Bucovina, a hidden Romanian gem

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Unless you are a carefree, two-year- old toddler who is only obsessed with their next treat, you will have heard someone say at sometime or other, ‘They just don’t make things like they used to in the good old days’. Never have I seen a greater display of this statement than by laying my eyes upon the painted monasteries of Bucovina. We had extensively searched Google images to get a sense of what to expect from these 15 th century feats of architecture. However, not even the swagger of beautifully presented Google images prepared us for the real deal. Painted from head to toe, inside and outside, in a vibrant richness that looks like it has come from yesterday’s paintbrush, these monasteries are a true marvel and simply must be seen.

We were lucky enough to visit three in total: Voronet, Sucevita and Moldovita. Each one had its own appeal, each one lured us deeper into the past and each one told a story without the presence of words. Continue reading “Bucovina, a hidden Romanian gem”

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Bucharest

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Arrival in Bucharest was a bit bedraggled with Joel smack bang in the middle of a vomiting virus and me on the tail end of it. To be fair it felt no worse than the last four months of morning sickness, but poor Joel was suffering (oh he has no idea!). So it was with much relief that we were welcomed by our gracious hosts Stefan and Raluca in their historic house in the old Jewish quarter of Bucharest. As we were to find the remainder of the trip, the Romanian locals go out of their way to give you a good experience, and are truly proud of their country and it’s hidden subtle appeal. Continue reading “Bucharest”

Rome – The Eternal City pt 1

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I have dreamt of visiting the Eternal City since we were forced to take Italian in primary school. Monuments like the Colosseum, Sistine chapel and the Trevi Fountain sort of hold your fascination for so long that you half fear the moment you finally lock eyes on them being a letdown. Well I’ll let you in on a secret… absolutely nothing in Rome is a let down.

Upon learning we would be expecting a little bundle in 9 months, my first rational thought once the excitement had subsided was – “babe we need to get to Rome first”. Travel obsessed much? Guilty as charged. So regardless of the outrageous October half-term prices, we booked 4 days of ‘when in Rome’.

We chose a little apartment on the top floor of a residential area close by Campo di Fiore, a bustling market square which holds a fresh food market every morning. Despite being in my 15th week of pregnancy the morning sickness aka all day sickness was not relenting, and as it so happens Campo di Fiore was the perfect spot smack bang in the middle of everything. This made it easy for mid-day breaks which of course never materialised as there is far too much to see and do in Rome to afford breaks! Upon arrival in the evening we promptly navigated our way to our first Gelateria!

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The first day we were up early to knock one of the big boys off the list – the mighty Colosseum. There it was, rising from the ground in all it’s splendour, an ancient monument come to life. I always need to touch the walls of these ancient Roman Ruins to immerse myself in the wonder of standing in a place where so many thousands milled around in times past. We had booked a tour weeks ahead to allow us to access the ground floor of the Colosseum and it was well worth being organised to book this as we were regaled with tales of Gladiators and Emperors, Lions and Shields. Our imaginations went wild and Joel may or may not have let a few quotes from Gladiator slip, or even have claimed to be Maximus Decimus Meridius (I love you babe). Staring upon where the floor would have been, we marvelled once again at the ingenuity of the Romans and the way they went about ordering their society.

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The afternoon was spent as close as possible to how the locals go about their business. Joel and I love observing….and copying. We have learnt whilst travelling that a line should always be joined. So we picked a number in a packed little deli in the Jewish Quarter and hustled along with the Romans to acquire some Pizza Bianca. It doesn’t look like much as it is essentially pizza type focaccia with oil and salt. But omg wait until you put that baby in your mouth. Drool. My carb-hungry plain-food-searching baby seemed to leap in the womb. Joel was very pleased with himself for his performance in the deli even though he copped out at using the Italian numerals we had drummed in our brain at school.

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We were on a roll and next visit was to a nondescript unlabelled Pasticceria which sold 5 items (obviously successfully) and I acquired a ricotta cheesecake with cherry base. Even Joel who doesn’t jump at such things admitted genius. Then we were on to our staple – gelato. Ever tried rice flavoured gelato? You should.

Off we went on a merry stroll through the side alleys of Rome, soaking it all in, marvelling at the Europe we so love, and how tantalisingly different it is to the UK, and wondering how they live and adapt in the apparent chaos. It makes you realise how uptight we are in our day to day lives in England and Australia. Europeans seem to go with the flow, they seem to enjoy the every day, they are not in a rush, they do not look haggard and stressed (well, except for in Paris) and the folks in the cities seem be folded up in the culture of the place itself, like part of the furniture.

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We soaked in the ambiance of Campo Di Fiore’s bustling market place whilst I grinned good naturedly at the Italian men who seemed to feel compelled to make a comment as I walked past. In due course we found ourselves sunning our weary bodies in a corner of Piazza Navona underneath the last of the dying sun – shoes off and content as cats lapping up the last of their milk. As the sun made its final descent we meandered down Via dei Coronari, a lovely and quaint shopping street featuring many antique stores. Despite being waylaid by more gelato, we emerged at the Tevere (Rome’s river) and beheld the mighty Saint Paul’s Cathedral being illuminated by the final rays of light the day had to offer. It truly took our breath away, and I will remember that moment protectively in my mind, as no camera could have captured the radiant glow in all it’s spectacular fullness. The place could have ascended to heaven itself it was that beautiful.

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Morning sickness tends to rear its head and laugh at me most viciously in the evenings which posed a challenge, particularly when in Rome and surrounded by the most spectacular food known to mankind. I could not carry myself far so we opted for fresh pasta at a little restaurant nearby which had a mama making fresh pasta at the window. For those of you who adore Al Dente pasta, you will adore Rome. They have so many traditional pasta dishes which I decided then and there I would track down, or to put it more aggressively, hunt down, over the next few days. Oh how could I forget, we washed it down with more gelato. This time at the oldest gelateria in Rome which we stumbled upon purely by accident by the name of Giolitti, a family run establishment with a line out the door. For a reason! We consumed gelato from no other place our entire stay. The seasonal pomegranate was a highlight.

I’ll leave this post on a high note (or dolce note)… Join us for the next instalment in part 2!

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Jungfrau & Lauterbrunnen

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Out of all the journeys we have undertaken, Switzerland is the only one which has racked up over 1,000 images on the memory stick. Whilst I love taking photos, sifting through them is not my favourite past time. I am anything but ruthless when it comes to discarding pictures.

Some people hoard belongings, I hoard images.

Switzerland is a delight to all senses, but most of all your eyes. Even I was shocked at the raw beauty when I finally sat down to select pictures for this post. I had to have my more-ruthless-other-half moderate when I couldn’t cull below 70! What am I trying to say? I suppose Switzerland is a story is better told in images. So I will try to accompany them with a few words. Continue reading “Jungfrau & Lauterbrunnen”

Herculaneum

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If you are in the region of Naples, you must visit Mt Vesuvius and learn about the infamous volcanic eruption. I must say that the towering outline of this still-active volcano does not fail to impress! It is apparently the only volcano on the European mainland to have erupted in the last century. Not only this, but if it erupts again there are now 3 million people living in its vicinity, and it is known for violent and explosive eruptions! I’d be having my eye on that volcano!

We chose to visit Herculaneum rather than Pompeii, as it is better preserved, more compact and conveys a better sense of how people lived in 79AD. The Pompeii site you need to devote a lot of time to cover, whereas you can visit Herculaneum in a few hours. The excavations were truly remarkable. I take my hat off to the Italians for an 11 euro well spent. Continue reading “Herculaneum”

Amalfi Coast

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I have not yet become used to the fact that I can finish work in London, and fall asleep later than evening in Italy. On this occasion we landed in Rome and joyously sprouted out the little Italian we knew (courtesy Cromer Primary School) i.e. uno, due, tre and cosi cosi. It did the trick and we soon found ourselves cruising down the autostrade in our Fiat Panda. Our destination was the gorgeous Amalfi Coast which is a famous peninsula strutting out into the sea below Naples. The drive was breathtaking for two reasons 1. The exquisite views of villages perched and built into the cliffs 2. The fear of buses as we squeezed our Fiat around countless bends not made to accommodate two vehicles at once! Thankfully Joel was grinning ear to ear, probably imagining that he was a rally car driver, whilst I hyperventilated beside him.

In saying this, we drove the whole peninsula over the course of our visit, and by the end you have to admit that the roads are an attraction in and of themselves. The engineering is ingenious considering it wasn’t too long ago that the only way to reach the villages was by foot or sea. This poses a problem for parking and one downside of having a car is attributed to the impossibility of understanding the Italian parking system. It is a miracle of the Lord that we walked away without a single fine or scratch to our trusty Fiat. Continue reading “Amalfi Coast”

Desert camp in the Sahara

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At the Berber desert camp, the drums rhythmically rocked us to sleep. Our hair and clothes were full of sand after trekking 1.5 hours through the blood-orange Sahara to reach the camp. The mountains of sand stretched far and wide as we clutched our camels who faithfully followed their berber guide.

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Immediately we fell into a deep slumber, feeling the motions of our bodies rocking back and forth on the camels, watching the candlelight flicker against the bright colours of the tent canopy.

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It was an early morning for us in order to catch a sunrise ride, and by the sounds the camels were making, they were not happy campers! Even less so when my saddle detached and I found myself sliding down the camel’s neck, madly cling on before hitting the firm golden sand.

I limped up a knife-edged dune with Joel to behold the rising sun and the procession of camels illuminated orange in the morning light. We felt as though the desert was both barren but with a sense of majesty and peace about it.

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This was starkly contrasted by the return to the vehicle and Salah’s death defying stunts. He decided to take us on a remote desert road where I wouldn’t have believed life could have existed. As usual, you find that humans have this supernatural ability to adapt to the most inhospitable terrain possible. Yet, as always, Lachen and Salah appeared to be on the social scene in each town, even acting as couriers of cash village to village! Here is an example of some of the varied terrain we travelled through:

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Joel and I did not tire of Salah’s outrageous driving, singing and Berber outbursts. Even funnier was Lachen’s embarrassment!!! Again we were struck by the Berbers own way of conducting affairs, as Lachen spotted a man on the side of the road and called for the car to be pulled over, He proceeded to pay this man 100 dirham, explaining that he borrowed it 10 months earlier. They must have memories like elephants and more than their fair share of integrity.

We passed through the towering Todra Gorge and onwards to Ait Benhaddou. We felt like tossed spaghetti by our arrival, and it was with shaky legs that we complied with Salah’s sudden request to climb upon the bonnet of his beloved car for a photograph!

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Joel and I devoted our last burst of energy to exploring the Kasbah of Ait Benhaddou. It looked like the winner of the world championships of sandcastle building – an adorable town built higgilty pigglety on top of each other by the banks of a river. The town glowed golden in the afternoon light as we haggled with shopkeepers over rugs and berber goods. One of the shopkeepers even tried on Joel’s top for size – contemplating swapping some goods for it – a true nomad!

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Rug-less we retreated for dinner, and an extremely humorous conversation around late into the evening with Lachen and Salah – mainly centering around Salah’s wife being displeased about his roaming of the river to find “Sahara women” all afternoon!!! We genuinely connected with both of them and our cheeks were all hurting as we fell victim to the early start and collapsed into bed still chuckling away. It was most certainly these moments of being fully immersed in their culture (prayer time and all) that made this a truly unforgettable trip.

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Into the Sahara

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Today we were up even before the chorus of cocks had a chance to start their morning vocal warm-ups. A long drive was ahead and we had a desert double date booked in for 6pm and camels do not like to be left waiting.

Something to mention about the Moroccan way, is that although everyone is ‘ready’ at the time they say, they then stand around for a good 10 minutes chatting about secret Berber matters. Now picture a tranquil, quiet valley, moon out, stars shining, sun still asleep and, added to the mix, a bit of Salah (our driver).

Even at 5am, Salah arrives on the scene with a booming voice looking (and sounding) like he had just consumed 3 Red Bulls with a triple shot espresso chaser. There was certainly no danger of him falling asleep at the wheel. Lauren, Lahson, and I all took the opportunity for some extra shut-eye with Captain Crazy (amkhelaw = Berber for Crazy) driving us over the mountainous terrain.

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We passed through village after village and round corner after corner. We felt like two bruised apples rolling around at the bottom of a fruit bowl. The only way we could endure the rally driving was to pretend that we had just swiped in to a 3hr roller-coaster marathon at Disneyland. Salah was born to drive and drive fast!

About 4hours into our journey, there was a long discussion that ensued between Salah and Lahson and the only word that kept popping up was, ‘Total’. We both woke from our Disneyland dream and asked Lahson what Salah was all fired up about. It was all about petrol. Petrol? (we enquired) Salah could tell that the last petrol station had mixed the petrol with water. The word, ‘Total’, kept popping up as that is the only brand you can trust in Morocco.

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So, after a stop at a Total petrol garage (of course) the landscape started to change quite dramatically. We cashed in our figurative Disneyland tickets and swapped them for helmets as we now felt as though we were part of a land speed record attempt. As we flew across the tarmac, the mountains flattened into a thirsty and parched land. The houses looks like giant sandcastles, varying slightly depending on what type of bucket their maker used in the construction process.

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Although it was a ‘travel’ day, we still saw some sights that certainly aren’t on any tourist agendas. At one point, we came across a truck which had tipped onto its side due to an absolutely ridiculous packing job of heavy rubber piping. Well, Salah and Lahson were not going to miss out on this roadside action. They left the car running, shouted something in Berber and latched themselves onto the side of the truck like two leeches tugging with all their might.

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Finally, after 10 hours of driving we had arrived at the mighty Sahara. From afar, I mistook the sand dunes to be another mountain range. Yet, as we drew closer, they looked like giant egg whites that had been beaten into angry, orange peaks.

A quick turn around was needed, so we got adequately dressed to enter the Sahara and met our camel companions. Little did we know, that camels are notoriously known to be uncomfortable. I can substantiate that rumour, as I felt like I was sitting on a groaning, spitting, moving animal carcass.

However, the sun was setting, the wind was up and we journeyed into the Sahara.

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The High Atlas – Trek day 5

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This morning we woke up in yet another berber room with a berber rug snuggled up to our chins. We could hear the soft chirping of the birds on the terraces out our window, and the laughter of children accompanying their mothers to harvest hay. Ahmed was on form as usual “TEA! GOOD, YEAH!”. Poor Joel will likely never put his lips to a mint tea again after having been forced to down many a cup by Ahmed despite bowel protests. After a sad goodbye to our smiley faced berber friends, Ahmed and Harriet, we were on our way. Continue reading “The High Atlas – Trek day 5”

The High Atlas – Trek day 4

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Dear Susan,

You may have heard it said, ‘get back on your horse’. Well today, it was my day to do just that. One slight amendment to the saying however.. It was time for me to get back on my ‘Mule’. Fondly coined ‘Harriett’ now got another minor name change to become ‘Harriet the Chariot’. More about this later.

Again the sun decided to turn up and cover the surrounding mountains with its golden embrace, which simultaneously signals the hundreds of roosters to have a good old Cock-off! I tell you what, not even the most sophisticated of ear plugs would drown out the mighty to and fro of the Moroccan cocks. They are desperately trying to be noticed and one up each other with an even louder rendition of ‘get the hell up!’ So, thanks to the mighty cock crescendo we rose and had our breakfast on the upper terrace. We were surrounded by a Swiss couple, Spanish couple, Belgian couple and a unique Scottish lad of 20yrs young who grew up on the most remote of islands. All of them, including the wee Scottish lad, spoke in excess of three languages. There were foreign words flying all around that terrace like a pinball machine. Sadly, it was both Lauren and I that felt like the battered pinball as we sat there and conversed in our ‘safe’ English language. Continue reading “The High Atlas – Trek day 4”