“As the flames rose to her Roman nose and her walkman started to melt…” – Four sweaty days in Rome

pasta in pigneto

pasta in pigneto

After 10 days of total relaxation in France we were excited at the prospect of some vibrant city life in Italy, but we were certainly not prepared for the intensity of Rome.  It slapped us in the face like an enthusiastically spun pizza dough; the noise, the heat, the chaos, and the frustration of Termini station, through which we wandered for what felt like an hour on arrival, looking for someone or something which could give us some information.

our airbnb room

our airbnb room

With the help of a couple of friendly Italians we eventually rolled up at our Airbnb apartment in Pigneto utterly exhausted.  Spaced out and half deaf from the flight, we tried to absorb the huge amount of information our hosts immediately bestowed upon us about their fine city.

That evening we ate delicious porcini pasta and pizza bianca at a great little cheap place on the newly hipster-cool Via Del Pigneto and settled in.

basillica di San Giovanni in laterano

basillica di San Giovanni in laterano

The next two days were a whirlwind of tourist sites, it being our first time in the city we wanted to see the Colosseum, Roman Forum, St Peter’s, The Vatican, The Pantheon etc. and we dutifully queued for hours (no way we could afford to pay to skip the queue!) and bustled around Rome with the legions of selfie stick wielding gawpers.

doing the tourist thing at the Colosseum

doing the tourist thing at the Colosseum

It was hardcore but the sights were worth it, St Peter’s Basillica was a dazzling highlight for me, along with its ornate crypt full of dead popes, and our imaginations were fuelled by the ancient Colosseum and vast Roman Forum, my favourite bit was the garden of headless female statues.  Getting to the Sistine Chapel felt like a long pilgrimage and while it was literally awesome to see Michealangelo’s “Creation of Adam” in the flesh, it was an ordeal which almost finished us off as far as ‘touristy’ places go.  One thing we were so grateful for was the abundance of gargoyle-faced water fountains all over Rome, we filled my trusty water bottle time and again, staying hydrated, saving plastic and money in the process.

a dead pope

a dead pope

Our favourite place, however, was the crypt of the Capuchin monks underneath the Convento Dei Frati, not far from the Spanish Steps (on which I burst into tears after dealing with a breathtakingly cold-hearted Italian bank clerk – more on that in another blog!), where we were overwhelmed, enchanted and unnerved by the eerily designed series of rooms crafted from the bones of seemingly thousands of dead monks.  I wanted to take a sneaky photo here despite the ban, but when I witnessed a female staff member reprimand a man who had done just that by saying, “delete it or you’ll not sleep tonight!!” My heebiejeebies got the better of me!

beauty everywhere you turn in Rome

beauty everywhere you turn in Rome

Of course Italian gastronomy was at the forefront of my mind for the duration of our trip, sticking to a budget wouldn’t have been impossible, but we found we couldn’t resist spending a bit more, we’d make up for it in India and Asia, we decided.  So we ate a lot.  Rome being such a touristy place we found it a challenge to seek out the more authentic and less overpriced establishments, not least because every time mealtime came around we were exhausted and ravenous.  We ate some unremarkable pizza and pasta and some poor gelato, bad decisions made in desperation.

Necci breakfast in Pigneto, recommended!

Necci breakfast in Pigneto, recommended!

However we found a lovely place not far from the chaos of Piazza Navona where I devoured deep-fried stuffed courgette flowers amongst other things and discovered the ubiquitous and addictive Aperol spritz which became my Italian tipple of choice. We also ate really well despite grumpy service in the Travestere area, as recommended by an Italian student of mine.  My pasta with artichokes was perfect.

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While we opted for cheap and filling apericena deals occasionally, and usually only ordered a primi plato pasta, we treated ourselves occasionally too.  Indulging heartily as a special treat at the wonderfully creative Primo in Pigneto, where my highlight was an incredible salad with raw squid, melon and passionfruit mayo, the balance of salty seafood with juicy melon and creamy but zingy dressing was really something.

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We loved the colourful, arty and eclectic Pigneto, reminiscent of parts of Manchester, and we’d definitely stay in that area again.  On our host’s recommendation we had a delicious and cheap breakfast at a popular cafe in the area called Necci which deserves a special mention, followed by a haircut at the cool Contesta Rock Hair.  Ohhh how I’m sure we’ll look back in horror at the money we splashed out too keenly in Italy.  But in month one of a long trip, we weren’t too worried just yet!

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We would return to Rome briefly at the end of our Italy trip to fly on to Athens.  After a 4 hour train ride from Pisa which seemed like a clever cheap deal until we arrived at our nemesis Termini station, we discovered that the trains to Ciampino airport don’t run after about 9pm (we’d seen listings online for trains to Ciampino later but it turned out that was nowhere near Ciampino airport, duh!).  We had earlier in our planning decided to save money by sleeping in the airport overnight before our 6am flight, but even at 10pm Termini felt unsettling and unfriendly and full of unsavoury characters.  After much tearful running around with our backpacks trying to find a solution we cracked and jumped in a cab, making our savings null and void.  When we arrived at Ciampino to find we weren’t the only ones opting to sleep there, we slumped down in a corner on the hard floor with the red-eyed masses. Deflated but then overjoyed to discover we had free wifi, we watched a Sons of Anarchy marathon with numb arses for most of the night, each getting about 1 hour of tortured sleep.

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

Title lyric from ‘Bigmouth strikes again’ by The Smiths

“Cheese me, cheese me, cheese me, cheese me baby, til I lose control” – A foodie experience in The Dordogne, France.

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I have vague memories of holidaying in France with my family when I was three years old.  I’m not sure if they are real memories or just memories of photographs and stories as recounted by my parents.  On the long drive there my brothers and I sang “Saint Jean Trolimon” over and over again in the back seat of the car, driving my parents to distraction.

We stayed in a huge whitewashed Gite with Monsieur Le Bon and his family.  We ate a gigantic dish of cockles and mussels which we had collected ourselves from the rocks.  We basked in the simple country life, shared meals at a weathered wooden table, where even the older kids drank a small glass of wine with dinner.  My cousin and I played in the sand on the local beach as our mums sunbathed topless.  In my mind it was bliss.

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When I was thirteen I went on a French exchange.  I enjoyed and was good at French, my Dad had taught me a few words and phrases as a child.  I still love the language.  I was an awkward new teen, just finding myself, I wore braces on my teeth, dyed my hair auburn with a triangular Harmony box dye, and wore high-waisted jeans and awful brown cowboy boots from Kays Catalogue.  I was a huge fan of Bon Jovi and was starting to get into the ‘heavier’ stuff like Guns n Roses.

On that trip I started wearing a bandana on my head.  I w
as deeply uncool, a source of bemusement for the popular small town kids with identical Naf Naf sweaters.  But for some reason on that trip a few of the older kids started to copy my ‘style’.  By the end of it half the school was wearing a bandana which they picked up from the French markets. Despite my status as an unlikely style icon I was hugely uncomfortable in myself.  I felt I had nothing in common with the other kids.  I was an outsider, by choice.  Insular, listening to music on my Walkman on the coach, feeling not quite there.  I don’t have too many lasting memories of that trip but one experience that I have never forgotten was the taste of a freshly baked and still warm croissant from a patisserie in Paris.  It was life changing.
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France is synonymous with good food, great food, some say the best food in the world.  Me, I’m all about food, and France has been on my travel wish-list ever since that glorious croissant in 1993.  I wanted to go back to the countryside and eat lots of good food and drink lots of good wine.  When I discovered the opportunity of house
sitting as a means to travel I saw that there were many options in France.  I was spoilt for choice, but fortune landed us in the medieval commune of Tremolat in the South West, by the Dordogne river.

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I knew nothing about Tremolat, I’d heard of the Dordogne and I knew that the nearest big city Bordeaux was famous for great wine, when I was told that there was a Michelin starred restaurant two minutes away from the house we’d be living in I was sold.  My laughable ideals of sticking to a minimal food budget went out of the window.  I’d save money on other things.  I noted with glee that Giz and I would be celebrating our fifteen year anniversary a few days after our planned arrival.  I booked the flights and booked a table.

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The Perigord region, as it is known, is rich with luxurious local delicacies.  It seemed half of every menu was made up of duck dishes, particularly that infamous French speciality Fois Gras, which was ubiquitous, even casually piled up in the local supermarket.

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I ate a salad as part of the ‘formule de midi’ in a tiny bistro at the top of the beautiful town of Limeuil which featured chewy slivers of pink meat (gesiers) I didn’t know the English translation of, later googling informed me they were gizzards.  Other delightful fruits of the region included the inimitable, earthy and eye-wateringly expensive fresh truffles, and walnuts (which we saw growing on trees on our long walks with the dogs) in the form of liqueur and a delicious traditional cake-like tart.  We frequented local markets and bought stinky local cheeses and succulent salamis, flavoured with nuts and blackberries.  We greedily requested piles of juicy peaches, tomatoes, plums and grapes in broken GSCE French.  We picked up chewy, sourdough ‘pain de campagne’ from the local boulangerie and enjoyed alfresco lunches in the sunshine by the pool.

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In the ten days we spent lazing around the Dordogne we gorged ourselves with glee and felt no guilt.  We settled smoothly into the laid-back lifestyle, walking the banks of the river with the dogs, spotting snakes, frogs and even a swimming Wild boar.  We had a beautifully lazy day kayaking in the sunshine, stopping every so often to enjoy the deafening silence so far from the frenetic city we had let behind.  We wandered around quaint medieval villages, markets and castles and agreed that we could get used to this way of life.  And of course we ate at La Vieux Logis, the one with the Michelin star, and all of it: the charming service, the local wine, the vast array of cheese and ohhhh the procession of beautifully cooked, impeccably presented dishes from tartare de veau to tarte aux abricots was sensational.


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France was exactly how I hoped it would be, fervent crops, verdant countryside: the simple life.  A friendly ‘Bonjour’ from everyone we passed on the morning walk.  An abundance of great food, made without too much fuss using plenty of local produce.  We’re dreaming about going back for a longer trip, maybe getting a vehicle and visiting for a month or two, checking out different parts of the country.  We didn’t know what to expect when we randomly chose (or were chosen for) a visit to Tremolat, and we got very lucky, who knows what other joys we might find.  Next time though, we’ll bring a guitar.

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Currently reading – Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis

Title lyric adapted from “Tease me” by Chaka Demus and Pliers

“Now I wanna be your dog (sitter)” – Our first housesitting experience

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I’ve always wanted to see as much of the world as possible, but I’ve always been pretty skint and until very recently I really thought that without a large amount of money it wouldn’t be possible to have long and interesting travel experiences.  Then I did some research, and I discovered some things which seemed like keys to secret levels on a video game.  One of these magical keys opened the door to the world of house-sitting.

There are many websites you can join to find house-sitting jobs, they all have an annual fee, some pricier than others.  The deal is usually that you get free accommodation in return for looking after someone’s property while they are away.  Sometimes this just involves you being a presence in the house, collecting post, keeping things running etc.  Most often there is some pet care involved, as pets are much happier at home than in kennels, it works out well for them and cheaper for the owner.  Some involve some handiwork or gardening.  Some sits are just for a few days but some can last up to 6 months.

I had a look at a whole load of websites and decided to put my money on Trusted Housesitters – it was through this website that I found my first house-sitting assignment and I am writing this blog with two dogs at my feet as I near the end of this first wonderful experience.

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We had never heard of the medieval village of Tremolat, France, and probably never would have visited if I hadn’t found a house-sitting assignment here.  That’s the beauty of house-sitting, you get to experience parts of countries you would never normally see.  It’s difficult to get your first one, you need an appealing profile which competes with all the semi-pro and very experienced sitters on the website.  The instantly appealing ‘dream’ jobs in touristy places get snapped up within hours of the listings going live.  You have to be willing to go somewhere ‘random’ and take a chance.

We applied for a handful of jobs before we got a green light from Karen in Tremolat.  I have to admit, the michelin star restaurant in the village enticed me.  When we arrived we realised there were only 4 places to eat in total, 3 of which were owned by the hotel to which the michelin star restaurant belongs.  We’ve eaten in all of them now.  It’s a great place for food.

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As we were collected from the tiny airport in Bergerac by Karen’s daughter Beth, and driven down winding roads into the middle of nowhere, we wondered what we had let ourselves in for.  I had been the instigator in this game, insisting to Giz that it would be an amazing experience, not really knowing for sure but being my usual stubborn self.  You have be trusting, and open to whatever the experience involves.

I got the fear the night before, what if the dogs hate us?  What if the people aren’t very nice?  What if our terrible French means we are ousted from the village?  What if this is a really stupid idea?  As we wound down country lanes in a stranger’s car I was pretty nervous.  We stopped at a supermarche for supplies, squinted at labels, grabbed some cereals, fruit, milk, bread and cheese, not really knowing what we’d need.  We arrived at the house and Beth said, “prepare yourselves, the dogs are pretty crazy!”  She turned the door handle and frenetic barking commenced, the dogs leapt forth all tails and tongues, slobbering, barking and bouncing.  A whirlwind.  Oh god!

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After showing us around the house Beth left us to get acquainted with the crazy dogs and 4 rather aloof cats.  The dogs Tilly and Honey were very boisterous and affectionate, we hit it off pretty quickly.  We sat down with some bread and cheese and opened a bottle of wine.  Here we were in the middle of nowhere.  It was BRILLIANT!

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Later that evening the home owners Karen and Andrew arrived home, they couldn’t have been more welcoming.  The next day Andrew made us a lovely roast dinner and Karen baked a walnut cake.  They shared wine and stories of their own travel experiences.  We felt like family.  Their plans had changed since we made the first arrangements so they stayed at the house for a few more days, told us all about the area and insisted that we use their car to explore, Karen even took us to a local market one day.

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We took the dogs out with Andrew who showed us their favourite spots.  They run a mobile fish n chip business and the day before they left on their trip we had the chance to sample their first class fish n chips as we watched the sun set over the Dordogne river.  We felt utterly, utterly spoilt.

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Getting involved with house-sitting was a bit nervewracking, you could even say risky, and I’m sure it’s not for everyone.  But based on our first experience we’re totally sold and we’d definitely do it again.  The hospitality of our hosts, the excitement of discovering a new place we’d never have thought of going to, the unknown, the way it makes travel so much more affordable… The way you immerse yourself in a real community, a million miles away from staying in a hotel complex.  The only downside, and one I hadn’t thought of until this trip was nearly over, I’m going to REALLY miss those dogs!

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Currently reading “How Proust can change your life” by Alain De Botton

Title lyric adapted from “I wanna be your dog” by Iggy and The Stooges

“Grab my blue backpack, My walkman, grip my bicycle…” – A packing list for a hand-luggage only trip around the world.

what's in the bag  

When you decide to escape, you don’t want to think about anything weighing you down.  Early on in our conversations about long term travel we decided we would aim to pack light.  I spent quite a lot of time making and reading packing lists, deciding what was essential and what we could live without, which I concluded was actually most things.  I’m reminded of this quote from Sterling Hayden’s ‘Wanderer’….

“What does a man need – really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in – and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment. That’s all – in the material sense, and we know it. But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention for the sheer idiocy of the charade.”

OK so we have packed some ‘preposterous gadgetry’ but not much.  We’ve kept it down to a 40 litre backpack each, both weighing no more that 7kgs.  We’ve brought very few clothes, most of the weight in my backpack is books and pharmaceuticals, most of which I probably won’t use but I like to be prepared.  Most of the weight in Giz’s backpack is insulin.  Giz’s diabetes has been a slight worry; there isn’t much information to be found online about long term travel with type A diabetes.  His doctor didn’t have much advice to give either but he was willing to prescribe 3 months worth of insulin, so we have a cool bag for times when it can’t go in the fridge, and we’re going to try and keep buying it when we get the opportunity before he runs too low.

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I did a lot of research about the backpack itself, I knew I wanted to go as small as possible, having seen so many people struggling under the weight of some gigantic hiking pack.  I probably would have bought an even smaller one than the one we have but after packing I’m glad we got the maximum cabin bag size as it was more of a challenge than I expected.

We knew all along we wanted hand luggage only, it prevents us from going crazy packing too much and means we never have to risk losing our stuff, also it saves us money on cheap flights as they charge extra for hold luggage.  Of course this means we have to keep all our liquids under 100ml and can’t take certain things, but we don’t see this as a major problem.

We decided to go for the Osprey farpoint 40 litre convertible packs, we both got the same one, it’s really well made, has a lifetime guarantee, and converts to a shoulder bag when necessary.  We think it’s just the right size for us, and as mentioned it complies with the size rules for cabin bags, we had no problems with it on our Ryan Air flight out of Liverpool.  It wasn’t cheap but I think it’s worth spending money on something good quality if you’re going to lug it around the world.  Hopefully it’ll prove a good investment.

We also bought some small packing cubes to keep everything organised, I wondered if it was a bit frivolous when I ordered them but I’m really glad I did, it’s so easy for me to find what I need in my case and they sort of work like compression bags making it easier to tessellate everything inside the bag.  At the last minute we both decided to buy small daybags as a second piece of hand luggage, for me it was mainly to house a load more books!

If you’re interested, here is my packing list…

PACKING LIST

essentials
Microfiber travel towel
Sleeping bag liner
Pillow case
Flannel
Teva sandals
Neck pillow
Earplugs
Eye mask
Notepad and pens
As many books as poss (Kindle schmindle!)
EHIC card
Passport
Travel docs
Travel insurance docs
Water bottle
Batteries
Money belt
Mini padlocks
Foldaway shoulder bag
Tissues
Sunglasses
Sun hat
Passport photos
Safety pins, buttons and sewing kit

clothes
Shrug
Camo short shorts
1 pair tights
3 pairs loose trousers
Long-sleeve cropped layer top
2 long loose dresses
Thin l/s tunic top
Thin t shirt
Heavier t shirt
2 bras
7 pairs of knickers
3 pairs of socks
Swimming costume
Bikini
Sports bra
4 vests (2 grey, black, green)
1 bandana
thin jumper
Shemagh scarf

electrical
Mini laptop and charger
Iphone and charger
Canon mini camera and charger
Underwater ipod and charger
Tablet and charger
Head torch
Universal plug adapter
USB storage device
Ipod and headphones + charger

toiletries/medicine/make up
3 soaps
Shaving cream
2 Lush solid shampoos
travel wash
Sun lotion
Insect repellent
Germolene
Foundation
Lipstick x1
Nail polish x3
Nail polish remover pads
Eye shadow compact
Tweezers
Nail clippers
Mascara
Eyebrow kit
Bronzer
Razor and blades
Prescription meds
Allergy relief
Compeed
Painkillers
Vocalzone
Dioralyte + Immodium
Berocca
Sting and bite cream
Malaria tablets
Contraception
Water purifying tablets
Plasters
Toothbrush + Toothpaste
Mooncup
Moisturiser with spf

wearing on the plane
Nice dress
leggings and socks
wrap cardigan
waterproof jacket
converse pumps

I can’t vouch that this is the perfect list yet, but having been in France for a few days I haven’t noticed anything I’m particularly lacking so far.  Giz doesn’t make lists so his is unlikely to appear any time soon, it’s basically some clothes, an ipod, a tablet and lots of insulin.  I’ll keep you updated as to how this works out for us, we’re still learning!

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Currently reading : The ground beneath her feet – Salman Rushdie 

Title lyric from “Minus Blindfold” by Deftones

Break out of the cage that you’re in, let your blood flow…

imageAs far back as I can remember I’ve wanted to run away and join ‘the circus’.

As far back as I can remember I have loved to write songs.

As far back as I can remember I’ve loved to write stories.

I’m an adventurer, an epicurean, an artist. For most of my life I’ve been a musician, I’ve travelled around in a rusty old van with my friends, playing music. I love it. I feel like I’m breathing for the first time in a long time when the wheels start turning.

I have seen more of my home country than most people do, and I have toured Germany and America with my band, Obsessive Compulsive, but at some point in the past few years I feel like I have fallen into a routine.  My gypsy heart has been satisfied with the life of a part time touring musician until now. I will always continue to tour and make music, but I need more.

Around the time that I identified my rut and burgeoning wanderlust, I began to save money. I was a waitress and occasional prep chef at the time, saving my tips in an oversized JD bottle, shaking them into the coin counter at the bank every 6 months or so. Working as many extra hours as possible. I talked with my boyfriend and lifelong partner in crime Giz, and he was feeling the same. We didn’t have a plan, we just started saving. We cut back, we stopped buying each other birthday and Xmas gifts, we stayed in our tiny flat and saved, and saved and saved. We worked our arses off. I took my CELTA and became an English teacher, something I can travel with, and continued to work and work. We carried on saving.

While we were saving, I started to research. I devoured blog entries by the likes of Nomadic Matt, Adventurous Kate and Wandering Earl and learned that our dreams of low budget long-term travel could actually become a reality. It dawned on me that people DO THIS! It’s possible! It’s scary and challenging and no matter how much I read I feel like I still don’t know what I’m doing but I think it’s possible.

So now we’re here. We’ve saved what we decided we would need to do the basic trip.  We have friends and family in various places around the world and we’re going to try and join the dots for a RTW trip.  We have skills and means of earning a bit of money as we go and we are signed up to the various work exchange and housesitting websites which we hope will help to elongate our journey. In fact our first part of the trip is a ten day house sit in France.

Our basic budget is £20 (approx $30) per day each to include food and accommodation. We will spend a lot less than this in certain parts of the world, India/Asia, and a lot more in some of the big cities we plan to visit like Rome and Venice. But we’re using this budget as a rough guide, to keep us in check. We have a seperate budget allocation for flights/trains/cars etc. and a little emergency pot for fun things we don’t want to miss out on. We plan to go for 6 months minimum, but for as long as possible.

We’ve quit our jobs, given up our flat and packed all our stuff into boxes to be stored. We have a dream and a rough idea of where we want to go but we’re kinda winging it. I will be posting a couple more blogs before we leave, and as much as possible on the road. I hope you’ll join us and keep in touch.