Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Trials and Tribulations in Edinburgh: An Expat in Reverse

 I've been back in the UK for two years now, so sometimes I can barely remember what it feels like to be an expat. With this in mind, I wondered what it feels like to be the expat in my home country? As a sort of 'expat in reverse', if you will. Andy Hayes obligingly enlightens us with his experience of living in Edinburgh

"I hadn’t heard of the term “expat in reverse” until a conversation with Kate, but life in reverse certainly explains the disorientation I felt on landing in Edinburgh, Scotland.

I was born in the US, but arrived in Edinburgh via several years in Amsterdam.  I loved the Dutch lifestyle and laissez-faire café culture, but due to the European banking crisis, my job moved to Scotland, and thus I moved with it.

When I was offered the opportunity to move to the Scottish capital, the idea of being back in an English-speaking country again certainly piqued my interest. Ironically, language ended up being one of the biggest divides I found in integrating with the local culture.  British English was the language spoke at my old job and many of my friends in Holland were not Dutch, but other European nationals, so even today, a couple of years on, I still find it hard to write “neighbor” without the u, nor can I explain the Americanised version of “aluminium.”

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Having it large: Eating in Indianapolis

Fish and chips, Sunday roast with all the trimmings, a full English breakfast, a cream tea: traditional English food doesn't exactly warrant the label 'light'. So why is it that whenever you mention dining in America, your average Brit's eyes widen in alarm and they mutter something about the huge portion sizes? Unless they've been to calorie-conscious California, they'll also probably allude to either the grease factor or the sugary sweetness of the cooking on offer. Although 'typical' British grub may not be lean cuisine, healthy eating campaigns have made us all much more aware of what we consume and its origins, while the UK's ethnic diveristy has helped to broaden our palate and open our minds to different tastes.


When I boarded the plane for Indianapolis, I wasn't exactly sure what to expect when it came to my first post-flight meal. Would I be faced with a lard-fest of epic proportions? Or sugar-coated goodies guaranteed to send the tooth fairy fluttering my way? As a pescetarian heading to a meat-loving country, I was a little daunted. I was going to be staying with an English expat family, but given that testing out the local cuisine is one of my favourite things to do while on holiday, I hoped there would be enough for me to enjoy over a ten-day stay.

Turns out I needn't have worried. Indy might be in the heart of corn country, but it turns out Midwestern cuisine is heavily influenced by central and northern European cooking. Just as in the UK, meat plus carb-of-choice (veg optional) dishes are standard fare, but thankfully for my pescetarian palate, there's far more on Indy's menu than home-style cooking. From seafood to stonebaked pizza to tapas to hearty American breakfasts, I tried it all in the name of research.  

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Indianapolis: Cars, cream pie... and culture

'Where are you going on holiday this summer then?'
'Oh, right'. [pause] 'Why?'

For the past few months, every time anyone has asked me that question beloved of hairdressers, I've watched their facial expressions change to confusion at my reply and fielded numerous enquiries as to why I'd chosen the Hoosier heartland over... well, anywhere else, really. When Brits go to the USA on holiday, they opt for a long weekend of cocktails and culture in the Big Apple, a fly-drive to Florida or maybe even a multi-stop trip to California's hotspots. But ten days in the midwest? Apparently that's not a particularly common (or even comprehensible) vacation.

Why had I chosen to visit Indianapolis over America's other attractions, or even a European destination? Simple: to see my friend Vicki, who relocated there earlier this year. In addition to visiting her, it seemed like a great opportunity to get to know a city I probably would never have been to otherwise. After all, Indianapolis's pin isn't very prominent on the world tourist map. But as I discovered, it's all the better for it.
The event that puts Indy on the world map

As a city with a population of 830,000, Indy isn't exactly off the beaten track, but nor is it a bustling metropolis playing host to hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Well, with the exception of the final week in May, when the city prepares for the main event in its calendar: the Indy 500. Entirely by accident, I'd managed to book a flight arriving the evening before the big race. Keen to capitalize on my lucky booking, we bought tickets for the race. In the week leading up to 'the greatest spectacle in racing', Indy puts on a festival with a range of racing-related events, including vintage car laps and a street parade. Unfortunately I missed out on these activities, but the atmosphere on race day itself made up for it. As the biggest one-day spectator sport event in the world, the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race (to use its official title) draws vistors from all over the globe, including two unsuspecting girls from the north west of England. Put simply, it was overwhelming: foot and four-wheel traffic swarmed towards the Speedway, loaded down with refreshments to last through a long day in the blazing sun.

Ask a Brit for their impression of America, and the word 'big' will crop up somewhere: big country, big roads, big portions. The scale of the Indy 500 definitely fell into this category. In the build-up to the race, more than a degree of patriotism was on show, with renditions of 'America the Beautiful' and the national anthem accompanied by much heart-clutching and hat removing. It certainly wasn't something you'd see in Britain, but the level of evident national pride was quite humbling. When the race finally began, we sat back and watched the 33 cars tear around the track for 3 hours. As clueless individuals whose knowledge came from a quick run-down from Vicki's long-time Indy resident cousin and a few facts gleaned from the official programme, we found our interest came and went in waves: lead changes and crashes sparked it, but our picnic diverted it. The final few laps were undeniably gripping though, with a crash and a last-minute lead change signalling victory for Scottish driver Dario Franchitti. For a full account of the race, read my article on The Travel Belles.

I've got my sights set on the 2013 title

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Getting out of town: Woodstock

When you live abroad, starting a blog to document your experiences seems like a great idea. Every day holds the potential for a new experience, sight or snapshot. When I began Tales of a Brit Abroad in 2010, it motivated me to make the most of living in Madrid by exploring the city beyond the tourist hotspots. It also gave me even more of an excuse to escape the capital at weekends and spend time getting to know the rest of Spain.

Since moving back to the UK, it's been understandably difficult to maintain this blog: after all, I'm no longer a Brit abroad. Fortunately, I travel enough to make the occasional post possible. But what all these weekend trips overseas have made me realise is how little I've seen of my own country. Unless I have a friend who lives somewhere, chances are I won't have been there. It's embarrassing really; I've probably been to more provinces in Spain than I have English counties. This needs to change: after all, who knows how long I'll be based on this island?

When I was recently offered the chance to visit Woodstock, I accepted gladly. After all, the pretty little Cotswold town is only 8 miles outside of Oxford, my current home. Despite this, I'd only ever driven through Woodstock once, en route to Blenheim Palace on the outskirts. 'A big rock festival was held here in the 60s', my mum announced as we drove through the sleepy streets. My 15-year-old self looked back at her witheringly and said, 'That was in America'. So I knew there wasn't going to be any rock and roll on the agenda for this visit, but I was hoping for some relaxation, good food and a touch of luxury.

A watercolour of Woodstock by local artist Rod Craig

Friday, 25 May 2012

Magical Mushrooms: Climbing Seville's Setas

As much as I'd like to think Seville has remained frozen in time since my year abroad in 2004/5, the truth is that time has marched on. Well, strolled on – this is Seville, after all. Yes, La Campana is still serving coffee and cake, the tapas at Bar Alfalfa are as good as ever and Triana's still delightfully different, but certain changes have taken place in the city centre. The Avenida de la Constitución is now pedestrianized, save for the state-of-the-art tram which connects Plaza Nueva with San Bernardo. The renovations of Plaza de España are finally complete: its tiled scenes gleam and its waterways are alive with boatloads of enthusiastic rowers once again.

The past few years have also brought a more controversial development to the city centre. Since 2011, Plaza de la Encarnación has been home to the tongue-twisting Metropol Parasol: a 25 metre high pair of towers topped with a walkway and known much more prosaically as 'las Setas' (the mushrooms). Bearing more than a passing resemblance to fungi, these towers divided opinion during their six-year construction, and continue to do so now that they dominate the square. In line with local building regulations, they're nowhere near tall enough to rival the height of the Giralda, the Cathedral's tower, yet their modern design in the heart of oh-so-traditional Seville means that not everyone is a fan. Constructed by Berlin-based Jürgen Mayer H and his team of architects from wood, steel and concrete, the fantastical structures undulate through the sky above the square. To some, their size and sweep may cut far too daring a dash through Plaza de la Encarnación, but to my eye, they add an interesting diversity to the area. They've also helped to regenerate the neighbourhood, with shops, bars and a market at ground level, an antiquarium at basement level (an archaelogical museum where visitors can glimpse some of the city's  ruins and artefacts, from Roman times onwards) and the viewing platform or mirador. 

The Setas have a purpose that integrates them into the fabric of city life: to me, this makes them a worthwhile addition to the city centre. Their design is certainly a talking point, and it may seem incongruous at first, but a trip up to the mirador may make up your mind if you're still sitting on the mushroom fence. With its lift access, it's certainly easier than scaling the Giralda, with the bonus of Cathedral views. Walkways allow you to soak up Seville's skyline from all angles, as well as learning more about the construction of the Setas themselves through the information provided.

A trip up Seville's mushrooms is €1.30 well spent, and if you want to linger and admire the architecture and the vista, there's a bar and restaurant.

What do you think: modern monstrosity or an innovative addition to the city centre?
To my mind, it's bold, it's brash and it's got something to say: welcome to Andalucia, Setas.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Istanbul: Mosques, museums and modernity

A minaret-topped hill, bustling bazaars and the lamp-lit fusion of East and West that is the Hagia Sophia. We've all seen the postcard images of Istanbul, but there's much more to this city than the sights of the Sultanahmet district responsible for its fame.

If Taksim Square is 'new' Istanbul's hub, across the Bosphorus in the 'old' European side of the city, Sultanahmet Square is the centre of the district of the same name. It's also a key fixture on all tourists' agendas. As first-time visitors with only a few days to experience the city, we chose to base ourselves in Sultanahmet, close to the sights. After the comedy caper that was arrival at our hotel, the experience picked up: comfortable and friendly, the Esans Hotel was also within easy walking distance of the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace, all of which cluster conveniently around Sultanahmet Square. What it's less close to are restaurants that don't appear to cater purely to tourists: given the neighbourhood's beauty and excellent sights per square metre ratio, you can now barely take a few steps without being accosted by a restaurant tout. Not since I was an 18 year old on holiday in Albufeira have I felt so wanted.

Sultanahmet sights

Topkapi Palace

Its no wonder the Sultanahmet area's packed with monuments: for centuries, it was the hub of the Ottoman Empire. Topkapi Palace was where all the strategising and the top-flight fun took place: this well-preserved site was part fortress, part pleasure palace. At 20 Turkish Lira (plus another 15 if you want to visit the harem), admission doesn't come cheap, but there's enough here to keep you occupied for hours. Vast public courtyards give way to smaller, more intimate ones where courtly life played out. As well as admiring the architecture and tile work of the buildings scattered around the complex, visitors can peruse exhibitions of weapons through the ages, Ottoman costumes and relics - including many individual strands of the Prophet Mohammed's beard. Bling-lovers can also cast their eyes over the jewels in the Imperial Treasury. For me, the final court was the most impressive, particularly the Baghdad Kiosk with its tiled walls and mother-of-pearl furniture.

Hagia Sophia

Splendid though Topkapi Palace was (and it's not every day you get to see the Prophet's beard), I'd been holding out for the Hagia Sophia. A former church built in AD357 and turned into a mosque after the Ottoman Turk army reclaimed Constantinople in 1453, the outwardly unassuming building is inwardly stunning in its simplicity. On one level, it is an empty shell: there are no altars, no pews in this deconsecrated place of worship. Instead, there's a hum of snap-happy tourists, happily dwarfed by the scale of the structure. The high ceilings tower above them, arches and columns reaching skywards. Suspended from the ceiling, the simple glass lamps common to mosques across the city cast a dim glow on the awe-struck visitors. It's stunning from every angle: the balcony above, the doorway, the middle of the floor. There's very little to see - but plenty to marvel at.

Visiting Istanbul's mosques requires a little more planning. Although visitors seem to be welcome at all of the city's mosques, some are much more accustomed to them than others. As the most famous mosque on the block, the Blue Mosque certainly receives its share of visitors. When it was constructed, its 6 minarets provoked contoversy, as according to Islam only the Prophet's mosque at Mecca was allowed this number. Tourists should time their visits to as not to coincide with any of the 5 daily prayers: listen out for the unmistakable call to prayer, then leave it at least half an hour before visiting. If there are any guidelines (separate entrances or placing your shoes in a plastic bag), be sure to follow them, but otherwise make sure to remove your shoes, dress modestly and cover your hair if female. Although my guidebook declared that the Blue Mosque (unlike the Hagia Sophia) was much more impressive outside than in, we were still captivated by its vast, tile-adorned interior. Down the hill at the water's edge, the huge New Mosque is very much a working place of worship, making it worth a visit for this reason alone.

I have to admit, a visit to the Grand Bazaar was about as appealing to me as rifling through the sale rail at Primark on a Saturday afternoon. All that haggling over tourist tat isn't really my cup of tea. But my travel companion A wanted to test out her bargaining skills over the purchase of some ceramics, so I went along for the ride. A much more sanitised experience than the souks of Marrakech, you can nonetheless easily get lost here in the lanes of shops, divided into areas according to the wares sold - so jewellery, leather, textiles and ceramics all had their own sections. We managed to inadvertently choose non-Turkish stall holders to haggle with, but A came away with some pretty painted bowls and a scarf, and we enjoyed an apple tea and a chat with the Syrian scarf-seller, so I revised my opinion of bazaar-buying slightly. We headed downhill through an area brimming with small, local shops to the Spice Bazaar, the place to go for erm, spices and Turkish delight. Caught in a crowd of Saturday-afternoon shoppers, actually getting into the bazaar was something of an ordeal, but the free tea and Turkish delight I consumed while A purchased almost made up for it. The bazaars are an experience, sure - just not one I would feel the need to repeat.

Across the water

Looking from new to old Istanbul

Separated from Sultanahmet and the outlying districts by the Bosphorus, the 'new' European city lies across Galata Bridge. Traversed by tram or on foot, the bridge is a major thoroughfare at all hours of the day. It's also lined with fishermen, patiently hoping to reel in a catch. The area around the water's edge heaves with street food: on our winter visit, roasted chestnuts and boiled sweet corn cobs were very much in evidence, while grilled fish is a year-round constant, especially in 'new' Istanbul. If you're looking for a decent meal without paying tourist-inflated rates, it's definitely worth crossing the Golden Horn and branching out into the Beyoglu district.

Sights situated on this side of the Bosphorus include the Galata Tower, but for me this area was all about the atmosphere. Tourists are much harder to spot among the crowds of Istanbullus seeking retail and eating opportunities and touts are thankfully scarce on this side of the water. Shop-lined Istiklal Caddesi is Istanbul's main thoroughfare, teeming with life at any hour of the day. Tucked down the many lanes and alleys branching off this kilometre-long stretch are endless eateries - and more than a little nightlife. On Saturday evening, A and I followed city food blog Istanbul Eats's recommendation to dine at fish restaurant Furreya Galata Balikcisi, a pocket-sized place in the shadow of the Galata Tower. After feasting on flaky fish wraps, we let our instincts guide us to a pedestrianised alley packed with bars, locals spilling out of them with bottles of beer, chatting in huddles and enjoying their evenings. I couldn't find it again, but the experience was worth the wander.

The following day, we returned to Beyoglu to soak up some of Istanbul's cafe society. Too tired to contemplate the trek up Galata Tower, we got our views from Litera, the Goethe Institute's top-floor bar. Fortunately no penchant for German literature was required to partake of the panoramic views over to Sultanahmet and the sea, just a thirst. Our appetite was similarly satisfied in Krependeki Imroz, one of the meyhanes (traditional meze restaurants) on Nevizade Sokak, the most bustling backstreet in town. Choosing from a selection of hot and cold mini dishes, we created a substantial meal for around £10 each. And there wasn't a tout in sight.

Into Asia

Although the majority of the city's sights are on its European side, it would have been rude not to pop across the Black Sea to Asia. Ferries to Kadikoy and Uskudar depart from both sides of the Golden Horn; uninformed about both of them, we plumped for the former and queued up with our fellow passengers. Once on board, we clambered up to the outside deck and took our seats among over-excited children, camera-toting tourists and a few Sunday morning sleepy-heads waiting to be revived by the sea air. Istanbullus love their tea, so the on-board vendor was no surprise: but the lack of paper commuter-cups was. No tea-to-go here, the vendor whisked round with a tray bearing steaming traditional tea glasses. The perfect way to keep warm on a fresh February morning. Unfortunately there was also a simit seller. This pretzel-shaped, sesame seed-covered bread roll is a street food staple - and unfortunately, it also makes a seagull-friendly snack. The blighters swooped down towards the boat as it chugged its way to the Asian side, anticipating the chunks of dough flying their way. Although they got a little too close for my liking, they ultimately enhanced the stunning views over to Sultanahmet.

Clueless about what to see over on the Asian side (the tourist information office gave us a blank look and directions to a shopping mall), we bussed it up to Uskudar, soaking up more of the residential side of the city. The Asian side certainly has a more homely feel - we passed through neighbourhood after neighbourhood on the bus, with not a tourist in sight. Arriving in Uskudar, we purchased some street snacks and boarded another ferry (making sure not to share with the seagulls).

Istanbul is a city of contrasts. The European and the Asian, the modern and the traditional, the religious and the secular. But it works. The city has a harmonious, happy feel. While initially a little inaccessible to tourists (until the help of a moustachioed metro worker is enlisted at least), it's worth scratching the surface and exploring both Sultanahmet and beyond.

For more details on where to eat in Istanbul, see this post.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

The strangest thing I've eaten while travelling

Once again, the time has come to meet the Travel Belles ladies (and you, if you like) for virtual a coffee and chat Across the Cafe Table. For the 11th gathering, the topic we're all discussing is food: the weirdest and the most wonderful.

Being a picky pescetarian has its drawbacks when travelling. Waiters in some countries meet the news that I don't eat meat with a look of blank incomprehension. It doesn't always make for an easy or interesting life, as I am reminded whenever I'm served a plate of crudités in France, or when I disappointedly have to leave the dish containing meat I've been brought by the aforementioned uncomprehending waiter. But it does have one distinct advantage: it rules me out of trying all those unusual meats that strike fear into the heart of most Western travellers. No horse for me, thank you. No frog's legs, no kangaroo, no battered crickets. I can even feign full vegetarianism if I want to avoid some unappetising-sounding fish dish.

When it comes to 'wonderful' eating experiences, I'm lucky enough to be able to recall plenty from my travels. That 3 course Algerian meal (with improvised pescetarian option) cooked and served with a side of chat by the restaurant owner in Lyon. A divine melanzane parmigiana in Rome, that I'll forever be trying to recreate. The garlicky grilled squid in salsa verde they used to serve at the riverside shack outside my apartment in Seville. But weird? That's more difficult.

Not what I expected

As a vegetarian, I'm often prevented from trying local delicacies. Visiting a meze restaurant in Istanbul in February, I found myself able to try one of their national dishes, fava beans. Great, I thought, knowing from my experience in Lebanese restaurants that I like these rich- tasting pulses. I hadn't reckoned on the way they'd be served, though. Faced with a gelatinous-looking pale green slice of something swimming in oil, I couldn't equate it with the tasty brown beans I'd tried before. The dill-topped slab dominated its tiny plate, challenging me to dig in. I did. The texture was unexpected: at once slimy and solid, it was unusual but not entirely unpleasant. The dill dominated the innocuous taste of the bean mush. I ploughed on, trying to accustom myself to the sensation but ultimately couldn't. It may not have been the most appetising to me, but at least this national delicacy was vegetarian.

What are the weirdest and most wonderful things you've eaten while travelling? Head over to The Travel Belles to share your experiences or read some more. Who knows, some may even involve kangaroo...

For more on what and where I ate in Istanbul (most of it much more palatable), check out this post. More on city sightseeing coming up later this week.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Arriving in Istanbul (or, how not to travel)

Apparently I have more in common with Oasis than a boy scout. On my recent trip to Istanbul, my motto was most definitely 'roll with it' as opposed to my more customary 'always be prepared'.

Surprise number one was the weather. After spending a week in Spain in January, during which the unsuspecting sevillanos and valencianos were treated to a glimpse of my winter white arms, I'd been expecting Turkey to deliver the goods, sun-wise. We certainly weren't expecting snow. Touching down at Sabiha Gokcen airport in early February, the cityscape wasn't just studded with endless minarets - it was also shrouded in slush.

Following the long bus transfer into the city and a lunch purchased largely by pointing and smiling, we set out in search of the hotel we'd booked months ago (very prepared) after a glass or two of wine (less advisable). Like most others, our hotel was located in the Sultanahmet district among the majority of Istanbul's sights, while the transport hub of Taksim Square is north of the Golden Horn, the inlet of the Bosphorus that separates the old and new European sides of the city. The easy option would have been to take a taxi, but who needs ease when you have public trabsport? With the help of a map, the metro station security guard and a moustachioed shoe-shiner, we purchased an Istanbulkart (similar to London's Oyster card) and planned a circuitous route involving a funicular, a tram and a suburban commuter train. The first two methods of transport were modern and efficient, whirling us downhill and across the water onto the southern side of the Golden Horn, the picture-postcard side of the city. The commuter train was akin to something from the Soviet era, and deposited us in an equally joyless area close to the water's edge. At this point, the wine-inspired hotel booking seemed like a distinctly dodgy idea.

A typical Sultanahmet view

Trailing up the hill from Cankurtan station (not a Sultanahmet sight you ever need to acquaint yourself with), our map-reading skills led us to our hotel's address. A tumbledown, uninhabited house complete with broken windows and a mournful-looking mangy cat on the doorstep. Either the past few months had been very unkind to Esans Hotel, or we needed to sort out our sense of direction. Fortunately, more friendly locals came to our rescue and pointed us towards our home for the next three days. Thankfully, it was still standing. The immediate area around the hotel was only slightly more inviting than Cankurtan's environs though, so we weren't out of the panic woods yet.

A view of Cankurtan by day. It was bad, honestly.

Sultanahmet is peppered with houses-turned-hotels, set up by families with varying degrees of success. If the TripAdvisor reviews of Esans Hotel were anything to go by, the proprietors had managed it admirably: guests praised the establishment's atmosphere, service and value. Stepping inside and being greeted by four different people and a budgie was definitely a warm welcome, though somewhat unexpected. So too was the talk (some more prone to exaggeration may even have termed it a lecture) we received about the different perfume diffusers available for us to try out during our stay. Named 'Essence' Hotel after the perfumier who resided there during the nineteenth century, not only are the rooms named after different scents (or 'odours', following an unfortunate translation), the owners have also developed a range of scents for guests to fragrance their rooms according to mood. It's certainly a USP, but as welcome information goes, a map would have been more handy.

We were also offered a cup of tea, and being British and polite, we accepted. The chill was soon banished from our bones, but due to the tea's temperature, we had to linger in reception. Taking in the surroudings, we relaxed a little. Esans Hotel definitely homely: the breakfast area and lounge merged, and comfort was prioritized over the usual trappings of a hotel lobby. The budgie swooping overhead added a quirky feel, which continued in our superior room: the Sultan odour room. It may not have smelt of sultans, but it did have glittery wallpaper. Bling aside, it was well-appointed and comfortable - and a definite bargain at just €100 each for a three-night stay with breakfast. It just goes to show that sometimes, Oasis have the edge over boy scouts.

You can read about the rest of my trip in part 2 next week. For information on Istanbul's culinary delights, read my 'on location' post for Girl Eats Oxford here.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Inspiration Initiative: #InspiringTravel

Flights without food. This is the first thing I remember about low-cost airlines. 'You buy the flights seperately from your hotel, and you have to pay if you want an in-flight meal', I was told. Being a pre-teen, the part about food stuck in my mind. That'll never catch on, I thought. Years later, budget flights are a regular part of my life, linking up the corners of my world and making it possible for me to fly out to see friends scattered around Europe and even further afield. Given the merest excuse to jet off, you'll find me passport in hand and liquids in regulation plastic bag at the departure gate. But what inspires me to travel?

Tomorrow sees the launch of easyJet Holidays' Inspiration Initiative, a competition designed to uncover where travellers' wanderlust comes from. Following their list of 'wh-' questions, I took a look at my own inspirations.


With my grandparents in Venice

Way before granny chic was cool, I was turning to my grandparents for inspiration. When I was growing up, there were no coach trips to Bognor for my mum's parents; instead they lounged by Lake Garda, toured the Scottish Highlands and even jetted off to Jamaica. It wasn't just their choices of destinations that caught my attention though: it was the frequency of their trips. Now that I work full time, I'm wondering if being inspired by my globetrotting grandparents might be a curse as well as a blessing: apparently six holidays per year isn't 'normal'...


Inspired by Israel

Given my penchant for multiple annual holidays, I tend to take short haul trips within Europe. Branching out into Israel in 2010, I encountered not just a new continent and a new culture, but a desire to experience the world beyond  Europe's borders. From tanning in Tel Aviv to wandering the walled old city in Jerusalem, Israel captivated me and inspired me to try different destinations. Since that trip, I've visited Malaysia, Singapore, Morocco and Turkey – and still managed some European trips too.


We found the Duomo without Gianni's help

My first parent-free holiday, a week in Albufeira, may have been ideal for post-school fun, but inspiring it was not. One year on, my university friend and I chose Italy as a holiday destination, for the arbitrary reason that the cheapest available flight was to Milan. Ten days of ill-prepared independent travel ensued; selected highlights of which included a heated argument with an Italian pensioner on a train and getting so lost in a random suburb of Bologna by night that we had to appeal to the helpful Gianni of Blockbuster Video for directions. By the end of the trip, we'd mastered the art of ordering three-scoop ice creams in Italian, seen more churches than some bishops ever will and had almost as good a sense of direction as Gianni. My interest in independent travel had definitely been awakened.


The Alhambra

Spain. It would be a surprise to regular readers if I said anywhere else, and I'd hate to disappoint. Holidaying in the south of Spain as a teenager certainly fuelled my fondness for sunshine, and moving to Seville on my year abroad from university led to my full-blown love affair with the country. It's not just Andalucia that inspires me, though: Spain's diversity encourages me to return time and time again. There's the cosmopolitan-meets-traditional mix that is Madrid, the striking monuments of old Castile, the chic Catalan city of Barcelona and the wild natural landscapes of Galicia. And that's only scratching the surface of Spain.

Inspiration Initiative nominees:

1) Starry-Eyed Travels
2) Becoming Sevillana
3) Rambling Tart
4) Jessica In Search Of
5) Ruthie Rolo

You can find out more about the easyJet Holidays Inspiration Initiative competition and how to enter here.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

You know you've lived in Spain when...

Have I mentioned I love Spain? Since I first moved there on my year abroad from university in 2004, the country's been firmly under my skin. Leaving Spain to return to my degree course in England was a wrench, but finding fellow students to talk to about our experiences of life there made it easier. Those little things that foreigners like me observe when we come face-to-face with Spanish culture, such as the fact that topping up red wine with Fanta is delicious rather than deranged, and that open staring at strangers is absolutely fine, turned out to be common to all of us guiris.

My year abroad: where the love affair began. With Spain, not this horse.

Browsing Facebook one day in 2007, I came across a group called 'You know you've lived in France when...'. Written by another year abroad student, it was a list of all the idiosyncrasies of French life that they had spotted while living there. A quick search revealed that there was no such group for Spain, so I decided to remedy that. Half an hour later, I had my own list, and 'You know you've lived in Spain when...' was created.

Initially intended  as a group for students like myself who were homesick for their temporarily adopted country and keen to reminisce about those aspects of la buena vida that made us chuckle, I was surprised by how many expats, former residents and Spanish natives joined. Within a few days, the group had members from all over the world. It continued to grow for the next few years, with members using it as a forum for discussion about life in Spain and to share experiences. It even featured in 20 Minutos. I confess I did very little with the group after the first year: I occasionally updated the list of reasons 'you know you've lived in Spain when...', but mostly I just left the group to grow by itself.

Today I discovered that Facebook has changed the format of its groups, and in doing so has removed most of the group's more than 72,000 members. I decided to create a page with exactly the same information, so if you were a member of the old group or just agree with my guiri observations about life in Spain (or even have some of your own to share), please 'like' the new 'You know you've lived in Spain when...' page.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

2012 travel dreams

I'm the kind of girl who likes to use her annual leave for something special. No duvet days for me: it's all about trips. So, where will my days off take me this year?

Since expanding my travel horizons into Asia in 2010, I've been keen to explore places I consider 'different'. Much as I love Europe, I feel that now is the time to travel to exotic, further-flung destinations far removed from my home country not just by distance, but by culture and lifestyle. 2011 took me to Marrakech, and 2012 will see me visit Istanbul, another city I've longed to experience for years. The flights are booked, and I can't wait to wander around the Blue Mosque in awe; to take a ferry across the Bosphorus, crossing the divide between Europe and Asia by boat; to indulge in plenty of Turkish cuisine.

But this month's Across the Café Table discussion is about travel dreams for the year ahead. Istanbul may still be a dream, but in a few weeks it will become a reality. South America, on the other hand, remains very much an idea; a treasured plan I'm working on with the help of the guidebook which arrived on my doorstep yesterday. And that, for me, is the first step to making this dream come true, too.

My love of the Spanish language means that South America is a natural choice of destination for me, yet the costly airfare and time required to visit enough to do it justice have thus far kept me away. I hope that this will be the year I get to see the waterfalls at Iguazu on the border between Brazil and Argentina...


... explore cosmopolitan Buenos Aires...

Buenos Aires
... and marvel at Chile's Lake District.

Chile's Lake District

Hopefully 2012 will be the year I get to do so! What are your travel dreams for 2012? Where would you like to visit that you've never been before? Head on over to The Travel Belles and share your thoughts.

All photos from Flickr Creative Commons.
Iguazu: santiago_richard
Buenos Aires: ClixYou
Chile: Phillie Casablanca

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Hello 2012: Hogmanay in Edinburgh

Ringing in the New Year in Edinburgh is on many a traveller's wish list. However, standing in the street shivering in high Scottish winds at the Hogmanay street party had never really appealed to me. Spending New Year's Eve with two close friends over dinner and drinks in Scotland's capital did capture my attention though, and so on 30 December 2011, I boarded a train north.


I certainly wasn't alone: thousands of Brits and tourists from further afield descend on Edinburgh every Hogmanay for some of the largest and most extravagant New Year celebrations in Europe. The attractions of the street party's famous bands, torchlight procession, fireworks and funfair aside, Edinburgh's an excellent  place to visit at any time of year. Between the natural beauty of Arthur's Seat, the historical significance of sights such as Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse and the vast range of shops and restaurants to choose from, there's more than enough to keep a visitor occupied for a  weekend.

But on this visit, we didn't come for the sights. Arriving at 4pm on Friday, we started as we meant to go on. Guided by Edinburgh resident A, the three of us kicked off the new year celebrations in style over pre-dinner drinks at swanky bar The Dome, a converted bank which serves up a slice of grandeur with your G&T. Proceedings took on a more, err, down-to-earth feel with dinner at La Lanterna, a cosy Italian place run by matriarch Toni, who A assured us would regale us with tales of restaurant-related woe and stories of how she was soldiering on single-handedly (before rewarding us with a gin for our troubles). No such luck: this time the neighbouring table had to lend their ears, but we did have the joy of the lights going down and the chef banging pan lids together to the tune of 'Happy Birthday ' while in the middle of our meal. One post-dinner drink to recover led to another, and before we knew it it was 4am and we were in a piano bar howling along to Frank Sinatra.

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