Travel Massive London

Last night, I went to the Travel Massive travel bloggers Meet-Up (ooh, check me out with my fancy pants lifestyle) at the Long Acre in Covent Garden. It was a really good do. I met loads of really interesting people, some from the travel industry, some not, and with the wine flowing everyone got along famously.

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The guys from travel site My Destination came down too. Unfortunately, due to a bit of a technical hitch their presentation didn’t quite go as planned but I managed to stay sober long enough to find out about their amazing new promotion: the Biggest Baddest Bucket List, or My BBB, with perhaps the most unbelievable travel prize I’ve ever seen. If I start talking about it I’ll get too excited and anyway, I don’t really want the extra competition (IT’S MINE). If you really must know it’s all in the video below.

 

 

I also met the most travelled man in the world, Fred Finn, as confirmed by his award from Concorde. He’s even in the Guinness Book of World Records. He’s a lovely man who came over from Kiev, where he now lives, especially for the event and he’s even promised me and an interview. I’m looking forward to that.

Fred Finn

Some of the other guys I met last night include:

Brendan Wan, who sums his blog up as: Travel, Culture, Imagination, Life.
Rich Leighton, who has itchy feet and travels solo.
Rebecca Kroegel, graphic designer and Australian London enthusiast (who ‘s keen to find a local husband, wink wink).
Sandy Allain, director of Simply Travel Guide which has guides for just about everywhere.
The awesome couple behind Career Break 360, who offer support for those planning the nerve-racking career break.
And of course, James and Neil, the co-founders of My Destination.

Well, those were the people who I got cards from anyway. Stupidly, I didn’t take any of my own, so if you’re reading this and you attended, HERE I AM – the one who kept saying she was hungry (I missed the food).

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Feeling pretty smug that I didn’t partake in any of this.

The next Travel Massive Meet-Up is in Brighton in April, it looks great with writing workshops and other events. It’s really cheap too, come along!

A Fussy Eater Abroad: 20 of Your Tales of Vegetarian Travel Woe

Lunch in Mostar

Lunch in Mostar

Having been a vegetarian since birth, and a fussy one at that, I think I’ve just about heard it all when travelling. Mainly it’s met with utter disdain or incomprehension. Thank god I quite like dry bread, chips and crisps.

This article, 20 of Your Tales of Vegetarian Travel Woe, recently appeared on the BBC website and I had to share, it’s always nice to know you’re not alone. I’m pretty sure I’ve endured similar situations to all 20, but I particularly like number 9 (the entire waiting staff discussing whether the pink ravioli filling is spinach).

This is a typical scene with a waiter, especially in Hispanic countries (with a few more pathetic attempts by me to pronounce something from the phrasebook):

Me – “I’m sorry, I’m a vegetarian.” (I always feel the need to apologise.)

Waiter – “We have chicken.”

Me – “I’m afraid I don’t eat any meat.”

Waiter – “Yes… chicken is vegetarian.”

In Bosnia last summer exactly this scene happened for the umpteenth time. I ended up with a bottle of still water and a small bowl of brown-tinged iceberg lettuce. No dressing. My boyfriend was given a plate of fried meat the size of his head and a legs-worth of beer.

Veggies are not a popular folk.

The human bone church

Sedlec Ossuary, Czech Republic

Sedlec Ossuary

In a sleepy suburb of Kutna Hora, Sedlec Ossuary is home to around 40, 000 skeletons. They’re not a memorial to a past massacre or genocide, but actually part of the spectacular, if rather macabre, interior design. From bone chandeliers, bone family crests, bone vases, bone… well, you get the idea. There are skulls, tibias and other body parts, many I don’t know the name of, adorning every available surface. 

Liz with skulls

As the train rolled into Sedlec, after miles of snowy villages and industrial wastelands, we wondered if we had the right place. It seemed too still, too empty to house the fantastical church we’d read about. A delicately winding path lead us through a small cemetery of plush, but snow-sodden grass. Thick steps dipped down into the crypt where it was cold and colourless and lacking any of the expected musty smell, which was a bit of a relief considering the banging hangover we were both suffering from.

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The skeletons have hung in these elaborate arrangements since 1870. In the 13th century the abbot scattered a handful of holy soil in the cemetery, he’d brought it back, supposedly, from the grave of Jesus in Jerusalem. The ossuary soon became the most popular place to be buried in all of Bohemia. It becoming so desired, in fact, that they ran out of space. The monks decided the best thing to do was dig up the old bones and chuck them in the crypt, making room for the freshly dead. 

Schwartzenburg coat of arms

František Rintn, a local woodcarver, was given the task of finding something to do with them. He bleached the bones and made the bizarre chandelier, the Schwarzenberg coat of arms, which includes a human bone sculpture of a raven pecking at a Turks severed head (there’s a lot of that in the Czech Republic), and put his signature, in other people’s bones, on the wall. Why not?

Rintn bone signature

3 countries in 3 weeks

South America – it’s a bloody long way. To get to Buenos Aires (BA) alone, one of the easiest places on the whole continent to reach, there are two flights involved, one of which is a whopping 12.5 hours long. That, as it turns out, was the relatively straight forward bit.

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MASSIVE tree, Buenos Aires

Overview

Countries: 3 – Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil.

Places Visited: 10 – Buenos Aires, La Paz, Rurrenabaque, Madidi national park, Santa Rosa, Coroico, Mendoza, Santa Fe, Puerto Iguazú, Foz do Iguaçu.

Transport: 10 flights, 4 overnight coaches, 2 Andean bus journeys, 2 4×4 trips, 7 boat trips, countless subways, taxis and local buses and 1 horse ride.

Beds: 14.

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A night out at La Bomba de Tiempo, BA

We hadn’t planned to go any further than Argentina. Rich and Leah (Andy’s brother and his girlfriend) were having a bit of a breather from their HUGE trip encompassing south east Asia, South and Central America and had rented a gorgeous little flat in trendy Palermo, BA. When we arrived we’d been up for a good 24 hours, we still headed out for the traditional first night bender though (why do we never learn?) and before we’d even had time to regain our eyesight, we’d booked flights on to Bolivia

They could have been trying to get rid of us, but we were, very convincingly, assured that the country was unmissable. We spent a week in Bolivia, a sort of holiday from a holiday, flying out to La Paz a couple of days after landing in BA and using the city as a sort of base to work out from.

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The witch market, La Paz

First, we wanted to visit the jungle and pampas – the famous South American grasslands. This meant booking yet another flight, this time to the small northern rainforest town of Rurrenabaque in the Amazon Basin, not far from the border with Peru.

From there we were able to take a small boat up the Beni river and back, spending a night out in Madidi national park, right in the heart of the jungle. This meant we could do some amazing treks, including one that took us to a cliff full of noisy roosting macaws. Then we journeyed two hours in a 4×4 out to the alligator infested pampas of Santa Rosa, bribing officials with bottles of Coca Cola (of all things) along the way, where we spent another unforgettable night, buzzing from the encounters with spider monkeys and capybara we’d enjoyed during the day.

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The new airport runway in Rurrenebaque

After heading back to La Paz for a night it was then on to sleepy Coroico and some relaxation at an eco-lodge in the leafy mountains. We took a local bus service, packed in thigh-to-thigh with locals, across the snowcapped foothills of the Andeas on the second most dangerous road – it was still pretty hairy, but the other is nicknamed the ‘Death Road,’ so it seemed a much better option. We only spent one night there, but it was the most perfect place to wake up, peering bleary eyed out across the peaks and valleys of the Yungas.

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Our porch

We were sad to leave Bolivia, but Argentina was calling. Once back in BA, we booked an overnight coach up to Mendoza in the western wine growing region close to the Chilean border. This was in June, their winter, so it was much too cold to head down south to the famous Patagonia or Tierra Del Fuego, anyway, we’d agreed to meet Rich and Leah at the Iguazu Falls in the north a few days later.

We spent three nights in the city, taking the opportunity to indulge our gaucho fantasies by horse riding in the hills, then shopping for handmade sandals at the local markets. Next it was onto Santa Fe for a day – the wrong day, as it turns out, as just about everything was shut – before getting straight back onto another overnight coach headed north to Puerto Iguazú.

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Me, king of the plains

We spent our first half a day on the Brazilian side, as is generally recommended. A local bus takes you across the border and back. We didn’t see much of Brazil, but I’ve got the passport stamp, so it counts OK.

The falls are so large, that their energy seemed to penetrate my flesh making me all giddy and excited. However exhilarating it was though, it didn’t prepare me for the Argentinian side. At the Devil’s Throat, El Diablo, the largest precipice of the falls, the water gushes with such incredible force that the noise and spray and electricity tingling in the air took my breath away, literally.

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One tiny section of the huge Iguazu Falls

We caught another overnight coach back to BA. It’s by far the best way to travel in Argentina, with their huge recliner seats they’re just so comfy. They also feed you, ply you with champagne, films and even rounds of bingo before turning out the lights. You’re woken in time for breakfast and, hey presto, you’ve travelled 600 miles AND saved on the price of a hostel for the night. We only had a few days left to fit in a few of the capital’s sights before, all too soon, that sad, sad day arrived – home time. We headed back to London a little bit deflated, still in denial about the true extent of our abuse of the credit card, but desperate to tell all of our adventure (whether they wanted to hear it or not).

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Sad face.

3 of London’s oddest shops

I’ve been taking a lot of walks lately. Partly because being a writer means a lot of sitting down – it’s not kind to the waistline, or in my case, seatline – and partly because it saves some pennies. It’s also giving me back my city, helping me to reconnect with a place that is all too easy to fade out in a coffee-fuelled haze, seeing nothing but phone notifications and closing tube doors.

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A little while ago, I ended up walking around central London for about four hours due to an Apple Maps mishap. Luckily I had dedicated the day to drifting otherwise I’d have been pretty pissed off, angry emails may have been sent.

I’d been half-heartedly aiming for the London Library in St James’s Square (which turned out later to be for expensive membership payers only), but was redirected instead to Russell Square via Bedford Square, Mayfair and Savile Row. These are some of London’s most extravagant streets, bubbling with Russian ladies in Louis Vuitton riding boots and Arabs dripping in gold. No place for a short girl wearing no make-up and a jumper capable of housing a small boy band.

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The little bouquets of designer clothes shops that fester there are so vacuum-formed that you could be almost anywhere. It’s the little oddities that make London worth bothering with and on Shaftesbury Avenue, tired and feeling a bit demoralised, I stumbled upon Arthur Beale’s yacht chandler, miles from any water. I’d seen it before, but never stopped to notice the way it shines out like freshly sprung daffodils in amongst the muddy bog of homogenised brands.

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A little further north on Southampton Row, I passed Shepherd’s bookbinding shop, an entire shop dedicated to the almost obsolete craft of binding pages together. Then, and this has to be the best one, on the same road is a small-press that doubles up as a bookshop selling, and this is the really great bit, almost nothing other the works of an eighteenth century Swedish philosopher called Swedenborg.

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A Fussy Eater Abroad: Argentina

A (fussy) vegetarian in Argentina

Argentinian cuisine uses a lot of red meat and cheese. They’re renowned for their steaks and asado, a South American style of barbecue, which is every meat eater’s dream. Not a vegetarian’s, though. Here are a few hard learned tips to getting by.

Tango in Argentina

Chicken is vegetarian – Knowing how much the Hispanics like their food bloody, I made sure to book a veggie meal for our outbound flight online. It was to be my last supper, one final safe, but probably a bit cardboardy, dinner to see me off on my three week South American adventure. That’s what I thought anyway. But when they bought our meals, mine was a silvery tub of steaming chicken. ‘That is vegetarian,’ barked the Iberia hostess, penciled-on eyebrows warning me that resistance was futile. It was very much a mark of things to come.

Ham is vegetarian – I love travel and when I plan a trip I’ve already accepted that enjoying food is off the cards. It’s my own fault I’m so fussy. That being said, there are times I want to bang my face on the floor. The average Argentinian menu offers three potential veggie options: chips, salad or omelette, all, at times, contain ham. Green salad for example, was really more of a green and pink salad. It’s not usually mentioned on the menu.

empanadas

Other options include: pizza is fairly easy to get from street vendors but watch out for ground beef hidden under the cheese,. There are also empanadas, a sort of latino Cornish pasty that are sometimes offered with a cheese filling. It’s not so easy to order them though. On our first day we ordered “dos con queso'”and ended up with four with some sort of red meat. Now, I don’t know if said red meat was considered vegetarian also, but it certainly put me off for a while.

Vegetarian restaurants: there are a few in Buenos Aires. They have a good reputation, but I didn’t visit any – I was traveling with a group of devout carnivores and somehow it seemed to keep slipping off the agenda. Outside BA though, there are very few. I would suggest that you save a few pennies and eat in if you have cooking facilities. There are mini-markets everywhere.

My favourite BA dining experience: the secret or closed-door restaurants, the puertas cerradas. We knew which street we had to go to, then followed instructions to ‘find a mirrored window and knock’. It was very much a meat restaurant, but so welcoming and so very Argentinian (there were no tourists there) that I couldn’t help but enjoy the meal. The steaks, I was assured, were out of this world, and I can confirm that their bread and chips where very nice too.

Buenos Aires steak

Andy was happy

Winter in Prague

Best trips for January: Prague, Czech Republic

About this time last year, my boyfriend and I booked a (very) cheap deal for four nights in Prague. I’d always wanted to go, the castles and churches around the city reminded me of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a world in which I found myself, as a child, every time I closed my eyes. The only thing holding me back was the now pretty ubiquitous drunk Brits abroad, gorging themselves on 50p pints and abusing similar priced women.

The Lennon wall, not Lenin, as I thought.

The Lennon wall, not Lenin, as I for some reason thought.

It was skin-pinchingly cold, the sort of still freeze that means your feet become about as dexterous as hooves. It was quite a pain (literally), but it did mean the city was in down season. The cobbled streets were blissfully quiet compared with the knightmarish summer rabbles seen on various Sky docu-mockeries. This is almost certainly why there are so many mind-blowingly cheap deals.

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We stayed in a hotel a short tram ride from the city centre and packed in as much as was humanly possible in our six days there. We drank and ate a lot (oh come on, it’s a holiday) and visited pretty much all of the main tourist attractions. However, one of the best things to do in a city like Prague is just drift. The streets are teaming with art and music to stumble on: a swing band in the Old Town Square, giant brass babies in the park, a row of softly glowing yellow penguins standing to attention in the Vlatva river.baby

I’d also recommend escaping the city for a day, a holiday from a holiday if you will. We took a train a few hours out of Prague to Sedlec Ossury – a church decorated entirely with human bones – in the small, and almost deserted, town of Sedlec.

Prague at this time of year is wonderfully romantic, yet not soppy or boring. Our trip, including: flights, hotel (4 nights), food, drink and activities (public transport, entry fees, etc.) came to less than £300 for the two of us, which is just about cheaper than a good night out in London. This also includes taking a lump of cash out on our last day to see a puppet show that turned out to be closed. Instead we, of course, had to go to the pub and spend it all.

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Usual tourist stuff: Prague Castle, the views from the top of St Vitus are worth the hundreds of steps; Charles Bridge; the Old Town Hall and the Astronomical Clock; the Jewish Cemetery, where I made a rash joke about religion and then my camera broke, make of that what you will; Wenceslas Square; the Kafka museum; take a funicular to the Petrin viewing platform; see a puppet show; the Lennon wall; eat goulash with giant dumplings; there are also countless gold-clad churches and museums to visit.

Best picks: browse the huge book superstores in the new part of town, the changing of the castle path guard, it’s so reminiscent of Wizard of Oz, Sedlec Ossuary and Kutna Hora.

changingguard

Best food and drink: hot wine, it’s common across eastern Europe, but it’s so good it makes the red nose and numb fingers worth it; the Cubist themed Grand Cafe Orient; dinner and wine at quirky Italian restaurant Giovanni’s (with great vegetarian options); the dimly lit and smokey writers cafe, just as you’d imagine writers lairs should be.

To avoid: the strange, tasteless TV dinners at Gopal veggie restaurant; street sausages; restaurants on the Old Town Square, especially if a tout tries to draw you in – they’re usually expensive and play awful David Guetta-esque tunes.

This is a video I took of an old hurdy gurdy busker, I was totally entranced by him. It’s so raw and just amazing.