Saturday, May 26, 2012

Rome: Third Time Lucky

This is my third time in Rome, and I've never seen the Sistine Chapel!

Six years ago, atop St Peter's Basilica
I was 19 the first time I visited. But somehow my brother and I managed to visit the Vatican on the one day that Michelangelo’s labour of love was closed to the public. An avid Art History student a few years earlier, I kept myself from wallowing in self-pity at the failure by swearing to come.

And I did. Almost a year ago. But, this time Rome was simply a quick stop on a much bigger Italian roadtrip. The aim of the trip was to take our car into the smaller Italian coastal towns, so we deliberately spent just a single day in Rome before driving on to somewhere harder to reach – again swearing we’d be back in the city for a weekender before long.

The crowd...
So this time, my third time lucky, a weekend is all I need. Because there’s just one thing I’ve come for: Michelangelo’s exquisite ceiling. Thank God we booked in advance! We skip the several thousand punters who didn't, and waltz inside. 

The Vatican Museums are cleverly designed with crowd control in mind. You have to walk the entire length of the museum in order to get to the Sistine Chapel. Think Disneyland, except the reward is a 500 year old ceiling. Which in my book is better.

My favourite part of the journey is easily the Gallery of Maps. It’s still the world’s largest pictorial geographical study, and it covers the whole of Italy. I’m not quite sure how I was unaware it existed before visiting... but as an explorer I found it mesmerising.

The Gallery of Maps

But nothing can compare with the splendour of the Sistine ceiling itself. I’m not the only tourist staring up open mouthed, trying to take in the whole thing. I position myself under my favourite part – the Creation of Adam – and stare for ages, trying to imagine Michelangelo standing atop wooden scaffolding with his neck craned back, squinting as paint drips on his face from the ceiling above him.

We celebrate our successful visit, six years late, with the best pizza in Rome. Or at least that's what we've been told it is. Pizzarium, away from the crowds down the non-descript looking Via della Meloria, serves pizza by weight – slicing off the amount you want from enormous sheets.

Unable to narrow down our selection from the array of mouthwatering options, Paul and I end up spending nearly €20 on five different pieces. My favourite looks like a garlic pizza but actually turns out to be potato... and it’s perfection.

Afterwards, our attempt to visit St Peter’s Basilica is thwarted by weather and a four hour queue. Thankfully, I was able to visit six years ago. None of the others have been lucky enough to come here before, so it seems that I’ve passed on the baton of swearing to return to the Vatican!

We console ourselves by crossing the Tiber and walking through the winding cobbled streets around Piazza Navona, where I’ve always thought the best cafés were, stopping for a delicious dessert featuring cherries, vanilla gelato, and a shot of espresso.

One of my favourite things about Rome is the way you can stumble across something wonderful, and that’s exactly what happened to us when we got caught in the rain and stumbled in to the nearest building – Santa Maria in Vallicella:

We walk home past some of the quintessential features of any Roman city tour – the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps.

At the Pantheon, I’m able to fulfil a lifelong dream of seeing rain fall through the hole in the middle of the ceiling. It’s not falling heavily enough to appear like a column, but I’m still excited by it. I love the Pantheon because it’s still the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. St Peter’s Basilica is exactly 5cm smaller in diameter – something Michelangelo did on purpose to thwart the catholic church. Good thing they didn't realise until after his death or I daresay his life would have ended differently!

The Pantheon
The next day, we repeat the Colosseum guided tour that I did six years earlier. It’s not cheap, but I find the commentary helpful in trying to imagine this (literally) colossal building as it once was.

The Palatine Hill tour afterwards was a fascinating insight to the way the emperors of Rome lived.
Marble from the palace of Tiberius in the foreground, with the [slightly less ancient] palace of Mussolini behind.

In the afternoon, we caught the metro to the Piazza del Popolo, which was historically the point of entry for tourists visiting Rome. And boy is it grand!

The Piazza del Popolo

We walk through the Villa Borghese to the Modern Art Gallery, which is full of fantastic exhibitions that take my fancy much more than I expected in this ancient city.

The Modern Art Gallery, on the edge of the Villa Borghese

Then, it’s time to head back to the airport. Unfortunately, we’ve been saving one of the best parts of the trip for last: a visit to the oldest gelateria in Rome. It’s enormous, immensely popular, and right next to where we’ve been staying. But our bus takes so long winding around the city that we have to skip the gelato and head straight to the airport!

Hopefully I’ll be back in another six years, to make up for it.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

A Weekend in Lincoln

Apparently kids from Lincoln are quite nonplussed when they go to Paris and see Notre Dame, according to Emily and Chloe. After growing up next to this magnificent monstrosity, it’s not hard to see why.

Even at midnight on a foggy night in spring, the lights of Lincoln Cathedral serve as a beacon for miles. Probably because unlike St Paul’s or York Minster (the only larger cathedrals in Britain) it’s perched high on a hill. We’ve been driving for about four hours since I left my suitcase on the train in Basingstoke, so the spires are a very welcome sight!

The magnificent Lincoln Cathedral, shortly before midnight

The street that leads from town to the cathedral is aptly named “Steep Street”. The next morning, after buying a few essentials to make up for the loss of my suitcase, we head up it. It’s hard not to enjoy walking up Steep Street... there’s a jolly mood that makes me wonder if it was JK Rowling’s inspiration for Hogsmeade. No wonder Steep Street has been named “Britain’s Great Street” winner 2012.

Steep Street

Emily convinces me to try an ostrich burger (which is delicious and tastes a lot like lamb), then we head towards Lincoln Castle to try and snatch a glimpse of the film crew working on the new series of Downton Abbey.

With Emily in front of Lincoln Castle.
My hair product was on the train in Portsmouth.
Inside the cathedral
We’re out of luck, and return back towards the cathedral, which we explore briefly before a military service begins. It’s easy to spot the resemblance to Notre Dame. I’m intrigued to learn that Lincoln Cathedral also doubled for Westminster Abbey in the Da Vinci Code.

Near the Angel Choir, Emily draws my attention to a little imp that has been mischievously sculpted above a pillar. According to 14th Century legend, this imp was turned to stone by an angel, after being caught trying to destroy the cathedral. I love stories like that.

In the afternoon, we head down to a Young Farmers Rally. Though New Zealand kids have a reputation for being rough farm kids, this is a new experience for me.

It's meant to be spring, but the wind is chilling us all to our bones. Luckily, I’m wearing about eight layers, thanks to resourceful Emily, who has nicked me warm things from just about every male relative!

Despite the arctic conditions, watching the tug-of-war is great fun.

I've never quite figured out why they call it tug-of-war?

After an Indian dinner, and some freshening up, we reattach our eight layers and head back to the rally – where we quickly assemble our tent before dark.

That’s right, you heard me. This fearless city slicker is going camping on a freezing weekend in the north. But first, it’s time to dance the night away.

The dancing is momentarily interrupted while I learn a valuable lesson: if a girl flicks something on to the ground from her hair and asks you what it is, and it’s a cockroach; lie!!

Unfortunately I cotton on too late and tell the truth, which predictably sparks half an hour of hysterical tears. I'll chalk that one up to experience.

After the cockroach episode, I test my testosterone on the classic Young Farmers bucking bronco.

Emily, Chloe and I retire to our tent at around 1am. Wary of frostbite, I keep all eight layers of clothing on, adding a liberal amount of warm blankets too. We’d have slept snugly all night, were it not for the tent of marauding young farmers next door.

The next morning, after a shower and a quick nap at Emily’s mum’s house, I’m treated to Sunday roast in the 350 year old farmhouse she grew up in. This was the highlight of the weekend: like many antipodeans, I can scarcely wrap my head around the idea of so many generations existing within a single building.

Emily's 350 year old farmhouse
Shortly after lunch, we return to the car for the long drive back to London.

It passes quickly - a sign of good company, I guess.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Life Lesson #46 - Left Luggage

I'm proud of my suitcase.

The only mementos of my travels are plastered all over it. When you travel as often as I do, collecting 2D souvenirs starts to seem as desirable as it is practical.

And, when I'm bored in a queue at an airport, I do love being able to stir pleasant memories just by looking at my luggage.

But the best thing about my heavily stickered case is that it's clearly mine. They don't come more unique than this. This is the Lady Gaga of carry-on wheelie cases.

I find it comforting to know that nobody is ever going to pick up my case by accident, and that if I ever lose it, it will be easier to spot in a line-up than a one-legged pirate in drag.

When Emily and I step off a train in Basingstoke, I get my first chance to test this theory. About thirty seconds after exiting the carriage, I suddenly realise how remarkably free my arms feel. Because they aren't pulling anything along behind me.

I've left my suitcase on the train!

We're going camping up north, and without my case I have no sleeping bag, no clothes but the ones I'm wearing (more stylish than thermal), and no toothbrush. Also none of the delicious snacks I bought for the journey.

We sprint back, but the train has already left. We find a station manager and tell him what's happened. He rolls his eyes.

Emily's friend Chloe is driving us up to Lincoln and offers to swing past Winchester on the way - the train's next stop. We beg the station manager to rouse some initiative and radio Winchester with details of the carriage and case, in the hope that someone will be able to run on and rescue it. They promise to.

Then, we hightail it to Winchester. Knowing the train will already have passed through, I try to google a phone number, so we don't have to bother going to Winchester if they weren't able to get it off.

National Rail's website delivers me two dead numbers for Winchester station direct, so eventually I just call the main call centre. I'm on hold for 10 minutes listening to eight bars of Clair de Lune repeating endlessly. When finally someone answers, I ask him to put me through to Winchester station. He asks me to spell it. After repeating it a few times at decreasing speed, he finally understands precisely which station I want to speak to.

"Sorry sir, we have a policy of not transferring anyone to speak with stations directly".

Clearly sensing my exasperation, he says he'll speak to them for me. Back on hold. Halfway through Clair de Lune, I'm cut off.

We're nearly at Winchester now, so I don't bother calling again.

The station manager at Winchester looks at me with the expression I reserve for strangers who blow smoke into my face at bus stops.

"Yeah, sorry. It was really busy. There was no way I could get through all the people to grab your case".

He's clearly forgotten that we were just on that train... we know exactly how many people were on it: about half a dozen. He just couldn't be bothered trying. Which would have been vaguely ok if he hadn't said he would, when we radioed from Basingstoke before driving all the way here.

Part of me simply wishes he was a better liar, and had said he ran on but couldn't spot it and wasn't willing to hold up the train.

So, I give up and we continue north to Lincoln. An hour or so later I'm able to confirm that my case has arrived at the end of the line - Portsmouth. I arrange to pick it up from the left luggage factility at Waterloo later in the week.

It's a great feeling when I'm finally reunited with it, as we're off to Rome a few days later and I'd had visions of carrying my life in plastic bags.

Though when I open it up, I'm bemused to find that all the edible goodies have been removed from inside. Clearly my case was delivered by Santa!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

6 Strange Things to Do in York

One of the best things about living in King’s Cross is the easy access to trains heading north towards Scotland. We wanted to show our visiting relatives a side of England that you can’t get in London, and decided to take them up to York for the day to experience Ye Olde England.

East Coast trains offer cheap off-peak tickets, provided you book about three months ahead when tickets are released. And the hi-speed service only takes two hours from King’s Cross to York, making it a perfectly accessible day trip from London.

Sunset over the river as we were leaving York

And there’s a lot to do in York once you get there. I did plenty of research to ensure we could make the most of our time, and here’s what ended up on the itinerary:

Sing “The Grand Old Duke of York” at Clifford’s Tower
Clifford's Tower
While there is no real link between York Castle and the nursery rhyme “the Grand Old Duke of York”, the shape of the hill on which it sits is so absurd that I personally found idea of 10,000 men marching up and back down again irresistible. Actually Clifford’s Tower is the most prominent remaining section of York Castle, built by William the Conqueror in 1068 – so it’s a legitimate York attraction and well worth a visit even if you’re too mature to sing about it.

Smell a Viking
Thirty years ago, archaeologists in York excavated the thousand-year old Viking city of Jorvik. Now the site has been developed into a visitor experience that even extends the sensory experience to smells – from the cooking to the latrine. If you’ve been to a Viking centre in Scandinavia then this probably won’t compete, but if it’s your first Viking encounter then it’s a bit of fun – especially with kids.

Have an unusual pub meal
Ever tried rabbit? Or pigeon? The best pub in York is called Black Swan, and it serves both. My pie was roughly the size of my head. I suggest one meal between two.

Paul's rabbit stew
The Black Swan pub

Echo in the chapter house at York Minster
The Chapter House roof
The English really know how to make a glorious cathedral, and this gothic one is a must for anyone visiting York. Entry is expensive, but don’t let that put you off: it’s worth it. The climb to the top is not for the faint hearted, but the view is spectacular. However the highlight for me is the amazing acoustics in the 800 year-old round Chapter House. When you’re alone, stand in the centre and sing. The echo is the best I’ve ever encountered! We were in the second verse of Barbara Ann before we got snapped by a confused looking attendant.

View from the top of York Minster
Wander the York Shambles
The old town of York still feels like it’s haunted by the ghost of Guy Fawkes, probably because some of the buildings in the Shambles date as far back as the fourteenth century. The creaky Tudor buildings make the leaning tower of Pisa look positively ordinary - and it wouldn't be hard to believe that this street is where we get the word 'shambles' from (though it isn't).

Relax in a Ruined Abbey
St Mary’s Abbey oozes history. I lay on the grass for over half an hour, staring up at the ruined arch windows and imagining the 800 years of history. The surrounding gardens are lovely too, and we were delighted to see scurrying squirrels everywhere.
The ruins of St Mary's Abbey
We left feeling as though we had experienced about as much of York as you possibly could in one day. And we were home before 9pm! 

It was a surprisingly easy day-trip, and one I would highly recommend for visitors to London who are short on time but still keen to see more of England.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Cape Greco

Cape Greco is a National Park on the south-eastern tip of Cyprus.

It’s a good three hour drive from Polis, where we’re staying, so we decided to make a day of it. You drive your car down a long bumpy road, then park and walk a few hundred metres to the edge of the country.

It’s difficult to describe the sounds or smells, because the view is so breathtaking that it overwhelms all other senses.

Getting to Cape Greco was a lot of effort, but as we sat on the edge of the rock with an entire country behind us, I was really glad we had pushed ourselves to do it. Just knowing that Turkey, Syria and Lebanon all lay closer than our hotel was a thrill.

Nearby Ayia Napa is a bit of a tourist trap. We had lunch in a Flintstones themed restaurant. Yes, I am aware of how sad this fact is, but there were no traditional options!

The area does boast, however, the largest water park in Europe; 'WaterWorld'. Its Ancient Greece theme is delightfully kitsch, enabling slides with names like "Fall of  Icarus". I found myself wondering how it stayed open, given how deserted it was on a public holiday weekend at the start of high season. But it was good fun despite the peeling paint.

Overall though, the rugged beauty at Cape Greco made it by far the best reason to visit this part of Cyprus. Were it not for the beating sun, and the fact that my flight was taking off from the other side of the island a few hours later, I could have stayed all day.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Life Lesson #45 – Something Fishy

This is the part where I should mention that I’m allergic to most ocean creatures. I’m good with fish, but shellfish, squid and most crustaceans make my throat constrict and my stomach bloat like I’m carrying triplets.

So, at a seafood restaurant, I’ll always order the fish. But a lifetime of avoiding all other seafood has developed in me an aversion to the idea of consuming any dish where the entire animal is served on my plate. To me this is grotesque and not terribly different from eating it alive. Allergies aside, I’d just as soon eat a grasshopper as a shrimp – no matter how delicious you may claim them to be!

Laughable as it may be, you can imagine my horror when this turned up on my plate at an expensive traditional Cypriot restaurant in Northern Cyprus:

I’m always one for ordering the cultural specialty, but clearly I missed the memo about Cypriots preferring their fish whole, with shrivelled scales and milky eyes.

I could barely look it in the eye. Well, that was the problem. I could look it in the eye!

While it smelt delicious, the cooking process had peeled and coloured the skin somewhat, and my overactive imagination screamed that I had been served a rotting corpse. Sea roadkill.

By the time I’ve finished my side-salad, Paul’s made it through almost his entire meal. That never happens. He’s having trouble staying composed as he witnesses my hilariously pathetic revulsion, and my determinedness not to let these two tiny foes defeat me.

Eventually he helps out by removing the heads and tails. This makes it worse. Now I have dismembered corpses scattered around my plate. So, while no-one is looking, he tosses the unwanted parts over the balcony as far as he can.

Though I still have bones, scales and flippers to contend with, at least the contents of my plate now more closely resemble a pair of fillets.

I carefully peel the carcasses, and try as hard as I can to enjoy my meal. The cooked flesh is delicious.

Part of me wanted to be a total convert, newly obsessed with the hunter-gatherer joys of eating creatures whole. Unfortunately, this wasn't quite what happened and the only way I’ll repeat the experience is if it again happens by mistake. (which is not going to happen anytime soon!)

But I’m still glad that I bit the bullet and ate it, if only in the same way as I’ve been glad I tried other unpalatable ethnic delicacies in the past.

Have you ever been surprised by what turned up on your plate, or had to overcome revulsion to eat a meal? Tell me about it in the comments below.

Northern Cyprus in a Day

My phone chirps just after I cross the border. It’s O2. “Welcome to Turkey!” the txt proclaims.

Though the UN doesn’t recognise the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus as a separate country (the Turkish government is the only one that does), apparently the political quagmire of recognising divided Turkey’s occupation of Northern Cyprus is less of a concern for telecommunications companies.

I have to pay €20 at the border to extend my car insurance, because none of the Southern Cypriot rental companies will cover me in the North. Knowing that the political relationship is less tense these days (there were reunification talks as recently as 2004 when Cyprus entered the EU), I thought nothing of asking the guy from the car rental company for advice on how best to cross the border, and whether it was a good idea.

He looked away, paused and said “I don’t know.” A moment passed. “I’ve never been there.”

Indeed, though tourists can cross the border without much trouble, Cypriots themselves are rarely permitted to. I felt a strange sort of responsibility once I realised that I was capable of exploring more of this enchanting island in a long weekend than those who live here can in a lifetime.


Near the Museum of Cyprus.
Nicosia is the only divided capital in the world, and it’s quite difficult to find the crossing points by car. After a quick pork kebab for lunch and a wander of the streets (which were fairly touristy and mostly unremarkable), we endeavoured to visit the Museum of Cyprus – which was closed – and then headed to the border crossing, which took us a good hour to locate due to a dead GPS system and my generally poor sense of direction.

After we show our insurance paperwork, the agent stamps our passports (which is pretty much a souvenir given the rest of the world doesn’t define it as a real border crossing), and we’re on our way.

This side of Nicosia feels different. I could swear there’s a different light, different air. Clearly eager to make the Turkish mark, there are Northern Cyprus flags everywhere. I’m almost surprised that we aren’t forced to switch to the right hand side of the road.

The most colossal flag I’ve ever seen is painted directly onto the side of the large mountain in front of us. It’s unmissable. No doubt placed that way to taunt the people of the Greek south.

We keep driving for an hour or so until we reach the east coast, where an afternoon of archaeological discovery awaits us.


The ancient ruins of Salamis have history stretching back as far as 1100 BC. Because of Cyprus’ prized spot on the fringe of three continents, this ancient capital was the site of centuries of fierce battles. Just about every major historical figure has a hand in the history of Cyprus – Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and Constantine, to name a few – as control of Cyprus was crucial to the success of every major empire for over 2000 years: Persian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and even British.

And the vast majority of the action centred right here: Salamis.

Archaeologically, Pompeii is more significant – because it captures an entire city frozen in time. This enables a thriving tourism industry at Pompeii, but the downside is the inevitable crowd control that results. Key artefacts are replaced with replicas. Anything noteworthy is inaccessible behind rails or glass. Pompeii is something you look at.

But historically, Salamis is considerably more significant than Pompeii. And somehow this hasn’t translated into any kind of tourism industry. Had you heard of it before? I sure hadn’t.

This means that entry is cheap, and we are permitted to park mere metres from the ruins. Though it’s a beautiful day on a long weekend at the start of the high season, our car is one of three in the car park.

But the best part is what we discover when we go in. This deserted treasure is ours to explore at leisure. Everything is open – there are no bars or railings. Salamis is something you can touch, climb, experience.

The kid in me is overexcited by the lizards scurrying around everywhere.

Standing on the top of the Roman amphitheatre leaves me breathless.

I can’t stop taking photos. There must have been hundreds.

When we’re ready to pull ourselves away, we purchase two syrupy icecreams from a nearby icecream truck and keep driving.


Bellapais Monastery - as close as we were able to get.
A few hours later, we reach the north coast, where we discover that a large event has kept us from being able to visit the beautiful misty Bellapais Monastery.

Not to worry, we’ll grab dinner in the small fishing town of Kyrenia.

Major mistake: Kyrenia turns out to be a large city rather than a small fishing town. In the gridlocked traffic and honking horns, we can’t figure out where on earth the lovely little cluster of restaurants in our guidebook could possibly be.

Neither can the military guard who we ask for help when we accidentally end up in a military base.

So we keep driving – though our little detour has taken over an hour due to the horrendous traffic. Fortunately at the top of a large hill just outside Kyrenia we stumble across a picture perfect fish restaurant with a great review in our guidebook and a delicious looking menu.

Killer view over dinner.

It’s dark by the time we continue home. The twisting mountain drive takes nearly three hours. We get lost twice, given we still don’t have a functional navigation system, and it’s a relief to cross the border again back to the Republic of Cyprus.

But we couldn’t be more glad that we made the epic effort to visit this oft-forgotten place. Northern Cyprus really is a wonder.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

5 Things You Should Know About Cyprus Before You Go

The main beach near Polis.
Cyprus is a bit of an odd sock. Everyone's heard of it, but nobody know's much about it. It's been invaded dozens of times over centuries because of it's prime spot at the intersection of Europe, Africa and Asia, and yet most of it is still undeveloped when compared with other tourist hotspots. That's precisely what attracted me to it.

We flew into Paphos airport (the western of Cyprus' two main airports) and stayed in Polis, a great spot that I'd recommend. It was easily accessible in just over an hour's drive north from the airport.

From my experiences, these are the five things you should know about Cyprus before you go (I sure didn't!)

The best bit is that they can all be reached in under half an hour's drive from Polis.

1.  Cyprus is the birthplace of Aphrodite
Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, was a multicultural lass who actually was born and lived in Cyprus. Her birthplace is near Paphos, and her favourite baths are on the North-West coast. Unfortunately they're not much to look at now - a bit mozzie bitten. I found myself feeling a bit sorry for the poor goddess.

The Baths of Aphrodite as they look today.

But though the baths themselves were a little disappointing, the surrounding area was anything but!

2.   The roads aren't that bad
Don't listen to the wusses who tell you they turned back on the winding road to Lara Bay. The roads in Cyprus really are fine - probably in part due to the fact that it used to be a British colony.

This was the worst road we encountered - on the Akamas Peninsula.
It's the only one I'd probably suggest avoiding.

The road down to Lara Bay that has foiled many a tourist before. I think they were all overreacting.

Believe it or not, this is the tiny beast that made it all possible!

3.   Cyprus is the land of Orange Groves and Thistles

Driving through the countryside near Polis, I kept the car window down. Admittedly, this was mainly because the aircon was rubbish, but it was partly because the delicious scent of orange groves was always nearby and a welcome way to pique the senses.

The thistles in Cyprus might be the uncomfortable kind a lot of the time, but when we were there they were the glorious lavender blooms Eeyore is always munching on. Really nice to look at.

4.   The best beach is Lara Bay
I knew I wanted to visit Lara Bay the moment that I heard it was a turtle breeding ground, closed to the public for three months every year.

While we didn't see any turtles, we also didn't see very many other people. Lara Bay is that uncommon private paradise you often seek but rarely find.

5.   You can't beat the sunsets at Latchi
Latchi is just 10 minutes from Polis, and packed with delicious fish restaurants. We opted for Porto Latchi because of it's spot on the beach. We were glad we'd chosen it when the food was delicious (I had a traditional Cypriot beef dish).

But our choice of dinner location  became extra worthwhile when the sun started to go down. Simply spectacular.