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Kenroku-en Garden Kanazawa: A photowalk

The garden was silent. The ground was blanketed with snow. The glimmering park was mirrored in the surface of the pond.

Delicate pink buds peeked from icy cocoons. Some brave plum blossoms became early bursts of colour in the winter white.

Footsteps were erased with mere moments of snow fall, as if the crowds had not come and gone with the sun.

And overlooking it all, ancient pines rose to the heavens, still like stone, bound in conical towers; wise with centuries of mediation in their Edo wonderland.

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The tranquil and measured perfection of Kenroku-en left me stunned. As I stood in awe of each balanced branch and mossy root, I felt as if time had frozen and all hints of chaos had slipped from my mind.

I was lucky to arrive as the snow fall quickened, sending the mob of tourists towards shelter and leaving me to roam the gardens in icy peace.

I’d heard of the beauty in these gardens, of its famous yukitsuri method of roping pine branches in winter, and sheer visual perfection that had earnt it a reliable reputation as one of the greatest Edo gardens in Japan. Seeing it though, surpassed all my hopes.

Established in 1676 and expanded for a couple centuries to follow, this land had seen things, and I felt satisfyingly small in the shadow of time. This was certainly one of my favourite experiences in Japan.

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Tips

  • Arrive early to avoid the crowds. This is one place you should be still and silent. From October to February the garden is open 8am to 5pm, and the rest of the year it is open 7am to 6pm.
  • The ticket is worth it. 310 Yen is value just for the meditative effect, let alone watching the gardeners meticulously tend the grounds.
  • Wander through the neighbouring Kanazawa Castle Park for free, which is also pretty in a blanket of snow (but nothing compared to Kenroku-en).
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Kimono Fever in Kyoto

A flicker of red caught my eye in the narrow alley. I followed the flash, chasing sparks of orange and pink around the corner and up towards Kiyomizu-dera Temple.

Ahead, a shuffle of silk whispered the way. Giggling girls appeared, wrapped in kimono of purple, pink and blue. A gleaming rickshaw carried a couple in crimson and white. A cluster of kids wore yellow school hats over their shiny black bobs.

It was warm by spring standards and the streets were abuzz. Early March had been generous, sending sunlight to caress new pink buds on the plum trees and ignite delight in bloom-seeking tourists.

I continued to climb towards the red temple tips that peeked between grey roof tiles. Behind me, the city faded into a haze, giving way to forested hills of heavy green and twiggy brown.

With each step, I met a rising sea of fabric. Floral patterns, both bold and delicate, were woven with glimmering thread. Contrast and complement, tradition and trend, all tightly bound to slender frames. Petals and pins held elaborate hair in place during the frenzied group posing and self-stick wielding. And then I was darting between the clicks and smiles and kitten eyes, part of the photographic fray; my hot trigger finger hunting moments, composition, colour and light.

Kimono tourits at temple Kyoto

Kimono bride at temple Kyoto

It was hours before I could pull myself from the fine fabrics and picturesque views, nursing a low camera battery and a belly in need of late lunch. As I strolled down the hill towards Gion, past the souvenir shops and sluggish tour groups, I noticed many kimono hire stores touting 3000 Yen per day.

Romance gave way to reason, authenticity to tourism, as I realised the colourful kimonos were mostly on tourists taking pictures to send back home.

All the same, my serendipitous photographic adventure had been a delightful indulgence; a wonderful adornment to the hillside beauty of Kiyomizo-dera.

Kiyomizu-dera Temple Kyoto Higashiyama

Kimono wearing tourists in Kyoto Gion Higashiyama

The Nuts and Bolts

A memorable Kyoto landmark, Kiyomizo-dera perches against the hillside in Southern Higashiyama, welcoming visitors through a striking red and white pagoda at the top of Chawan-zaka. The Buddhist site dates back to 798 with reconstructed buildings from the seventeenth century.

While the entrance and people watching is certainly a highlight, be sure to pay the 300 Yen entrance fee to see the main hall and stand on the broad deck overlooking the surrounding forests and city below.

To get there, walk up along Chawan-zaka from the intersecting Higashioji-dori below, which is well connected by bus or an easy walk from trains (about 15-20 minutes from Kiyomizu Gojo or 25-30 minutes from Gion Shijo, both on the Nara line). If you can brave the crowds, the souvenir shops on Chawan-zaka hold some surprisingly tempting treasures at fairly reasonable ‘tourist hot spot’ prices.

 

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Travel Moments: Walking the Camino de Santiago

The path stretched over the hill to the horizon. There was nothing but a trail through patchwork green.

Head down, I focused on the grit of the soil, the drips off my limbs and the splash underfoot.

The approaching storm dampened the light, dampened my damp and weary will. And all I could hear was the croak and chorus of frogs and the patter of rain and the whip of the wind in the weather battered grass, as I followed the road to Santiago.

Hours before, a bent old pilgrim and his scrawny grey donkey had walked towards me. Barely slowing, he pointed from where he’d come, towards my destination, as if his vague gesture could impart the wisdom he’d gained on the way.

With throbbing bones and blistered heels, I smiled weakly. I was in awe. I was impressed. I was a third his age and wondering if I’d look as wise if I made it there and back.

Walking the Camino de Santiago near Santo Domingo Calazada in Spain

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Impressions of Tangier, Morocco

Windows and Hotel Continential , Tangier, MoroccoWalls and windows don’t come much more colourful than those surrounding me on this Mediterranean-view terrace in Tangier, Morocco. The vibrant pink paint reflects a juicy hue across the black and yellow tiles, and light bounces enthusiastically through the lime, canola and cornflower panes.

I’m sitting at a little round table, with red and green mosaic tiles, on an iron-lace chair with a red and white striped cushion. In my hand, a glittery gold tumbler holds fragrant mint tea that tastes as fresh as it looks. I feel a little regal, a little rich, with all this colour around me.

Echoing from the cool concrete walls are the guttural Arabic tones of men sharing tea and sunflower seeds as they escape the afternoon heat. The call to prayer is ringing between the city walls again, reminding me of the slowly fading day, the passing of this sense-livening experience.

Hotel Continential , Tangier, Morocco

Arriving from Spain by ferry, Tangier offers my first impressions of Morocco, as it has done for millions of other visitors over the years. The sights, sounds, tastes remind me vaguely of my Turkish, Syrian and Jordanian adventures, but there is a lovely African flavour that makes Morocco feel more exotic, more intense, writhing with life.Intercontinental waters off Tangier, Morocco

Before the sun rose into a blistering heat, I set off to explore the Medina, an ancient labyrinth-like suburb that is thick with cultural delights. I found parking attendants who guide drivers into parks and then wash their car. I met vendors who call out in multiple tongues, willing you to turn your head in recognition. I watched old men stand, hands behind backs, gazing out to the intercontinental haze as the bright blue waters clashed with their stark-white clothes.

Kazbar gardens, Tangier, Morocco

I listened to teens in a park play traditional music as they danced in the daylight. I ate spice-coated olives at a local market and walked by stalls selling chicken, freshly plucked and fleshy-pale.

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But my favourite find of my medina wanderings was a little white-washed cafe just outside the Kazbar Museum. It was there that I drank mint tea next to a sleeping cat and listened to local men play local music with oud and drum.

Cafe near Kazbar with local music, Tangier, Morocco

Tips for visiting Tangier:

  • It is handy to have a hotel booked when you arrive, just so you can complete the ‘address’ section on the border entry form and confidently escape the persistent touts who flock to stations, ports, terminals and ranks to tell you that their hotel is the only one available in the city. I stayed in the grand but weary Hotel Continental, which used to be the celebrity hotel of choice in its heyday. It has charming staff, Mediterranean views and is right next to the medina and Kazbar.
  • Pack your sense of humour in generous measure. This is a city that can test your patience, with hotelliers, vendors, touts, scouts and nosey locals calling at you as you walk the streets. If you are not interested in their wares or pitch, I’ve found the best response is just to smile, politely say no (or la shukran in Arabic) repeatedly and don’t hesitate in your step. Most people are harmless and just doing business the way they think is best, they may follow you for a couple of blocks with their best hard sell, but eventually they will fall away and try their spiel on someone else.
  • If you are catching the ferry from Spain, check which ports you are going to and from. The ferry from Algerciras took about 1 hour and dropped us at the ‘new’ port, about an hour from the city. There is an information point there for maps, a Europecar office and a free bus that takes passengers to the main bus station in Tangier. There are lots of taxis there at the bus station (use the tan ones and negotiate the price before you get in) or you can walk to the old town in 30 minutes. Make sure you keep your ferry ticket so you can use the bus. There is also a port in the city centre accepting ferries from other places.
  • Visit the Kazbar Museum for a wonderful photographic exhibition. Entry is 20 Dirham and for that you get to see old photos, film and documentaries of Morocco (mostly black and white), as well as modern art pieces, a few ancient artefacts and a lovely terrace garden.
Featured

Walking Ronda in Southern Spain

Flowers walking Ronda, SpainSet atop a cliff and surrounded by mountainous grey, the historical town of Ronda offers quite a view of southern Spain. As the pale morning sun breathes colour across the horizon, an agricultural patchwork of olive groves, vineyards and fawn grasses can be seen in the valley below. Behind me, the little town is still sleeping, with only elderly walkers and bands of before-school students to be found in the 7am parks and streets.

With three nights in this pleasant mountain town, I spent most of my visit just walking: wandering past sights, taking some photos, observing the locals and exploring the rural tracks and cobbled streets of Ronda.

Here are a some of the walking routes I took during my adventures.

Historical Ronda

Ronda has some impressive old stuff and a lot of historical charm to go with it, making a DIY walking tour of the historical highlights a really enjoyable day out.

Starting in the new city centre, make your way over the ‘famous ‘new bridge’ (also known as Puente Nuevo), which spans the chasm known as El Tajo. Contrary to what the relative name suggests, Puente Nuevo was built quite a while ago, in 1734 to be precise. This impressive structure towers more than 100 metres above the canyon floor and can be found on the cover of most Ronda tourist brochures…as well as in the gap linking the new city and old city.

Once across the bridge, you will find yourself in the historical quarter of Ronda, an artisan-filled area of narrow alleys, mature vines and Moorish past. Explore the lanes sprouting from the main road, taking special care not to miss the first right turn after the bridge, which leads to you a courtyard of cafes and a viewpoint.

Below that viewpoint is a paved path that leads down the hill. For a view of the bridge that beats the ones shown in tourism brochures, turn right off the main route, down a dirt path that hugs the cliff. While quite a wide path, it is made of rubble, so be sure to take extra care as you follow it down to the little cascade at the base of the chasm.The new bridge in Ronda, Spain

More historical delights can be found back up the hill and on the other side of the main road in the old quarter. Taking a left a few streets along the main road, after crossing the bridge from the new city, you will meander downhill, towards Ronda’s ‘old bridge’ (also known as Puente Viejo and Arab Bridge), which dates back to the Arab occupation in the 16th Century.

On this side of the old city there are more viewpoints, some churches, some gorgeous crumbling houses and a bridge that leads back into the edge of the new city.

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Rural Ronda

I heard that Ronda offered some great rural walks and mountainous hikes, so upon arrival, I hit up the very busy tourist office near Plaza Toros (the big round bull fighting arena) where I was sold seven local walking maps for the bargain price of 5 Euros.

The one we ended up walking took us on a circular trail out of town, which was only a couple of kilometres in total.

Start by making your way though the historical quarter and Espiritu Santo district, to the south gate in the old city walls. Take a left along the road as soon as you exit the gate. This road will take you out of town.

Along the way is a quaint Spanish villa on the right, which is complete with vegetable garden, a well and an old man in his blue and white striped boxer shorts. The roadside path is edged by swishing honey fields, cactus plans that span meters in all directions, bright purple thistles, giant dandelions and Australian gum trees that reminded me of home.

Up the top of the big hill is a right turn that leads towards a housing estate and residential village. This is the start of the circuit that will lead you through a real-world adventure of rural Ronda.

Although not as charming as most published walks, this trail offers an interesting view of life in rural southern Spain. We walked past barking dogs, rusty fences and piles of concrete rubble, but we also saw orchards and ponies and delicate dry flowers that shone in the late afternoon sun.

On the way home, we stopped for some tapas and wine in the plaza opposite the south gate that leads back into the historical quarter. Filled with locals in the pink dusk, and serving tapas and wine for 1.50 per serve, this was a lovely way to finish a walking adventure.

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Running Ronda

In my effort to restore some kind of regular cardio workout to my blessed travel life, I went for a little run in the early Ronda morning. During this little burst of energy, I learned a couple of things: 1) my Camino fitness had been severely harmed by subsequent serves of Spanish ice-cream and days of beach basking; 2) people don’t really run in Ronda, or so I gathered from the apparent lack of other runners and the strange stares I attracted from the many groups of walkers; and 3) sweeping vistas and steep stone steps make for wonderful running circuits.

What I can recommend to you after such lessons is to check out the 180+ degree views afforded by the cliff-side path at Ala Meda de Tejo, which is the edge of the big leafy park in the new city.

A view from Ronda, Spain

Ronda by night

One of my favourite ways to see a city is by walking the night-hushed streets. Sometime after the festive buzz of early evening, following the warm glow of dinner and just before the blissful calm of midnight, the streets reveal a new face. Softly lit by lamps and unpolluted by crowds, the evening streets are full of simple satisfactions…and often a wonderful photo op. or two.

Ronda is a reassuringly safe city, with well-lit streets and a good amount of people making their way home until the 12pm. This means that the new city plazas and old city streets feel quite welcoming for a late night stroll.

If you walk through the main commercial district and over towards the ‘new bridge’ you can also steal a lovely view of dotted lights in the black space below Ronda.

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A special, warm, cuddly thanks to my walking buddies Bec, Fraz and Dave, who brought all sorts of wonderful insights, navigating skills and photography patience to our adventures. Also, a special mention to Fraz, whose research savvy and sheer determination to get down the hill found us a fantastic trail to see the underside of the new bridge.

For The Love of Paris: a photowalk

It’s a perfect Parisian evening. A light breeze dances through the Jardin Du Luxembourg with the sweetness of red and purple blossoms.

jardin du luxembourg Paris

Tanned bodies sprawl across the lawn; bare skin against electric green. Little white triangles tack across the glossy fountain pond as children run alongside with sailors’ glee. Powder-green chairs sit in messy clusters; echoes of crowds that have come and gone throughout the day.

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As the sun sinks into a hazy gold band above the city, I watch the vibrant park life and marvel at the appropriateness of this vista to reflect upon my acquaintance with Paris.

Jardin du Luxembourg Paris at sunset August

She’s an intense beauty this city: she woos with romantic theatrics and creative flair, then flips to moody big-city confrontation.

Paris from Centre Pompidou

A day in Paris can be spent in the company of the most gifted painters and sculptures of centuries passed, but it can also be a day of dodging shifty metro-goers and giant rats on the pavement.

Gardens at Museum Rodin

Paris can show you perfect cobbled passages, offer dining at quaint bistros with poodle-owning patrons. She can also smite you with persistent damp, inexplicable closures and oh-so inconvenient track works.

Street art Centre Pompidou Paris

Sitting within a floral dream though, after the heightened weariness of jet lag has passed, it’s all too clear that I’ll simply accept the ickier moments in exchange for the generous delights offered by those I adore.Coffee in Paris

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There’s much more about Paris to come so stick around, and follow my travel adventures on Instagram via @nicfreemanlife

Best bushwalks around Brisbane

The satisfying crunch of gum leaves underfoot beckons me back to the bush.

With the passing of city-dwelling days, I ache for the steady stomp of the track, for the calming flutter of canopy leaves. My mind traces the memory of dizzy squiggles in smooth, pale trees, and sways to the rhythm of the brush cuckoo’s call.

Walking, hiking, oh joyful wilderness adventures; it has  become my steady remedy. It refreshes my soul, quietens my mind and opens my heart to the curiosities of the natural world.

The scrub-thick tracks, rocky mountain trails and dewy subtropical forests of South-East Queensland are a delight to explore. Radiating in each direction from my Brisbane base, I’ve found this pocket of the state hosts many a remote, varied and inspiring walk.

These are some of my favourite national parks for bushwalking close to Brisbane.

Gum leaf at Mt Mee Queensland near Brisbane

Glass House Mountains

Less than an hour north of Brisbane, these odd-shaped volcanic remnants jut into sky as a series of rocky peaks among dry shrub and gums. There are 14 mountains in this range, an area that covers more than 600,000 hectares. Walking tracks are graded between Class 2 and Class 5 and are mostly short walks that are doable in less than a day.

I can recommend these popular walks:

  • The Trachyte (5.7 km) and Tibrogargan circuits (3km), which can be combined
  • The Mount Berrburrum track, which is only 280 metres but very steep and rewarding for views from the summit fire tower
  • The Mount Ngungun Summit, which is 2.4km return and graded Class 4 for its steep, gravelly trail
  • The Mount Tibrogargan Summit, which is a Class 5 hike / climb  known for being dangerous if tackled by reckless or inexperienced climbers (but great summit views).

Hot tip: Walking poles are a good way to save your knees in steep descents, help support your strides in long walks and take the pressure off any niggling injuries. I’ve always avoided poles, wanting to be lightweight and nimble, but lately I’ve been trying out the single Cotswold Explorer UL telescopic walking pole and am impressed by the way it tucks effortlessly onto my pack when I don’t need it.

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D’Agular National Park

Another natural playground close to Brisbane is D’Agular National Park, which is divided into two sections.

The South D’Agular section sweeps from the popular Mt Coot-tha, alongside the charming Samford Valley around Mt Nebo and Mt Glorious, reaching west to Lake Wivenhoe. It has 17 tracks to choose from, mostly short walks under two hours, with a handful of more difficult walks between two and three hours and a few long walks ranging from 17-24km. A personal easy favourite is the Westside Track, which is just more than 6km and offers a great western aspect.

The Mt Mee section is more northerly, with Lake Somerset to the West, the magical Woodford to the north and delightful little creeks and falls throughout. There are fewer walks in this section, but lots of little creek-dwelling delights to linger upon. Try the 13km Somerset Trail from the Gantry to experience a lovely mingling of scrub and gum and subtropical forests. The very short creek-side Lophostemon walk is worth a look if you’re camping at Neerum Creek.

Hot tip: All Queensland national park walks are graded for difficulty to help you judge which trail best suits your ability and enthusiasm. Read more about the standard track classes on the official Queensland Government webpage for each national park.

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Conondale National Park

Wandering further north again, the Conondale National Park is a walker’s wonderland located a little way past the artisan township of Maleny. Best known for it’s four day, 56km Conondale Range Great Walk circuit, this hinterland national park has eight walking tracks in total.

My recently discovered favourite is the Artists Cascades track, a 10km return walk . It takes you through thick subtropical rainforest, past the impressive 3.7 metre high Strangler Cairn sculpture by Andy Goldsworthy, and down into a cool, serene a gully that’s perfect for picnics and a cheeky dip in the cascades.

Be sure to check the access to your chosen walk, as there are some creek crossings that need 4×4 vehicles or a willingness to walk shoes-in-hand through shin-high water.

Hot tip: Make sure you check the Queensland Government website for closure notifications and alerts, as there are often closed tracks.

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Get ready by checking what to take on your Queensland hiking adventure.

Leaves underfoot - hiking walking camping outdoors

More Melbourne Eats

Melbourne is a joy for the senses; a vibrant, food-loving, coffee-fueled city that celebrates dining with creativity and care.

Here’s a handful of delightful Melbourne eats discovered in my recent adventures.

Movida Next Door

Entering the small space of Movida Next Door inspires the same passionate buzz as a late-night Spanish bar. Waiting with a glass of vino tinto, as squished as the sardines on the menu, I became lost in the romance of the bar and forgot all about the table queue.

I was delighted to find authentic tortilla, spicy chorizo, and moreish mejillones… essentially a happy journey through Spanish deliciousness.

Find MoVida Next Door at 164 Flinders Street in the city (on the corner of Hosier Lane, and opposite Federation Square).

Spanish style food at Movida Next Door Melbourne near Federation Sqaure

Seven Seeds

One of my favourite Melbourne eateries, Seven Seeds, is all about incredible coffee roasted on-site and matched with hearty eats and a cosy vibe.

The renovated warehouse space is half the attraction, with high ceilings, lots of light and soothing brick to make you feel the need to order another Rueben, ride the caffeine buzz and spend lazy hours imaging your future studio-living dreams that very space.

Be sure to ask the staff about the coffee – while it’s always good to benchmark with your standard order, there is a brave world of Melbourne artisan brews happening in this Carlton cafe. The well-loved Melbourne micro-roaster serves delicious drops across the city, so if you like what they do, look up their other cafes, and note that they hold regular cupping sessions for those keen to sip, smell and spit their way to coffee enlightenment.

Find Seven Seeds at 114 Berkeley Street, Carlton.

Seven Seeds Carlton coffee and food

Flipboard Cafe

Nestled within wooden window nooks, tram bells dinging through the mezzanine window and the wholesome satisfaction of a spelt and salad sandwich in my belly, I decided Flipboard Cafe was quite a delight. The coffee is yummy, there are gluten-free sweets and it’s got that wonderful energy that comes with a inner-city space.

Find Flipboard Cafe at 141 La Trobe Street in the city.

Tall Timber

Clean and bright, this is one of those cafes that helps you greet the new day with a warm smile and a optimistic outlook. The communal tables lined with herbs, upcycled wooden shelving and homey menu is a comfort, as is the quality brew.

Find Tall Timber at 60 Commercial Road, Prahran.

Nieuw Amsterdam

If you’re in the mood for some fancy-ish feel-good food, Nieuw Amsterdam’s cheeseburger and Dutch fries, smokey beef brisket or chicken waffles may hit the spot. The split-level eatery and bar also does moody lighting, group-appropriate booths and a sturdy selection of beers and ciders to help wash down your upstairs eats.

Find Nieuw Amsterdam at 106-112 Hardware Street in the city (a short walk from the State Library and Wheeler City).

Pabu Grill & Sake

Even with so much to tempt you on Smith Street, it would be a shame to overlook this lively Japanese gem of a restaurant, which likens itself to a modern Japanese ‘pub’ or izakaya.

I can recommend the Hiyashi (little towers of silken tofu), Kinolco salad of greens and mushies (vegan and can be GF) and ‘Standard Flight’ of three sake with tasting notes.

Find Pabu at 190 Smith Street, Collingwood.

Messina

Before, after or in-between your Smith Street meals, be sure to indulge in the incredibly tasty gelato treats at Messina.

At times there are long lines, but steady your gelato-loving heart and trust that it will be worth the wait. I devoured a small serve of ‘The Boss’ Wife’ (a rich and creamy hazelnut concoction) and was overcome with the kind of deep bliss only reached through truly amazing dessert.

Find Messina at 237 Smith Street, Fitzroy.

Jardin Tan Kiosk

French-Vietnamese food and garden-side bliss sum up the joys of Jardin Tan Kiosk, the newly-opened eatery in Melbourne Botanical Gardens. Offering both quick snacks and sit-down delights, this casual yet polished creation seems to have effortlessly combined garden-grown and local ingredients with world-class cooking.

My experience was a relaxed and sublime lunch affair in the ‘beer garden’, surrounded by fresh herbs and veges. I can recommend the crispy tofu with red chilli, the prawn and pork Vietnamese pancake (just like Hoi An), the prawn and sweet potato fritters with green chili pickles, and (the star of my meal) the warm, crispy Bo La Lot.

Find Jardin Tan at the Royal Botanic Gardens, in the former Observatory Cafe.

Jardin Tan Melbourne Royal Botanical Gardens

For more Melbourne inspiration, check out Melbourne Weekender: Foody Happiness in Australia’s Cultural Capital and A Photo Walk in Melbourne, Australia

 

Idyllic Croatia: A photo walk through memories

Croatia lives in my memory as a pristine natural beauty and a nation of warm hospitality.

When running my not-so-short list of ‘favourite’ travel destinations , Croatia always seems to feature. And often, in moments of wishing I was far, far away, the mental images of Croatia sail into view, bringing with them a drifting kind of calm.

Here are some of my favourite Croatian destinations, as captured in photographs from my travels.

Plitvice

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See more of the captivating Plitvice National Park.

Pag

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Read about more of my sunny, yummy adventures on the island of Pag.

Dubrovnik

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 Mjlet Island

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Read more about relaxing on Mjlet Island and in Dubrovnik.

Pula

Pula Roman ampitheatre

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See more of my travels in Pula and the coast of Istria.

Losinj

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Read more about Losinj, Croatia’s island of vitality.

Petrinja

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P1330011Hear more about the local hospitality in Petrinja.

Split

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Zagreb

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A Photo Drive Around Wanaka, New Zealand

The air is still like winter. Alpine blues soften ice-bitten brown and gravel-grey mountains. Long lakes like mirrors line the valleys. Woodfire smoke rises to meet low cloud.

Sitting in the passenger seat, I’m in awe of the natural scenery and glad of hiring a car. I’m an adventurer on wheels; an intrepid spirit in air-conditioned warmth.

We stop to photograph reflections and stay ‘til our fingers are numb. The map covers knees and dashboard, showing the way to all the majestic sights that we don’t have enough daylight to see.Lake Dunstan  New Zealand South IslandLake Wanaka New Zealand South Island_1380299_1380300_1380307_1380336_1380549_1380562_1380436_1380507_1380478The view from Crown Range over Queenstown  New Zealand South Island

Tips for driving around Wanaka:

There are two ways to reach Wanaka from Queenstown. The Crown Range road, past Cardrona, is a winding road with incredible summit views and a higher chance of ice. It is a shorter, slightly more challenging drive but worth it for the photo ops. The other road is longer, and loops around the edge of the mountain range, alongside Lake Dunstan. Both routes take you through Arrowtown, the quaint, historic and tourist-filled township of Marino wool boutiques and cafes. Both routes will also take you a little way through the vineyards of this world-recognised wine region, and past some chances to taste a bit of cheese.

Stay up to date on road conditions by checking online daily. The New Zealand government site is pretty good for road condition and closure updates. Also stay tuned to Facebook and Twitter for talk of needing chains on the higher passes and unsealed roads. As you drive, also keep an eye out for signs stating the road warnings. There will be signs telling you if you need to put chains on your tyres, and there are stopping bays to do just that in the winding mountain roads.

There are a couple of great lookouts between Arrow Junction and the Crown Range summit. Be ready to pull over to get those spectacular shots across Queenstown and The Remarkables.

Arriving in Queenstown, New Zealand

Alpine air smacks my cheeks as I step onto the tarmac. A curtain of blue-grey mountains encircles the airport and I’m suddenly aware: this is a majestic land.

It’s my first time in New Zealand and the start of a one-week encounter that leaves me longing for more time to roam the captivating wilderness of the South Island.

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Soon we are driving down towards Queenstown. It sits so pretty beside the lake, protected by peaks and lapped by a tranquil blue. The first of many photo stops reminds me of the icy chill outside, and I’m giddy to see surrounding slopes spotted with snow.

I quickly realise that Queenstown shares many similarities with other ski-towns. A handful of languages brush my ears as I walk the paved arcade noting the mix of tourism offices, international brands and local shops along the way. But the provincial charm is not lost in this nomad beacon. Boats bob gently by the pier and locals greet you with a warm hello.

After a quick bite, we’ve recovered some warmth and are already leaving dear Queenstown. We planned to stay for a few nights in nearby Wanaka, another lakeside town famous for it’s stunning scenery, before returning for a closer look.

Tips for arriving in Queenstown:

  • Frankton Airport services Queenstown. It is relatively small for an international port but still has a small selection of duty free alcohol and perfumes on sale, and a sizeable hire car hub. The airport is 6km from Queenstown.
  • Vudu Cafe is a cosy stop for some coffee and cake or a sandwich. Like most New Zealand eateries, it has gluten-free options. Find it in the centre of Queenstown, in Beach Street.
  • I was told by a couple of locals that parking in Queenstown centre is a ‘nightmare’, but each time we arrived with our hire car, we found a spot within a block of the central district. Driving in from the airport, you’ll find a big car park on your right-hand side as you reach the centre. It’s paid but cheap, and if you arrive early in the morning, available for 8 hours at a time.

Travel Moments: Deep winter in Tromsø, Norway

The crush of snow underfoot echoes in the deep winter of Tromsø. All other sounds sleep under a white, white blanket, waiting for the sun to rise in six weeks time.

I am most intrigued by the pale sky. It fades between hues of blue and grey. That faraway sun, suspended below the horizon, would be too much to bare if I lived here, but at least the brightly painted houses punctuate the streets and hint at the living warmth within.

My mission in Tromsø is the same mission held by so many other southern-dwellers who venture into the Arctic circle. I’m told not to get my hopes up, that the Northern Lights are mysterious and unpredictable, taunting travellers for days, leaving only the cold black night for their searching eyes.

But mere hours have passed before I’m trudging through shin-deep snow, crunching in the empty night, up towards the hill-top cemetery , towards the hope of those eerie green dancers overhead. And sometime between the ice-dripping tombstone and the frosting wind and the fear that my toes will be bitten by sub-zero air, I look up to see silent green waves whisking and waving across a starry sky.

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Melbourne Weekender: Foody Happiness in Australia’s Cultural Capital

The creative pulse of Melbourne stirs giddy dreams of urban adventures. With every visit, I find myself enchanted by vibrant street art and tipsy with the rush of cultural possibilities.

Melbourne inspires laneway fever, strolls down wide streets, tours of history-rich buildings and skipping through crisp autumn leaves. The city calls for late night explorations of roof-top and hole-in-the-wall bars. It beckons the inner artisan-lovers, hipster-befrienders and part-time fashionistas in all of us.  But arguably, most of all, Melbourne entices with the happy potential for belly-led wanderings through a kaleidoscope of city flavours.

I tend to schedule Melbourne adventures around food. The consequences is experiencing Melbourne as a dreamy dalliance betwixt cafes, bars, restaurants and street food vendors.

Here are a few random foody highlights from my recent wanderings to help fill your belly and your time during your Melbourne weekender. (Note – all are GF friendly).

Kinfolk

Nurture your warm and fuzzy side in this cosy space across from Southern Cross Station.  Kinfolk is a cafe with a conscience;  a self-dubbed social enterprise designed to give back to the community . The cafe is staffed with volunteers, stocked with deliciously healthy eats and is reasonably priced. Find it at 673 Bourke Street in the city and online.

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New Day Rising

Iddy-biddy in size but generous in charm, this is the cafe you call on for a casual catch-up for two. Brick and wood and shelves of jars give New Day Rising a home-kitchen feel to match its simple but comforting menu.  Find it at 221d Blyth Street, Brunswick East.

Penny Farthing Espresso

Nestled along the joy-filled High Street in Northcote, Penny Farthing serves reliable espresso and a mean smashed avocado and fetta on toast, among other yummy eats. While you’re in the area, be sure to have a shop. Find it at 206 High Street, Northcote and online.

Proud Mary

Known for its specialty coffee, funky edge and all-day breaky and lunch, Proud Mary is a buzzing joint with well-earned hype. You may need to wait a while for a seat but I found it worth my while. Find it at 172 Oxford Street,  Collingwood and online.

Market Lane Coffee  at the Prahran Markets

The meeting of espresso, fresh-cut flowers and produce stalls at the Prahran Markets, just off Chapel Street, makes for a smiley day. Be sure to wander through and stop for a break if you’re in the area. Find it at 163 Commercial Road, South Yarra every day except Mondays and Wednesdays, as well as online.

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Auction Rooms

Sit yourself down in the lovely old WB Ellis auction house to enjoy the specialty coffee and smiley service in one of North Melbourne’s favourites. This place has that happy buzz that’s necessary in any much-loved Melbourne eatery. Find it at 103-107 Errol Street, North Melbourne and online.

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Miss Chu

For a fresh, healthy and memorable lunch with a street-food style and price tag, visit the well-loved Miss Chu. No exaggeration, this is was the best Vietnamese food I’ve had outside of Vietnam, and I was won over by the quirky tuckshop space and no-fuss ordering system. You will find a Miss Chu in a number of spots across Melbourne and Sydney. I enjoyed Miss Chu eating (twice) at 276 Toorak Road, South Yarra. More info online.

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Rice Queen

Revel under scarlet lanterns and cherry-blossom branches at Rice Queen, where oriental meals are served with a splash of sultry fun. After dinner and drinks, sing a little song in the karaoke booth out the back. This is a great spot for a fun and flirty date. You’ll need a booking most nights of the week. Find it at  389 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy and online.

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Rosa’s Kitchen

Down a dark alley and around the corner you’ll find a single neon sign for Rosa’s Kitchen. Inside is elegant, impressively polite and simply seasoned dining on an authentic Italian menu. Find it at 22 Punch Lane, Melbourne and call (03) 9662 2883 to make a booking.

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Mama Sita

Modern Mexicana has earned quite a following at the ever-popular Mama Sita in the CBD. Known as much for its long lines as it is for fantastically fresh food and a long list of tequilas, Mama Sita is an atmospheric and satisfying restaurant choice, if you can survive the wait. Bookings are accepted for groups of 10+ only and your best bet of dining is to go at nanna’s dinner time. Find it at Level 1 / 11 Collins Street, Melbourne and online.

Queen Victoria Market

A classic feature of any Melbourne weekend itinerary, it’s hard to pass up the chance to smell, taste and shop your way to fulfillment at the Queen Victoria Market. For a bit of extra fun and convenience, hire yourself a cute named trolley from the coffee house outside. Find it in Elizabeth Street, Melbourne on every day except Monday.

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A Photo Walk in Melbourne, Australia

Crisp leaves scrape along the windy path. Coffee grind scents the morning air. A dog dressed in tartan trots next to a lady in black.

I’m as comfortable here, walking camera-in-hand, as I’ve been anywhere in the world. Melbourne is cold and exciting. It inspires creative footsteps. It urges me to capture the quirks of its urbanscape; urges me to discover delights around the corner; urges me on with eager legs to fill the canvas of my day.

Graffiti street art in Melbourne lanewayVine in MelbourneHistorical buildings in Melbourne CBDAutumn leaf in MelbourneBicycle in MelbourneGraffiti street art MelbourneBlue sky Melbourne CBDP1350531Bike storage Melbourne CBDAutumn leaves Melbourne AustraliaStreet art MelbourneStreet art MelbourneDusk over Melbourne Victoria AustraliaP1370326Walking at night in Melbourne CBDMelbourne CBD historical buildingsCatching a tram a night - Melbourne CBDMelbourne CBD and public artLaneway street art in Melbourne CBDPublic art in Melbourne CBDOld pub tiles in MelbourneFlinders Street Melbourne CBDRunning in St Kilda Melbourne AustraliaAutumn in Melbourne Victoria AustraliaYarra River views in Melbourne CBDLaneway adventures in Melbourne CBDSitting along the Yarra River in Melbourne CBDSt Kilda Melbourne - coastal calm

Travel. Food. Photo. France.

Eating in France is a sensual, indulgent, near-sacred experience. Inspired by the French people, who seem to be captivated by their food, absorbing it rather than merely ingesting it, visitors will find their senses enlivened, their culinary imaginations fulfilled and their palates warmed to the finer delights of occasional dinning.

Accompanying the familiar features of French cuisine – baguettes, croissants, escargot, crème brûlée, Camembert – are the equally delicious cultural staples of rabbit and duck and terrine, as well as the local favourites of glazed custard tarts, crêpes and a heart-lifting variety of cheeses. Dishes are created butter-rich, cream-thickened and salted for that special French flavour, and plates are served simply, as if the food naturally occurred in such a rustic yet refined way.

The only thing for it is to let go, immerse your senses and enjoy the rich flavours of travelling in France.

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My first real French macaroon served on a square of slate with a rich espresso.

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The dramatic licks and curls of a crème brûlée flame never fail to mesmerise.

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With a bakery on almost every corner, it is hard to avoid such yummy baked eats. (Hovering outside, inhaling deeply, was all I could do to resist the glutinous delights of France).

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I came dangerously close to turning into a tart after consuming so many custard and apricot treats (sans glutinous pastry base).

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Terrine with pickled gherkins and balsamic, sweetbread (lamb thyroid glands) and balsamic rabbit at Michelin star, Bistro des Gastronomes (on Rue Cardinal Lemoine, just of St Germain, Paris).

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Parisian cuisine meets Japanese bento with this healthy, no-fuss lunch at the chic Nanashi (Rue Charlot, Le Marais, 3rd arrondissement, Paris).

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My week of decadent French dinning was topped with a satisfying share-plate supper at the bustling cafeteria Au Passage (1 bis, passage Saint Sebastien, Paris 75011), which was, of course, complete with wine and cheese trimmings.

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And… for a sweet end-of-eve treat, chocolate mousse, berries and meringue .

The Joys of French Champagne

Alighting to a crisp autumn vista of neat vineyards and floral tones was precisely what my wander-lusting heart had imagined for Champagne-Ardenne.

On first impressions, the French province so well known for its exclusive and decadent sparkling whites, is a countryside dream of lavender, daisies and carefully tended cottages all in a row.

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With the train line and gentle hills behind me, I strolled into the hushed village of Avenay-Val-d’Or, delighted by the picturesque prettiness . I knew nothing of the village, having chosen to wander aimlessly through the French countryside while the fine weather held. The unexpected exploration proved a treat, as hours filled with photos and parks and fruit-laden vines idled past.

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Avenay-Val-d’Or is an easy 7km from Epernay, and is graced with provincial charm, offering a few walking trails (mapped on a sign near the village fountain), a patisserie and some Champagne vineyards where the cogs of the polished Champagne industry are apparent.

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Further along the rail line I encountered Reims, the capital of Champagne-Ardenne. My brief visit revealed Reims to be a pretty city; a university city; and a city that offers an interesting clash of old and new.

It has some impressive monuments, most notably the 13th Century Gothic Notre Dame de Reims, with its vibrant stained glass, as well as the grand theatre in the heart of the city. In contrast, the commercial centre is an open-air mall of fast food restaurants, tourist-targeted shops, and on the day of my visit, hundreds of students in green war paint performing some kind of initiation. Of course, there are also boutiques and patisseries and all those other delightfully French things that we would expect to see in a city the size of Reims.

Woven into the grid of smaller city streets are finer dining restaurants, known for pairing the wines of the region with traditional and modern French cuisine.

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After a late lunch in Reims, the train journey through vineyards lulled me back into Epernay.

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I found Epernay to be a strange little town; it was sleepy in the grey weather, with a compact shopping centre, and residential buildings that scattered into the surrounding vineyards. Although the dining and accommodation options weren’t has diverse as I had imagined for the home of Champagne, there is no denying that the famous Avenue de Champagne is what makes this French town unmissable.

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Along the Avenue are prestigious Champagne houses, such as Moet and Chandon,with its subterranean cellars spanning almost 30 kilometres, Pol Rodger, Alfred Gratien, Mercier and many more. Even without the light bubbly delights of Champagne served in tastings and tours along the way, this route is worth a walk. Impressive structures dating back to the 1700 and 1800s are something to behold as they battle for attention, using glamour, decadence and clout to win over awed pedestrians.

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Beyond the joys of bubbles, Epernay boasts the trimmings of a town that has succeeded in the world market. Elaborate gardens, gilded and laced gates and expensive cars make Epernay a lovely place to escape for a couple of days of luxury.

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Practical Bits & Bob:

Getting to Epernay only takes one hour on a comfy, fast SNCF train from Paris Gare de L’est (east station). Check the regular timetable and buy tickets from the SNCF ticketing machines in the station.

Trains run between Epernay and the Champagne capital, Reims. The little town of Avernay is along the rail line. If there is no ticket machine or conductor at a smaller station, simply board the next train and flag the conductor who walks the carriages selling tickets with a portable ticking machine. Although you see bus stops in Epernay, there are apparently no inter-town buses. Hiring a car or joining a tour seem to be the most common and easiest ways to see the region.

The map near the fountain in the centre of Avenay-Val-d’Or vaguely indicates a couple of short walking routes (5km and 3km) but we just wandered the small town, picking a direction and walking in admiration of the iron gates, blossoming gardens and piles of crunchy autumn leaves underfoot. For more info about the town, try looking here and here for starters.

Reims is best reached by train from Paris or Epernay. There is a tourist information centre to the right as you exit the train station, as well as near the cathedral in the city centre. Many tourists use it as a base from which to explore the region as it has frequent connections to Paris, more accommodation options than surrounding towns and many tour operators offer tastings across the region. If you are a Veuve Clicquot fan, the visitor’s centre is located in Reims, unlike many of the other big Champagne houses that are in Epernay.

The Epernay tourism information centre is at the start of Avenue de Champagne. The centre has lot of pamphlets about dining, wine tours and regional tours. It is best to book in advance for full day excursions. You can also hire bicycles and get information about cycling and walking routes from the information centre. You can also scout for local information online.

The Champagne Houses along Avenue de Champagne generally offer tastings. Some houses offer a set menu for tastings as well as a tour, which often includes tastings. The smaller champagne houses seem a bit more casual. We enjoyed a €5 per head standard tasting (three champagnes) at Champagne A. Bergère, as well as a tasting at Champagne Michel Gonet towards the end of the avenue. Bubbly deliciousness! Find out more about tours and tastings at each house by visiting their website or checking with the tourist information centre in Epernay. Some tours are by appointment only and some during set hours or days only.

Words About Home

There are times when this big, boisterous world is just too great to absorb.

My mind can’t expand across the oceans and peaks, nor bridge gaps between cultures and hearts. There are too many strange and confronting things to voice in one breath; too many miraculous places for a single dream; and too many harsh realities to ignore.

Sometimes, often when weary, I seek the shelter of silence. I crave calm, soft places where creature comforts live in cosy cocoons. But, being young and hopeful, I’ve always looked upon such retreat as an essential hiatus before soaring forward into grander things.

To match my 2012 lessons in freedom and courage, it seems 2013 is sending me challenges of patience, testing my will and mocking my ability to find balance.

Since returning from my whirl-wind nine month adventure in Europe, I’ve experienced a journey of peaks and troughs. I’ve felt an overwhelming gratitude for the opportunities I enjoyed in 2012 and the lessons that enriched me along the way. I’ve been elated in the returned company of loved ones, and appreciative for my homeland, my sentimental objects and effortless Australian customs. I’ve ached for the excitement of the road, with its ever-changing horizon and serendipitous path, and I’ve felt trapped by domestic necessities.

Perhaps most significantly though, I’ve been frustrated with illness that has bound my body, and along with it, my spirit, making me feel a million miles away from untamed explorations and energetic pursuits. I am not nearly dying. I am not nearly bed-bound. But I am wracked with the frustration that comes from months of deep weariness, constant illness and vague solutions. I am not accustomed to being held back by my own physical form; to being told by my own body to slow down, sleep, participate less.

While travelling I stumbled across many a mindful moment, when conscious clarity seemed a natural state and freedom of heart felt like status quo. But sadly, these moments shift and flicker with the pressure of reality; they waiver and fade into states of uncertainty, as the world appears less accommodating than that of days passed.

I find balance to be an ever-elusive ideal, a shape-shifter lingering in the corners of my minds-eye. I find home to be a comfort and a cage, depending on my state of mind. I feel the future is full of possibilities, so many possibilities that at times I am overwhelmed if I let myself be so.

For now I must just let go, enjoy the comforts of home… and then perhaps take a flight to Melbourne for a weekend of travel delights.

Travel Moments: Walking the Hills of Sapa, Vietnam

Rice paddies glisten through the mountain mist as I weave into the valley below. Beyond the haze, I hear Hmong voices chattering as they trace a well-worn trail; I glimpse dark figures treading between the clouds, wicker baskets of produce strapped to their back on the way to market.

Nic Freeman Travel - Sapa Vietnam Walking

I was enchanted by this northern Vietnamese landscape the moment I left Sapa town yesterday.  Local school teacher come part-time tourist guide, Tân, accompanied me on my first walk. He had an infectious passion for the local tribes and cultures, and in the six hours we spent scrambling along steep mountain passes, overlooking villages signalled with grey chimney smoke, Tân briefed me on the complexities and charms of local life. I learnt that half of the local population belonged to the black, green of flower Hmong tribes; there are 12 different tones or ways to say ‘a’ in Vietnamese; primary school students are aged five to fourteen; and, most of the surrounding communities survived off their produce and crafts.

At the edge of each village, between the bamboo thickets and lapping paddies, I was greeted by flurries of small children. I drank the sweet nectar of sugar cane, freshly hacked from the edge of our trail. I drank tea with some farmers while sitting next to a bull. And as the sun reached the centre of the sky, I was joined by a small Hmong girl selling bracelets. Her deep eyes of liquid black stirred my heart, and although we barely shared a word in the three hours she walked by my side, I felt like we bonded over the trail, the landscape and the delicate beaded jewellery that jangled at my wrist as we waved goodbye.

Nic Freeman Travel - Sapa Vietnam Walking

Travel. Food. Photo. Berlin.

Eclectic like its culture, full of flavour like its people, I found the food of Berlin bloomed from a welcomed suite of cuisines at joyfully affordable prices. As I mentioned in my A Week In Berlin post, I was happy to be greeted with the multicultural spectrum the tastebuds in Germany’s creative capital.

Unlike other posts in this Travel.Food.Photo. series, this Berlin edition offers tips for finding yummy street eats, simply because there are so many options… and I want to share the deliciousness.

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Enjoy the belly-warming flavour of currywurst at Curry 7 – Schlesische Straße 7 in Kreuzberg (close to the river, on the opposite side of the bank to the East Side Gallery a.k.a Berlin Wall art).

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Go back for another serve at Falafel , where lamb kofta, dips and salad cost a delicious €4 per plate or less if you eat kofta in a pita pocket. Find it across the street from Gorlitzer Bhf station (U1).

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Grab a loaf of steaming bread from a local bakery and a baby bottle of Kleiner Feigling (which we lovingly called ‘happy juice’) from your local convenience store. This alcoholic drink tastes like medicine for children (the good kind) and gives you a warm glow in your belly on a chilly Berlin day. Each item will only cost a couple of Euros.

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For hearty German food, sit down at the butcher on the corner of Warschauer Straße and Revaler Straße in Friedrichshain.  Perhaps some Einstein for you, a.k.a. pork knuckle with sauerkraut and boiled potatoes?

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Or perhaps some goulash with red sauerkraut and potatoes? Either way, it will cost you less than €5 and you’ll be hard pushed to finish your meal.

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Try some market yumminess at one of the many produce and flea markets across the city, where you can find almost anything from smoked fish, organic everything, vegan and gluten-free cakes, funny-shaped fruit to fresh leafy greens.P1340403P1340412

You can also indulge in waffles and other sugary, fried treats.

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Two wonderful Berlin markets for food and adventure are Mauerpark Flea Market (Sundays) and Boxhagener Platz Farmer’s Market (Saturday mornings).

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For more about Berlin, stay tuned here, and at Nic Freeman Travel on Facebook!

Travel Reads: Top 10 posts on nicfreeman.com

Looking for some travel inspiration? Perhaps a little reading on a rainy day?

As I sit indoors, confined by the wild rain beyond the window pane, I thought this would be a great opportunity to share the top 10 posts of all time on nicfreeman.com

Armchair travel and travel reading

  1. Top 10 Tips for Travelling Stockholm, Sweden
  2. Rainbows and Mist on the Isle of Skye, Scotland
  3. Cycling in San Sebastian, Spain
  4. A Week in Florence: The Pleasures of Italy’s Renaissance City
  5. In Focus: Vigeland Park in Frognerparken, Oslo, Norway
  6. How to Travel the UK & Ireland in a Campervan: Lessons from 1 Month on the Road
  7. Hunting the Northern Lights in Tromso, Norway
  8. The West Coast of Ireland: Westport, Achill Island, Doolough, Galway & The Cliffs of Moher
  9. Norway in a Nutshell: The Delights of Norwegian Trains, Fjords & Bergen
  10. Driving the Causeway Coast: From Belfast to Derry, Northern Ireland

Or, if you’ve got a destination in mind, use the search function at the bottom of the page, browse the monthly archives or skim along the list of recent posts in the right column.

Also, be sure to join the travel sharing fun by liking me on Facebook and following me on Twitter, where I’ll be posting about my Australian adventures, adding more about Europe and brainstorming future international adventures.

A Week In Berlin: Exploring Germany’s Creative Capital

The mere mention of Berlin is often enough to conjure thoughts of street art, underground music and offbeat urban adventures. Such associations fit quite nicely with my concept of the ideal city, so I made my way back to Berlin in September to emerge myself in the creative city for a second time.

I came to realise that Berlin is bold and potent; a city where anything goes but nothing has to be; where dogs are almost always welcomed. I met people of many backgrounds, who have travelled from faraway lands to become part of the the brightly woven fabric of locals. I saw more artists in one city than I’ve seen before. I found amazing international eats, quirky cafes and moody bars. I discovered Berlin is a wonderful city for cycling, has a thriving market scene, and has many vintage shops that made squeak with delight. I heard music worthy of all the hype and, of course, visited monuments that tell so much about the dark and complex history of Berlin, Germany and Europe.

Here is a little bit about the highlights of my most recent week in Berlin.

Berlin window at night in Kreuzberg

Devouring Delicious International Eats

It is commonly said that Berlin is a city of foreigners; a city where cultures, ethnicities and histories refract into a kaleidoscope of possibilities. This is arguably most apparent in the happy range of international cuisines available as everyday fare across Berlin.

Having been travelling Europe for seven months by the time I arrived in Berlin, I was admittedly giddy from the idea of eating foods of lands beyond the continental borders. First up, was a steaming bowl of Vietnamese pho, followed by Mexican tacos, Japanese sushi, Lebanese falafel, Afghani chutney, Indian tikka masala… I also delighted in German dishes, such as must-try currywurst and a hearty pork knuckle with sauerkraut, bringing my palate full circle in a mini culinary exploration of the world.

Falafel in Kreuzberg, Berlin

Stay tuned for my upcoming foody post, ‘Travel. Food. Photo. Berlin.’ for tips about where and what to eat in this cheap and diverse dining city.

Cycling the City

With flat terrain and generous cycling infrastructure in wide, orderly streets, Berlin is an easy city to explore by bike. Actually, I’ll go so far as to say it’s the best city I’ve had the joy of cycling.

Apart from being a zippy means of transport in a bike-filled city, cycling also allowed me to see much more than I would have managed on foot. I dedicated a day to exploring inner-city areas by bike: the sprawling inner-city green of Tiergarten; the boutiques of Mitte; the cafe-filled streets of Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain..

Cycling in Tiergarten, Berlin

In Tiergarten, the city’s central park so to speak, I found lush lawn and wide-leafy paths in dappled light. I met a clown with heart-shaped balloons and found an epic jungle gym (that kept we three adults happily playing for an hour). Between the many green spaces were ponds with ducks, trickling creeks and other happy bike-riding tourists, who presumably, like me, forgot their idyllic natural surrounds sat in the middle of one of Europe’s most popular cities.

Tiergarten, BerlinTiergarten, Berlin - sprawling green

Riding through the inner suburbs in search of boutiques, art and shopping was just as fun, as I wove within the cyclist-thick traffic. Suited riders, grocery-laden baskets and deep stacks of patiently waiting wheels were just some of the clues to city’s love of two-wheeled transport.

Cycling in Berlin - Mitte

Market-ing

Market culture is one of my favourite things in any city, but add the eclectic, kooky character of Berlin, and you have yourself a particularly fine day of market entertainment.

Mauerpark Flea Market Market produce, Berlin

I  especially loved:

  • the almost hidden little arts and flea market near Badehaus on Revaler Straße, where art prints, clothes and crafts occupied my idle time (despite the rain) and nearby walls upon walls of graffiti brightened the scene.
  • the wonderous monstrosity that is Mauerpark Flea Market on Sundays at Bernauer Straße 63-64 (near Eberwalder and Voltrastr U-bahn stations), where vintage wares are king and bargains can often be found, despite the market’s increasing popularity with us dear tourist folk. The market is edged by a glorious green space where you may find a super-sized outdoor karaoke session in play, bold buskers and locals with picnic blankets, bbqs and beer.

Mauerpark Flea Market on Sundays

Cafe and Bar Hunting

Hunting quirky cafes and bars with bespoke delights could fill weeks, even months, in Berlin.

With only a short week to indulge, I tried to see as many as I could and cherished every cosy nook I found to reflect on my urban adventures. Think strong coffee and pot plants, cocktails and red lights, chess boards and rich wine, fruit bowls on bars, toilet graffiti in candlelight and random typewriters in hallways.

Berlin Cafe - chess boardBerlin bar - candles and applesBerlin cafe - flowers on the table

For me, the most interesting cafe region was Kreuzberg, where I found a couple of spots that will likely make my upcoming ‘best cafes of 2012’ post.

Berlin Music Week and Festival

After seven months arriving in a city only a week or two after a big event, we finally landed to find a big, coincidental hurrah: Berlin Music Week and Berlin Festival.

Adding extra colour to the already-vibrant city scape, 2012 Berlin Music Week in early September offered local and international performances in bars, clubs and random ad-hoc street stages, plus a two-day festival at Tempelhof, Berlin’s former airport.

Berlin Music Week - street performance

I was enthralled by the festival venue, Tempelhof, where crowds danced in hangers, on runways and around the wings of an aircraft. The tunes were also impressive, Grimes, Mike Snow, The Killers, and many other wonderful acts on stage.

Tempelhof - arrivals board for artistsTempelhof - emerging into the hangerTempelhof - dancing on the runway - Berlin Festival 2012

Vintage Shopping

There are many shopping delights to discover in Berlin, but for me, the glory of all shopping niches is the roaring Berlin vintage trade. Staying in Kreuzberg, I was well placed to explore the surrounding streets and neighbouring suburb Friedrichshain, where boutique designers mingle among stores of old-school happiness.

A healthy supply of vintage and retro wares has created affordable prices (by metropolitan Australian standards anyway), and consequently, very happy shoppers. Blazers, hats, suitcases and shoes were in particular abundance, which helped me and my sister whittle away hours while scanning racks and trying on vintage looks.

Vintage shopping in Berlin

Such was the wonder of shopping in Berlin, that I’m planning to dedicate an entire post to the topic, so keep your eyes peeled for my Berlin shopping tips.

Discovering Monuments

Although the last item in this post, the notable monuments in this city are far from the least exciting attractions in Berlin; in fact, they are as close to big-ticket attractions as any city in Europe can get.

Even the second time around, I was impressed by the presence of the Brandenburg gate, the last remaining city gate, which once stood over Napoleon, once witnessed the destruction in the world wars, and once divided East and West Berlin.

Brandeburg Gate BerlinMemorial for the murdered Jews of Europe - Berlin

The Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe remains one of the most powerful monuments I’ve encountered. Built of 2711 concrete stelae that undulate across a city block, the memorial is modern and timeless, abstract and graphic, and it creates an eerie experience as you walk through shadow and light to access the subterranean centre filled with photos, stories and personal items of murdered Jews.

Access to the centre is free and numbers are moderated at entry to ensure you have time and space to learn and feel all the things that should be learnt and felt about a terrible period in human history.

Memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe - BerlinChurch dome in Berlin

As with almost every other person who has ever been fortunate to visit Berlin, I love-love-loved the East Side Gallery, also known as the Berlin Wall graffiti. This colourful stretch of remaining wall hosts expressions of peace, unity, disappointment and relief; sustaining comments of society and situation long passed. Every time I walk its 1.3km length, I see something new to admire, find something else to ponder.

East Side Gallery Berlin - Berlin Wall GraffitiEast Side Gallery Berlin - Berlin Wall Graffiti

Also worth seeing in Berlin is the Bundestag, or Federal Government House, which is easily recognised in the skyline by its glass dome. To gain access, you will need to take your passport to the office across the road from the building, on the edge of Tiergarten, and register for a time to visit. The process and wait is worth it though, as a walkway curls within the dome to reveal a spectacular view of the city that at pointed out by the audio guide.


So, after all that, I’d like to say a little thanks to a big city of fun. I could not say danke nearly as well as this delightful guestbook entry we found at our apartment, so I’ll just leave you with the image instead.

Do you have fond memories of Berlin?

Danke guestbook - Berlin

I’ve got many more Berlin stories for you, so follow me here and at my Nic Freeman Travel Facebook page to know when I post more about Berlin food, shopping and transport tips.

Gratitude for a Wonderful Year of Travel Adventures – 2012

As we wander into another new year, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on 2012 adventures, and to thank you, my lovely readers, for sharing my journey.

For me, 2012 was about realising dreams: my dream of travelling Europe for months and my dream of working as a travel writer. While I am filled with a giddy joy from having lived both those dreams, I am equally chuffed with the unexpected delights and lessons I gained along the way.

Peaks District Freedom

Apart from learning from the daily challenges and freedoms that come with months of travelling (like how to find structure and meaning without time constraints, how to feel connected to people when roaming the globe, and the importance of self identity when cultural norms change around you), 2012 has taught me how to be unapologetic, bold even, in the face of my hopes and dreams. I always knew it, but this year it clicked: no one is going to find happiness and fulfilment for me, I’ve got to back myself, realise there is nothing to fear, and just go for it! This is especially true when chasing hopes that don’t quite fit into the standard shapes and sizes ; when hopes challenge the norms that we, and others,  assumed we would always follow.

I must give a hefty dose of credit to you, dear readers, for just reading, commenting and sharing, all of which helped to amplify that little voice in my head that said ‘I can’. With almost two thousand people who enjoyed my work enough to click ‘follow’, I feel more humbled and supported each time I sit down to write, more dedicated to my ideal travel lifestyle and more sure that this is what I want to be doing with my time. Also, this year I realised just how important it is to accept help and advice from people in your life. My intrepid man, Dave, and my loving family are particularly responsible for teaching me that unwavering support does exist, and is a valuable force to harness when reaching for goals and dreams.

But some days, ‘just going for it’ is much, much easier said than done. Now that I’m back within the realm of offices and bills and (almost) fixed addresses, the idea is more slippery than it was when I was in Europe. But, as I said after returning from my Middle East adventure a couple of years ago, living everyday with the same zest and inspiration that I apply to travel adventures, helps to resist the rut, enrich the journey, open my eyes to new possibilities for happiness.

Central station busker 29 Aug

I sat down this morning at the Queensland State Library in Brisbane (my favourite building), gazed across to the buzzing city, and thought about all the things I want for my life, my travels and this blog. I realised that 2013 would involve writing a lot more about my European adventures; I still have almost 60 articles partially drafted about places I’ve seen. It will also involve many Australian adventures, through regional Queensland and New South Wales in particular, which I will share with you along the way.

I plan to continue sharing my freelance work through my Facebook page, as well as travel photos, everyday delights and other travel and lifestyle inspirations. On Twitter, I will be tweeting about the things that make me smile, the lessons I am learning and the people who fill my head with happy ideas. Be sure to follow me here on WordPress, like me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter to receive all the updates!

My next big international travel goal is India in November 2013. India has long been on my list of top destinations and I now have the opportunity to travel with a wonderful friend who shares my passion for exploring the colour and clamour of India. Japan is also tentatively on the 2013 destination list, being a country that captures my imagination on a near-daily basis.

As I sat and scribbled my 2013 plan, I realised how much I would love to hear more about what you want to read. What do you find exciting? More food posts? Outdoor adventures? Urban explorations? Lifestyle reflections? A bit of everything? What style of post do you enjoy – informative or creative? Come on readers, give me all your ideas and I’ll do my very best to honour them!

For now though, let me entertain you with a little summary of my 2012 travel adventures, and some of the blogging milestones that you have helped to make possible.

My heartfelt gratitude and warm wishes for a wonderful new year. May you embrace the possibilities in everyday adventures!

xoxo Nic


2012 Travel Summary

In January I saw snow for the first time in Norway, rode in a horse-drawn sleigh, saw the Northern Lights in Tromsø, stood in awe of the Norwegian fjords, and admired the beauty of Stockholm, Sweden.

You loved reading, In focus: Vigeland Park in Frognerparken, Oslo, Norway, which went kinda viral with Norwegian tourism agencies and Top 10 tips for travelling Stockholm, Sweden, which was Freshly Pressed.

Stockholm

In February, I roamed the vibrant streets of London, wandered the moody coast of Wales, found street art in Bristol, learnt to ski in the mountains of Bulgaria, and excitedly started my month-long Wicked Campers UK and Ireland road trip.

Shoreditch

In March, I embraced the freedom of the road while camper-vanning through the Lake and Peaks Districts of England, past the historical Hadrian’s Wall, into the Scottish Highlands, across to picturesque Northern Ireland and Ireland, and into the natural wonders of Wales.  You loved my post, Rainbow and Mist on the Isle of Skye, Scotland, which was Freshly Pressed and re-posted across the travel blogosphere.

Ireland

In April, I ‘settled’ for a month in Istanbul, living the inner city apartment life, from where I spent weeks weaving through ancient streets, photographing delightful details, taking day trips and working on freelance contracts. My articles about Molla-Celebi Mosque and Istanbul by Night were published by D Travels ‘Round and republished by Lonely Planet and my post about Topkapi Palace was a Turkey favourite.

Mosque Istanbul

In May, I explored Barcelona in Spain, before I walked for a month along Spain’s Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, learning about slowing down and the joys and challenges of walking. My articles about Santo Domingo de la Calzada and Barcelona’s La Boqueria Mercat were published by D Travels ‘Round and republished by Lonely Planet.

Santo Domingo Green

In June,  I experienced Santiago de Compostela, San Sebastian, Granada, Ronda and other delightful Spanish towns filled with delightful Spanish food and wine. You particularly loved my post about cycling in San Sebastian, which was Freshly Pressed.

Spanish Flags

In July, I ventured into the chaotically wonderful world of Morocco, where the music of Tangier, medina of Fez, markets of Marrakech and Sahara Desert, overwhelmed my senses. Then, I fell in love with Lisbon, Portugal and experienced the provincial Italian charms of Perugia and Lucca and the Renaissance beauty of Florence. My post about Florence caught the tweeting eye of Lonely Planet and drew more attention than my other posts about Italy.

Fez medina

In August, I ate my way into Italian food bliss from Bologna, found myself happily lost in Venice, discovered the delights of Ljubljana in Slovenia, and went hiking, swimming and canyoning from Bled. Then, I made my way into Instria in Croatia, boated to the Croatian islands of Losinj and Pag, walked through the aquamarine lakes of Plitvice and enjoyed the hospitality of Croatian friends in Petrinja.

Croatian boat

In September, I reacquainted with the urban wonders of Berlin, drank bubbles in the French region of Champagne and was wooed by Paris. My stories from Berlin and France are next up on the post schedule, so stayed tuned!

Champagne

In October, I returned to Australia, where I flitted about the country, from Brisbane to Sydney and Wollongong, back up the East Coast on the train, via Bellingen and Palm Beach, before water skiing near Gladstone in Central Queensland, bar/cafe hopping in Melbourne, Victoria and beaching in Byron Bay, New South Wales. I have many tales to tell about my adventures in October, so keep an eye out after reading about France.

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November and December saw me become more stationary than I had been all year, but I still enjoyed some Brisbane urban adventures and coastal getaways to Byron Bay and Bellingen. Posts about my local and regional adventures will be scattered between posts about Europe, and you can see photos and links on my Facebook page.

Urunga Beach

When I look back, I can honestly say 2012 has been one of my favourite years! I am looking forward to sharing more 2012 stories and writing about many more new adventures in 2013.

Thanks for reading!

A Photo Walk in Berlin

Gritty and colourful, sweet and rough, the streets of Berlin offer many curiosities for the aimless wanderer to consider. Whether it’s the street art that Germany’s creative capital is so famous for, the charming blossoms that dress cafe table tops, or the grand monuments that represent a rich and dark history, there is no doubting that a photo walk in Berlin will offer too many visual delights to capture.

My first Berlin experience was back in 2010. It was the first city I saw in Europe, my first encounter with the hypnotic and complex European history, and my first love affair (of many)with an international city. After two years of dreaming about Berlin (and wondering if it was nothing but a magical urban mirage in the haze of my first European adventure), I was positively chuffed to find Berlin was better than I remembered when I returned for a week last September.

Here are but a few of the sights that occupied my eyes during a week of walking Berlin’s streets.

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Travel. Food. Photo. Croatia.

Of all the places I travelled this year, Croatia was perhaps the most unexpected to enter my ‘amazing country for food’ list. From previous travels, I had known to expect plentiful seafood by the Adriatic and Italian influences gracing the hearty Eastern European cuisine, but I now know my first trip to Croatia revealed only bite-sized encounters with the incredible eats in this food-loving nation.

Perhaps the most wonderful thing about Croatian food is the fresh, locally-sourced produce from which it is crafted. We ate the black truffles of Istria, the fish of the Adriatic, the honey, sheep cheese and wine produced on the island of Pag. On the mainland, we ate traditional Dalmatian stews in Zadar and almost everything – the fruit and vegetables and meat and rakija – homegrown and home made in Petrinja.

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Starting in the truffle-rich region of Istria, I relished the fragrant delights of beef carpaccio with black truffles, fuži with ragu, green pasta with truffles and slightly charred ćevapčići with a summer cider at the beach.

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On the revitalising island of Losinj, I indulged in fresh seafood by the crystal clear waters.

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Anchovies, sardines, peppered tuna steaks, grilled squid and plates of mussels in tomato were among the most delicious dishes.

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A healthy carafe of cool white wine, refreshing salads and hearth-warm bread were served with most meals.

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While only briefly in the coastal city of Zadar, we enjoyed a wonderful meal at Pet Bunara; served with a helpful lesson in Croatian pronunciation (which I failed quite spectacularly).

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There we ordered Paticada, a Dalmatian specialty stew of beef marinated in vinegar, lemon and rosemary, served with gnocchi, diced prosciutto and musket nuts.

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The Brodetto was stewed cuttlefish served with broad beans and peas. A side of thinly sliced cucumber, a glass of local red wine and a started of sheep cheese and green olives and melon completed the meal.

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In between ‘special’ meals, we often ate some kind of filling grilled meat and vegetable dish, which was common on menus across the country.

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Sometimes, it was just a serve of potato chips, followed by ice cream, at a sun-blessed marina.

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On the island of Pag, we indulged without reservations. Grilled fish and salads by the sea made for happy lunches.

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But the best lunch of my entire nine month European adventure was enjoyed at Boskinac Winery and Restaurant, just outside the town of Novalja on Pag.

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Smoked shark with local olive oil, potato salad, chargrilled pimento, dried oregano, chive and parmesan started the meal.

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Crab ragu with lobster and sheep yoghurt soon followed before a main of local lamb rump, potato fondant and pickled beetroot with melon puree and red wine jus. Oh dear it was good!

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Dessert was a creamy almond and honeycomb semi-freddo with mint sauce, before a platter of local cheeses and honeys. Of course, we ordered wines to match each course and espresso to end the three-hour experience.

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After such a meal, it was hard imagine ever being so satisfied by food again, but the humble home made delights offered to us by dear friends in Petrinja, near Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, managed to impress just as much.

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The sausages, cheeses, pickles, relishes and baked treats were a true representation of wonderful food enjoyed by wonderful Croatians every day.

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Travel Moments: Camping in Wadi Rum, Jordan

October 2010

This morning I woke to a pale blue sky, a cool desert breeze and red sand stretching as far as my little eyes could see.

For a moment, between sleep and the new day, I thought I was dreaming.  But my mind came around to my thin mattress on the still-warm sand and the camels plodding past.

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Our night in the Bedouin style camp was, in equal parts, peaceful and exciting, delivering little bursts of happiness into my travel-soothed soul.

After a three hour safari on the back of a scrappy Hilux ute (during which we stopped to climb sand dunes, stone bridges and into canyons) we arrived to a coal-cooked meal of vegetables, lamb kofta and rice. The Bedouin men sat by the fire playing a mixture of local and foreign tunes on their strings; their clear, strong voices bouncing from the rocky hills that lay beyond the light.

As always, camping reminded me of childhood, but Wadi Rum seemed a world away from my humble home ground in Australia, and a childlike wonder overcame my reminiscing mind.

Falling asleep under the desert night, admiring the stars that pierced the blackness and the comet that streaked the sky, I was undone with a fit of the giggles before falling into a deep slumber.

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Read more about my Jordanian Adventures at https://nicfreeman.com/2010/10/06/jordanian-adventures/

Everything Homemade in Petrinja, Croatia

A soft thud from the front of the house signals the fall of another petite red apple on the driveway. Our gracious host, Senad, had apologised for the scattered obstacles underfoot as we arrived from Zagreb at dusk, but we politely shushed him, secretly delighted with the novelty of freshly-fallen fruit.

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After a warm welcome serve of homemade rakija, cheese and sausage, our appetites are keen and minds expanding to the idea of self sufficient food culture. But the joyful abundance of homemade delights yet to experienced in Petrinja is just too much for our westernised imaginations to foretell.

A tour of the backyard garden the next morning reveals almost enough produce to stock a store.

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“If you wish to cook anything, we have it…  everything is homemade”, smiles Senad as we stand with him and his wife, Branka, between the tangle of cherry tomatoes,  silver beet and plump pumpkins. He is holding a bunch of crooked carrots that were unearthed only moments before, and is taking us through the yard, past the herbs, beans, blackberries, cucumbers, citrus and pears.

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Emerging from the rambling garden, we sit at the outdoor table, near the “Summer Kitchen” where homemade tomato sauces are created from ripened fruit and baskets of ‘homemade’ hazelnuts are stored. We drink refreshing homemade elderflower cordial, one of Branka’s favourites, and as Senad pours us another glass he offers, “I’ve got ice here… it’s homemade too”.

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The homemade joke keeps running all week as our bellies bulge with the warm hospitality of Branka and Senad’s family and friends. Later in the week we take our garden adventures out of town, to a property owned by Senad’s family. The garden there is bigger, growing onions, potatoes, apples, chestnuts, walnuts, corn and sunflowers… all among the usual vege-patch suspects, of course.

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The humble joys of growing food for the family and friends is far from lost on our hosts, and I marvel as they explain that this home grown, homemade way of life is very much a cultural norm, borne of resilient traditions and economic necessity.

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As we continue to explore Petrinja and surrounds, we eat the apples from the driveway, grapes from overhead vines, little white peaches and cute baby pears from the trees out back. Almost every meal is accompanied by delicious smoked sausage, homemade by Senad’s brother, from boar hand-slain by Senad’s father. To wash it down, we drink plum rakija or current juice. We devour Branka’s grandmother’s apple strudel, formed with handmade pastry and hand-picked apples. We enjoy seconds and thirds of Senad’s mum’s marble cake, made from her very own, home grown walnuts.

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When we are full of chilli cheese made by the lady down the road or  sour cherry jam or preserved peppers, we are given jars of pickles from Boro’s mother and a bottle of award-winning, 42% alcohol plum rakija from Senad’s father’s friend.

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But my favourite feed of the week is the gluten-free hazelnut cake with chocolate icing, homemade by Senad’s mum with hazelnuts that grew by the back porch. The cake is served with a walnut liqueur that, amazingly, makes the world seem even sweeter.

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A very heartfelt thanks to Senad and Branka for hosting us in Petrinja, and to their families and friends for welcoming us in with such warmth and cheer. Your kindness and hospitality meant the world, and visiting you, eating your delightful food and learning about Petrinja was a real highlight! We hope to repay your hospitality when you visit us in the future.

A Photo Walk in Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia

Aquamarine lakes are fringed with mossy veins and sunshine-dappled woodlands  in Croatia’s natural treasure, Plitvice  Lakes National Park. Covering almost 300 km2 , and comprising 16 lakes, Plitvice is  the largest of Croatia’s eight national parks and was the first established, back in 1949. As well as being just generally amazing,  with its (hiding) brown bears, enthusiastic schools of fish, tall falls and war-torn past, Plitvice is known for its vibrant lakes, which  miraculously morph between shades of blue and green depending on the mineral and organism levels in the water.

My best attempts to describe the serene beauty of this UNESCO World Heritage site just wouldn’t come close to conveying why I felt such awe when exploring the waterfalls, cascades, caves, karsts and woodlands. So, to come closer to doing it justice, here is a collection of photos I took while walking around the upper and lower lakes.

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Tips for exploring Plitvice Lakes and National Park:

Karana campground is a great spot to stay, only 6km from the park entrance. The grounds have little bungalows with two beds in them and there is plenty of room for tents, campers and caravans. A very filling buffet breakfast is served from 7-9am every morning. There is also a bar, restaurant and well-stocked shop on site, and a free shuttle to the park entrance at 9am daily, returning at 5pm.

If you prefer a bed closer to the park, there are a couple of hotels actually in the park, which charge a premium for location but also allow a second day entrance on the first day ticket.

If you are looking at private accommodation in the area, be sure to confirm lifts to and from the park. The roads are winding and not that friendly for road-side walking.

If you have luggage to store, the information centre at the main national park entrance will hold your bags between 9am and 5pm for a small fee.

Buses to and from Plitvice are frequent and easy, despite a limited amount of online information about them. We caught a bus from Zadar bus station to Plitvice (final destination is Zagreb) for 90 Kunas per person. There are a few buses daily – one super early and a couple in the afternoon – and tickets can be bought from the station attendant. Be sure to check which company your ticket is with, as often the buses pull into the wrong bay and leave promptly after dropping off passengers.  The bus stops just across the road from the main park entrance, and although the bus doesn’t routinely stop at the campground, you can ask the driver and they should be able to drop you off.

Buses from Plitvice to Zadar or Zagreb are just as easy. The information centre on the opposite side of the road to the main park entrance (use the over-road bridge) has timetables and lots of other useful information. You will be able to buy your ticket from the driver. We paid 100 Kunas with under-carriage luggage to get to the central bus station in Zagreb.

One day tickets into Plitvicka Jezera nacionalni park cost 110 Kunas for an adult and 80 Kunas for a student (who may or may not actually need to present a student card).The ticket includes one ride on the ferry that crosses the large lower lake and the bus shuttles that loop the park.

If you make a full day of it, you can see both the upper and lower lakes in one day and still make a bus to Zadar or Zagreb, it just depends how quickly you walk and if you want to catch a shuttle bus to speed up your loop.

The national park is open all year around, but make sure you use the main entrance only during off-peak times, as other entrances close for periods of the year.

Sunny Adventures on the Island of Pag, Croatia

Beating down on the lunar landscape, shimmering across the Adriatic, the sunshine on Croatia’s island of Pag makes the world seem ever-bright. Time on the Pag syncs with the idyllic sway of the sea and the long road stretches through rocks, vineyards and groves to reveal an island of wholesome delights.

We ventured to Pag in search of sheep’s cheese and wine, which is apparently a bit of an odd pursuit on the island best known for partying, salt and lace. But the island’s reputation for quality local produce was well exceeded as our two day adventure on Pag offered thousand-year-old olive trees, road-side stalls for honey, rakija and cheese, a vineyard dining experience that mesmerised my senses, and gleaming beach coves bounded by fruiting fig trees.

To make our happy wanderings possible, we rented a sunny convertible Volkswagen bug from a guy on the side of the road… as you do in Croatia.

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The first thing that struck me about Pag was the barren landscape, the space emptied of trees. I soon learnt that Pag was stripped of woodland by those nifty Venetians, who once ruled on the island and used its wood to build much of the floating city we adore today. The absence of forests, and the patchy low shrubs hardened by stiff salt air, created an unearthly feel; a sense that this unashamedly unique part of the world is perhaps not of this world at all.

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Driving north-east from Novalja, towards the tip of the skinny peninsular, our first random stop leaped beyond all expectations. Potočnica is a quiet series of bumpy little streets snaking along the rocky coast where terraced villas and resorts extend to private beaches. Without a map or clue of where to go, we followed the unsealed road down the hill to a dead-end parking lot and took one of the many little trails to the shore.

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After a brief battle with the coastal growth, we were presented with the picture of summer bliss – sparkling turquoise waters and secluded beaches, free from crowds. Needless to stay, our intended quick dip became a multi-hour basking session, interrupted only to dive into the sea and swim a few laps around the nearby buoy.

The need for food was the only thing that could drag us from our cove. Continuing our drive along the peninsula to the little town of Tovarnele, on the tip of the island, where we indulged in grilled fish, crispy chips and cool white wine.

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Retracing the road back, into the town of Lun, we found fields of white stones and ancient olive trees that were twisted with time. On a whim, we took another dirt road towards the sea and found ourselves again in the tepid water, watching boats speed by on the horizon.

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The next bug-hop was barely 1000 metres as we stopped for  olive oil, honey and rakija sold by a shirtless man named Thomas, who sells his father’s produce in front of the family home. Then, driving only 50 metres further, we stopped for wheels of sheep’s cheese, fresh figs and home-made sausages.

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Equal to the joy of stopping for home-made treats was the steady plod of our rent-a-bug along the sweeping island roads. With lookouts scattered between destinations, we made our eventual way back through Novalja and along the western road that skirts the inner island sea. Cliffs and sandy hills rise dramatically from the water on that stunning coastal road, offering picture-perfect views on the way to Metajna.

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At the end of that road, we putted into the village, drawing curious eyes from the residents who were out enjoying the afternoon sun. A small walk along the tiny marina, and a quick swim in the glassy sea, filled a happy hour and then we were back in the bug to enjoy the last of Pag’s daylight from the road.

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Our second morning on Pag was an early one, fuelled with an excitement to see more of the sunny island. We found ourselves back at Potočnica for an early swim, before making our way to a much-anticipated lunch at Boškinac Winery. Treating ourselves to the degustation menu with matching wines at the homestead amongst olive groves and vineyards was a true delight. Our slow, luxurious lunch of local lamb, honey, cheese and fruits with wines of the house and region was one of the best meals I’ve ever enjoyed and left me longing for more time to do it all over again.

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As we boarded the bus back to mainland Zadar, I was filled with a light sense of achievement, a feeling that we’d discovered a real Croatian gem among the many island possibilities offered by the Adriatic.

Tricks for designing your Pag adventure:

Be prepared to hire a vehicle to see the island, be it a scooter or car or cab. There is a regular bus between Zadar, the town of Pag and the town of Novalja, but no public transport that extends down the narrow north-eastern stretch of the island, past Novalja, or around the land-looped sea shore towards Metajna. We were quoted a couple hundred Kunas per scooter for 24hrs (although it’s all negotiable) and paid 500 Kunas to hire the bug for 24 hours.

The Zadar – Pag – Novalja bus is run by Antonio Tours in and out of the Novalja and Zadar bus stations. You can buy tickets from the driver, or from the Antonio Tours office in Novalja. The 1.5 hour one-way trip costs 75 Kunas per person including one undercarriage piece of luggage. If you don’t have luggage, it’s 50 Kunas one way.

If you’ve missed the bus and don’t want to wait, take a taxi. We paid 300 Kunas (split between three) for the one-way taxi ride from Zadar to Novalja. The fare was apparently ‘fixed’ (i.e. if you had more people, you’d split the same price) and included luggage. Negotiate with the taxi drivers who mill about the stations seeking fares.

Stay right in the middle of Novalja for a party, and anywhere else for a quiet stay. We stayed on the edge of Novalja, away from the crowds, which proved a lovely place to explore from. I thought of Novalja as being a bit like a mini, Croatian, Surfer’s Paradise (in Queensland, Australia): in the town centre, it has the same seedy party vibe, throngs of souvenir shops and streets upon streets of beat-booming bars by the water. In contrast, the town of Pag is known for its quiet guesthouses and more relaxed vibe, but is a fair distance from the eastern side of the island.

Allow for a generous food budget on Pag, not because it is particularly pricey (with the exception of Boskinac Winery), but because you’ll never want to stop tasting. From road-side stalls we bought small bottles of rakija for 20 Kunas each, jars of honey for 40 Kunas and small bottles of oil for 30 Kunas. Sheep’s cheese is generally sold by the wheel from small producers, meaning you either need a group, a extraordinarily large appetite for cheese, or to make a trip to the town supermarket, where it is sold by the slice.

Travel Moments: Bathing in the Nam Ou in Laos

Returning to Australia after nine months of travelling has been a bittersweet transition. The joys of reuniting with loved ones and the comforts of a reliably clean bed and shower have been peppered with pangs of panic as I face the blunt honesty of domestic routine and real-world responsibilities. While I’m a little sad to realise that my daily life won’t involve a new country, language or culture in the immediate future, I’ve got to admit that I’ve had it good. I have also relished the chance to share my travel memories with friends and family here at home.

All this reflecting about travel has had me thinking how fortunate I am to have such a diverse collection of travel memories, which constantly offer solace and perspective in my everyday life. Every memory inspires me more to keep travelling, keep learning about the world, keep talking to people about their adventures and keep taking the plunge into new, foreign lands.

So, to recognise the importance of memories, I’ve decided to launch a new blog series called Travel Moments, where I will share a brief memory, a sensation or perhaps a realisation from my travel adventures. To start the series, I would like to take you to the Nam Ou, a peaceful river that ribbons through northern Laos.


The glassy surface ripples gently as I tentatively dip a toe, causing blue mountain reflections to warp before my eyes. It is very still and quiet here by this riverside village in northern Laos. With the exception of a panicked chicken being pursued by village children, and wood fire smoke drifting in the dying light, there is barely a hint to help shrug the feeling that I’m standing in a painting of an ancient, untouched land.

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Gliding further into the Nam Ou, my sweat-beaded skin feels the chilly transition from tropical air. It is a comfort to float in the waters that I have been watching all day from my little wooden bench in a slow boat.

This morning, I was navigating to the bustling docks in Luang Prubang as thousands of orange-robed monks returned to their temples to share the alms collected at dawn. The river was lively then, thick with handmade canoes and lined by fishermen preparing for the day. By lunch, the river had become cheeky, whipping and swirling around eddies and rocks, snagging our boat and casting us onto a sand bar to perform ad-hoc repairs.

And now, as I float into the dusk-purple waters, the river is humble and calm, inviting me to know it’s peace and share a little of the wisdom that it has gathered over millions of years.

I’d like to say thanks to Selective Asia for prompting my memory of the Nam Ou with their Asian Experience competition. http://www.selectiveasia.com/asianexperience

Although I’ve travels many countries since my solo adventures through South-East Asia, the serene beauty and colourful character of Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam has kept that corner of the world within my list of favourite travel experiences.

Also, stay tuned for more stories from my 2012 year of European travels. Next, I’ll be sharing my story of sunny adventures on the Croatian island of Pag.

Surprises on Losinj, Croatia’s Island of Vitality

Finding myself floating in tepid jade sea off Lošinj, Croatia’s self-dubbed “island of vitality”, was a bit of a surprise. We had always planned to spend time relaxing in the northern islands of Croatia’s Adriatic Sea, but with every blog post and travel guide read about Croatia’s glorious island options, we felt more spoilt for choice and hesitant to commit to any one place.

Floating in the Adriatic Sea off Lošinj Island, Croatia

A decision was forced on our final night in Pula, when our island-hungry party of three bought tickets on the first ferry out in the morning, which was bound for the mainland city of Zadar and stopping at  the town of Mail Lošinj, on the the large island of Lošinj. Being pretty much the only Croatian island I hadn’t read about, I knew nothing other than that our ticket vendor thought it was “very beautiful” with “good beaches” and “many restaurants”.  All good things.

Arriving on the sleek catamaran without any booked accommodation or exit strategy was far less daunting than expected. The calm island port graced our eyes with white and terracotta tones, luxury yachts and waterside al fresco dining, prompting my sister to declare it was the “prettiest port” she’d seen. Good, excellent, so far so good.

Mali Lošinj port in the Adriatic Sea on Lošinj Island, Croatia

One of the things I love most about travelling in Croatia is being able to find a room without a booking. Private rooms and apartments are common throughout the country and marked with blue ‘Sobe’ (bed) or ‘Apartman’ (apartment) signs. Local tourism offices also keep a register of local rooms and apartments for rent and can arrange your stay with a quick phone call. Within minutes of asking, we were being lead at a blistering pace through narrow lanes by a tourist office employee, on our way to view an available triple room. The creaky gate was opened by a shirtless, grey-chested man wearing earphones around his neck. He ushered us in with a generous smile, through the busy courtyard, before showing us a room occupied by two sleeping girls while declaring “it’s okay, it’s okay, we won’t wake them”. No thanks.

Mali Lošinj by night - Lošinj Island, Croatia

A little disheartened by our first failed attempt, we tried another tourism agency, with no luck. But the jeweller down the road had an apartment to rent, she said. The jeweller’s rental was lovely, but far too expensive for us, so the gold-dripping jeweller urged us, in broken German, French and a bit of Croatian, to sit at the cafe next door while she made a call. It seems she had a friend with a cheaper apartment and he was coming to collect us in his car. Then, he wasn’t coming anymore as his apartment had just been rented. But she had someone else to call…

Coffees long since consumed and still none the wiser about what exactly was going on, we made the decision to just go with it. The jeweller, who was very hard to understand but very warm and eager, seemed to be doing her best to find us a place. About 45 minutes later, after many reassurances of “soon, soon”, a man in hatchback pulled up and the jeweller explained, through another cafe-goer, that he would take us to a hostel “up the hill” and “near the beach” to look at a room. Sure, why not?

The room was perfect: cheap, air-conditioned, clean, near the beach and town, managed by a very friendly bikini-wearing lady. With our beds happily secured, it was time to explore the other unexpected delights on the island.

Čikat at dusk, Lošinj Island, Croatia

The delights were so surprisingly impressive that we extended our stay to four nights in total, which, we later admitted, was still far too little time on the island. We spent our days cycling the wide path that follows the island shore, diving from rocky shelves above the crystal blue sea, eating fresh seafood with carafes of wine and reading, napping, walking, swimming. To my heart-warming pleasure, I found that joyful hours could pass while just floating (one of my favourite things to do) as fish wiggled in the visible depths below and the sun smiled brightly above.

Jumping into the Adriatic Sea at Vali Lošinj on Lošinj Island, CroatiaJumping into the Adriatic Sea at Vali Lošinj on Lošinj Island, CroatiaCycling to Vali Lošinj on Lošinj Island, Croatia

The effortless drift of one day into the next was marked by a cool Adriatic breeze and a pink-golden glow on the seaward horizon. Each day we discovered a new seaside cove, another dusk-quiet marina, another shady tree to settled under, and by the time we departed on our Zadar-destined catamaran, we were sun-kissed travellers, revitalised by island time and a little sad to leave.

Swimming in Adriatic Sea on Lošinj Island, CroatiaBeaches on Lošinj Island, CroatiaVali Lošinj on Lošinj Island, Croatia

Tips for revitalising in Mali Lošinj:

It seemed that most of the tourists in Mali Lošinj were Italians who had sailed across the Adriatic and moored in one of marinas. The result was a lot of Italian spoken by islanders, lots of trading done in Euros (wise to have some on hand) and lots of gelato and pasta.

Catamarans to and from Pula are not daily all year around, so check the timetables before you book. Also, be sure to buy your ticket the day before you depart from one of the tourists offices. Other ways on and off the island can be found via smaller ferries that island hop, and other catamaran services to other mainland hubs, such as Rijeka in the north (between Istria and Zagreb).

The smaller port town of Veli Lošinj is worth a visit. We hired bicycles from a portside tourism office in Mali Lošinj (60-95 Kunas for 24 hours, depending on the office) and rode to Veli Lošinj for lunch (about 30 minutes of solid cycling along the coastal track or many hours if swimming along the way). From Mali Lošinj we took the main road through the middle of town, up the hill, past all the ATMs (good to know) and then turned right along the seaside track. There are quiet little beaches along the way.

For a lovely string of sandy beaches and a good running track, head towards Čikat. From the western edge of the port in Mali Lošinj, squiggle up the hill, through the houses, then cross the road and take one of the many little walking tracks that leads down to the sea. For a jog, I suggest turning left once you reach the shore and for sandy beaches, bars, watercraft hire and more people, turn right.

Things cost a little more in Mali Lošinj but are still pretty cheap. 1 hour of windsurfing costs about 60 Kunas, a little boat for the day starts from €140, a glass of wine is 6-9 Kunas, espresso (a.k.a. kava) is the same, beer is 10-20 Kunas and the catamaran from Pula to Mali Lošinj  and Mali Lošinj  to Zadar is a very reasonable 50 Kunas.

Ask the tourism board what is on in town over summer. Like most of Croatia, summer is synonymous with events season, meaning there are performances on in public spaces most nights. We had the pleasure of seeing the free Balcony Festival, which offered operatic performances from residential balconies that fronted the main town square.

4 Quiet Delights in Istria, Croatia

Happily nestled between Italy and Slovenia, jutting into the the Adriatic Sea, Croatia’s peninsula of Istria has some impressive neighbours to compete with in the tourism stakes. But with the region’s rich cache of truffles, vineyards and farmlands supplying some of the most notable culinary experiences in the country, and with natural beauty worth wowing over, Istria is quickly becoming a not-to-miss region of Croatia.

Here are four quiet delights that I relished during my recent adventures in Istria.

1. The Roman Amphitheatre in Pula

The port city of Pula (or Pola in Croatian and Polensium is ancient times) is on western coast of the peninsular and is the largest town in Istria. Known as being a bit of a party town and full of European holiday-makers, Pula hosts a buzzing historical centre scattered with ancient structures and a laid-back residential sprawl.

It is also the home of a remarkably intact ancient Roman amphitheatre which sits quietly (with exception of concert nights) on the portside edge of the city centre.

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Although not as famous as the Colosseum in Rome, I found Pula’s Augustan amphitheatre to be comparably impressive. It is the sixth largest ancient amphitheatre in the world, with a capacity of more than 20,000 people and has all sides still standing. It is also delightfully uncrowded, meaning you can admire the ancient stone arches in peace, without the queues, expenses and shuffling associated with other ancient amphitheatres.

The ancient structure serves as Pula’s star event venue and in the summer months of July and August, the amphitheatre regularly hosts evening performances as part of the the Summer Festival.

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While the historical centre of Pula is pretty and populated with tourist-friendly shops, restaurants and tourism operators, it only needs a night or two of exploration at the most, and is best used as a base to explore the nearby beaches and farmland.

Pula travel tips: Walking around the historical centre of Pula is quite easy, but if you want to venture further, I suggest a taking a bus or a taxi. Main bus routes leave from either the bus station, which is a little out of the centre of town, or Giardini, near McDonalds in the city. Tickets cost 15 Kunas for a single trip.

A Taxi Cammeo is another cheap and easy option. I was reliably informed by our local host that only the company called Cammeo charges super cheap rates (15 Kunas for first 3km, then 6 Kunas per additional Kilometre) and can be called 24 hours every day on (country code +385) 060700700 or 052885885. If asking a hotel or restaurant to call a cab for you, mention Cammeo and they will know what you’re talking about.

For regional and international travel, look at intercity buses that leave from the bus station and trains connecting Pula to other towns in Istria and with Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana. There are also ferries from the main city port that travel to some of the Croatian islands, Zadar and Trieste, near Venice in Italy. Make sure you book your ferry ticket the day before you leave from one of the tourism agencies in the centre of town, as you can only buy tickets for boat tours from the port and on the day of departure (and even then, they may insist of buying a day in advance).

2. The Sunny Village of Fažana 

P1040560Best known as the gateway to the Brijuni Islands Nature Park, the sleepy vilage of Fažana, is also a surprisingly delightful spot for enjoying the sunny coast of Istria.  There, by the shimmering turquoise sea, I embraced the joys of patient Croatian sunshine, reading trashy novels in a beach lounge and sipping sweet cider from 10am onwards.

The village proudly offers a strip of restaurants by the marina, a small local market selling crafts, soaps and pickled things, and pretty coastal landscapes that please the wandering eye.

Tips for travelling Fažana: From Pula, the 21A bus from stop 9 on Giardini in the city centre takes about 15 minutes and costs 15 Kunas one-way.

If you’re interested in taking a ferry to Brijuni Islands, weave through the quiet village streets towards the ferry pier, where you will find a tourism office selling transfers to the islands for 210 Kunas. The islands can only be visited as part of an organised tour, which includes a little tourist train and safari park access.

Radiating from the ferry pier and marina, you will find a seaside boulevard lined with restaurants and cafes open all day for your culinary enjoyment. It is a lazy kind of dining area offering lovely views of the sea.

Past the restaurants, there is a long pebbled beach scattered with umbrellas, beach lounges and bars where you can enjoy a shamelessly lazy day in the sun. We paid 30 Kunas to use a ‘deluxe’ lounge (with cushions, an umbrella and side tables) for the day. There is also a waterpark for the kids at 60 Kunas per hour and bike hire from travel agencies in town for 55 Kunas per day.

A camping ground sits by the water at the end of the beach strip and was busier than the village centre when I visited in summer.

3. Eating Truffles

There is no doubt that the mighty queen of Istrian cuisine is the black truffle. Since its discovery in the fruitful soil of the Motovun Forest about 80 years ago, Istria has benefited from the fragrant delights and international demands inspired by this odd-looking delicacy. A happy consequence of dining in Istria is ordering a truffle-covered dish for a fraction of what you would pay almost anywhere else in the world.

To add extra happiness to your truffle adventure, be sure to try some wine from the Pula region, such a red Teran or white Malvasia, which are generally agreed to be among the best quality wines in Croatia.

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Tips for dining in Istria: The best truffles I ate during my visit were in a traditional restaurant on the outskirts of Pula called Konaba Kazun. Located in a modest, house-like building on Vitasoviceva (on a main road near the Lidl supermarket), this restaurant was clearly a local favourite and served amazing first plates that were laced with truffle goodness.

Unless you’re particularly keen on the large slabs of meat with potato, I would suggest skipping the main plates and focusing all your attention on the traditional first plates, such as beef carpaccio with truffles, fuži (hand-rolled pasta) with ragu, and green pasta with truffles. Also, be sure to book ahead or be prepared to wait for a table (although there is not much else around to help you occupy waiting time).

4. Kamenjak Nature Park Near Premantura

Thick white dust coats pine fronds like snow and butterflies dance in dizzying spirals within the eerily beautiful Kamenjak nature park near Pula. Recommended to us by our local hosts, our day trip to Kamenjak was the highlight of our adventures in Istria, mostly due to the incredibly clear, enticing sea that sparkles beneath the rocky coastal cliffs.

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Riding along the unsealed roads from Premantura to the tip of Kamenjak was a dusty 3.4km journey that took about an hour and that may be described as a ‘mountain biking for beginners’. We joined the the summer-loving locals under shrubby cliff-top shade and stayed for hours longer than planned, just to enjoy the blissful seaside.

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Tips for travelling to Kamenjak: Bus 28 from the Pula bus station or Giardini in the town centre will take you weaving through villages for 45 minutes and drop you at Premantura, near the entrance of the nature park. A single fare will cost you 15 Kunas, and if you are keen to cycle your way along the long nature park, bike hire for the day will cost you between 60 and 80 Kunas (seemingly depending on who is behind one of the bike hire counters in town). If you arrive after 2pm, try your luck at hiring a bike for only 50 Kunas.

Park entry is free for bicycles and pedestrians and costs 20 Kunas for motorbikes, 35 Kunas for cars. You can pick up a free map from the hut by the entrance.

There are a couple of beach bars at various swimming points in Kamenjak (as signed on the road) selling ćevapčići with bread, hamburgers, beer and cider but taking your own water and snacks is recommended as the bars tend to run out of essentials towards the end of the day.

Nature’s Playground Around Bled, Slovenia: Part Two – Canyoning

Of all the outdoor adventures I imagined myself having in the alpine wilderness of Slovenia, flinging myself down a rock cliff into icy water was not one of them. But, as travelling has taught me time and time again, it’s often the adventures you least expect that deliver the biggest thrills.

The conscious effort needed to step off the edge worried me the most when considering if I should go canyoning. History has shown my incredible inability to remain even remotely cool while faced with a dramatic drop, narrow bridge or a steep set of stairs. There was that time I stayed too long at the top of Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia for fear of the steps down…. and that day I endured a pale-faced, shaky descent from the rocky face of Mount Tibrogargan in Australia’s Glasshouse Mountain range. But, as I keep saying to myself in these moments of frustrating weakness: life is about living, learning and challenging yourself. So, with that in mind, I signed up for three hours of canyoning in the crags and crevices of Grmečica, near Bled.

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From the cosy 3Glav Adventures office in the centre of Bled, our five-smile group piled into the van with ‘Canyoning Bob’ (who, reassuringly, is the only professional canyoning guide in Bled licensed with the international canyoning association, CIC). Just as during my Emerald River Adventure, I was delighted to drive through honey-drenched light of the Bled area and skirt the towering peaks as we made our way to Grmečica.

The entertaining logistics of pulling on wetsuits and shoes and handling a harness was an adventure in itself, but we had plenty more laughs ahead as we followed a pleasant trail across a suspension bridge, along the creek and into the nearby woodland. Once we’d reached the top of the canyon, Bob strapped us into our helmets and harnesses, demoed some abseiling and safety tips, and off we went.

Although the first backwards step was a little nerve-racking and awkward (limbs flailing, white knuckles gripping), I eventually caught on and found myself becoming bolder in my climbing and abseiling manoeuvres. Then, with a squeal and a leap, I was falling through the mountain-fresh air, plunging into icy water and watching bubbles rise past my face towards the surface of the deep pool. A series of small (and not-so-small) jumps later, I was like a kid after too much red cordial – wired, smiling and ready for more.

Apart from challenging me to do something different, something that faced my fears, canyoning also gave me confidence in my resilience and an refreshed love of outdoor sports. Between the exhilarating jumping , repelling, swimming and scrambling, I had moments of wow as I looked up to admire the pristine beauty.

I only took one photo at the end of our canyoning experience but 3Glav Adventures has this wonderful video showing the real deal in great detail. Definitely worth a squiz!

3Glav Canyoning Video

This post has been kindly sponsored by the thrill-seeking, nature-loving folks at 3glav Adventures in Bled.

A very warm thanks to Domen, Canyoning Bob and the team at 3Glav for hosting me on such an awesome adventure! You can find out more about 3Glav’s Canyoning experiences on their website by following the hyperlink above, or  by dropping into their office at Ljubljanska 1, in the centre of Bled, Slovenia.

To see more of my outdoor adventure photos from Slovenia, be sure to like me on Facebook.

Nature’s Playground Around Bled, Slovenia: Part One – Emerald River Adventure

From the highest mountain pass in Slovenia, the world is a soothing spectrum of hinterland greens, precipice blues and alpine whites. Here, in the northern corner of Slovenia, beside the Italian and Austrian borders, silence drifts between the rugged pine slopes of Triglav National Park and the glimmering limestone peaks of the Julian Alps.

View from Vrsic Mountain Pass, Triglav National Park, Bled, Slovenia

It is only mid-morning and our small 3Glav Adventures Emerald River Adventure group has already driven through husky gold fields and deep woodland groves. We’ve gazed into the glassy surface of Jasna Lake and met the mystical gold-horned guardian of the land. Our ears have learnt the legend of the Russian Chapel and our legs have hiked the Vrsic Mountain Pass to admire this majestic view.

As I inhale the tranquil space before me, l’m yet to realise that this will be the first of many ‘wow’ moments during my Emerald River Adventure.

Gold horn goat at Jasna Lake Triglav National Park, Bled, SloveniaView from Vrsic Mountain Pass, Triglav National Park, Bled, SloveniaWW fort on Vrsic Mountain Pass, Triglav National Park, Bled, Slovenia

Descending from our mountain perch, we seek the icy aqua source of the River Soča in a deep rocky crevice, and follow it by road through the Trenta Valley, where it bends into gorges that it forged millions of years ago. Eventually the emerald ribbon curls beyond sight, towards the distant sea, but not before it fills waterfalls hiding in mossy caverns and spills into dark pools that beckon thrill-seekers to plunge from heights above.

Source of Reka Soca (river soca) Triglav National Park, Bled, SloveniaRiver Soca, Triglav National Park, Bled, SloveniaRiver Soca, Triglav National Park, Bled, Slovenia

After a lunch of ćevapčići with ajvar in the peak encircled town of Bovec, our group finally greets the emerald waters that we have been following all morning. Most of the group enjoy a couple of hours of scenic white water rafting, while the rest of us dive from boulders into mini rapids that have been cooled to about ten degrees Celsius from the mountain stone.

Rafting in River Soca, Triglav National Park, Bled, SloveniaP1310746Swimming in River Soca, Triglav National Park, Bled, Slovenia

Once suitably chilled by the alpine waters, we take another hike through the brochure-worthy landscape; past a World War One fortress, through dappled forests, across a spine-tingling suspension bridge and along boarded paths, before diving into a cobalt pool beneath Kozjak Waterfall.

Hiking to Kozjak Waterfall  Triglav National Park, Bled, SloveniaHiking to Kozjak Waterfall  Triglav National Park, Bled, SloveniaKozjak Waterfall  Triglav National Park, Bled, Slovenia

More delightful attractions lead us to our novel ride home – a car-train that cuts through the stoic mountains as we sit comfortably in our van. As the sun-drenched afternoon fades into purple alpine shadows, the tracks twist between slopes and gullies, through 6327 metres of impenetrable inner-mountain blackness and past dandelion-dotted meadows that sing with happiness.

Car train Triglav National Park, Bled, Slovenia

After disembarking from the car-train, our final stop for the day is at Lake Bohinj, where the dying light plays gently on the surface of the green waters and the white church tower glows in the dim.

Lake Bohinj, Triglav National Park, Bled, Slovenia

It took less than 12 hours on the Emerald River Adventure to bewitch my nature-loving soul and convince me that Triglav National Park must be one of the most stunning natural beauties in the world. I found my adoration was shared by the locals, who passionately protect and enjoy their alpine playground. The Slovenian pride in the land filters into culture and lifestyle norms, such as eating wholesome garden-grown vegetables, keeping the streets litter free and spending recreational time on a mountain trail or in a crystal-clear creek.

It was such a pleasure to see some of the best natural delights on offer in a nation that has more than half of its area covered by forest and a national park, Triglav, occupying 4% of the nation.

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This post has been kindly sponsored by the thrill-seeking, nature-loving folks at 3glav Adventures in Bled.

A very warm thanks to Domen and the team at 3Glav for hosting me on such an awesome adventure; there is no doubting that I will be back for more!

You can find out more about 3Glav’s Emerald River Adventure on their website, or drop by their office at Ljubljanska 1, in the centre of Bled, Slovenia.

Travel. Food. Photo. Slovenia.

The food of Slovenia is bold and wholesome, like its people, like its land. It is made with heart and designed to banish the alpine chill. It promotes meat and potatoes to lead roles in almost every meal and lets fresh fruit and vegetables show their backyard spirit with little adornment.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Slovenian food before I arrived, but quickly found that, while it has a style of its own, it also borrows bits and pieces from its neighbours: Italy, Austria and Croatia.

I especially loved that each Slovenian house is proudly accompanied with fruit trees and overflowing, happy, vegetable gardens, with a patch of smiling sunflowers for good measure. This culture of home-grown goodness seems to extend to the shelves of supermarkets, which stock a lot of ‘health foods’ and locally-produced foods.

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These copper pots held enormous single servings of spicy sausages with cabbage and variations of goulash to be ladled into your bowl with creamy chucks of potato.

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Gluten-free eaters (like me) will be happy to know that buckwheat is a rustic staple of traditional Slovenian cooking. This buckwheat porridge with chicken was much tastier and more satisfying than it looks.

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Plates piled with sausage, ćevapčići, pommes and ajvar can only really be offset with wholesome bowls of traditional vegetable stew…right?

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Wild boar with mash and plum sauce, stringy-cheese covered vegetable pasta bake – all of it yummy and filling.

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Turkey, rabbit, boar, beef… almost every meat you could think of would be on the menu.

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Chilli-flaked goulash warms the belly while mustard and paprika relish warm the tongue.

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Pumpkin seed oil is a typical Slovenian addition to salads and vegetables, and such is the Slovenian regard for this greenish oil that pumpkins are grown for their seeds, and the flesh is left for the pigs.

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Honey bees would gather on sacrificial slices of sweet watermelon set out on fruit stall trestles.

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Cakes and strudels are delectably wholesome with raisins, walnuts, apples and poppy seeds.

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Regional varieties of schnapps including Palinka (pear or plum) Orehovec  (nuts) and Jurka (grape).

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A Photo Walk in Ljubljana, Slovenia

Walking the calm streets of Slovenia’s capital city, Ljubljana, is a bit like taking a stroll through a modern-day fairytale. The stoic stone castle perched above the river-laced city sets the tone for sure, but it’s the calm, cobbled streets, sunflowers, pinwheels and flower pots that sunny-up the scene and urge the body to skip merrily through the city.

It  really is just a little too pretty to believe. Willow fronds drape the walled river banks, drawing ripples in the glassy liquid. Sleek bridges connect the city over the Ljubljanica, and cafes dress the upper banks with a casual brand of riverside relaxation.

I channeled my delight in Ljubljana into happy-snapping, so here are a few shots from my visit.

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Tips for Ljubljana adventures:

Make time for the markets in the city centre. Artisan wares are sold in stalls along the river bank, largely between Tromostevje and Mesarski most. Produce markets and other miscellaneous stalls occupy the market square at Vodnikov Trg. Unlike many city markets, those in Ljubljana sell more treasures than junk, and the vendors proved more than eager to talk about how and where their goodies were made.

Check out the castle events program. Ljubljana Grad, the hard-to-miss castle plonked bam-smack in the middle of the city, is not only awesome for being a castle, but also for hosting a delightful suite of events within the castle grounds. We took advantage of the evening cinema screening of Carnage (which was in English with subtitles) and enjoyed laughing until we cried under the Slovenian stars. Ask at the tourist information centre in the middle of town (castle side) as they have programs and sell tickets.

Hire a bike if you please. Now, I have to admit that I didn’t ride a bicycle in Ljubljana, but I did have full intention of doing so… until I was distracted (on multiple days) by the markets, cafes and parks found on my way to hire bicycles. The tourist information centre rents out bikes for the day and if they run out, will direct you to the backpackers in town that also rents out wheels.

Take a spin through Tivoli. Running the edge of the train tracks and sprawling out into a part-woodland, part-manicured garden space, this park is where locals exercise, dogs frolic and picnics can be held.

Taste regional dishes and drinks. I really enjoyed my meal at Gujzina: The Soul of Pannonia, which is located in one of the main restaurant and shopping strips, Mestini Trg. There, me, my fella and my sister enjoyed modern Slovenian food from the north-east region, including the award-winning Prek Murski Borjac (goulashy deliciousness), wild boar with plum sauce and a buckwheat porridge… followed by local varieties of schnapps, of course.  Restaurant details can be found at www.prekmurska-gostilna.si. On a more modest budget, also try Moto Trade, which sits beside the river, opposite the big market square, and serves a big bowl of traditional vegetable stew for only a few Euros.

Mix street art and wine for a good time. Wandering along Stari Trg. looking at the boutiques and restaurants was lovely enough, but then I turned the corner into Gornji Trg. to see cute wine bars and a rainbow twine and pinwheel art installation that made my heart skip. I also enjoyed buskers, shoe sculptures and street art throughout the city centre, which is clearly all for embracing creativity and fun.

8 Tips for Enjoying the Loveliness of Venice, Italy

The hypnotic dance of pale sunlight on the smooth columns of Ca D’Oro was enough to convince me that visiting Venice would be a lovely experience. I had questioned our timing, in the height of summer and tourist peak, and wondered if the small archipelago system might be spoilt by too many tour groups and marked up prices.

But once on board the waterbus that snakes along the opaque green Grand Canal, none of that practical business seemed to matter. Bring on the hoards, crank the sweltering Italian sun; the grace of Venetian architecture had transfixed me, the quiet watery surrounds had calmed me and my heart was lightened by the ageless magic of the canal as it reflected upon the elegant artisan city.

Although my visit to Venice was a mere 48 hours, I was (clearly) enchanted by its loveliness. Admittedly, as the hours passed, I did grow more weary from the crowds and heat, but I still recommend seeing the city in summer rather than not at all.

Here are eight tips to help you make the most of lovely Venice.

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1. Explore Venice from the waterways

Boating really is the best way to see Venice as it was designed to be seen: from the glassy waterfront as you look upon Palatial columns, ornate balcony rails, pastel pink tones and green striped awnings.

You don’t have to splash out for an expensive gondola ride to experience the gentle joys of Venice by boat. While the gondolas and pretty timber water taxis can navigate into the smaller water systems, the public water buses still present front-row views of some of Venice’s most glorious structures.

For a wonderful first impression and orientation, take the water bus from the Grand Canal shore just outside Venice Santa Lucia train station. Buying tickets from the train station for the waterbus is a bit problematic with the crowds, so brace yourself. You can purchase a ticket from the waterbus office or from the ticket line at the ridiculously small tourism booth at the bottom of the station steps.

A waterbus ticket including luggage can be bought for €7. This ticket will last for 60 minutes and can take you as far as you can get in that time. Make sure you validate your ticket on the little machine with the green disc, which is located on the piers before your board the boat.

A 12 hour transport ticket costs €18 and allows you to carry a bag on board. This type of ticket can be used on all public boats in Venice – along the Grand Canal, the smaller canals and around the outside islands of Venice – as well as the bus and transport in Mestre on the mainland. You can also use this ticket to take the bus from Roma station (near S.L. Train Station) to get to Mestre, rather paying €3.50 for a single train trip.

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2. Risk disorientation and wander off the tourist trail

I was surprised how easy it was to take a few turns into smaller streets and find a canal that was quiet, calm and pretty to watch for a hour or so. Once we made this discovery, we bought some beer and a bottle of Bellini to enjoy by the water without the crush of crowds and overpriced bars.

Local eateries can also be discovered away from the main thoroughfares. I particularly liked the strip of seafood restaurants and bars along Canale di Cannaregio, but almost any detour along a smaller canal, heading towards the outer shore should find you in an interesting spot.

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3. Accept that you will lose yourself

Venice is a labyrinth city with seemingly nameless alleys, dead ends and indirect routes that make it easy to become spun around (especially if your internal compass is already a little wonky, like mine). Try not to navigate by the river as you can’t access many waterfronts, instead hop between squares (labelled as ‘Campo’) and monuments, as there are plenty of them around.

If all else fails, just wander until you find something lovely enough to distract you from being lost; Venice has the happy fortune of offering great conditions for serendipity.

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4. Don’t try to do it all, there is just too much

After two days of determined walking and wandering, I barely unearthed the surface of Venice’s treasures… but I did gain a good feel for the city.

There are 15th Century architectural wonders, some of the best art in Italy, too many churches to count on your hands and a sea of cultural delights to encounter, so seeing it all is really not an option.

The most popular attractions certainly include Piazza San Marco (Saint Mark’s Square), San Marco Basilica and Palazzo Ducale (Palace of the Doges), which are all conveniently in the same area, meaning you can at least tick those off the list with limited navigating. Other sights are scattered quite frequently throughout the islands, meaning you can wander between highlights and still find monuments you weren’t looking for.  

If you can handle the crowds and afford the expensive accommodation, perhaps book for a little longer. Otherwise, content yourself with the knowing what it feels like to sit by an evening-lit canal as a singing gondola man glides by.

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5. Explore the city by night

One of my favourite things about Venice is the way the windows and candles seem to melt into the canal in the night. Nothing quite compares to the shadowy thrill of narrow Venice lanes as you navigate the labyrinth towards glimpses of the dark glimmering liquid. The simple happiness that comes with dangling your feet into the evening-black canal with a drink in hand is something to embrace, and for those of you who, like me, love to play with photography, Venice is the ultimate studio for creating shots with low light and romantic mystery.

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6. Venice is ideal for an early morning jog

My time jogging along the coasts and canals, through narrow winding lanes and beside grand buildings in Venice goes into my ‘best jogs ever’ list. If you hit the streets before 9am, it is quiet, with only other joggers and dog-walkers to keep you company as you explore the outdoor museum.

Try running the length of Fondamenta Nuove or the wide sea-side stretch between Piazza San Marco and Giardini Pubblici. If you’re not that keen on the jogging part, the morning streets will still let you delight in their magnificence as the golden sun beams across their smooth stone pavers.

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7. Visit the Rialto Market

As sunlight creeps across the sleepy streets of Venice and tourists snooze peacefully in their hotels, a marvellous market buzz has already begun in Venice’s Rialto Market. Located near the famous Grand Canal bridge by the same name, the Rialto Market is the source of flappingly-fresh seafood, exotic berries and juicy swollen tomatoes. It is where locals pick up produce before the rush of the day and where early birds grab breakfast before heading to work.

The market operates every day except Sunday and can be found by crossing the Rialto bridge from San Marco to San Polo and veering right, towards the market complex that edges onto the Grand Canal. The best time to go is in the morning – around 9.30am before the crowds start to swarm. You can also catch a ferry gondola for a couple of Euros between the market and the opposite side of the canal, or just sit on the waters edge and watch the locals go back and forth.

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8. Hosteria Al Vecio Bragosso serves gluten free pasta

This was the source of my first meal and Venice and was one of the best places I found. Not only did it serve gluten free pasta (which surprisingly few others did, despite Italy’s generally excellent celiac catering record) but the service was wonderful, the prices weren’t unreasonable (again, hard to find in Venice) and the seafood was deliciously fresh. You can find the restaurant at Strada Nuova, S.S. Apostoli and more details are available on their website.

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Delightful Dining in Bologna & Parma, Italy

If there is one thing you must do when in Italy, it is eat…and oh, what a chore it is!

The Italians are experts at offering regional specialties, quality ingredients and simple elegance on a plate. They are also wonderfully good at nailing that heart-winning combination of incredible food and indulgent yet casual dining experiences, meaning that eating abroad has possibly never been better.

During my travels, I’ve always valued a quality meal in the traditional style of the region, but when my chef sister joined me in Bologna, my food-seeking habits escalated to a whole new, mouth-watering level. My dining delights in Bologna and Parma were the best of my Italian adventures and something I think are worth sharing with you.

Parma

The home of internationally adored Parma Ham (also known as prosciutto) is a charming little town called Parma, which is only an hour by train (about 100km) from Bologna city. As the train whizzes through fields of sunflowers, past well-stocked nurseries and dry Tuscan farmland, it also stops at Modena, the home of Balsamic Vinegar, perhaps just to remind you that these Italians really are an authority on all things foody.

Parma ItalyParma Italy

The railway takes you to the modern perimeter of Parma, from where bustling everyday activity gives way to a provincial charm that is typical in historical Italian towns. Stone and brick courtyards add a feeling of grandeur, lanes beckon the inquisitive wanderer, multi-tone facades lighten the heart, and vine-latticed gates hide secretive garden retreats.

Parma Italy

Besides the delicious food on offer in Parma (which I will get to in a moment) I was delighted with the easy feeling that echoed in the streets of Parma. Bicycles rule with casual frequency, brightly dressed residents walk dogs and stop for an espresso on the way,and little piazzas are filled with smiling lunch-goers who seem to enjoy living in the home of ham.

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An effortless walk through the historical centre, via espresso and gelato, found us at Gallo d’Oro Restaurante at Borgo della Salina 3 for lunch. I was initially attracted to the restaurant as it is tucked just off a main road, in an awkward little courtyard / thoroughfare (and because it uses a rooster in its logo, which can only be a good sign, right?) Our table of three ordered the essential Parma Ham with melon (€10 worth of buttery, fresh, fragrant deliciousness), pork cheeks, lamb with olives and artichokes, lasagne with green pasta and a cool bottle of rose to wash it all down.

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In true Italian style, the whole affair took a couple of hours, perhaps 20 minutes of which was spent exploring the inside deli, antique photos, old lanterns and other curious bric-a-brac decorating the restaurant interior.

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Tips for a day trip to Parma:

Trains from Bologna to Parma and back are frequent so it is easy to just buy your open return ticket from the English-speaking machines at Bologna station, validate them before you board and take one of the available seats. Return tickets for three cost us €40.

For information about the town and province of Parma, head for the central plaza in the old town. The information centre there, just off Plaza della Pace, embraces the boutique shopping vibe created by he surrounding shops. The centre has free maps, information about cycle paths and hire, tours to nearby Parma Ham houses and a pleasing selection of local handmade crafts (including beautiful bags and woollen socks).

Parma is a wonderful place to explore by foot or by bike. Just like many little Tuscan towns with limited vehicle traffic in the historical centre, Parma has quiet and safe roads and a compact area to explore with ease.

Bologna

Five points for guessing which food originated in Bologna…. the answer, of course, is Bolognaise sauce, which the locals call ragu.

Just like many kids in Australia, I grew with Spaghetti Bolognaise as a regular feature on the family dinner table. It uses cheap ingredients, is quite easy to make, and some may even say, is not the most exciting dish.  But seriously, go to Bologna, have a ragu and then tell me Bolognaise is not one of the most wonderful, heart-warming things you’ve ever tasted.

Bologna Italy - Bolognaise ragu

My first happy Bologna dining experience was in a cafe/deli/bookstore/kitchen supply store / wine bar known as Eataly, which is in a bustling cafe street called Via degli Orefici, just off the grand Piazza Maggiore. This place seems to incorporate all the wonderful practical things about Italian cooking without getting confused or tacky or cluttered in the process. It is modern, has character but also holds true to the precious traditions of Italian cuisine. The restaurant is on the first floor, books, deli goods and more can be found on the ground and first floors and gelato, wine and street entertainment can be found on the ground level.

My second and most exciting dining delight in Bologna was at a little restaurant called Drogheria Della Rosa, which is tucked away in the quiet historical street of Via Cartoleria (10). After eating my fill of Parma Ham earlier in the day, I was a little hesitant to meet our 9pm reservation but I am so glad we took the effort as it was one of the most wonderful dinners I’ve ever enjoyed.

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We were seated outside in the balmy Italian night at a tastefully dressed table, beside cheery diners. Bubbles were poured without a word. The menu was presented orally, translated for our benefit. Red wine was poured to match our plates. From the start, this was an effortless dining experience that made me relax in my chair.

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First course was a the famous ragu: light, flavoursome, just enough. Then, the perfectly rare beef steak in regional balsamic. For dessert I savoured the creamy tones of mascarpone with peaches… the dish I claim to be the best dessert I’ve ever tasted.

And to finish… well, a bowl of grapes, more wine and the charismatic, albeit somewhat intoxicated, company of the owner, Emanuele, who had spent the evening hopping between tables, pouring himself and guests another glass of red and insisting on a kiss from every lady as he presented her with a single-stemmed rose as she left.

Bologna Italy - Dining

After eating and drinking to our hearts content, we delighted in the shelves of memorabilia inside the restaurant, the hundreds of bottles in the wine cellar and the flickering candlelight that added a little more romance to an already swoon-worthy evening.

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Although my night at Drogheria Della Rosa was a Bologna highlight, the city itself is a bit hard to place in comparison to other Italian cities. It has a no-nonsense urban exterior, a grimy and sprawling edge, but it also has a pretty and old central quarter as expected of a historical city. The main attractions can be whizzed through in a day or two: there is luxury shopping, the oldest university in Italy, the impressive central Piazza Magiore and surrounding churches, all of which are nice, but not quite singing the same glorious tune as attractions in Venice or Florence or little towns like Parma, Perugia and Lucca. Perhaps it was just my experience, but I would say this is a city to visit for its food, wine and social life, with a quick bit of sight seeing on the side.

Bologna Italy

Tips for visiting Bologna:

Bologna is, again, easily accessed by train. It makes for a great stop over between Venice and Florence, but unlike trains to smaller towns, make sure you buy a ticket a couple of days before from the station or Tren Italia website, as it is a busy route.

Affordable accommodation isn’t as common in Bologna. Although there certainly are affordable options, especially if you are interested in student-style accommodation, Bologna isn’t as geared up for tourists as neighbouring cities, so book well in advance. There are quite a few nice hotels around the historical centre if you are happy to pay a little extra.

Check out the summer entertainment schedule if you are visiting in the hotter months. We were delighted to find a free, televised orchestral performance in Piazza Maggiore on a week evening, and heard of other events in time we were there.

Remember that the student haunts will be quiet during summer holidays. As the oldest university city in Italy, there is a healthy student social life that has been nurtured for centuries in Bologna. That said, come the summer holidays, students will flock to the coast to avoid the heat, meaning many bars are quiet and closing early rather than buzzing as usual.

A Week in Florence: The Pleasures of Italy’s Renaissance City

A week in Florence is a fabulous way to test your dedication to your travel budget. Although hosting its share of tourist traps, overpriced dining and luxury shopping, the real threat to your bottom line is the tempting suite of wine bars, restaurants, boutiques and gelatarias in the historical centre of Italy’s Renaissance city.

Ponte Vecchio Florence Tuscany Italy

I just couldn’t help but be engulfed by the loveliness of Florence, so I spent the week having long lunches with friends, indulging in three ice-creams a day, taking coffee breaks between window shopping and slowly walking the streets, admiring buildings of pink, green and creamy hues. I felt like a film character, wandering those pretty cobbled streets, gelato dripping down my wrist, wearing a floral dress and a sunny grin.

Admittedly, Florence wasn’t originally on my ‘Must-see in Italy’ list (and thinking back now, I can’t imagine why), but thanks to some very good friends urging our visit, Dave and I worked it into our itinerary from Perugia in Umbria, only a week before arriving there.

Here are a few of my favourite activities from a week of pleasures in Florence.

Wining, Dining & Gelato-ing

Perhaps the most time-consuming activity of the week was indulging in the full flavours served by the capital city of Tuscany. If you’ve seen my post about the food of Italy, you will know I’m naturally inclined to experience a culture via my belly, but the pretty streets of Florence seemed to inspire a particularly decadent diner in me, as did the lovely company of friends.

Italian desserts Florence Tuscany Italy

Some of my favourite wining, dining and gelato-ing experiences were at:

  • Gelateria della Passera on Via Toscanella 15, which is tucked into a little courtyard that housed my favourite collection of eateries. This gelataria trades in elegant presentation and strong flavours. The small shop has only a freezer with round silver compartments that hide gelato away from non-purchasing eyes as if it is a secret. I insist you seek it out and then enjoy with all your senses.
  • The Club House on Via de’ Ginori 6, which makes a mean gluten-free pizza. This was my first (and second) Italian gluten-free pizza experience, and let’s just say that eating that the Napoli pizza with capers and anchovies was a spiritual experience for my pizza-deprived soul. The Club House is a modern restaurant with long tables that are great for groups and a range of less traditional dishes to compliment the Italian style meals.
  • Trattoria Bordino on Via Stracciatella 9r, down a little street a block back from the Ponte Vecchio, is a quiet and charming restaurant that serves wonderfully Italian Italian food, an incredible selection of desserts and, if you’re lucky, a shot of Limóncello after dinner. The checked table clothes, surrounding residential apartments and cobblestone street add to this very authentic and relaxing dining experience.
  • Caffe Degli Artigiani on Via dello Sprone 16r is a cute cafe that wraps the corner of Piazza della Passera, opposite Gelateria della Passera. It happily offers simple Italian meals with wine, some jazz on the speakers, fairy lights on the inside and laneway charm on the outside. I ordered a Nevergesi salad (lettuce, salmon, capers and a boiled egg) for 6 Euros with a glass of house red for 2.50 Euros and thoroughly enjoyed the colourful atmosphere of this laid-back retreat.

Exploring the Historical Centre

The first thing I noticed in Florence was the elegant historical buildings that seem to be prettier and more frequent than those in other European cities. I soon found this is largely owing to the wealthy merchant history of the city and Florence’s Renaissance make-over.

Of all the sights in the historical centre, I think the Duomo is a must see! This glorious structure has an elaborate and colourful exterior, but wait until you see the multi-tone geometric internal floors and feel the candlelight echoing in the vast interior. The basilica was built on top of previous churches, which can still be explored under the floor of the current structure (for a little fee), can hold up to 30,000 people and is the most prominent building in the Florence cityscape.

The Duomo Florence Tuscany ItalyThe Duomo Florence Tuscany Italy

It is free to visit the church, entering via the door on the same side as the little tower (the lovely baptistery) between 10am and 5pm. Ladies, be sure to cover your knees and shoulders (as per standard church etiquette). For a fee and a bit of queuing time at the side entrance, you can also climb the dome and enjoy panoramic views of Florence.

The Duomo Florence Tuscany ItalyThe Duomo Baptisery Florence Tuscany Italy

Other highlights in the historical centre include:

  • The Ponte Vecchio, the most-known bridge in Florence, which drips with gold jewellers and buzzes with tourists.
  • Plaza Della Signoria, the old political centre of Florence where, among fountains and statues and grand historical buildings, you can find the Loggia Dei Lanzi, a purpose-built political assembly point which now houses an emotive collection of sculptures for free public enjoyment (including a bronze Persus who has just slain Medusa and a taut Hercules killing a centaur). The week I visited there was also a remarkable mime working in the area (who was carrying women with roses in his mouth, stealing bicycles and drawing in a crowd of hundreds).
  • Plazzo Pitti, the sparse space introducing Pitti Palace on Boboli Hill, from where you can access the palace, its gardens and the narrow streets that weave towards the River Arno from the plazzo edge.

There are scores of other historical sites wedged amongst the boutiques and cafes of Florence, but I found these to be the three sites most jam-packed with Florence delights.

River Arno and bridges Florence, Tuscany ItalyHistorical centre Florence, Tuscany ItalyHistorical centre Florence, Tuscany ItalyHistorical centre Florence, Tuscany Italy

Garden Gazing  & Lazing

Combining the olive and terracotta tones of Tuscany, the merchant extravagance of landscaping, and Florence’s symbol, the iris, is a fantastic start to creating a memorable garden. But the gardens of Florence, which are known throughout the world for their loveliness, offer a lot more than that.  My Florence experiences of garden lazing and gazing came complete with silver-green olive tones, manicured hedges, paths that latticed through flower beds and vine-covered arch ways reminiscent of a fairy tale scene.

I particularly enjoyed:

  • The Boboli Garden in Pitti Palace, which, with an area of over 45,000 square metres, is an impressive example of grand scale renaissance gardening. The garden sports a number of fountains, an Egyptian obelisk, a 17th Century amphitheatre, a boulevard formed with Cyrus trees and panoramic views on the way up to the porcelain museum and terrace. Admission is bought with one of the multiple types of palace tickets, which are sold from an office accessed from Plazzo Pitti at 10 Euros per person. Also, take some water and a mini picnic as there is only an expensive cafe outside the garden gate.

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  • The Rose Garden on way to Piazzale Michaelangelo, which is much more humble than the Boboli Garden, but offers much more fragrance, some interesting sculptures and quiet benches from which to enjoy the view of Florence. Entry is free and the garden can be access by walking up the hill from the river, towards Piazzale Michaelangelo.

Rose Garden Florence, Tuscany ItalyRose Garden Florence, Tuscany Italy

Unfortunately the famous iris garden near Piazzale Michaelangelo was not in full bloom when I visited in the heat of July, and the sprawling Le Cascine, which follows the river out of the city, was crisp and unkept while I was there. That said, there are many other little (and a few not so little) parks across the city to inspire the senses and host a picnic or two during your Florence adventures.

Sipping Wine in the Streets

Embracing the European summer with a social sip of wine after dinner was as much a part of my Florence experience as the Renaissance attractions. After the sun has slip behind the buildings and dinner plates have been cleared, informal gatherings of wine-sipping friends can be found in piazzas and parks across the city. Three spots that are particularly lively are:

  • Piazza Santo Spirito, where you’ll find  a church of the same name, busy little restaurants, a mini park and fountain in the centre and some sun-warmed steps that accommodate buskers and drinkers after dark. During the day this piazza also has a little market for produce, clothes and art.
  • Piazza Sant’ Ambrogio, which is a cosy little court with a little church and a bar of the same name. The bar offers a slightly intimidating selection of wines, which can be ordered at the till, collected at the bar with a receipt and then sipped outdoors with a chilled-out mix of students, creative folk and professionals.
  • The garden of Fortezza de Basso, which is a compact green space near the Santa Maria Novella train station. The park has a buzzing night scene of local films and general park merriness, revolving around a pond and a little bar. Although a little out of the historical centre, a local tip sent me exploring there after dark. I found quite a crowd, an Italian documentary about miners (from what I could gather) and some musicians on the grass. It is free to wander in and join the fun and you can bring your own drinks and food, or order from the bar which serves beer for 3 Euros and Spumante for 3.50.

Piazza Santo Spirito Florence, Tuscany ItalyPiazza Santo Spirito Florence, Tuscany ItalyFlorence, Tuscany Italy

Travel. Food. Photo. Italy.

My month in Italy was an adventure centred around eating – regularly, indulgently, eating. As a result, this edition of Travel. Food. Photo. is kinda epic. I just had to taste all the glorious flavours that have radiated from this relatively small country and influenced deliciousness across the world.

Each region of Italy offers specialty produce and a different favourite dish, so I’ve arranged this post into regions. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

In Rome

My first ever gluten-free ice-cream cone and first taste of my new favourite gelato flavour, fruiti de bosco.

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Cooking dried pasta at ‘home’ to save money for the other foody regions we were still to encounter.

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Sharing chocolate mousse with a touch of lime.

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Smelling the goodness of pizzerias on almost every city block.

In Perugia, Umbria

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Hard cheeses and pepperoni from the local deli. Killer affogato from the gelataria near the historical centre look out.

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A starting selection of ten local meats – wow – and my first Italian gluten-free pasta (with black truffles mind you).

In Florence and Lucca, Tuscany

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City market produce fit for a royal picnic. Beef Carpaccio, arancini, mussels on every menu, gluten-free risotto with a many many cheeses.

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My first gluten-free Italian pizza!!!!!!!!

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Tiramisu, Pecan pie, fruit flans, custard tarts, biscotti, limoncello and more gelato – oh so sweet, oh so good!

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In Bologna and Parma, Emilia-Romagna

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The famous, buttery, satin-like, Parma ham served with fresh rockmelon. This was a bit of a ham revolution for me!

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Slow cooked pork cheek with Modena balsamic (from the neighbouring town and home of Balsamic Vinegar), beef ragu, green pasta lasagne and beef Carpaccio.

Travel food photo Italy - Bologna

Perfect bolognaise (ragu) named after the city from where it originated – Bologna.

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Bresaola with lime and parmesan. Travel food photo Italy - Bologna

White pizza made with such care and quality ingredients that it only needs mozzarella on the baked dough.

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Two-cheese tortellini with sauteed zucchini flowers. Travel food photo Italy - BolognaTravel food photo Italy - Bologna

The best dessert I’ve ever had the delight to taste – mascarpone and fresh peach slices.

Travel food photo Italy - Bologna

In Venice

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Plenty more gluten-free pasta – trying to eat my fill before leaving Italy.

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Seafood inspired markets and menus – cuttlefish, sardines, trout, sea bass, salmon, sole.

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Gnocchi with five cheeses, grilled polenta and with salted cod.

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Stay tuned for my soon-to-be published post about the amazing food of Bologna and Parma in Italy. My dining experiences there were just so special that they deserve a dedicated post!

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