Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Italian state of Mind...

The last time I was in Italy, the Pope died on the day I arrived, so it is in the back of my mind that I am bad luck for pontiffs and I don't want to have a repeat of the passing of the pope in 2005. A quick Hail Mary on arrival and I feel ready to take on Italy again!! Last time, my Italian travels took me from Rome and south and over to Sicily! This time, I want to get a northern perspective, so I am starting in Rome and heading North!

After almost two fabulous weeks in Morocco - where there was not many opportunities to drink, I feel the need for wine! After a train ride up to Florence ( traveling average speeds of 250k per hour!) I arrive into the capital of Tuscany - Firenze - or Florence to western folk. Immediately I know there is something special about this city, and it is love at first night! Checking in after 9pm in any city usually means that you are out of options for food, but not so in Florence! This is the capital of eating, and the show doesn't start until 9pm and open til late late, so I can have my first Italian meal and a glass of chianti!  For the first meal, I tuck into fresh bruschetta with red ripe tomatoes, creamy buffalo mozzarella and crunchy bread! Follow that up with a big bowl of freshly rolled pasta with bacon, and ending it with a cup of gelato! I am in heaven!

I have decided to commit to having a minimum of one gelato per day while in Italy, and it is a commitment I will definitely take seriously! Notice that the only restriction I have placed on myself is that I have at least ONE per day - but it can be more...always with lemon gelato as first choice, and then with another option to mix things up! With all the walking I will be doing, it is going to be an easy commitment to keep!

The next day, I head north to do a tour of the Cinque Terra - a place that I have always adored from afar and longed to visit! We got to visit all 5 villages as part of a day tour, and then stayed for a couple of nights in a town called Santa Margerita about an hour north of the CT by train. The villages that hug the north Italian coastline are all very similar at first glance - set on hills and painted in very brilliant colors - pinks, oranges, yellow, terra cotta and blues - from any point they look amazing, and what are typically small fishing villages are wet tight knit communities who welcome the summer tourists by showering them with fresh seafood, homemade pastas and pizzas made with simple but fresh ingredients! Heaven! It really is a place to stop your brain from aping, and slow it down. Nothing is more important than taking things easy here, so I slow my roll and get into the Italian spirit of late lunches and dinners, simple food, wine and gelato.... This could be my happy place?

my chill out on the coast is short lived, as I head back to Florence, and prepare to go hunting for truffles! I basically planned the whole trip around this excursion, so am beyond excited to get into the hunt. In Italy, they use dogs rather than pigs as the dogs don't tend to break up the truffles when the dog them up, and our dog is a setter who has only ever known truffle hunting. For her, it is a game and she is so very happy to show us her talents! She finds us 4 truffles - about 600g in total - probably about 30 euro in value. The Italian mamma of the house cooks us a feast using these freshly found precious black nuggets, and generously shaves gram after gram into our meal! If you follow me on fb you would have seen the pictures and videos I posted! Amazing!! To top off the day, we head off to a winery in the Chianti region, to sample and enjoy some of the areas best grape juice! Every day keeps providing g me with amazing experiences, and I am really looking forward to starting my foodie tour from Rome soon!

So after fare welling Firenze, I train it back to Rome - ready for a new adventure and ready to immerse myself into everything Italian!

Here I go again!

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Moroccan Madness!!

So I have a confession to make.... I booked this tour to Morocco having done zero research and knowing nothing about anything, but for some reason, I always felt like I had to visit - I was drawn to it. The fact that I booked a food adventure tour, just made it all the more appealing, as I love food, and had this crazy idea that combining travel and food would be a good match! How wrong was I? It was a fantastic match!! Absolutely perfect!!

However, it's not all about food so during the past week and a bit, I have learned so much more than what's for breakfast, lunch or dinner - I have learned that this wholly Muslim country does not typically enjoy happy hours - although you can find some places where having a drink is permitted for tourists only, and it is generally not encouraged as it is in the western world I am used to! For me, not being able to drink is no longer a big deal, although there are times - especially when you have a great meal - where you can imagine yourself enjoying it even more with a nice glass of wine, beer or something similar. It's more about the culture and the people rather than trying to find comfort in our western ways. I think when you come to a country that is so faith orientated, you really have to get an understanding of the people, the culture and how it all goes together to make it what it is when we visit! And Morocco is amazing!

We started in Casablanca - and from day one, you just get that it is very French in its foundations - the language, the food, the architecture - ( you could almost be forgiven for thinking that you might be in New Orleans in some parts of the city!) it all has a French feel and vibe to it - which is totally amazing! I love the Intrepid travel tours as they always immerse you into the local culture by staying in local hotels, eating at local restaurants and using local guides throughout. To me, you don't really experience the true city if you are staying at the Hilton, and eating at Burger King because the street food scares you! We catch local transport - buses and trains, local cabs - so you can really feel like your visit is going to give you the best take away of the city you are in!

In a country so devout in faith, it did seem a little strange that one of our first visits was to a winery! We had a back of cellar tour with the owner - who was originally from France, but came to Morocco to start the winery for an obviously eager market - mostly tourism driven, but still an opportunity to show his family's skills with the vines. We tasted wines, and then went onto stay at a small village called  Mouly Idris- just outside of Mekenes.for me, this was my most favorite place of the trip - such a simple village - fantastic hosts - all the homes built on a hill and accessible only by foot or donkey - and the view from the top of all those 1000 steps was to die for!! As a traveller, I see a village like this, and think of how happy people are - just being. There is no stress about jobs or time - everything happens when it should - the rules are very simple and the serenity is immense. Ahh and the food!!

Throughout the tour we quickly realized that the portions in Morocco are not small - they seem to cater for a feast at any opportunity, and you automatically get served a myriad of nibbles to start your meal - marinated olives at any opportunity, locally baked bread, tomato salad, lentils, it just never ends and it is all fresh off the tree and right to your plate! How does one improve that equation?? Simply put - you cannot beat it. We sampled and tasted our way through tagines, cous cous classes, tangier ( slowly cooked beef), spices, pastries, honey biscuits so drenched in honey that the bees are all over them at the stall trying to get their honey back!! We ate street food, we never questioned the food choices offered and we're all open to new things - which is why I think I loved Morocco so much!! I guess it does help if you are with like minded people, so the fact that we were a group of 7 including the guide - who were eager to eat at any given time, and be open to anything was just awesome!! And with all of those steps, you feel like you earned the right to eat so much as kind of a reward! We visited Fez, Mekenes, Casablanca, Essaouira and then back to Marrakech - great hotels, good people, lots of laughs- a lot of cats in Morocco for some reason??? At least this time there were no electric fences to walk into, no tents to pitch or take down, and no getting dirty every day! Morocco was as amazing as people told me, I am sorry it took me so long to get here and work it out for myself. I mean, where else can you drive down a highway, turn your head and see a dozen goats climbed up into a tree - just standing on branches...only in Morocco! Part of traveling that I love , is talking to local people and hearing their stories- you can't get that if you don't get down with the locals - for me it's one of the joys of being a traveller!!

Now, with a full belly, I head off to Italy to eat my way through that country.....

Here I go again!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Zambia you are epic and amazing!

So after leaving the camping behind, we headed for a bit of luxury and into a private luxury lodge in South Luangwa National Park - Flatdogs bush camp! Here, we were not going to have to pitch a tent or do any of those camping things - straight up game drives and luxury all the way!!

To get into the bush, you have to fly with tiny airplanes to very remote airstrips - as such you have a limit on luggage limits and anything over the 15kg is paid for as excess baggage... Or is it?? I have now had the full bush experience of having an airport official ask me for a bribe!! At first I wasn't sure it was actually happening, but then she came over and straight out asked me how much I was going to give her for having her help me out with the "free" excess baggage!! She said it would be nice for me to give her enough to buy some drinks.. I can't argue that so I gave her enough to get loaded in the bush and me and my bags were on the way! What an interesting start to our quick stay!!

The camp was amazing, and we arrived in the dark, so couldn't really appreciate the beauty of where we were, but did realize very quickly that this wasn't going to be like any other bush stay - we were living as one with the animals of the bush - jumping frogs freaking me out as they jumped out from the bushes to scare me were soon going to be the least of my concerns!! The first night was adrenaline rush as we couldn't decide is having hippos and lions roaring right outside our tent was good or bad, but then came the elephants!! The compound has so much wildlife that they employ men they call the night watchmen - which I thought was only something on game of thrones lol The wall has nothing on Zambia! These guys are the ninjas of the bush and are by your tents at night to keep big animals out of your way! Every morning, we were told we can't go left because there is a big elephant, and going right is lions over there, so I will go straight and take you to my friend who will take you to the base lodge... They each had their own area to take care of, and handed us over to the next watchmen when we had reached the end of his perimeter!! Amazing stuff! And every day there really was lions, elephants, giraffes , hippos, baboons and monkeys all walking around like they owned the place... Which they kind of do so it was very cool!!

Every time I left the main area to use the bathroom, I got cornered by an elephant or a lion and the watchmen had to tell me to get back inside - it's not safe!! Mel started calling me the animal whisperer, as it happened EVERY time!!! You can't make this stuff up!! We had monkeys steal our lunch, but I never once had to use the whistle they left in our tent - which I am sure everyone was very grateful for!!

As far as game goes, we saw it all - leopard at night, elephants and antelope mating- elephants are very aggressive when they need loving and we felt both disturbed and privileged to see this happen - it was amazing! Zambia is amazing, the people, the animals, and the bush - put it on your list of places to go immediately 👍

For now, after having bribed my bags out of the bush again on the way out, I am off to Morocco to start a foodie tour and am super excited to see new things and not have to worry about lions outside my door!!

Here I go again!!

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Namibia we came, camped and loved you!

So I'm not sure how I find myself in situations where comfort levels are low, but every few years I go crazy and do something silly like book a camping trip in Africa! I know I am not cut out for camping - have never enjoyed it, yet I continue to punish myself by doing crazy things!!

Firstly let me give my idea of the pros and cons of camping with a group of people you have never met or chosen to be friends with:

You really get to see some amazing places in the world! It really is the only way to get out there and have a true, local experience!


Dirt, dust, smelly drop toilets, hygiene levels at minimal, cold showers if you are lucky, waking up at 4-5am so you can take the damn tent down, pack it up and get to somewhere amazing before the sun comes up! 
Traveling with a group of unknown people is always concerning - as Forrest Gump once said - you never know what you're going to get... There is always one or two people who don't help out, who take all the food first and leave none for the rest, or who ask stupid , stupid questions to the guide!! 

Enough said - this trip was a 10day Namibian explorer camping trip with wild dogs safaris - starting in Windhoek - the capital city! 

We saw some amazing things on this trip and the first day set the scene! We headed out in an overland truck each day - for an average journey of about 350km a day. First stop was at Africat cheetah and leopard habitat - where they rehabilitate injured and orphaned animals and release them back to the wild wherever possible. Here we got to see free roaming cheetah and leopard - which is truly amazing and worth the drive just for that! What I didn't foresee, was that by trying to get a cheetah selfie, I would lean in too close to the electric fence and basically walk straight into it!! Free perms!! I have never been electrocuted before, and thankfully for me the voltage was only 220v so it was a strong zap and left horizontal burn marks down my thigh, but not a lethal dose!! It was a severe wake up call to pay more attention while out and about in the bush!! I don't fancy getting that zap again!!

We stayed at some amazing places, got annoyed by a few people here and there - went for a swim atop a boulder mountain, climbed humongous sand dunes until our calf muscles screamed for us to stop but when we did, we were amazed at the sheer beauty of this country and all of the contrasts it brings - sand, surf, seals, Safari  - you just can't beat it for an African destination!

For me, a third time African tourist, I will never forget coming across a pride of7 lions as they feasted on a huge giraffe that they had taken down the previous day... Jackals circling to see when they would get their cut of the kill, and other giraffes looking on with fear - unsure as to how to get to the waterhole for a much needed drink, without becoming the next feast like their fallen comrade...

The circle of life is very evident in Namibia - animals each have a place at watering holes and now backwards in respect to those animals who deserve pride of place or first dibs.... It's incredible to see, and often only seen while out in the dirty, dusty wildness I just swore off for life - until next time that is!

For now, it's a hot shower in a hotel, a dinner of local fare including springboks, zebra, wilderbeast, oryx steaks etc and the circle of life is complete! 

Next stop - Zambia - a private reserve if you don't mind - none of that dirty camping for me for a bit!

So, here I go again!

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Cape Town - I am in you!!

So here I go again!! After a mammoth 30+ hour commute, I finally made it to Cape Town, South Africa! Thankfully, nothing organized for the first day - just a pot of tea while I wait for my mate Mel to arrive from where she has been a volunteer for the past two weeks - looking after cheetahs and leopards! She arrives and we reconnect immediately - even after 4 years or more without seeing each other! That's the great thing about good friends - it doesn't matter how much time passes, you always know you will have a great time together! Today, I don't really make sense to anyone- I am almost coma like - not sure what day it is or what time zone I should be responding to?? Got to love jet lag!!

Tonight we eat a traditional South African dinner braai - basically it's cooked meat on sticks so we taste springbok, ostrich, lamb and kudu ! We have the most amazing hotel to call home for a few days - the table bay hotel!! Once you stay here, you can never stay in any other hotel - just amazing! They have a pianist playing music while you eat breakfast!! The weather is not as welcoming as the people and the hotel, so we have to make adjustments to our schedule as the rain and wind have cancelled our shark diving experience the next day! Swapping things at the last minute, we rearrange and plan to visit the penguin colonies and wineries in Stellenbosch area tomorrow! The Penguins were at Boulders Beach and we had a nice drive through the area to check out the homes and coast line! What amazing homes there are here! Penguins are cute, but the weather on this side of the city is horrible so we head back and get ready to visit wineries for the rest of the day!

If you have not been to Capetown - get planning and go there soon - it's a beautiful city, great restaurants and friendly people, and wine to die for!! We get hammered after our fourth winery visit, and retire for the day - ready to go shark diving tomorrow!

Shark diving has always been on my bucket list - but never on Mel's lol but she is happy to come along and document my stupidity haha the weather is much better but still not great and so only our boat is brave enough to head out!! The swell is massive and we feel like we are George clooney in his perfect storm movie!! At one stage we did think we were going to roll over in shark infested waters.... But captain Stubing saved the day and we made it to shark alley and ready to get into the water - which is a brisk 15c

Firstly, let me just say that no one looks good in a wetsuit!! Double that when you need a large one and a few ship mates to push and pull it on for you.. By this stage all dignity is lost and I am not even concerned that I may intact be the 5th Telly tubby member - especially after they chuck another 20kgs onto you in a weight belt!! Like I really need that haha

Once you are in the water though, it gets very real, very quickly, and the sharks are encouraged to come over and say hi - by way of  a rotting tuna head and chum in the water! They at first seem quite placid, and do a couple of drive bus before deciding that they might actually like to try and sample the 8 humans in the cage!! Seeing that face coming at you underwater is amazing, terrifying and epic and totally worth the humility of being in a wetsuit in such cold weather!! So glad we did this and have some great videos and pictures to look back on!! Getting the wet suit off was just as fun as trying to get it on, and I required the assistance of a very obliging deckhand to get me out of it!! Poor guy!!

Next stop Namibia - and camping.... Going to be a big drop in the quality of our accommodations and not entirely sure we will cope with the reality check of pitching tents and being dirty....

Here I go again!

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Hakuna Matata......

"Hakuna matata" is a Swahili phrase; translated, it roughly means "No problems".

Flashforward and its 2015....actually, it is almost closing out on 2015, so I have been distracted for quite some time. In all honesty, sometimes you just get busy and put the pen down and actually enjoy your life for a bit - which is nice, but then you get to thinking - what did I do with all my time...?

So this year was one of massive change for me. I found myself on the receiving end of a redundancy - which on its own is a scary enough thing, but when you live in a foreign country, it is a life changing moment!  Rather than head back to Australia and get into a rebound job, I decided to take some time for me - I spent some great quality time with my family - cooking, laughing, and just getting to know them again - I always knew I had great family and friends, but you really find out who loves you when you find yourself in a jam - I feel lucky to have a family who cares and likes having me around! I had never really thought about life outside of the company I had worked for, it takes some adjusting, and looking back, I think it has been the best and worst thing that ever happened to me.

The worst - because I didn't see it coming - I am a planner, I love high detail - and having a disruption to your plan is a little unsettling - especially when it has such mammoth repercussions to your life.

The best - because it really forced me to be honest about the future - what are my long term goals and visions - where did I want to be in 5-10 years time?  I never ever thought of having a plan B - and now my plan B is going to be the most exciting thing EVER.

When in doubt - Travel.

So I decided that I needed to take time out for me - and as I had done in previous times - when the going gets tough, the tough go traveling! So here I am, at the starting point of a new adventure - I am about to go headfirst into a couple of months of travel - I am calling it my Eat, Pray, Love tour - except I am not looking for prayers to be answered (well maybe just a little lol) or in finding love - its all about finding my purpose again. It's a strange thing to wake up and have no purpose anymore - so in the next few months, I am on a mission to find mine - by cooking, eating and foraging my way through the world! On this Epic journey I will travel through the sand dunes of Namibia,  go cage diving with great white sharks in Cape Town, Camping in Zambia, countless safari's in Southern Africa, Shopping for spices in the markets of Morocco - learning how to cook in a tagine, walking the cliffs of the Cinque Terre in Italy, roaming the woods for truffles in Tuscany, leaning how to make gelato in Rome,  tasting wine in Chianti.... its going to be huge - in fact its the biggest adventure I have done to date - and I am really looking forward to what lies ahead!

So its onwards and upwards, and the adventure starts really really soon! I have everything I need to make this the best thing that ever happened to me, so now all I have to do is go and be open to new opportunities! Bon Voyage to me!