An impromptu trip – because we can…

If the past 18 months have taught us anything at all, it must surely be to take our opportunities when we can. So when Rob resigned his job for a new opportunity, and was unexpectedly on “gardening leave” during our visit to London, we readily agreed to an impromptu family holiday “somewhere warm and sunny”.

Obviously somewhere that will have us, definitely just one direct flight from London….ideally less ‘diseased’ than London. A Greek island maybe? Greece is definitely open for tourists – either fully vaccinated or with a negative test result. Easy!

The shifting sands of border restrictions notwithstanding, a villa on Kefalonia seemed like the holiday Rob and Jenna sorely needed, after pretty much a year of lockdown, with so many cancelled plans and disappointments. Sadly, Greece hadn’t quite made it onto England’s “green list” just yet, but they were hopeful that by the time they return after a month away, the rules would have changed again. Certainly, there were strong signals that the fully vaccinated would not be required to self isolate at all. But either way, 10 days isolation at home in their wee garden in midsummer seems like a smallish price to pay for a month on a Greek island, with grandparents along to provide some babysitting.

For me and Peter, the rules are different. We will return to the UK at the end of July, to catch our flights back to NZ. We will be classified as ‘in transit landslide’ for the ~48hours stopover, with no requirement to test or isolate (apart from a fit-to-fly negative test when we leave Greece)…. And anyway, the “fully vaccinated” rule may well apply to us too by then. 

In a more recent update, the “fully vaccinated” has indeed come into play, but only for those vaccinated by the NHS!

So we booked…. And then a week later, the airline cancelled all our flights!

Breathe! Remain calm.

Ryan Air was our only option. The (almost) original budget airline – less than ideal for first time parents, planning Alfie’s first flight! So we rebooked, and kept our fingers and toes crossed that the flight would actually fly.

And then, in a seemingly last ditch effort to scupper our plans, the virus threw us one more curve ball! At the 11th hour, the friends who were confirmed to look after the house and most importantly, the dog, developed symptoms and were in isolation pending test results (which did indeed come back positive).

Oh dear!

Thankfully Rob & Jenna have amazing friends. Caroline – “mum” to Westies Bumble and Bee, drove down from the Cotswolds to pick up Miso for the whole month, where we can confirm that she is now living her best ever Westie life.

Now travelling with a baby is never trivial, and for first time parents, the prospect became increasingly daunting as the pile of luggage grew and grew.  Pram, car seat, travel cot – the latter weighing 10kg!  As an aside, probably someone should have something to say about a company that sells a “travel cot” that takes up half your luggage allowance!  A month’s supply of nappies, an emergency supply of premixed baby formula (should have brought more)…  the situation for baby supplies in Katelios being a huge unknown.

Finally, the day of travel came…  we headed to Stansted (now really in London!) with our mountain of luggage.  As you may have heard, airport check-in is no longer an efficient process. With so much paperwork to check for each passenger (and diminished airline staff numbers), our half hour at the check in desk seemed almost ‘normal’. Fit to fly tests, vaccination certifications, passenger locator forms with QR codes, in addition to the normal tickets and passports – a LOT of admin!

Then just like that, we were onboard, in our chosen back row seats – with lots of encouragement and support from the staff (really can’t fault Ryan Air, they were awesome) about baby’s first flight.  The plane was around 80% full, with two wedding parties heading to their Greek Island weddings (I wanted to ask how many times they’d been rescheduled – there was certainly an air of “finally, this is actually happening” about it all). The crew had their work cut out for them as the 3 1/2 hour flight progressed, ensuring that the enthusiastic wedding revellers kept their masks on, stayed in their seats, and did NOT form a queue for the toilets!

On arrival in Kefalonia, our “Alfie pass” took us to the front of the entry queue, only to be faced with an additional step – the Greek authorities had decided to Covid-test every single adult passenger on the flight,  with a particularly convoluted process. 

Yes, both trolleys belong to us!

We watched our luggage circle the airport conveyors several times before we were “out” and free to get it.

Tempers frayed ever so slightly in 35 degree heat,  as we discovered our pre-booked taxi van driver was singularly unhelpful, the carseat was difficult to install as the van had short seatbelts, the van airconditioning didn’t work, our villa was 40 minutes drive away – and the driver didn’t actually know where it was!  Finally there – up a very steep hill, into a sweltering house, by now in the darkness, with absolutely no supplies, and the nearest store a decent hike down (and back up) a VERY steep hill.  Oh dear!

As Jenna fed Alfie, I raced around turning on every air-conditioner in the place at full blast, Rob somehow handled all the luggage…  and Peter set off down the hill for supplies, arriving back in a surprisingly quick time thanks to the shopkeeper lady taking pity on him and driving him and his supplies (including a huge bottle of water) back up the hill.  People are kind!

That was almost two weeks ago, and here we (still) are, very much happily settled in villa on the hill, with a small rental car in the driveway for getting the all-important suppliles (and a bit of sightseeing). 

Kefalonia is beautiful – relentlessly hot and sunny – with lovely people, who are persevering despite their tourist-based livelihoods having all but disappeared last year, thanks to the virus, and then a very damaging hurricane.

Everyone, everywhere has their own stories of lockdown.  In Greece, we’re told, they spent months and months in very strict lockdown, requiring permission to leave their house for anything at all.  This was effected by text message – if you needed to go out for supplies or medical attention, you sent a text requesting permission.  A 2000 euro fine threatened anyone leaving home with the return text saying they could go!  It was brutal.

Now, at least here in Kefalonia, they are happy to welcome pre-tested / vaccinated tourists, still with caution.  Masks are everywhere if you’re going indoors (even just to use the toilet) – fortunately much of the business of eating and drinking takes place outside, where things look almost ‘normal’. There are still cases out there – with three or four people testing positive each day, no doubt likely to rise as more tourists start arriving.

Meanwhile, we’re doing our bit for the local economy by eating and drinking out, a lot. It’s so sad to see the beautiful beachside taverna, in what should be bustling peak tourist season, almost empty.  Yesterday we took a very winding drive to a local winery – very well set up for tastings of some beautiful wines – again, we were the only patrons. We bought some “supplies” to tide us over for the rest of the holiday!

Mostly, we stay “home”, enjoying the family time, with the pool, the very local beach, the sea views and plenty of supplies now in the kitchen!  The days blend into each other, which is just as a holiday should be. 

With just a week to go until Peter and I start our journey home, we keep half an eye on the changing travel situation, with fingers crossed our journey goes to plan. These days, one can never be sure.

We’ll enjoy every last moment of our time with Rob, Jenna and Alfie, and at the same time, look forward very much to being home with Pip, Howard, Izzy and Matthew. Like so many families, we will continue to navigate the new world of closed borders and travel restrictions, always with an absolute conviction that spending time together as a family, in person, is an absolute necessity, despite the challenges involved.   

Observations on an alternative approach

They say (and I agree) that travel broadens the mind – perhaps no more so when travel is not as we know it. On this trip in the midst of a global pandemic, a trip where “tourism” and “adventure” are replaced with “reconnection” and “family domesticity”, it seems that there is, nevertheless, no shortage of mind-broadening observations to be made.

Coming from New Zealand, a place that we are led to believe is widely admired and lauded for our pandemic management, there is much to ponder as we wander about an England that is visibly learning to live with the disease. So, some observations about what that appears to mean, with the disclaimer that I am simply a random person, wandering about a very tiny part of London, which in no way represents the whole city, nor indeed the whole country.

This is not a judgement, nor indeed, even a comparison. It’s just a set of random observations about life in London.

Covid 19 is everywhere.

There is no suggestion of an “elimination strategy” – it’s just not seen as a possibility. Rising case numbers, and they are rising again, are viewed with concern, rather than panic – tempered with reducing levels of hospitalisation and deaths. There is a strong sense that “we’ve got this”, so long as everyone follows the rules.

When everyone knows someone who’s died of Covid, or been very sick, it suddenly becomes very real. People mostly take the rules seriously. They wear masks on public transport, and when shopping inside, mostly. Today I saw a woman on the bus without a mask – she had a big NHS badge on her lapel, saying that she was unable to wear a mask. Occasionally one sees people with their mask over their mouth but not nose – no one comments, but disapproving looks are passed, and people move further away.

But that level of familiarity with the disease, and what it is an does, the enormity of being locked down for most of 2020, has also made people pragmatic about how to deal with it. When Peter’s NHS app signalled that he’d been exposed and needed to self-isolate for 10 days from the exposure, Rob & Jenna were calm, and wouldn’t hear of us moving out (thankfully, because that would have been difficult). He self-tested, didn’t hold the baby, and generally was a bit more careful, but mostly just vigilant for any symptoms.

Vaccines are seen as the saviour.

The British vaccination rollout has been swift and apparently effective. While there are always bureaucratic glitches when bureaucrats are involved, in the main it appears to be rolling along quite quickly towards the goal of a “fully vaccinated” adult population – obviously not 100%, but aiming to be pretty close to that. Current point of contention is the gap between the two doses – one assumes purposefully lengthened to 12 weeks to push more people through the ‘first shot’ sooner, but nevertheless frustrating for those really, really wanting their second shot.

Rob & Jenna drove across London one afternoon last week when they heard there was a clinic happy to do second doses anytime after the manufacturer’s 3 week specification. We celebrated having a fully vaxed household!

The anti-vaxers must exist here as they do wherever else “freedom of speech” is valued, but they don’t seem to get any airtime at all. In the two days after the vaccination rollout opened up to the 18 – 29 year olds, over a million appointments were made. Long queues formed outside the roll-up vaccination clinic down the road from us, where temporary traffic signs proclaimed vaccinations are available to anyone 18+, from 8.30am to 5.30pm every day. Anyone.

One assumes that the next tranche will be to vaccinate the children, at least those aged 12+, as they are now doing in the USA. UK case numbers increases are currently being driven by the unvaccinated, including that age group.

Quarantine-free travel is the “carrot” – and a massive incentive it is too.

While countries are being careful not to suggest that there is a “vaccine passport”, it is becoming clearer every day that the fully vaccinated will have the holiday spots of Europe pretty much to themselves this summer. Some countries are waiving the requirement for pre-travel testing for the fully vaccinated, as well as any need to isolate on arrival.

There is a certain irony in the fact that the vaccination rollout left those most wanting / needing to travel – the young – to last…. while granny in the resthome has (one might argue justifiably) been fully vaccinated for some time, her grandchildren wanting to visit her are still awaiting their shots.

And while international travel may be seen as a luxury, an indulgence by some, the reality for the truly multi-national population of most countries these days is that travel is essential to maintaining family connections, and indeed, connections with one’s homeland, wherever that may be. Physically cutting off the rich diaspora of citizens living abroad cannot be in any country’s long term interests.

Rob’s friends talk a lot about wanting to visit “home”, wherever that may be – and many are experiencing very real financial and emotional hardship to do so. One couple talked about having to book a ‘layover’ of 2 weeks in Namibia in order to get the non-South African husband into South Africa with the rest of the family – ironically, they had to travel through Johannesburg to get to Namibia!

The thought of taking young babies into quarantine facilities is scary, travelling with spouses who are from other countries is difficult, sometimes impossible – they contrast the UK systems, which are relatively easy to navigate, and which mostly allow isolation ‘at home’, to those of their home countries, which are mostly much more difficult, expensive, stressful and even alienating. “Home” no longer wants them, it seems.

Free home self-testing kits

If vaccines are the saviour, then testing, testing, testing is the saviour’s right hand man.

Perhaps the most interesting observations for me have been around testing. There a quite a range of types of tests available, and each appears to have its purpose. The highest level (PCR, I think) required for travellers entering from high risk countries… all the way to the most commonly used “rapid antigen” tests, that are handed out free (like lollies) by the NHS, in packs of 7 tests at a time, to enable everyone to be able to test themselves, whenever they want.

Akin to that home pregnancy test that changes colour with the result, a quick swab at home provides reassurance that you’re safe to visit granny, go to that parent-teacher interview, or simply meet an at-risk friend for coffee. Also used as a “ticket” (along with your paid ticket) to allow you to attend major sporting events, like the Euro2020 football matches, and the Black Caps crickets tests against England.

There are free, rapid testing stations on almost every street corner (small exaggeration, but you get the picture), specifically for testing the well to provide reassurance.

The NHS smartphone app has lots of cool functions

With all this testing going on, it make sense to keep track of results, and that’s part of the role of the NHS app. Besides enabling QR-code log-ins at hospitality venues and many retailers, and Bluetooth enabled contact tracing, the ‘covid-app’ also records test results (self-administered and lab-administered ones), and your vaccination status if you’re vaccinated in the UK.

There’s a screener for symptoms, a guide on where to get what types of tests, and what they mean, and a log of test results. Many venues refuse entry if you don’t check in – in fact, in York we had a very annoying experience where I checked in, and then (because I didn’t have data on my phone), I couldn’t order anything from their QR-code enabled remote menu.

And amazingly, as a sidenote, the bluetooth tracker genuinely doesn’t seem to drain your phone’s battery!

“Freedom day is coming”.

The real sense here in England is that there is no going back.

The current restrictions – masks, isolation, testing – were due to be lifted on 23rd June, then delayed to 19th July with the arrival of the Delta variant. A purposeful delay, to allow the younger generation to be vaccinated. Once they are, there are no more excuses.

Travel ‘restrictions’ will remain – testing pre-entry, self-isolation for most visitors with testing in the first 10 days (though there’s talk that will be completed waived for the fully vaccinated), and hotel quarantine only for those from very high risk countries (the “red zone”).

But international travel will be back – at least to those countries who will have them.

Vigilance will continue – testing, tracking and tracing… and a lower tolerance of those who go out while sick (with anything) and spread their germs around – which is surely a positive move for civilisation in general. Face coverings will, one suspects, remain a standard item in every woman’s handbag, every man’s pocket – to be used by choice rather than by mandate, when circumstances make it sensible.

Vaccinations will be ongoing – there is already talk of a booster shot in Autumn, ideally (but maybe unlikely) to be combined with the annual flu shot.

And much as the situation is more analogous to a war than a crisis of other sorts, the outcome is likely to be conquest, domination, and beating the viral enemy into submission, rather then extinction any time soon.

Living a risk-assessed life

I should have been there! I COULD HAVE BEEN THERE!

As I sat on the couch on Tuesday, celebrating the Black Caps stunning win over India, I was wracked with regret.  With the match extended into a sixth day, suddenly tickets had become available.  A WhatsApp message from Rob offered to get me one – just £75 …  did I want it?  Hell yes, BUT…

What about the risk?
Unlike many of the sporting events going on in the UK this month, with packed stadia, this particular event did not have the same “no negative test, no entry” rules in place.  Limited ticket numbers offered some protection, but maybe not enough.

Then there was the 1½ hour train journey each way to Southampton and back. 

Our last train journey (to York) resulted in Peter having to quarantine at home for 10 days, his NHS Covid app pronouncing that he’d been exposed to a positive case (via the Bluetooth pairing function). 

2 days to go… of the original 10!

Bugger – that man on the train, coughing, sneezing and blowing his nose, without a mask on as he tried to relieve his feverishness with Fanta…  yes, I knew it! 

While we moved carriages promptly (the train manager having advised there was nothing he could do to get said man off the train), and wore our masks, and sanitised…  having a pulsing red alarm on your covid app on your phone is pretty limiting, and means you really do have to stay home.

So Peter couldn’t go with me to the cricket (or anywhere else, for that matter), and reminded me rather pointedly that I really didn’t want to risk spending the next 10 days locked at home myself, as he had just done.

And so I did the unthinkable. 

I said ‘no’ to the opportunity to witness in-person one of the great sporting wins for New Zealand.  At this point, my good friends will be asking “what have you done with the real Debra?”.

But that’s simply life, right now, right here. 

With about 1,600 new cases in London each day, currently rising largely due to the yet-to-be-vaccinated younger generation, who have only just been offered the vaccine, there is no “zero-risk” option.  The ability to track cases “in your area”, literally by postcode, means you have a great deal more information to feed into your risk assessment of every decision to leave the house.  Not that we’re actually doing that…

But nevertheless, as we head into the fourth week of our visit to London, I’m struck by how life itself shrinks when everything that you do involves a certain, but random, level of risk. We walk the dog (and the baby), we meet friends locally, we drink Guinness out of plastic cups in the Palm Tree pub carpark, we get almost everything we need delivered… a very different London visit from the ones of the past.

No theatre, no museum visits, almost no shopping excursions – not because they are not open, but because they suddenly seem unnecessary.

Life is good, is somewhat shrunken!

On being Ouma (round 3)

A wise man I know would often challenge others with the question: “is it okay to love more than one?”.

For in most Western societies, loving “more than one” man or woman is certainly frowned upon, despite the clear evidence that “human nature” would have otherwise. Yet thankfully, when it comes to children, no one would suggest that a mother or grandmother should love only one! It is one of life’s great mysteries that somehow your heart expands not only to “make room” for each new arrival, but to positively embrace each new child with great outpouring of love.

My role as “Ouma” began on in early 2009, with the arrival of Isabel (the brave one), joined three years later by Matthew (the witty one). Blessed to have them living close by, I have watched their far-too-fast growing up with love and wonder. Matthew and Isabel have filled our hearts and our lives with adventures and discoveries. We learned that it truly does take a village to raise a child, and feel so privileged to be part of that village. Having missed out on having grandparents close by in our children’s early days, we have come to appreciate how much of a loss that was to them, and to us.

And now they are three – Alfred Ernest Hall – their long awaited cousin, born in March this year on the other side of the world. A “lockdown baby”. With significant restrictions in place through a dismal London winter, Rob and Jenna hunkered down through their pregnancy, with support from friends in similar situations.

Plans for both sets of grandparents to travel in turn, to provide support soon after the birth were scuppered – they were in this together, but alone.

And now, three months on, just like that, Ouma and Peter arrived!

“So what do you think of Alfie”, their friends ask. I have no words for this – he’s a baby, a tiny treasure, perfect in every way. He eats, he sleeps, he yells (increasingly testing his vocal range), and oh boy, when he smiles and laughs, it just melts your heart.

He snuggles, he splashes in the bath, he’s learning to love storytime (currently dominated by my favourites rather than his). He dances with Mum, who sings to him in French and English, and is calmed by Peter’s magical “what’s your mattering?” that’s still working on number three, I’m pleased to say.

Even more special than Alfie though – as if that were possible – is the love and admiration that grows for your own children, and their chosen partners, as you watch them grow into wonderful loving parents. Rob, the father is the best version yet of the many versions of Rob, the man. Seeing him with Alfie feels like the circle is complete, the mantle has been passed.

I chose to be “Ouma” in tribute to my own great grandmother, Aletta Petronella Catherine de Beer (née Bester), who lived to see her great-great-grandchildren, and was beloved by us all, as we were by her. Five living generations is a feat which seems unlikely to be repeated any time soon!

The original Ouma was always calm, always ready with an ear and a shoulder, and the biggest cuddles. She was wise, and well-informed about the world, even though she never travelled. She lived by the motto “stilbly is ook an antwoord” (keeping quiet is also an answer) – and while I aspire to “be like Ouma”, that’s probably a bridge too far for me. But meanwhile, I will cuddle Alfie (currently the cute one), and take joy from my regular videocalls with Isabel (the brave) and Matthew (the witty one).

Miso walks on water

As we settle into domestic life with Rob, Jenna and baby Alfie, we must not forget the very important 4th member of the family, Miso.

At just one year old, Miso is still very much a teenager, mostly well behaved (being very well brought up, of course), but prone to occasional lapses in self control! Barking at phantom foxes at the bottom of the garden at 530am is a particular specialty… the fox WAS there, but is long gone. She annoys her mum and dad by digging up the garden, sitting on the table, and of course the challenge of all dogs when a baby arrives – waking the baby!

Miso’s morning routine starts with “puppy breakfast” delivered one tiny dog biscuit at a time by a rolling puzzle feeder, so she doesn’t gobble, followed by an hour long walk in Victoria Park.

Living near Victoria Park is truly glorious…. vast swathes of open spaces, large trees, ponds and streams, and an eclectic selection of mostly well behaved, mostly off leash dogs.

Smaller dogs are popular – it is inner city London after all – but we have also met all manner of larger specimens, all the way up to a giant piebald Great Dane. Miss Miso is game to play with all comers, usually returning to the rattle of treats in her little portable treat jar.

She cools off with a little wade in the edge of the stream, and a drink from the doggie water bottle that all walkers seem to carry.

After a week of tagging along with Rob for the morning walk while Jenna gets Alfie ready for the day, Peter and I felt well prepared to venture out on our own, with dog and baby in tow. The retractable leash appeared to be a bit of a challenge for Peter, but Miso was patient and we got to the park without incident, Alfie dozing in his pram. Off leash, Miso chased her ball and generally hooned about, until about half way round, she took off in an unexpected direction, and leapt into a pond not usually on our walking route.

In hindsight, we had been there once before, when Jenna explained that this pond had frozen over in the winter and Miso had tested her ice skating skills. Perhaps the thick layer of seaweedy, pond-scummy, green gloop made her think she could indeed walk on water again, but instead she simply disappeared, as both grandparents rushed towards the pond (one more rushed than the other), expecting her to reappear, shaking herself off and looking embarrassed. But no dog was to be seen….

As I neared the pond, trying not to bounce the sleeping baby in the pram, my top of mind thought was “don’t forget to put the brake on”. Visions of Alfie, pram and all, rolling away while I leapt into the pond to rescue Miso, were not to be contemplated.

I scanned the green, slimy pond… no Miso to be seen.

Then a tiny “njiff” at my feet… paws up on the pond wall, little bedraggled head poking out of the slime, as she clung to the edge but couldn’t get out. Now Miso is a small dog, but believe me, when all her fur is drenched and flattened and green, she is tiny! I’m not sure who was more relieved as I hooked her out by her harness. Poor little (green) thing!

Immediately back on the lead, no more adventures today, we told her. Poor Miso – too mucky to play with the puppy friends!

I saw the squirrel first, sitting right in front of us. Miso was quick (“like a fox”) – well, quick enough to escape Peter’s light hold on the leash, and she was off, into the woods, heavy leash handle bumping behind, Peter in pursuit. No squirrels were harmed.

That’s it! Home!

Now the challenge of bathing the dog! Turns out gloopy pond scum is about as hard to remove as fox poo! Our first attempt was woeful… dog now even more unhappy, and still filthy, albeit, no longer smelly. Then Jenna pulled out the “fox poo shampoo”… who knew?

Whiteness restored!

The next dog & baby walk was uneventful.

I am not a cyclist

I have been known to potter about on a bike, most recently on my beautiful new Cannondale e-Bike, bought in anticipation of this trip.  And (many years ago), proudly conquering 500km of “Big Sky” in central Otago on a real bike…  but that was then.

Now, in Athens, is now – a few days after the end of a week-long tour through Peloponese, a relatively unknown and somewhat untouched part of Greece, steeped in millennia of history going back some 4,000 years.  Combining archaeology with cycling seemed somehow apt – but lack of local knowledge dictated that a supported tour was the way to go as opposed to our more usual Peter-planned European excursions.

This is an annual excursion.  However the cycling boys (previously dubbed Grubbs – generally retired or unemployed biking buddies) who usually muster at least 8 to 10 enthusiasts to climb high mountains in the Pyrenees, Alps or Dolomites, were less enthused by Peloponese (or maybe by Greece in general).

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Only 5 intrepid Grubbs signed up for the Cycle Greece tour – plus me!  The “solution” for non-cyclists being an e-Bike.

Day 0 – going nowhere

Briefing!  And meet our fellow travellers.  Six Kiwis plus 3 Californians (“don’t call us Americans”).  It started badly – the venue, a hotel rooftop bar, decided it was unacceptable for us to gather in the shade because they had “set us up” (no visible evidence) in the blazing sun.  Unhappy, hot and sticky, jetlagged…  not a great basis for a first meeting.

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Introductions revealed little – apart from Gary who talked about the last time he’d been in Greece, supporting his daughter to win Gold in cycling at the 2004 Olympics.  Immediate awe from the non-Kiwis amongst us (of course, we’re already in awe of Gary who is still the strongest cyclist of this bunch and about to turn 80!).  Much googling of the women’s individual pursuit in 2004 ensued!

Joining Peter and I (retired – not!), Gary, Don (almost Gary’s age – also awesome!), John and Stefan (the youngest of the crew), we had Ted (a mortgage broker), George (to be dubbed “the late”) and the lovely Emily (treating herself to her first holiday away from her law firm without her ex).  Definitely a motley crew – and as I might have mentioned, a challenge for the rest to keep up with our sense of humour.

Colleen, our guide – a US convert to all things Greek (philhellene), living in Athens for more than 10 years – and Pete our driver and great bike mechanic, rounded out the group.

Most important question not asked:  “if I give you written instructions, will you read them?”  Would have solved a lot of angst during the trip to know that the answer was, in the main, a resounding NO!  In fact, turns out the thing this group most had in common was that they DID NOT LISTEN to anything at all, making for an interesting week to come!

Day 1 – Boy, is it HOT!
By car to Sofikos, then cycle 68km to Napflio

An early morning coffee before pickup at DIVE – definitely the best coffee in Athens!

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Logistics!  Packing 10 cyclists, 10 bikes and a large assortment of luggage into a van and a car in the narrow parked-up streets of old Athens is a mission, even at 8am.  Unsurprising really that something went wrong – poor Gary arriving in Napflio to discover all his worldly goods (ie. his clothes!) had gone with his cycle bag to the warehouse in Athens for storage.  The first instance of NOT LISTENING!  Everyone else was pretty clear that he was meant to REMOVE his gear from the bike bag before we parted ways with it.  A happy ending – back in Athens the clothes (in two New World cloth bags) were put on the last bus to Napflio, arriving at 8.30pm, thanks to the resourcefulness of the Cycle Greece team!

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A brief pit stop in our 2 hour car journey at the Corinth Canal – a masterpiece of engineering turning the Peloponese “peninsula” into an island!

Onwards to Sofikos, where we all hopped on our bikes, by now in 34C heat!  What should have been a short 34 km ride to Epidavros Theatre turned into a heatstroke nightmare for Peter, who collapsed on arrival and didn’t get to see the amazing ancient theatre, complete with an amateur theatrics group visiting from the UK, reading Shakespeare in the centre to demonstrate the incredible acoustics.

And so to lunch – anything cold! –

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…with another 30km to ride afterwards, into the prettiest town in the Peloponese, so they say.  Napflio did indeed live up to its promise, with a lovely hotel overlooking the seaside.

A brief stop along the way at a 3,000+ year old stone keystone bridge… or if one is to believe our tour guide (who has an MA in history after all), probably built more than 10,000 years ago by a very advanced civilization with supernatural powers to make rocks momentarily light enough for one man to lift into place!  Seriously, I kid you not… back at the bikes, other girl on tour turned to me and said “no, I think you’re right – they used levers”.  One of those “I’m an engineer” moments!

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We lost a few cyclists along the way, who failed to read the instructions properly and stopped at the wrong bridge, with an off-road excursion (what about the “beware of thorns – don’t take the bikes off the road” instruction?) resulting in a flurry of punctures!

Nafplio was full of weekend visitors, with a music festival on.  Visiting dancers from Crete giving a concert on the square outside our hotel drew massive crowds while we settled in for our first of many similar dinners – a veritable feast of ‘snacks’ to start, leaving little room for main course, and none at all for dessert.  I fear our hosts were offended by our exhaustion as one by one we snuck off back to the hotel!

 

Day 2 – A ramble along the back roads
There and back by bike to Ancient Mycenae 25km x 2

4,000 years of civilisation on display – a truly amazing site and sight.  Inside the ancient tomb – no artifacts but one could still marvel at the feat of engineering on display.

Then up the hot hot pathway to the lion gate – it always bemuses me that male lions are used to symbolise guards and the gate when frankly in my experience of observing lions in Africa, the male of the species does precious little other than lie about!

What is incredible (for me at least) is the metalwork – in gold, bronze and (eventually) iron – from these ancient times.  No wonder there is a temple in Athens dedicated to the god of metallurgy!

A bit of a wine tasting that evening – including something sweet for Don – hit the spot before another excessively front-loaded dinner!

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Day 3 – SHIT!  This is HARD!
Napflio to Dimistana –
104km of mostly relentless climbing over 1,500m in all in searing heat!

Thank you, but NO thank you!  Peter, still suffering from heat exhaustion took a raincheck, and I ‘loaned’ Colleen my e-Bike, for a peaceful day spent driving the van, watching our fellow cyclists slogging their over-heated bodies up and down high mountains, and up and down again.

In recognition that this was a very long day, we left the hotel before sunrise, heading to Tripoli – a town of no redeeming features, but the only reasonable place for lunch (donuts!).  A rather depressing town, full of Greek men drinking coffee and reading newspapers strung up on washing lines outside the news agents (presumably because they can’t afford to actually buy one); and the occasional Greek woman popping into the elaborate mini-chapel at the base of the Church steps, presumably to pray for better times (or maybe more productive men!)

And so back to the bikes for yet more climbing, higher and higher… to the most fabulous hotel of the tour in Dimistana, a beautiful old stone building with gorgeous rooms overlooking the gorge.

A special occasion – Don’s 79th birthday – demands champagne!  What a palaver to get champagne – are you sure you don’t want Campari & soda instead?  Only a few euros each vs a massive price tag for Moet?  Heavens!  Well done Peter for making sure we had proper champagne to toast Don’s birthday, and a quickly-melting ice cream cake at the end of the meal too!  The locals no-doubt thought we were quite mad!

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Day 4:  Downhill all the way!

Every hill climb has its reward (even for those of us who didn’t actually do the climb) – and so we left Dimistana (in a chilly 15C temperature for which I was perhaps a little under dressed!)

A leisurely ride, more to our taste, with plenty of coffee stops along the way – now that’s more like it!  Even time to buy some honey – there are beehives everywhere!

We lost a few of our number along the way – damn, shoulda read those cue sheets, people!  But most of us made it on the appointed route, along the cycleway into Olympia, the home of the ancient Olympic games.

A family hotel, run by a Greek man and his Australian wife – very welcoming, but the only bad bed of the tour, at least for those of us who don’t warm to “lumpy and soft” in the mattress department.

Susanna welcomed us into her kitchen for a ‘lesson’ – no recipes in sight, just a handful of this and a pinch of that.  We made tzatziki and tiropitakia, stuffed peppers and tomatoes from her garden, and greek meatballs…  and ate it all for dinner!  After a few nights of pretty average wine, Peter took matters in hand and selected a few bottles from the host’s rack – that’s better!

And so to our lumpy bed, looking forward to our tour of Olympia tomorrow!

EPISODE 1 complete.  EPISODE 2 to follow.

A new day – Athens redeems itself

A perfect addition to any holiday – an amazing specialist coffee store, with its own roaster, just one block away, AND they open at 6am.  Great start to the day (sadly, discovered the following morning that this does not apply on weekends).

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So onwards and upwards to the actual purpose of the trip – time to get on that bike.  My tour-provided e-bike is ALMOST a replica of the one I have back home, just without the Cannondale logo.  A trial run doing a 3 hour ride around Athens – thankfully 90% off road, meaning the only challenge was navigating the pedestrians who pay not one blind bit of attention to my madly dinging bell as I pull up behind them.  A minor spill – no damage done to me or bike – as a pedestrian pushed me into a kerb;  my trusty sweeper guide said “good, you know how to fall”!  I laughed and assured him I’d had plenty of practice.

Colleen our guide – an American lawyer who gave up her law practice to move to Athens 14 years ago – is a mine of information;  with a delivery style best described as “enough but not too much”.  We did a loop mainly on the Acropolis walkway, taking in points of interest along the way.

Socrates prison – a cave in the rock with iron bars, where he was incarcerated for corrupting young minds with thinking stuff;  the Pnyx, a completely unassuming ‘field’ where the first democratic assemblies were held – 14,000 people, men only of course.  A side excursion to see a ceiling painted by the man who will be our driver on the tour;  a brief stop of Syntagma Square to view the tail end of the very elaborate changing of the guard (basically men doing what could best be described as dressage).  Most fascinating was the ordinary soldier, who when the two guards had come to a stop at their guard houses, visited each in term to arrange them in exactly the right place, straighten their shoulder pads, hats and particularly tassels, before inviting the crowd up to take photos (but not too close).  As soon as anyone got close enough to be in the picture, the guard would bang the base of his rifle on the stone to summon the soldier to remove said intruder.

Realisation of the day – if you can’t pave your streets in gold, why not just pave them in marble!  Great for maintenance, but bloody hard on the feet.

The obligatory greek salad for lunch – did I say that the tomatoes here are amazing, possibly the best part of Greece so far?  And then “home” for a lazy afternoon (or in Peter’s case, a bit of a catchup on work stuff).  I really do need to get some done myself, but taking a surprisingly Greek attitude to that (“domani” or some such thing).

Useless fact – on the 1st day of the months, Greeks use a special greeting – happy month – when they greet each other.  Sure beats “a pinch and a punch for the first of the month”.  Note for Isabel!

Our week long cycling tour began with a 6pm briefing, and a meet your fellow travellers session at the rooftop bar in the hotel where we were meant to stay before Debra decided to AirBnB it.  The kiwi contingent arrived early, thinking we’d have a beer together before the others got there – but no, sorry, we’re not ready for you (despite other guests having drinks), and no you can’t sit in the shade, we’ve made your space over there (in the blazing sun).  The words “naff off” passed some lips, as we gathered a bunch of bar stools and sat in the middle of the thoroughfare in front of the bar, defiantly ignoring the consternation this was causing.  “Wow”, said Stefan, “if this was a Kiwi bar we’d all have a beer in hand by now.”

Discovery of the afternoon – the Kiwi sense of humour is going to be a challenge for our three Californian fellow-cyclists, and our Greco-American guide for that matter.  Peter’s suggestion that we chuck Don and Gary (the oldest cyclists ever to do this tour) out at the bottom of the hill (we start at the top) so they can warm up before the start was met with bemusement.

More about the cyclists later – next stop dinner with Stefan and Peter, just the three of us attracted to a rather gorgeous restaurant, appropriate named Sense – and boy, was it a treat for the senses!  A balcony table (so long as you leave by 9.30pm) overlooking the Acropolis as the sun set in the background, fine dining service and food to match, and of course, great company.

I’m still salivating over the pigeon (breast and leg, perfectly boned out) with smoked vegetable accoutrements;  the boys had suckling pig – a shared mouthful confirmed this as definitely the next best choice.

And can I say – who knew about olive oil ice-cream, well, semi-freddo (served in a frozen lemon shell, with another filled with a lemon sorbet which would have been the pick of the night, but for its friend on the plate!)  I NEED that RECIPE!

Leaving the wine choices to the waiter – we are, after all, Greek wine virgins – was an excellent decision with two fabulously different bottles of gorgeous red wine, perhaps served in the wrong order, but he wasn’t to know about Kiwi drinking habits, after all.

All in all, a very good day…  and looking forward to hitting the road to Peloponesia and first stop Nafplio for two nights.

 

Welcome to Athens, with a gang of pickpockets on the side

I often think that the only disadvantage we have, living in New Zealand, is that everywhere is just so bloody far away (well, everywhere that counts, anyway) – and some might say this is an advantage!  What it does mean, of course, is that getting to those far flung places still on the bucket list takes time, effort and energy.

Perhaps we’re just getting old – but this year our pilgrimage to Europe started with what I was calling a ‘slow plane’ to Athens, stopping off at Singapore for an extended 14 hours stopover (longer than intended due to airline schedule changes after we’d already booked).  Never mind – we thought having a full day in Singapore, one of our favourite places from past travel, would break up the long journey, and give us time to start re-setting our body clocks.  In fact, what it meant was that we were just doubly tired, in fact completely exhausted by the time we arrived in Athens (via a short stopover in Istanbul to change planes).

But before I get to Athens, a few observations.

It was great to see that Peter hasn’t lost his touch at staring down officious wait staff who take that “sorry we don’t have a table for you” approach, when the restaurant (in this case the breakfast room at Raffles Hotel in Singapore) is visibly heaving with emptiness, and our man simply thinks that because we’re not staying in the hotel, we might not be able to pay for their generously priced a la carte menu.  “Perhaps you’d like to look at the menu before I prepare a table” he offered weakly in response to Peter’s stare-down.  Harrumph!  Sometimes it’s just so rewarding to flash that Platinum Visa Card (but only at the end of the meal, of course – and he wasn’t to know they’re a dime a dozen in New Zealand!)

A bit of retail therapy confirmed that the store we’re most missing in New Zealand is NOT, as some may think, Ikea, but actually UniQlo.  Please please find yourselves a site in Auckland!

Oh, and a message for Air New Zealand who helpfully prepared all our boarding passes at check-in in Auckland.  Yes, you’re still fabulous compared to other airlines (though the gap is closing, as you join the downward spiral of waning customer service!)

But it’s the little things that count, especially when, like me, you’re a Star Alliance Gold traveller choosing to fly Economy Class.  I know that’s my choice, and I long long ago gave up hoping for an upgrade, BUT seriously:  In what parallel universe is it okay to seat your apparently most valuable customers in Row 41 of a plane that only has 42 rows.  By then – the last leg of our journey – I had completely lost any sense of humour or rationality, and was just deeply pissed off!

And so to Athens…. a city of ruins, of amazing tomatoes, of streets teeming with tourists (still, in September), of unbelievably bad parking in narrow streets which seem almost permanently gridlocked…  and pickpockets.  Having traveled the world, including some pretty crime ridden places like Johannesburg and Rio, having evaded a gang of thieves who targeted us in the old market in Buenos Aires, having that sixth sense from growing up in a highly security conscious environment, I can honestly say we have never encountered such an orchestrated organised gang of petty thieves.

They bundled us, literally, into a carriage on the Metro on a train that we knew was going in the wrong direction.  About 10 men surrounded Peter, apparently “helping” him with his luggage as the doors were closing, having shoved me into the carriage and out of their encirclement…  I knew it wasn’t right, knew we had to get off the carriage at the next stop, but by then the damage was done.  A secure travel wallet had been opened, and the zipped bag of cash extracted – so slickly that Peter was completely unaware it had happened when the train drew to a halt in at the next stop and we both shoved our way out, up onto the street and into a waiting taxi.  We thought we’d had a lucky escape!

I’m pretty sure it was the effects of our long journey – tiredness and inattention – that made up such easy marks.  I asked Peter “what did they get” – nothing, he said, that’s why I have this secure travel wallet…  but lo and behold, when he opened it to pay the taxi, the cash purse was ALL GONE!  Bastards!  Thankfully the cards (and passports!!!) were still there – as a slightly concerned taxi driver, mostly concerned that he might not be paid, drove us through the snail-like traffic to find the nearest ATM.

Oh dear!  It could only improve from here – although I have to say I didn’t think it was improving much when I discovered a spiral staircase of 45 steps up to our apartment, and a cold shower.  The latter was quickly remedied by reading the host’s instructions to turn on the boiler – instructions that our fellow travelers had apparently missed – the stairs, however, remain firmly in place.

As an aside, Greek plumbing is interesting, and probably the topic of whole separate post, with photos, in days to come!

On the plus side, the bed is comfortable, our four fellow cyclists are not complaining – though I suspect they were hoping for something a little more like the gem I found in Girona last year – and there is plenty of food in the surrounding streets.  A HUGE bonus for me and Peter was to find a truly professional coffee roaster, serving the most amazingly crafted coffees from SIX AM in the morning, just one block away!  I was his first customer this morning.  Only one small suggestion for improvement – “Coffee Dive” is probably not the most customer-attracting name (though perhaps it means something else in Greek).

And while we’re on the topic of names,  then there’s the lovely effusively welcoming Harry, at Gods’ Restaurant.

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With a menu running to about 10 pages, he simply asked “what do you feel like eating, are you hungry or not so hungry” and then made beautiful recommendations – and came through with some very drinkable local wines as well.  Not all of our party took to this style of eating – menus are for reading and considering after all – but some of us were just relieved to have someone else telling us what to eat (My Food Bag, anyone?)

So to bed…  some 60 hours after leaving Auckland, we were pretty much asleep before our heads hit the pillow!  Up next, cycling, with a  bit of history on the side.

Third time lucky in the art-tourism stakes

Part of the attraction of visiting San Sebastián – apart from the fabulous dinner at Mugaritz, was the opportunity to visit the Guggenheim in Bilbao. After an abortive plan to spend Monday in Bilbao – fortunately this time discovered the museum was closed on Monday BEFORE we set out for the longish drive – we rescheduled this excursion for our last day, on the way (well, sort of) back to Barcelona.

Expectations were high ~ clearly too high. This museum of modern art has surprisingly little actual art on display, though the building itself is most definitely a work of art in its own right.

DSC_0978DSC_0976The main exhibition on display – with much breathless excitement apparent in the commentary – was room after room filled with the ‘cells’ of Louise Bourgeois – an artist who spent most of her 95 years of life re-living the terror of her childhood memories by building dozens of what are literally small rooms filled with seriously weird and warped stuff.

Far far too deep and meaningful for me… Though I’m sure Dali would have approved (and probably did).


So with two truly weird art experiences under our belt, it was with some trepidation that we set off on our one afternoon in Barcelona for the Picasso Museum, the one thing we missed off our must-see list last time we were in Barcelona.

And third time lucky it certainly was. This time the weird stuff – etchings bordering on offensive, though apparently there are even more offensive ones which were Norton display – was overtaken by the sheer beauty some of his other work, and what a prolific artist he was! I particularly loved his line drawings of bullfighting – not politically correct, I know, but I had to admire the visible movement that he managed to achieve with a few lines of black ink.

And so our Holiday in not-Spain came to an end.  We farewelled Rob, who was joining Jenna and a herd of friends for a music festival that weekend (coincidentally staying literally around the corner from our last night Barcelona hotel)!   Next stop Jordan….

Foodie heaven

The Spain that is not Spain has many attractions;  and the greatest of all is the food.  Somehow, this part of the world has encouraged, nurtured and perhaps bred a level of refined culinary exploration that may be unsurpassed globally.

So first Girona.  Amidst a plethora of tourist cafes, serving up perfectly good ham and cheese sandwiches and rolls, and moderately acceptable coffee, are many, many fabulous restaurants waiting to be discovered, if only one can stay awake long enough!

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Our bunch of cyclists had some difficulty falling into the Spanish habit of eating dinner at 9pm, with most actual restaurants only opening their doors at 8.30pm.

In fact, the one that took our group booking for 8 people at 8.15pm, yay, actually turned us away because they were still mopping the floors when we arrived – come back in half an hour, they said.  The boys were not happy!

Nevertheless we managed to have several great restaurant experiences, both with the cyclists and with Rob when he arrived for the second part of our three-part holiday.  I’m not going to regale you with a blow by blow account of every meal…  though the 25 course degustation at Mugaritz, with 7 extra bites at the end was surely the crowning glory – more on that at the end.

But meanwhile back in Girona, a few learnings.

Lesson 1.  The discovery that ‘gazpacho’ does not need to be made with tomatoes!  Well, I guess in classical kitchens it does, but the strawberry & cherry gazpacho I had to start a meal in a restaurant we happened on by chance was a revelation, and something I will definitely be experimenting with when summer rolls around back home.  (Turns out this is a “thing” – recipe at http://www.thelastcookie.ca/cherry-strawberry-gazpacho/)

Tart and Refreshing Gazpacho

Lesson 2.  No matter how well you think you’ve trained your staff, you can’t build a fine dining experience with people who have themselves never dined finely!  A learning from our visit to L’Alqueria, currently rated the number 2 restaurant in Girona behind the acclaimed Cellar de Can Roca (with its 12 month waiting list, and the venue for our previous ‘best ever’ eating experience).

This incredibly difficult to find restaurant down a little alleyway was finally found, our booking for 10 acknowledged and the first 7 of us shown to our table two floors up.  But where are the 3 amigos?  Turns out Don and the boys were downstairs being refused entry, while upstairs we were being roundly ignored by the two staff, who were completely flummoxed by an incomplete table.  Eventually Don used his mobile phone to call down a rescue party!

Next Peter orders some cava to start the meal, and asks for a bottle of red wine to be opened in anticipation…  waiter rushes around apparently trying to find 10 flutes for the cava, then puts out the red wine glasses, asks Peter to taste the red and shares it out between the other 9 wine glasses – failing to top Peter’s glass up, or to pour the cava at all!

And oh my, when the next bottle of red was something different… clearly he knew he was meant to bring new glasses (but no one had told him to take the old ones away).

Eventually, you could barely see the table for the array of empty glassware!  At which point, we formed a chain-gang, passing empty glasses along to Peter who was sitting close enough to an empty side table to arrange them there!  The waiters watched us clear the table without intervening.

And inexplicably, having billed themselves as a restaurant specialising in rice dishes, and indeed, with a full page of different paellas and another of risottos on the menu…  Sorry, we can only do 2 rice dishes per table.  Those who want rice have to agree on two of the many options, which can be served in as many portions as required.  Weird!  Fortunately at that point most of our table opted for something else, while Kevin, Peter and I selected two different paellas, neither if which, I have to say, were particularly spectacular.

Lesson 3.  You should always make space for the degustation menu.  Sorry Rob, we really should have had that menu at Nu… Don’t know what I was thinking!  Thankfully the waiter persuaded us to order many dishes anyway for all to share, and it has to be said, the food was spectacular, and the service outstanding.  As it turned out we did try 6 of the 11 dishes on that night’s degustation – including the interesting guacamole with lime ice cream, and the outstanding salt baked foie gras with cookies and banana ice cream.  At Nu, ice cream is not (necessarily) a dessert (maybe that should be lesson 4).  Highlight of the night, I think we all agreed, was the scallops, Iberian pork and ham parmentier.  As I write this (sitting in Jordan) I’m tempted to head out into the hills to hunt down a wild pig!

Lesson 4.  It takes leadership to effect a group decision.  At the aforementioned LLevetaps, when we finally returned after they’d finished mopping the floors, I’m slightly embarrassed (but unrepentant) to say I may have forced the whole table into the degustation menu…

(Image from restaurant website)

On the basis that we could only do it if everyone did it, and the alternative, guys, is to wade your way through this Spanish menu and decide for yourself what you’re goin to eat (and by the way, if we take the matched wine options, we don’t even need to worry about what we’re going to drink either).  Billed as the best tapas restaurant in Girona, they did not disappoint, with amazing food and the equivalent of the “bottomless pot” when it came to the matched wines.  Highlights of the 8 course meal – the octopus?  the pork? the amazing lemon verbena dessert…  Too hard, I’ll let you peruse the menu and decide, though for me the octopus was a revelation – giant rounds of tentacle, akin to pork fillet, perfectly cooked with a richness of flavour that trumped all else.

And so to San Sebastián, with its amazing pintxos, its ancient cidery where we literally pigged out on a set end with a truly giant T-bone steak as one of several full meals on a plate all seven in succession, with encouragement to visit the barrel room frequently for a refill of cider – every barrel different, try them all!  (Not that we did!)

Mugaritz was, as I said, the crowing glory – the primary purpose of our 600km road trip across the top of Spain.  A half-hour taxi ride up into the hills delivered us to an airy room, minimally decorated tables set with white cloths and an artfully arranged broken white plate on each.  They checked (again) whether we had any food ‘issues’ … ‘Only one’, said Peter, ‘we don’t like bad food’.

Unlike our last “top restaurants of the world” adventure to Osteria Francescana in Modena, which was positively snooty, Mugaritz was friendly, welcoming – ‘we want you to have fun with the food’, out waiter encouraging us to eat with our fingers – cutlery only provided when absolutely necessary.

Over the next 3 1/2 hours, 25 small bites followed, each perfectly presented, almost too beautiful to eat.  Some were amazing, some interesting, and only one really weird – the final dessert course of a tiny Michelin Man marshmallow, which was deliciously light, floating in a white broth described as “oxidised wine” which was frankly an assault on the taste buds.  Top picks were hard to agree on…  For me, the scallops with veal tendon and lemon – the tendon thinly stretched over the scallop in its shell, adding riches which was beautifully cut by the lemon dressing.  I was pleased there were two each!  The roast garlic which concentrated lamb broth – lamb’y garlic rather than garlicky lamb was amazing…

And just when we thought it was over, the tower of the seven deadly sins arrived on the table.  Taking off the first lid, we found pride – three hollow shells of gold plated chocolate, followed by envy – one choc only, leaving the rest envious, and so it continued.

Seven Deadly Sins Tower

It was also fascinating to watch the other tables having not quite the same things – perhaps they had specified food foibles – and to visit the kitchen to see the lists for each table being efficiently crossed off as courses were delivered one by one.  A truly extravagant indulgence, a real foodie experience, and yes, we definitely had fun!  Even the slightly hair raising ride back down to the coast in a taxi with limited braking function was part of the adventure!

A week later, as I faced yet another blander than bland meal of “Jordanian specialty”, I thought it was probably just as well that we ended our holiday with lots of exercise and less tempting food.  After all, life’s all about balance – and I can’t wait to start experimenting with more not-Spanish flavours when we get home!