Wednesday 21 December 2011

My Recipe Book

Like most foodies, i am also a keen cook and for the past 5 years i have been filling my recipe book with real home recipes from my travels.  These recipes are all from people that i have met.  Whether its from the house maid in Indonesia or the cook from a roadside cafe in India; if you don't ask, you don't get!  Not all recipes may come from my travels as thrown into the mix will be recipes that have been buried in families for years.   

A reasonable knowledge in cooking is probably required to follow these as proportions and amounts are extremely rough in my recipes.  Though this represented most foreign delights, I have avoided those that required obscure ingredients for reasons that i am sure are obvious.  These are genuinly some of the best recipes i have ever tasted.  They won't be found anywhere else on the internet or in any books.  Tried and tested many many times, these are my world family recipes.

Wednesday 26 October 2011

France, Montpellier - Autumn 2011

French Kissing
Wednesday, 26 October 2011

For a short few days i am in the South of France staying with my old French housemate, Romain, who is currently studying in Montpellier.  He has been boasting for a while how beautifully sunny the weather is here in the heights of Autumn and how last week he went bathing in the sea with temperatures peaking at 35C.  I arrived to high winds and it thrashing down with rain.  Either he is a liar or i have terribly bad luck.  Anyway, that was yesterday.  Today, as a weatherman would say, was relatively warm with sunny spells and a few patches of rain.  Breakfast was my first taste of the french culture.  I always love staying with somebody local whenever i get the opportunity to as straight away you are in with the local life.  It was a typical french (student?) breakfast.  Brioche and/or what would seem like extremely stale toast with jam dipped in a bowl of tea or coffee.  I do recall being amused by Romains surprise to the more usual savoury breakfasts in England (though he was completely converted by our signature Full English) but in hindsight, considering we're just across the pond, it is very different!
As Romain had classes today i was left to my own devices in the city of Monpellier.  He walked me to the city centre and pointed out the tourist information before catching the tram to University.  Now i can speak a very small amount of french to the point that i can make myself understood quite well but the problem is that i cannot really understand any response.  So i can convincingly say "bonjour Monsieur, ou est l'office de tourism?" at which they reply in French at a rate of 50 words a second whereby i have to look blankly at them and say "sorry i can't speak french".  Why bother even trying!?  Because their general response after that is "oh ok you go straight ahead, turn left at the post office and..." whilst thinking i'm some kind of weirdo that pretends to speak french.  Anyway, this happened a couple of times at which point i decided i might as well be a tourist and stick to English.

Using my map and new found knowledge from 'l'office de tourism' i made my way to the 2nd largest greenhouse in France, situated a tram and bus ride away.  I always enjoy these kind of things and spent a good few hours ambling around taking in the scenes whilst trying my best to avoid squelching my foot in dog doo.  Yup, this stuff is everywhere...  It's ridiculous, i can guarantee that before i leave France my shoe is going to sink into at least one steamy one.  I don't know if this is France or Montpellier or just a bad season for dogs but it is an impression of France that may stick to me (no pun intended).  It didn't effect my trip to the zoo though and i fully recommend the rainforest greenhouse thing. 

On my way out a restaurant menu caught my eye as i read "Steak Hache a Cheval".  Cheval i know means horse and i definitely recall reading somewhere that the French are fond of eating horse.  The prospect of eating horse in France excited me and so you can imagine my disappointment when they told me that they had stopped serving food now (i asked in English and they responded in English, so much easier...).  I later learnt, after speaking with Romain, that had they been serving still my disappointment would have been far greater.  "Steak Hache a Cheval" does not translate to 'Steak a la horse' as i my brain read.  For some reason it translates to beef burger with a fried egg on top!?  Dis-a-pointing...

Still on the hunt to find the word Cheval on any other restaurant menu (prior speaking to Romain) i found the dish of Tartare de Boeuf coming up on most menus.  Now my only knowledge of this dish is from childhood watching Mr Bean attempting to eat it and forever wondering whether it is really that bad.  Today was my day to find out.  It came accompanied with a raw egg yolk on top, keeping with this whole raw theme it's got going on, with a side of roast potatoes.  Almost a french take on the American steak and eggs with chips except raw and already chewed for you.  Looking like posh dog food it was a surprise to taste rather pleasant.  The minced beef was dressed with chopped onion and pickled gherkin and had a texture of post-masticated smoked salmon.  Ok so i'm not selling it well.  I enjoyed it.  Enough said. 

The next french delicacy was the Macaron (I haven't spelt it wrong, this is how they spelt it!).  Now i have eaten Macarons in England and i have eaten them in Amsterdam and could not for the life of me understand why they are always so expensive and why people like them so much.  So i decided to part with half my wages to give the macaron one last chance to convince me.  I realise now that the only place to eat a proper Macaron is here.  Wow, they are amazing.  I only bought 5 from a variety of 20 different types that were laid out like diamond rings in a jewelry shop.  I will be sure to go back for 15 more.  I don't even know how to describe them.  Like the best cookies you have ever eaten that will make your mouth dance and your heart sing.  They look like a work of art and must take absolutely ages to prepare properly.  I am 100% converted.  Macaron's are the don.

Soon after eating i had arranged to meet up with one of Romains friends.  Now when greeting someone in England it is usually the pretty standard and safe hand shake with the occasional confusion over whether you should go in for the hug.  In France it is cheek touching whilst making fake kissing sounds.  I don't get this and i am sure it is just me but i have always found this extremely awkward.  Precision is key as if you go in to fast you could knock them out with a head butt but go in to slow and there's that awkward moment of "wait are our cheeks even touching?".  And then which side do you go in for first?!  You don't want to collide on the same side cause you might as well just make out.   And then as if that was not enough, once you pass all those hurdles, you have to decide how many times you got to do it!  So on meeting his friend i went in for two and rejected her last kiss.  That's how i roll...  3 kisses?! That's 3 chances of looking a fool every time you greet a lady.  Like i need help on that front.  Anyway it has been noted, in Montpellier (yup, i am informed that it is different in other parts of France...), it is 3 kisses.  None the less she took me to see some great sites of the area before meeting up with Romain to finish the night drinking French wine in a local bar. 

Tour de France
Friday, 28 October 2011

Wednesday was Romains Birthday, his day off university and about 25 degrees of pure sunshine.  Brilliant!  We drove to a place called Aigues-Mortes where there is a small city surrounded by medieval walls.  Apparently like a mini Dubrovnic.  Everything here is in place to cater for the tourist with a number of souvenir shops and overpriced Boucheries, Charcuteries, Boulangeries and Patisseries.  In fact these are not unique to Aigues-Mortes as they are peppered all over the place (Though normal priced verging on cheap) and are always busy with customers.  Its great popping into one of these and buying something i haven't seen before.  The charcuterie dedicates itself to prepared meats such as sausages, hams, bacons, pates, etc where as the Patisseries are full of pastries and sweets.  My favourites to nose around and buy something to eat straight away.  Among other delites, I had a sweet orange fougasse which is a soft fluffy bread founded in Aigues-Mortes.

Yesterday morning Romain left Montpellier for Brittany so for the rest of my time here i was on my own. Well not really as his housemates were amazingly welcoming and i ended up spending the day with one of them and her parents on a day trip to Sete.  Sete is a thriving port and the hometown to the famous french postwar musician; Georges Brassens.  Of course i had never heard of him but he was clearly a big part of French history and his Museum was a welcomed activity on a rainy day.  Yup the weather didn't hold out for us completely but it wasn't awful enough to ruin our day.   I managed to tick another dish off the list with Beef Bourguignon in a local cafe.   A proper homely, wintry stew with great chunks of beef fat and slow cooked gooey gristly beef.  Nom...

Back in Montpellier you can't help but notice that it is always busy. In the day the cafes are overflowing with people and their small cups of coffee and pastries and by night the bars are fully loaded with wine drinkers. Does nobody work here?  My final day was lent to Romains other housemate who, i kid you not, is training to be a tour guide.  You couldn't plan a better trip!?  So we and two couch surfers from Canada spent the afternoon learning the history and life of Montpellier.  Low and behold, my last day in Montpellier, i slid my foot through a perfectly positioned pile of dog shit.  After a brief moment of vexation i realised that it wasn't to much of problem at all as today i was wearing Romains shoes.  Mine were at home drying from yesterdays rainy day in Sete.  So everything really does happen for a reason!  And hey, i feel it wouldn't have been a proper trip to France if i hadn't sacrificed a shoe to the depths of the fecal abyss.  Though i have been to France a number of times this really is the first time i have been and really experienced France for what it is.  From Croissants to Wine and dog food to dog shit it was a half term very well spent.  :o)

Thursday 13 October 2011

New job?

My dream job has come up and i am currently in the process of applying.  The job is for a mathematics teacher in.... wait for it... Singapore!  I did say when i blogged about Singapore that it was the only place i could really see myself living and now here is my chance.  In terms of travelling this would be ideal as it takes me so much closer to that side of the world.  A few years spent here and i can eat the whole of the east.  In terms of career, again it would be ideal.  International schools are where i want to be as the diversity of people alone fascinates me.  I can't begin to imagine how it would be to teach a class where every second child is from a different country but united by whatever it happens to be i'm teaching!?  It's a no brainer, I just need to go ahead and actually get the job!  I am excited about the prospects but i don't want to get my hopes up just yet...  Fingers and toes crossed.   :o)

Tuesday 23 August 2011

PADI course in Korcula - Summer 2011

Tutor becomes the tutee
Tuesday, 23 August 2011

I have decided to write this as a completely separate blog entry as in a sense it feels like a completely different trip.  I said goodbye to my friends yesterday and from here on i am on my own to fend for myself and not get lost.  Luckily i am not entirely on my own and to be fair i have very little time to myself to get in a situation to become lost.  My company is being spent in a hostel (left) with other divers and my time is being spent on an Open Water PADI course starting at 7:30 every morning and finishing at 6:30 every night.  Today was my first day and first impressions... there is soooooo much to learn! I did about 4 hours of solid theory where i had to sit on the less familiar side of a classroom and fill in a booklet of questions using a text book and a DVD as my guide.  This was followed by a closed book test to ensure that things were genuinely learnt and then a lecture from a dive master.  To be fair it is all quite easy as any questions that i answered incorrectly (or too vaguely in my case) were simply explained and signed off as now understood.  But damn it is long and tedious.  Like most good things in life you have to go through the ball ache first before you can reap the pleasures. 
The afternoon was where theory went into practice as my instructor taught me how to set up all the gear and put it on.  It weighs a ton and from the short walk to the water my wet suit already held an insulating layer of moisture to keep me warm in the already warm sea.  Carrying what felt like a baby elephant on my back i was sure to sink like a rock the second i hit the water.  But, thanks to what is called a BCD (Buoyancy Control Device), i floated, uncontrollably... slowly drifting away into the blue.  Quickly anchored by my instructor i gained my bearings and readied myself for the first set of my shallow water skills.  The BCD is a jacket that works like inflatable arm bands which you inflate or deflate with the press of a button.  An ingenious idea allowing you to sink or float when you wish.  The first skills were getting the brain used to the fact that despite what it has learnt the past few million years, you can actually breath underwater.  Other skills included removing the mouth piece, losing your mask and using the hand signals learnt in the theory. 
My instructor is great but it is amazing how much fonder and closer you get to them when underwater.  I am pretty sure it's not just me that finds this but it really is a very strange feeling.  I am not entirely sure why this is either.  Maybe it is the thought that they are very much in control of your life when you are down there.  Or maybe it is the constant signing of "are you ok", using the thumb and index finger to make a ring, at which you respond with the same sign back.  Or it is simply the sense of security felt from just having another human being with you in a world that human beings don't belong.  I think that there is a great sense of solitude underwater and it very much feels like you and your buddy are the only people around for miles.  Maybe i am just going mad!? Anyway, day 1 of my PADI is over and it has been fascinating so far.  Tomorrow i do my deep water skills and the dreaded swim test.  Wish me luck! 

In the deep
Thursday, 25 August 2011

Ladies and gentlemen you are now reading the blog of a fully qualified and PADI certified scuba diver.  So yesterday, somehow or other, i managed to pass the all so scary swim test.  I was genuinely worried about this test as it was the one thing that could potentially stop me from gaining my full open water PADI.  My worries are 100% valid as they stem from the plain and simple fact that i can't swim.  Ok i can splash and splutter a short distance and in practice i managed about 75 meters before going down like half a battle ship.  But the test asks for 200m!? 200! I can't even do half of that in the controlled environment of an indoor swimming pool.  So how on earth did i do it?  Well it turns out that swimming in the Croatian sea has one big difference to swimming in a pool.  I love it on my chips and in most of my food but never did i think i would love it in such a way.  Salt makes me float!!  I have always blamed my Indian genes for the fact that i sink like a lead weight but this added salty bonus meant that i could swim until i was tired, lie down on a metaphoric lilo for a bit and then carry on.  In a little over 3 hours i finished the 200 meters.
My skills tests had to be taken from the shallows and into the deep.  5 meters down i did skills like removing the BCD and practiced 'out of air' procedures.  Going deep aches the ears due to the extra pressure and i had always wondered how divers managed to overcome this.  A small part of the several hours of theory taught us the method of "Equalising" which is simply holding your nose and very gently blowing out of it whenever you feel the squeeze in your drum.  It can take some time (and at times not work at all if your sinuses are blocked!) and shouldn't be rushed as a ruptured ear drum is a common consequence if it is.  We also practised a technique called hovering where you make yourself perfectly buoyant with just the right amount of air in your BCD.  This is my first experience of complete weightlessness just lying there using my breathing to go up or down.  An amazing but surreal experience. 
Today was the grand finale where i finished my remaining skill tests, sat a 50 question exam and did two deep water (well 10 meters) dives.  My buddy this time was a 10 year old girl that spoke 3 different languages (English, German and Italian). 3!? how greedy is that!  I struggle with one.  Anyway she was brilliant and underwater it felt like she was my little sister.  Seriously the water does strange things.  In fact there is a thing called nitrogen narcosis which is a condition caused by being in deep water and has foolish behaviour as a symptom.  Maybe it is that.  My deep dives were actually amazing and as it was no more than 10m my camera came with me!  We went out to the dive site by boat and learnt the Hollywood style backwards roll into the water.  It took me some time to get down as i was struggling to equalise but once i was down i was free to explore a whole new universe much brighter and colourful than ours.  Though me and my buddy were more than capable of looking after each other we had 2 fully trained instructors to guide us.  Armed with an underwater rattle and hand signals that represented various fish they took us around and introduced us to sea cucumbers, rock fish and octopuses.  Completion of these dives was the completion of my PADI.  Congratulations to me!

Furthering my studies
Friday, 26 August 2011
So i passed my PADI yesterday and i don't leave Korcula until tomorrow.  What should i do in my spare day?  Diving of course!  In fact i decided to do 3 "adventure dives" and go for my advanced diver certification (which i need to complete 5 all together to get).  This means that i will be able to dive much deeper and visit ship wrecks.  More importantly it means i can tell people that i am an advanced diver and seem extra cool.  Today i did Fish Identification, Boat Dive and Navigation.  The first dive was at a site called the blue hole; a beautiful cave with holes in the top allowing beams of sky to slice through the darkness.  This kind of diving plays out like your most typical dream.  Floating around with flashing stars around you as the thousand fish catch the sunlight and fluorescent colours of the coral drift underneath whilst all your stresses just seem to dissolve into the blue.  We observed creatures that i never even knew existed like fire worms that looked like they could melt your skin if you touched them and beautiful slugs far superior to our on land slimeys.  The fish identification part of this dive meant that i had to take a white slate down with me and draw 5 different species i saw on it (using an ordinary pencil!) and then identify them on land with the use of a book on Mediterranean fish.  The boat dive was pretty much a normal dive off a boat (though slightly shallower due to the rule that you should never dive deeper than your previous dive) but with a briefing about various types of boats and ways of entering the water.
My Navigational dive didn't amount to much. It was a shallow dive with no more than a 20cm visibility and i had to use a compass to get around.   I suppose i can imagine it being a little useful but it did just feel like a hoop that i simply had to jump through to get my advanced.  My camera, being the best camera in the world, survived (though struggled) both of these dives.  At depths of 13m and 11m this was a little risky as the specs on my camera say 10m.  During the blue hole dive the screen was very clearly caving inwards and at one point switched itself off and refused to come back on until i went a little shallower.  Nonetheless, it is in full working order still and gave me some beautiful, priceless shots.

A phenomenon that i shared with many others was the fact that diving makes you hungry.  Like starving even if you ate just before (not recommended).  I have easily munched my way through more than 5 Bureks to satisfy my post diving hunger and i take back whatever i said about Bureks in the past.  Bureks are perfect post dive hole fillers.  In fact the meat ones taste exactly the same as a big english samosa.  Other Korcula delights consumed were Adriatic squids grilled to perfection and an octopus stew which i had to order the day before i wanted to eat it.  I can confidently say that the squid was the best i have ever had.  The octopus however, was a disappointment.  Maybe this was down to the fact that i was looking forward to it from the moment i ordered it and right through the day.  Diving only made it worse seeing supper swimming by every now and then.  The octopus dish in St Lucia still remains way in front. 
It is a shame that i did not get to see Korcula town but my first trip on my own has been just lovely.  I shared a dorm with diving interns and so got to meet and hang out with some genuinely interesting people.  The dive centre is already rated 5 stars and i am definitely not about to take any of those away.  I felt completely safe and at home during my entire stay and thrived off the chilled and relaxed pace of Vera Luka.  Here's to the end of a great experience and to the start of many more diving adventures.  :o)

Saturday 6 August 2011

InterRailing Europe - Summer 2011

Hash and Hookers, Amsterdam
Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Just to warn you that the keyboard here (Berlin) has the z and the y in the opposite places.  How annozing...

My first year of teaching is over and my 6 week summer break started two weeks back.  Finally my brothers wedding has passed and mz summer holidays can properly begin; three weeks inter-railing around Europe with some fellow teachers. 

Our first stop was Amsterdam, the city where anzthing goes!  Geographically Amsterdam isn't all that far from the UK but the lifestyle here feels as foreign as North Korea.  It is evidently extremely eco-friendly with bicycles being the prefered form of transport.  Even the elderly seem to take to the roads on the back of a pedal bike.  We eventuallz made our way to the hostel (Annemarie for 24 euros a night - very bog standard), freshened up and headed back out for an evening of Amsterdams finest.  First to tick off the list; One of Amsterdams many 'Coffee Shops' which are peppered all over the city.  It seems that marijuana is not just legal here but its use is somewhat encouraged!  Some shops dedicated to selling the widest range of the drug and others specialising in growing your own at home!  It's crayz how common it seems to be and how open people are about it.  The distinct smell of burnt rubber will be the main scent impregnating your nostrils whilst roaming the streets of Amsterdam.  After experiencing our first coffee shop with a cappuccino and cake we marched on to tick off number two on the list...

So we have all heard about the red light district in Amsterdam and that prostitutes are completelz above board and legal.  But it is so much more than that!  It took us quite some time to find the place at first as none of us were overly keen on asking someone for directions.  The best attempt being "Hi, i am looking for... urrmm... me and my friends are looking for the red light district".  See i just presumed that yer ok it's legal but probably on the low down and its all hush hush.  But no no, they pretty much scream it from the roof tops.  Streets are lined with glass booths (above) which are backlit with red and host to a single big boobed, long legged lady.  In lingerie.  And if big boobs and long legs weren't your cup of tea then not to worry!  They showcase a whole varietz of red light ladies from the big and black to the tall and thai.  Taking the narrow side streets can feel like running some kind of deranged gauntlet with the red booths lining both sides of your path making it near impossible not to make eye contact with them and turning into stone.  Dressed in tiny UV fluorescent underwear the ladies of the night tap on their windows as you innocently wonder past and draw zou closer with a curl of a finger.  Never again will i be this irresistible to half nude women.

Hostels here are a little more expensive than expected with a bed in a room shared with strangers costing between 20 to 30 euros.  We spent zesterdaz morning researching our next few hostels sorting a place to sleep for the rest of our stay in Amsterdam (25 Euros a night in "Inner Hostel" - I definitely recommend it) and our 2 nights in Berlin.  Yesterdays itinerary made for a busy day.  Anne Franks house was first on the agenda which was a good job as it was over an hours queue to enter.  I knew very little about Anne Frank and so for me it was a beautiful eye-opener.  It is really, really very well done approaching a delicate matter perfectly.  You can get  good idea what her life was like whilst you walk past the book case that concealed their hideout and standing in the exact room where she spent the years writing her diary.  Well worth the snaking queue and the 8 euros 50 to get in.
Lunch was followed by the Van Gogh museum (above) which had less of a queue and a higher price tag of 14 euros.  It guides you through his life nicely and you do get to see the originals of some of his world famous paintings.  In the end though it is just several floors of paintings and not much else.  I am sure art enthusiasts will be cursing my comments so please don't take my word for it.  It was somewhere between here and going for a drink (after a short tram ride) my phone got pick pocketed.  My iPhone 4!!  It was a last minute decision to even bring it on this trip and just the second day in it's gone.  Well it wouldn't be a proper holiday for me if i didn't lose something.  One day i will have a trip where i come back with everything i left with.  Oh i yearn for this day!

The evening took us back to the Red Light District, this time to watch one of their famous shows.  We quickly changed our minds as 25 euros to sit with your relatively new friends and watch a couple mechanically go at it was 30 euros to much.  So upwards and onwards to our 3rd museum of the day; the sex museum.  A similar Price to the Anne Frank museum but very different content.  A sweet innocent old lady took our fee at the entrance as if to mask the shock and trauma to come.  Horrifically horny cartoons (above), scary kinky contraptions and art that nobody in their right mind would want to hang up.  Amsterdam by day might aswell be a completely different city to Amsterdam by night.  Only in Amsterdam can you go from history to whores and bikes (normal ones!!) to bongs in one day.  When in Amsterdam! 

Bratwurst and Brandenburg Gate, Berlin
Friday, 12 August 2011

A 6 hour train journey later we arrive in the capital of Germany.  After Amsterdam this place feels much more familiar and closer to home.  The first thing to notice about Berlin is the graffiti.  It is everywhere!  To the point that the city seems to have embraced it with shop signs and bars holding a similar theme.
Our hostel (Wombats for 24 euros a night) is actually amazing.  I don't think i have ever stayed in one so perfect.  It has been rated among the top 10 hostels in the world and i can easily see why.  A free drink on arrival set the tone brilliantly with a bar on the top floor and a general common room area, internet cafe and restaurant on the bottom floor.  The staff pointed out the 5 minute walk to dinner and gave us a free "Wombats own" information leaflet with everything there is to do in Berlin.  Dinner had to be the German signature of Currywust (above left).  What a strange dish?!  A grilled sausage squirted with a bottle of tangy curry sauce and sprinkled with paprika.  It is as if it came about because they were the only three ingredients left in someones larder.  And how did curry get into German cuisine!?  The only Indians i have seen in the last few days were in the mornings whilst brushing my teeth.  Don't get me wrong, it tastes good.  But as good as sausage, chips and ketchup from your local chippy does.  Nothing wrong with a good bit of stodge.

Though it was reasonably late, we decided to walk to the Berlin wall with the Wombats leaflet in hand.  As one of us is a history teacher it turned out to be very interesting learning about this barrier splitting Berlin into east and west.  With little knowledge and no guide it would just be a wall.  A not very tall one at that.  We spent the night drinking German beer in a bar outside and then in the bar atop our hostel.  Drinks were cheap and happy hour only made them cheaper.  It was a great place to speak to other travellers finding out where they have been and what they recommended.  One of the recommendations was the "free" walking tour of Berlin.  We walked down to the meeting point doing a bit of our own tour along the way and fueled ourselves for the 3 hours of walking with a German pretzel.  It tastes of a salty baguette with no butty.  I am getting the idea that German cuisine works on very basic flavours.  The tour itself, i would say, is the best thing you could do in Berlin.  It is a 3-4 hour walk taking you from the Brandenburg Gate, through Hitlers Bunker (where he allegedly killed himself) and to the Berlin wall, with several stops in between (including the balcony that Michael Jackson famously dangled his baby from) and directed by an extremely knowledgeable tour guide.  I was hanging off every word and now probably know more about Berlin than my home city.  Well worth doing at the beginning of your trip as he points out all the things you could do in Berlin.
During the tour i managed to eat another German snack of Mett (left) which is raw minced pork served on a half baguette.  I was always under the impression that raw pork was bad news.  I guess not (or i will let you know soon) because it tasted great!  I could have easily polished off another one.  Food wise, Germany is most famous for its sausages and so i was more than happy to accept a sausage eating competition from a girl staying in our hostel. It was only when she stood up that i realised the error of my ways. She was of the large variety.  Low and behold, with the physique of a sausage eating champion, she inhaled two sausages by the time i had finished swallowing my first bite. I lost... to a girl.  A really, really, fat girl.

Czechs and Charles Bridge, Prague
Sunday, 14 August 2011

We left Berlin early morning to give us an extra half day in Prague.  The train journey was beautiful running along side a river with picturesque backdrops of forests, cliffs and cottages.  Our hostel (PlusPrague for just 8 euros!) had a swimming pool, sauna and bar! Though it's no Wombats, it is very clean and fantastic value.  Only slight draw back was that it was about 20 minutes out of the centre but with out 24hr tram pass it wasn't a problem at all.
Prague centre feels like a medieval town with a mix of Gothic and baroque buildings separated by old cobbled roads and dark narrow alleys.  Forget Paris, Prague is the real romantic of all European cities.  We have witnessed several newly weds getting their photos taken on Charles Bridge and/or in front of the Astronomical Clock.  The Stone Bridge is probably the number 2 attraction in Prague with the complicated clock being the first.  The Gothic bridge is filled with stone statues running down both sides with local hawkers (providing 90% of the bridges character) selling, painting or playing music in between them.  We headed straight to the astronomical clock as it was nearing the hour and we were eagerly waiting in anticipation for the show.   In fact a 100 or so other people were too.  You could smell the anti-climax a mile off.  It's an extremely old clock.  Really what could it possibly do other than move a little and ring a few bells?  Well nothing.  But a man playing the trumpet at the end was pretty cool and made the crowed clap and cheer.

I have no idea what local food is here so i just tried to eat things i didn't recognise.  One of which was called a Trdelnik (pronounced 'Trdelnik'... yer i have no idea) which is a hollow sweet pastry snack topped with sugar and some kind of nuts (right).  I had mine smothered in Nutella which made it impossible to eat without making a mess.  Crispy, sweet, chocolaty; i think you can work out the taste from the photo. 
We explored the whole afternoon and managed to find a voucher for a free night ghost tour.  In order to get this free tour we had to pretend that we got these vouchers because we spent the day on their expensive "ultimate tour".  It all worked out and we ended up saving 400ck (about £16).  Prague is known for its harrowing stories and ghostly past so we had high hopes of being scared out our wits with dark stories and costumed actors jumping out at us.  It was rubbish.  None of this happened.  Considering it was free it was quite a nice way to spend the night but i definitely wouldn't have been keen to pay for it.  The rest of the night was seen through with drinks overlooking the river and Charles Bridge.  A perfect day in Prague.

Our plan now is to catch a late train to Vienna tomorrow evening so we have decided to spend the morning on another one of those free tours (referring to the the Berlin walking tour).  Again it was great now making it two cities i know more about than my own. 

Gondolas and Gelato, Venice
Tuesday, 16 August 2011
So Vienna ended up being just a rest point on the way to Venice as we realised that we were behind schedule for Croatia.  We literally got into Vienna (another wonderful Wombats) just before midnight, slept and left early morning to Venice.  What we saw from our taxi window was pretty impressive though!  It is a shame but Vienna will have to be done on another trip.  Somewhere along our travels my hoody and jeans became redundant.  I think it was on the way to Prague where we seemed to have crossed some kind of imaginary line where the cold drizz stops and the hot sun burns.  I feel that we have encountered no happy medium.  Or that i am British and have no happy medium.  Either or, it is the first time i have experienced such drastic climate change without hopping on a plane.  The same principle applies to the presence of mosquitoes.  We got on a train in a place where there were no mozzies and got off in a place where they swarm.  Ok i am exaggerating but i didn't even consider the idea of mosquitoes on this trip.  What am i going to do without the miracle potion of afterbite?! 

Venice is possibly my favourite place in Europe.  The way of life here completely revolves around the canals with boats seeming to outnumber cars.  The whole idea of Venice is beautiful with its fancy art, enormous cathedrals and elaborate architecture all brought to life through the arteries of the silky blue canals.  Move over Prague, day or night, Venice is as romantic as it gets.  We arrived pretty late to our hotel (called "Nice Hotel" for 25 euros a night) as it was slightly out of the way from the centre and it took 2 hours of walking in circles with our backpacks to find the damn place.  We saved ourselves a lot of queuing time and effort by buying a 3 days travel pass as soon as we arrived.  This gave us queue jump like passes onto Venices preferred transport in and throughout the 118 islands; water taxis!  The first night we ate at a proper local restaurant near our hotel.  The service was strange and came across quite rude as they started off by warning us that we were not allowed to order one pizza and share it between all of us!? The cheek of it!  I had spaghetti Pizzaiola with a side of fried calamari.  The last time had spaghetti this good was the last time i was in Italy.  It must be psychological or something but pasta genuinely never tastes better than it does in Italy.    
Our first full day in Venice we had no hesitation in getting outselves straight onto a gondola (above).  It was petty much our priority.  Forget the Basillica San Marco, the Rialto Bridge and all the Venetian Art.  Gondolas are what we are here for and at 80 euros a ride (minimum) it doesn't come cheap.  We spent the rest of the day exploring the less important parts of Venice, eating good food and drinking good... well actually drinking decievingly disgusting drinks.  I noticed a lot of locals sipping this orangey red drink from a glass filled with ice and often accompanied with a G+T style stirrer.  It looked delicious.  Thirst quenching like a glass of cold milk after chocolate cake.  This is where the decieving part comes in.  I still stand by that the worst tasting drink i have ever had is a Nigroni cocktail (another Italian speciality).  This drink, it turned out, tasted very similar consisting of one of the Nigroni's main ingredients; Campari! Rank! Blurgh!! Cheek shivering bitterness, it tastes really really good for you.  Like some health remedy a complete U-turn from strawberry calpol.  So a lesson learnt to curve my curiosity as i sat with my glass of devil's piss whilst the others drank their sweet pear juice smiling away.

The following morning we woke up early for a proper Italian breakfast at a local cafe (left).  Sweet pastries hot out of the oven with an espresso for a total cost of about £1.50.  This good value unfortunately doesn't stretch to the restaurants though as we found they discretely have a mandatory service charge AND a cover charge which they claim is for the use of their table.  I would love to see what they would do if we opted to eat standing up.  A local recommended that we must have a tramezzini which was described as being a bit like a sandwhich but not.  I bought one with excitement.  The conclusion, it's a sandwhich.  Nonetheless, Venice is not only my favourite place to be but it's also my favourite place to eat.  Ice cream ofcourse is the best you can get, probably in the world.  We ate proper stone baked pizza over looking the grand canal and seafood pasta by moonlight.  Food can't really get better than this.  Unless i had more money and could afford the lobster.  Venice; treat for the eyes and stomach.

Picigin and Pastries, Split
Monday, 22 August 2011
An overnight ferry (50 euros) took us from Ancona, over the sea, to Split in Croatia.  This was my first experience of a night ferry.  Our sleeping space was a room filled with a hundred odd aeroplane style chairs where fat men snored and babies squealed.  Not much sleep was to be had here.  So a night of hide and seek in amongst the several eerie floors of the vessel saw the night through.  Though this didn't last too long as the temptation to go catch forty winks when it was my turn to seek and the girls were hiding was all too much.  They weren't impressed.
Croatia is where our site-seeing holiday ends and our 'holiday' holiday begins.  5 whole days set aside to appreciate the sun, sea and sand of split.  The first day was very well spent doing just that.  Lying back on a sunbed with factor fifty slapped on and a good book to hand (I am reading Anne Frank which i bought from her house in Amsterdam).  The hostel we stayed in was questionable to say the least.  Rated 91% on it could not have been further from our expectations.  It was called 'Kiss Hostel' and its advert did seem suspiciously vague asking to ring for directions.  But 91%!? can't go wrong.  For a start it took a long time to find as its only indication of its existence was a small name tag next to its buzzer.  We buzzed.  No answer.  After a lot of wasted energy somebody eventually turned up and informed us that we were actually staying a few blocks down the road.  Maybe this is normal in Croatia? 

We arrived in some back alley, dingy basement floor apartment which was shared between 12 people.  For a start, this place definitely did not get 91%.  Things just didn't match up.  I don't mind sharing with strangers and on some level i prefer it.  But there was one resident that made us all edgey.  The 13th resident.  He was introduced to us as a security guard that was there for our safety.  What?!  How bad does a place need to be to warrant an in-house security guard?  That night the guard left us feeling more unnerving than safe in his presence.  At about 1am we were getting to know our Australian room mates when the security guard came in and sternly told us that we must switch the lights off now and go to sleep.  Though we presumed that he must have mistaken us for teenagers we decided to turn off the lights and chat quietly.  Around about this point one of the Australians, oblivious to our recent commandment, came in from the shower and switched our light on.  The security guard came back angry and demanded for the lights to go out and for us to go to bed.  Somewhat confused the Australian, still dripping in his towel, politely put forward the possibility of drying himself and getting changed first.  This left us splitting our sides with laughter and the security guard spitting blood.  "Don't F**k with me F**k Heads!!" bellowed from the scrawny guard.  F**k Head!? I don't think i have ever been called one of those before.  Anyway, it turned out (after a few more altercations the Ozzy decided to go out and speak to him) that he was not a security guard at all and really his job was to keep us quiet and hide the fact that this was a completely illegal hostel from the local residents.  We moved out the next day and found an absolutely beautiful hostel.

Our first Croatian meal was called Pasticada which was a form of beef stew served with gnocchi.  The influences from neighbouring countries seem to be quite evident in Croatian cuisine as i am struggling to find something specifically and solely Croatian.  They seem to love their pastries here with bakeries on every second street.  One thing recommended to eat here is a Burek which is a spiral (though not necessarily so) pastrey filled with either cheese or meat.  This is another item inherited from a country next door and from the ones i have eaten there is a whole load of pastry and not a lot of anything else.  Overall it doesn't amount to much.  Other dishes recommended by locals were black cuttlefish risotto and stuffed courgettes.  We managed to scoff these in one sitting with a side of fried fish, mash potato, sauteed potatoes, chips, stuffed chicken breast and grilled vegetables in a restaurant called Fife.  The risotto looked far from appetizing and i don't think it tasted good enough to make up for its offence to the eyes.  The rest was decent homely food which the restaurant was famous for.  Other popular dishes seem to be small fried fish (a take on whitebait) and stewed veal which appear on most menus.  
The second day in Croatia we found ourselves back on the beach this time with a sense of adventure.  Pedalos and water sports!  Well by water sports i mean some ball game everyone seems to be playing here in the shallows.  It looks like a cross between keepy-ups and volley ball and they seem to take it pretty serious risking life and limb to keep the satsuma sized ball out of the water (above video - ok so for some reason you can't see the ball but i assure you that they are not just diving around for fun).  It is called Picigin and as far as we gathered there were few rules and no winner or loser.  Just keep the ball in the air.  In comparison to the local oldies, we sucked.  Getting excited by exceeding a mere 10 hits shows the extent to how much we sucked.  Still fun though!  We also hired out a pedalo that had a slide mounted on the back of it to navigate the wide open Adriatic.

After two rest days on the beach we figured that we should book ourselves onto some excursions for the next few days.  The first one was sea kayaking around some of the local island and unanimously we decided that it was completely worth it.  I cant get over how lush the sea is here.  It's one of those where you look at it and have the overwhelming urge to jump in fully clothed.  Our kayaking started on the island of Hvar which was about an hours catamaran from Split.  Hvar looks like the millionaires holiday destination.  Sparkling great big yachts line the old stone docks alongside palm trees and overlooked by some old fortresses.  We took in the island scenery as we kayaked to a little sandy beach where we spent some leisurely time snorkeling off the shore.  The next day was even better.  White water rafting!!  I had never done this before and so just the thought of it was exciting.  We had 3 hours of solid fun cruising the clear waters and rumbling over the white rapids.  The great thing was that it wasn't just rafting as we did a wee bit of canyoning too.  We swam through ball shrinkingly cold waters in a cave and jumped off a great big rock having a similar effect on the anatomy.  Loving it! 
The end of Split calls an end to our inter-railing travels.  My friends go home and i go on for another 5 days on the island of Korcula to learn my PADI Scuba Diving.  I am harbouring a slight brick in my pants over the diving as my swimming isn't the best and i know that there is a mandatory 200m swim test and a 10 minute water treading test.  we'll see.  Also this will be my first time being completely on my own travelling.  So far the 3 hour ferry to Korcula is going well.  :o)