Travel and Loneliness

On the final night of our trip to Europe last year, Mat and I treated ourselves to dinner at an exquisite little place in Amsterdam called Restaurant Johannes. This visit was the product of some brief TripAdvisor research, an easy online booking form (always welcome in foreign countries) and the financial freedom of having come in well under budget at the close of the trip. The experience was perfect. I’m now convinced that there is no better way to spend the last evening of a great adventure than over a delicious tasting menu and many glasses of good wine. In fact, I am now determined to make a tradition of it.

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I realise now that I’ve not been particularly good at ending trips before this. On my first overseas venture, to New Zealand – a great big group of College friends on the back of a great big Jetstar sale – I wasted the last couple of days in a right sour funk. Most all of my friends had dispersed: one half of the group had long since split off northward, whilst the rest of us made ourselves cosy in Queenstown. But even by the end, most of the Queenstown crew had either caught their early flights home or begun the drive back to Christchurch to drop off their Wicked Van in time for the main return flight (in true College kid form, we’d arranged ourselves in quite a hodge-podge of comings and goings). The trip had been amazing. Spending two more days in Queenstown after that big group bubble popped, though, and I suddenly felt such a strong pang of desertion that I really quite ruined my remaining time there. I was that child who turns bitter and gloomy after a friend has been taken home by a parent the morning after a sleepover. 

A year later, my cousin and I finished off an incredible South-East Asia trip with five ‘relaxing’ days in Phuket – or perhaps, more pertinently, in the beach resort town of Patong. It didn’t take very long for me to realise that Patong is so stupendously not my kind of place. This place was a stark contrast to the low-key, local travel we’d been doing for four weeks straight with our wonderful little Intrepid Travel group. I wanted that back. I wanted out. But get out I could not, and so I counted down those five days like a captive waiting release from a veritable tourist trap. Couple that with an unprecedented case of excruciating acid reflux that lasted the entire Phuket stay, and it became an altogether pretty miserable way to cap off the trip. 

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It goes on. After two months of travelling Europe for the first time, the sheer emotional exhaustion of solo travel finally got to me. I cut the trip short by a few weeks (though not quite short enough that I wasn’t counting down the days before I could just go home already). I did another month solo in Central America a couple of years later, and almost got it right by meeting up with friends in Anaheim for a YouTube convention and a trip to Disneyland afterward. I had one more long, solo day just waiting around the hotel lobby and LAX to finish with, though, and it felt like torture. Plus, I was pining hard for a guy who hadn’t exactly given me high hopes for the continuation of a budding relationship when I returned.

Lucky for me, that particular bit all turned out in the end. And this brings us back to Amsterdam and an exquisite little place called Restaurant Johannes. 

I think of that night in Amsterdam and my heart lifts with blazing joy. Tucked away off a canal at the foot of The 9 Streets district, Restaurant Johannes was intimate and welcoming, and an absolute delight on a bright, balmy August evening. Mat and I were at the end of a six-week trip and exhausted in the best possible way; Johannes’ wonderful staff took in our tired little bodies and looked after us so well. We surrendered easily to the delicious seven-course menu with wine matching and all the marvellous little surprises in between. It was kind of magical. I wasn’t counting down the hours until I boarded my flight the next day. I was present and content and relaxed. This was how it was meant to feel. This was finally the perfect ending I didn’t even realise I’d been missing out on.

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And of course, as it’s become plainly obvious to me in writing this (I swear it wasn’t the way I saw this post going), it was never really about the food. Sure, a fine dining degustation with full wine matching helps. A lot. But I understand now that the feeling that had plagued me at the conclusion of every trip previous is one that is pretty hard to admit: loneliness. By some way or another, it was loneliness that was my downfall. Loneliness! I know myself extraordinarily able to thrive on my own, so it feels like loneliness should be at odds with my travel style. The Solo Female Traveller is meant to wend her way through the world, fierce and fearless and independent. She gets lonely? She just goes out and makes a bunch of new friends!

But perhaps, not quite.

My love of travel has always trumped my fear of loneliness, and I think it always will. And all things considered, it’s certainly never come close to ruining a trip. Sometimes the lonely path is the only way to get out there and see the world. It’s just those damn pesky endings where it really grabs you, I suppose. The profound thing about that Amsterdam evening was the fact that it was shared – and so had the preceding six weeks of adventure across Europe – with a person who trumped even my desire for travel. And what an incredible feeling that is. 

That is the tradition I want to make. 

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Europe: An Ice-Cream Expedition

From stroopwafels to schmalznudeln, cream cake to corn flakes – I love discovering the different kinds of sweet treats that exist all over the world. But no matter where I go, one pattern remains the same: I eat a heck of a lot of ice-cream. In flicking through my photos from last year’s Europe trip this was outstandingly obvious. I actually think a good percentage of our entire foreign language learning came simply from trying to decipher ice-cream flavour listings (fraise, fragola, erdbeer?).

It seems only right to share my findings of the frozen world, should you wish to blaze your own ice-cream trail across the great continent of Europe.

Berthillon | Paris, France

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There is no point arguing: you simply must have Berthillon ice-cream whilst in Paris. It’s stocked in many restaurants across the city, but you’ll find the original store on lovely Île Saint-Louis – a perfect pitstop if you’re visiting Notre Dame. Mat and I were lucky enough to stay in a gorgeous Airbnb just a stone’s throw from Île Saint-Louis, so we were perhaps destined for a love affair with Paris’ most famous ice-creamery. Founded in 1954, Berthillon built its reputation on stunning fruit sorbets and beautiful, creamy glacés (I don’t think Mat’s ever been quite the same since his first lick of the roasted pineapple and basil sorbet). Believe me when I say it is a perfect sort of heaven to slowly stroll along the Seine on a warm Parisian evening with a Berthillon ice-cream in hand. 

29-31 Rue Saint Louis en l’Ile, Paris | Open: 10am – 8pm Wednesday – Sunday 

Der verrückte Eismacher | Munich, Germany

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Mat and I trekked across Munich to Der verrückte Eismacher based on a quick TripAdvisor search for something sweet. The reviews raved: for extraordinary ice-cream, this is where we needed to go. They weren’t wrong. Translating from German as ‘The Crazy Ice Maker’, Der verrückte Eismacher really is kind of bonkers. It’s styled after Alice in Wonderland and the man behind the store fits very well into the ‘Mad Hatter of Ice-Cream’ role – creating a rotation of fantastical flavours like habanero, asparagus, paprika, and beer (this is Munich after all). Lucky there’s also just plain fantastic flavours like applesauce pancakes, strawberry Champagne, and Bavarian cream. Mat was proffered a relatively pleasant sample of the beer ice-cream, whilst I was instead handed the meatloaf flavour – an interesting experience I’m happy to never, ever repeat. For my purchase I took the safe route with a scoop of the strawberry, basil and balsamic vinegar, and a scoop of the chocolate sorbet. 

Amalienstrasse 77, Munich| Open: 11am – 9.30pm Monday – Saturday, 12.30pm – 9.30pm Sunday

Perchè No! | Florence, Italy

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Perchè No!‘ means ‘Why Not!’ in Italian – and when it comes to gelato, that is a beautiful sentiment indeed. Mat and I were introduced to this gem by Natale (pictured above), who was our local guide for Urban Adventures‘ Florence Foodies Walk one sweltering Tuscany afternoon. We were so happy to skirt the sweaty crowds and explore a few foodie hideaways with Natale, who was particularly passionate about bringing our little group to Perchè No! in the heart of town. Churned fresh every day and made using only the finest natural, seasonal ingredients, this gelato is sensational. The pistachio is a Perchè No! pride, but the watermelon sorbet and berry mousse were also huge hits for us. Florence is a city filled to the brim with gelaterias of vastly varying quality, so it’s definitely worth tracking down a place like Perchè No! for the seriously genuine stuff. 

Via dei Tavolini 19/R, Florence | Open: 11am – 11pm Wednesday – Monday, 12pm – 8pm Tuesday

Gelateria Dondoli | San Gimignano, Italy

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Tucked away in a medieval walled village on a Tuscan hilltop, Gelateria Dondoli has become rather renowned as the winner of back-to-back Gelato World Championships in the late 2000s. I visited on my first trip to Europe in 2010, and that delicious memory made quite sure that Mat and I returned to savour once more last year. The line stretching long into San Gimignano’s main square is enough to suggest: this is a gelato spot you want to know more about. I love the wonderful, inventive flavours like raspberry and rosemary, blackberry and lavender, pink grapefruit and sparkling wine, and saffron cream. A perfect antidote to a day’s trekking in the beastly Tuscan heat (as you see above, my face turns rather red at the slightest physical exertion in hot weather – Gelato Dondoli was a very welcome relief!).

Piazza Della Cisterna 4, San Gimignano | Open: 9am – 11.30pm Monday – Sunday (March – November)

Grom | Venice, Italy 

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Grom was first recommended to us by Cristina and Matteo, our lovely Airbnb hosts in Paris. Mat and I had firm intentions to visit the Paris store just off Boulevard Saint-Germain on our final night in The City of Lights, but it seems we got all too carried away at our local wine and charcuterie bar instead; we arrived at Grom late that night just in time to see the doors close. Luckily for us, the Paris store turned out to be one of many dotted across Europe and beyond. Our time would come in Venice, where we slurped happily at the Campo San Barnaba store every day. Grom’s philosophy is all about organic, natural ingredients, and for me the stand-outs were the cream flavours like Crema di Grom (pastry cream, Columbian chocolate chips and Grom’s crispy cornflour cookies) and Straciatella (Fiordilatte and big chunks of Columbian chocolate).

Campo San Barnaba, 30123 Venice | Open: 11am – 12am Saturday, 11am – 11pm Sunday – Friday (May – September) // 11am – 10.30pm Friday – Saturday, 11am – 10pm Sunday – Thursday (October – April)

Bled Island Potičnica | Bled, Slovenia

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This was by no means an earth-shattering ice-cream experience in itself – but there’s something about rowing (okay, getting your boyfriend to row you) to a tiny island in the middle of a turquoise, glacial lake in Slovenia that’ll make anything taste pretty damn great. From an ice-cream cart outside the Bled Island Potičnica, a little cafe wedged atop Bled Island, I opted for a cup of kremšnita, or Bled Cream Cake (a beloved local dessert) ice-cream. We sat beneath Bled Island’s famous church and looked out onto a vista of lake and forest and even a medieval cliff-top castle. An A+ ice-cream moment.

Bled Island, Bled 

Café Feichtner | Grünau im Almtal, Austria

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Another in the realm of contextual ice-cream greatness comes Café Feichtner in Grünau im Almtal, a cosy little town in the Austrian alps. Above all, Grünau is simply one of the most magical places I’ve ever visited. I’ve found my way there a couple of times now at the hospitality of Gerhard and company at The Treehouse, and if you ever have the opportunity to do so yourself I could not recommend it more. It is a haven for the weary traveller. On our trip last year Mat and I discovered Café Feichtner in town – a solace for my sweet tooth in the shape of decadent ice-cream sundaes. A handy thing for a haven to have indeed.

Im Dorf 17, Grunau im Almtal 4645 | Open: 7am – 8pm (April – October) // 8am – 7pm (November – March)

 Now, the all-important question: where to next time? I would love to hear about your own ice-cream discoveries!

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!

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