Coffee and Castles in Carcassonne

It took until now for us to do what we have proclaimed as a goal for years. We took a budget weekend away to a destination chosen by Ryanair.
 
That’s not how we’ve worded it before, but it is how it worked out. We wanted to take more quick, affordable getaways on weekends. So we took some leave and extended our weekend, and found an extremely well-priced flight to an unfamiliar destination: Carcassonne.
 
There were two completely superficial reasons why we were unsure at first. The name was not inviting. Romantic thoughts do not come to mind when you hear of a place that starts with the word “carcass”. But that was extremely shallow and irrelevant, so it was easy to move on. The second reason not to go was an excellent reason to actually go: it’s in France.
 
We haven’t seen a lot of France. We’ve been to Paris many times and, as the French themselves will tell you, you shouldn’t judge France by Paris. We didn’t particularly enjoy Paris until our 3rd or 4th visit. In the meantime we’ve been to Strasbourg, which was charming and elegant, but it didn’t feel overly French. That tends to happen to places that keep moving borders! We did keep telling ourselves that we need to see more of France to appreciate it. So when we saw return flights for around £15-£20, we googled some pictures, saw there was a medieval castle and that was really all we needed to know!
 
 
The purpose of this trip wasn’t just to have a random weekend away. We also wanted to do a trip that wasn’t about cramming sights. Usually, we pick a region, fly over, then catch trains to as many nearby cities as we can. We love trains and enjoy the excitement of city-hopping. But with work being so busy, we wanted to find somewhere to go that was new, with nice walks and good cafés. Carcassonne definitely did the trick!
Our accommodation was 20 minutes’ walk from the castle, and our daily walk took us down suburban streets and everyday retailers. Little, regular things amused us, like the way the locals parked their cars over the sidewalk, the hotel’s resident dog, or the colourful pastries for sale in what appeared to be a converted petrol station. I love casually looking at the local houses and imagining who lives there, what they do, and what they think about tourists wandering down such un-touristy roads. We even got a local takeaway kebab one night!

Our Carcassonne kebab spot

 We spent one evening walking around the modern part of town, relaxing and people-watching. The rest of the time was spent within the castle walls. Or on the castle walls. The views were stunning! The city’s history at the edge of Spain gave it a familiar and inviting feel for us. Small houses, faded by the sun. Although the reddish tones of the roofs did also have a hint of Dubrovnik, there were plenty of Spanish elements to be seen.
Although the views were part of the reason to be there, we do always make sure that we know the best food to try!! The most famous dish of the region was a stew with white beans. I did want to try it, but I never felt in the mood. We did have the world’s most incredible omelette, though! But it was the sweets that really blew us away. Not only were they delicious, but they were gorgeous! Some were also confusing. Who knew that peas, carrots and every kind of fruit could be so cute and sugary?
          

The trip was so relaxing – and affordable – that we already decided that we would love to come back! Any time there is another cheap flight at the weekend, we know where we can go!

Stirling in your soul

Sometimes it’s possible to see your favourite moments lived by someone else.

We were in Stirling, Scotland, for the day and it was wet. Not torrentially so, but enough that our new tartan umbrellas were getting a light wash. It was a day trip from our holiday base in Glendevon and it had something that international tourists love – a big castle.

In true tourist style, we had some traditional Scottish ideas in mind – buy something with a tartan pattern and convince our travel buddy to try haggis. Bellies full of breakfast and cosy under our umbrellas, we began to burn off our haggis, eggs and potato scones with the steep walk up to Stirling Castle.

I say “burn off our haggis”, but to be fair it was a very small piece and I ate most of it.

It was here that I believed our buddy had what another friend calls a “touchable moment”. It’s a moment in time where every sense is tangible, kinetic. The smells, the sights, the flavour of the air in that moment becomes a piece of your soul. You may not remember anything else you did that day, but that specific moment has been branded onto your soul.

Our rather reserved friend has this on the rainy streets of Stirling, somewhere between breakfast at Dempsey’s Diner and our walk up to Sitrling Castle. He stopped to take photos, as usual, but the subjects were different. He wasn’t capturing monuments, he was capturing life.

The soul of the city had reached into him in some way. It was in his walk, his words and his smile. There was a lightness in his movements that seemed to help him on the steep, seeminhly vertical, walk up to castle. The moment lingered in everything we did, becoming extra playful banter through the day and effusive conversation in the evening.

I’ve had several of these moments throughout our travels. Qutab Minar. Cambridge. My first time on the London tube. Time stopped as though I’d stepped into the pages of a picture book and I felt safe and serene, hovering on that page.

Touchable moments. Is there a known phrase for this sensation? I’d love to know.

More green, less screen in Glendevon

The sound of rain was a blessing. We’ve all stated “I love the sound of rain” at some point, but in Glendevon it has an especially sweet tone. As with any expedition in the UK the weather was a gamble, but we were in Scotland for only 3 days so there was no choice but to endure it. It was the evening of our first night and I was already glad for the excuse to stay. Up until late gossiping. Up again at 4:30am to catch a train. Travelling with friends quickly leads to a happy and fulfilling type of exhaustion.

In this case, it was within 24 hours of departure. At 8:30pm on our first night in Scotland, we were already splayed over sofas watching a movie. Yet, I didn’t feel as though we were wasting our time.

Travel is exhausting. Socialising is exhausting. Both can be soul-lifting, enjoyable and hilarious activities, but it can really take it out of you. That what made Glendevon so special. The hillside environment and lack of phone signal created an instantly switched-off feel and our first viewing of Gogglesprogs set us up for a night of laughs and good old-fashioned D&Ms. Okay, that sounds strange after saying that we watched Gogglesprogs and a movie, but it was temporarily on in the background and most of the night was conversation instead. It was certainly the most switched off we’d been in a while.

Since then, I’ve been very tempted to suggest that we have one night a week at home without the TV on, but it will be a long time before would suggest coming between the love of my life and the second love of his!

Celebrity-endorsed binge eating in Padstow

It was hard not to feel like a walrus being fed from a bucket.
 
After the drive from Mevagissey to Padstow we wandered around the streets to find the perfect place for lunch. The views during the drive were uplifting: a mix of lush hedgerows around narrow corners and wide countryside panoramas. Walking from the car into the town centre was a good way to stretch since the streets and paths were narrow and cobbled, which forced us to activate our lazy leg muscles and slowly take in the popular seaside town. Endless gift shops tried to woo us with brightly coloured merchandise and a large bakery looked very tempting, but we were there for one main goal: to eat Rick Stein’s food.
 
Hubby identified very closely with Rick Stein’s cooking style and influences, specifically Spanish and Indian flavours. He occasionally disagreed (“I wouldn’t use that masala with a potato dish”), but was very excited to experience the flavours for himself. It was the perfect birthday treat!
 
Deciding that the main restaurant fare was going to feel too heavy after the long drive, we opted for “Rick Stein’s Café”. The word “café” gave no hint as to the décor inside, but “Rick Stein’s Beach House Tea Room” probably didn’t fit on the sign. Perhaps it was the “café” in the name, or perhaps it was the light early colour scheme, relaxed vibe and older clientele, but neither of us expected the allocation of food that was presented to us.
 
I chose the calamari starter and cod curry main. I was confident I wouldn’t overeat since this was the café, not one of the restaurants, and at least half of my starter would find its way to hubby’s plate, joining his noodle starter and main of mussels. A specialty cocktail each meant that we were already a little too excited about trying a celebrity dish when a couple sat down one table away from us.
 
It was Rick Stein and his wife. He also ordered the fish curry.  We knew then that they must be good!
 
Now, the problem with the mussels was that they were so plentiful! Any remaining lethargy that lingered from the journey was quickly erased by invigorating chili the mussels were now immersed in. big the quantity! It was mussel mountain! The dish it was served in would have fit a giant squid! Being mussels, and therefore having a shell to be removed, the waiters also placed an empty bowl on the table, even bigger than the first.  Perhaps I exaggerated the size, but hubby’s side of the table looked like feeding time at Sea World. I felt the urge to put on a wet suit, throw the bucket-sized bowl’s contents directly into hubby’s mouth and then swim with the dolphins.
 
My side of the table shifted my thoughts from aquatics to the circus.  I had never attempted to balance spinning plates, but I could relate to the sensation as I kept lifting my giant poppadum with one hand while trying to eat with the other. Even after I broke the poppadum in half I struggled to access my meal with knocking something over.
 
As a result, we ate very quietly – for us. The physical awkwardness of the dining experience made us want to laugh, but the proximity of the famous owner made it socially awkward as well, so we resorted to small talk and stifled giggles. Fortunately, Mr and Mrs Stein rose to leave, calling the chef to the table to thank him for preparing the curry perfectly.
 
Rick Stein’s food, in his café, personally approved by Rick Stein himself. What a birthday!
 
Pity we couldn’t actually finish all that food!

São Miguel, and the reason we travel

I entered this in a themed writing competition 🙂

 

I stare at the flaking concrete walls of the houses near our comfortable hotel, thinking about tides. Not of water, however. São Miguel has been hard to find on a map and its significance in history has risen and fallen just like waves. Battles have been fought, commercial trading has evolved and dissolved, and the capital, Ponta Delgada, is now frequented by cruise ships in the summer and contains a modern marina with a crisp, glassy shopping mall. There is another mall a little further inland where the dense concentration of apartments and shopfronts makes way for larger blocks such as schools and hostels. Our hotel is on the edge of town so our daily walk takes us between the two, where chipped concrete houses and abandoned cars are patiently waiting for their rejuvenation.

There is no doubt that rejuvenation is on its way. Budget airlines have been landing on the island for less than a year so this is the first winter season of curious, penny pinching travellers. We even meet another couple on a tour who, like us, had never heard of the island until it popped up in a list of cheap flight destinations. Curious, I ask a local for their thoughts on the prospect of being flooded with tourists all year-round.

“I think it is coming,” our tour guide replies, with a contemplative smile. “It will not be long before people will have heard of us again.”


It is this placid acceptance of what is here and what is to come that I feel gives such a gentle personality to the island. A hurricane has passed over the island a day earlier, and tourists and locals happily join forces to move fallen trees off the road. Wild cats are not trapped and killed, they are fed, neutered and allowed to live out their lives in peace (although the native birdlife give them some grief!). Fumaroles emit steam along the sides of the roads as a perpetual reminder that the same force which gave the birth to the island, as well as the giant lakes it is most well-known for, could erupt once more and take it all away.

Sao Miguel tea plantationTo live on the island is to choose to make the most of what is on offer for as long as it is here. To farm the cattle that graze the stunning fields which overlook the ocean. To drink the natural carbonated mineral water that pours freely from pipes in the walls by the caldeiras (hot springs). To use the geothermic activity beneath the hot soil to power homes and cook ‘cozido’, a luscious stew of seasoned meat and vegetables. To be outside, enjoying the beauty, every day.

Our hotel receptionist’s passing comment at check-in is good advice for how to make the most out of the holiday, and out of life: “Do not come to the island to just stay in the hotel”.

Sao Miguel local

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Mevagissey Meditation

There are great benefits to be married to someone with childlike impulses.

Hubby decided, somewhat last minute, that we should have a little mini-getaway within the UK (since there is so much if it that we are yet to see). We found a well-priced holiday apartment in a little fishing town on the coast of Cornwall and booked ourselves a 4-night stay to coincide with his birthday.

Fortunately for us, I really enjoy driving so the thought of a 6-hour drive was not off-putting. Anyway, I’ll take any excuse to have breakfast at a farm café.

Our destination was Mevagissey, a fishing village about an hour and a half east of Penzance. We had a holiday apartment at the top of a cliff, looking directly out to the water.  We spent so much time just silently staring at that view! When I first moved to the UK, I said I missed “big blue sky” – that infinite clean space that is so rich, so engrossing, that you feel you could just dive up into the atmosphere. Our view was just the same, but upside down and physically possible to go for a dive.

Travel Mevagissey HermitopiaImage: Mevagissey by AJ Jain. All rights reserved

Actually, there were too many views and I could have stayed in Mevagissey for a whole week just feeding my eyes.  From our apartment, it was an easy downhill stroll to the town centre and the view en route was even better.  In addition to the stunning sea views, the birds’ eye view of the town made it look like a model village, with colourful little boats in the marina and little pairs of people sitting on park benches, equally enjoying the view.

 

Mevagissey harbour, Cornwall. (in colour)

Image: Mevagissey harbour, Cornwall. (in colour) by AJ Jain. All rights reserved

The streets of the town were also a form of entertainment for us.  They were so narrow!  But I liked how this meant that drivers had no choice but to be relaxed – you can’t go anywhere in a hurry, anyway.

Although we could have stayed in the town the entire trip, we did have a few nearby places we wanted to visit, thanks to the recommendation of friends. We took Serena (our car) through some even narrower country roads (great fun for me, the driver, nerve-wracking for hubby, the passenger!) and visited Minack Theatre and Sennen Cove. But these were all bonus experiences. Hubby knew exactly what he wanted to do on his birthday: go to Padstow and eat at one of Rick Stein’s venues.

Beautiful Swan.

Image: Beautiful swan by AJ Jain. All rights reserved

It was challenging for us to stop ourselves from booking in too many activities.  We have a habit of trying to see as much as possible when we’re on holidays and as a result we end up having a great time, but not actually relaxing.  We still kept quite occupied on this trip, but we did much better at relaxing than usual.  This is definitely a good indication that we should have more local (i.e. UK) holidays.  We can take our time during the drive, there’s no shortage of places to visit and we won’t feel pressured to cram in sights because we know we can easily return another time.

In the end, if you tend to overthink your holidays, you really need the holiday. Or you were born to be a travel agent. I haven’t decided where I fit yet.

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