3 days of summer in Berlin

 

We left Berlin with the image of two young girls dancing to their own tune in the street outside the hotel: this is a good representation of Berlin’s essence, having this anti-capital feeling, calm with wide spaces, looking scrubby, alternative, young and free.

Besides this, Berlin is a concentrate of nineteenth century history having experienced some of the most insane moments of humanity – and maybe the reason why it couldn’t be more diverse today. Nazism, Cold War, and communism all had its part here and left a massive amount of footprints.

We didn’t have a roaming plan for Berlin, but we were actually intrigued by the ‘life in the districts’, in particular in gentrified districts that are now very popular.

On our fist afternoon we started from hip and arty area of Kreuzberg. The second day we walked through Berlin’s central area, from the Zoo through Tiergarten, Brandenburg Gate, Potsdamer Platz and up to Mitte. In Alexanderplatz we went on the TV tower to enjoy the view from the top. On our last day we got confident enough about cycling and after joining an underground tour of Berlin, we spent time in Prezlauer Berg, Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg.

Here’s our favourite bits and pieces.

summer in berlin

Couldn’t be more obvious? Summer in Berlin is gorgeous. The city is green, you can spend time at a cafe, in a beer garden, or simply relaxing in the shade at a park. We left Bergamo longing for temperature below 30 degrees and that’s exactly what we found. The days were sunny, the evenings fresh and soft.

cycling

This is one of the most fun aspects. Everybody cycles, there are cycling lane almost everywhere, and traffic lights for cyclists only. Luca kept riding in the middle of the lane blissfully, while I kept screaming pointlessly ‘stay on the right!!!’. Still, it felt amazing.

berlin UNDERGROUND

This underground tour – Berliner Unterwelten was suggested by friends. It took us underground in what was converted into an atomic bunker during Cold War. The tour is incredibly informative and highly recommended.

KREUZBERG, PREZLAUER BERG, FRIEDRICHSHAIN

These are some really cool districts that have mainly been gentrified. The first, Kreuzberg, still holds a scruffy look with graffiti covering main door entrances, and people still living in caravans reminding of the eastern squats. It has many cafes and restaurant and it’s definitely enjoyable to spend time in.

Prezlauer Berg is a lovely neighborhood, and where my friend Christina lives: large and leafy roads surrounded by greenery, spotted by cafes, restaurants and all you could need. A family friendly area that’s calm and cheerful.

Lastly, Friedrichshain, is the go-to night place. Here you can find the most famous clubs in Berlin, and Europe, lots of bars, little shops and youngsters. In addition you can visit the East Side Gallery, the remaining 1 km of former wall.

EATING OUT

There’s all sort of great food in Berlin, it feels like an affordable food mecca, where you can have a meal with 10-14 euro per person. And of course you have to taste Berlin currywust once at least. On our first night we went to Turkish Hasir in Kreuzberg: it’s an institution for huge and tasty kebabs and what not – we were not disappointed. On our second night we had dinner at Vietnamese Vibes in Prezlauer Berg. We loved the food, and the drinks were simply amazing. On our last night we ate at recommended Moroccan restaurant in Kreuzberg called Baraka, and literally devoured a platter in 5 minutes, despite mentioning not being hungry at all…!

AT LAST, MEETING UP WITH A LONG TIME FRIEND

We’ve know each other for over a decade, managing to meet only once in two years of so… nonetheless, every time we happen to do so, it feels like those desperate au-pair days in Brittas Bay, Ireland! Time has definitely passed, but it’s always a joy to reunite with this lovely soul.

 

 

Berlin, Germany’s polite Punk

Berlin is a city able to react, to adapt and overcome obstacles. Berlin is like a young man finding problems on his doorsteps that he didn’t cause.

After the utopian omnipotence of a miserable man, with the skills to speak to the masses and leverage on populism, and after a second world conflict where Berlin was at the center of attention, the post-war didn’t necessarily translate in a time of economic and social growth.

The liberators became the invaders, or occupiers, of a poor and exhausted East Berlin, while West Berlin was the last European democratic outpost in suffocating USSR.

It’s very hard to imagine a wall dividing a city, friendships, hearts. Why nobody stood in the way when they were building it? (pointless question). 150 km of wall, a barrier to freedom, the Cold War getting more real and the world on the brink of atomic collapse. Go for a guided tour in the atomic bunkers underground and you’ll understand what we risked, and what could have happened.

Berlin is a polite punk running away from old-fashioned parents, but also a clean punk with a sense of civic-duty: I’ve seen people picking up other people’s bottle from the street here and there.

Now Berlin is a city that’s very much alive, yet full of contrasts. It’s a growing town, with fascinating districts, Kreuzberg with its graffiti, the clubs and night-life of Friedrichshain, and other residential areas more apt for family life.

Do go to Berlin, you won’t be disappointed.

 

 

What to do on a weekend in Tolmin

This time we spent a long weekend with friends in Slovenia, an Italian neighbour we know too little about.

We visited Triglav National Park, on the western side of Slovenia, nearby the Italian border. It took us about 5 hours to get there from Bergamo. The mountains of this park belong to the Alps, with the highest pick of Triglav reaching almost 3.000 meters. There are many options here: from trekking to kayaking, cycling, paragliding etc.

 

 

This is also a trip that brought us to the past, back to the Great War of 1914-1917, when young people had no choice but dying on the Soca Valley’s mountains.

We stopped for lunch in Kobarid (Caporetto) and we visited the Italian war memorial dedicated to the people who lost their lives battling against the Austro-Hungarian army on 24th October 1917.

This was the worst defeat inflicted to Italians in history. There are 7.000 corpses in the memorial. Walking around this place made us stop and think about a whole generation swept away by war, reconsidering how lucky we are.

Leaving Kobarid, we finally get to Ciginj, next to Tolmin, where we booked our accommodation. We stayed in a beautifully renovated barn which was perfect for the 4 of us.

Tolmin Gorge

In the afternoon we decide to visit the famous Tolmin Gorge, which is just 15 mins away by car. It’s a pristine place where nature amazes. The path, on a round circuit, is well thought of, and fairly easy. It takes about 1 hour and a half to visit the Gorge. At the park entry you can get tickets. They’ll give you a map, and explain how the walking path develops.

After we get back from the Gorge, we have dinner at Okrepčevalnica Tolminska korita, where we are positively surprised by the good quality of food.

Lake Bohinj

The second day we go to lake Bohinj, the largest of Slovenia. By car it takes about 1 hour and a half, taking the only road, slow and windy, going up the mountains.

The path develops around an immaculate nature, where you can stop for a picnic, or you can swim in summer. It takes about 3 hours to walk around its 12 km of length.

In the evening we are back in Tolmin and we decide to continue our culinary journey in another local restaurant, also famous for its fried fish: Slavečki Stjepan, in Zatolmin. Once again, we aren’t disappointed neither with the quality nor with the modest price.

Javorka: memorial church and trekking

On our third day we are looking for a trekking in Tolmin, so we stop by the tourist office for information. They suggest visiting the Church of the Holy Spirit, and a trekking around the mountains of Tolminka river.

The instructions are simple to follow. You get to the church parking at Srednjica Alpine pasture and walking up the hill (20 mins). This church was built by the Austro-Hungarian, commemorating the 2.564 victims during the Great War. It’s considered the finest monument to World War I in the territory of Slovenia, and you can tell why as you get there, it’s impressive inside and outside. It’s open only on weekends so they gave us the key to get inside, being a Monday. Yes, you got it right, they gave us the massive key church!

Back to the parking spot, we reach Polog Alpine pasture and we start the trekking there. At the first junction we turn right towards Prode pasture. We cross the river on the so-called ‘kurukula‘, a sort of cable car by hand – lots of fun there. We continuo to Planina pod Osojnico pasture. On the other side we take the easy mule trail taking us back to the starting point. The itinerary the tourist office gave us is easy to follow, see the introduction and leaflet.

At the beginning of the walk you can also visit a war bunker that you’ll find on the way. It’s open to the public and you only need a torch to be able to visit it.

The trekking, of medium to low level, takes about 2 and a half hours. Landscape wise it’s varied with alpine pastures, river Tolminka, green woods, and scenic mountains slopes.

The next day we leave Slovenia stopping by The Kobarid Museum on the way back. This museum is dedicated to World War I, in particular to the battle between the Austro-Hungarian and the Italians starting off on 24th October 2017 when the Italians had a disastrous retreat. Once again, we stop and think about the horror and futility of wars, and this one in particular, that took place in the mountains of the emerald Soca Valley.

 

Corna Trentapassi

Zanzibar, Tanzania

A week in Zanzibar: how to survive the all-inclusive resort

This is how it went: Luca’s supplier offered him a free holiday to Zanzibar as yearly bonus. Who would say no to it? We didn’t of course, as it seemed like a great opportunity to visit a new side of the world.

It THEN turned out to be an all-inclusive package holiday in one of the monstrous resorts for Italians going abroad. Not exactly what we imagined. When we found out though, we decided to ‘accept the challenge’ surviving the all-inclusive resort and its routine. Was it easy? Absolutely not. If this is not your thing, as common sense suggests, don’t go for it.

Having said this, we found ways to turn the non-ideal situation in an opportunity, that is, making the most of free accommodation and food, having a base point to explore an African island.

A bit of background

Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous republic of Tanzania, with unique history and uncertain future. Pivotal to slave trade in East Africa, it has been the centre of colonial attention for centuries. The Portuguese colonised in the sixteenth century, the Sultanate of Oman took control in the seventieth century, and the British arrived in 1890. Its strong Muslim identity sets it aside from East Africa, making it equal only to itself.

Zanzibar’s economic activities develop around people living of agriculture or fishing, and package tourism. An absurd consequence of this is that around the resorts you’ll find groups of Masai ‘imported’ from mainland Tanzania working as security guards, or looking for work.

Seeing the Masai in Zanzibar, and perceiving their kindness and elegance, made us dream of the Kilimanjaro and its great national parks, among them the Serengeti. Something to think about for our next trip to Africa!

escape itinerary

Day 1 – Arrival.

Day 2 – Afternoon visit of Stone Town with local guide.

Day 3 – Exploring Northern Zanzibar stopping at Nungwi to enjoy the sea, and the sunset.

Day 4 – Organised day-trip to Prison Island to see the Aldabra Giant Tortoises. Lunch and afternoon at Sandbank.

Day 5 – Exploring Southern Zanzibar stopping by the Jozani Forest.

Day 6/7 – Relaxing at resort.

Day 8 – Way back.

day 2

We started visiting Zanzibar from its capital, Stone Town, with an organised tour with local guide. Stone Town is a maze of winding alleys where it’s easy to get lost. We learnt the history of the island that once acted as logistic centre for all of EastAfrica, from spices and slave trade, to the first European travellers expeditions. Besides, we visited places we wouldn’t have found ourselves otherwise, such as the slave market nested under the Anglican church. If you can, organise a visit to Stone Town with a local guide.

Day 3

We drove North and stopped at Nungwi beach, the right place to enjoy the sea at its best. You’ll find an endless stretch of white sand and the most crystalline water of the island, with breath-taking sunsets. The best sea is all the way to the west where the most expensive resorts are. Don’t be surprised to find zebus on the beach competing with tourists for shadow.

Day 4

We joined an organised trip to Prison Island, where we met the massive prehistoric Aldabra Tortoises imported from Seychelles two centuries ago. One of these tortoises is still alive and counting 192 birthdays. Back in the days, they lived in the sultan’s House of Wonders in Stone Town, but after the Portuguese took over, they ended up on Prison Island. At the moment there are more than 100 of them. We spent the rest of the day picnicking and sunbathing on Sandbank, a stretch of sand in the ocean where we ate fresh grilled fish and enjoyed the sea.

Day 5

We decided to explore the South of the island, where the vegetation was more lush in comparison to the North. We stopped by the beaches of Dongwe and Kae, that Valeria visited 10 years ago, to find a very different environment. Once an immaculate beach, we found a resort with a fairly dirty water. In the afternoon we visited the Jozani Forest to admire the red monkeys called Colobus, the tropical forest, and a beautiful salty mangrove forests. We particularly enjoyed this green oasis, and the helpfulness of the local guide explaining plenty of notions on Zanzibar’s ecosystem.

Day 6-7

We spent the last two days relaxing at the resort. We planned to surf beyond the reef but unfortunately we didn’t have enough waves and so we had to cancel it. Another tour that is worth doing is the spice tour, to visit plantations such as clove and pepper. Finally, it’s also possible to dive in southern Zanzibar, where the coral reef is supposedly very rich.

Handling instructions

As you land you’ll  have to pay for your Tanzanian visa that costs 50 dollars/euro. On the way out  you have to pay 40 dollars/euro for airport taxes. In addition, resorts will ask you 1 euro per day per person as tourist tax.

If you don’t want to get stuck in the resort all week-long, first thing to do is renting a car, or rent one online before your arrival. A moped isn’t enough as the island is fairly large: 80 km long and about 40 wide. Our car cost 40 dollar per day.

In order to drive in Zanzibar, you need a Foreigners Driving Permit (10 dollars), without it, you’ll be in trouble as police checks are very common. As far as we know, international driving license isn’t valid. Driving is on the right side, English style. Avoid Stone Town as there’s lots of traffic and no parking space. Better to have a 4×4 to go on unpaved roads.

Take cash with you, either dollars or euro, but if dollars only those from 2003 onwards. If older than these they won’t be accepted anywhere. Local currency isn’t necessary, as dollars will go smoothly anywhere, but it’s not a bad idea to have it while visiting the island. If you want to exchange currency do that at the airport when you land.

Expect a high cost of living in comparison to Tanzania, and other areas in Africa. For example, a taxi from the airport to the beaches is around 50 dollars. Petrol 80 cents per litre. A smoothie around 3-4 dollars.

Expect incredibly hot weather and high humidity preceding monsoons (March/April).

Tides affect the sea level. We had a low tide in the morning and a high tide in the evening, hence we were able to swim in the afternoon only.

Don’t photograph people without their consent, as Zanzibari don’t seem to like it. Even kids don’t appreciate to get their picture taken and will scream ‘no’ if taking their photograph.

Be ready to find the so-called ‘beach boys’ everywhere on the beach, trying to sell souvenirs or improvising any imaginable service.

When visiting the island dress respecting local culture: wear t-shirts instead of sleeveless shirts, and trousers/skirts below the knees.

Don’t miss in Zanzibar

Nungwi beach: it’s beautiful, and as tropical as Zanzibar can get.

Driving and getting lost among green forests of bananas and palm trees. Go through rural villages where you can see the daily habits of the proud Zanzibari people. You will notice great differences between the poverty of the countryside, and the ubiquitous use of mobile phones, famous fizzy drinks advertisements, and package tourism.

Enjoy sunrises & sunsets that only the African sky can give, and as it gets dark, the incredible starry sky. Thank you again mama Africa.

At last, but not least, if you have the chance of visiting villages towards the evening, peer at people living in their simplicity, and look without prejudice. Life here has it’s own timing, based on typically African weather and environment. Pole pole (slowly, slowly) is a philosophy.

conclusion

All in all we are happy about how the holiday turned out, and how we managed to adapt. Looking back though, unless this was free, we wouldn’t choose this type of trip. Go to Zanzibar if you love being on the beach and sunbathing, as this is most likely what you’ll do.

Besides this, contrary to our expectations, we noticed it wasn’t that easy to submerge into the way locals live. To simplify: we either met people who hassled us to sell us something, or people who seemed annoyed by our presence. The truth is we didn’t feel very welcomed.

Lastly, experiencing the segregation of all-inclusive tourism in a luxury environment in contrast to its surrounding, and culture, it’s quite sad. (Italian) package tourism in Zanzibar seems to have many counter-effects beyond the obvious benefits of creating new jobs.

 

Visiting London in a week-end for the first time

Here’s how we made the most of our weekend in London. We arrived on Thursday night and left at lunch-time on Sunday. This itinerary is great for those visiting London for the first time but also eager to experience something more typically Londoner than only its famous touristy spots.

Valeria lived in London for years, so she knows pretty well her way around it.

1 – Arrival

Arrival in the evening, stay at apartment/hotel. We stayed here at Sophie’s, in the heart of Angel/Islington which was perfect for 2 couples.

2 – From Tower Pier, to the Parliament and Oxford Circus

Take the Original Tour, or any other tourist buses or public buses, and tour around London to eventually get off at Tower Pier. Here get on a boat and get off at Charing Cross Pier. Walk around Embankment, the Parliament and Big Ben, then take Whitehall, where you’ll find Downing Street no. 10 on your left, and arrive to Trafalgar Square. Continue to Covent Garden, Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus, and Oxford Circus. Take a tube or Uber to Camden Town to check out the foumous Camden Market, or go shopping in Oxford Street/Bond Street.

3 – Portobello Road, Hyde Park and Buckingham Palace

On Saturday it’s great starting off at Portobello Road Market for plenty of street food, or a lovely brunch in one of the many cafes. Valeria’s favourites are Cafe 202, and Granger & Co, although it always has a long queue.

When it’s warm enough, consider renting one of London’s bikes around the Portobello/Ladbroke Grove/Notting Hill area. You can cycle from there until the bike stand nearby Whole Foods Market in Kensington, where you can buy some food for a picnic in Hyde Park!

Alternatively, from the Portobello area, walk all the way to Trafalgar Square. It might seem a long walk but actually, done little by little, it’s very enjoyable. From Portobello go through Notting Hill Gate and walk towards Hyde Park. Approaching Hyde Park and Kensington Palace, take Kensington Palace Garden, where all the embassies are. There are patrolled gates on both ends of the road, making it perfect for pedestrians, or those cycling.

After the park, either go to Harrods, or to the Natural History Museum. Later, walk to Buckingham Palace, and reach Trafalgar Square where you can also visit the National Gallery. Museums are free in London which is pretty special.

In the evening, dine at a gastropub, or watch a musical in the West End.

4 – Columbia Road Flower Market through the canals

Take the footpath on the canal around Angel and reach Columbia Road Flower Market on foot. You’ll find plenty of flower stalls making you feel like taking everything with you for how fresh and gorgeous the flowers look! Towards the end of the market you’ll also find some food stalls where you can have a quick bite.

It’s already time to return home unfortunately..! Take a Uber back to your apartment/room, or go back straight to the airport.

Budget

London can get very expensive on a weekend, although it varies depending on where you decide to stay and eat. We decided to share an apartment and ate in mid-range restaurants. In terms of transports, being 4 people, we chose Uber over the tube most times. Overall, it came up to around 400 euro per person, excluding flights. Half the budget went into the accommodation, the rest for transports and food.

Transports

The easiest and cheapest way to move around London is by public transports, tube and bus. There are many options in terms of tickets, but the most convenient is using Oyster Card, a magnetic card that you can use on all transports, ferry included, and work as ‘pay as you go’. With an Oyster Card you top up a certain amount of money that will be deducted as you use the transport system by ‘touching in’. The maximum amount that will be taken for limitless use in zone 1-2 is £6.60 per day. It works this way: money will be deducted for each single journey every time you touch in, until you reach the £6.60 cap. An ordinary daily ticket will instead cost you £12.30, so you can see how this it’s more convenient.

You can buy an Oyster in one of the main tube stations in London during the day. Alternatively, you can also buy it online beforehand to save time and hassle. If you do so, order it well in advance to avoid problems with the delivery. For 3-4 days get a £30 card.

Tips

Try an English gastropub for dinner, we went to Riverford at The Duke of Cambridge nearby our apartment.

London is the most happening place in Europe in terms of musicals and theatre offering: definitely go for it! You can book in advance online, and although the best prices are for week shows and matinees, you can still find good deals on weekends. Another option is checking out last-minute theatre deals in person, at the Tkts ticket booth in Leicester Square. The best discounts are on the day of the performance.

 

 

My ex London

Every time I go back to London, it feels like meeting up with an ex. It’s awkward at first, then something clicks and you I’m drawn by what charmed me when we first met. For a moment I think something is still there, music starts playing. Ultimately, I understand I’m are either a different person, or I simply remember too well all that I don’t really like about it.

Indeed we have shared a prolonged engagement. I have been seduced by the language, the culture, the amazing melting pot, the intricateness of the stories of the souls that arrive and leave like falling leaves in autumn.

I moved to London when I was 20, bursting with energy and ready to take it all. I wanted fight, to find my own way and create a new life for myself. I met more people that I currently recollect, and I never felt as lonely as surrounded by the crowds. Life in the city has been as exciting as alienating, to finally become balanced and stable.

For a person that loves travelling, it’s where it feels natural to be. A myriad of nationalities, languages, customs and oddities come together. English culture as contour, but in reality, it’s a constant interaction between continents: from India to Europe, taking a detour to Australia, glimpsing a bit of Africa and breathing Atlantic breezes.

To me, London is the most cosmopolitan town in Europe, with plenty of stories to tell. A once was capital of the largest empire in history, to a country that is still struggling to find its own modern identity. And please forgive me London, I forgot to say you are pretty, and indeed prettier than Paris.

The outcome of this is somewhat scruffy and colourful, democratic and inclusive: how can you not feel free in such a context? But just at first. Later on, you realise that for such complexity to coexist, there is a lot of polite exclusion and class divergence between the lines. Despite superficially welcoming all visitors, in the long run London reminds you too well you don’t quite fully belong there.

Somehow, the electoral Brexit results have been anticipated in my stomach, and one day I woke up and I knew that between London and me it was over. Shockingly, for the fist time in my life, I desired returning home.

For sure, over the years, priorities have changed. Things I could have never imagined wanting, are now at the hearth of how I decide to live my life: better quality of life, family around. But I also know that what felt amazing 10 years ago, turned, slowly, into something I started to despise. The tube, the crowds, the weather, how easy it was to meet people and forget about them.

At a certain time, London felt like a city of the 20 something, to a point that it became weird. Even if there were other age groups around me, somehow they still acted just like ‘us’. They still shared apartments and rooms, considering whether to stay or to go back, they still got wasted on weekends. As if they were frozen in their 20s, condemned to live like this over, and over, again.

What got me out of London, though, was the awareness I didn’t belong. I didn’t feel any ancestral connection to the place after all, and I realised I was only a temporary guest. In the meantime, my dad got sick so I felt the urge of re-connecting to those roots that were at my very core.

Now that I re-visited London over a lovely weekend with Luca, his father and companion, I know London it’s still the same old town with the same old tune: instead, I’m the one who changed. Despite this I look at London with great affection for all that we shared, as little by little it became part of who I am.

 

 

Turning 60 in London

A trip with special people. The first flight, the first visit abroad and a birthday to celebrate: all this in 64 hours.

I wished my dad’s 60th birthday was special, simple people feel intense emotions, bringing my dad and his partner to London was simple, but believe me, very emotional.

We worked hard so that his partner could see a European town, something she dreamed about for a long time.

They were looking around, studying, getting excited, asking questions, just like kids eager to learn. For them everything was new: the language, the culture. Yet, they managed to deal with it well and were left with more energy compared to us!

We visited London with one of the typical tours, The Original Tour, and we showed them the attractions this magically hectic city offers.

Based on their request we took them to Buckingham Palace, where they got disappointed, just like we expected, seeing a massive grey building, the same colour of its city’s sky.

Things got better though. Trafalgar Square was closed due to a protest against the NHS, and in this surreal atmosphere, like Vanilla Sky the movie, we watched the changing of the guards at the Horse Guard Museum. We saw two adolescents getting ecstatic. My dad’s eyes were the ones of a happy child, his partner was filming everything, including the spectators heads.

I don’t want to talk about London, it’s a place that most people already know, but I’d like to suggest a few great picks that Vale had prepared for us thanks to her years as Londoner.

Brunch at Cafe 202 in Notting Hill. Industrial design meets fashion, medium prices, fast service, great plates of food with British classics and interesting re-visitations.

Dinner at Riverford at The Duke of Cambridge, in Islington, the only organic pub in Britain. Pillars of English cuisine such as duck and lamb, as well as Middle Eastern inspired options like humus, or African couscous. Excellent quality of produce, easy-going environment, popular between locals spending their night playing cards over a drink or two. Medium price range of about 30 euro each excluding wine/beer.

Walking on London’s canals, and Columbia Road Flower Market on Sunday morning: you’ll be charmed by this place. Since we stayed at Airbnb rental in Angel, we got there directly on foot, grabbing breakfast in one of the cafes on the way.

As usual the weather and the sky of my beloved Northern Europe has given its best, with 4 seasons in 24 hours, something more to experience for our travel companions.

Overall, I spent 3 intense days, happy and carefree.

I was looking at my dad adapting, what men can do best, and at last, I saw a man away from work, that has taken away a bit of his life. I was noticing TRAVELLING, this amazing passion and attitude of Vale and I, opening up his eyes and enriching the soul, like only the world seen from a different perspective can do.

I saw a person struggling with her personal health battle, to make a dream come true, and it was priceless.

I travelled with all my family for the first time of my life and it has been a unique experience.

Thank you Vale.

 

 

London

How to choose a safari at Kruger: Private Reserves vs Kruger Rest Camps

What’s the difference between going to a Private Reserve vs Kruger’s Rest Camps? It’s somewhat confusing understanding how it works, we managed to do so by the time we got back, so this could help you.

safaris inside kruger national park

Everything that’s within Kruger belongs to it, hence it’s state owned. Private Reserves are located outside Kruger Park. The options, within Kruger, are as follows.

Rest Camps: basic accommodation, you can either join safaris and bush walks with rangers, or go on your own with your car. Rest Camps typology varies greatly, from total self-catering to luxury tents.

Private Concessions: parts of Kruger National Park given in concession to privates. They offer luxury accommodation, an safaris with rangers are usually included in the package.

In both cases, no off-road driving is allowed, and maximum speed is 50 km/h.

safaris outside kruger national park

Outside Kruger Park you can find Private Reserves, pieces of land owned as private property. They can be right next to Kruger, creating the Greater Kruger Park area, or nearby Kruger.

Private Reserves sharing a border with Kruger: these reserves are unfenced on the side of Kruger Park, and animals can move from Kruger Park to the reserve and the other way around. On the outside they are fenced to avoid lions into villages and poachers into the reserves, even if the latter case rarely works, unfortunately.

Private Reserves in the surrounding areas: they are not confining directly with Kruger hence they are fenced to avoid predators into villages, and poachers into reserves.

In both cases the major difference vs Rest Camps, is that they are private lands. Accommodation tends to be luxury, safari experiences quite unique given off-road driving is allowed. For example, it’s possible to track big cats and rangers drive freely throughout the reserve. If there’s an animal in the distance, you can get closer. This way the probability of spotting animals is higher and the quality of sighting is too.

Besides, in comparison to Kruger, the safari experience is more intimate because only a certain amount of people are allowed in a private reserve at a time. This is true unless you don’t mind sharing the vehicle with other tourists. In turn, Kruger Park can be explored in total freedom, with your own vehicle, at your own pace, and as they often say, ‘it’s the real thing’.

in summary

In our experience, if this is your first safari experience and you have little time available: go to a Private Reserve. Private lodges include 2 safaris per day, offer great accommodation, food, vehicles, have amazing qualified rangers + trackers but, most of all, they allow you to spot more animals in a shorter amount of time as you can go off-road. Be sure that, no matter which Private Reserve you chose, you are going to have an amazing experience!

If this is not your first safari in South Africa and you want to explore Kruger by yourself, or if you are on a budget: go to Kruger Rest Camps. As long as you respect entry/exit timings (no wandering around at night is permitted), you are free to have your own schedule and can go in exploration either with your own vehicle, or with rangers.

The very good thing about Rest Camps is the price, as Private Reserves cost around 400-600 euro per night. Staying in Rest Camps is cheaper. There are various types of Rest Camps with prices ranging greatly based on the type of accommodation, literally from 20 to 300 euro per night for 2 people. Visit this page for more info.

To give you a more precise idea on how to budget, suppose you stay in a bungalow in a Rest Camp. Entrance fee at Kruger Park costs around 20 euro per day, a bungalow can be around 75 euro per night for 2 people, and then add food, car rental and petrol. Safaris with ranger in Kruger cost around 20 euro per person, and bush walks (something you don’t do in Private Reserves) from 30 euros on. All together it would come up to around 100 euro per person per day in self-drive, 120-140 euro per day with guided safaris/bush walks.

In a Private Reserve prices start from 200 euro per person all-inclusive. Considering the comfort factor, not having to cook, and the quality of accommodation – but most importantly – the drives, the difference is not that appreciable. Of course, these two types of experiences are not comparable as we are speaking apples vs pears, so ultimately decide based on your preferences.

Returning from our very first safari experience, for us, it was definitely worth going to Private Reserves to set the tone. It has been a unique experience that has exceeded all our expectations. If you decide to go for private reserves too, why not spending one day at Kruger Park to see the difference? This way you’ll know what to choose the next time you go to South Africa!

more on kruger

Kruger is Kruger. The vastness and diversity of environments and life has no pair in South Africa, and most of the world. Kruger National Park is the size of Slovenia, 20.000 square Kilometres. In this area animals are free to move around, and although they generally tend to stick to their territory, in times of water and/or food scarcity they travel long distances in order to survive.

Kruger’s elephants population has way surpassed the sustainable number. At the moment there are about 17.000 elephants. For who’s going to Kruger to see them that’s great, as you have a good chance of spotting them. On the other hand, the landscape is fairly devastated by their eating and destroying plants. We simply didn’t have a clue Elephants were such destroying creatures! They tear the bushveld to pieces, killing plants eating their roots from where they get nutrients. Considering that elephants need 100 kilograms of food per day, you can imagine how the landscape looks like!

This is a controversial subject at Kruger, as they have tried to move elephants to other areas, like confining Mozambique. Despite this, elephants are territorial creatures and go back to where they come from. Furthermore, they are not the easiest animals to relocate, considering their size and the costs associated with the transportation, and also considering the size of land required to let them live in the wild.

At Kruger, there are a set of rules to adhere to, both to safeguard the environment and the animals, and to protect people from predators attacks. As already mentioned, it’s only allowed to drive on tarred roads at max speed of 50 km/h. Besides this, It’s compulsory to keep car windows shut at all times and do not stand outside the vehicle for any reasons unless you are in the designated areas where you can stop for breakfast/brunch/lunch, for example. Finally, park gates open generally after sunrise and close before sunset, varying from season to season.

 

 

The insanity of poaching Rhinos

When Denise called Rocky and Clover, two baby rhinos, they straight away turned around and ran towards the gates to say hello. Really? We had no idea rhinos were such affectionate and intelligent creatures.

We discovered soon after that the reason those calves are accustomed to humans and live within fences, it’s because they are orphans, and they need to be protected. Both the calves mothers have been killed by poachers so they could get hold of their horns.

At the moment, poaching of rhinos is a huge problem in South Africa, holding about 19.000 rhinos, representing 80% of the world’s population. Poachers often de-horn rhinos while they’re still alive, leaving them bleeding to death in a very slow and excruciating way.

One of the orphans’ mothers was shaking so hard while poachers were cutting her, that her spine was broken so she could lie still. The calf instead was pushed away by gun shooting so he wouldn’t bother the gang.

Rhinos are like human beings. Loosing their mothers in such a cruel way is a cause of deep distress. One of the orphans developed cataracts on both eyes soon after the deed, and had to be operated in Johannesburg in order to survive.

If nothing happens, rhinos are going to be extinct very soon. Slaughter of rhinos in South Africa started escalating in 2008, and has now counted 6.000 illegal kills. In 2015 1.175 rhinos have been killed, 900 of which in Kruger Park alone where there are something like 12 groups of criminal gangs operating at a time.

The biggest market in the world for rhino horns is Vietnam. It seems that with the higher number of cancer patients, Vietnamese recur to traditional Chinese medicine, and believe drinking rhino horn powder can cure from the disease. Furthermore, as Vietnam’s economy is growing, more affluent people need a way to show-off their wealth: rhino horns have become a luxury item and allegedly able to avoid hangover to those who drink it.

In reality, rhino horns don’t have any medicinal property. They are made of keratin and hold the same special powers of a human fingernail.

Despite the shocking figures and the effort of many groups to end this slaughter, there is lack of concrete action to stop it and persecute poachers: corruption overflows both in South Africa and in Vietnam.

For all these reasons poaching is likely to continue given the incentives outbalance the risks: one Kg of rhino horn is valued around 70,000 dollars on the black market, making it more profitable than gold, platinum, end even cocaine.

If we think that in 20 years rhinos could simply not exist anymore, and with them sweet Rocky and Clover, we couldn’t help but think of how greed and ignorance have made something so beautiful disappeared in such a cruel way.

 

South African Safari

Cape Town & surroundings

Best of Cape Town at Christmas

Cape Town is a stunner. Full of activities and natural wonders, you could easily spend 2 weeks there in total awe. 3 days have been nowhere enough to do all we wanted, despite a very tight schedule with 6am morning call!

ATTRACTIONS

Table Mountain – if you have time take a day-trip and go trekking! Otherwise cable car is spectacular too.

Cape of Good Hope natural reserve.

Muizenberg for surfing!

RESTAURANTS & BARS

Kloof Street House amazing cocktails and food, in retro’ Victorian House with beautiful design and dreamy garden that’s perfect in summer.

Kyoto Japanese food at a higher level.

Yours Truly cafe by day, beer garden & DJ set by night, immersed in greenery, with rooftop and vibrant atmosphere.

ITINERARY (part 1)

1 – Arrival in Cape Town, check-in at Airbnb accommodation.

2 – Tour of Cape Town by bus.

3 – Surfing in Muizenberg, tasting wine in Stellenbosch.

4 – From Table Mountain to Cape of Good Hope, driving back to Camps Bay.

5 – Early departure to Johannesburg.

map

CHRISTMAS DAY IN CAPE TOWN

Even though downtown Cape Town looks like a ghost town, other areas like the V&A Waterfront, as well as Camps Bay, are very busy. On Christmas day tourism is business as usual!

TIPS

If you need to exchange money do that at the airport when you arrive, and remember that you need your passport. We lost time doing so in City Bowl and had to go back to our room to manage the whole process, which was fairly annoying…! In turn we discovered the wonders of Uber that you can easily book from a cafe with wireless connection and that will take you around for very little money. ATM cash machines are well spread and were no problem.

SAFETY

Cape Town is generally safe, although it’s best leaving your values in your hotel/room and just bringing the necessary.

1 – Kloof Street and Long Street

On the first afternoon of our arrival we leave the airport with a rented car and check-in at Airbnb rental. It’s a beautiful studio with outside pool & marvellous view over Cape Town and Table Mountain! The vegetation and the climate make us feel instantly on a holiday.

Hungry as we are, we grab an early dinner at Beleza and walk around the central areas of Kloof Street and Long Street to start submerging into Cape Town’s festive atmosphere. In these streets are located most pubs and bars.

Before heading back to our pool deck and glittering night view of Cape Town, we sip onto perfectly made cocktails at gorgeous Kloof Street House. Not a bad start!

2 – visiting Cape Town

On day 2, we plan touring Cape Town with the CitySightseeing buses, which is a great compromise to have a look around in freedom without worrying about parking.

We start off in Long Street 81, where we get tickets. At first, we walk into downtown Cape Town, and after visiting the Castle of Good Hope and the area of Green Market Square, we get on the red bus passing by the coastal area, until the V&A Waterfront. Here the historical harbour mixes with the modernity of a shopping centre and many tourist attractions. Impossible not getting fish and chips at Quai 4, a great option for lunch.

Later on, as it’s rainy outside, we visit the Aquarium – nice but nothing special – and would recommend the Springbok Experience Rugby Museum for fans and what not.

In the afternoon we take the blue line bus and tour Cape’s inner peninsula a bit further south, passing by Kirstenbosh Botanical Gardens, Constantia wine estate (where the first South African wine was produced), and the Township of Imizamo Yethu. If we had more time, and with better weather, we would have visited them all, especially the Botanical Gardens and the Township.

The concept of township was foreign to us. In few words, it’s a slum where people live in thousands. Homes are not made of bricks in most cases, but metal plates, and electricity and running water are no guarantee. Soweto, in Johannesburg, is the most populous Township in South Africa and counts over a million people. During the apartheid, non-white residents were removed from white-only districts and found refuge in these ‘unregulated’ areas in the outskirts. Finding such living situations beside incredibly wealthy residential area, is the first sign of how many contradictions are still to be found in South Africa today, inherited by a painful recent past.

3 – surfing and wine

On day 3, Christmas Eve, it’s surfing time! Luca has been longing for this since the previous summer in Portugal when he missed out on surfing, but wouldn’t get over it. You can imagine how damn happy he is. To be sure this was going to happen, we booked well ahead at Gary’s Surf School, one of the most popular and well-established surf schools in Muizenberg, about 30 mins driving from Cape Town.

At 8.45 am we are ready to rock. Actually, Luca is ready to rock, while I’m standing on the beach sheltered by a wind stopper… poor thing. Oceanic temperature is cold, especially in summer given Antarctic’s ices are melting. Be prepared to wear a wetsuit before going it!

Surfing for the first time is such a unique experience. When you manage to get on top of the wave you get a sense of powerful freedom. You are at one with the ocean and can feel the strength of the wave pushing below you, eventually understanding when it’s a good time to get up finding the right balance. It’s not easy! Do it if you are interested… you won’t regret it. When you are at it you don’t even think anymore about white sharks hehehe.

Gary is an old-style surfer with a lot a passion. His guys are easy, teach little incisive theory and leave space for practice. Andrew, Luca’s instructor, gave useful tips to understand the mistakes and shared advice on how to manage to stand on the board… until you do… and you dooooooooooo!!

After surfing and taking pictures we grab brunch in the cafe on top of the surf school, Ta-Da! (great coffee, smoothies, amazing vegetarian omelette by the way), and head out to the winelands for a taste of South African prestigious fruity wine. The way from Muizenberg to Stellenbosch is very pretty, stretching along the cost with view of the waves.

You could spend couple of days in the winelands if you are serious about wine, as there is tons to visit! Our suggestion is to book in advance and do some research. We didn’t organize anything ahead of time and so end up visiting couple of the most popular estates that are open on Saturdays: Spier, and Waterford. In Waterford we taste 6 wines, and despite we don’t particularly enjoy these, the estate surroundings, service received, and free tour of the cellar, are fabulous. For your info, on Christmas day wine estates are closed.

We asked around about which are the most recommended wineries to visit, and this is what we got. In Stellenbosch you can find Delheim and Kanonkop. Warwick for picnic lunches to pre-book well in advance as it sells out fast. Waterkloof and Morgenster have a production method that is similar to that of Italian wines if you are interested. Delaire Graff is a great option for dinner. In Paarl: Spice Route, where you can have lunch at renowned Bertus Basson.

4 – Table Mountain, Boulder’s Beach, and Cape of Good Hope

It’s Christmas day! A glorious summer day ahead of us. First thing in the morning we catch the Cableway to reach Table Mountain, proclaimed the new seventh natural wonder of the world in 2012. To access the Cableway get tickets online, best to be there first (7.30-8.00am) to avoid long queues and big groups. If you spend more time in town give it a whole day for a beautiful trekking, it’s worth it! It takes about two hours to reach the top.

Table Mountain is ancient, and very dear to its inhabitants. The top it’s edged by dramatic cliffs, and a stunning view over Cape Town and the ocean. Grey rocks alternate to bright orange flowers, succulent plants, and vegetation. The mountain has been literally invaded by cute dassies, as they are most commonly known, mammals that look like rabbits but have more in common with elephants. The beauty of the nature here will make you consider moving to this city!

Sad to leave Table Mountain so early we drive pointing to Boulder’s Beach, where a colony of penguins has permanent residency without caring about having to sit next to humans. Unfortunately entrance tickets to the beach are no longer available by the time we arrive, as families with kids had already flooded in. As second option, we walk along a wooden walkway at the back of the beache, that allows to peer at penguins in the distance.

We keep driving south and we finally arrive at the entrance of Cape of Good Hope natural reserve, which is part of Table Mountain National Park and World Heritage site. It’s queuing time to get ticket. Furthermore, it’s so crowded we can’t find parking space at Cape Point so we drive to Cape of Good Hope instead, the most South-Western point of Africa.

After a short trekking up hill, we peer at the horizon and the rough waters breaking against the cliff. In this place three Oceans come together: the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Antarctic. The wind blows in so strong it’s almost able to lift us up. The scenery of the surrounding coast is divine: crystal clear waters in unspoilt land where ostriches and baboons freely move around.

From Cape of Good Hope we drive back to Cape Town on a panoramic route through Chapman’s Peak.

We decide to stop for dinner in stylish Camps Bay, one of the most well-known areas in Cape Town, placed directly in front of the ocean with dramatic view of Table Mountain at the back. In recent years it has become one of the most sought after districts, with house prices that have increased exponentially.

On the beach, Christmas is still being celebrated. Most of the people that arrived in the morning to spend the day on the beach, are starting to wait in endless lines to get back to the townships. In the meantime, on the other side of the road, locals and tourists are going to restaurants for a drink or dinner.

After dining in one of the numerous restaurants in the area we return to the beautiful studio, reluctant to say goodbye to Cape Town and that stunning view. We then realise that something even more exciting awaits us, that Valeria has been dreaming about since childhood: African safaris!

5 – fly to Johannesburg

The next morning we rise early and off to Johannesburg we fly.

 

 

Safaris around Kruger Park

Sometimes a trip ends without leaving lasting memories. This is not the case for the days spent around Kruger Park doing safaris: in all honesty it has been one of the best experiences of our lives.

Being in the nature sharing instants with wild life takes you back to the time of childhood, when you look at the world with new eyes and everything you see and learn is so wonderful and perfect. This has been the spirit that has followed us in South Africa and that we took back home with us feeling blessed to have experienced it.

… And then there’s Mother Africa. Everything is amplified. The sky is bigger, and faster. Thunderstorm so terrifying as if bombs exploded. Stars sparking like diamonds in the dark night. The peacefulness of sunsets made us forget to have ever spent our lives someplace else.

itinerary (part 2)

5 – Early departure from Cape Town, fly to Johannesburg and drive to Nelspruit for overnight stay at Loerie’s Call Guesthouse.

6 – Drive 3 hours to Elandela Private Game Reserve, afternoon safari.

7 – Early morning safari and day trip to Kruger Park to see elephants.

8 – Early morning safari, then drive 1 hour to Vuyani Safari Lodge for the afternoon safari.

9 – Early morning safari and drive 1 hour to UmVangati House. In the afternoon, boat trip to Blyde River Canyon (pre-booked by hotel).

10 – drive 7 hours to Johannesburg through Panoramic Route, and fly back.

map

5 – transfer from Cape Town

After our flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg in the early morning, we still have a long way driving to Kruger (6+ hours) so we decide to break the trip in 2 parts. In the first part we drive 4 hours to Nelspruit and spend the night at lovely Loeri’s Call Guesthouse.

6 – first safari

The following day we drive another 2.5 hours to reach the first safari destination: Elandela Private Game Reserve.

On the way to the reserve we notice tourists on the side of the road staring at a lake… and there it is, from the middle of the lake, two cute ears and small round eyes appear… a hippo! This is our first unexpected (huge) animal encounter, and indeed something that will stuck with us for a long time. Realizing that what you have seen countless time on TV is standing right in front of you, and it’s real, is not as easy as it seems. Finally, let’s face it, despite what most people think, hippos are sexy.

As we reach the gates of Elandela and we drive to the reception on the Lake Side, we start spotting wildlife: impalas jumping around, giraffes checking the situation and shyly moving away, buffalos crossing over.

As we are welcomed and taken to our room, we see signs around the lake warning not to go beyond a certain point as, once again, hippos are in there and are potentially dangerous. These animals are very territorial, and responsible for the highest human kills in Africa, more than 2.000 a year. They look clumsy and awkward, but they can actually run faster than Usain Bolt, reaching 60 km/h! These ‘lovely’ creatures kill with their massive jaws whatever they simply aren’t bothered to have around.

In the afternoon, as we get on the open Land Rover for our first safari, the ranger takes us to two baby Rhinos, Rocky and Clover. They both survived the tragic event of having their mothers brutally killed by poachers. In order to keep the them safe, they are kept within an enclosed territory nearby the premises of the reserve, and are often monitored and taken care of. It’s so wonderful to see how intelligent and gentle these creatures are as they respond to the ranger’s call and stroll towards the gate to get cuddled up.

Rhino horns are in very high demand in Vietnam at the moment. It’s not clear what’s the main reason, if because Vietnamese think crushed horn can cure diseases like cancer, or because it has become a luxury item that affluent people drink to limit the side effects of hangover. At any rate, Rhino’s poaching is a huge issue in South Africa considering that a horn is worth around 300.000 dollars. This instigates the action of criminal gangs as well as corruption at all levels, making it a lost battle. From 2008 Rhinos deaths surged at a high rate, from 83 illegal kills to 668 in 2012. From 2013 there has been more than 1.000 deaths per year. In 2015, 1.175 Rhinos have been killed in South Africa, of which 900 in Kruger Park alone. Thinking that these innocent creatures are soon to be extinct to poaching is shameful. Read more here.

In our first safari, Rocco, the owner of the reserve, is our knowledgeable guide. He introduces us a little of botany showing trees in connection to who eats them, and making us understand how the bushveld works as a whole system. For example, we learn that Marula Tree is Elephant’s favourite. From the fruits of the same plant it’s possible to obtain a local liquor, called Amarula. Towards the evening we see a group of ggiraffes and are allowed to walk in freedom around them at sunset, they are very shy, what a unique experience!

7 – second day of safari and trip to Kruger

The next day, during the early morning safari, we are guided by John and are able to watch a female Rhino with her cute calf, as well as five White Lions of which a mother and her four cubs. 15 old months lions are very large by our standards! They are simply lying in the grass occasionally annoying one another or yawning in laziness. Lions hunt at night and sleep through the day.

Later on we go to Kruger National Park to look for elephants: as we enter from one of the gates we see a huge elephant right next to us looking massive, and giving us a sense of wonder. During the day we watch many more.

It’s important to give elephants space as they are reserved and could turn nasty if they felt invaded or not free to go. Even more important is to understand if a bull is in musth, that is, looking for females, showing black secretions running down its ears and loosing urine, as they are dangerous and could charge you. Elephants live in matriarchal societies where elderly females make decisions and guide the family. Bulls instead live on their own and only look for females when in musth.

Leaving Kruger we are very lucky to see a leopard. A number of cars have already stopped by the tarred road when we arrive there. Spotting leopards is rare considering they camouflage very well in trees, and even knowing where the leopard was, it was still hard to see to the naked eye.

By the time we get back it’s dinner time, and it looks like rain is finally falling, after the incredible heat of the day, and 2 years of prolongued drought. As we grab a traditional dinner by the fireplace outside, and staff performs local dances and songs, rain starts pouring down at last. Magic happens: guests frantically run inside and gaze at staff that keeps singing and dancing in total amusement under the thunderstorm… the more it rains the louder and more excited the singing becomes. Some guests can’t stand on their feet any longer and decide to join the dance under the rain, letting go of everything and embracing the spirit of Mother Africa.

8 – next private reserve and safari

The following morning, after a whole night of terrible thunderstorms, we are headed to our next destination: Vuyani Safari Lodge. We don’t think safaris can get any better… but they actually do.

On the first afternoon safari we get on the Jeep under ponchos in the drizzle and off we go. For each vehicle, in addition to a ranger there’s also a tracker, although we still don’t understand why. During that safari we have the privilege of watching a group of cheetahs, a mother with 2 adorable cubs. Being one of the most endangered species in Africa, this time due to predators, cheetahs need to check the surroundings at all times. We are also able to spot other more common animals like groups of impalas, beautiful female and male kudus, and vultures.

9 – last safari and Blyde River Canyon

The following morning as the alarm sets off at 4.45 am, we are about to witness something that truly impresses us. As the tracker spots lion tracks, trackers from various jeeps gather around and leave the vehicles to go into the woods on foot. On foot in the woods, with a stick? Really? Apparently they are going to track lions down.

After 2 hours not only they find them, but they wait for them to finish their meal and leave the site taking what’s left: a wildebeest’s hearth. ‘So you know, this morning I was tracking lions and found the remains of their prey that we could maybe have for lunch?’!

We are seriously excited about what’s going on, and as we are going to watch adult lions at last. As the jeep reaches them in total off-road over bushes of all kinds, there they are. A huge male and a female sheltered by the bushes, trying to take their nap. Once you see a male lion, and he looks straight into your eyes, you know why they call him the king.

As the ranger tries to get us a better view, the atmosphere gets tenser, no one dares talking… Our guide tells us as long as he doesn’t worry, not to worry… but we all do, nonetheless. As we get closer and closer and take vegetation down with us, the jeep rumbles more loudly, and so the female lion that stands up and ROARS.

After we get even closer, around 5 meters away, the male lion stands up too to see what’s happening. He moves a meter away and decides to sit back down, careless. We are not sure invading lion’s space is a  v e r y  g o o d   i d e a, but our guide is calm. We sit there and stare in silence at these beautiful creatures that instill in us total respect. The female’s paws are the size of a human’s leg. The male’s head is as large as the wheel of the Land Rover we are sitting on. They simply don’t care about us. What a moment.

As we leave lions trying not to get stuck in the bushes, it’s an escalation of events, and we find cheetahs having their meal right next to the road. They too, took a wildebeest down, although a youngster.

This time it’s two brothers always sticking together. While one of them eats, the other checks and listens. 20 meters away a jackal is impatiently waiting for its turn to eat but doesn’t dare getting too close as it could get killed. Cheetahs are too busy eating and worrying for predators to care about us, so we stand 2 meters away looking at these majestic animals doing their things.

Surprisingly, it’s not disturbing to watch them eating another creature. In fact, we don’t see much blood around because they drink it while they are at it. Besides, as the rangers explains how the carcass gets eaten completely by a myriad of animals after them, it’s a perfect circle of nature that doesn’t waste anything.

On the way back to the resort we realise we never expected to see so much and have such a wonderful experience.

Unfortunately our safari time is over. We spend our last night at gorgeous UmVangati House in the heart of Blyde River Canyon, the third largest canyon in the world. This is the perfect setting to wrap up the incredible South African journey. The hotel is located in a beautiful setting with break-taking view of the mountains and the surrounding nature, and the family run service is excellent.

In the afternoon we join a boat cruise on the River Canyon, which is very informative. We manage to see hippos, kudos, and even crocodiles. In the evening we salute South Africa over a few glasses of local wine, and yummy dinner at candlelight.

10 – back to Johannesburg and fly back

The next morning we drive back to Johannesburg taking the Panoramic Route, to see the Canyon from another perspective. After 7 hours and a few wrong turns, we make it to Tambo International Airport. If you decide to take the same route go down to the N4 motorway as soon as possible: we found roads to be full of potholes.

Here we are, finally arrived at Johannesburg Airport. Petrol: checked; return car: checked; return GPS: checked; documents: checked; last gifts: checked. Fly back: NOT quite ready!

It has been a truly amazing journey, we’ll miss South Africa for sure – despite its many contradictions – and would love to go back one day to see more of it.

 

 

South Africa in 10 days at Christmas

This is how we made this dream holiday come true, with a much lower budget than what any tour operator would have given us. How? Organising ourselves and being smart about it.

It has been one of the best holidays of our lives, and one of those experiences that will stick with us for a very, very, long time.

Read 3 days in Cape Town at Christmas, Safaris around Kruger Park.

View photo galleries: Cape Town & Surroundings, South African Safaris.

We decided to divide the trip in two parts: the first part in & around Cape Town, the second part flying up North for safaris in the Kruger Park area. We flew with a one way to Cape Town, and back from Johannesburg’s Airport. You could also turn the itinerary around and start with the safari instead, depending on tickets prices.

If you wonder how choosing a safari works, read this post on the difference between private reserves, and rest camps at Kruger National Park: Safaris at Kruger. Choosing the latter you might be able to save money, of make it affordable for a whole family.

The highlight of the trip is, without a doubt, the three days safaris around Kruger National Park – and that’s also where a good chunk of the budget went.

Below you can find out itinerary.

ITINERARY

1 – Arrival in Cape Town, check-in at Airbnb accommodation.

2 – Tour of Cape Town by bus.

3 – Surfing in Muizenberg, tasting wine in Stellenbosch.

4 – From Table Mountain to Cape of Good Hope, driving back to Camps Bay.

5 – Early departure from Cape Town, fly to Johannesburg and drive to Nelspruit for overnight stay at Loerie’s Call Guesthouse.

6 – Drive 3 hours to Elandela Private Game Reserve, afternoon safari.

7 – Early morning safari and day trip to Kruger Park to see elephants.

8 – Early morning safari, then drive 1 hour to Vuyani Safari Lodge for the afternoon safari.

9 – Early morning safari and drive 1 hour to UmVangati House. In the afternoon, boat trip to Blyde River Canyon (pre-booked by hotel).

10 – drive 7 hours to Johannesburg through Panoramic Route, and fly back.

BUDGET

1.600 euro per person sharing accommodation, excluding international flights. This includes all, i.e. car rentals, petrol, internal flights, food etc. Note that a good chunk of the budget goes into safaris in Private Reserves: from 200 euro per person, per day, and up. We travelled in high-season at Christmas time. In Cape Town, we managed to find a great deal of 70 euro per night for a great studio, and that’s how we managed to balance expenses out.

TRANSPORTS

We rented an entry-level car in Cape Town with First, took an internal flight to Johannesburg, and rented a medium-level car with Europ Car at Johannesburg Airport. Our experience with Europ Car in Johannesburg wasn’t good, maybe we have only been unlucky, but the car we were supposed to take had the GPS charger broken – thank god we noticed that – and so they gave us what available, that turned out to be a huge, slow and difficult to drive pick-up.

As a lot of driving is involved in the second half, around 1.000 km, another option is flying to Mpumalanga Airport to reach the reserves, though this is more expensive and won’t allow you to see the landscape on the way.

TIPS

Book in advance if you can, especially if you go in high season. Pre-book your cars, accommodation, and safaris! We did so 2 months ahead of time and were left with what still available – although we got lucky.

If driving 7 hours on the way back is just too much, break it down spending one night somewhere half way through, or in Pretoria. We had our flight in the evening and didn’t mind.

Regarding roads conditions in the second half of the trip, don’t worry, most roads are tarred or have easy access. It might get trickier if it rains even though in private reserves they’ll help you manage to get back to the main road. Driving on Panoramic Route the last day, we found several potholes on the way, be careful.

GPS are not always included, depending on the company you rent your car from. With Europ Car, the GPS isn’t normally included, and since they didn’t have any availability on site, we rented one out at Vodacom which was a bit of a hassle. Another option is getting a South African sim with traffic data as you land, and use that on your phone instead of the GPS.

 

 

 

Mount Guglielmo

Discovering the Langhe for the first time

Sometimes the last thing you get to visit is actually standing right next to you. You chase what’s on the other side of the world, when you finally realise there are gems sitting 3.5 hours driving away.

This is kind of what happened with this wine region in Piedmont, Italy, stretching from Alba down to Liguria. It was about time to thick this off our list and see with our own eyes.

We spent a special weekend between hilly hamlets, sunny skies, and villages that are more known to international tourism, than they are to Italians.

We went to the Langhe just before the grape harvest, when Autumn is on the doorsteps and leaves are starting to turn orange and red, and you start feeling the urge of wrapping up in a blanket in front of a fireplace.

We stayed in lovely guesthouse All’Ombra del Castello in Cigliè, with beautiful view and a warm welcome by the owners that have a farm there.

We visited the village of Barolo, La Morra, and Grinzane Cavour. The following day, on our way back home, we stopped in Alba for the Truffle Fair.

As you drive on the road taking you to Barolo you find yourself among beautiful hills covered in vineyards and hazelnut trees: it’s wine (and food) paradise all over. You can find here some very important Reds: Barolo, Nebbiolo, Barbaresco, Dolcetto d’Alba, Barbera etc.

In Barolo we went to the Wine Museum sited in Falletti Castle. In the same building there is also the Enoteca Regionale del Barolo, offering some of the best wines in the region.

If you’d like to visit cellars and do tastings in high season, book in advance. The major producers were all booked up when we got there. Same thing for restaurants in Barolo, they tend to get packed.

We decided in turn to take a stroll on the hills. On a sunny day it’s actually a great idea to bring trekking shoes and take a walk along the Strade del Barolo, footpaths on the hills connecting Barolo to the nearby villages.

La Morra is also a very characteristic spot with beautiful view over the other villages. We walked around the central roads, came across many wine shops, and tasted locally sourced hazelnut ice-cream.

In the evening we went to Mondovi and had dinner in this popular-between-locals restaurant, Trattoria Croce d’Oro, that served unforgettable rustic food, fine wines, and was included of free entertainment: it’s picturesque owner. He took care of us, and the other guests, for the entire evening making it quite a memorable one.

The following day we briefly stopped in Alba for the Truffle Fair though unfortunately on a Monday it was closed, but we nonetheless headed back home with a smile on our faces.

 

 

Langhe, Piedmont

Let’s go to the Langhe?

Directed towards Turin, turn right, get out of the motorway towards Cuneo, we move away from the city, and the landscape changes. I was expecting to meet smooth hills, but maybe that is Tuscany, a different story, these hill are shier, they don’t show their beauty straight away, they keep it hidden for who knows how to look for it.

We get to B&B All’Ombra del Castello in Cigliè, a small village near Mondovi, a simple place fostered by its owner’s strong passion, lovely view and good breakfast.

We wander around Mondovi and sit down for an aperitivo by the historical square. Later, thanks to the owner of the B&B in Cigliè, we have dinner at the Trattoria Croce d’Oro.

In this very typical place we meet Him, the perfect host, in a rustic restaurant with formidable cuisine, fassona meat tartare melting like butter in your mouth. Beyond the amazing quality of food and wine, it’s literally the host making the difference. A great option to spend the night for a romantic dinner or to dine with a group, drinking superb wines and eating classic plates from Piedmont, with amazing price/quality ratio.

The next morning it was a beautiful sunny day and we went to Barolo ignoring that open cellars plus great weather meant crowds and no availability: “all full, sorry”.

Barolo is a tiny village with a central castle overlooking the surroundings, where you can visit the interesting and avant-garde Wine Museum. If you plan your trip there, book in advance and you won’t be in our same situation, especially for wine tasting that is the point of going there. Piedmont’s food is totally worth trying, the wines are totally worth being lived through.

Beyond these basic and already known reasons to visit the Langhe, we suggest taking a stroll in the vineyards. It’s an evocative landscape, able to tell the vineyards’ history with the passing of seasons, the fascinating ability to follow the hilly ground, the intriguing uniformity of these plants, as fragile as precious, taken care of by the wisdom of expert hands.

On our third day, we stopped briefly in Alba, homeland to the Truffle Fair, a very touristy destination, and maybe the charm of the Langhe here had already vanished.

 

 

Santiago to Lisbon

Driving from Porto to Lisbon, through Obidos and Cabo da Roca

On the road from Porto through the picturesque village of Obidos, magnificent views at Cabo da Roca, and arriving in Lisbon.

Directed towards Cabo da Roca, we decided to stop for lunch in lovely Obidos. From Porto to Cabo da Roca it takes about 5 hours driving.

OBIDOS

This village is a little gem and property of the Queens of Portugal for centuries: you can tell why as soon as you set foot in it. It’s very photogenic. It’s possible to visit the village in couple of hours walking on top of the medieval wall, strolling around its pretty roads constellated by white houses and colourful Bougainvillea, sipping the typical cherry liquor called ginjinha.

Ginjinha is good. Be careful, in the summer heat you might end up going ‘ginjinha, ginjinha, ginjinhaaaa’. No personal references here of course.

Continuing the road trip, we take the more coastal road to explore a bit and see the ocean. We pass by Ericeira, which is a popular surfers town and way traffic congested. Besides, landscape-wise it isn’t that interesting since there are many buildings nearby the beach. If you don’t want to lose time take the motorway and avoid the coast, it’ll be faster.

CABO DA ROCA / COLARES

We finally make it to Cabo da Roca, the most Westerner strip of land in the European continent and home to the Cabo da Roca lighthouse. The landscape is break-taking, the coast stands out on the massive ocean where the wind blows unrelentingly day and night.

Not far from here it’s possible to reach two different beaches on foot. The first one, Praia da Aroeira, is secluded, wild, made of big rocks and angry waves. Trekking there takes about 1 hour and requires trekking shoes as it’s not an easy path, especially going down the steep hill.

The second beach is Praia da Ursa, one of the most suggestive of Portugal, with a beautiful sandy beach looking at massive rock formations shaped like pointy triangles, and suggestive sunsets. It takes about half an hour to reach Ursa on foot, with a more accessible path in comparison to Praia Areoira.

In the village of Colares, where we stayed, there is a Sunday market selling fruits, vegetables and local produce. For the daily shopping ask for a mini market in the area, you’ll be surprised by the variety of products here. In the evening we enjoyed tasting typical plates of food at Refugio da Roca.

Not far from Colares, within Sintra-Cascais Natural Park, dwells Sintra Castle, Palácio da Pena, UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s worth visiting, but in high season, a bit overrated we think. In the evening we pay a visit to the touristy town of Cascais, which has many culinary options and entertainments. All in all, we love it just fine in tiny Colares with a view of the ocean from the apartment, beautiful sunsets and lots of peace and quietness to rest and catch up on reading.

LISBON

Lisbon is undoubtedly a city with incredible charm. We stayed in an apartment in the Moorish district of Alfama and we simply fell in love with it. Spending two nights in Lisbon is not enough to visit it, so we decided to enjoy it in freedom allowing some time for shopping. In Alfama we recommend Giallo, for great gourmet ice-cream near the Fado Museum, and between the myriad of typical restaurants, Santo António de Alfama, which is a bit of an institution.

 

 

3 days in Oporto, for a taste of Porto

In recent years Porto has become more and more popular with tourists thanks to low-cost flights from Europe, to a point that its recent development has been strictly related to this phenomenon.

As we get out the metro in Rua de Mouzinho da Silveira it feels almost like being in Regent Street in London. The special relationship between Portugal and the United Kingdom dates back to the first peace treaty of 1373, and leaves its traces in architecture too.

If at first sight Porto seems quite rough, especially in the outskirts, in the central areas you’ll find characteristic corners and yummy street food. From bolinho de bacalhau, battered codfish, to sardine paté, not to forget the very typical francesinha, a sandwich made of 8 different types of meat, melted cheese and a secret sauce using beer and/or porto. Every restaurant will tell you theirs is the best! We had francesinha at the food festival of Jardim de Sao Lazaro, taking place in August, and loved it, especially after an iced caipirinha.

Not far from here we’d recommend going to Casa Kanimanbo in Rua de Augusto Rosa 32, an old-style cafe that’s probably been exactly as it is for decades (including the man at the counter!), for a favourite-between-locals bolinho de bacalhau or tasty bread and tripe: sounds scary but it’s actually tasty.

Finding out where locals love eating, in spite of ending up in restaurants often catering solely for tourists, it’s definitely one of our favourite part of a trip: and yes we have been eating quite consistently!

If you have enough of town, go to Foz du Duoro, where river Douro meets the Atlantic ocean. At the lighthouse you can peer at fishermen trying their luck, and relax looking at waves crashing incessantly on the walkway. On the way back at sunset the atmosphere towards town is peaceful and the landscape turns evocative.

In full touristy swing is also the town south of Douro river, Vila Nova de Gaia, simply called Gaia. Originally an industrial settlement to store Porto, its cellars have now converted to welcoming visitors for wine tastings. From Gaia it’s possible to get on a cable car taking you right back to the south side of Dom Luis I Bridge, connecting Gaia to Porto.

For tasting and getting to know more about this world-famous wine, it’s definitely worth going to the Douro Valley. For who doesn’t have a few days on their hands to explore this region given its vastness, it’s possible to join an organised tour that allows you to have a glimpse of it in one day. Alternatively you can rent a car and go on your own although roads are quite twisted so you risk loosing time.

The highlight of the days in Porto are without a doubt visiting estate Quinta do Tedo in Douro Valley. They offer a very informative guided tour of the cellar in English, as well as tasting of premium quality Porto.They show you how the production takes place, and explain the difference between a Tawny and Ruby, for example, or what does it take to make a vintage Porto etc.

We bought Tawny Porto from the vineyard: opening up the bottle after months of this experience was totally reminiscent of being there and magically brought back the same images, smells and flavours.

From Porto we collected our rented car and headed towards Cabo da Roca, the most Westerner point in continental Europe, and home to an important lighthouse.

 

Getting together in Santiago de Compostela

Even though Santiago de Compostela is traditionally the last stop of the ancient Way of St. James, for us, it was the perfect place to start from.

Luca was at the end of his Camino del Norte (Northern Way), and I was going to meet him there to start our first trip together: from Santiago to Lisbon. When you recently met, 10 days apart can seem endless.

Santiago is a small town where everything – or almost – is within reach. Here you can start letting go, soaking up the fervent energy that this city emanates at every corner. In fact, people arrive to Santiago after strenuous journeys to come to peace with themselves, and the rest of the world.

The Cathedral is, without a doubt, the focal point of Santiago. Most guesthouses are situated within 10 minutes walking distance. Finding accommodation during high season can be tricky, so best to book in advance.

Visiting the Cathedral is a must-do, both for its ancient past and for the unique spirituality that it carries. It’s one of most important sacred destinations of Christianity since the Middle Ages, and indeed a very charming historical place

On the first day in Santiago we enjoyed walking around its narrow alleyways, wandering around Parque de la Mesa and Parque de Belvìs. We tasted food, peered at people while sitting in Praza da Quintana, listened to live music in the street at night.

Food wise, pulpo a la gallega (Galician Octopus) was a bit of a let down, maybe we have only been unlucky…! For this reason we suggest you to have it closer to the sea. If you fancy great quality jamon serrano, go to Rua de Caldeireia and you’ll find a jamon shop that sells amazing sandwiches melting in your mouth.

On our second day in Santiago we decided to take a day trip to Finisterre, literally ‘the end of the earth’, a very popular destination for pilgrims after arriving in Santiago. By bus it takes 2 hours each way.

After getting off the bus and grabbing a coffee in the nearest cafe, we follow a footpath of approximately 40 mins, and reach the lighthouse placed on a scenic promontory, standing above the massive ocean. You can sit here, relax, and peer over the horizon literally for hours.

The following day we are ready for our next destination: Oporto, we are coming!

 

Santiago de Compostela to Lisbon in 12 days

An itinerary from Santiago de Compostela to Lisbon, through Porto, Obidos and Cabo da Roca.

In a nutshell: a lot of Atlantic Ocean, and a lot of wind.

OUR ITINERARY

Day 1 – Arrival in Santiago de Compostela, checked-in at one of the many guesthouses, explored town walking around.

Day 2 – Visited Santiago on foot.

DAY 3 – Day-trip to Finisterre by bus.

Day 4 – Bus to Porto (5 hours), and check-in at hotel 6Only Guest House.

DAY 5 – Explored Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia on foot.

DAY 6 – Organised day-trip to Douro Valley to taste Porto.

Day 7 – Rented a car and drove 5 hours to Cabo da Roca, stopping by Obidos for lunch. Stayed at apartment in Colares.

DAY 8 – Around Cabo da Roca’s lighthouse and the nearby beaches.

DAY 9 – Day-trip to Sintra visiting the Pena Palace and the park. Evening in Cascais.

Day 10 – Drove to Lisbon by car (1 hour), returned car rental and checked-in at Airbnb flat in Alfama.

Day 11 – Chilled out in Lisbon/Alfama.

Day 12 – Way back.

BUDGET

1.200 euro per person sharing accommodation, excluding flights. You can make it cheaper considering we travelled in mid August with high season prices, and we chose mid-range rooms from 70 to 100 euro per night.

TRANSPORTS

From Santiago we went to Finisterre, and Porto, by bus. We got tickets for Finisterre at Santiago bus station, the ones to Porto online. In Porto we rented a car to get to Lisbon, where we returned the car and moved around by public transports/taxi.

TIPS

You could also start directly from Porto, and give two extra nights to Lisbon.

 

Riding on Stelvio Pass in memory of my dad

There was only one appointment my dad wouldn’t have missed: riding on Stelvio Pass for the annual bikes meeting in July. The road going to Stelvio Pass is undeniably one of the most suggestive of Northern Italy, and Europe.

For him, it represented another year that had gone by, despite cancer, and having to ask a friend to put his bike on the kickstand, because he couldn’t anymore.

For my dad it meant the world being able to be there, again, as if he still had a chance to defeat the disease after all. Until the last summer in 2015, when he passed away in August.

My father’s greatest passion was driving his bike on the local mountains, he gave him bliss, and a sense of irrepressible freedom. When he was riding nothing mattered but the driving, and the road.

Since he left, Luca and I took his beloved GS, to keep it go, instead of him. And off we drove to Stelvio once again, in his memory. Today, if he had been alive, he would have been happy to know that we kept on with his tradition.

Until my dad’s bike will carry on, we’ll ride on Stelvio every summer, and I will remember that part of me that has gone with him, and that part of him that stayed in me and keeps getting stronger.