“I don’t think you’re ready for this Delhi” – in at India’s deep end

Our introduction to India was its sprawling and baffling capital city Delhi. Apparently one of the world’s most dangerous cities, well why not?  We prepared ourselves by doing lots of reading up online and getting advice from friends who had been, but this was pretty mixed and we truly didn’t know what to expect.

 

delhi-airport

Delhi Airport

 

We were constantly on our guard, starting with the second we got off the plane.  We’d been told to go directly to the pre-paid taxi counter to book our airport cab and to ignore anyone who approached us otherwise.  So we had done so, and once we’d got outside we’d been bombarded with men shouting, and had no idea where to use our pre-paid pink slip.  Eventually, we found a cab who accepted the slip as payment and here we were, hurtling.

 

cows-rubbish-2

Cow and rubbish, a common sight.

 

We breathed in the smoggy air, oooh look a cow in the middle of the road!  Ooh look, another!  I was so excited, Giz was just steely-eyed and concerned with us getting to our Airbnb in one piece.  After much toing and froing and many shrugged shoulders the driver somehow, miraculously I’d say, found it.  We were staying above a doctor’s practise.  We paid the driver, he demanded a tip, we offered him 100 extra rupees, and he looked at us in disgust, didn’t take it, and huffed off.  Eventually, a member of the doctor’s staff took us up to our room and showed us the kitchen, complete with water purification system, which we eyed suspiciously.  We’d been warned about the water and we didn’t trust anyone.

 

heavy-load-1

Heavy load

 

 

The room was basic but much cleaner than we’d expected, based on the many accounts we’d been given.  We dropped our backpacks and sat on the bed.  We’d made it to India!  What a buzz!  We decided to do what we’d done so far on our first day in most new cities: go explore, without a plan.  We hopped onto a velo-rickshaw outside the building, this is the main way that people navigate India, it’s basically a bicycle with a colourful trailer attached which is designed to seat 2 people, but we saw whole families of 5 or more riding in them regularly, as well as some carrying outrageously heavy loads.

 

use-stairs-stay-fit

Metro station advice

 

A price was agreed (20 rupees, which is about 20 pence I recall) and so commenced our bumpy ride, gripping the bars on the side for dear life as our driver weaved nonchalantly amongst trucks, cars, rickshaws and cattle.  There were piles of litter everywhere, some with cows and pigs grazing.  Everyone stared at us.  We were the only non-Indians around, it was blatant to all concerned that we were fresh off the plane.

 

women-only

Women only waiting area at the metro station

 

At the metro station, we were scanned by security and found our way to a platform taking us towards the centre of Delhi.  There were signs for women-only carriages which have been brought in to help protect women from sexual assault, but we stayed together in a mixed one.  It was packed, but clean and efficient, we were in a ‘good area’.  We randomly picked a station to get off at and walked out into a different world.

 

street

Velorickshaws and drivers

There were children on the steps down to the street begging, clinging onto my leg as I passed them, my heart broke but we’d been warned not to give money and I had  no food or anything else to hand, a truly awful feeling.  When we got to the street there were 30 or more velo-rickshaws and all the drivers started shouting to us, asking us where we wanted to go, we didn’t know!  They wouldn’t leave us alone.  We started to walk towards the street but couldn’t get across the road.  People shouted at us from all sides, every direction looked dangerous, dirty and disorientating.  We panicked, turned around and got back on the tram to another stop a few stations down.  The same thing happened when we got off here except it was dirtier and even more overwhelming, this was when we realised that it was completely different here, and we had to plan exactly what we wanted to do, because wandering around soaking up the atmosphere was just not an option, no street signs, no maps, we were completely lost on an alien continent, and I admit we were panicky and scared.  We made our way back to the Airbnb in a haze of disappointment.  We’d have to get online, study the map of Delhi and try again tomorrow when we had some idea what we wanted to do.

 

 

takeaway-one

Take-away

 

That evening we met a couple of the other residents of the rooms above the doctor’s place who turned out to be patients.  There was John from Nigeria who was there with his father, his father had half his head missing, he’d suffered an aggressive form of cancer and had come to India for treatment.  John was very articulate and polite, his parents spoke no English but smiled shyly at us.  Another neighbour was wheelchair bound with no legs, he helped us to order a takeaway curry as we were really pathetic and bewildered.  It was about £4 for 2 veggie mains, a bread and a big tub of rice, he said it was really expensive.  There was way too much food when it arrived so we shared some with the other guests.  It was unbelievable delicious but we hadn’t seen where it was prepared so our Western paranoid alarm bells kept ringing and perhaps we didn’t enjoy it as much as we should have, a real shame.  I know now it was absolutely fine.

 

karol-bagh-street

The streets of Delhi

 

I spoke to my friend Gurdeep online who comes from Delhi but we met in Manchester when he moved there over 20 years ago.  He gave me some food and market tips for the next day.  We researched Taj Mahal trips and proceeded to battle with the website for booking trains.  If I give you one piece of advice about India only, it is this: if you want to see more than one region (which you should) you need to tackle the train booking website at least a couple of months before you go and ideally book your trains and plan your whole travel itinerary then.  Trains are insanely cheap but unless you want to pile into the thing they grossly call ‘cattle class’ at the last minute (and be standing with tons of sweaty bodies and most likely numerous cockroaches for 8 hours) you need to figure out the online booking system.  They need to provide you with a code so you are allowed to book tickets and it takes weeks.  Then once you have the code you find that almost all the trains are fully booked.  If you want to choose the class you travel in, you need to book 2 months in advance.  There is a complicated system of classes which are described in detail on other blogs you can find if you do some googling.  We only travelled in first class because that’s all that was left when we booked.  We missed out on visits to some cities because there were no seats, and we were really gutted to have gone all that way and missed out on some key experiences.  Next time we will not be so naive.  More about our train journeys in later blogs.

 

very-good-corner

“Very good corner” (it wasn’t)

 

The next day we were up and refreshed and ready to face the day with a semblance of a plan.  We were off to Karol Bagh market.  The lady at the metro station had no idea what I was saying in my Manchester accent, “Karrull baaaaag” I repeated to no avail.  I pointed to the stop on the metro map, “Ohhh karelbag” she sang back to me in that staccato, melodious, GLORIOUS Indian accent.  I learned to adopt it over time, shorten my vowels and sing my words a bit, not out of mocking imitation but because the English they speak and understand in India is so different to the English we speak at home, and if you imitate the style a bit you get where you want to be much more quickly!

 

passer-by

Punters

 

It turned out Karol Bagh was as scary for us as any other metro stop, but we knew there was a market and some temples and we had a vague idea of the direction to go.  So, this time we hopped on the first rickshaw that approached and said ‘market please!’, off he wobbled as we clung on for dear life for approximately 5 minutes around the corner to where the market began, “100 rupees”, er no, for a 5 minute ride, 50 rupees!  “OK madam!”  We should have gone lower!  Arguing over pence seems ridiculous but actually, it’s all part of the fun, and they absolutely charge foreigners at least 10 times the going rate which is why they followed us halfway down the street everywhere we went!

 

karol-bagh-side-street

One part of the labyrinth of Karol Bagh

 

It took us most of our 30 days to get used to the constant bartering.  For Westerners who aren’t used to it, it can be very frustrating.  We certainly had moments of: “Pleeeeeeease just tell me the actual PRICE, not 10 times the price and back and forth and back and forth and fake indignation and us walking away and you chasing us and…. Do we have to do this performance EVERY time we want to take a ride or buy anything?” but that’s just how it is, and it seems you have to embrace it, go with the flow and accept that even after a few minutes of bartering you’re still probably the laughing stock of the day as you’ve been royally fleeced.  Most of the time you’re arguing over 50p, you don’t think you will but you do, you adjust to the currency and no-one likes to feel like a mug!

 

kel-karol

Kel Bagh

 

Karol Bagh market is a huge, sprawling expanse of tiny, narrow, smelly alleyways, soot covered shops and stalls chaotically falling over one another like that drawer in the kitchen no-one likes to open.  We assumed there was some kind of order to it, some alleys seemed to be more full of electrical stuff, some food, some clothes, but it was a labyrinth and we had no idea where to begin, or after 15 minutes where we had or hadn’t been already.

 

dudes-near-temple

Opium lads outside the temple

 

The smog and exhaust fumes made our eyes sting, along with the smell of rot and sewage, the piles of rubbish, the pushing and shoving, shouting, hundreds of staring eyes, I think we saw one other non-Indian couple across a crowded street at one point but again, we were indubitably in the extreme minority.  No day-trippers from the posh hotels we knew must exist SOMEWHERE came here, most people looked at us like we were either crazy, aliens, or potential victims.

 

karol-bagh-street-3

Karol Bagh market

 

In India, there is no peace and quiet anywhere, but here the soundtrack of honking horns was almost deafening, traditional music danced out of various speakers in weird contrast and we both had a headache after about ten minutes.  But it was amazing, we were on edge, blaming each other for getting lost, overwhelmed, curious and confused.  We were experiencing something real, something completely new to us and that mixture of fear and adrenaline is hard to beat.

 

puppies

Puppies, we saw many street dogs, not all this cute.

 

Everywhere we turned there were locals tucking into delicious looking street food from filthy little carts.  I so badly wanted to try it but I had heard so many horror stories of Delhi belly that I was too afraid.  I feel really annoyed with myself now for not taking the plunge but it’s all well and good sitting here on my sofa eating peanut butter on toast, thinking of what a softie I’d been.  But when you’re there it’s different, it’s intimidating, aside from the hygiene standards of which we’d never seen the likes before, we had no idea what anything was!  What do we order?  Is there a queue?  How much does it cost?  Which one is not gonna give us the shits?  So we chickened out.

 

karol-bagh-thali

Veggie Thali at Suruchi

 

We’d researched some local recommended restaurants on trip advisor so we went and found one, after much aimless wandering (no 3G mate, no map, no phone, no clue!), we somehow happened upon a place we recognised the name of and spent about £12 including a tip on two feasts fit for kings.  The attentive staff brought us huge silver platters and dished out numerous colourful veggie curries, dahls, and sundries.    They poured us neon orange sodas and offered us ice (no thanks, we’d been told if you wanna avoid sickness no meat, no ice, no milk, no cut fruit, definitely no ice cream!) and every time one of our piles got low they came and topped us up with  more, more chappati ma’am?  more dahl?  After we eventually learned to say  no thanks they brought us dessert, gulab jamun, sweet syrupy balls of sponge, custard and fruit.  We paid, munched down some delicious fragrant fennel seeds as breath-freshener and rolled ourselves out of there.

 

karol-bagh-dessert

Gulab Jamun, mmmm!

 

We were travelling with 10-12kg backpacks which were pretty full so we had no room to buy stuff really, and not much money either as we were sticking to the tightest budget we could.  But who can resist those beautiful Indian fabrics?  So we ventured a little into some clothing shops, ones with security on the door where you had to hand your bag in, this was a few streets away from the market part, and a lot more expensive, I tried on a number of kurtis and eventually chose a neon yellow and pink patterned one.

 

karol-bagh-street-2

The posh bit

 

I could have bought ten, they were so beautiful and I think it only cost me a fiver.  But money, space, weight blah blah.  One day I will go back and buy ALL the colours.  It’s a great place for shopping if you can navigate the streets.  I bought some yellow Aladdin pants from a street seller for about 50p too.  They served me well and although I have mended them twice now I still have them.  The kurti is my special occasion top and is as beautiful as ever, hanging up amongst my black dresses like a jewel, reminding me of a country which changed me.

 

hanuman-from-railway

Hanuman

 

After the market, we headed off to the Hanuman temple.  You can see it from the street, it’s so huge so we walked there.  Probably we were crazy, it’s not so simple to walk even a short distance in India, the roads are so dangerous, it’s hot, we got half way and hailed a rickshaw.  The temple is in the shape of the Hindu god Hanuman who has a man’s body and a face a bit like a monkey.  He is 108 feet tall and he is amazing!

 

hanuman-mouth

Poor guy!

 

At his feet, there is a slain victim with his mouth wide open in horror and it is through his mouth that you enter the temple, venturing through other mouths along your way around.

 

gizin-mouth

Jaws

 

This was our first visit and we’d heard that temples are free in India, ha!  They are free but before you go in they take your shoes and socks, and you have to tip them to look after them, all the way around there are bells to ring, candles to light and statues to marvel at, each one will cost ya.  I’m not complaining, a 10 rupee note is enough for each stop so it costs you a quid or so in total, but it’s funny.

 

kel-in-mouth

I loved this place!

 

They splodge you with coloured paint in the middle of your forehead reverentially, you feel so spiritual man, then ‘tip please!’!

 

splodges-two

Splodged

 

It was one of my favourite experiences in India, just a short trip around the temple but on day two when you find yourself crawling through dirty (holy?) water in bare feet through the mouth of a giant bloke between the feet of a giant god and you get your first bit of bright red cotton wrapped around your wrist with blessings for your future and your family (how many children?  how many brothers?) it’s an absolute buzz.

 

goddess-in-hanuman-2

One of the many goddesses

 

That night we talked to the doctor we were staying with and he arranged our Taj Mahal trip, his mate had a little business going and he could get us ‘special discount’, the driver would arrive at 3am.

 

much-better-many-arms

Kali, I think!

 

 

Currently reading: Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil

Title song adapted from ‘Bootylicious’ by Destiny’s Child

“and it burns, burns, burns, my ring of fire”- Our first time in India

1000 rupees

Big money in India!

“We’re really doing it now, this is the real deal.  No more pussy-footing around in Europe, this is proper travelling.”  I was excited and adrenaline pumped.  Giz was looking worried.  We were hurtling through Delhi’s special kind of traffic in the back of a taxi with a man of questionable sanity at the wheel.  We had no idea where we were going and apparently neither did he.  We learned quickly that this was usually the case.  Taxi drivers and their eccentricities would feature heavily in our Indian baptism of fire.

first cab selfie

In the back of our first rickshaw!

This was our first time in India and we’d heard so many stories, good and bad from friends, anecdotally via friends of friends of friends, from blogs, books and documentaries but we still felt under-researched and under-prepared.  Actually now I’m writing this I’d say that you’re probably never really prepared for India, you learn on the job so to speak.  India happens to you and you just sort of take it all in, in a bit of a delirious, bewildered stupor.

corner shop

Corner Shop

I really thought I was a bit ‘hard’ actually.  I scoffed a bit when people said, “It’ll change you”.  When people told me that it would be unlike anything I’d ever seen I pondered upon globalisation and multiculturalism, and the media we are exposed to and thought, surely the world’s a smaller place now, how different can it be?  I expected to be disappointed as I wanted so badly for it to take my breath away… But I was wrong.  It’s SO different.  It’s overwhelming.  It’s wonderful.  It’s awful.  It’s heart-wrenching and harrowing but gut-punchingly exciting.

velorickshaws

View from a velorickshaw

The poverty is real, and very dark, we were both shaken by it almost immediately. It is further emphasised by the disparity between that and the riches, the jewellers, the Bollywood stars, posh cars and glittering palaces of hotels for the rich. It’s side by side… and it’s very hard to take in. Although we didn’t see much of the affluence, only short snatches of it. We stayed mostly with families in humble, suburban parts of town, not in fancy hotels. We tried hard to see the real India, as much of it as we could handle on our first visit, and we were glad we did. There is true beauty here, in the people who are curious but kind and extremely welcoming. The colours you associate with India are everywhere, in jewel pink, green and yellow saris, bright green oranges being carted through the streets, old men’s dyed ginger hair, and brightly painted shop fronts and monster trucks. But everything is muted by a layer of dust and smog, so India looks like an old black and white photograph which has been coloured in afterwards, and it is equally quaint and charming.

apple cart

Colourful street sellers always make me smile

I fell absolutely head over heels in love with India.  At times I cursed its name and wished for a genie to send me safely back home.  At times I was horrified at its disarming disorder, choked by bad smells, eyes watering from thick smog, heartbroken by begging, barefooted children.  But like any love story, my heart held true despite the negatives, despite the pain, I ADORED India and I cried great chest-heaving sobs on the bus to the airport when we had to leave.

head carrying lady in street

A typical street scene

As I have mentioned, for much of our trip around the world we were jamming on it.  We didn’t really make plans, and in fact we didn’t think more than a few weeks ahead for most of our journey.  So we only decided 100% to go to India while we were working in Greece.  Because of this we went for the 30 day visa as to apply for any longer we’d have to visit the Indian embassy in Athens and maybe wait for a week or so to get a result.  Numerous people told us a month wouldn’t be long enough and I totally get why people said that, India is ridiculously big and there is so much to see and do.

big truck and tourist car

A variety of vehicles

However, we managed in 30 days to experience the chaos of Delhi, marvel at The Taj Mahal, find peace for 10 days in an ashram in Rishikesh, explore the pink city of Jaipur, get in the Bollywood mood in Mumbai and spend a few tranquil days in beautiful Kerala.  We took two flights, two trains, two private car journeys, a few bus rides, a couple of motorcycle backies and countless rickshaw and velorickshaw rides. We saw and did a hell of a lot in our short time in India so I’d say if you’re thinking of going, as long as you plan a bit in advance (unlike we did, and it caused us a few problems) then a month is a good amount of time for an introduction to this amazing country.  If you only have two weeks then I would pick one city or town and base yourself there.

taj 7 good

The Taj at dawn

Whenever people ask me what my favourite country we visited on our trip was I find it a really difficult question to answer, as I honestly enjoyed every single place we went, but when pressed I usually I come up with India.  I find it challenging to summon the right words to explain what an amazing place it is and I really struggle to be brief.  So I’m going to write separate blogs for each place we visited.  And out of the twelve countries we managed to include in our RTW trip, India is the one I feel an overwhelming urge to return to ASAP.  Even if it made me cry on many, many occasions.  Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned the food!  Don’t worry, I will.

karol bhag chutney

Colourful chutneys

 

 

“Up a hill backwards, we’ll be alright”- a first Help-X-perience in Rhodes

mozzie net view

view from the tent behind a mosquito net

So there we were waiting outside a cash machine, on a long road to nowhere, in the dark.  Waiting for a boy we didn’t know to pick us up.    Our host had assured us that her son would be there waiting when we arrived.  But he was late.  “Are we crazy?  What are we even doing here?!”  we thought.  Eventually a car pulled up and a boy who looked about 14 got out, “Are you the helpers?”  he asked in a thick Greek accent.  “Erm, yeah.”  we replied, with more than a hint of apprehension.  “Get in.”

amazing sunset

look at that sunset!

He drove us to a local shop, “Mum says to take you here to buy yourselves some food, and you need toilet rolls too, keep them in your room though, or the other helpers will steal them.”  We wandered the aisles of the tiny mini-mart.  The boy recommended some local olive oil and then went outside to smoke.  We had no idea what the kitchen would have or not have, no idea about what to expect at all.  So we grabbed some pasta, some fruit and veg, some feta, the olive oil, some snacks and some booze.

cloudy mountain

We were driven along dark roads, eventually up a big hill and down a long gravelly path to a large white house.  A barking dog came to greet us and nearly ran under the car.  “That’s Alan.” said the boy.  “You’re in the tent for the next two nights.”  He showed us a small kitchen and toilet block where we left our bits of food, “Keep it in the fridge and cupboards, there is a mouse in here,” and then walked us towards a pitch black forest, “Do you have a torch?  You’ll need one. Here, borrow mine for now. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

breakfast fruit

breakfast

We zipped ourselves into the tent, hung the torch from the ceiling and looked at each other.  It was dark and silent except for the noise of the trees rustling and the insects chirping.  It was 9pm and we were alone in a forest in the middle of nowhere.  We forlornly snacked on our biscuits and crisps.  What the hell were we doing here?  During the night we heard howling.  We really hoped it was the dog.

grumps

morning faces

The next day the birds, our hunger and a desperate need to pee awoke us.  I gingerly peeked out of the tent to check out our surroundings.  Not quite so scary in the daylight but I couldn’t remember how to get to the house.  I wandered until I found a pathway leading up, and found the kitchen/toilet block.  Giz followed a few minutes later.  We made some tea and checked out the kitchen which had a fridge, a cupboard and a camping hob inside and a sink outside.  Next to the sink was a huge waste water tank .  There was a faint smell of poo in the air.

kel cat sqeeze 2

finished work faces

As we were loitering a little plump woman in a blue dress approached us.  “Ahhhh you are the new helpers!” she looked us up and down suspiciously.  “Remind me your names and what SKILLS do you have?”  What skills DO we have, I thought?  Actual useful skills?!  Erm… I can cook!  I said.  “That’s not important!  Can you build anything?  Can you make things?  Have you experience gardening?  Can you do tiling?” … I was beginning to feel useless already,”I can try, I’ll try anything if you can show me…” but she stopped me there, “No TRY.  I have had people before who say they can TRY and they just end up doing some BULLSHIT!  Hmmm.  Why did I agree to host you?”

butterfly

One of the many friends I made in the garden

She proceeded to tell us some house rules: we MUSTN’T waste water, must always clean up after ourselves, starting with one hour every morning cleaning the toilets, shower and kitchen, especially the kitchen because of the mouse.  We mustn’t be lazy, she had had lazy helpers before and had vowed never to take on people with no skills again.  But here we were.  “Where is LUCY?!” she suddenly exclaimed.  Lucy was the other helper, our host pottered off to rouse her from her slumber and returned shortly.  “That lazy girl is asleep again, we will wait for her then start work.”

rhodes home

Home for most of our stay

Our first task after cleaning the kitchen block was to tie up some grapevines onto a frame with bits of tough metal wire, after that we were taken into the garage to ‘sort it out’.  Our host didn’t seem to know what she wanted sorting, it was as though she was making it up as she went along.  She pulled out an old freezer and told me to clean it with some soap and water and an old rag.  I started enthusiastically but when I reached the bottom part I found it was crawling with maggots.  I tried not to let it show how disgusted I was but it was blatant.  Our host had to take over from me, I was nearly sick, she scooped out maggots with her hands.  I felt like a total wuss but I was not up for this kind of work.

giz painting

painting… something

Over the next two weeks we worked damn hard.  Tasks included painting a tin roof, an iron gate, various furniture, walls, steps and floors all with bad quality paint which was piled up in quarter and half filled cans in the garage.  We cleaned and scrubbed her house, her windows, her airbnb rooms… Giz spent several days chopping down huge bamboo canes in an overgrown field which was also full of rubbish and rusty bits of metal, he did this with a pair of shears.  We dug holes around shrubs and trees in the garden, weeded til our backs felt like they would break, watered acres of land and generally busted a gut for a few hours each morning in the hot hot sun. Our host shouted at us when we did anything ‘wrong’ but didn’t really explain how to do it ‘right’ and had strange ideas about the two concepts anyway.

giz hammock sunset

chillin’ after a hard day

Lucy worked pretty hard too, she was a pleasant, free-spirited French girl who seemed to be running away from her university education for a while, trying to find herself or something.  We liked her.  She was our host’s pet though, she whined a lot about the work and spent a lot of time in the house.  About half way through our time there an Italian boy arrived.  He had been there before and come back and it seemed obvious very quickly that he had been one of the lazy helpers our host had mentioned.  She hadn’t wanted him to come back but Lucy had a thing for him and had convinced her to allow him to return.  We watched in amazement as this guy spent a whole week painting a rainbow circle on the side of the house with a Buddhist symbol inside it.  The circle was about a foot in diameter.  It took him a whole week.  He stepped back and contemplated, mixed paint, ummed and ahhed, researched Buddhist symbols online and generally made a meal out of this small task.  He was ‘an artist’, they said, so he had different rules about work to the rest of us.  One day he painted for 8 hours so he could have a couple of days off in a  row, and it still took him a week to finish.  This taught us a lot about this kind of volunteer work, and how people ‘play the system’.  We didn’t want to be lazy, but we could see how easily people can get away with that.

guilio painting two

boys working

Why a Buddhist symbol you ask?  Well the funny thing is, the reason we applied for this particular help-x assignment was because it had been advertised as a Yoga retreat!  I can tell you that not once were we invited to participate in yoga, nor did we see any yoga classes occurring.  Our host talked occasionally about her love of yoga and one day I had to clean her house and discovered a BEAUTIFUL yoga studio in the roof, with many books on the subject and Buddha statues, trinkets etc.  But we were never invited to a class and our host, as much as she seemed to have a passion for yoga, was so un-yogi-like!  She was grumpy and grouchy and shouted at us regularly.  It did NOT feel like a relaxing yoga retreat in the slightest!

kel paint gate

Loving painting that gate

We underestimated how tired we’d be after relatively short working days.  The work was hard, sweaty and usually boring and we’d cook lunch straight after work too as we were always really hungry, which felt like a chore some days.  The hill on top of which the house sat was steep and exhausting.  Every few days or so we’d go down to the local beach, which was nice, quiet but with surfy waves, not ideal for swimming, but a good chill.  We’d pick up a few groceries and head back home but the hill was so steep and it took us a good hour to walk back from the beach uphill, so that any relaxation had at the beach was undone, we just couldn’t be bothered most days.  So I did some skype teaching most afternoons to make our time there more worthwhile.

froggie

little froggy friend

We had one day off a week, which we turned into three by working a double shift one day.  We went into Rhodes on these days.  We’d had an attempt at going into town one afternoon but had waited at the bus stop for an hour before giving up.  It was a good hour on the bus there and back and by the time we’d worked, cooked and eaten some lunch (we were always starving after work) and walked to the bus stop we would barely have an hour in Rhodes even if the bus did come on time.  When we eventually got to Rhodes town we loved it, it was pretty, architecturally interesting and full of lovely, cheap Greek food.  We ate out once or twice locally too, at really good authentic local restaurants, and we drank gallons of cheap wine.

mezze

mezze feast

It went dark pretty early, and when we moved out of the tent we were in a wooden cabin, which was really nice, but we had to cross a big field to get to the toilet, in the pitch black.  It was always an ordeal, but one day when we were coming back from the toilet our flashlight fell upon a SNAKE slithering across our path!  After that I was terrified every time.  There were lots of frogs hanging around too, pretty cute but they made me jump when they hopped across the path of my torchlight outside the toilet.  We met lots of colourful insects while gardening and the cats were lovely and cuddly.  This place was teeming with animal and insect life, and as lovely as the hammock outside our cabin was, I was eaten alive by mosquitoes if I tried to sit in it one second after the sun began to descend.  Which meant I often missed the glorious sunsets too.  I tried vegemite, insect repellent both chemical and natural, long sleeves and trousers, garlic, aloe vera, everything, but mosquitoes just love me.

caterpillar

li’l caterpillar buddy

So towards the middle of our second week we found ourselves counting down the days.  I don’t want to sound ungrateful.  Rhodes is a very pretty town and the beaches are lovely, Theologos where we stayed is a nice place to visit too.  But this volunteer  experience wasn’t what I’d had in mind when thinking about doing this kind of thing.  I’d heard such wonderful things about experiences on organic farms, learning permaculture and how to build earthships and live off the grid.  I’d heard about people working at wineries and breweries, picking grapes, labelling bottles and drinking free beer all day.  I’d heard about volunteers working with children in poverty, teaching, doing arts and crafts.  I’d applied for many positions like this but having no experience or references we had to choose from fairly slim pickings.

cat drinking form fountain

thirsty kitty in Rhodes town

Our host wasn’t a bad person, she was very funny, dry, honest, concerned about us and her guests.  But she did shout at us a lot, she didn’t really teach us any new life skills, the work was grunt work.  We felt good about helping her, there was a lot to do on her land.  But we didn’t feel appreciated a lot of the time and even though our hours of work were short, it was a long way to walk or bus to get away from the house so our free time wasn’t as well spent as we’d hoped it might be.

apple pie

delicious apple pie at a local deli

One thing we did get out of the experience was an appreciation of the jobs we have back home, this was really hard work physically, very unglamorous and not something either of us were used to.  We did have some lovely moments sitting on the beach watching the sun set.  We were treated to a couple of meals by our host when new airbnb guests arrived or left, which we helped to prepare, and ate outside the house on a big table, simple, real Greek family food in good company and with lots of retsina.  Would I do a help-x again?  Absolutely.  But I’d be a lot more picky about the type of place and work and I’d choose a place where all meals were provided too.  I’m sure there are many amazing experiences in this world of volunteering, but I probably wouldn’t return to this one.

night beach

sunset at Theologos beach

currently reading – Just Kids by Patti Smith (audiobook on the ipod while weeding!)

lyric in title from “Up a hill backwards” by David Bowie.

“Greece is the word” – An ancient and anarchic city and an island full of cats.

lady pillars

Erechtheion, Athens.

I have to admit that when planning this trip all I could think about was sunshine.  I love my home city of Manchester but it’s grey.  It’s grey and cold and it rains almost every day, or so it seems.  I’d spent the last few weeks working with kids from warm countries like Spain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Italy etc. who had been horrified at how bad the weather was for their English summer-school adventure.   It was a particularly bad summer and my skin felt like it had taken on a bluish hue from lack of exposure to sunshine for so long.  I was craving warmth.  So when getting ideas together for the first month or two it was mostly about chasing that yellow ball of fire.  In addition, we knew Europe was probably going to be the most expensive part of the trip, so we based many decisions simply on the cheapest flights.

 

hillside theatre view

Odeon of Herodes Atticus (cheap seats)

It’s no secret that Greece has has some financial troubles of late.  So the flights were very cheap from Rome.  Ridiculously cheap in fact. We both liked the idea of seeing both Rome and Athens to compare the historical sites, and the weather report was spot on.  So we decided to visit and lose ourselves in more mind blowing ancient ruins, put some tourism money back into a country with a struggling economy and soak up some Mediterranean sunshine.  The Greek philosophers would approve of how we decided to spend our otium!

fuck noisy instrument sounds

We arrived in Athens utterly exhausted after a night in grim Ciampino airport but our Airbnb hosts were so welcoming, plying us with intense Greek coffee and spreading a huge map on our bed, boggling our tired minds with an overwhelming amount of information about the city.  Our hosts had similar music and artistic tastes to ours so their recommendations were spot on. One of them played guitar in a traditional Greek trio and we went to see him perform one night, this was one of my highlights of the trip, there’s something magical about being in a  new country and enjoying live traditional music on a cobbled street outside a typical Taverna.

greek band

Live traditional Greek music, bliss!

So, exhausted as we were, we spent our first day exploring ancient Greece and recharging with “Freddo Cappuccinos” and delicious Greek pastries.  I knew I loved the simple, delicious Greek cuisine but  here in the UK we tend to stick to things like olives, dips, feta, Greek salad, kebabs and pita bread, we don’t often get to experience the true joys of Greek pastry.  I reckon I put on a stone in my month in Greece.  Two words: cheese pies.

coffee baklava

Freddo Cappuccinos and baklavas at the all too tempting Cafe Veneti, Monastiraki.

We bought one of those tickets which gets you into all the ancient sites and visited as much as possible in two days.  It was searingly hot, hot and dry, and the bright white buildings were blinding.  The scenery in Athens is so unique. Being set among a number of huge hills there are many opportunities to take in the breathtaking views.  I’m like a cat, I like to climb up and look down on the world, so this pleases me!

amazing athens view

A view from on high

My imagination always fires when I visit ancient places, imagining what it must have been like to live in those times, I can spend ages in amongst the ruins, feeling the vibes and almost hearing the sounds that would have been ringing in the air.  Where would we have been in the pecking order?  Would our seats have been near the front of the amphitheatre with our names carved into the stone thrones or way up high at the back with the rabble?  We checked out both vantage points and preferred the cheap seats, probably for the best!

vips

Not the cheap seats

No pictures can really do justice to the hugeness of these structures.  Temples built in honour of the Gods, and they really do seem God-sized.  The ruins here were busy with tourists of course but nowhere near as crazy as those in Rome so we had a much more relaxed time exploring and imagining.  Its cheaper too.

giz zeus

Temple of Zeus

We’re not really shoppers but we enjoyed lazily wandering the markets near to the Acropolis, stopping for lunch or a glass of very cheap wine here and there.  It was the first country on this journey where they use a different alphabet.  I’d managed to get by with some basic language knowledge and common sense in France and Spain but the signs in Greece looked like, well, Greek to me.  Luckily to make up for our ignorance, everyone here speaks great English and are so very friendly too.

its all greek

How to decide!?

We saw another side of the city when we explored Exarchia.  Apparently tourists are warned to avoid this ‘anarchic’ area but we felt right at home here amongst the antagonistic graffiti, dusty record shops and hipster cafes.  Actually it seemed pretty tame to us.

refugees

Exarchia

It was here we saw references to the refugee crisis, otherwise absent in the city.  We also found ourselves amid an infectiously noisy travelling rave heading towards Syntagma square one evening, so much fun.  The ancient city’s ultra-modern youth culture is alive and well, I wonder if the fired-up vibe we noticed has come as a result of the troubles the country has experienced lately or if it’s just a really cool and vibrant university culture.  It certainly felt more exciting than anywhere else we’d been so far in that respect.

homelessness graffiti

“Dedicated to the poor and homeless here and around the globe.”

We bookended our Greek trip with stays at the same Airbnb in Athens, it was well under our budget and walkable from the main events of the city.  Also we discovered a great bakery on our walk into town which we ended up visiting almost every day for breakfast, those cheese pies man!  It’s a cool city we’d happily return to again and again.  But that sunshine was hardcore, and we craved some sea breeze, so on the advice of our hosts we headed next for the small island of Agistri.

clearest sea ever

Perfect sea in Agistri!

Agistri is FULL of cats.  We’d noticed a significant number of stray dogs and cats in Athens, but Agistri is almost creepily overrun with kitties.

cat skanks

Spare any fish, mate?

Luckily I’m a big fan of felines so for me, this was almost the perfect island.  I’m not sure others would agree, having read some trip advisor comments on some of the local restaurants.

feed cats sign

But….!

Everywhere we ate we had an audience, an audience of rag tag ruffians mewing for their supper.  Kittens too, one I fell in love with a bit too much and really wanted to sneak into my backpack.  If you love cats this is kinda like heaven.

kitty shoe

This one stole my heart!

Heavenly too is the sea.  The clearest I have seen and so calm there are almost no waves at all.  We took a short ‘flying dolphin’ ferry ride to get there and missed the bus to the part of the island in which we were staying, so we walked to our hotel. In the hot hot heat with our heavy backpacks it was tough but walking along the coastline meant we could enjoy the beauty and dip our toes in the sea to cool down along the way.

backpack bathing

Ahhhhhh!

As it was October and therefore out of season (our host said no Greeks would be crazy enough to go there in Winter!) we got an absolute BARGAIN hotel.  We paid something like £23 per night for a beautiful little sky blue room with a balcony which offered a view of both the glorious sparkling sea and the perfectly Greek blue and white church across the road.   I really buzz off clichéd travel moments where a place looks exactly as you see it in your imagination so this made my stomach flip with delight.  It was quiet, peaceful, full of cats and had an array of fresh seafood restaurants, what’s not to love?

blue church

A beautiful cliche

The seafood here was abundant and so fresh that one morning we left the hotel to see some glistening Octopus hanging out to dry in the sun from the morning’s catch.  That evening we ate them for dinner.

octopus2

Freshly caught octopus

We also spent more than one occasion in a great little place run by Rick Stein’s doppelgänger.  It was funny as I based my food choice the first time we went there (a simple plate of sardines) on thinking ,’What Would Rick Stein Do?’ before doing a double take at the chef and later discovering a humorous wanted poster on the subject!

ric stein

Rick Stein?

I’ve heard people express concern about going to Greece, that they might not be able to use their bank cards, that Athens is dangerous and incendiary, that the refugee situation is out of hand (*sigh*), but we had no problems whatsoever in the places we visited.  We talked to locals about the financial situation and many of them just expressed gratitude for us spending money in their country.

rick stein

…or Spiros?

The Greek islands are absolutely beautiful, and they all have a different character, you don’t have to go 18-30 style, we certainly didn’t!  I highly recommend Greece for a cheap out of season holiday.  The weather was GLORIOUS in October, 30 degrees plus most days and not a cloud in the sky.  The food is fantastic and the people are warm and wonderful.  When can I go back?!

feet in sea

Title lyric: (adapted from) ‘Grease’  by Barry Gibb

Currently reading – The Grifters by Jim Thompson

“Across the sand, into the sea, into the brine” – soaking up the sun in the Cinque Terre.

 

cat

the Cinque Purrrr

This was meant to be a different story.  One of getting in touch with nature, real up close and personal.  Eschewing our modern comforts to camp at the top of a massive hill overlooking the Mediterranean sea.  It was an Airbnb booking which I was particularly excited about, a literal breath of fresh air after all those cities, to round our Italy trip off like a dream.  It was also dirt cheap, being just a wooden framed permanent tent with basic toilet facilities and a cheap onsite ‘restaurant’ serving home cooked food at picnic tables on the hill.  But it didn’t work out like that.

 

blue blue sea

want to dive in?

Just over a week before we were due to arrive I got an unceremonious email from Airbnb informing me that they were sorry that my booking had been cancelled and offering me a tiny discount off my alternate choice of accommodation. Tiny because the price I was originally paying was tiny and it was a token percentage of that.  I was DEVASTATED, I contacted the camp to ask what happened and got a rather disgruntled reply.  It turned out that the camp had been badly damaged in a storm and had had to cancel all bookings until next Spring due to unpredictable weather.  A small mercy for us being that this happened before we arrived and not during, but still, having to try and find an alternative at a week’s notice when we were trying to enjoy the cities we were in at the time was an annoyance.  Not least because this place is EXPENSIVE.  We wouldn’t have been staying there had it not been for the bargain we found.  But we’d been so excited about this part of Italy and didn’t want to miss out, so in the midst of back and forth complaint emails to Airbnb we booked an apartment 5 times the price, the cheapest we could find at short notice, and swore we’d spend less on food to make up for it, ha!

washing

Italy makes even the mundane beautiful

The Cinque Terre, if you don’t know, is an astoundingly picturesque UNESCO heritage site of 5 candy coloured fishing towns balanced precariously atop a rugged hilly coastline.  It’s a big hit with hikers, which we are not, but also just a really beautiful place of nature, which we were keen to soak up along with the late summer sunshine and salty sea.

colourful riomaggiore

Tim Burton does Europe

We learned the hard way that it’s a nightmare to get on a train, they’re surprisingly infrequent and the queues at the train station are frustratingly long and slow every day.  However, during our short time there we managed to visit a lovely beach at Monterosso from where we took a leisurely ferry ride back to La Spezia, which  was a great way to view the gorgeous little villages from the sea.

from boat

view from the boat

The beautiful rainbow-coloured Riomaggiore with its little harbour of brightly painted wooden boats and beach of HUGE pebbles and rocks.  Here we relaxed, soothing our tired toes in the sparklingly clear, turquoise sea after wandering around the town buying pretty local ingredients for dinner.

sunset beach kel

at peace on a pebbly beach

…And gorgeous Manarola where we did a bit of light hiking up to a beautiful graveyard on the hill.  Each small white tomb was adorned with a glossy photograph of its occupant.  I noticed the gaps in the adjacent walls awaiting their future tenants, reminding me (as is sometimes necessary) that life is short and to be cherished.  Afterwards we paused for drinks and free nibbles in a nearby bar with views we felt we could gaze at forever.

graveyard

remember you must die

Here too we ate some great food, obviously.  We saved money by cooking most evenings but we bought local trofie pasta and pesto Liguria, as well as the luxury ingredients and wine which we’d brought with us from Florence, and I relished the chance to do some cooking myself.

dinner

luxury ready steady cook

We tasted the local focaccia, freshly baked and crunchy with sea salt, cheap and really delicious. How could we not indulge in a bit of seafood too?  My favourite in this field being an outrageously rich ravioli with shrimps at one of the few restaurants open late enough for us to eat ‘lunch’ at 4pm in Monterosso.

ravioli

Shrimp ravioli and beer

We shared a massive seafood platter and spaghetti vongole in Manarola where we found ourselves sitting next to a couple from, you guessed it, Bury.  And in Riomaggiore we shared a big cone of deep fried seafood, chips and onion rings, to munch as we wandered around the village.

kel seafood cone

I’m on a seafood diet…

I loved swimming in the sea here, it was clear as glass and not too cold considering it was nearly October.  I floated serenely on the salty water, gazing at the glory that surrounded me, breathing in the sea air and trying to hold on tight to the moment.

blue sea

*sigh*

Anyone that knows us well knows we rarely stop to catch a breath in our daily lives.  I’m addicted to ‘doing stuff’, I work hard in my day job(s) and I work hard at my music career, I seem to have a constantly updating to-do list which is never finished.  Moments of just ‘being’ are rare, and even in our travels we are stressed and ratty quite often trying to decipher transport systems in new places every few days and rushing around trying to see and do as much of possible where time in each location is short.

giz riomaggiore

soaking up the sun

We’d wasted some time bickering about petty inconveniences lately.  I naively hadn’t anticipated how much stress would be involved in travelling, it didn’t fit into my hippy bohemian daydream.  It’s a reality which is hard to swallow when you’re supposed to be having a wonderful time all day every day.  It’s not like that when travel is ambitious and long term, there are too many things to get your head around and endless plans to make (and recover when things go wrong). But bobbing around in the Italian sea with the sun beating down on my face surrounded by natural beauty of the highest order I felt truly at peace and in the moment.  This is what it’s all about, this trip, giving ourselves time to enjoy life, experience new surroundings, and just be.  Oh, and to eat, lots.

 

Title lyric from ‘By the sea’ by Suede.

Currently reading ‘The Grifters’ by Jim Thompson

“I want to be the girl with the most cake” – filling our faces in Florence (and a brief detour to Bologna)

beautiful Florence across the Arno

Our journey to Florence from Venice started with another heavy travel day, we’d discovered that we could get a really cheap train to Bologna on the way to Florence and then a lift in a ‘bla bla car’ (awesome car sharing app – more on this in another blog) from Bologna to just outside Florence, where we’d take the tram for our final leg of the journey.  We had time in Bologna for a pizza and visit to Mambo, Bologna’s museum of modern art, which we loved and could have stayed for much longer in if we didn’t have to peg it back to the station to meet our ride.

I can't remember the name of the artist who did these backpack sculptures at MamBo, if anyone knows please let me know so I can properly credit it!

I can’t remember the name of the artist who did these backpack sculptures at MamBo, if anyone knows please let me know so I can properly credit it!

It was a picturesque journey through the mountains in good company and the tram was cheap and easy.  When we arrived in Florence we  pointed ourselves in the direction we felt was correct from puzzling over the information map, and with the help of a friendly tourist information centre employee halfway, were pleased to find our journey on foot to be a reasonably short one.  When we arrived at the door of our Airbnb we thought there must be some mistake, it was a beautiful fifteen foot high ornate wooden door befitting of a palace, which it turned out to have once been, at one time inhabited by none other than Machiavelli!

the door to our airbnb

the door to our airbnb

We ascended in a tiny lift, which barely contained us with our backpacks, and stepped into by far the most amazing place we’ve stayed in even as I write this much later.  The apartment was HUGE with at least 4 bedrooms, on split levels with stone and metal interior and gigantic arch windows.  Our room was bigger than our whole apartment back in Manchester and a far cry from the wooden wagon.

proof!

proof!

Even more to our delight, our host Andreas had a pot of homemade bread, garlic and tomato soup on the stove, a Tuscan speciality, which he enthusiastically shared with us and a couple of his friends who joined us.  Thinking this was incredibly generous and full of gratitude we were even more surprised when he produced a golden roast chicken, fresh bread and a large salad of rocket and juicy tomatoes.  We were stuffed when we’d finished and felt supremely lucky to have found this place.

our gorgeous street, Via Santo Di Spirito

our gorgeous street, Via Santo Di Spirito

Our first day in Florence we set out early, excited to see as much of this beautiful city by foot as possible.  As we approached the Duomo it started to spit with rain and all of a sudden everyone seemed to have opened an umbrella!  “Pah!” we thought, “They haven’t seen Manchester rain, who needs a brolly for this?” and continued to strut around the city.  About 5 minutes later the heavens opened.  We still tried to put on a brave face. This, after all, was our natural habitat.  But it continued at full pelt and before long we were soaked, and I mean to the BONE.  Drenched.

umbrellas

umbrellas

We cowered under a sheltered building for a while until realising we had to admit defeat and go home and change.  Ringing our clothes out we flopped on the bed to wait for it to stop.  NOT what we expected from sunny Italy!   We had noticed that there were loooooong queues for all the touristy sites, and we weren’t up for that in the rain, so we got dressed and went straight to the trattoria at the bottom of the street.  What else could we do in the rain in Italy than have a long, long lunch?

soggy

soggy

We chose a restaurant a stone’s throw from our door which we’d spotted earlier called Il Santo Bevitore and it turned out to be one of the best meals I ate in the country.  We shared a starter of a HUGE salad and a plate of cured meats and cheeses to die for, especially the local pecorino which I had to buy another chunk of to take with us on the day we left.  For our mains Giz had some kind of herby schnitzel with courgettes which looked really lovely but my main was one of those transcendental food moments where time stands still and you almost shed a tear.

local meats and cheeses at Il Santo Bevitore

local meats and cheeses at Il Santo Bevitore

I can’t really pinpoint what made it so special, it was simple, typical Tuscan food: a deep red, rich beef stew, heavy with peppercorns ladled over a pillow of soft, creamy polenta.  The contrast of the hearty, tangy, melt in your mouth meat with the comforting soft unctuousness of the polenta (which I LOVE) made some kind of unexplainable magic in the mouth.  A meal I know I will try (and fail) to recreate when I get home.  We shared a bottle of delicious wine and sighed contentedly.

in my happy place

in my happy place

Dessert was out of the question but a few hours later we made room for gelato from the highly recommended La Carraia overlooking the river, it certainly lived up to its hype and for 2 flavours each for £4 total it was a bargain too.

La Carraia's dazzling array of flavours

La Carraia’s dazzling array of flavours

The queues we had witnessed on our first day made us feel a little fatigued in terms of visiting tourist sites, but we decided to choose one thing we didn’t want to miss, get up early and and commit to the queue.  Off we went to the Accademia gallery to get up close with Michaelangelos’ David.

graffiti outside the Accademia complete with spelling mistake, doh!

graffiti outside the Accademia complete with spelling mistake, doh!

The queue was a good 2 hours, and we questioned our sanity several times.  Every city in Italy seems to have wonderful things to see but with such tedious wait times, and we just can’t justify paying to skip the line.  It was in this queue we inadvertently got a top tip from the couple in front of us who had downloaded a comedy show and were listening to it on their smartphone.  Good thinking!  We however hadn’t had such foresight.  Eventually we got inside, albeit with a much lighter wallet and enjoyed more Italian art and of course the main event.

big hands

big hands

The statue of David was much bigger than I had expected, and it was a beautiful thing to quietly behold.  In general I felt a little jaded by the rest of the collection however, having seen so much similar art elsewhere.  It’s all very beautiful, and impressive work, but we’d had our fill of it for one trip, sorry if that’s sacrilege to anyone reading!

how does one choose?

how does one choose?

Later we daftly queued for 30 mins for the Duomo in one of the many lines protruding from the church, when we reached the door it turned out to be a queue for ticket holders only, so a fat waste of time, we couldn’t be bothered to queue for tickets after that but somehow managed to slip in another door and have a look around.  We’d worked up an appetite so we wandered towards Dante Aligheri street and found a wicked hole-in-the-wall sandwich shop called Da Vinatierri where we bought a couple of really delicious paninos and a couple of glasses of house wine, they didn’t have enough of our first choice of white so they gave us what was left in the bottle for free and our two glasses of red.

win

win

We sat on the step outside and watched tour groups wander by while we drank and munched on the street local style.  After we found a gelato called Grom recommended by my friend Liv an ex-Florence inhabitant and I tried a quirky cherry pie flavour and yoghurt flavour as also recommended by Liv.  This was one of the traditional gelaterias where the gelato is kept in round metal tins with lids on, not piled up billowing and bright to tempt the tourists, and it really was delicious, well worth the hunt but more expensive than La Carraia.

Gusta pizza

Gusta pizza

This was another good food day as that evening we popped back to Gusta Pizza near our apartment, which we had walked past the night before and noticed a long line of people outside.  Later, the internet had told us it was a really highly rated place so we’d deided to return the next evening and join the queue. When the doors opened the action began and we bustled quickly down the queue as those in front of us shouted their orders, took a ticket and waited hungrily.  We chose a simple marguerita and one with spicy local salami and a couple of glasses of house red, naturally!  We found a table which we shared with an Australian couple and chatted about our travels, they had been travelling all around Europe and the conversation was flowing until our ticket numbers were shouted and then… complete silence.  Truly worth queuing for, the best pizza we had in Italy by far, I’m salivating now just thinking about it.  So cheap, so simple and so fucking good.  Oh Florence you delicious little beast!!!

8 biscuits a day for a healthy breakfast apparently

8 biscuits a day for a healthy breakfast apparently

The next day we chatted over coffee (and the recommended 8 biscuit Italian breakfast) with a fellow Airbnb guest who was an American artist.  We would be moving on that afternoon but we decided to spend the morning walking up to Michaelangelo hill on her recommendation and were really glad we did, as the view of the city was absolutely breathtaking.

view from Michaelangelo Hill

view from Michaelangelo Hill

We chilled and listened to a busking guitarist and soaked up the sun and the beauty of Florence before meandering back down the hill to find lunch.  This was to be our last meal in Florence and for me that meant the pressure was on.  We had overspent and didn’t want to go too crazy but it had to be good.  We perused many a menu, all of which I’m sure would have been fine but nothing really grabbed us and we ended up back near our apartment feeling a little deflated.  We chanced a few more side streets and almost walked past this tiny little place but the blackboard caught our eye, menu del giorno 10 euros, 2 delicious sounding courses.  It was really pretty and we got a good vibe so we stepped inside hoping for an available table.

vivanda

We were seated by the most charismatic, charming waiter who I think was the owner, he talked us through the food and wine with such passion.  The food was locally sourced, organic and 90% vegetarian and vegan.  They served their own wine, which our waiter told us he knew very well as he made it himself.  Our three course meal consisted of a ‘tart’ starter, more like a barely set, quivering crustless quiche of broccoli with a butternut sauce.  So good.  Main was home made gnocchi with lemon and gorgonzola, a touch too lemony for me but still wonderful and all too easy to polish off.

gorgeous homemade bread at La Vivanda

gorgeous homemade bread at La Vivanda

We couldn’t resist the beautiful looking desserts in the fridge and were torn between a strawberry cake and a baked cheesecake so our adorable waiter said he would give us ‘a little bit of each’ and arrived with two huge slabs.  The strawberry cake was good, really good, but the cheesecake was The Greatest Cheesecake I Have Ever Eaten.  I have been trying to find its match ever since and nothing so far has come close.  It has ruined me in the cheesecake stakes as I will be pining for it for evermore.  The wine too, was fantastic, so we bought an extra bottle to take with us to our next destination.  I urge you to try this place if you’re ever in Florence, it’s called La Vivanda and it’s well worth hunting down.  Around the corner they have a little delicatessen so we picked up some gnufi and parmesan there to make ourselves dinner in our next destination where this time we would have an apartment to ourselves.

Cheesecake of gods, the one at the back.

Cheesecake of gods, the one at the back.

As I write this we have been travelling for over two months across the world and Florence is so far unbeatable in the contest for best food.  Having been a little underwhelmed by a few meals in Italy (I had high hopes of course) it was in Florence that I found the gastronomic mecca for which I was searching.  I would return there again in a heartbeat just to eat, eat, eat!

Bella Italia

Bella Italia

Currently still reading – A fork in the road (see previous blogs)

Title lyric from – Doll Parts by Hole

“Two drifters off to see the world, there’s such a lot of world to see…” – lost and in love with Venice

Giz all excited to board the train

Giz all excited to board the train

Our visit to Rome was exciting and a little too short and I’m sure we’ll return someday but it was also sweaty, crowded and confusing and we boarded the train to our country retreat in Venice quite happily.  The train journey wasn’t in our original plans but turned out to be our cheapest option.

our wooden wagon

our wooden wagon

Somehow we lucked out and our cheapish train was pretty swanky with comfortable seats, free wifi and movies showing, sadly in Italian without subtitles, our four hour journey was smooth and easy.  We arrived well rested in Mestre and stopped at a café to steal more wifi and triple check how we would get to our next Airbnb, which we knew was going to be a challenge.

organic veggies

organic veggies

We couldn’t afford Venice’s posh hotels and instead of staying in a boring cheap hotel outside the city we had opted for a wooden wagon on an organic farm.  A classic Airbnb special.  We’d been given detailed instructions on how to get there but only just managed to spot the supermarket we’d been told to disembark at.

a friend

a friend

It was early evening and we had a basic printed map but our backpacks were heavy and as we commenced the predicted 20 minute walk from the bus stop to the farm we wondered if we were actually crazy for booking this place.

dinner in the cabin

dinner in the cabin

On the train I’d looked at trip advisor and seen some really bad reviews of the place, saying it was smelly, filthy and ‘never again!’ etc.  Airbnb had had a much more positive set of reviews when I’d originally booked it weeks before, Giz had been apprehensive even then, and I was starting to panic.

beautiful Venetian masks, this was the best shop we found

beautiful Venetian masks, this was the best shop we found

After some wrong turns we finally found it, we were greeted by a slightly tipsy lady who spoke virtually no English, eventually being introduced to a fluent English speaking young guy who gave us loads of info about Venice, buses etc.  As we approached our cabin I began to feel better, it was so cute, and inside the sheets were clean and I felt safe.

my beloved Italian drinking water fountains

my beloved Italian drinking water fountains

We were shown a kitchen with crates of organic fruit and veg but it was apparent that the organic wine and food that were mentioned online weren’t going to be available, at least this evening, so we legged it back to the supermarket (just in time before it closed at 8pm) to pick up wine, cheese, crackers, pickled veg and snacks for dinner.  Walking back in pitch darkness with just a small torch to light our way was somewhat creepy, but we had a really nice chilled out Saturday evening in the cabin, despite being joined by a large hornet with whom we had to make a truce, we won’t bother you if you don’t bother us.

happily wandering - ACAB!

The next day we arose early and caught the bus to Venice, we had no real plan here, just to see the place, so we didn’t get a map or think about it too much as we had in Rome, we just walked.  Within minutes we were hopelessly lost and hopelessly in love with this beautiful, beautiful city.

beautiful city of Venice

beautiful city of Venice

The winding streets are EXACTLY what I imagine when I daydream of romantic Italy and as we hit many dead ends, found countless shops selling eccentrically dressed cat dolls and ornate masks and wandered down seemingly never ending, twisting and turning, narrow, pastel coloured roads we felt like we were in one of my favourite films, Labyrinth.

buskers from heaven

buskers from heaven

At one point we came across a busking duo of old blokes who to our delight started to play a Django Reinhart classic as we approached, it was a perfect moment and we watched the whole number and appreciatively chucked them some euros.

gelato to die for

gelato to die for

We found an AMAZING gelataria and sat on a bench in a square which seemed only populated by locals with kids, soaking up the sun and groaning with pleasure at the delicious creamy delight (me: dark chocolate and fig & walnut, Giz strawberry and hazelnut).

cheesecake at Osteria Trefanti

cheesecake at Osteria Trefanti

We got lucky with lunch too, stumbling upon a great little fish restaurant Osteria Trefanti, which offered a lunch deal of delicate sea bass with bean puree, bread, a glass of wine and cheesecake and coffee for 15 euros each.  It turned out to be the best meal we had in Venice.

beautiful basillica

beautiful basillica

Apart from a quick visit to St Mark’s basilica in Piazza San Marco which we came across by accident, and where a beggar looked me in the eye and called me ‘diavolo!’ in the queue, we kept off the tourist trail here.

secret sunbathing

secret sunbathing

We sunbathed in quiet corners, wandered around the Jewish ‘ghetto’ and soaked up the atmosphere.  And no, we didn’t ride a gondola, at 80 euros to be bumper to bumper in a sea of shameless selfie stick-ers it didn’t seem remotely romantic or desirable.

omnipresent gondolas

omnipresent gondolas

We took a few photos and rode the ferry to the Lido the next day to scratch our sailing itch instead.  It wasn’t the most beautiful beach in the world but I swam in the lovely warm sea and it did the trick.

wish you were here?

wish you were here?

After our beach day we shared a ricotta gelato and headed back to the city, we found a place serving authentic seeming ciccetti, which I was dying to try but ultimately found a bit disappointing and greasy, you can’t win em all!  That evening we shared our cabin with a pea-green grasshopper and our short but sweet Venice break left us feeling lucky and with big smiles.

fruit and veg market on a boat

fruit and veg market on a boat

Currently (still) reading – A fork in the road – tales of food, pleasure and discovery on the road (various authors)

Title lyric from Moon River by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer