. Located just opposite to the most un secret, secret service building in London (MI6) Friday night can be busy and full of staff from that office. Or so I am told.

The food is fantastic. The service is delightfully old school, friendly efficient and the portions are huge. Lots of meat on the menu (my lamb chops were wonderful) and the veggie daughter had a vegetable paella. There is a bar at the front and a more formal dining area to the rear. You will hear the rumble of trains overhead. Love it.

Breakfast in Lambeth

The Tea House Theatre

20170430 105516 - London - eating out and sightseeing on a budget

Based in an old Victorian public house that opened in 1886 on the site of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens; immortalised as the ‘Vanity Fair’ in Thackeray’s eponymous novel.

Go for brunch. Go for tea. Go for cakes.

Do not ask for coffee.

It is a tea house.

A full English is £10.  Smashed avo and poached eggs £8. Eggs Benedict £7.

Portions are generous. The decor is eclectic. The cakes look amazing. The Tea House Theatre is just behind the railway arches where Pico is based and a few minutes walk from Vauxhall bus station. Afterwards go for a wander around the park and you may see the dragon carved from a log.

Then walk off brunch with a visit the city farm (see below in free things to do in London).

Lunch in Kennington

The Tommyfield Pub and Hotel Kennington

This was a new discovery for the DD and her partner. We planned to go to The Black Prince for lunch but it was Bank Holiday Monday and they only had the basic menu (no roasts) and The Tommyfield had a roast and an extensive menu – so we thought we would try it out.

The Tommyfield has speciality pies, burgers, roasts and the DD was overwhelmed at having a wide choice of imaginative vegetarian food, including a pie.

A pint of Goose Island was £4.10 and a bottle of Pinot Grigio was £21.

Roast beef £15, Lamb Burger £13.50 and the veggie pie £13.50. Lots of delicious puds including a combo of port and pudding and a speciality tea. Good portions and well presented.

They also have rooms with rates between £109 and £149 per night. I reckon this is a good base for a weekend break in London. Good transport links to central London and it is walkable to Westminster. And cabs now go south of the river.

The best chips in London?

Fish and Chips at Poppies

DSCN8689 - London - eating out and sightseeing on a budget

The best fish and chips in London? Probably. Fish fresh from Billingsgate Market. There is eat in and take away.

Poppies is a real find. Recommended by my Australian friend and my daughter this is just around the corner from Brick Lane. So if you don’t fancy a curry, have chips here.

DSCN8697 - London - eating out and sightseeing on a budget

Cod and chips starts at £12.50. There is also free range chicken from £8.90, served with chips and gravy. Poppies is decorated in 50’s style, and has an authentic retro feel to it. Go.

20170430 165954 - London - eating out and sightseeing on a budget

Vaulty Towers

20170430 165944 - London - eating out and sightseeing on a budget

Do try the Lily The Pink cider. The DH and I had to explain who Lily the Pink was to our daughter and took it on ourselves to explain to the barman too.  All the furniture is used in sets at their nearby theatre. And there is a secret room. Vaulty Towers is bonkers. In a good way. The food is not too pricy and the sweet potato chips go well with a pint.

Dinner in South Kensington

Franco Manca

It was late (9.30pm is late for English people to eat) we were tired (3 hours at the Pink Floyd exhibition) we were hungry. And we were in South Ken. What to do? Go back to Stockwell and eat even later or find somewhere affordable in South Ken?

We looked around, a fair few Italian restaurants, some chains, we almost defaulted to a Burger at Byron, when I spotted Franco Manca next door. I had filed away this place to visit if we were ever in the area and here we were.

They only do pizza, no faffing, it is pizza or pizza. You may end up sharing a table. If you end up with two drunk posh boys like we did, move tables. And seriously that was the only thing wrong with this place. The tiddly toffs.

That aside.

The pizza. Franco Manca serve probably the best pizza in London and the best I have had since the memorable one in Naples.

Beer and cider. No logo.

DSCN8937 - London - eating out and sightseeing on a budget

£21. Twenty One Pounds. That is all.

And it was very good. Go. Staff were lovely. Food is excellent. South Ken crowd is eclectic on a Saturday night at 10pm.

And then we caught the bus home. Because bus is my favourite way to travel in London. The underground may be fast and convenient but it is also hot and crowded. And all you see  is walls. With the bus you get to ride over the bridges of the Thames and you get to see the city. Go by bus.

Free things to do in London

There is so much to do in London that is free. If you are strapped for cash and can’t afford the Tower of London, Buck House or The Shard and the thought of the crowds puts you off, here are a few places I visited recently. All free.

Vauxhall City Farm

Animals. Horse riding. A cafe. Vauxhall. Great for families. A great way to spend Sunday morning.

20170430 120145 - London - eating out and sightseeing on a budget

The Victoria and Albert Museum

We were there for the Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains exhibition. We will return to see more of this museum next time. Seriously stunning building. Entrance to the museum is free – additional exhibitions such as this one do have an entrance fee.

Victoria and Albert Museum

Pink Floyd Their Mortal Remains London

The Geffrye Museum of the Home

The history of a English homes from 1600 to the present day. Whenever you were born you will see something from your childhood home here. They also have a great cafe with excellent cakes. Free entry to the museum.

Geffrye Museum London

The Imperial War Museum

Telling the stories of people’s experiences of modern war from WW1 to conflicts today. Moving and informative. The WW2 exhibition is outstanding. A good way to bring history alive. The museum also has a good cafe. Entrance is free but there are some chargeable exhibitions.

Imperial War Museum London

The British Museum

Stunning. Wear comfortable shoes. We were there on a Bank Holiday weekend. This was a mistake and everyone wanted to see the Egyptians and the Rosetta Stone. Escape to a quieter gallery if this happens to you. Stunning building and an amazing collection. Free entry with additional chargeable exhibitions.

British Museum London

British Museum London

Spitalfields and Brick Lane

We wandered around here after lunch at Poppies. Brick Lane is now famous for its curry houses. It is a vibrant place with lots of great street art. The market is huge and sells vintage clothes and collectables – and has a lot of chain eateries too. A great place to browse. There are also some great pubs nearby to try and designer shopping.

Spitalfields London

The Banksy Tunnel – Leake Street Waterloo

We visited this after a drink at Vaulty Towers. Wow. Up there with the laneways of Melbourne.

Leake Street Waterloo Graffiti London

We saw some amazing street art in London. Take your camera, take your Oyster card (or debit card) and go photograph this amazing city.

As Samuel Johnson said:

When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.
  • British Museum London

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.

DSCN0895 1024x768 - Brunch in Australia - the good the bad and the ugly

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 country

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.

planes 3 - Packing it all in - 7 days in Skiathos

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.

Planes - Packing it all in - 7 days in Skiathos

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.

SAM 7987 - Packing it all in - 7 days in Skiathos

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.

SAM 8104 - Packing it all in - 7 days in Skiathos

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.

SAM 7984 Copy - Packing it all in - 7 days in Skiathos

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, food 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.

SAM 8484 - Packing it all in - 7 days in Skiathos

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.


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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

SAM 8199 Copy - Packing it all in - 7 days in Skiathos

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.

SAM 8317 - Packing it all in - 7 days in Skiathos

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Visit the loos.
SAM 8310 Copy - Packing it all in - 7 days in Skiathos

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

dogs - Packing it all in - 7 days in Skiathos

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.









SAM 7595 1 - Packing it all in -  7 days in Sorrento

Packing it all in – 7 days in Sorrento

  • Sorrento Transport

Sorrento had been on the someday list for too long

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. I had 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.

I had visited Italy previously. 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.

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. I 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. 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.

SAM 7382 - Packing it all in -  7 days in Sorrento

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

SAM 7841 - Packing it all in -  7 days in Sorrento

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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 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.


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.

SAM 7758 - Packing it all in -  7 days in Sorrento

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.

SAM 7752 - Packing it all in -  7 days in Sorrento

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.

20160419 172525 e1466511334569 - Packing it all in -  7 days in Sorrento

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.

20160419 172544 - Packing it all in -  7 days in Sorrento

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.

20160419 174201 e1466511442518 - Packing it all in -  7 days in Sorrento

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.

20160418 121125 - Packing it all in -  7 days in Sorrento

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

20160418 175256 - Packing it all in -  7 days in Sorrento

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

Cinque Terre is calling me

Now I have had a taste of Italy, I need to go back. 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. Just need to put a date on it.






Don’t put life on hold, go travelling while you can

Travelling is in my DNA

I have to go travelling while I still can.

“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

Don’t put your life on hold

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 his mom, my mother in law, Phil and I knew that we would continue travelling.

Phil has a brother. Who needs to take up some of the responsibility. My local minister and former work colleague reminded me of this. I had expressed my concerns to him, 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, he 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.

Another conversation with my 84 year old friend, who travelled extensively after her retirement, she 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’.

We have been here before

In 2011 as we prepared to go on our first RTW trip – my mom was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Some people told me it was selfish to travel while she was ill. I asked her if I should not go, and stay with her. Without a second thought she told me that I must go. It has been a dream of mine for so long. She would not hear of cancelling plans. On our return she was one of the few people who were genuinely interested in the trip. She too lived to travel. She would never had made me stay. I thank her for that.

And so before the extended travelling 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. We booked a week in Sorrento.

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.

Phil 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.

We had been in Sorrento one night when we got the call. Chris, my husband’s brother had been with her.

We stayed in Sorrento and filled the days with extensive site 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.

Leave memories not stuff

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 reminisced over childhood memories. Saw their parents at happier times, as they remembered them, young and vital. The mom and dad they grew up with. Having spent months seeing their mom getting older and unrecognisable at times, had taken 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. Travelling is our medicine as well as our disease.

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


Phil and I love our brunch, and today I am posting live from The Forte Cafe in Winchester using only my basic Galaxy phone.


The quality of the photos are pretty good for a cheapish android phone. Don’t you just love the decor here?


But back to brunch.


I uploaded some photos to Instagram and played around with the Gallery options. Always photos of food on Instagram.

forte brunch - Breakfast at Forte Cafe in Winchester

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 the package holiday

Travelling Coral

img 77421 - Packing it all in - in defence of the package holiday

Package Holiday Coral

DSCF7129 - Packing it all in - in defence of the package holiday

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 .


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.

IMG 0341 e1460204477615 - Packing it all in - in defence of the package holiday

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.

DSCF4351 - Packing it all in - in defence of the package holiday

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.

DSCF7321 - Packing it all in - in defence of the package holiday

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.

DSCF6978 - Packing it all in - in defence of the package holiday

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

West tours - Packing it all in - in defence of the package holiday

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.

DSCF4307 - Packing it all in - in defence of the package holiday

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.

DSCF1106 - Packing it all in - in defence of the package holiday

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.

Staycations 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.

IMG 1254 - Packing it all in - in defence of the package holiday

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.

DSCN0841 Copy - Packing it all in - in defence of the package holiday

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

The stranger

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.