Road Tripping Europe

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Very early into planning our Europe adventure last year, Mat and I decided we wanted to make it a road trip. I’d done Busabout Europe back in 2010, and was keen to do something different, and we were both eager to travel in a way that gave us the freedom to really do our own thing. And so, we picked up our car on the outskirts of Paris one July morning (okay, yes – it was a hair-raising half hour getting out of that city!) and dropped it off in Amsterdam five weeks later. Everything in between made up our beautiful little European road trip; a travel experience that makes my wanderlusting heart burst with joy to remember. 

I loved cosying into the road trip lifestyle; throwing our bags in the boot, climbing into the passenger seat and crooning a couple of lines (the only ones I know!) of Willie Nelson’s ‘On the Road Again’ to Mat before setting out toward the next adventure. Becoming strangely enamoured by Europe’s Autogrills, those beautiful roadside beacons that put Australia’s service stations to shame. Car snacks with a local twist: one day we might munch on a packet of Haribo lollies, the next on our very own makeshift charcuterie platter assembled entirely from an Autogrill fridge (seriously, Autogrills are fantastic and I adore them). Curating the perfect road trip playlist. The inevitable anthropomorphism of the GPS system (‘Gypsy, you’re crazy, that’s not even a road!‘). And of course, having a giggle over foreign roadsigns…

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Road tripping meant freedom. We travelled on our own schedule, which was utterly delightful and not something I’d really experienced whilst abroad. Coming and going didn’t feel like a chore. One night we stayed up chatting with a few other travellers in the kitchen of our hostel in Bled, Slovenia. One backpacker had set up for the night, checked out of his room but forced to wait out until some ungodly hour of the early morning for his train to Budapest. The unavoidably indirect journey would take him almost ten hours (it would have taken us less than five). Another couple were plotting their own early morning, scheming to cab out to the train stop just before Bled’s main station in the hope of beating the throng to a couple of seats together. Train travel certainly has its place, especially in Europe – but waking up on our own time and taking a mosey down to the local bakery for breakfast before a lazy three-and-a-half-hour drive to the other side of Austria was a very nice way of doing things indeed.

Having a car gave us the freedom to explore all those little detours and day trips with total ease. Our Swiss Airbnb hosts, Sonja and Christophe, were thrilled to be able to send us off through the mountains on a little rainy day road trip to Maison Cailler – a chocolate factory with an all-you-can-eat tasting room, and the nearby town of Gruyères – famous, of course, for the cheese; fondue was most heartily consumed. Obviously, this goes down as one of the greatest days in history. We did drive on the wrong side of the road for a short time that day (it was early in the trip!), but luckily the locals seemed unperturbed!

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We could stop in at the Tower of Pisa on our way from Levanto to Montespertoli, and quickly make haste when the heat and crowds got the better of us. Tuscany itself was a wonder to explore by car. Every little town that dotted the vast, ochre landscape was open to us. From our isolated hilltop Airbnb to a castle-come-winery in the town of Montespertoli, from the walled medieval town of San Gimignano and even to gorgeous Florence itself (tip: nab some of the city’s only free parking and avoid those nasty ZTL areas at Piazzale Michelangelo – very conveniently located for exploring the city, and the best spot you’ll find to catch the sunset!). We even took a forty-five minute drive through the hills one afternoon just to hunt down what what is apparently the best gelato in Chianti.

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Even little excursions, like Vintgar Gorge from Bled, or the Almsee from Grünau, Austria, meant we could spend more time exploring the attraction rather than sweating it out just getting there. We paid a solemn visit to Dachau Concentration Camp on our way from Munich to Nuremberg. The mood was lighter a few days later when we discovered that Legoland Deutschland was but a miniature detour on the way to Stuttgart. 

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Oh – and we got to drive our car onto a train in Switzerland to be transported through the pitch black belly of mountain and on to Italy:

Our European road trip was, quite honestly, a magical adventure, and my most treasured travel experience to date. It took a little bit of planning – but with a GPS and a good travel buddy, I believe anyone can do it. 

(I’m already planning the next one. Iceland 2016, here we come!)

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This post was hurried along by the folks at Land Rover, who were kindly looking to sponsor a piece on road trips. Thanks for kicking my butt into gear on this one, guys!

Books and Baking: Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent

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In 2014, my first year of rating books on Goodreads, the highest rating I ever awarded a book was four stars. I enjoy Goodreads’ rating system a lot: ★ – did not like it,  ★★ – it was ok, ★★★ – liked it, ★★★★ – really liked it, and ★★★★★ – it was amazing. I read some wonderful books last year, but nothing that truly earned five stars for me. The thought crossed my mind – was I, perhaps, being a bit picky? Well, it took but the first book of 2015 to assuage those doubts. Five stars must be saved for those rare pieces that strike you deeply; the word ‘amazing’ given in sincerity rather than unimaginative overuse. I’d almost forgotten what that five star feeling was. It was then that I picked up Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.

Burial Rites is a fictional telling of the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland. Sentenced to death for the murder of two men in 1828, she is sent to work on a local family’s farm to wait out the long months before a yet unnamed day of reckoning. As the seasons turn, Agnes’ appointed religious guide, as well as her reluctant guardian family come to know a woman more complex than the savage murderess they’ve been led to believe she is. Peppered with actual government documents from the sentencing, Kent alternatively writes a raw, gripping and utterly moving tale for an otherwise voiceless figure of Icelandic history.

What really drives this novel is Kent’s depiction of the landscape and livelihood of Iceland itself. The author describes Burial Rites as her “‘dark love letter’ to Iceland”, and it is a powerful romance indeed. With even a few pages hungrily devoured on the morning tram, the Nordic country leapt cold and crisp off the page and I felt plunged into Agnes’ world in an instant. Iceland is the beautiful and brutally chilling character motivating every other being in this story. Despite the heavy, haunting nature of Burial Rites, I find myself incredibly compelled to make Iceland my next grand adventure. 

Kent’s own story as a writer is one that both inspires and flusters me (in the best possible way). A young Australian (yes!) writer, she penned Burial Writes as the creative component of her PhD in 2011. It was sparked by her visit to Iceland during high school as a Rotary exchange student, where she first learned of Agnes Magnúsdóttir’s execution. She would later return on a funded research trip in 2010. Kent submitted her draft of Burial Rites to Writing Australia’s Unpublished Manuscript Award in 2011 and won, leading to the publication of her debut novel. It’s gone on to become a bestseller and continued award-winner around the world. 

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The baked companion of Burial Rites came to me almost like a gift. Just days before I finished this book (I eked out the last few pages almost painfully, not wanting it to end), I stumbled across this ‘Icelandic Happy Marriage Cake‘ at The Sugar Hit, a fabulous blog I follow. Now, Agnes’ story hardly involves any happy marriages – in fact, far from it – but the Iceland connection seemed too good to ignore. In any case, the original meaning of the ‘Happy Marriage’ in Iceland’s classic hjónabandssæla (oh, what a delightful language to wrap one’s tongue around!) appears to have been lost. It seems we have to create our own story for this too.

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I’m going to send you over to The Sugar Hit for this recipe, because Sarah’s blog and photography is just too delightful not too share. I urge you to make this ‘cake’ – it’s easy and thoroughly delicious, and truth be told was exactly the baking win I needed (I’ve had a couple of kitchen dramas lately!). I didn’t make the jam filling from scratch, as Sarah does, both because I wanted a quick creation to whip up on a work night, and because I found a a scrumptious-sounding Rhubarb and Red Berry jam from Anathoth Farm at my supermarket. I can wholeheartedly confirm it does the trick!

Sarah also links to a couple of other bloggers’ posts on Icelandic travel, which I highly recommend you take a peek at too. Combine that with Burial Rites and a slice of hjónabandssæla? I’ll see you on the next flight bound for Reykjavík. 

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Why I Love Paris

I’ve been meaning to write a post about Paris for some time. It’s always seemed like too great a task, though. How could I possibly describe my love for that great, gorgeous city? When Anna at Slightly Astray prompted me to enter Accor Hotels’ ‘A Tale of Three Cities‘ competition, however, I couldn’t resist. The mission: write on “three things I love about my favourite city”.

Paris, your time has come.  

Bon Appétit  

Paris is a dream for foodies, as you most certainly already know. It’s more than snails and stuffy restaurants though; far greater than macarons and Michelin stars. My best advice? Find at least one great little place and make it your ‘regular’. The very first thing Mat and I did upon arrival in the City of Lights was collapse upon a table for two at 5e Cru, a wonderful little wine bar near our accommodation in the 5th district. It was small and intimate, the atmosphere casual but unmistakably Parisian. We connected immediately with our waiter (a mixture of unbridled enthusiasm and monolingual awkwardness on our part), who guided us through divine wine and the best charcuterie platter I’ve had the fortune of devouring. That is, of course, on par with the charcuterie platters we devoured on two return visits. By our second sojourn to 5e Cru, our waiter was taking painstaking lengths to make sure our red wine was at the perfect temperature, whilst the third saw us favoured with a generous amount of the night’s almost-emptied wine bottles on the house. 

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And then there was beef bourguignon at La Petite Rose des Sables, tasty indeed, but outshone by the incredible hospitality of eccentric Madame Zouzou and her silent sidekick, Big Boss. The most gorgeous éclairs laid out like jewels at L’Éclair de Génie. Schwartz’s, a New York style deli tucked away in the Jewish Quarter where the delicious, juicy burgers go almost insistently hand in hand with a glass of French red. The most incredible steak I’ve ever sunk my teeth into at Cueva del Diablo, a little Argentinean restaurant in the Latin Quarter, and a hot plate of sliced potato gloriously smothered in blue cheese at nearby Bistro Gladines on Boulevard Saint-Germain. Bon appétit indeed. 

Flânerie

“For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world – impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define.”
     – Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays

Admittedly, my knowledge of the 19th century Parisian flâneur comes from a mere tutorial or two nested somewhere in my Creative Arts degree – but I’ve always loved that image of the urban wanderer. Yes, Baudelaire’s flâneur was exclusively male and upper class, but I think we’re at liberty to expand that these days.

Once you’re in Paris, the concept of flânerie is palpable. It is a city made for wandering. On a sweltering summer’s eve, a stroll along the Seine from Notre-Dame to Eiffel Tower reveals half the city emptied along the left bank, picnicking and partaking in an extraordinary amount of glistening rosé. On the following Sunday morning (now grey and drizzly), the Georges Pompidou expressway along the Seine’s right bank closes to motor vehicles; the normally frantic stretch is quiet and poised, cyclists and joggers and fisherman slipping through in a hushed truce with the traffic. 

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Explorations of the cosy, cobbled streets of the Marais district give a rare glimpse into medieval Paris before Napoleon came along with his sweeping squares and boulevards. And oh, the delight in being swallowed up by the Art Nouveau entrances of the Métro, where a whole other Paris shines in fluorescent! Or simply take up residence at a little table on a cafe terrace, café au lait in hand, and watch the world go by (prepare for anything – Mat and I watched in awe one day as an unattended dog took take an absurdly large amount of poops all along Boulevard Saint Germain. He truly looked like he was having the best day of his life).

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Vive la Différence

Paris, I’ve learnt, is most rewarding when you simply make it your own. I hear a lot of people say that they were disappointed by Paris, which naturally makes me sad because I think it’s so wonderful. I think a lot of people must find it overwhelming; the city is so heavy with history and culture, and the mad dash to tick off Eiffel Tower and Louvre and Notre-Dame and Sacré-Cœur and everything else in between is exhausting. It is entirely okay if you don’t see those things. Polishing off a fresh croissant in bed at ten in the morning because you’re quite content gazing out over the sea of grey-blue rooftops can be just as rewarding.

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Eating Argentinean steaks and New York style burgers in Paris might sound like treason, but they made up some of the best experiences Mat and I had in Paris. We didn’t make the trek out to Versailles (we traded for Disneyland Paris) nor even Montmartre (we had daily dalliances with Notre-Dame instead). Our Paris was eating and wandering and giving ourselves permission to simply do what we love. Your own Paris might be quite different. And it’s definitely there waiting for you. x

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Books and Baking: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

I started to use Goodreads last year, mostly with the idea of kickstarting and tracking a good reading habit again. I finished the year on 15 books – which really doesn’t sound like much at all, but it’s probably the most committed I’ve been to reading intently in a good few years. I’m quietly chuffed to have made it to 15, to be honest! It has certainly helped that my college girlfriends and I started a book club, an exercise that has benefitted both my reading and my friendships in quite magical ways. 

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Lucky number 15 was Karen Joy Fowler’s ‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’, which was to be our book club’s first novel up for discussion in the new year. I nominated this book after spying it on a number of bookish ‘2014 in review’ type posts; it was a page-turner with an exciting revelation. After a couple of memoirs, fantastic though they were (Lena Dunham’s ‘Not That Kind of Girl’ and Amy Poehler’s ‘Yes Please’), this felt like the perfect change of pace for us.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a story told by Rosie, who once had two siblings but now, seemingly, has none. It explores themes of family, memory and largely hinges on a revelation that (rather refreshingly) comes quite early in the book. I didn’t pick the reveal, so I won’t say too much because it really is a good little surprise. For me, the book gets a solid three stars: I liked it. It was the page-turner I needed it to be. I was compelled to discover the fate of Rosie’s family, and the nature of the revelation itself makes for some very interesting material throughout the novel.

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My chosen baked counterpart to We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is yet another recipe from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking: Banana Espresso Chocolate Chip Muffins. The (rather vague) connection to the story lies in the revelation – so if you haven’t read the book and plan to, just don’t think about this too much, okay? And if I have spoiled it for you (sorry!), at least take consolation in this: these muffins are delicious. Way better than the book. So just make the muffins instead. x

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Banana Espresso Chocolate Chip Muffins
Yields 12
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Prep Time
10 min
Cook Time
25 min
Prep Time
10 min
Cook Time
25 min
Ingredients
  1. 1 1/2 cups mashed, very ripe bananas (4-5 medium bananas)
  2. 1/2 cup sugar
  3. 1/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
  4. 1/2 cup (113g / 1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
  5. 1/4 cup full cream milk
  6. 1 large egg
  7. 1 1/2 cups plain flour
  8. 1 tsp instant coffee granules/powder
  9. 1 1/2 tsp baking soda
  10. 1 tsp salt
  11. 1 cup (170g / 6oz) dark chocolate chips
Instructions
  1. 1. Preheat your oven to 180°C (350°F). Spray a 12-cup muffin pan with nonstick cooking spray, or cheat and line with paper patty pans like I did.
  2. 2. Stir together the bananas, sugars, butter, milk and egg in a medium bowl.
  3. 3. In another medium bowl, whisk together the flour, instant coffee granules/powder, baking soda and salt. Make a well in the middle and pour in the wet ingredients, stirring until just combined. Fold in the chocolate chips.
  4. 4. Divide the mixture evenly between the 12 muffin cups. Bake in the centre of your oven for 20-25 minutes. You'll be able to tell they're done when a toothpick inserted into the middle of the muffin comes out clean.
  5. 5. Place pan on a cooling rack and leave for at least 15 minutes, before removing the muffins from the pan to finish cooling on the cooling rack.
  6. 6. Enjoy!
Adapted from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking, by Matt Lewis & Renato Poliafito
Little Wanderings http://littlewanderings.com/
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