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The Lads’ Holiday: My Travelling Guilty Pleasure

I have plenty of what you would call ‘guilty pleasures’. I’m not even remotely shamed by them- bring me your worst 2003 pop, your Harry Potter fanfic, your early B-side Swiftie- and watch me embrace the pleasure with none of the guilt. I am all kinds of enthusiastic where embarrassingly enjoying myself is concerned.

Now, I am big on travelling. I am big on learning the cultural impact of the Venetian empire’s decline. I am big on finding the island’s freshest fish. I am very big on seeing what the locals see, eating what the locals eat, and going where the locals go. All very serious travel blogger lark. Quite.

(This is a very longwinded way of saying that I went on a #Lads’ Holiday, and it was my travelling guilty pleasure.)

We spent all day dozing on sunloungers listening to (who’da thunk it) Taylor Swift, then perked up in time to play vicious drinking games (with the guys helping me cheat so they didn’t have to carry me home later that night), then onto the Strip, where we went to the same club six nights in a row to listen to bad remixes of Calvin Harris songs and chug watered down cocktails. Rinse and repeat.

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Of course, I exerted my Only-Woman-Here power to strongarm them into visiting tiny, silent villages to visit Cuban churches and hike up mini-mountains, but they were willing enough as long as we had a pint-break at some point. Fair’s fair.

We skinny dipped on the first night, giddy from sickly shots and our alcohol-induced increased body confidence. We befriended a guy who had a pet vulture. We requested Beyonce at every bar we were in, and obnoxiously sang football chants as we got lost on our way home.

The guys spent a good deal of time finding creative ways to injure themselves (black eye = playfight, sunburn = too drunk to put suncream on, sprained wrist = rugby tackle into the sea, bruised rib = pretty sure Danny just threw himself on the floor for this one), though nobody threw up which is pretty impressive.

All in all, it wasn’t a classy week. That does not mean, however, it wasn’t one the best experiences I’ve ever had. Maybe it’s all in my head, or maybe it’s the volume of travel blogs I read, but I’ve noticed a distancing between ”travelling” and “holidays”. You know, where one includes yoga  and underground bars , and the other includes copious amount of Pitbull (Mr Worldwide) and Full Englishes.

I’d like to submit the idea that travelling, whether to experience culture and to come back grounded, or to experience loud music and come back hungover, is wonderful in all forms. Our location might have been interchangeable with any old Costa Del Sol, but sometimes you need a week long, drunk reunion instead of breaking the spine of a LP guidebook.

And anyway, who would turn down a week with this boyband?

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Sirmione, Lake Garda.

The last time I looked at visiting Lake Garda, having seen brochures filled with stunning vistas, and jaw dropping price tags, I nearly choked on my Ribena and decided to park that idea for a time where I was earning approximately three times as much as I am now. I would have to wait a long time before I could afford a trip like that…

And then my lovely boyfriend and I set off for Verona. I’d read somewhere that Lake Garda was spitting distance from the Veronese centre, so I made it our collective mission to see this place- and on a tight budget.

Deciding which town surrounding the enormous lake to visit was our first task. After deliberating over the pros of each location, we couldn’t decide and ended up dip-dip-do-ing our way to Sirmione. A small town on the end of a peninsula, it seemed as good a place as any to get to know the lago, so first thing in the morning we hopped on a bus and sped on over.

The bus dropped us off at the very bottom of the town, leaving us with a twenty minute walk before we actually saw any sign of the lake. The streets before the tip of the peninsula are your bog-standard gated-hotel affair, which, only on reflection, made arriving at the Sirmione drawbridge all the quainter.

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To enter the town, you must cross a hand-pulled drawbridge. This means there are no cars- just concessional obligatory Italian Vespa, whipping round the cobbled streets. The town is guarded by the Rocca Scaligera, which for the low low price of 2 euros, will give you a stunning overview of the Sirmione town’s rooftops, complete with world famous mountain/lake combo backdrop for added jaw-drops. If you’re in Sirmione, go up it. That’s an order.

We poked around Grotte di Calutto, the gorgeous Roman ruins named after a local poet, which was pretty cheap and gave amazing views of the Garda mountains. We spent a good portion of the day slowly wandering around and trying to guess what all the room ruins would have been once and resisting the temptation to make poppy-daisy-chains. We nosed out the best gelato in the area (seriously, I think about the pistachio cone every couple of days still), and spent the majority of the day at the bottom of the Sirmione cliff paddling about in the water.

I’d read that restaurants tended to be pricey, so we packed a picnic to save on costs here. I’d strongly recommend this- there are loads of beautiful places to eat alfresco in Sirmione. We had ours on the marbled rocks on the lake edge- picking through olives and tearing up bits of cured ham. I’m sure the restaurants are fantastic, but this was a budget day out and nothing beats having your lunch while dipping your tootsies into one of the most famous lakes in the world…

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The most noticeable and beautiful thing about Sirmione (and Italy all over, really) is the colour. Little splashes of orange and rose pinks in the flowers and on the houses, the glaring blue of the lake, and, of course, the deep red of the glasses of Bardolino to bring it all together (well, it wouldn’t be Italy without the wine). I loved Sirmione, and the whole day had barely cost anything. Mission accomplished.

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Can you afford a trip to Venice?

Venice, lovely Venice, is famous for being expensive. The Venetian grandeur of eighteenth century- where aristocrats splurged and Casanova, well, also splurged- might have been knocked down a notch or two, but Venice is still a byword for decadence.

So, is Venice affordable?

Sure, you could spend a fortune on gondola tours, take the most expensive taxis in the world, buy exquisite handmade masks and dine out in the finest Italian boutique restaurants. You could. You’d have a lovely time, and I wish you the best of luck in getting home without your arm and your leg.

Of course it can be affordable! It’s the same as any other destination- you spend as little or as much as you want. As long as you don’t fall into the tourist traps you’ll be fine. Here are my tips to enjoying a cheap Venice.

My tips 

  • Get there by train, not plane. If you have the option, fly to Verona instead. Flights to Venice are typically much harder on the bank balance- and train tickets from Verona cost less than €15 one way. They run all day, but make sure to get the local train, which is cheaper and takes about 20 minutes longer. We stayed in Verona and day-tripped to the floating city.
  • Forget the gondola. You don’t have to have deep pockets to experience Venetian canals. It might not be as romantic, but taking the vaperetto (the waterbus) is a million times cheaper (€7 for an hour ticket), and a great way to travel through the city. Save those pennies for pasta.

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  • Pasta After consulting the blogosphere and TripAdvisor for foodie advice, we came across recommendations for Alfredo’s Pasta. They serve what can only be fairly described as the best pasta in Venice. I’ve never enjoyed pasta this much. Seriously, it nearly reduced me to tears of joy. The second best thing about this pasta is the price- you get a full chunky portion freshly made at around €6. It’s takeaway only, so grab a box and wander along the canal while you eat, and try to hold back your emotions.

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  • Attractions Half of the beauty of Venice is in wandering around the streets, lazing by the canal, watching boats float past. That costs a grand total of €0. But if you’re desperate to see the inside of the main attractions, there are euro-savvy ways to do this. MY main tip would be to skip the galleries and museums. I’m sure they’re lovely, but if it’s art and architecture you’re after, there are umpteen gorgeous churches (including Basilica di San Marco) displaying some of the finest sculptures and structures in the city- for free. (Polite reminder, don’t be a dick)

I loved Venice- it was probably my favourite place in Italy. Venice isn’t a question of whether you can afford it- it’s a question of whether you can afford not to.

 

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Living in London: Lessons

It’s a recurring theme in my life, this whole startled-at-how-much-time-has-passed thing (evidence 1, 2, 3), and it’s time for another bout of wonder/panic/sheer disbelief. I’ve been living in London for twelve whole months. I cannot believe how quickly the time has gone, and how much has changed in such a busy year.

To commemorate My First London Anniversary, I thought I’d do a Twelve Things I’ve Learnt in London, one for each month.

1. Yes, all of those people will fit onto that tube carriage.

You don’t know the meaning of the word cramped until the Northern line is delayed (which it is, btw. Without a doubt.) and there’s several hundred people itching to get to work on time. Every nook and cranny of that carriage will soon be filled with humans and their bloody fold-up bikes. Someone will be shouting “CAN YOU MOVE DOWN PLEASE”- which despite being totally reasonable, will ignite a flair of passive aggressive shuffling so potent I’m surprised the train doesn’t spontaneously combust. Also, tube strikes.

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2. You’re going to become unbearably impatient

Ten minutes is a fair amount of time to wait for a train, right? Wrong. That is an outrageous amount of time, and if you don’t angry-tweet TFL right now then you’re a weakling.

3. All the choice in the world, and you’ll still go to Wahaca

There are approximately seven million restaurants in London. I live in a really small South London town called Southfields, and we have, off the top of my head, 25 decent restaurants within walking distance. In Huddersfield, to get to a good restaurant you had to get a bus and then train to Leeds. There are amazing restaurants on every corner in London. Despite this, whenever I’m hungry, I invariably end up in Wahaca. It’s like they’re a giant burrito-shaped magnet and I’m a willing iron filing looking for tequila cocktails and nachos.

4. A coffee order can be seventeen words long before you sound like an idiot.

In the north, you have two choices of coffee; black or milky. If you order anything with more than two words, or anything that ends in the letter “o”, you’re automatically in the Dick club. This does not exist in London. You can legitimately order a “soy decaf double shot grande mocha latte with a pump of hazlenut syrup” without even blushing.

5. London is gorgeous.

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6.  Big cities are overwhelming.

If you’re having a bad day, London sucks. Not too long ago, I received some bad news, and the rest of the day felt like the entire city was trying to trip me up. There’s too many people, you’re in the wrong flow of traffic, everything is expensive, you left your Oyster card on the bus and you’ve just been called a bitch for not having a lighter for some random dude’s cigarette. It’s busy, uncaring and cruel. I wanted nothing more than to get on a train and fling myself two hundred miles up north and settle down in a nice silent field somewhere and burst out into tears. That, or punch the next guy who screams “EVENING STANDAAAAAARD” in my ear. Bad moods don’t bode well in big cities.

7. You’re in the centre of the universe

London is scientifically the centre of the universe. Or at least, that’s what the news would have you believe. I’m not saying this is a good thing- the other day when the Shard was precautionarily evacuated, BBC news spent as much time going into to detail about the Shard not being on fire as it did on, oh I dunno, the crisis in the Middle East, kidnapped Nigerian school girls and the Ukraine. It’d be slightly more understandable if the Shard actually was on fire (which it wasn’t). Slightly.

8. The power of invisibility

Look like shit? That’s fine! Everywhere you go you’re going to be able to blend right into a swarm of people. Nobody will ever notice the mismatched shoes and/or last night’s makeup.

9. It’s changed my views on almost everything.

I’ve always considered myself a pretty open minded person, but living in London really opened my eyes. The causes I was blind to, the people I’d never heard. I’ve blogged some of it (Blog Alpha), but some of it has simply come from seeing comedy gigs like Aamer Rahman or Bridget Christie, or talking to Big Issue vendors, or drunken night bus rambling.

10. London never gets old.

The novelty of gliding past St Pauls on a bus never gets old. Watching street artists spray onto the walls of Brick Lane never gets old. Climbing the stairs out of the tube station to be met head on with Big Ben never gets old.

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11. I live for live entertainment.

My interest in going to gigs peaked in the early 2000s to see Kate Nash smash up a piano in a Cockney accent. My interest in comedy, poetry, theatre and talks, however, is flying high and facilitated by London’s vibrant everything scene. Whether it’s empty poetry gigs or West End musicals, I cannot get enough of it all.

12. I can now spot a tourist a mile off.

I’m not one of those Londoners who thinks that tourists are demons sent from hell to trip me up with suitcases on my way to work. Nope, I’m the kind of Londoner who feels insanely smug at having any level of insider knowledge. Once, when the District Line was down (it always is, btw), I spent about half an hour giving detailed travel instructions to groups of confused tourists and it made me feel like I was the Queen of the Underground.

 

What have you learnt since living in London (…if anything)? Here’s to the second year, now please mind the gap.