Thursday, June 30, 2011

Cinque Terre

I didn't wear my watch today. I always wear my watch.

Cinque Terre is this magical land where time isn't very important. Or perhaps I should say five magical lands. Cinque Terre (pronounced chin-kwe ter-ra) translates literally as "five earths". The five earths are five small pastel coloured towns hugging the rugged coastline within walking distance from each other. As a UNESCO world heritage site, there's no development allowed. This means no McDonalds, no chain hotels, nothing that didn't belong in tiny seaside Italian villages 100 years ago. In other words: unspoiled perfection.

Main street Manarola
And it gets better. They're in the district of Liguria, home of pesto, focaccia and limoncello.

Riomaggiore, where we're staying, has a stone castello first recorded in the year 500, when it was already referred to as ancient.

It's connected to Manarola by a 20 minute walk around a cliff trail called the Via Dell'Amore, or 'lovers walk'. People write their initials all along the trail, and leave padlocks to seal their love for Cinque Terre. In Manarola we swam off the rocky swimming hole, and watched the daring locals jump from high rocks.

Hearts on the Via Dell'Amore
View of Manarola from the Via Dell'Amore

The third earth, Corniglia, is high on the cliff-top. Some big rocks fell recently, so the walk from Manarola is closed (unless you want to take the three hour detour). We walked up an unmarked street and found amazing gelato, then walked up an unmarked street, found an incredible panoramic vista and ate there.


The walk to the fourth earth, Vernazza, took us an hour and a half. But it was incredible. Paul complained a lot, naturally, but overall the walk was a highlight for me. Who wouldn't enjoy a walk with amazing views and wild Mediterranean herbs growing between the rocks? Vernazza itself was beautiful. We enjoyed another swim, then walked up endless stairways for another panoramic view with our local pesto-based dinners.

View of Corniglia as you begin the walk to Vernazza

Corniglia from further away, and Manarola faintly in the distance

Approaching Vernazza

The place we had dinner in Vernazza

Vernazza just after sunset

We'd planned to take the boat home, partly to capture the views all over again from another angle. sadly, the last boat left hours earlier. So I guess we'll have to come back to Cinque Terre! What a shame.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Life Lesson #29 - Don't Wear White Undies in Monaco

Next time you're in Monaco, I recommend you take togs. And failing that, take a change of underwear. Or at least wear dark ones.

Because if you don't, when you see the crystal clear waters and are possessed by the urge to leap in, you will have to strip down to your nice white ink'd briefs to do so. And people will think you are strange.

And, as anyone who has ever entered a wet t-shirt contest can tell you, the shame doesn't really start until you get out again.

But if you do happen to ignore my advice, promise me you will only swim off the pier, and that an hour later when you spy a beautiful little bay you won't jump in a second time.

Because if you do, when you squat on the rocks like gollum trying to get dry modestly, your nice white ink'd briefs will get rock all over them.

And as soon as you get off said rock, the rock on your pants will lose its context. And everyone will think that you went swimming in violently soiled undies. And people will stare. And someone will take a photo.

Monday, June 27, 2011


This morning we caught the train along the French Riviera to Nice.

Approaching Cannes on the train to Nice
Nice = heaven.

The main beach at Nice

Sure, there are a lot of people, but the beach is big enought to fit everyone, and it's still a city you can get lost in. Trust me.

We went swimming as soon as we arrived, then wandered through old town until finding the gelato place I'd seen in the Lonely Planet. They have 100 flavours, all of them incredible. We shared a six scoop that even put Giapo to shame (sorry Gianpaolo!).

Life Lesson #28 - The French Way

I love our accommodation in Nice. But I wasn't sure I would when we first arrived.

The hostel is located across the road from the local Hippopotamus bar. When we walk in, we find ourselves in a dark, humid restaurant. A cockroach munches on crumbs on one of the tables.

A niçoise woman in her 70s who really should have been wearing a bra rushes up to us with gleaming eyes and missing teeth shrieking "Nouvelle Zélande, Nouvelle Zélande?".

The first thing I notice are the festering sores on both her arms. The second is the piles of paperwork she's just stood up from. Dozens of handwritten bookings on plain A4 paper scattered over a small desk with a faded green manilla folder marked "internet". So that's where my online booking went.

I'm feeling uncertain about the sanitation of a twelve bed dorm in this place. Which is when she mentions the studio flat they've got for an extra €8 a night. "oui, parfait" I hear myself saying, before worrying that it's some scam I haven't come across before.

As soon as we agree to the private flat, she leaps up and locks the restaurant, giving the keys and a short explanation to some surprised outside diners.

Then, she leads us around the corner, up the road and down another street. We get off the rickety elevator at level 3, then walked down to level 2. I would have known this in advance if I hadn't forgotten what the French word for 'broken' meant.

When we arrive, I decide quickly that it's perfect. It's so French, unlike the cookie cutter hotel rooms we get so sick of.

Large shuttered windows at one end of the room open facing a courtyard filled with fighting pigeons. The tiny bathroom and kitchen are at the other end, and a loft style bedroom is up a ladder on top.

There's even half a bottle of cognac on a small shelf for no apparent reason. This is the real thing, and I'm so glad we're here.

Sunday, June 26, 2011


I was warned not to expect too much from Marseilles. The crowded, crime filled, rat infested city would have nothing to offer me. Perhaps as a result of keeping expectations low, I've been pleasantly surprised.

Though our hotel cost a little more than we usually spend, its a great little boutique one in the heart of the Vieux Port which normally goes for more than triple what we paid.

Though the smell hit me before we'd even left the Metro station, the old town fish market by our hotel is lively and undeniably French.

Though the beach at Anse des Catalans was crowded beyond anything I've experienced before, the atmosphere was friendly and the Mediterranean was a crisp relief from the beating rays. Plus, it was unreal being able to swim with Chateau D'If, the prison-castle-island made famous in The Count of Monte Cristo, visible just out to sea.

This is the first time I've seen French bakeries right next to Italian gelaterias. With a fresh apricot croissant and a three scooper, I think I'm in heaven.

The Birthday Trip

The only European trip we booked before even leaving NZ has arrived. I'm still pinching myself.

We're spending the next two weeks chasing the Mediterranean around the Rivieras and down to the Amalfi Coast, then crossing the Adriatic. I've written out our basic itinerary here in case any of you have tips or suggestions.

We'll be flying into Marseilles, then taking a train to Nice and Monaco the next day. The train after that will take us to Cinque Terre, the Italian national park with five tiny towns perched on rocky coastlines.

From there we head inland a bit, picking up a car in Pisa (and checking out their tower), then driving to Florence. The combination of heat and queues has driven a decision to stay there only for 24 hours before heading South to Siena for their famous Il Palio festival on 2 July.

Next stop is Rome, where we've again decided to stay only for a day, as we're trying spend most of our time off the beaten track. From Rome, we drive further south to grab a pizza in Naples before relaxing on the Amalfi Coast in Positano for a few days.

Most of the day we leave Positano will be spent in Pompeii, before driving four hours to Bari on the East Coast. We're going to Bari not because it's beautiful, but because it's a port town. After dropping off the car, we'll be spending the night on a big creaky ferry crossing the Adriatic.

By the time we wake (hopefully rested!) we'll have arrived in Dubrovnik, Croatia. I promised myself I'd come here years ago when I saw a photo like this one in a book on my Aunty's coffee table:

So, assuming we don't get mugged somewhere along the way, this is where I'll be turning 25.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Glee Live!

So I admit I have an unhealthy obsession with Glee. The solidity of the storylines is stuck somewhere between candy floss and air, yet I still find myself drawn back week after week, loving every moment at William McKinley High School (except maybe when they did Friday!).

So, when I found out that the New Directions and the Dalton Academy Warblers would be performing live at the O2 Arena, I snapped up tickets faster than you can say "grilled cheesus".

To keep my expectations low, I tried to tell myself that their song selection live would be aimed at fourteen year-old girls, and that most of it would be lip-synched. I needn't have bothered: the show blew my mind!

Anyone who's said these kids couldn't do it live was proven wrong about eight bars into the opening number (Don't Stop Believing, naturally). I won't embarrass myself by describing my state at this point, except to say that I had to apologise to Paul for laughing at him when we saw Celine three months ago.

I expected the show to depend heavily on its most seasoned live performer, Lea Michele. But they didn't; it was more well rounded than a typical episode. The first solo went to Brittany, who blew her namesake clear out of the water with her own song.

My highlight was Mercedes channeling Aretha with Ain't No Way. That girl has lungs! Honourable mention also to Kurt for I Wanna Hold Your Hand (never heard him belt like that before!), the whole cast for Empire State of Mind, and, of course, Blaine for Teenage Dream.

Though of course I would have liked more broadway, I loved every minute of the gleekfest. If I ever have the chance to see them live again, I'll be there in a flash.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Mind the Gap

So today I met Henrietta, the voice of the London Underground.

She owes her job to Emma Clarke, the previous voice, who was sacked after making the alternative announcements below.

I didn't know until today that she's also the voice of NS&I. We had a three hour recording session for a project I'm working on. She arrives a few minutes late and apologises. The sound technician curtly tells her she's been lying a lot lately. I'm thinking that's a bit harsh! He then continues, explaining that every morning he rolls his eyes when she tells him "there's a good service on all London Underground lines".

The penny drops. For the rest of the session I have trouble concentrating for more than a few minutes without hearing her sentences merge into "the next station is Oxford Circus".

I guess this is what happens in the presence of celebrity.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Review: Ghost Stories

I didn't think I would enjoy Ghost Stories. But someone recommended it, so when I saw some cheap tickets pop up, I decided "what the hey" and went for them.

It's actually quite good. Of course it owes a lot to scary theatre before it (most notably The Woman in Black), but it has enough new ideas to work on it's own.

It's clearly designed for the young crowd, and the whole theatre has been wrapped up in black sheets of plastic, yellow warning tape, fake spider's webs and random chalk numbers. And all of it is lit by a series of makeshift looking torches like you would see on a construction site. There are wires snaking all over the place, and ominous sounds coming from all directions.

The premise is that the audience are watching a university lecture about where Ghost Stories come from, and whether they could be real. The lecturer is a supposed expert on the subject, and he walks you through the three stories that chilled him most to the bone.

I wouldn't have rated it if that's all it did. But after the three stories are finished, the story takes a dramatic twist that challenges which events are real in an oh-so-theatrical way. By the time it finishes, you're impressed by the writing more than the special effects, which I definitely view as a positive thing in the age of Saw.

It was never destined to last on the West End forever, but it's a good night out.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

...And Getting Caught in the Rain

I looked forward to this weekend all week: West End Live! Aka 200,000 people packed into Trafalgar Square to watch all the big shows perform live for 15 minutes.

It would have been amazing if it hadn't poured. Like, cats and dogs and antelope poured. Die hard fans that we are, we had no choice but to escape into the National Gallery halfway through the Jersey Boys belting Sherry. Talk about the Four Seasons on stage. We seriously had to move though, as I'd worn a hole the size of a 50c piece into my left shoe, and another almost as big in the right. I walked around the gallery somewhat distracted by the small lake slowly leaking from my shoes.

Somewhere around the end of Rock of Ages, the weather picked up again. Sadly for us, that was the last act we wanted to see... so we basically saw bookends of a great show.

Before leaving town, I bought some new shoes.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

If You Like Pina Coladas...

A month or two ago I drooled while reading online about Taste of London, the annual food festival held in Regent's Park just around the corner from our place. Then I saw the price. At £26 each just to get in, followed by a double whammy of still-quite-expensive food, there was no way we were making it in.

Then I saw that four o nine, a great little restaurant in Clapham, was running a writing competition to win tickets. And if that wasn't good enough already, the topic wasn't culinary prowess. No, this was something I can really write a good story about: my worst kitchen disaster.

So, for those of you who suffered through the popcorn episode at our leaving party, know that your smoke inhalation wasn't in vain: we scored free tickets to Taste of London out of it!

The food was, in a word, sublime. All of London's best restaurants come out to show off. Four o nine even gave us free food! I had the roast leg of lamb with aubergine, tomato and cumin ragout, and coriander yoghurt. Paul had the crab ravioli. Both were amazing! Then the chef told us we simply couldn't leave without trying the foie gras with drunken english cherries, and promptly brought us out that to try as well!

My other favourite discovery of the night was a place that specialises in fusion desserts. I can't remember what it was called, but it was a strawberry cheesecake-ish thing with some sort of coulis, sicilian lime jelly, and an extravagant cloud of pomegranate candy floss on top. So many flavours... I just about died of ecstasy.

In the weirdness category, I learned that buffalo ice-cream is actually quite tasty!

Not so cool was the rain on the way home. A lot of it.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Review: The Lion King

I adored The Lion King the first time I saw it on stage. My brother and I flew to Sydney to see it for my 18th birthday, and it blew my mind! Two years later, we saw it again together in New York, and despite having standing room only tickets, it was just as invigorating.

That was more than five years ago, so despite this being my third time seeing the show, I was still really looking forward to it.

It felt a little ironic to be watching Julie Taymor's conceptual smash hit just 24 hours after her conceptual smash flop (Spiderman) finally opened in New York!

The shows have a lot in common: immersive sets, impressive costumes, and puppetry. But if there's one thing The Lion King has that Spiderman doesn't, it's heart. And good music. And a cohesive plot.

Our cast wasn't as good as I had hoped. Simba had a high speaking voice that somehow undermined his performance, and Nala had trouble with the low notes.

But overall, this incarnation is still a good one, and there's a reason this show has been so successful.

It has a firm place in my top three.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Review: Matthew Morrison

Everyone's favourite Glee Club coach was out in style in London tonight.

In a word, Matthew Morrison's concert tonight, the first of his big tour, was: pleasant. More Backstreet Boys than Broadway, the show had a feeling of too much polish. He couldn't relax on stage.

He sang some of his most well known Glee songs (Golddigger, Somewhere Over the Rainbow), crooned his way effortlessly through old standards like Lady is a Tramp, paid homage to Elton John, and brought down the house with a Let it Be/Hey Jude medley for his encore.

In one bizarre moment, he invited his best friend up on stage to propose to his girlfriend. Good thing the poor girl said yes!

The highlights of the show were the few moments of daring: a West Side Story medley backed up only by the bongos, and letting his dance moves rip during a Michael Jackson tribute. (Yes, it's true he can do the splits).

He was also brave enough to pull out some original compositions. They were, overall, pretty good. But his managers have overproduced them like the rest of his concert.

Though my review may seem harsh, we did really enjoy the concert. He was great to watch, I just can't help but feel that his management failed him. (Who picked his wardrobe? Did it even cross their mind to make him a snappier dresser than Mr Schue? And somebody tell the AV guy to plug his laptop in so his low battery alert isn't broadcast to 2000 people).

I really hope that he relaxes into it. After a few weeks on the road, I have no doubt that the same show could take the roof off.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Review: Wicked

One Sentence Summary: Increasingly popular musical chronicling the witches of Oz before Dorothy turned up.

Trivia: This is the fifth time I've seen Wicked, but the first on the West End. I'm a little obsessed.

Best thing about it: There's nothing quite like dropping in to an old favourite on a rainy Friday night. The current West End cast is somewhat daring... not many 'typical' looking characters, and no C-grade celebs pretending they have what it takes to tread the boards. The result is an often fresh take at a time when many shows would be succumbing to staleness.

What they could change: While the abnormal casting had its good moments (Glinda got fresh laughs out of Popular, and you could hear Elphaba's rock influence) there were also some poor choices. A skinny, overacting Madame Morrible was the main culprit, though most of the other characters also raised eyebrows at one point or another.

We left thinking: The story works surprisingly well with an English accent. Pity the one guy who has to be American (the Wizard himself), had the worst one I've ever heard!

Verdict: Still a great show, but you're better off seeing it in Australia. Even creator Stephen Schwartz agrees their cast is better.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Review: Much Ado About Nothing

One Sentence Summary: Modern take on the classic Shakespearean comedy, set in Gibraltar in the 80s.

Trivia: Stars the brilliant David Tennant (aka Dr Who), and Catherine Tate (aka "am I bovvered?")

Best thing about it: Having never seen Dr Who, we went because we adore Catherine Tate. So, we were pleasantly surprised to find that the Doctor has some decent acting chops too. The pair have great chemistry, and if I'm being completely honest, he actually outperforms her.

We left thinking: Even 400 years later, Shakespeare really is still the king of storytelling. And also we chickened out of getting autographs.

Verdict: Solid, fresh and a fantastic way to experience the bard.

Life Lesson #27 - One Man's Trash...

All antipodeans become insomniacs when they first arrive in London. For most, it gets better after a few days when their jet-lag subsides. But not for me. I couldn't sleep for a whole other reason.

I would rather sleep outside than spend another night on the bony sack of nails our incompetent landlord had the nerve to call a mattress.

It was about 20cm shorter than my legs, or the base that it came with. The middle was the saggiest you ever saw, bowing so much that you couldn't actually rest it remotely flush against the wall. But the worst part was the springs.

Decades of insomniacs before me had clearly obliterated any foam or padding that had existed in its former life. This beast was nothing but spikes with a bit of material on top.

You couldn't lie on your side, it was too painful. You had to stay on your back so your surface area could share the load around. That's the same tactic they use on beds of nails. I laid on one of those once. It was bliss by comparison.

It took us over a month of daily complaints to get a new mattress, but finally we did. The landlords didn't take the old one away, so we left it up against the side of the building hoping someone would take it away.

Evidently, someone did. A few nights ago, I was walking along our street when I spied a homeless man lying by a dumpster, on... you guessed it.

This morning, I decided to grab a photo of him. When I went back there, I saw him lying in the same spot, but on the concrete.

The mattress was poking out the top of the dumpster.