Walking in E1

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I walk up Brick Lane, passing the rows of shuttered Curry Houses, the sleek orange front of the new (and currently closed) Buxton pub and veer off westwards towards Spitalfields. I loop around the market and then head north through the beautiful tumble of Georgian terraced streets and out into Shoreditch. This is an area whose layout has always confused me; streets unexpectedly cross and many of the best places are tucked away in small side streets.

Previously I  had associated Shoreditch with Stag parties, that bar with a ball pit, and never being able to find the right exit at Old Street station. However, behind all this brash nafness, I’ve  been discovering a quieter and more subtle side. Yes, it’s overpriced and has long been a cliché of itself, but i defy anyone not to fall a teeny bit in love the first time they get lost in the back streets or stumble across Arnold Circus.  The circular street was originally one of the oldest social housing estates in the UK, and is now an unexpected calm oasis of terraced red brick houses and greenery encircling a bandstand.  I discovered this through walking.

I love my urban walks, which have now taken on an extra importance; a daily reset and break from the news cycle as i stride the streets of Tower Hamlets and Hackney. Beyond discovering new patches of the city (or rediscovering old ones from a different, quieter perspective), its a time to think and process. The brain seems to work differently when walking. Perhaps the gentle ‘left, right’ of my feet stepping on the pavement gently sets a different process in motion. An idea I’ve been stuck on all day clunks into place. Both new thoughts (including the idea for this piece) and older, forgotten ones emerge.

Walking  helps to ease any tight knots of worry in my stomach and revive my tired brain. My mind slows down a notch when I walk until my legs begin to tire, distracted by the interesting doorways, ex-warehouses and other sights.

On a walk around the quiet streets of Wapping, I discover the Turks Head pub, with a sign outside stating that during World War II it stayed open all hours for service personnel seeking news of their loved ones. Decades later, the derelict building was purchased by a local charity and now runs as a pub / cafe with a beautiful looking outside garden. I wander on and make a mental note to return as soon as it reopens. IMG_3662 (2)

 

Recent Reads

This is a quick selection of books I’ve read and enjoyed over the past year. Some are recent releases and some are much older. Now is a time when a lot of us are spending more time at home than usual, so if you can, pick up a book for some escapism. 

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Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel. A thick chunk of a novel. Completely genius and completely absorbing. I’d never read any ‘historical fiction’ before this and it changed how I think about the genre.

My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Stroud. It beautifully captures the title character’s reflections on and memories of their life, as well as her strained relationship with her mother, as the narrator recovers in a New York hospital. It’s also the perfect size to be read in one afternoon.

The God of Small Things, Arandhati Roy. A rare book that combines total energy and joy with sections that make you weep, as well as heady descriptions of childhood and family and the explosive sociopolitical situation in Kerala in the second half of the 20th century.

Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier. This is a book i revisit often. It’s darkly atmospheric and absorbingly slow before transforming into a racing  page turner.  Watch the Hitchcock film after reading to compare and see how the book got away with being much more provocative.

Girl, Women Other, Bernadine Evaristo. Probably my favourite book of 2019. Tales of identity and life, focusing on race and womanhood, told from the point of view of characters whose lives  interconnect and overlap. It’s also very funny.

Three Women, Lisa Taddeo. This is extraordinary, a forensic detailing of three women and their romantic relationships and desires.  After reading, it’s worth seeking out an interview with Lisa Taddeo where she talks about her painstaking process of writing this book, which took years.

 

 

European Train Travel Guide (plus France and Germany itinerary)

Sweat is creeping down my back as I stand at the side of the road somewhere in rural Belgium. The temperature is nudging 41 degrees; the hottest day since records began. Our unairconditioned rail replacement bus has pulled over after a child fainted in the heat. This farcical train journey marked the beginning of our 11-day train tour around France and Germany. We missed our connection in Brussels due to heat related speed restrictions. From there it was a chaotic descent into cancellations, confusion and delays.

Fortunately, this nightmarish day was the only bump in otherwise smooth travels. We rode on sleek Inter City Express trains, rickety regional trains and overnight trains. No long check ins, no dehydrating cabin pressure, and most of the trains had bars. Read on for a short European train travel guide.

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Cologne Station

Are trains expensive?

Trains can be expensive and do not compete pricewise with the cheapest budget flights. However, particularly if travelling during peak summer season, trains may actually be cheaper than flying. This is especially true when booking train tickets in advance (our train from Lyon to London was around £60, comparable with flying).

Despite this, the cost of our train travel was still more expensive than expected. The total were pushed up by a mixture of forgetting to book one train leg in advance (Colmar to Lyon), resulting in more expensive last-minute booking, and forgetting to factor in the price of short local train journeys. Also we paid in Euros for most of our trains and this was happening.

However, there are ways to make a European train holiday slightly more affordable:

  • Consider the option of an Interrail pass (but do not automatically buy one). Whilst the Interrail pass gives greater flexibility, it may be more expensive than booking the train journeys individually in advance…
  • In case it’s not already clear, booking in advance (especially longer, inter-city journeys) can really cut costs
  • If possible, be flexible about the dates and time you travel (for one journey the price varied from 20 euros – 200 euros over the space of two days)
  • The Trainline is easy to use, though does charge small booking fees. When actually booking head direct to the rail line websites (e.g. Deutsch Bahn for Germany, SNCF for France)
  • If delayed, check the delay policy of the train company (Deutsch Bahn will give you 50% of your ticket cost back)

As an introduction to endless travel iterations, I’ve outlined our 11 day trip below and included all train costs as a guideline.

Route: London – Cologne – Berlin – Alsace – Lyon – London

Journey 1: London St Pancras to Cologne (via Brussels). Cost: 70 euros (half refunded due to severe delays – paid 35 euros)

The train from London St Pancras to Brussels is around two hours. Without our horrible delays, it’s a quick change in Brussels and then another two hours to Cologne.

Journey 2: Cologne to Berlin. Cost: 34 euros

This journey varies from 4 hours to over 7 hours and can be direct or indirect. The price for this varies significantly according to time of day / speed / date / route (from 20 euros to over 200!)

We changed in Dortmund, taking around 5 hours total. An early start (7am train) meant that we were in Berlin by lunchtime.

Journey 3: Berlin to Zellenberg (France). Cost: c. 100 euro night train + c. 20 euro local train + 16 euro taxi = 136 euros

The night train (run by Nightjet and terminating in Zurich) left Berlin around 9pm, and we disembarked in Offenburg (Germany) around 5:30am. We then took two short trains, one over the border into France from Offenburg to Strasbourg, then from Strasbourg to Sélestat.

My inner romantic loved rolling out of shiny Berlin Hauptbahnof at 9pm, tucked in with a good book and a lovingly selected Aldi picnic. Myself and my boyfriend were sharing a 6 berth compartment with one man who slept the whole time, a friendly Austrian couple who we chatted with and one spare bed. Whilst everyone else seemed to snooze soundly, I really struggled to sleep (the ‘bed’ was quite hard and scratchy) and the timing of our stop meant we had to wake up around 5am. I would not rule out another night train in future, though would avoid if I needed to be ultra-perky the next day.

This total journey was more expensive than I expected. The night train was relatively expensive in itself (though seems slightly more reasonable once you factor in the cost of a night’s accommodation). Added to this were two regional trains (costing around 20 euros) and we stayed in a town which was not easy to reach via public transport, so paid an additional 16 euros each for a taxi.

Journey 4. Zellenberg to Lyon. Cost: 18 euro taxi + 70 euros  = 88 euros

The taxi debacle again, this time to Colmar. From Colmar, the train to Lyon is around 3 hours, and rolls on to Marseille.

Journey 5. Lyon to London. Cost: 60 euros

The Eurostar from Lyon to London takes two routes – change in Paris (involving crossing Paris to change from Gare du Lyon to Gare du Nord) or the one we took which is direct, but everyone has to get off the train with all their luggage at Lille, queue up to go through security and two sets of passport control before being allowed back on the train. Both options take around 5 hours in total.

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Dreamy Train Carriage, Lyon

In total, we spent around 350 euros on train tickets, more than I initially expected to pay when organising the trip. Trains are unfortunately still quite an expensive way to travel and a luxury many cannot afford.

However, this does include one night where we did not have to pay accommodation. Return flights to a Mediterranean beach destination and car rental for 10 days would likely cost around 200-300 euros, possibly more in peak season. Train travel therefore can be expensive, but so can travel in general and there are ways of reducing costs. Our trip was a whirlwind of stops, and prices could obviously be cut by travelling less frequently.

Whilst sitting on the night train drinking Aldi wine, we chatted to an Australian couple who mentioned that taking the train, rather than flying, to Berlin was their ‘Fridays for Future’ moment. Considering ways to reduce our environmental impact is vital. Not only is it better for the environment, but travelling more slowly and by train also allows these kinds of interactions to take place and encourages us to chat with others. I’d urge anyone living in London and hankering after a European weekend break to consider a destination easily reachable by train (Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, Cologne etc). See you in the SNCF train bar.

 

LA City Guide

I spent a couple of days in LA in the Spring of last year and fell in love with this complex, pulsating and sun-tinged city. I’m a romantic and a dreamer, and it’s hard to think of a city (apart from maybe New York) more mythologised in film and popular culture. I was the stereotypical tourist dreaming of Joan Didion, the Hollywood golden age and sun-kissed palm trees. Despite my preconceptions, L.A did not disappoint, yet was also so much more and left me feeling that I had barely scratched its surface.

Neighbourhoods: The Great, The Good and the Ugly

I adored Venice and Los Feliz. Venice felt like everything you hoped LA would be; tanned surfers, cafes serving beautifully healthy food to equally beautiful people and palm trees everywhere. I also loved Los Feliz, with its laid back vibe, winding streets lined with bungalows. and  Griffith Park right on the doorstep.

Downtown Los Angeles (DTLA) left me with slightly more mixed feelings. It has a high density of Art Deco Buildings, galleries and food and drinking spots, with the Broad, The Last Book Store and Grand Central Market as particular highlights from my visit. It’s also relatively compact and pedestrianised, and everywhere is easily walkable. However, it was less buzzy than the Downtown areas of other large American cities, and some parts still felt quite rough and ready.

Hollywood seemed disappointingly chaotic and tacky. Perhaps it appeared worse due to the midday sun’s unbearable heat and the stresses of visiting when i had not yet decided where I would stay that night. It would be great to be proved wrong, so I would love to hear any positive Hollywood experiences or recommendations you may have. 

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Seeing and Doing

On my second day I took a break from the infamous smog and traffic by heading up into the hills that circle the city to enjoy the Californian sunshine. I hauled myself out of bed at 6am to visit Griffith Observatory for sunrise, arriving in the sickly dawn light to look out over the twinkling lights of a city waking up. At this time, few other people were around. With the sun freshly risen, I ambled up through Griffith Park to the top of Mt Hollywood to sweeping views over the city, managing to get lost only once. By the time I’d descended, the Saturday morning crowds were starting to appear and i smugly zipped back to the house for a shower.

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LA is packed with world leading galleries, many of which have entry free at least on certain days of the month. As I wound my way up the path to the Getty Centre (free entry), perched on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, I felt myself physically relax and the stresses of the city fade away. The Getty’s Art collection is world leading, yet was overshadowed by the modernist building and its surroundings. Its easy to spend many hours sitting in the gardens, wandering around the grounds, and peeping over the edge at the view.

I also visited the Broad (free entry), a modern art gallery of a manageable size with some additional paying exhibitions. Its location in DTLA is a stone’s throw away from the swirling Walt Disney concert hall.

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Eating and Drinking

Sqirl successfully trod the fine line between healthy/trendy and truly delicious/satisfying. Up early due to my body clock never properly adjusting, I queued and then ordered a bowl of delicious things; creamy, sorrel pesto rice (breakfast rice, who knew?), a perfectly cooked egg, tangy feta, pickled radish and the real star – combining my love for pickles and spice –  fermented hot sauce.

I also visited Marugame Monzo in Japantown for perfect, savoury udon noodles hand pulled in front of you, and Guisados in DTLA for cheap and stellar tacos. Last on my list was In n Out burger, which was fine, slightly nicer than McDonalds, but not worth the hype.

For drinks I made it to Ham & Eggs, a laid back bar of the type that only seems to exist in the US (dimly lit, friendly bar staff and a place where you easily make friends by sitting at the bar), and Intelligentsia in Silverlake for coffee, which was slightly expensive but full of devastatingly attractive people and did very good coffee.

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I left LA feeling like I had so much more to see, including hiring a bike to cycle from beach to beach, more walking in the hills, and a lot more food. LA is a large and sprawling city of varied neighbourhoods which would reward repeat or extended visits, giving time to sniff out the best neighbourhood taco truck, the local dive bar or the perfect Levi’s stuffed vintage shop. And, if it all seems too hectic, there will be always time for the beach.

 

Interrailing Reminisces.

Feeling slightly melancholy about the UK’s recent exit from the E.U., I’ve been thinking a bit about my travels on, and my relationship with, the rest of the continent. Growing up in the South East of England, Calais was always closer than Manchester or Newcastle, and several childhood holidays were spent driving to the west coast of France or the flat countryside of Belgium.  Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to visit friends completing Erasmus study years in Stockholm and Madrid, and undertaken countless further European trips, from Andalucia to the Alps, Kraków to Syracuse. One trip, however, still overshadows all others; interrailing around Europe when I was 18.

For many young adults, both in the UK and the rest of Europe, Interrailing is a formative experience, often undertaken in the heady days between finishing one set of studies and embarking on the next steps in life. It’s a chance to whizz from world leading city to city, meet new people and generally have a good time, all from the seat of a train carriage. The EU  even recently launched a scheme to offer thousands of free Interrail passes to 18 years olds across the continent.

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After months of plotting the perfectly spaced trip and saving up from our various Saturday jobs, myself and four other school friends headed off from St Pancras one balmy July morning. We scuttled like turtles under the weight of rucksacks crammed with Topshop vests, buzzing with anticipation at the idea of two weeks of independence.

Spending two to three nights in each city, our route cut a gentle curve around Central Europe; London – Paris – Amsterdam – Berlin – Prague – Budapest – Vienna and then home. The thrill of speeding from one city to the next was a novelty,  though one which rapidly faded after spending a journey sitting underneath a seat on a delayed and overcrowded Deutschbahn train. This was a time before Air Bnb was so ubiquitous, and we stayed in Hostels of varying quality. Some were slick, with photo booths and happy hours, others were rickety building sites.

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It was the first time where we could all drink as much as we liked, and we embarked on an organised bar crawl in Prague (this now makes me cringe, though i do still have the t-shirt), stayed out all night in Berlin, and explored Budapest’s Ruin Bar scene. There were also brief holiday flings – none for me, though there was the experience of being serenaded by an overly enthusiastic Argentinian man in a hostel. Most of this was delightful experimentation, though some took a darker turn as we learned the shifting power dynamics of getting older men to stop pestering us in a bar, and the seedy underbelly of doormen plying us with free prosecco to stop us leaving their shitty club.

There was culture too.  We visited the Berlin Wall, Vienna’s Museums and, inexplicably, the ‘Perfume Museum’ in Paris. We bathed in Budapest’s thermal waters, picnicked by the Eiffel Tower and spent many hours walking, cycling and in the case of Amsterdam, boating, around the different cities.

We ate steak frites in Paris, pancakes in Amsterdam and life changing kebabs in Berlin. But mostly we ate crisps in train carriages. And some McDonalds too. The first fight of the holiday occurred in Paris after half the group had bought Big Macs, whilst the others purchased a bottle of red, baguette and camembert and were making everyone march to a suitably scenic spot to eat. Team McDonalds just wanted to eat before their food got cold, leading to frayed tempers and tears.

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There were other fights, mostly ridiculous and the kind that only occur after a toxic combination of no personal space, no sleep and not enough food. Tensions over silly things like texting boyfriends and exam worries fizzed over in exasperation, but were quickly forgotten.

We were naïve and blind to wider issues, such as unsustainably high levels of tourism and drunk travellers being a general nuisance for local residents. Since our trip, several of the cities we visited have clamped down on over-tourism in general and anti-social tourism in particular; Amsterdam have stopped advertising themselves as a major tourist destination and Prague has appointed a ‘Nightlife Mayor’ to help crackdown on antisocial drunkenness.

But for me, the trip is still strewn with completely perfect memories – a golden evening  spent dangling our legs over the Seine, consuming takeaway pizza and 2 euro bottles of wine (the evening’s entertainment provided by one of my friends being shat on by a bird which, yes, we still tease her for today). Nights spent dancing until dawn to see in the sunrise. Stupid in-jokes which still make us double over with laughing, even years later.

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Ultimately, a few key memories from the trip stick with me. The first is the feelings of ecstasy and freedom, experienced as a continent and my life simultaneously unfurled at my feet. One night in Berlin, after being rejected from the techno behemoth Berghain (for being too young and too uncool), myself and another friend decided to go out for a cycle at 3am, just because we could.  We cycled along the Berlin wall as the sun rose, singing along to David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ and felt completely alive.

The other is the acceptance and kindness of strangers towards five teenage girls muddling their way around Europe. For example, the waiter who, when we asked for his cheapest wine, took pity on us and upgraded us to a nicer bottle for the same price. Or the man in Berlin who could see that we were lost and offered us directions and local tips. Whichever way the U.K. decides to navigate its uncertain post-Brexit future, i hope its one where British travellers can still move from city to city, meeting new people, with as much ease as we did.

The high we returned on wasn’t even dampened by the realisation that numerous others our age had undertaken the exact same ‘special and unique’ route that we had. Since then, I’ve travelled on two long distance European train trips (once to Spain, and more recently to France and Germany with my boyfriend), but nothing has reached the high of that first trip. We even received a gift after we returned; an Interrailing towel. Mine swiftly ended up in the bin after someone in my Uni halls copiously vomited down it.

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Eating Like A Queen in Italy’s Gastronomic Heartland

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We decided to make an impromptu stop at vineyard Manaresi Agricoltura e Vini as we wound our way down small mountain roads towards Bologna. Despite not having an appointment, owners David and his wife were supremely accommodating and friendly, giving us a quick tour of the vats where they make their wine and letting us tag along to a group tasting. Sitting overlooking the vineyard as the sun was setting and drinking juicy red wines was the perfect start to our visit to Bologna, a trip filled with walking, cycling, eating and drinking.

Several of Italy’s gastronomic heavy hitters originate from the city and its surroundings – tagliatelle al ragu (aka Spaghetti Bolognese), parmesan cheese, tortellini, mortadella and more. Bologna is an extremely walkable city, based around a central square ringed by quiet neighbourhoods. Cycling is also an easy way to get around, and there are numerous app-based cycle share schemes dotted around the city. We spent our time wandering and cycling wherever our noses lead us, stopping frequently for food.

I experienced perhaps the best pasta dish of my life at Osteria Rossa;  tortellini al ragu, where the rich, crumbly and almost slightly dry ragu was worlds away from the often sloppy and tomato heavy British ‘spag bol’. However, you would have to try quite hard to eat something undelicious. For cheaper and on the go food, Pizzeria Due Torre (conveniently located near the Two Towers) does a decent and cheap slice of takeaway pizza (2 euros for a large slice). Pasta Fresca Naldi, a takeaway pasta shop located a 15 minute’s walk west of the city centre, was simple but delicious. Enter, pick a pasta from a selection of around 6, then wait for it to be freshly cooked for you. You can sit and have a drink in the bar opposite whilst you wait, and even bring the food into the bar once ready. We feasted on reasonably priced, rich tagliatelle al ragu and pumpkin ravioli with butter and sage.

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To walk off some of this pasta we climbed the Asinelli Tower (one of the two leaning towers visible from much of the city), which offered sweeping views over the red rooves of Bologna after a climb of many steps (book online to try and beat the queues – entry times are staggered to try and avoid groups going up and coming down the very narrow winding staircase at the same time). We also ambled up to San Luca’s church on a crisp and sunny Sunday afternoon. Perched on a hill a few miles from the centre, you can snatch nice views of Bologna on the walk up before reaching a peaceful plateau.

The Quadrilatero quarter is the place for food shopping. It can be busy and touristy, but has an impressive array of meats, cheese and other deli delights to swoon over and purchase. We stopped at the classic Tamburini to pick up some cheeses and meats for a killer train picnic. Located 15 minutes walk away, Mercato Del Erbe is a brilliant food market, better than the more tourist focused Mercato di Mezzo.

For sweet things, we had exquisite ice cream at Sorbetteria Castiglione and Cremeria Cavour, both of which have an array of interesting flavours alongside the classics. At local bakery chain Paolo Atti & Figli I became overexcited and accidentally spent 8 euros on breakfast pastries, including a local speciality of very moist almondy cake sold by weight.

Stopping off for an afternoon spritz is obligatory. Caffé Rubik in the student quarter was cheap and frequented by an interesting mixture of exquisitely dressed older Italian ladies with tiny dogs and trendy students. La Stanze offered beautiful interiors and expensive but large spritzes that came with distinctly average food.

Medulla Vini, a small natural wine bar that we stumbled across on a post-dinner walk was more my style. No menu, we just described our preferences to the friendly waiter, tried a couple of wines and then picked a favourite.  We then took our glasses outside to sip and perch on one of the porticoes. Delicious but down to earth; a true Bologna experience.

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In Search of the ‘Local’ Venice

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It was already dark when we arrived in Venice on a mild October evening. We navigated our bags down winding alleyways to our apartment, located off a deserted square in the labyrinthine San Polo and Santa Croce area. Maria, our host, was flustered when she greeted us – she had returned late from an anti-large cruise ships protest and had not yet finished preparing our room.

When I asked her if there was anywhere nearby where we could get something to eat, she took us for a walk around her neighbourhood, her dog trotting along behind us. Pointing out recommendations on the way, we ended up at a nearby bar on a square where Maria sat with her friends and even offered to buy us a drink. Once refuelled, we took advantage of the quiet streets and went for a night time stroll, ending up at an almost deserted St Mark’s square.

Venice had already surprised me. When I had told friends that I was soon travelling to Venice I was greeted with the same response; ‘I liked it – but it was SO touristy’, or ‘I went in summer and it was so busy – maybe in early autumn it’ll be better?’. Venice is touristy, of course it is. But it’s also amazing, beautiful and with plenty of little pockets of tranquillity to be stumbled upon.

The back streets and canals of Venice, away from St Mark’s square, are a dream to meander around. We stumbled across a free (and empty) modern art exhibition in a grand palazzo and a tiny down at heel café-bar serving 5 euro lunches. We hopped on a boat to the nearby island of San Giorgio Maggiore, where away from the crowds we stumbled across Pavilions from the Biennale before getting another boat to the sleepy island of Giudecca.

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I had considered creating a list of the best ‘non-touristy’ places to visit in Venice. However, there are already far too many listicles of top 10 ‘authentic’ Venetian spots.  I was excited to go to All’arco – a bacari bar named by Lonely Planet and several other travel guides as one of the best in Venice. Yes, the ciccheti were tasty and inventive and the drinks were cheap (2 euros for a glass of wine). However it lacked the charm of other places and was full of tourists. There was no one in there speaking Italian.

In short, there were far better places nearby. Of course, there is an annoying double standard in saying that somewhere is too ‘touristy’ and that I want to seek out a more ‘local’ place, when I myself am a tourist. I also stayed in an Air Bnb, an organisation whose impact on the local economy is far from perfect.  This is something that I’m still thinking through; how are places affected negatively – both for tourists and more importantly for locals –  when they become overly popular? How can we make tourism more sustainable, both for the environment and for places that receive an influx of visitors?

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These questions are particularly pressing in Venice,  a city whose residents have been stretched to breaking point by the tide of tourists and the problems that we bring, and a city where you can have an Air Bnb host who has just come back from an anti-tourist protest. Whilst there are no easy answers to these questions, they are problems which are growing – there were backlashes against tourists in several European cities last summer.

But before I get too existential, I’d like to raise a glass of prosecco to this wonderful city and its remaining residents. Streams of visitors descend on Venice everywhere year precisely because it is one of the world’s most remarkable cities. Wander around, refuel in a Baccari bar, get ridiculously lost, drink a spritz and sit by the canal and watch the sunset.

 

 

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Enjoying the Slow Life in Italy’s Appenine Mountains

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It’s a fresh, crisp morning and we’re standing outside a small cheese factory. We’ve been informed by a lady in the local deli that there will be factory tours explaining how Parmesan cheese is made at 8am sharp. Or, that’s what we think we’ve been told; we do not speak any Italian and the lady working in the deli certainly did not speak any English. A large unaccompanied dog quickly trots past. They’re the only being we’ve seen in a hurry since we arrived in Italy’s Apennine Mountains.

The  Apennine Mountains in Emilia-Romagna in October are delightfully sleepy. Whilst only around an hour’s drive from Bologna, they are often overlooked in favour of Tuscan vineyards or the Adriatic Coast. We’d barely seen a soul since we’ve arrived. The owners of the one bar in Pietracolora, the tiny village where we were staying, have gone on holiday. The couple of other shops shut early and are closed for several hours in the middle of the day.

A man dressed in hat, plastic apron and gum boots pokes his head out the factory door and looks at us quizzically. We try to explain that we’re here to see inside the factory. ‘Prego!’ he beams, throwing open the doors and ushering us inside.

This is the start of a strange encounter. The man who welcomed us in fetches the one factory worker who speaks a small amount of English. He tours us around, regularly whipping out his phone to translate phrases online. He shows us the large vats which are heated up each morning until the milk separates. The factory workers stir with large puddles, plunging their hands into the mixture regularly to test its consistency. We are taken to a dark, damp, pungent cellar where the cheeses are placed in water to mature. Next, a large, cavernous room used to store and age the cheeses over several months. It becomes clear why Parmesan cheeses are sometimes used as collateral by banks. We thank the men in stilted Italian and leave, heading to the one open cafe nearby to take stock. It’s not even 9am, yet workers stop off for an early ‘café correto’ (coffee ‘corrected’ with a shot of liquer).

This gloriously sleepy and relaxed region is precisely the antidote needed for someone who was frantically sending work emails at the airport until past last boarding call. The house we had rented on Air Bnb was large, dated (wifiless) and set into the side of a hill. It’s large balcony with views across the mountains was perfect for an evening spent watching the sunset with a glass of semi fizzy Lambrusco and a hunk of crumbly Parmesan cheese.

Driving along winding mountain roads from small village to small village, we stop anywhere that piques our interest; somewhere with an unusual place name or a destination that we think will offer a nice view. A dearth of online resources and recommendations about the area means that this is (happy) guess work.

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A View Somewhere in the Appenine Mountains

What is not uncertain however, is brilliant food. As well as numerous small Parmesan factories, local restaurants are dotted at the side of road. Making the most of fresh Autumn produce, we feast on truffle pasta and porcini mushrooms at Osteria della Rocca. It’s homely, the wine is cheap and a couple of dogs are curled up on the floor at the table next to us.

We go on a hike to take a break from our constant eating of rich foods. Starting from Castel D’aino, we meander through forest, tiny villages and rolling hills. Aside from a local dog walker and some friendly farm dogs, we don’t see another soul. After we reach the hill-top village of Sassomolare, we head to the one restaurant in town (I portoni). There was no menu, though our waiter kindly fetched the one person in the restaurant who could speak English. She reels off items; I order pasta e fagioli and my boyfriend orders something which we think could be either pasta or potatoes.

No matter. The kitchen instead wisely decides that we will both get the lunch menu of the day. There is rich pasta and bean both, followed by  a local mountain dish of thin pancakes filled with cheese, bacon and herbs, which they keep bring until we’re so full we ask them to stop. This is all cheerfully accompanied by a trolley piled with pickles, salad and hunks of cheese for us to help ourselves too. And of course, wine and coffee. We finish our walk much more slowly than we started it. But why rush? No one else around here is.

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Truffle and Mushroom Pasta at Osteria Della Rocca

 

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