Friday, September 22, 2017

Gardians of the Galaxy

Honeymoon Day 4, Wednesday, was all about relaxing and taking it easy on the shores of Lake Garda. Our apartment, a rather bare but spacious and functional space, was located a couple of miles from the pretty town of Malcesine, on the eastern side of the lake. We headed into Malcesine first thing, primarily to wander around and take plenty of photos of the picturesque cobblestoned town and its gorgeous lakeside setting.








After our walk, it was time for lunch at Re Lear, in a cobbled square in the centre of Malcesine. It was quite an unusual place, since it had a quick menu with the likes of pasta carbonara or croque monsieurs alongside a gourmet tasting menu, focused on local "zero kilometre" food. I have some issues with food miles as a concept, as it fails to take into account other factors such as differences in heating or cooling or fertiliser use in different parts of the world, which can mean that your apples from New Zealand are not actually worse for the environment than those from France (yes, some bias for my heavily export-dependent home country as well), but as a tourist experience, I do like the idea of tasting fresh local products, which tend to be made with more care than somewhere that's just microwaving a frozen dinner for undiscerning tourists they know they'll never see again.

My favourite dish, an entrée of sea bass raviolo with rhubarb foam
After lunch, we headed south down the lake to Bardolino, an area reputed for its wine. There are lots of places you can taste wine in the region, but we opted, for convenience, to go to the Zeni wine "museum". It was evident going in that it would be a bit touristy and that the museum was basically just a bunch of old equipment in a room, but sometimes it's okay to do the touristy thing because it's easy and set up for people, as opposed to fetching up at some working vineyard where they're not really expecting tourists and maybe don't speak English. Plus, as it turned out, the staff was really nice and friendly, and it was overall a good experience.

We arrived just before they reopened after lunch, and there was already a large group - of Germans, I swear everybody here is German, we have been counting the non-German cars on the road - waiting outside, so instead of going into the museum, where they offer free wine tasting, we went around the corner to the cellar where you can pay a small fee to taste some of the more expensive wines.

Love among the barrels

We decided to do the "olfactory experience", which consisted of smelling mystery odours in a series of unmarked boxes and writing down our best guess as to what they might be. It was super hard! I knew already I'm not very good at identifying wine tastes and smells, but this confirmed it. Each of us only correctly identified three of the scents. Some I wasn't too far off (I reversed the leather and tobacco samples, for example), but my worst blunder was guessing "red fruits" for coffee! Ironically, I really hate the smell of coffee, so I would have thought I'd get that one for sure. After we were finished smelling, we tasted two glasses of wine and tried to match their profiles with some of the scents we had sniffed.



As our tranquil wine tasting was coming to an end, the big German group appeared downstairs so we absconded up on to the museum/shop level. Here, you got a free tasting glass and could dispense your own wine right from the bottle. Fun for the whole family!




I don't really know a lot about Italian wines, so it was fun to taste a couple (and I'm sure we'll have more opportunities to discover as we go!)

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Here comes the bride!

Hello from Italy and from a married lady! It's official and everything went well. I might blog about it later when we get our photos (can't wait.)

Taking a break in a long day

On Sunday, we woke up with hangovers and a mission to get at least part of the way to Innsbruck, about a 7 hour drive away, where we were booked in for Monday night. But first we had to go to our venue and pack up all the decoration and presents that remained there. It took quite a while, so I can only imagine how much work it took for my husband (eek) and in-laws to set up while I was chilling in the hotel room getting my hair and makeup done. 

One hangover-busting Chinese meal later, we were ready to set off on our honeymoon. Seven hours on the road was out of the question, so we settled for a couple of hours driving and a stop in Bad Dürkheim, a cute little spa town in Germany. We selected BD basically for how far it was away, but when we ventured out to find something to eat before taking an early night, we were excited to find out that we had come on the weekend of the Wurstmarkt.




This is apparently the world's biggest wine festival and this year was celebrating its 600th edition. The focus seemed to be more on fairground fun and food than wine from what I could tell, but with our hangovers we weren't looking too hard for the wine section in any case. Jules pointed out that wurstmarkt essentially means sausage fest, which is an interesting way to start one's honeymoon! Sausages aside, it definitely seemed like a good omen for our honeymoon to stumble across a fun special event by chance.

A delicious sausage at the sausage fest
The next day, we continued on towards Innsbruck, Austria, passing over the Alps although not too much was to be seen in drizzly weather. 

Velvety Alpine grass

Castle in the Alps
I knew Innsbruck was in a pretty mountain valley, but I didn't know that it also has so many lovely buildings. Jules spent 7 years living in Innsbruck, so he was my tour guide for the afternoon, spent wandering around the city admiring the lovely architecture.

Normally you'd get a nice view of the Alps, but the moody cloud makes for a good photo too

The famous Golden Roof. We went inside the museum, but there wasn't a lot to see and you couldn't go out on to the balcony





On Tuesday, the forecast was grey and rainy both for Innsbruck and for our destination at Lake Garda, so we weren't in a particular hurry to leave the city. Instead, we toured the Hofburg Palace. Photos weren't allowed, but it was an interesting visit, with a good audioguide explaining the history of the imperial family there, especially Empress Maria Theresa. It's also known for its apartments decorated for the famous beauty Empress Sisi, wife of Franz Josef, although apparently she only stayed in them briefly.

Ceiling in the cathedral

I'm not usually super impressed by church organs, but I loved the effect on this one, almost replicating the look of a cathedral nave in its design

After eating Fleischkäse ("meat cheese" aka a sort of meatloaf - tasty) for lunch, we set off over the Alps and Dolomites for Italy. The low cloud probably hid some pretty views, but it was quite cool seeing it clinging to the sides of the mountains and rising up like steam in the valleys. First stop of our Italian roadtrip is Lake Garda, for a few days of R&R. It's definitely needed - after all the excitement of the wedding and start of the honeymoon we're pretty exhausted and fighting off a bit of a cold. But it's all worth it!

Low cloud in the Dolomites

Driving at the top of Lake Garda

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Henny penny

Hola amigos, long time no blog. The wedding is soon approaching, and I plan to blog the honeymoon (a month in Italy, I so can't wait), so I thought I'd better fire up the typing fingers again and check if anyone's still out there (echo... echo... echo...)

Last weekend, I had a whirlwind overnight trip to London for a low-key Hen's Do (that's a bachelorette party to my American friends). This was mostly the initiative of my friend Liz, who has recently finished breastfeeding and therefore returned to the Land of the Drinking. I was completely in the dark about what was planned for me, just hoping that it wasn't going to involve public humiliation or strippers.

I arrived in London on Saturday morning to gorgeous sunny weather and soon found my friend Caroline for a cheeky 11 am drink, and then it was off to pick up the keys to our Airbnb. London is notoriously expensive, but I had found a reasonably-priced place right off Brick Lane, a trendy and gentrifying part of East London. However, we were literally standing outside the address I had been given when I checked my messages and found that we actually had to head to a different address, about a 10 minute walk away. I'm not sure whether the bait and switch was to do with the actual building being rather less salubrious, or whether it was perhaps an illegal subletting of government housing (why not both?), but the actual location was less than prepossessing.

Our home for the night
And on the way into the building, this sign gave us great confidence:

I feel slightly better now I've noticed it was more than a year old, but it wasn't really what you want to see 
Well, safety in numbers and it wasn't actually too terrible inside, so we quickly dumped our luggage and hurried off to lunch on a lovely rooftop terrace, where we were joined by Liz, Amber and a pitcher of raspberry Tom Collins (omg, I never knew such a thing existed, be still my beating heart!)

After lunch, we had to rush back to the apartment for a mystery appointment. Laid out on the table were fishnets, a fascinator and long black gloves, so I guessed pretty quickly that we would be having a private burlesque dancing class. Now, the incorrect address had been communicated to the teacher, via her agency, in advance, necessitating some last minute calls to give the actual address. This meant, kind of understandably, the poor woman was absolutely terrified when she turned up. I think she thought we were deliberately luring her into a seedy estate where no-one knew where she was.

She came in, dressed much as you would expect in a sort of Amy Winehouse style - tattoos, short leopard-print dress, rollers in her hair - and plopped down on the very low sofa (affording us a good view of her knickers) and begged for a few minutes to compose herself. Again, I can understand her feelings - she was all alone, the address changed, the building was pretty sketchy and in a bad neighbourhood... but she proceeded to use the next 10 minutes to complain about how uncomfortable she felt and how relieved she was to see us, coupled with vaguely racist stories about another occasion where she had to give a class to a room full of "overweight black women". She repeated several times how they were black and overweight, just in case we missed how terrible this experience must have been, and then threw in some bonus remarks about being catcalled by Asian men.

Finally, she declared herself suitably recovered and stood up and started pulling off her clothes. Thankfully, she stopped at a pair of spangly hot pants and a tasselled bra. Just as the class was about to begin, she shouted "there's a siamese cat!" staring behind us at the window, 7 storeys up. We stared bewildered for a moment until it became clear that the cat was some sort of an apparition. "Did we know any of the history of the building?" Unsurprisingly, we did not. "There must have been a lot of cats in here, I can feel them." Poor Amber had just taken a mouthful of champagne and it was a good minute before she was able to stop laughing long enough to swallow it.

After these colourful beginnings, the class itself was actually not too bad. Even though it's not exactly intense dancing, it's harder than it looks to be graceful (let alone sexy, thankfully none of us were taking that part too seriously). As Caroline said, it's hard to know how to review it, since we had a lot of fun despite her being an absolute copper-bottomed loon.

Excited to be all dressed up

Sexy ladies


Fun times!

We swept up as best we could before leaving, but I suspect they'll be finding random feathers and wondering what the hell we were up to for some time to come

The rest of the do was positively sedate by comparison. After showering and changing, we headed to a local comedy club, which was amusing enough, then grabbed a bottle of wine and a classic drunk kebab to enjoy on the walk home. The bottle of wine proved too ambitious, since once we got back to the apartment we were all ready for bed at the grand old time of 11 pm (in fairness, it had been a long day, and it was midnight Belgian time).

The next day consisted of brunch, a wander through Spitalfields market and a quick drink at King's Cross before hopping on the Eurostar and back home to watch the F1 and be terrified by a GIANT spider that had taken up residence in the kitchen sink in our absence (Julien had also gone away for the weekend). Definitely a weekend to remember - and no strippers (unless we count crazy burlesque lady)!

Friday, April 14, 2017

My first trip to Wales!

Back in December, I celebrated my birthday with a trip to the UK, where my parents were staying. I've been to north-west England a ton of times, but this was Jules's first visit somewhere other than London (and Edinburgh, if we're talking UK), so we aimed for a blend of old favourites to introduce to him and new places for me.

Hence my very first trip to Wales! It seems strange I've never been before, since my family has Welsh ancestry on my father's side, and Wales is really not far from where my parents are from. Plus it has some pretty cool features - like the Snowdonia national park (which we didn't go to, but got close enough to see the Snowdonian mountains), and more castles than any other country in Europe (if you count Wales as a country, which it's not really, but over 600 castles is still very impressive).

And it was to one of these castles, Caernafon, that we headed for my first taste of Wales. Caernafon is really impressive. It's pretty huge, seems fairly intact in terms of the stones, although not as far as whatever was inside is concerned, and has an amazing location by the sea and mountains. And we were super lucky with the weather, as you can see.

View from the town side


Caernafon as it currently stands was built from 1283 under Edward I of England, as a way to keep the Welsh down, man. Edward took the pretext of rebellions in Wales to wage a war of conquest against the country, which was previously divided between a largely independent (although feudally linked to the English crown) Welsh principality and spheres of Anglo-Norman control. After Edward's war and the construction of the castle, it was captured in 1294 in a Welsh rebellion and besieged at the beginning of the 15th century, but subsequently things calmed down in Wales and it lost its strategic importance and fell into disrepair over the centuries.

On the battlements
I'm not good enough at mountain-spotting to tell if one of those is Mt. Snowdon, but it's a pretty view in any case

The large circular bit in the middle is where Prince Charles was invested as Prince of Wales in 1969. The first Prince of Wales, Edward I's son (later Edward II) was supposedly born in the castle. Legend has it that Edward I promised to give them a prince born in Wales, who spoke not a word of English - and fulfilled it with his baby son. (It seems that this bit is bogus though, even if Edward II was born there.)


Me in the courtyard and Mum and Dad on the battlements


View from the towers of the River Seiont


Caernafon is known for having polygonal, rather than round or square towers. It was intended to be particularly impressive as a symbol of English power in Wales, with a design perhaps inspired by Byzantine or Roman examples.

A dragon sitting on top of a war memorial
Cute painted houses seen from the castle

 Afterwards, we grabbed a light lunch on the square in the photo above. I was mildly surprised that the staff working in the café spoke Welsh. I have known at least one Welsh-speaking Welsh person before, but it was kind of cool to see it in action as a working language, rather than something just taught in school or something. About 19% of the population of Wales said they could speak Welsh in the 2011 UK Census.

Nid wyf yn y swyddfa ar hyn o bryd. Anfonwch unrhyw waith i'w gyfieithu, everyone!

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Mehfalù

On my last day in Sicily, I decided to make the trek out to the town of Cefalù, about an hour by train. According to the internet, Cefalù was a cute town, with a nice beach and, of course, the last of the great Arab-Norman edifices in the region. Unfortunately, the weather was grey with occasional showers, so that ruled out the beach, and the Cefalù cathedral is definitely the least impressive of the buildings I saw. It looked pretty bare online, but I thought it might have hidden treasures. But, yeah, most of it is plain, with really just the apse covered in mosaics. After the splendours of Monreale and the Palatine Chapel, it was a bit of a let down. The outside is pretty, though. 






The famous Christ Pantocrator
 I didn't stay inside too long, there just wasn't that much to see. So I headed next door for more cloisters. Again, these were slightly disappointing after the beautiful Monreale cloisters. What there was to see in the cloisters was nice enough, but only half of the pillars survive. Even worse, the other half were destroyed during World War II. That sort of thing particularly gets my goat. It's one thing if something fell into ruins back in the 15th century or something, and another thing entirely when you think it survived some 800 years only to be destroyed so recently. As frustrating as this is, on the bright side, there has been a lot of restoration work carried out in recent years, and as part of this project, you can look online to see detailed photos and explanations of all the capitals. Since I couldn't remember what all the carvings meant, this is what I did for the photos below.

"Capital with acrobats"

"Capital with fabulous creatures and birds of prey'


"Capital with griffin, lizard and lion". I assume this toothy fellow is the lizard, enjoying a bite of lion bum
Since the weather wasn't nice enough to go to the beach or sit outside, and I was getting a bit too tired to wander around the city or look in the many small shops, I caught the train back to Palermo and pretty much just sat around (thankfully, it wasn't raining there) until it was time to get the bus to the airport. The last day of any trip is often a bit tricky - either you have to get to the airport at a time that doesn't really allow for sightseeing, or you end up hanging about uselessly with no hotel room to retreat to. I had left my suitcase at the train station for convenience, so at least I didn't have that worry, but it was a bit of a flat end to what was an overall lovely trip.

Outside the Martorana

Some extra photos of the "fountain of shame" I didn't have space for before







So voilà, that was Sicily! I really enjoyed it! It's a big island, so this definitely made me think I'd like to come back and see more of it, from the ancient temples and Roman villas, to Mt Etna to the Aeolian islands. It wasn't nearly as daunting as I'd been led to believe, and although you'll meet more non-English speakers than in, say, Rome, I didn't have any particular communication problems and got around to all the sights on foot, by bus and by train with no issues. A good reminder that there is still a "brave" solo traveller hiding inside!