Stories from Skye

When the winds of the Isle of Skye blow, they come straight off the northern Atlantic sea; and it’s beyond freezing. It whistles through rock and up gullies, it snap freezes trees and blows through villages forcing inhabitants inside.

I’ve come to Skye in the beginning of Spring, and there is a gentle hope in the breeze. Flowers and gorse start to emerge, turning the mountainsides into a riot of yellow. Although the sky itself is still grey and foreboding, the rain has eased – and with the ease comes buses and buses of tourists. Tourists the world over are a gullible lot, and my guide tries it on with us over and over, telling tales of war and murder, of fancy and faery, all handed down as folklore is, generation after generation. It’s easy to get caught up in the scenery, the stories and the musical score he has to go with it.

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THE OLD MAN OF STORR

One of my favorites of all the stories is the story of Old Man of Storr, the lone pinnacle of rock perched high on a cliff on the north end of Skye. Once upon a time there were actually two of these pinnacles, and legend tells that they are the preserved remains of an old married couple. This couple was madly in love, and each evening after their dinner they would go for a stroll up the mountainside and sit and look at the view over the ocean back toward mainland Scotland. One day, the old lady began finding it more difficult to climb the steep mountain, and the King of the Faeries, who is actually very tricky and not to be trusted, promised to make sure they could sit and look at the view together, forever and ever. Now, given that the King is not to be trusted, you’d think they’d have known better, but they agreed they would like to sit together and watch the view. And there they sat, in rock form, perched together, looking over the Isle of Skye. Until, obviously, one of them fell due to the forces of nature. Now, the Old Man of Storr sits by himself, forever mournful. Now whether or not you believe in faeries (I do), and whether or not you believe in magic (I do), you have to agree that this story is pretty cool. It kicked my romantic heart into gear, and the way our guide told it, with the music, and sitting at the lookout and watching the stones, I was in tears. How sad for the poor Old Man to now have to sit by himself, as a rock, forever!

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THE FAIRY FLAG

No one really knows the origins of the Fairy Flag. It’s a real thing, an heirloom of the MacLeod clan and makes it’s home at Dunvegan Castle. The legend behind the flag is what intrigues me though, because all the best stories have an element of truth to them 🙂
The story goes that the flag was a gift to a Chief by his fairy lover who had to return to the land of the fairies, so she gave him this gift of protection. The flag was said to have mystical properties if waved, and it seems that the legend was correct! The first time the flag’s magic was used was in 1490 during a battle with the MacDonald’s, and again in 1520. The MacLeods were completely outnumbered by the MacDonalds during the battles but with the help of the flag’s magic, they won. And who can argue with historical fact?

THE BLUE MEN OF THE MINCH

Being an island, Skye has many tales of water creatures. The most common is of the Blue Men of the Minch, also known as Storm Kelpies. These creatures, although blue, bore a close resemblance to humans and could speak the native tongue. They were said to cause storms and would sometimes approach the captain of a ship, recite a couple of verses of a poem, and ask the captain to complete it. If the poem were finished incorrectly, the kelpies would overturn the vessel. I have no historical fact the back my theory, but would you want to risk it? Best start working on your poetry recitation!

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THE GIANTS OF SKYE

I love a good giant story, the BFG was my favorite as a child. Lucky for me, giants are major characters in traditional Scottish folklore.  In particular they are associated with the landscape and peoples of Western Scotland.  The formation of many natural features was often ascribed to the exploits of these giants who frequently came into conflict with men, always coming off worse.  Aside from the alternative story of the Old Man of Storr being the thumb of a giant who died after being buried underground, there are countless other stories of giants lying in the dramatic coastal formations of Skye.

A Day in the life: Luxury European River Cruising

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I got off the train at Basel. Just that morning I had been in London, where things are familiar and comforting like an old knitted jumper. It is a city I know, and I know it well. But cruising? Cruising I had no idea about.

I turned up to the dock with my backpack and youth, and sat in the beating Swiss sun waiting for a certain Englishman to join me from his train from Paris. While I waited I watched the crew loading all sorts onto the boat; food and cases of wine, passenger luggage, linens for cabins and a massage table. English taps me on the shoulder and hands me a bottle of water. This man has known me a long time, and he knows I rarely carry water. We smirk an one another, and he cocks an eyebrow. I assure him I am fine.

I am one month shy of the first anniversary of my mother’s death. This cruise is something I had promised her we would do together. He knows, as one of my best friends of course he knows. I will be a wreck for this entire week, and it won’t be the fault of the beautiful ship, the picturesque towns or the wonderful crew. I won’t be able to help it.

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We board, and instantly our bags are taken away with minimal fuss. Our passports are surrendered at the main desk and we are promised they will come back the next day. We are given forms and information sheets, and finally escorted to our cabin. I walk in, and it’s bigger than I thought it would be. We have a huge sliding door opening out to the gorgeous sunshine, and a fairly big bed taking up most of the space. There is room for our bags in the closet, and a wall mounted TV with internet. Internet, which all travel bloggers will understand is a necessity!

I was expecting a more chaotic boarding process, with people everywhere and crew in white shorts shouting directions at passengers. I was not expecting to be handed a glass of champagne and told to relax.

So what can you expect from a river cruise through Europe?

MORNING:

You can expect to wake whenever you like. Early risers will be pleased to know that generally there will be a continental breakfast buffet available from around 5am. I never made it to this, not even once. Real breakfast begins from 7am, and I think I might have made it down for 9am most mornings. The buffet is enormous, and the options are endless. Fill up on smoked salmon and cream cheese bagels and wash it down with free flowing champagne.

After you’ve stuffed yourself full of food and booze, you can line up to get your discharge token. This is how the crew count you to make sure they don’t sail without anyone. It’s important. Don’t lose it like I did.

Mornings are generally spent exploring the town you are in with a guide. There will be several options for excursions to choose from, or you can go it alone. On my Rhine Valley cruise I visited the Speyer Teknik Museum, a real live Royal family, poured chocolate, climbed a cathedral spire, cruised the canals of Amsterdam and heaps more.

AFTERNOON:

Generally you’ll stay in the same port for the afternoon. After tours are finished you can stuff yourself again for lunch, which I enjoyed on the open deck most days because the sun was so lovely. After lunch you might be given free time, or you might be sailing. Either way, you can further explore the town or you can relax with a glass of something on the main deck or on your balcony. Ultimate relaxation, and a possible alcohol addiction are coming for you.

EVENING:

After you’ve come back on board, handed back your token and made yourself presentable for dinner – it’s time for dinner. Now, my gorgeous amaWaterways ship had a degustation restaurant at the rear which I recommend everyone pre-book as soon as you’re on board. Its very popular, and well worth the planning. And it’s free.

Normal dinner is served in the main dining room, and you can expect to share tables with different people throughout your cruise. Lucky for us, we made friends almost immediately with a couple from Brisbane. The four of us had dinner every night together. The crew are very accommodating for this when on board, so don’t think you will miss out. After dinner there is usually live music or something in the bar upstairs. Go have a boogy until the crew throw you out.

The next day you’ll simply repeat all this in a new town or village.

It’s highly relaxing, ridiculously gluttonous and worth every penny.

Have you cruised on Europe’s rivers? Did you enjoy it? What did you enjoy the most? Let me know in the comments below!

 

Eating Istanbul

Istanbul’s food has been refined over centuries of recipes handed down from one generation to the next, and is often treated more reverently than any museum collection. Turkish food is comforting, honest and simple – much like the Turkish people themselves. It has a rustic yet sophisticated base, with flavours that seem to explode in your mouth. Like the city, the cuisine is a blend of eastern and western flavours; an eclectic mix of European, Arabic and Asian cuisines. From the uncomplicated pide to the simple stuffed mussel let me take you on a tasting tour of Istanbul…

When I landed at the airport, my nose was immediately assaulted by the smell of bread, cheese and some kind of fried meat. Instantly hungry, I couldn’t wait to get some pide into me. I wasn’t bargaining on that pide being as delicious as it was, nor was I expecting the marriage proposal that came with it. I chose to focus of the cheesy, sausage filled delight that was that first bite of pide. Savouring it, I stay in the small cafe, and watch the city unfold for the evening before me. Tomorrow I will have an adventure in food, but for right now all I want is to sit and watch. Old men come to restaurant doors and begin their patter to bring in the hungry masses, women sweep storefronts, children play soccer in the side streets, ducking in and out of traffic.

Sanem meets me in my hotel lobby early the next morning, and she is excited to show me the food of her city. We wander along the river front to the Spice Market, and she nabs a table at a small cafe out the front. She yells loudly at a young boy serving tables, and while I can’t understand a word of Turkish the signs for TEA, NOW! are pretty clear. Cups appear in a made flourish and pretty soon I’m contentedly sipping the strongest tea I’ve ever tasted. It’s is hot, sweet and fucking delicious. Sanem asks me questions about myself, we find we have quite a lot in common. While we are chatting, smalls plates arrive at our table, plates of layered pastry with different fillings. Sanem explains, this is borek, a traditional Turkish breakfast. It’s like Turkish toast. One is filled with a savoury mince, another with sweetness. Two more arrive, one with cheeses and the other with potato and spices entwined with the layers of soft pastry. I try them all, relishing the different flavours. This is definitely a breakfast I can get used it.

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I’m already full of borek and tea when Sanem announces we are moving on. We wander through the Spice Market to visit a stall where there are hundreds of different teas for sale. Love tea, diabetes tea, heart tea, brain tea… you can get a tea for almost any ailment. The owner comes out to chat to us, and I am immediately delighted by his enthusiasm for his wares. He thrusts different things into my hands to try. Smell this tea, taste this baklava. We leave, and continue to wander through the market and I feel like I’m going to burst from all the food. I’ve eaten a days worth of food and it’s barely 10am.

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Next up is the oldest coffee roaster in Istanbul. We don’t sample anything here, but I watch as the young boys pack the grinds for sale. They move faster than anything I’ve ever seen, quick as lightening the bags they are packing are filled and onto the delivery carts ready for the drop offs later that day. The line of customers winds out the door and down the laneway, as far as I can see. We follow it around a bend, and settle into yet another cafe for some morning tea, because I’m not full enough apparently. Sanem orders a sweet dish for us, and we sit to enjoy. It’s delicious, but very sweet. More pastry, this time soaked in a sugary syrup and then cooked over a flame.

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Finally, Sanem decides to give my stomach a break and we wander up to a mosque for a history lesson. I sit in the peaceful inner courtyard and listen as Sanem explains about the architecture of the building, the symmetry and the tiles and the meaning behind certain aspects of the structure. She has chosen a working mosque, and I watch women and children come in for their morning prayer. I don’t get a break for long, before I know it Sanem is leading me to a busy restaurant opposite the mosque for lunch. Every table is crowded with people, mostly groups of friends catching up. We find a space and sit, and food appears in front of me instantly. I look at Sanem for an explaination – it’s white beans in a tomato sauce. I can smell garlic and lemon, and I tuck in. The beans are soft of fluffy in the middle, and the sauce is lovely and light. This restaurant serves one meal a day, and every patron will eat the same thing. Before I know it, I’ve inhaled my beans and I’m looking around for more food. I can’t believe how ravenous I am, the food is just incredible.

After lunch Sanem takes me to her favourite second hand book store in the Grand Bazaar, and we spend some time chatting about our favourite books and perusing the shelves. The English texts are hard to find, but I do stumble across an old copy of Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa, which I absolutely must have once I’ve got my hands on it. From here we wander past the university and down to Aya Sofia. Sanem guides me inside, and proceed to show me all the things she loves about this iconic building. There are stories of battles and family rivalries written in the art, she explains the building was traded from Christianity to Islam and back again a few times. Currently it is under restoration, so much of the art is hidden behind scaffolding but I’m overwhelmed by the sheer size. I wasn’t expecting to walk in and feel so small. We look around together mostly in silence, reverently watching the tourists following their guides around and listening to the stories.

Later on, I’m waiting in the lobby of my hotel again and Sanem appears to collect me for dinner. She tells me she has organised a surprise for me and that I will LOVE it. She is very excited, she has obviously been planning this during the afternoon while I went into a food coma. We walk down to the river again, and as I look out over the mighty Bosphorus, Sanem is chatting to an older man who is just an actual Turkish cliche in a person. She is wearing a captain’s hat, and has a cigarette hanging from his mouth. They laugh and Sanem winks at me. “Time to go. We are going in the boat!” she laughs.

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Now, originally I had planned on walking across the Galata Bridge with Sanem, so she could show me the other side of the city. I wanted the old and the new from my Istanbul experience, and Sanem decided that walking was for chumps. I get in the boat and before I know it we are zooming away from Sirkeci. I have the most wonderful sunset view of the Blue Mosque, standing proudly above the city. The call to prayer rings out over the harbour, and I grin. For someone I have just met, Sanem has nailed this day tour. She has a sixth sense for making sure her clients get the best of the city, no matter what their interests lie in. I am so pleased I found her. The boat bumps into the shore on the other side, and we jump off the nose. Laughing like old friends, we meander through the emerging fish market and watch the guys shout and throw things to each other.  Fish are flying, and backgammon boards are appearing from no where. Istanbul really is a city like no other.

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For dinner, Sanem takes me on a street food crawl. We eat stuffed mussels and battered meatballs, wash it down with raki and finish with the best Turkish delight in the city and coffee. Today has left me inspired, stuffed, footsore and delighted. I cannot wait to come back to Istanbul, and when I do I will be looking up Sanem again. I owe the most perfect day to her.

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Find your own food adventure in Istanbul by contacted Sanem directly – her email is guidesanem@gmail.com or you can visit her website or look her up on Instagram

 

SPECIAL EDITION: What You Need To Know About Greece

The situation in Greece has been blown up in the media in the last week, and with good reason. Their financial crisis has gone on for longer than anyone would have thought, and now it’s at a point that tourists are starting to cancel their plans to travel there. If there was ever a time when Greece needed tourism dollars, it would be now.

I don’t profess to be an economic expert, but in a very simple nutshell the situation is this. Greece joined the Eurozone in 2011, and there was a big boost in the confidence that foreign investors had in the Greek economy because of it. After the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, everything changed. Every single country in the Eurozone entered a recession, but some were hit harder than others. Greece was among the poorest and most indebted countries, and it suffered the most. Unemployment rates reached 28% in 2013, which is worse than what the US suffered in the Great Depression in the 30s.

If Greece wasn’t in the Eurozone, they could have boosted their economy by printing more of their own currency (the drachma, which is what they were using when I went there last!) Now, this would have lowered the value of the drachma in the international market, but it would also lower domestic interest rates, encouraging domestic investment and making it easier for Greeks to service their debts.

Alas, Greece shares its monetary policy with the rest of Europe. The German-dominated European Central Bank has given Europe a monetary policy that’s about right for Germany, but it’s so tight that it has thrust Greece into a depression. So now Greece is squeezed between  a crushing debt burden (177% of the GDP, which sits at about twice the level of the US currently), and a massive depression that makes it hugely difficult for them to raise the money required to make their debt payments. For the past five years, Greece has been negotiating with various entities including the European Central Bank for assistance with their financial burden. Since 2010 Greece have been provided with more loans in exchange for tax hikes and spending cuts to bring their debt under control.

Rich European nations such as Germany believe they’re simply insisting that Greece live within its means. But the severe terms of the bailouts have caused resentment among Greeks and contributed to crisis-level unemployment and poverty. In January 2015, they elected a new left-wing prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, who promised to reject the previous bailout deal and secure a more favourable agreement.

Unfortunately he has very little leverage. In 2010, Greek debt was widely held by private banks, so a Greek default could trigger a financial panic worldwide. But since then, this debt has been consolidated in the hands of rich European governments, greatly reducing the risk of another global financial crisis if Greece defaults. Greece now faces a hard choice: it can accept the demands for further austerity, or it can defy the terms of the loans, which would likely lead to a default on Greek debt and possibly a Greek exit from the Eurozone. The Greek government is holding a referendum on July 5 to let voters choose between these bad options.

In the meantime, the Greek economy is melting down. Knowing that Greek euro deposits could soon be transformed into devalued drachma deposits, Greek people have been rushing to ATMs to withdraw as much cash as they can. That has forced the Greek government to close the banks and limit withdrawals to €60 per day. As at today, banks have been closed for six days, and there doesn’t seem to be any chance of them opening prior to the referendum in July.

Now what does all this mean for tourism? 

The fact that banks are closed means getting your hands on some cash will be hard. However, the €60 daily limit only impacts Greek nationals. Tourists with foreign bank cards are still able to withdraw larger amounts, but getting access to money changers might be a problem. I would recommend you enter with Euro in CASH, rather than taking your pounds or dollars in and expecting to be able to change those in a bank.

Aside from this, all the normal precautions for travel to countries that are about to have a fairly important vote should be undertaken. Steer clear of any protests of rallies, stick to the normal tourist areas. My sources tell me that most travellers aren’t even being disrupted by the bank closure, and I know that the Australian travel advice is currently sitting at the lowest possible level. If you are in Greece currently, then you have no reason to be worried, but if you are not due to travel for a little while then keep an eye on the news and decide for yourself how comfortable you would be going. Keep in mind that mass media reports should be taken with a grain of salt, as they often blow things out of proportion (yes, I’m looking at you Rupert Murdoch.)

Realistically, Greece needs your tourist spending now more than ever – so support her. She’s a beautiful country with a lot to offer. 

Via Tempo Holidays

Via Tempo Holidays

 

48 hours in… Dublin

If you haven’t had the pleasure of getting acquainted with Dublin, the mistress of the Emerald Isle, you’re making a big mistake. There is a lot more to Ireland than just Dublin, but you’d be remiss in thinking it was worth skipping.

Easily one of the most walkable cities I’ve ever experienced, Dublin is relatively flat, with the best point of navigation being the River Liffey running through the middle. You’re either north or south of the Liffey, so it’s technically impossible to get lost. Unless you’re me and you end up miles away from where you’re supposed to be, simply because you were enjoying a good chat with an old friend and missed the part where you should have turned right.

Now I had longer than 48hrs to explore this dynamic city, but I spent one of those days wandering about looking for 1916 uprising sites, and street art with my friend, and local photographer, Darren McLoughlin.

My top sites in Dublin:

ST PATRICK’S CATHEDRAL: By now you all know, as much as I dislike organized religion, I’m a fan of a pretty church. And St Patrick’s has pretty in spades. Think what you will of the Catholics, they definitely know how to build a church. High, vaulted ceilings, stained glass, slate flooring, a first class echo, wooden pews, shrines, and my favourite – what could be Hagrid’s keys 🙂 It’s not cheap mind, but get tickets in advance, and you’ll save a bit of money. There’s also a free audio guide you can download on your iPod or iPhone, or other mP3 player.

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ANY DUBLIN PUB: Seriously. In any of the more than 1000 pubs in the city you’ll find decent beer and even better conversation. Find yourself a local and have a chat (what you get out of this chat will depend on your understanding of the Irish accent).

IMGP5203ST STEPHEN’S GREEN: Fabulous for a stroll, this is the Irish version of Central Park. All major cities should have a park in the city centre. St Stephen’s Green is huge, has a lake complete with bird life, and vast areas of green, green grass to enjoy a picnic on. Since it was the beginning of Spring, I also got to witness the flowering of the cherry trees, which is always so pretty. Get yourself a small lunch and bring your sarong so you can have a proper picnic, just keep your fingers crossed for some sunshine!

TRINITY COLLEGE & BOOK OF KELLS: The Book of Kells is a story as old as time. It is in actual fact, the four gospels of the New Testament, and is believed to have been created in 800AD. Trinity College itself is free to visit, you can wander the grounds and soak up some learning, but the Long Room, and the Book of Kells exhibit will cost. Be early, the long will be long, but there is a great deal to see here that goes beyond just an old book. There are original posters proclaiming the call to rebellion from 1916, signed by Pearse and Connolly, there are busts of the old scholars who walked the corridors of Trinity, the likes of Isaac Newton, Shakespeare and Yeats. If you’re a giant nerd, like me, you’ll love it.

THE SHRINE OF ST VALENTINE: Tucked away in a small chapel inside a church easily overlooked, in a side street in the middle of Dublin lies the Shrine of St Valentine. I was directed here during my wanderings with Darren, and not only did the dim light give me a much-needed break from the sunshine, but when he pointed out the Shrine, my heart thumped. Yes, even little cynical me. Now the legend of St Valentine has come a long way, thanks to American bastardisation and Hallmark, but he was actually a real saint, and as such, is recognised by most Christian churches in the world. You can find the Shrine tucked inside the Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church.

HOWTH: I took a day out of the city, to the seaside village of Howth. Howth is a fishing village, and easily accessible by DART train from the centre of Dublin. There is a small cemetery, complete with ruins of the chapel, as well as a very long jetty and port area, with seafood restaurants and cafes dotted all the way along. If you can, get over to the small islet off the coast, Ireland’s Eye, which is home to a small monestry ruin and plenty of Celtic ruins as well.

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