Author: Natalie Chatalie

Sirmione – a northern Italian tourist trap where nothing is what it should be. But the beach’ll fix that.

If Sirmione was empty, it might be a quaint lakeside town. But it’s full, an endless torrent of tourists flocking to its tourist trap shops, cafe’s and restaurants like morbidly obese people to motorised scooters in Disneyland. Undoubtedly one of Lake Garda’s most popular places to visit, Sirmione is also, it struck me, full of things that are not exactly what they seem.

You enter Sirmione’s old town through the drawbridge of what looks like a castle. But is it really a castle, or is it more a set of walls in the shape of a castle? If you then want to see all the small town offers in way of history, there are a few options.

You can stand in the street and look at the villa where opera star Maria Callas used to live, or if you’re loaded you can stay there (it’s now a hotel) for about £500 a night. You can check out a few churches, the one on the hill, San Pietro, has frescos from the 12th century and a bell tower from the 11th. Or, in lieu of motorised scooters, the old, infirm or plain lazy can ride a mini train to the Roman ruins of what was once a grand villa – the Grotto of Catullus (the Roman poet). This, by the way, is neither a grotto nor somewhere Catullus actually lived.

All the while, since Sirmione is so abundant with conifer, pine and olive trees, you can breathe in the same smells as you would if you were in the Mediterranean.

But don’t get me wrong. Sirmione was not so full of deceptions I would actually urge you to cross it off your list of ‘things to cross off a list’ during a holiday to Lake Garda. For me, it’s best bit was it’s ‘beach’. I say ‘beach’ because, well, there’s water you can swim in, that part will feel familiar, but for most of us it will be like no other beach we’ve ever been to. Giamaica Beach, or Jamaica Beach if you want to confuse your Facebook friends about exactly where you’re holidaying, is located at the very tip of the peninsula that is Sirmione, evocatively overlooked by the ruins of the house that Catullus did not live in.

Jamaiaca Beach Sirmione

Giamaica/Jamaica Beach facing the Grotto of Catullus

Almost the entirety of Sirmione’s old town is encircled by flat, smooth rocks that go out about twenty meters before they fall away and meet the lake. Imagine the rocks taking the place of sand you’d normally find at a beach, with people sitting on them, sun baking on them, running their dogs over them and you’ll be starting to get the idea.

Jamaica Beach Sirmione

The ‘beach’ and beach-goers – with the beginning of the alps visible in the distance.

If you’re not a great swimmer you can paddle around between the rocks, while the superstar swimmers can slip and slide their way to the edge of the lake (the rocks are pretty slippery so take it slow) and swim out as far as their strong swimmer arms allow. Watch out for the boats though as they go past fairly often and fairly fast. It would be a shame to be smacked unconscious and drown.  (more…)

Advertisements

Athens – Why So Stroppy?

Arriving an hour later than our scheduled landing into Athens airport, we hiked the 25km’s of shiny, immaculate corridors it took to get to the baggage claim. Luggage retrieved, a quick side-step round the elderly lady lying on the floor with blood pouring from her face (weird) and we were through to the arrival halls. A taxi driver had been booked for us, so seeing my name on his little placard, I waved and headed over to him. He greeted us brusquely, grabbed one of our bags and power walked us to his car.

Mr Taxi Man was angry. He’d been working since 6am and because the plane was late, he was still working at 11pm. I apologised and said next time I was flying an Airbus to Greece from the UK I’d change my flight plan through Europe so all the Athens taxi drivers wouldn’t have to stay up so late. A long, silent ride into Thissio ended about 40 minutes later.

I’d been told the fare was 43 Euros but the meter read 32. I handed him 35. Mr Taxi Man got angrier. He wound down his window and started yelling at the booking rep of the apartment we were renting, who was standing on the curb by the front door ready to greet us. Grabbing our own bags out of the boot, the rep explained to us the taxi fair from the airport was a flat rate of 43 Euros in Athens but drivers had to let the meter run by law. I’d already handed over another 10 Euros before I got out, but the explanation was welcomed.

I’d splashed out about double what I’d normally spend for this apartment, just for a change and a belated birthday present for myself. It turned out to be not quite as special as it looked in the photos. Not the end of the world, but a bit disappointing.

acropolis view

I guess this is what you’re paying for.

It’s even better at night.

Definitely the end of the world though was the plumbing situation. You can’t flush toilet paper in Athens! You have to let it pile up in a bin beside to the toilet. Let me just say, if ever you want to get closer to your partner, to take your perhaps stilted relationship up another notch of the totem pole of intimacy, a visit to Athens is one answer. Why had I never read this before? Nothing in travel is ever a surprise anymore. It’s all on Trip Advisor and Yelp and Google Reviews. Plus I knew people who had been to Athens. Why had none of them ever mentioned it? What kind of world wide conspiracy was this?

A fitful sleep was had while I tried to process this tragedy.

We left the apartment the next morning, conspicuously carrying our very tightly tied plastic bag full of soiled toilet paper, and set about being tourists. Well, first we found a bin, then we set about being tourists. (more…)

Beelitz Heilstatten

Beelitz Heilstatten – a unique ‘scary’ photo tour out of Berlin

If you’re a keen photographer, urban explorer, interested in history or just the type of person who likes to do something different when they travel, checking out Beelitz Heilstatten is a must-do when visiting Berlin. Never heard of it? Well that’s not a surprise.

Beelitz Heilstatten is a small town in the Potsdam district, south west of Berlin. Until recently it’s biggest claim to fame was it’s (I’m sure fabulous) Asparagus festival, but these days tourists are more likely to visit its huge, abandoned hospital complex. Built in 1902, it has over 60 buildings but they’ve lain empty empty since 1994. It used to be just urban explorers who would go there, but the amazing photos they took and put all over the internet led to the place being ‘developed’ into a ‘proper’ attraction. The place is amazing. Well, if you’re into this sort of thing.

The hospital was originally built to try to deal with the tuberculosis epidemic in Germany at the start of the twentieth century. Back then there were no antibiotics, so they had a more holistic approach, believing that the mind had to be well in order for the body to follow suit. So patients were sent to what would have been a stunning complex, out in nature, where they could recuperate, be fed well, do exercise and have lots of medical care and pampering. It later became a military hospital and even Hitler was once a patient after being injured in WW1. More than twenty years of dilapidation means it is now an amateur photographer’s dream.

To get inside one of the buildings you have to sign up for a tour with Berlin photo tour company go2know. You also need to be a little bit adventurous and independent (which you probably are already if this appeals) as the booking procedure, getting to the site (it’s located about an hour from Berlin by train) and finding the tour group on the day can be slightly tricky if you have no German. It took us a few minutes once we got there to realise the meeting point was on the opposite side of the railway station than where we had got off the train, but another German lady who ended up being on our tour and was also looking a bit lost suggested we try the other side and voila. I did the half day tour, which gives you three hours to roam around the ruins of one building, our was the Whitney Houston building – yes that’s a nickname. If like me you speak no German, I recommend reading up on it before you go because none of the info you get at the start of the tour is in English (out of twelve of us, we were the only two who weren’t German). But the guide speaks English and is more than happy to answer any questions later.

Doing a Google search of Beelitz Heilstatten images was what first got me interested in the place, but something we noticed was that nobody seemed to have included people in their shots. So we decided to do a sort of horror/ghost model shoot while we were there, which ended up being really fun.

(more…)

Berlin – tips for first time trippers

Berlin is huge. Not quite London huge but definitely New York huge. For my very first visit, I was only there for a few days, so I don’t think I even began to scratch the surface of what the city is all about, and I certainly didn’t tick off a whole heap of tourist attractions, but that bit was on purpose. I did learn a few things though, so until I can get back there and spend a decent amount of time exploring, here’s a couple of suggestions and a few places I thought were definitely worth checking out.

Transport

berlin bike rental

Hire a Bike. Seriously. The underground and overground train systems in Berlin are extensive, but like with any huge city’s public transport, it was often crowded, trains were delayed and cancelled here and there, and being 30 degrees above ground when I visited meant it was even more hot and sticky down below. Berlin has an amazing network of bike lanes, the city is very flat and, best of all, the locals (as far as I found) don’t see cyclists as pests, so there’s no constant agro between them and the car drivers. It felt completely safe, even on the bigger, busier roads and such a welcome relief from the trains.

Whether you get a bike from a bike store to keep for a few days or sign up to a bike rent app where you can pick up and drop off all over the city is up to you, but if you go the app route, maybe sign up before you get there, or at least the night before you want to start taking the bikes. As is normal with these things, there’s always a bit of  administration faff to get through first, which is even more of a faff when you throw in roaming and wifi if trying to set it up on your phone right at the bike hubs.

Nature

berlin tiergarden

Get thee to the Berlin Tiergarden. And let me repeat… hire a bike. Tiergarten is huge – 520 acres huge (that’s just over half of Central Park) – and it’s beautiful and peaceful and you can see so much more of it on a bike. Just do it. And while you’re at it, if it’s total peace and quiet and relaxation you want, forget the huge beer garden by the lake on the west side. The food and drinks there are mediocre and overpriced (4.50 euros for a glass of Coke!!), the service is pretty crap and it’s not really the oasis of calm and cheerfulness I imagined. When I was there, so was a huge stag group singing football chants at the top of their lungs and a group of what looked like American Frat Guys who cheered and clapped when a poor girl tripped off the side of a walkway and crashed into a table. A-holes on both counts.

Urban Culture

urban spree beer garden

Urban Spree (Spree being the name of Berlin’s river) is a large, former industrial space by some railway tracks that’s been turned into a (mostly) outdoor street art/beer garden/live music/food and exhibition space. Think concrete, shipping crates, wooden pallet furniture and loads of graffiti. As well as a pretty cool gallery on site, there’s food, drinks, wall climbing, skating, clubbing and concerts, and anything you could think of that would promote urban culture.

There’s a couple of these kinds of places around Berlin, but I found this one the most chilled out and friendly. And even though this may sound like it’s geared to the younger generation, I saw people of all ages and walks of life there enjoying the beer gardens, the sun, the food and a chat with their friends.

One minus though is the super slow, super inefficient drink ordering system that can get pretty annoying once the place starts to fill up. Service is surprisingly slow to begin with (perhaps the chilled vibe of the place extends to service times) but on top of that all drinks are served in glasses that you have to pay one euro deposit for. Once you’re done, there’s no separate area to just drop off your glasses and get your deposit back, so you often have to join a very long, slow queue with all the other people wanting more drinks.

But that aside – if it’s a nice day, I think Urban Spree is the perfect place to come and hang for a few hours, see some art, people watch and recharge.

Culture Culture

The downstairs permanent exhibition of Berlin’s Jewish Museum was quite simply the best museum/art installation I’ve ever seen. In their words, it’s ‘dedicated to remembering the persecution, displacement, and annihilation of the Jews of Europe’ and it’s done in a way that is just so utterly effective. It’s hard to describe but the way the space, or rather the voids (there to represent the emptiness left in the world by the Jewish who were killed), here are visceral in their emptiness. Most impressive was the Fallen Leaves installation which is a void space with 10,000 metal ‘faces’ representing the 6 million murdered Jews. It easily conjures up feelings of a mass grave and you’re allowed to walk over it, which is both horrific and utterly thought provoking. Two little girls who were there when I was remarked at how the 10,000 faces seemed so many, but 10,000 was a long way off from 6 million. There you go – even the little ones get it.

A couple of the temporary exhibitions were very good too, but I found the upstairs permanent exhibition a little like being stuck in IKEA and the hands on design of some things (pull out a drawer to read more, twist this handle to see a photo) just a little boring compared to the experience downstairs. Like IKEA it seemed to go on forever too and there was no way to get out without walking through the whole lot of it. If you’re into architecture, the modern, zig-zagging Liebskind Building part of the museum should interest you as well.

If you’re short of time and tossing up just which of the many brilliant Berlin Galleries to go too – make sure you squeeze this in. If you decide to try your luck upstairs – stuff your pockets with some snacks for the journey.

Cheap German Grub

Scheers Schnitzel is just down the road from Urban Spree, so if you’re in the area checking out Friedrichshain, the East Side Gallery or even Urban Spree when hunger hits but the budget’s tight, Scheers is a great option.

It’s a totally no fuss, grungy kind of place, sort of a German greasy spoon. Food is served on paper plates and you’re given an order number which is called out over the loud speaker system when it’s ready – in English and German. Inside there’s a couple of tables and two people behind the counter furiously taking orders and freshly frying your schnitzel to perfection, but you’ll most likely want to sit outside, for both the fresh air and people watching possibilities. It was pretty busy when I was there and the food took about twenty minutes to cook, so keep that in mind.

The schnitzels come with all sorts of sides – coleslaw, chips, fried eggs, potato salad, regular leafy salad, mushroom sauce, cranberry sauce – and they are, as declared by my Eastern European eating partner, commendably and authentically thin. I’m an Aussie who lives in the UK, so this was new to me. What we pretend is schnitzel in both of those places comes a lot thicker, so any Skippies or Brits who want to complain about that – stop it, you’re wrong.

It’s all very simple, fresh and cheap, and for something I earlier described as a greasy spoon, not really that greasy at all. In fact to me the food had a distinct home made quality to it.

(more…)

The Cats of Paxos

Following on from my Cats of Istanbul post, I decided to continue to allow the evidence to pile up for my crazy cat lady trial one day by sharing some pics of all my favourite moggies from Paxos, Greece. Just like in Istanbul, I again suffered a severe case of empathy and affection for the street cats and set about giving them indigestion by supplying them with more food than their poor deprived bellies probably knew what to do with.

We stayed in an apartment about a fifteen minute walk out of Gaios, so the bulk of these cats are the little family that lived around the apartment. The poor things were noticeably thinner and riddled with more infections than the cats who hung around the town squares and they were very wary of humans, so mostly not inclined to want any direct contact with us. But we had to be very careful in any case not to get scratched and unwittingly bring home any diseases for our own cats, so it’s not like we were upset we couldn’t pick them up for a cuddle.

By the end of the week their individual personalities had come through, they were a lot more comfortable around us and, maybe we’re imagining this bit, they seemed all a lot healthier to have had a week’s worth of good feeds.

Paxos Cats

This is Buddy (Yes we named them, shut up). He was the friendliest and least scared of humans. The owner of our apartment’s husband described him thus –  “He’s my favourite, no dick, very smart!”

Paxos Cats

Here’s Champagne. Did you know when they spay a cat they chop a chunk off their ear? I did not. I just thought a hell of a lot of them had been street fighting.

Paxos Cats

Here’s Mummy (we put lots of imagination into these names!!) and her 4 kittens. We only saw the kittens after about 4 days. They hid in the bushes and only came out when she called them, so we made sure we fed her a lot so she could look after them.

Paxos Cats

This little one was the only kitten who had the guts to come out from behind that fence. It was definitely the runt of the litter and made a good attempt to eat that dry food, even – I hope you’re not eating while reading this – throwing up half way through, reingesting the throw up and eating away again. Niiiice. I doubt dry food like this is good for such a tiny kitten but what are you gonna do when you’re the runt and you’re starving?

Paxos Cats

Indulging the human with the big metal thing she keeps pointing at them.

Paxos Cats

Here’s Balls. Bet you can’t guess why we named him that? Balls had this worried look on his face all the time and after Buddy, was the most affectionate of the lot. I loved him. Poor little guy was also petrified of the massive alpha-male cat who showed up a couple of times, but to be fair so were the girls.

(more…)

Paxos – what to know before you go

If you’re looking for a quiet Greek island, somewhere there won’t be hordes of 20-somethings trying to figure out the fine balance between just waking up with a raging hangover or in  hospital with alcohol poisoning, then Paxos could possibly be the place for you.

Located 14 km’s south of Corfu in the Ionian Sea, Paxos is only only around 10km’s long and 4km’s wide. It started life waaaaay back in ancient times when the god of the sea, Poseidon, was looking for a little weekend getaway spot for himself and the wife. So, being a god, he simply swung his super cool trident and chopped off the bottom bit of Corfu. Sorted.

If you’ve discovered Paxos for yourself but you’re still not sure if it’s the right Greek island for you, hopefully the below will help you make up your mind. Here’s what I think you should know about Paxos before you go.

Hire a Boat

A boat hire is must do for at least one day on Paxos, even if you’ve never driven one before. The west side of the island is the choppy/scary side, so often the boat companies won’t let you even attempt it on windy days, but the east side has plenty to keep you occupied. Starting from Gaios (which we did) there’s oodles of small beaches and calm inlets to pull into ans explore all the way up to the northernmost village, Lakka.

Starting at only 40 Euros a day (plus petrol) boat hires in Paxos are surprisingly affordable, a whole heap of fun and kind of freaky at times if you’re a complete novice. But surviving a near death experience will just make for more exciting holiday stories. Kidding. Just be sensible, relax and trust that your little boat can actually handle much mightier waves than what you’re freaking out about in the open sea sections and you’ll be fine.

There are many boat hire companies in all of the Paxos villages and I’m sure you’ll get similar quality boats and prices, but I should mention the guys we used are called Paxos Real Estate and Boats for Hire in Gaios and found them to be great. Eleftheris gave us a detailed lesson and safety briefing in the harbour before we set off and Katerina was just as helpful (and hilarious) during the paperwork part.

Below is an example of the secret little spots you might discover when exploring by boat. Not too bad, huh?

lakka Paxos

Hike to the Tripitos Arch

Located on the western coast of Paxos, Tripitos Arch is somewhere most visitors will find whilst in a boat. It looks like this…

tripitos arch paxos

As you may have guessed by the fact that I was able to take this shot, you can get there on foot too. But it’s not easy. Well, not easy to find I mean. The actual hiking bit is not too bad. I’d read as many blogs as I could for clues but except for quite a few sites telling me I should have ordered myself a detailed hiking map before I left the UK, there were no really helpful instructions. So I went to one of the tourist shops in Gaios and bought the most detailed looking map of the three basic ones they had on offer and asked the shop guy to point out to me where it was. It took him and about five of his friends and relatives to find it eventually on the south coast, so if you actually manage to find the thing, give yourself a big pat on the back.

We hired bicycles and set off to see if we could find the right hiking trail to start with. Here’s a big tip. Paxos is hilly. Bicycling is hard.

Feeling like we’d missed the hiking trail, we asked the owner of a store on the side of the road if he knew where it was. When I said the arch was proving difficult to find, he agreed it should be better sign posted and clucked in understanding, saying “We have a stupid Mayor”. Unfortunately, his instructions went like this – “Go back down this road. Where the hill is the flattest, turn left. Walk 400m up. When you are facing the sea, go right. You will think you should left here, but no, first go right. Then when you are facing the sea again, go left. And then you will be there.”

Ummm… well, yes… on reflection he was absolutely correct, but it’s always easier to decipher cryptic clues in hindsight. After a bit of doubling back and lots of frustration we eventually saw a little sign pointing into an overgrown ‘path’. So yes sorry, this is now unhelpful Tripitos Arch blog post number 205 and I have in no way helped you with how find the bloody thing. But maybe the pictures are inspiration enough to go on an adventure.

Can you spot the human in that shot? Yep, you can walk right out onto the arch!

tripitos arch Paxos

Don’t Expect Food Heaven

Finding amazing food is normally top on my wishlist for a fantastic holiday but even the owner of our apartment admitted that Paxos is not known for its food. I’m sure we could have found some places where the dishes were a cut above, but three times it cost 30 Euros for a couple of mezes (nothing fancy – dip, cheese, tomato salad), a beer and a coke and the food was average at best. Even the bakeries were a disappointment. A bag of 10 small brioche buns had 7 that were hard as stone and a mix of local style cookies were so tasteless we threw them away. Boo. We did have very tasty ice-cream almost every day though, so they get that right. After a day or two I accepted we weren’t going to be blown away in the food department so we switched to cooking our own meals and taking lunch out with us.

Except for one place we tried in Lakka (the northernmost village) we ate all of our food in Gaios. This Lakka meal was easily the best of the trip, so maybe that’s where you have to go for value for money, tasty food.

Anti-Paxos

(more…)