10 Tips for Planning a British Countryside Cottage Break

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I used to wonder if I fell into the group of Type A personality – I always love to have a project on the go, I like to think I’m proactive and I do have lots of ambitions, which hopefully I’m working my way through achieving – but then I resorted to Wikipedia to look up the definition of Type A personality. “Obsessed with time management” and “rigidly organised?” ERR. NO. These are not traits I possess. So let’s forget typecasting personalities and stick to facts. I am hopelessly tardy and the mountain of lost umbrellas on the London Underground, once belonging to me, would argue with whether I am organised but I really do love having a good project to plan.

When the opportunity arose to sort out our annual countryside reunion with friends, I jumped at the chance to get my teeth stuck in; looking at destinations, properties, reviews and activities – all the things I love doing anyway and it gets a task done. And then I started to hit the stumbling blocks and it went from being a fun project to being a royal pain. All’s well that ends well but I learned a few lessons along the way which I hope you’ll find useful.norfolk country cottage barn

Planning a UK country cottage break

  • Avoid school holidays (unless you have school-aged children obviously). Unfortunately, by the time, I clocked onto this nugget of knowledge, we had firmly set the date but availability is hugely limited, many cottages have a minimum one week stay policy and prices are inflated compared to other times of year. If you do need to book during school holidays, start searching well in advance.
  • Compare and contrast websites – I searched Cottages 4 you, Sykes Cottages, English Country Cottages and Holiday Lettings and I noticed that it is sometimes possible to find the same property appearing on different sites but with marginal price differences.malvern countryside horse
  • Carry Cash – a tip aimed primarily at the urban folk among you but us Londoners are hopeless at carrying cash. We pay for our morning coffees on card, we pay for our meals on card, we pay for our groceries on card and we assume that when we need cash, there will be an ATM within arm’s length. Clearly, this is not the case out in rural villages. The nearest cash point is likely to be a drive away and whilst most restaurants and pubs do take card payment, there is nothing more embarrassing than queuing in the local village shop with a punnet of organic strawberries in hand and having to hand over your Mastercard. Trust me.
  • Be flexible with rooms. Most cottages are designed to cater for parties of both adults and children so if, like us, you are travelling as a group of adults only, you will have far more options if you are prepared to entertain twin rooms (two years ago, one of the couples in our group even accepted a bunk bed, graciously taking one for the team!)
  • Consider activities. Our countryside breaks have involved clay pigeon shooting, hill-walking, visiting beaches and most recently seal-spotting. We are reasonably flexible so tend to select property first and then see what’s around but if there are specific outdoor activities you are interested in, try and pre-determine your location accordingly.
  • Check the layout of the cottage – sounds obvious but the point of a weekend like this is to socialise and relax with your friends and family so it follows that a nice open plan kitchen/living room, ample outdoor furniture and large, accommodating living rooms facilitate this. In the cottage we stayed in this year, we noticed what a huge difference it made having open-plan, spacious, communal areas.country cottage malvern
  • Country cottages or country hotels?

    – We have always opted for self-catered cottages but there are pros and cons with both. The cottage experience feels like a home away from home and is more private and cohesive. But this does mean you often need to bring your own food and drink, potentially cook your own meals and clean up after yourself. If you prefer a country break with spas, room service, buffet breakfasts and leaving the cooking and cleaning behind, then a self-catered cottage is not for you but there is no shortage of beautiful countryside resorts and hotels.sheep peak district yorkshire dales

  • Check what amenities are provided. It’s the staple items like washing up liquid and dishwasher tablets that can get forgotten but try and find out how much kitchen equipment is stocked, such as cooking utensils and crockery. This helps you prepare what you need to bring if you are planning to cook up a storm and although most places ought to provide basics, it is not uncommon to find places that don’t.
  • Don’t rely on your GPS (hugely hypocritical coming from me, considering how much I rely on mine) but it was Pumpkin’s pearl of wisdom that we should print out paper maps because in the depths of the English countryside, you are often faced with dark, quiet, winding, rural roads and a GPS that doesn’t pick up any signal – which the clueless Londoner in me hadn’t even considered.
  • This is an ideal time for a supermarket delivery – I’ve still never ordered groceries to be delivered to my home. I have no objection to it but I know that once I cross that boundary, I’ll venture into a dangerous level of laziness. But on occasions like this, it worked a treat to wake up at the cottage on Saturday morning and have all our rations for the weekend delivered straight to our door.

What are your helpful tips for planning weekend trips and have you had any mishaps that you have learned from?

Porto Bay Rio Internacional Hotel, Copacabana Rio de Janeiro

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For someone who frequently proclaims that she hates “to sound cheesy”, it is alarming how often I do. But sometimes, nothing lights up your day quite like a warm, welcoming smile. It was exactly what was needed to diffuse my frustration and moodiness after a long day of travelling, an airport transfer that failed to show and a two hour futile wait at Rio De Janeiro airport (none of which were related to the hotel I must add). I for one was not smiling upon arrival but it seemed the day had not taken its toll on the bubbly and sincerely friendly lady at concierge who checked us in.

The Porto Bay Rio Internacional

night time view Rio de Janeiro

Rio skyline with Christ Redeemer statue twinkling in the distance

Here at Porto Bay, they start as they mean to go on. Bubbly offers us some bubbles but after our day, we just need water – ice cold to drink and warm  enough to shower in. She spots the frazzled look on our faces and extends her sympathy by offering us a superior room on the 18th floor. We are promised a view of Copacabana to our left, a view of the Christ Redeemer statue to our right.We arrive to mini chocolates on our bed – how did they know I needed chocolate?

Pumpkin calls me onto the balcony, captivated by the view. It was no empty promise. I forget what we were annoyed about. We bask in Rio’s dusky humidity and we are in a dilemma about which way to look. Pumpkin starts playing with his camera to see how he can capture the twinkling stars – we are Londoners living in smog and the only starlight we see at home comes in boxes, stacked on shelves in hardware stores so we decide to grab a bite and aim to head back early to spend the night gazing at them. We want to dine somewhere shamefully nearby, cheap and cheerful. We feel hungry and lazy. Once again, the hotel staff put forth some suggestions on the Copacabana, which do not disappoint. We are soon to learn how large portions are in Rio.Copacabana view Rio de Janeiro

Porto Bay have turned this day around for me – I feel excited and happy to be here and my grumpy mood has lifted well above the Corcovado; for this I am thankful. Pumpkin is intrigued at their skill, making a mental note of their formula – he is all too aware of the challenge of dealing with my moods!

The following morning, breakfast is a feast. I have read good things about it and still, I am impressed. I am most taken by the array of brightly coloured, diverse tropical fruits. Today, I will be good and cleanse with the detox juice – it is green, which means it must be good for me (or so I tell myself). It is a nourishing fusion of spinach and ginger, fennel and apple. Despite all my reservations, it is not only palatable but actually hugely refreshing. I try pink guava and custard apple for the first time and experiment in the spongy coconut tapioca pudding.

The prime seats at breakfast are those with the panoramic window view of the beach – I will shuffle my way forwards over the next few days to grab these front row tickets. The waiting staff are warm-hearted, offering to take our photo, engaging in conversation (and fluent in English, which makes us feel less embarrassed about not knowing more than two words of Portuguese).

Room service is 24 hours but I won’t be needing it. I have found my late afternoon snack for the trip. The Churros stall is a stone’s throw away. The room is cosy and comfortable. I don’t normally like fixed-head showers but this one has sufficient pressure for me to look past this. Porto Bay Rio bathroom amenities

rooftop pool Porto Bay Internacional Rio

The luxury rooftop terrace pool

Shampoo, body lotion, a shower cap and a hair dryer are stocked. This is all I need. (My hair in the humidity is no picnic, believe me). But the robes and slippers are always nice. As the trip progresses, we start using the phrase “shall we go home first before we head out for dinner”. For me, this is always a sensitive test for a good hotel – whether or not you inadvertently start referring to it as home.I find the heat a little stifling and this calls for the rooftop pool – the crowd up there is large enough to give it an atmosphere, small enough to avoid feeling cramped.

At the pool bar, I order my virgin Caipirinha – a teetotaller needn’t miss out. My shins dangle in the warm pool water, notepad in hand ready to start blogging the old-fashioned way and the Copacabana in the distance. These are the rare moments in which you really feel in your bones what it means to unwind. On a clear day, you’ll see a nice sunset from here and guests come up for pre-dinner cocktails.

The hotel can call you a taxi to most tourist sites, which we do on the first day. It is a professional and comfortable car but we soon learn it works out more cost effective for us to hail one from the street. We tip the hotel staff but it becomes apparent from the glint of gratitude in their eyes that it was not expected and was clearly appreciated. I already know I will be sad to leave. Hotels populate the Copacabana densely like a property tycoon on a Monopoly board and it can be hit and miss knowing which one to go for. I hate pretence and there is none at Porto Bay. Only genuine hospitality, high quality service, fantastic breakfasts, great views and an undeniable location. They tell us off playfully for spending more time in Argentina than Brazil – we had that coming. They tell us we will have to return again and spend more time in Brazil next time. And you know what? We just might.hotel view Copacabana Porto Bay Rio Internacional

Honeymoon Beach Lunching in Romantic Zanzibar

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Indecision is an energy-sapping and highly time-consuming malady, one which I am frequently afflicted by. Whether it has served me well to over-analyse every one of life’s important (and trivial) choices is up for debate but when I’m standing at a sandwich counter for twenty minutes because I just can’t make my lunch selection, that’s when I wish I was that wee bit more decisive.

My favourite travel photo

When Kelly got in touch asking me to ponder over my favourite travel photo for this month’s travel blog link up, you can imagine how engorged the rivers of ditheriness became. It was bank breaking. And I’m not talking about money.  Where on earth do I possibly start? Favourite country? Can’t decide that. Favourite sight? Can’t decide that either. Favourite photo? Nope. 3rd time unlucky.romantic beach lunch Brrezes resort Zanzibar

So I thought about some of my favourite moments instead and I carved ever deeper into my subconscious to remember some of the days that left me feeling as fuzzy as a wild dandelion. And a few musings later, unsurprisingly, honeymoon memories bubbled up from that box in my grey matter labelled ‘Africa’, the one I cherish so deeply.

A Romantic Beach Lunch at Breeze’s Beach Club, Zanzibar

This photo was taken on the marshmallow-soft, dove-white sands of the Breezes Beach Club Resort. Twigs, bamboo and palm leaves were interwoven to form a shady gazebo with exotic and illuminating flowers marking the contours like a child’s felt-tip pen. The eternally smiley staff spent a couple of hours erecting it prior to our lunch.

We had opted for one seafood platter with fresh lobster fit for a king and one vegetarian platter with generous chunks of mixed vegetables and paneer, highlighting the influence of Indian flavours in Zanzibari cuisine.beach lunch seafood vegetarian platter Zanzibar

We ate lunch with our feet cocooned in the sand and our palms interlocked. The low tide kept us dry but the breeze that lends its name to the resort was palpable. The private lunch left us feeling pampered on a stretch of coastline untouched with the exception of one couple passing by, transiently turning their heads with curiosity. flowers palm leaves gazeboWhen we returned to the beach that evening for the final time before flying home to start our new married lives, the gazebo was gone with no evidence of its existence. Was it all a figment of our imagination? It was certainly the stuff of dreams. But that’s where technology asserts its role and two matrimonial years later, the photos give our memories the clarity to live out those idyllic moments once more.

The Ljubljananjam Food Tour, Slovenia

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You cannot grow up in an Indian family and not be interested in food. As an integral part of the culture, marriages have been known to end over the thickness of a Chapati. As I grew up though, I realised that there were many other nations all over the world, equally passionate about their food. And yet, it has taken until 2014 for me to discover the concept of food walks – undoubtedly one of the best ways to simultaneously explore and learn about a place whilst discovering its best traditional cuisine. My first experience was at a London Food Tour earlier this year and I am now a total convert to the notion.DSC_1414

The Ljubljananjam Food Walking Tour

Ljubljana side streets

The charming side streets of Ljubljana

When I started reading about Slovenia, it didn’t take too much delving to discover that the Slovenes LOVE their food. And perhaps none more so than Iva, the brains behind the Ljubljananjam Food Walk, a fellow foodie, born and bred in Ljubljana and with a background in journalism; but Iva’s most inviting attribute is that long before any of these measurable achievements, she was the go-to person for her friends and family when it came to uncovering Ljiubljana’s food scene. After reading wonderful reviews, I knew she would be my passport into the gastronomic world of Slovenia.

One of the charms of this food tour is that each one is unique and flexible, depending on your tastes, dietary requirements, budgets and time. The details of the walk remain a surprise right until you are on it, (despite the tweets I sent digging for clues!) This retains an air of mystery, which is increasingly challenging in an era, where we turn up to restaurants all too frequently, having already made our menu choices at home. I liked the “not knowing” and it is for that reason, I’ll endeavour to keep the locations a secret. If you are heading to Slovenia and are intrigued by what you see, try it out!

Joining us on the tour was one half of travel blogging duo A Couple Travelers and the founder of Ljubljana by Bike. And so we started – with a dessert?! Iva and I clearly sing from the same hymn sheet. The Torta Ljubljana (a cake made from buckwheat flour, chestnut, almond, honey, fig and chocolate) has both a sweetness afforded by the chocolate and honey and an earthiness carried by the nuts and seeds, giving birth to little cubes of delight in our mouths. I liked it so much that I went back and bought a larger one to take back to England. Predictable much?

We met one of the original founders of the recipe and her welcoming nature and humility was apparent. But their business extends further than cake. The Slovenes love their gelato and here, it is creamy & full of flavour; we tried Kremsnita (a gelato version of the famous Bled cream cake with actual bits of pastry in it), Aztecana (chocolate with a tickle of chilli in the aftertaste) , cinnamon and a dreamy black sesame that you’ll either love or hate. BIG LOVE from me.

Much of Ljubljana’s tourist-heavy restaurants are located at the waterside, where the quality of the food can be mixed and prices inflated but on a nearby side street lies a little Bistro, run by a couple and only serving approximately 30 meals every evening before they move on to drinks and nibbles. This bistro, which is also a performance venue for musicians, has a loyal following and each day’s menu is different and fresh. It was here, where we had one of the best pork belly dishes I have ever eaten, tender and bursting with flavour with a side serving of artichoke with garlic and herbs, barley risotto and potatoes with mustard seeds and pumpkin seed oil. Pumpkin seed oil, I came to learn, is something of a staple ingredient in a Slovenian store cupboard. We washed down our meal with some refreshing, homemade elderflower juice.

Repete bistro Ljubljana pork belly artichoke, barley risotto

Ljubljana’s best coffee?

Cafe Cokl Fairtrade best coffee Ljubljana coffee shop

I think most nations in the world can be divided into tea drinkers or coffee drinkers with perpetually blurry margins. We Brits are mostly still a tea nation but the Slovenes? They swear by coffee all the way. We visited Ljubljana’s only fairtrade coffee shop, where the coffee connoisseur Tine had a boundless passion and wealth of knowledge about both coffee and fairtrade in general, even giving talks to school groups on these topics. His conversation was as engaging as the aroma of the coffee was inviting. Tine is a purist. Purists drink coffee the way God intended; there is no place for milk and sugar, cappuccinos and machiatos. But he was sympathetic to my modernised ways and accommodated my request for a latte. I daren’t ask for the sugar and to be honest, the flavour of the coffee bean was so intense that it wasn’t needed.

The shot of caffeine propelled us back into turbo mode for our next stop, where we were getting down to deli business with traditional meats, cheese and zucchini flowers. The Kajmak, a Serbian soft cheese, was a creamy sponge, soaking up the olive oil from the plate on which it was served. It was so exquisite that the rest of the group could have walked off and left me and I wouldn’t have noticed and in fact, while they made their way to the door, I could still be spotted in the corner, cleaning the plate to pristine perfection. Someone’s got to do it…

I may be a teetotaller but this is no reason for Pumpkin to miss out and he was more than happy to swig my share of Slovenian craft beer including the famous Union beer from a local brewery, which is more than a hundred years old. A little word of advice – according to Slovenian customs, when you lift your glass to say cheers, you must make eye contact to avoid being considered rude!

Wine-tasting in Ljubljana

We ended the night with a wine-tasting session in an offbeat, underground wine cellar, a place which would have completely fallen off the radar had Iva not taken us there. Hosted by a sommelier, the space felt more like someone’s (very plush) apartment with a stylish interior, dim lighting and sociable, square dining table. This was just as well because aside from ourselves, we had picked up a few friends along the way – Iva seems to know just about everyone in Ljubljana and the more the merrier, especially on a Friday night!Hedonia wine tasting Ljubljana

Our evening had started as a food walk but by the time it ended, we felt like we had just left a dinner party with friends. But wait – wine tasting is about the wine right? Numerous varieties were offered including Slovenia’s national wine – Cvicek, Teran, which was Pumpkin’s favourite and a unique orange wine. Opinions were divided, each new sip generating its own controversy but the supplies were endless with as many glasses being offered as requested.

By the end of the night, I had forgotten we were even on a food walk. We had talked culture and food, politics and wine, travel and history and we had gelled like old friends. And five hours later, we finally called it a night. I felt a pang of anxiety, wondering where dessert was (had we peaked early with the Ljubljana cake?) But I need not have harboured any doubt because the surprise treat to end the night was a delicious, creamy, white chocolate and raspberry mousse cake. The pace of the tour reflected a perfect equilibrium of fine food, carefully-considered portion sizes, diverse range of dishes and plenty of “rehydration” with local produce.

DSC_1406Iva’s philosophy is that the key tourist places will be sought out without needing her assistance. What she does though, with a deep-rooted affection for Ljubljana’s best eateries, is to take you to those hidden gems, the ones you wouldn’t notice or know about, the ones that use quality ingredients, source ethically and have a story behind them. We meet the faces behind the food and learn about their lives, passions, visions and of course, we sample their divine creations. I dabble in no hyperbole when I say that this was one of the most enjoyable evenings I have experienced on my travels. If you are heading to Slovenia and are interested in food, this is an experience not to be missed.

Practical Points

  • Food walk prices start at approximately 35 Euros upwards depending on preferences and duration
  • Payment is made in cash at the end of the walk
  • Walks usually commence at 5pm but timings may be adjustable if required
  • Group sizes are usually restricted to 5 people but private food walks can be arranged
  • The walks be customised to include any specific dietary requirements or preferences
  • Each walk is individual, exhibiting the best of seasonal ingredients

Have you been on any food walks around the world? Let me know your recommendations!

 

Disclaimer: I was a guest of Ljubljananjam Food Walks but I am an opinionated, little lady and all views, good or bad, are entirely my own. I would like to thank Iva for such a wonderful evening of fine food, wonderful chefs and great company!

The Street Foods of Rio de Janeiro

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Apologies, your honour. I commence with a confession: It took me until 2013 to finally muster up the courage to sample real street food. When a bout of exhausting and severe gastroenteritis struck me as a 12 year old in India, I was left with a gripping fear of all manner of roadside snacks – completely counter-intuitive of course, since it wasn’t even street food that caused the illness. But this rationale is not something one appreciates at that age so the portable apprehension shadowed my future eating habits as I traversed the globe, resulting in me missing out on some of the best foodie finds in countries like Thailand and Hong Kong. Churros Dulce de Leche BrazilIn Rio de Janeiro, I wasn’t really expecting to find much street food. We weren’t going for the food and we certainly didn’t research it so when I spotted carts dotted along the boulevards of the Copacabana, I was determined to make up for lost time.

What I hadn’t realised was just how many unique, tasty treats can be found on Rio’s roads. Whether you are looking for a deep-fried dessert, a healthy, savoury snack or just some refreshing rehydration in the Amazonian heat, you’ll find it here and you’ll find it cheap. Here are my top picks:

Brazilian Churros

As one of my favourite ever desserts, Churros are fried-dough desserts, rather like elongated doughnuts with slimming ridges along their length. Spanish churros are often produced in spirals before being cut up and served with melted chocolate. Brazilian churros are made straight and are filled with a central piping of chocolate or dulce de leche (or doce de leite in Portuguese). The sugar dusting yields a dissolving, grainy surface to the crispy exterior but that moment, when your mouth cuts into the sinfully sweet and creamy dulce de leche, is nothing short of an explosive epiphany to the tastebuds, the luscious sauce oozing langurously from the centre like viscous, caramel magma. If you can’t quite make it to Rio, the fabulous Brazilian Churros stall at Greenwich Market is the closest alternative for hungry Londoners.

Acai Berry

Endemic to this part of the world, the acai berry from the acai palm plant is hard to miss in Brazil, being used as an ingredient for a range of foods and drinks but I spotted it most often in the form of frozen acai pulp, reminiscent of frozen yoghurt with a velvety, maroon hue and the option of a granola topping. The portions were huge so we shared one between us and you’ll have to forgive my photos, which do not do it justice but in the tropical humidity, I was more concerned with inhaling this zingy cooler than I was with Instagram.

acai berry frozen BrazilCorn on the Cob

I must admit I only really tried this to ease my conscience about the lack of vegetables I was eating during my time in Rio. I’m most partial to corn on the cob when it’s cooked on a flame and moistened with a bit of fresh lemon juice and salt. Here in Rio, it is boiled and laced with a little knob of butter and salt. It was certainly nutritious and seemed very popular with the locals but personally, I found myself missing the charred, brown surface.

Tapioca Pancakes

I love the sense of discovery when travelling and all the more delicious when it happens to be a food discovery. Tapioca, I have heard of but never a tapioca pancake. Made from manioc flour and water, this mixture quickly melts into a crepe when placed on heat and can be filled with a range of sweet and savoury fillings including banana, chocolate, coconut, guava paste, meats and cheese. The tapioca batter is quite dense so one of these could easily make for a hearty, street food lunch. Are you spotting a trend emerging? Brazilian food cannot be accused of leaving you hungry!

Brazilian Pastel

In England, I am rarely tempted by fast food – I occasionally collapse under the pressure of self-discipline on a Friday night to indulge in (half a portion of) fish and chips but these moments are rare. If, however, Pastels were as commonplace in the UK as they are in Brazil, then it would be an altogether different scenario. These adorably-sized, mini pies are deep fried and come with a variety of fillings, including chicken, beef, cheese and even soya mince and less commonly with sweet fillings, such as guava jam.

They can be found at street food stalls or Pastelarias, entire shops devoted to these scrumptious snacks! We grabbed a Pastel each on the go, munching whilst walking towards Ipanema beach but they were so moreish that half way down, we turned around, went straight back into the shop and ordered another! Hopefully, they will have received our repeat visit proudly and not judged us as the greedy Brits who returned for seconds! :DBrazilian pastel

It is an enormous relief to my gastronomic senses that the curse of the “street-food fear” has finally lifted and if a trip to Rio de Janeiro is on the cards for you, don’t miss these delicious bites!

Do you love street food? Where in the world have you experienced the best street food?

A Football Tour at Maracana Stadium, Rio de Janeiro (pre world cup!)

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In case you’ve just returned from a hiatus on the moon, recent weeks have seen world cup fever soar toward pandemic levels, boiling the adrenaline of football fanatics across the globe. There’s an elusive chemistry between Brazil and the game of football, one which would have wafted past my sunglasses, had it not been for the presence of the football fanatic in my own life.

On our recent trip to the ever-glorious Rio de Janeiro (just the name makes me want to wiggle my derriere to the sounds of samba,) Pumpkin redefined romance by deciding that our final night in South America would be best spent at a football stadium – no Caipirinhas on the Copacabana then, just a pitch, a ball and a group of muscular, Brazilian men. Hmm. Perhaps it doesn’t sound so bad after all…Rio de Janeiro skyline view

Once in a while, a lady has to put her husband first and in any case, he had already booked it – there was little to be gained from throwing a tantrum. For him, watching a game at the Maracana was something of a bucket list item and as one of the most iconic stadiums in the world and the venue for the upcoming 2014 World Cup Final, it just had to be done.

A football tour at Maracana

If you want to see a game at this world-famous stadium but are unsure where to start, several companies arrange football tours to watch a game at Maracana. (I’ve linked back to the one we used). Tours can either be done privately or in larger groups and involve hotel pick up and drop off. They purchase your tickets and direct you towards the correct entrances for your seats. It’s a stress-free and reasonably safe way to slither your way through the inebriated crowds and if like us, you can’t speak a word of Portuguese, then it certainly makes life easier; although I must confess that a little part of me wondered if it was essentially an overpriced taxi and ticket service.

Money-saving tip: we spotted several vendors along the Copacabana offering similar tours for cheaper prices if you don’t want to plan it too far in advance. Note that these tours are distinguishable from organised tours of the stadium itself, which we hadn’t looked into.

Maracana Stadium Rio Flamengo

As we drew in closer to the Maracana, the air was humid, the atmosphere electric and the city awash with chanting locals adorned in cherry and black stripes, like sunburnt wasps. These are the official colours of Flamengo, Brazil and Rio’s most popular team and the passion of the supporters is all-consuming. And infectious apparently. I felt like a fully-fledged convert by the end of the night. On this particular evening, they were playing the Bolivian team, Bolivar. Home games are particularly important for Flamengo, as away games in Bolivia have the added challenge of altitude. After a slow first half, the velocity steepened after half time and many gasps and dropped jaws later, tachycardic crowds mourned the 2-2 draw.Maracana stadium Rio entrance Flamengo supporter

How to dress at the Maracana

What should you wear at this event? When I have been to football games in England, the majority of supporters wear the team shirt but you certainly wouldn’t stand out if you didn’t. That night in Rio, I never looked more silly in my purple, flowery T-shirt. At this event, men, women, kids and even most tourists were loyally kitted out in relevant football shirts. I felt like that child who turns up to school on Mufti day, still in their uniform by accident. It’s cheap as chips to buy a scarf or get your face painted with a stripe and it is worth those few pennies to immerse yourself in the enthralling atmosphere.

Once we were there, we became rapidly swept up in the rapture even without the attire. The fans were pacing up and down with high fives at every goal and if they were swearing the way I had observed back home, we didn’t know it because it was in Portuguese! If you are an “early to bed and early to rise” sort, then this is not the place for you with most games occurring late at night – ours started at 10.30pm! Fast food and drinks were available at the interval and much like most stadiums in the world, were rather overpriced so you may wish to bring your own snacks.

Safety at Maracana

Contrary to what I had expected, the environment felt safe, the crowds cohesive and if there was any disturbance, we certainly didn’t witness it. Left to my own devices (and trust me I tried), I would most definitely have plucked out a fancy restaurant to celebrate the final night of an epic trip but you know, we can eat a fancy meal in another city at another time; or at home in London for that matter. It would have been a serious travel faux-pas  to have sacrificed this opportunity, our one and only chance to sit in the seats that a lucky few will be glued to soon, eyes fixated on the trophy of trophies – The World Cup. I’d say this more often if I wasn’t so darn stubborn but sometimes, Pumpkin really does just get it right.

Have you ever been to a football match on your travels (or soccer as my trans-Atlantic friends might say)? I’d love to hear about your experiences!sunday-traveler-green-300x279Part of the #SundayTraveler Link Up

A Medical Elective at St John’s Hospital, Bangalore, India

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I try my best not to talk shop here on the blog. After all, it is supposed to be my extra-curricular interest, a chance to escape the highs and lows of the day job. (Plus, I find it hugely uninspiring to find medics, who aren’t capable of talking about anything other than medicine). But when Kelly, Emma and Rebecca chose the theme of Fish out of Water Experiences for their monthly blog link up, this travel memory leaped to the front of mind, like a gold-medal winning, Olympic long-jumper.

At medical schools in the UK and many other parts of the world, students are often required to undertake a “ medical elective.” This is essentially an opportunity to spend two months in an external organisation (hospital, community clinic, research establishment etc) to provide exposure on what the vast field of medicine can encompass and the electives are usually self-funded. Most opt to go abroad, which is very much encouraged. Who’s going to turn down an opportunity to travel in the name of learning right?!St John's Hospital Bangalore

St John’s Medical College, Bangalore

After much deliberation, I decided to head to Bangalore, India. To those who knew me, this may have come as something of a surprise. Being of Indian descent, life has been peppered with visits to India so why wasn’t I opting for a new country? The truth is, the only part of India I had ever seen was Northern India, where most of my family are based. I knew it may have been my only opportunity to head to Southern India and grasped the opportunity with apprehensive palms. It was to be my first trip alone – the first of many reasons why I felt like a fish on dry land.

It wasn’t actually the bugs crawling out of the drain in my accommodation on the first day or even the daily “bucket bath” shower experience that came as a shock, both of which I was prepared for and managed. You’ve either roughed it in India or you haven’t and you’ll know exactly what a “bucket bath” is if you have. To be honest, as basic as it was, the fact that my room was en-suite with a flushing toilet came as a pleasant surprise!

What did surprise me was the launderette around the corner, making redundant my mini-pack of hand-washing detergent. It was the fully equipped gym, a stone’s throw away from the hospital and the plush shopping mall equally nearby. Having met a fabulous bunch of fellow medical students from England, Germany and the US, we spent many evenings in swanky bars and restaurants for a fraction of the price we would pay at home.

Far from being the small town India experience that I had become accustomed to as a child, suddenly being slap bang in the middle of the large metropolis of Bangalore was an India I found perplexing – immensely good fun but strangely unfamiliar. Even Bangalore’s temperate and breezy warmth, afforded by its hilltop position, was a far cry from the choking humidity I had so frequently struggled with in the past.Forum Mall BangaloreI had brought all my baggiest clothes, having previously always dressed conservatively to respect the customs of smaller towns and villages and older generations. Here in Bangalore, I had never felt more frumpy being in my slacks whilst so many local women ambled confidently down the streets in perfectly coiffed hair and nails that can’t have been manicured more than an hour ago. If I was portraying the face of London fashion, then I was doing a hopeless and embarrassing job. The goal of the trip though, wasn’t about socialising (delighted as I was to have been able to do so).

I was here about the medicine and St John’s is one of the most prestigious medical schools in India. With an enormous range of medical specialties and renowned doctors, I will forever be grateful for the knowledge I acquired during my time there. I wrote reams in my ring-bound notebook because almost every patient I came across had an ailment that was rare and intriguing compared to what I had seen back in England.

I saw patients with spleens the size of footballs, afflicted by tropical diseases that most UK doctors will never come across, young adults with advanced heart conditions that would often have been detected in early childhood with the advances of Western medicine and women who were reaching the end of their pregnancies, having never had a scan. It is both a difficult and an inspiring feeling watching medicine performed in a system so different to your own. India’s’ bigger cities are home to some of the best hospitals and doctors in the world but for poorer communities in more rural environments, healthcare can be both inaccessible and unaffordable.rural India villageMy time was mostly spent on the wards of the well-staffed and well-equipped St John’s Hospital in Bangalore but I did spend one week attached to a community outreach team, where a team of doctors, nurses and support staff go out in a van into small rural villages, setting up camp in schools or small buildings, converting them, just for a day or so, into makeshift clinics to provide health checks, such as basic ante-natal checks for the women of the village. I was impressed by the innovation and the initiative taken to try and tackle some of the barriers to healthcare faced in India. But I was also unable to forget how much, back in England and in the west, we can take for granted the system we have. I am well aware that the NHS has its flaws but we are fortunate to be in an environment, where regardless of our bank balance or location, we can almost always access healthcare.

I also observed the role of family members on the ward setting in India to be quite unfamiliar to that which I had seen at home. In England, the presence of family members on the ward often conjures up images of cards, magazines chocolates and questions for nursing staff. On the wards of St John’s, the presence of relatives is very much a necessity to provide ongoing basic care needs. Nursing staff are present but perhaps not in the way that we are used to in England and certainly I saw many patients depending upon family for bathing, cleaning and for their meals.community outreach van Bangalore medical college IndiaWhat I found most alien was the way in which patients over there generally treated their doctors like Gods. Literally. Some of the gestures offered by patients, when they walked into the clinic room, were akin to those seen in temples; having sat through endless communication skills lectures at medical school in London about the importance of being patient-centred, it was such an inexplicable paradox to see the patients themselves in India being so doctor-centred!

Their expansile gratitude permeated through the grey, hospital corridors and I had a hunch that morale among doctors in India may be higher, since they seemed to be practising in an environment where complaints and opportunistic medico-legal battles have not yet infiltrated the healthcare culture. But I accept this was eight years ago and things may have changed.

On my return flight to London, away from the clothes and gifts I brought back, I carried a melange of thoughts that weighed more than my laundry load. The experience had been educational, inspiring, challenging, motivational and at times, emotional but despite the moments of confusion and unfamiliarity, it left me with an irreplaceable insight into medicine in a different world and one which broadened my sense of perspective.

 

Travel Tuesday

Honeymooning in Tanzania at the Selous Serena Luxury Camp

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Humour me, if you will, and avert your eyes to the top of this page. “Foreign Lands. Fine Food. London Landmarks and Married Life.” When I put these nine words up on the homepage last summer, it was not a mission statement as such. It was just an expression of the four under-currents that were to inspire my little blog.

The salt and pepper pot pairing between my love of travel and my love of Pumpkin has led to many a global adventure but there is an elephant in the room, which has failed to be blogged, one which encapsulates the very essence of this paired concept. It is something that in fact led us to see real elephants and which the French refer to as the Lune de Miel. Tanzania safari grey elephant

A safari honeymoon in Tanzania

Believe it or not, on a blog so heavily predominated by the travels of my married life, I’ve not posted a single post about our Tanzanian honeymoon. As we now approach two years of matrimony, we have parted from last year’s  1st anniversary indulgence in London and opted for dinner at a local pub and a pact of no gifts. (Except chocolate. Chocolate is allowed and hopefully Pumpkin reads this with enough time to facilitate this. Addendum – prior to publication of this post, it seems he read my mind and some Paul A Young treats appeared on the kitchen table!)paul a young chocolate boxThis year, my reflections of the most wonderful trip of my life will have to serve as an anniversary present for Pumpkin. Any rant that he can read rather than listen to will be gift enough for my man. :D

Selous game reserve TanzaniaHaving discussed a safari and beach honeymoon, Pumpkin kindly took the reins from that point onward and I had no doubts that he would do a stellar job of arranging it. I wondered if my ears needed syringing when I heard the words, “backpack and tent” reverberating in the living room a few weeks before the wedding, thrust like a spearhead on my honeymoon pipe dreams. I’ve never been a backpacker. Budget traveller in my younger years, yes – but always with a suitcase. And a tent?? This was something I hadn’t done since my school years and even then, it wasn’t by choice.

Selous Serena Luxury Camp

Despite being larger than Belgium, Selous, a game reserve in Southern Tanzania, is most certainly off the beaten track with the majority of travellers migrating towards Serengeti. I want to head there myself one day but for the honeymoon, we were after somewhere more remote and when we read about Selous, we fell in love with the vision.

After boarding a tiny aircraft from Dar-es-Salaam, we reached Selous and landed in a dusty patch of….well…dust. Surrounded by dry, yellow expanses of nothingness, I had never seen a plane land somewhere with no runways, no other aircraft, no visible machines. Just a field and a makeshift toilet. We were met by the wonderful Ahmed, one of the guides from Selous Serena Camp (which at the time was called the Selous Luxury Camp), who provided us with an ice cold bottle of mineral water – sometimes it’s the smallest gestures that go the furthest.

We boarded our safari truck – the vehicle that was to become our legs for the next few days and I learned quickly that wearing black attracts Tsetse flies (the culprits behind sleeping sickness and creatures, who it seems can bite through denim). My exhaustion from the journey just diffused into the African atmosphere. I was mesmerised. We’d only been in the truck about ten minutes when we started seeing impalas, monitor lizards and tropical birds.tropical colourful bird Selous TanzaniaWe reached the camp, where cold drinks, congratulatory wishes and the warmest-hearted smiles awaited us. And without further ado, they showed us to our “tent.” Tent, my friends, is not even the word for it. The luxury exceeded that of many premium hotels I’ve stayed in. We walked inside to fluffy pillows, regal-coloured cushions, wine, power points, a hair dryer, twin sinks and aromatherapy bath salts. It was everything I had dreamed it would be and nothing like my memories of camping at school! The camp is friendly and intimate with just twelve luxury lodges, wooden walkways and beautiful blue infinity pool to cool off after a day of game drives.

impala TanzaniaWith hot water, gourmet meals and the absence of any power cuts, it was hard to believe we were out in the bush. One evening, a small gecko managed to creep onto the ceiling of the tent  – my numerous childhood trips to India have taught me that they are usually harmless so I was hugely embarrassed for shrieking like a princess when I spotted it. My phobic yelps penetrated through the zip-up door because the staff spontaneously called out to offer help. The gecko, clearly mortified by my behaviour, made a dash for it.

We went off-peak in early June, when the wet season had just come to an end and one other honeymoon couple were present for the first day of our trip. After they left, we had the entire camp, complete with chefs, waiting staff, cleaning staff and lodge manager all at our beck and call. We felt a little bashful that they should be bending over backwards to look after us but with obvious passion and pride for their work, they weren’t able to help themselves from providing attentive and caring service.

Breakfasts took place outdoors in the sunshine to the sound of birds, insects and the flowing river waters. Meals were a la carte with an ample range of both traditional Tanzanian specialties and European dishes. We were inquisitive about how they cook up such a storm, being hundreds of miles away from civilisation. They told us that fresh ingredients are shipped in by plane on a weekly basis and dry ingredients by truck on a monthly basis. We were stumped at the level of planning and organisation they must put in to get the orders right.

We sat in the dimly lit bar in the balmy evenings, where time lingered peacefully, a perfect antidote to the euphoric chaos of a wedding. There were no televisions or radios so the whistles and chirps of nature served as music to our ears. With just the fabric of the tent shielding us from the canopy of stars, we fell into a humid slumber, stirring only once when awoken by the high-pitched, monophonic shrill of a hyena.  I have enjoyed most countries I have travelled to but a place must have had a deeper imprint on your heart when you write about it two years later and it still invokes the deepest sentiments of nostalgia, fondness and love.

The price was all inclusive so included all safari activities, meals and drinks, including alcoholic beverages. The staff ensured we were bursting to the seams of fullness with their hospitality, reminding me of my mum and making us feel like part of their family.

On our final day, they surprised us not once but twice. We had been on the lookout (unsuccessfully) for lions. I’ll save the animal details for a separate post, as I have too many pictures to squeeze in! We were heading back to the lodge, when Ahmed turned a corner to take us to a spot where lions are often seen. Or so we thought.

But then he parked and told us to step out – two members of lodge staff were waiting and a table had been set up with drinks and snacks to the backdrop of the setting sun. This was a surprise, honeymoon, sundown picnic. How special you can be made to feel by a group of strangers. They left us to enjoy this moment, one which belonged to us that we will always cherish and one they made possible with their kindness and their efforts.safari truck Tanzania SelousAnd then we really did head back. That evening, after an enormous meal (they were all enormous and so delicious), the entire team at the camp came dancing into the restaurant, singing harmoniously to the melody of a famous Swahili celebration song that became the soundtrack to our honeymoon. We sang it for months after returning home. They brought with them a cake – not a small token cake but an entire cake, large enough to feed at least eight people with a colourful, iced border and our names on top. Our surnames to be precise, which made me giggle, as it highlighted how I hadn’t changed mine!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen we departed, we left a little piece of our early married life with them. I asked Pumpkin if we could come back one day and live out these memories once again – or create new ones. That’s the beauty of a safari experience. No two days will ever be quite the same. The desire to return is an emotion I often express when I leave a destination. Except here, it’s been two years and I still yearn for it every bit as longingly.

The Paul A Young Chocolate Afternoon Tea, Grosvenor House Hotel, London

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Ten years ago, a student living in the heart of London saved up her pennies to treat her best friend to a luxury afternoon tea. It was a splendid afternoon, far removed from the usual escapades of student life, an experience sweetly imprinted forever in her mind and one which was to pave the way for a calorific, future hobby. That student was me and over the last decade, I have sought out any and I mean any excuses to try out new afternoon teas around London – birthdays, anniversaries, Mother’s day; first dates, second dates, third dates. I think it’s safe to say, it’s not that hard to find a reason when you’re as enamoured with the tradition as I am. chocolate afternoon tea Park Room Grosvenor House

The Paul A Young Afternoon Tea

Just a few weeks ago, when I heard about this chocolate afternoon tea, created in conjunction with top British chocolatier, Paul A Young, it was not a question of whether to go – it was just a question of when. How fortunate then that my good friend (and fellow chocoholic) had a birthday falling just in time. Tea, cake and birthdays – a decade on and still a winning formula.chocolate afternoon tea Grosvenor House Paul YoungIn the open, airy and relaxed lounge environment of the Park Room, Grosvenor House, large windows treated us to sunny views of Hyde Park. The staff were genuine, attentive and efficient. No pushy turnaround times and the mention of my friend’s birthday did not go unnoticed. Various menus were available but today, we were all about the chocolate. There were a range of teas on offer but neither of us glanced at them after spotting the Madagascan cocoa nibs specialty tea. A fountain of crushed cacao beans infused in water gave an exquisite and explosive lingering, cocoa aroma – nothing short of a delight to the gullet. I drank the entire pot. Oh yes I did.

A refreshing mini pineapple, melon and mango salad provided just the summer burst of fruit we needed to cleanse our palates (and consciences) before getting started. The sandwiches included some expected participants (ham and cheese, smoked salmon and cream cheese), some of my favourites (chicken and tarragon) and some downright quirky – chocolate and cucumber. Sound bizarre? It was – but it works freakishly well.Grosvenor House afternoon tea sandwichesThe cakes were laid out on the top deck of the three-tier stand from the outset (you could put a sausage roll on one of these stands and it would still manage to look grand.) But like school girls in the front row, we abode by the rules in order to eat in the chronological fashion that is called for in such an establishment. And so the scones arrived – but not before the waiting staff headed in our direction, bearing a delicious fruit tart on a happy-birthday decorated plate, singing to my friend, whilst the live pianist provided the melody.wpid-img_20140522_234057.jpg The scones were perfectly warm, insulated in a little cloth pouch but I had a split second of disappointment when I noticed a lack of chocolate chips. Sometimes though, less is more and Paul A Young has clocked onto this. Instead of stuffing the scones with chocolate, they offer plain and sultana and the dose of indulgence comes in the form of clotted cream and a seductively lush, salted caramel sauce – my scones got abused with lashings of this. There’s also a raspberry jam for those who want to adhere to convention.

The cakes were a delightful combination to suit all tastes. Birthday girl laid claim to the Battenberg but I was too busy eyeing up the chocolate and earl grey tart to notice. The pistachio and chocolate slice was light and moist but I would recommend leaving the chocolate and orange ganache till last as it is very rich and decadent, which may over-power the other desserts if you dive into it first.chocolate afternoon tea cake dessert Paul YoungWe left full enough to know not to stand on the scales at home but not so full so as to be offered a seat mistakenly on the tube. Little did we know that the Baftas were occurring that very night and the guests were arriving just as we were leaving. With this in mind, there was a serious lack of celebrities to be spotted. Kudos to the hotel staff for hiding them so well! This is likely to be a limited edition tea so if you enjoy unique afternoon teas or happen to be in possession of one of Willy Wonka’s golden tickets, then book up quickly before word gets out!

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Touring Slovenia with Roundabout Travel – A Review

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When I first mentioned that I was planning to go to Slovenia, a few people (and it was only a few, as Slovenia is still something of an undiscovered gem) responded by telling me that the best way to see the country would be to hire a car. This advice is all well and good but when you are hopeless at navigating (check), hopeless at parking (check) and your definition of a holiday does not involve driving around for miles lost (check), then this option becomes less appealing.

Of course, there is always Pumpkin, whose precise navigational skills are more suited to the military than they are to daily life but rather than forcing him to chauffeur me around in true diva style, we opted to get the most of our time in Slovenia with Roundabout Travel.Roundabout tours Slovenia review

Roundabout Travel Slovenia

We took two tours with Roundabout:

  • Karst and Coast Mystery tour, involving a visit to the magnificent UNESCO-listed Skocjan caves and a brief stop at the Lipica horse farm, famed for its Lipizzaner breed of horses; the tour also includes a visit to the coastal town of Piran and a pit stop for some delicious locally made cheese, olives and renowned Karst Prosciutto before finally ending the day at the Predjama castle. Personally, I liked the added little extras and always believe that sampling local flavours helps to hallmark the customs and cultures of a place.
  • Alpine Fairytale Tour, involving a visit to Lake Bled and Bohinj, the medieval town of Skofja Loka and a lunch stop at a delicious Slovenian restaurant – just look at those moreish Strukli (traditional Slovenian dumplings). Usually, this itinerary includes a visit to the Vintgar gorge but due to damage during the winter storms in Slovenia earlier this year, we were unable to see this. We were, however, taken to one of Slovenia’s most impressive waterfalls instead.Lake Bled Slovenia

As one of the leading tour companies in Slovenia, I chose Roundabout for a number of reasons:

  • Group Size is restricted to a maximum of 8 so there will be no giant coaches or sluggish crowds. On our trip to Iceland last year, we compared and contrasted both styles of tour and it’s safe to say that given a choice, our large coach tour days are well and truly over. Roundabout , in contrast, offer personal and friendly service with group sizes small enough to be able to mingle with both guides and fellow travellers with comfortable, air-conditioned, seat-belted vehicles.
  • Range of tours - I was really keen to see Piran and the Skocjan caves in one day, both of which are amongst Slovenia’s most popular sights. And yet, it was surprisingly difficult to find companies that offered this. Bespoke tours were very costly so I was delighted to find the Karst and Coast Tour, which included both places as well as additional locations. Their range of itineraries include other parts of Slovenia such as Postojna caves or their Emerald River tour, which allows an opportunity to participate in rafting and watersports. They also have full and half day tours, private as well as group tours and if you are visiting for longer, some tour packages include visits to surrounding countries including Bosnia and Croatia.
    Piran Slovenia
  • Flexibility – although they adhere to the basic structure for the day, if there are elements you want added or removed, then within reason, they’ll try to accommodate this. Here’s an example: when there is a local cake to be tried, you can guarantee I’ll be indulging in it. When my cake-radar sounded out the other sweet teeth in our group, it took nothing more than a passing comment before our guide kindly arranged a cake stop with a panoramic view of the impossibly stunning Lake Bled, allowing us to devour the famous Bled cream cake.
  • The Guides, aside from speaking excellent English, are flowing fountains of information! I can only comment on Matjaz and Tjasa, who led our trips but both had vast knowledge about Slovenian history and culture and added a warm, personal dimension to their guiding. It was apparent that the individual customer experience was of paramount importance to them.

Practical Tips

  • Tours mentioned in this post cost between €46 – 49 per person but are not inclusive of individual activities, entrance fees and meals but there is no compulsion to get involved in all the activities e.g. the prosciutto tasting. Payment is usually made in cash at the end of the tour.
  • Morning pick up may be either be directly from your hotel or a nearby hotel.
  • A visit to Skocjan involves a walk inside the caves of more than an hour, which includes stairs and is dimly lit; it is a leisurely walk and you don’t need to be an athlete (I’m certainly not) but it may be less suitable for those with reduced mobility or impaired vision, for whom Postojna caves may be a better alternative, as there is a train to take you through the caves at that location.
  • At Skocjan caves, the Roundabout guides accompany you for ticket purchase and give information before and after the tour but the cave tour guides are from a separate company and whilst inside, you are part of a much larger tour group.
  • Photography (with or without flash) is not permitted within the caves and guides did not take kindly to tourists who were not respectful of this but there is an opportunity to take photographs at one end of the caves, where it opens up.

My experience with Roundabout?

From the outset, they were punctual with emails and communication between different team members was seamless. Open to feedback, the staff were genuinely grateful for tips without any expectation and were hugely passionate about their country. They were also considerate of the needs of different members of the group e.g. mixed ages and abilities, taking care to ensure that everyone was managing. Most importantly though, the tours were personal, really enjoyable and informative and gave us a wonderful introduction to a beautiful country.

Disclaimer: I was a guest of Roundabout Travel Slovenia but I am an opinionated, little lady and all views, good or bad, are entirely my own.

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