Travel Love: Food, Food and a Volcano

In my last post I blathered on about how much I adore the gorgeous colonial town of Antigua in Guatemala.  In this post I thought I’d actually give some kind of useful information, just in case you ever happen to find yourself passing through.

One thing I would absolutely recommend you do if you are even vaguely active is climb Pacaya Volcano.  It’s pretty cheap to join a trip and one of the easier volcanos in Central America to climb.  The first time I visited Antigua, there was real lava at the top of Pacaya, but it erupted in 2010, so now there are only hot patches to toast marshmallows on.  But in the future, the lava will no doubt be back!  I’d definitely recommend going on a morning trip (even though they leave at the higly unreasonable hour of 6am) because afternoons, especially in the rainy season, tend to have poor visibility, and there’s a pretty high chance that you will get rained on.  And getting caught in a Central American rainstorm is not fun.  Trust me.

Volcano climbing

One of my absolute favouritest things about Antigua is the abundance of awesome cafes.  Here are a few of my picks:

Cafe Condesa – On the main square, this cafe has amazing (and huge servings of) cake, great food, quick and friendly service, and a beautiful courtyard.  Perfect.

Luna de Miel – The most amazing crepes in a very cute cafe.  If there was a branch of this place near my house, I would absolutely be the size of a small house.  (Enjoy the mistranslations on the website – the crepes are definitely not made to disgust, I think they mean enjoy!)

Bagel Barn – A bit anglicised, but it really does make great bagels, and they show some good free films.  I recommend the mozzarella, tomato and basil bagel, proper mozzarella!  (Note: this was one of my favourite places, until one of the staff refused to give me more hot water to reuse a teabag!  This seemed a bit ridiculous, so just don’t have tea in there…)

La Casaca – Yet another coffee shop on the main square, there are comfy sofas and great teas (with unlimited hot water!), plus the usual selection of crepes and cakes.

Mono Loco – A sports bar that’s a bit more expensive but does wonderful comfort food and always has a great soundtrack.  The best internet cafe is there too.

WokCo – Great new restaurant that prepares custom-made, veggie-packed stirfries right in front of you.  Great healthy fast food.  Come to the UK please!

Restaurante Doña Luisa Xicotencatl – Incredible breakfasts!

Obviously a lot of these choices aren’t very traditionally Guatemalan, but those options are there as well!  I chose the places I truly wish were just round the corner from my house at home – I’m so sad to leave them…

There is a multitude of other things to do and places to visit in Antigua, but the guidebooks can fill you in on that, and I think this post’s long enough!  So I guess all that’s left now is to plead with you to go and see Antigua for yourself – get planning!

Travel Love: My Favourite Town in the World?

This blog is most definitely not a travel blog.  I can’t cope with the sheer pressure of having to report accurate details of every trip I take – I much prefer to enjoy them and then savour the photos.  This is part of the reason the blog has not be inundated with posts about random Central American villages, despite the fact I’ve been travelling between them for the best part of three months.  But I go home on Wednesday, so thought this would be a marvellous opportunity to share my highlights of the trip (and maybe a few holiday snaps, if you’ll excuse me).

In the summer of 2009, while waiting for my A-level results in that glorious commitment-free summer before starting university, I spent five weeks volunteering in Guatemala.  This is in the running for the best thing I’ve ever done.  The people running the charity were two of the most committed and inspirational people I’ve ever met, and I truly felt that what I was doing would change lives.  I was teaching in a volunteer-run school for indigineous children, all of whom were incredibly poor and would not otherwise have had the chance to go to school or even learn Spanish, as they all speak a local indigenous language.  When I was there, classes were taught by volunteers from developed countries, but the plan was always to make the schools self-sufficient, training ex-students as teachers.  And I was so so proud to find on returning that this has finally been achieved, after 10 years of hard slog!

In case you’re interested in finding out any more about the charity, it’s called Fly the Phoenix and their website can be found here.  It truly is  very worthy cause, and I’m so proud to be associated with them.

Anyway.  Getting back on topic.  As well as the amazing experience of volunteering, I had the chance to live in quite possibly the most beautiful town in Central America – Antigua, Guatemala.  I adore this place.  I’ve met so many people who complain that it’s too full of tourists and it’s true, there are a lot of foreign tourists about and a huge selection of language schools.  But the amazing thing about Antigua is that it still retains a lot of its Guatemalan personality.  There are cobbled streets, brightly painted buildings, and ladies in traditional indigenous dress all over the place.  And because there are so many language learners, people go out of their way to speak Spanish to you, rather than English.

So of course we simply had to make sure we visited on this trip.

As you can see, I was pretty happy to be back!

The town has the most incredible setting, surrounded by three volcanos that you can always see in clear weather.

Volcan Fuego

One of the reasons I don’t mind all the tourists is that, because of them, Antigua has some pretty great cafes and bars.  In fact, we spent most of our time there this time stuffing our face with cake and crepes, and drinking extortionate amounts of tea.  If, like me, you are an addict of both tea and chocolate, this is pretty much heaven.  I’ll pop another post up with my top places, in case you’re interested.

This chilled out atmosphere means that I count Antigua as one of the places I could happily live, regardless of where it is in the world.  I probably wouldn’t ever actually up sticks and move there, since I’ve discovered this year that I don’t cope well with being far away from my family and friends.  Even so, I can definitely see myself coming back here yet again in the future, it’s one of my places.

My favourite town in the world?  Very possibly.

Travel Love: The Joy of Book Swaps

This summer I’ve been travelling around Central America with a friend.  While I have A LOT to say about this experience, I want to limit myself to books for this post.

Travelling has given me the most wonderful opportunity to read again.  While I’m at uni, my reading time is sadly far too limited, and I constantly feel guilty if I’m not reading something course related.  But while travelling, I’ve had so much time to just sit around and simply be in a place.  While reading.  Bliss.

And the fuel to my reading fire has been hostel book swaps.  I find hostels superior to hotels in so many ways – the sociable atmosphere, guest kitchens, (generally) friendly staff etc etc – but the book swap is very possibly my favourite aspect.  I simply cannot get over how marvellous it is that I can come away for 3 months with one book, and keep reading the whole time.  There is such a range of genres and different tastes, and on occasion I’ve been forced into choosing books I normally wouldn’t even look at (this is how I found Still Alice, one of my new favourite books).

I’ve heard other travellers complain that book swaps are only ever full of terrible beach reads – I am here to tell you this is a lie.  On this trip, my goodies have included The Help, Slaughterhouse Five, A Visit From the Goon Squad, and I am just embarking on The Kite Runner, probably my final read of the trip.

As I get closer and closer to going home, I’ve been lamenting the soon-to-be loss of the book swap in my life.  What will I do back in England without a place to pick up free books, then be able to get rid of them when I’m done and save my space? It’s such a useful resource!  We should adopt this idea in everyday life at home!

Then I realised quite how much of an idiot I had been.  What are libraries if not a place to temporarily acquire new (to me) books?  I am a useless library user – I’m not even a member of the public library in Bath, where I’ve been at uni for two whole years.  So my new academic year’s resolution is to join this library and start making use of one of our most fabulous resources.  It’s no wonder David Cameron and his government are doing their best to wipe out libraries, when even active readers forget to use them!

Is anyone else a lapsing library member?  Do you agree with me that it’s a great way to make a dent in the to-read list, or do you prefer the thrill of buying books for yourself?

Beautiful beautiful snow

I am completely in love with snow.  When it comes to snow (and probably quite a few other things) I am still a child.  When it snowed for weeks in the UK last year and everyone got sick of it, I was still excited every time I looked outside.

And now we’ve had some in Milan for the last week and a half!  I couldn’t resist getting the camera out, especially since I’ve just discovered Instagram so can play around with my phone shots.  So cue a photo-heavy post!

I caught the very first flakes from my room:

The Milan parks covered in a blanket.  I always think snow suits parks and the countryside so much more than the city streets where it just turns into grey slush.  And parks were made for playing in!

There has just been so much of it!  No icing sugar sprinkling here…

One of my friends took me to a beautiful cemetery the day after the snow came down.  It’s called Cimitero Monumentale (the English version of the website seems like a Google Translate production to me, but it does still have opening hours, directions and some nice pictures) and is right near Porta Garibaldi station, if you know Milan at all.

I couldn’t believe I’d never heard of it – it’s not one of Milan’s most touted tourist attractions and there was hardly anyone there when we went, but it’s completely gorgeous – I’d definitely recommend a visit to anyone visiting Milan.  I loved it in the snow, but am planning on heading back there when it melts so I can have a proper look round.  Each tomb is like a piece of art and it was so peaceful. But for now, a few snowy pics:

I have no shame in saying that I took great joy in making footprints in 5 inches of fresh, powdery snow, even if I did have numb toes by the time we left.

The next day I went to visit another friend and got to do it all over again!  The Italians in her town don’t really seem to “do” walking to places (unless they have a dog), so the pavements hadn’t turned to slush.

What a gorgeous week!

Travel Love: Things I’ve learned about Italy

I’m a languages student in my 3rd year of uni (on a four year course), which means that I’m currently on the dreaded Year Abroad.  It has to be capitalised because, according to my uni department, it’s one of those very Important Life Experiences that you absolutely must make the most of.  Not at all intimidating then.

Because the languages I study are Spanish and Italian, I’m starting off the Year Abroad with 8 months living in Milan, Italy.  I arrived at the end of September, meaning I’m about halfway through.  So, since I love a good list, I thought now might be a good time to share a few observations I’ve made since being here.

  1. Not all of Italy is the beautifully warm and sunny holiday destination we think it is.  In fact, a lot of the weather in the north (where I am) is depressingly similar to the UK.  Though happily without the rain.
  2. Yes, they really do eat that much pasta.  Normally at least once a day.
  3. Same goes for pizza.  Though perhaps not as often.
  4. As a general rule, Italians are terrifying drivers.  From what I can tell, the rule of the road is that whoever is bravest (be they car, moped, bike, bus or pedestrian) gets to pass.  So if you walk purposefully across a pedestrian crossing, you probably won’t die.  But only probably.
  5. The further south you go, the more terrifying the driving is.
  6. Italians (or at least the Milanese) dress better than us.  When I boarded the plane at Manchester Airport in my baggy grey hoodie I felt totally comfortable.  As soon as I stepped off at Milan Bergamo, I felt completely out of place.  And they will never, ever, leave the house in trackie bums.
  7. Italian kids are way more spoiled than British ones.
  8. Everyone thinks they should speak English and are always shocked when they find out I can speak Italian.  I’ve had a pharmacist apologise to me for her lack of English – imagine that happening the other way round in the UK!
  9. It’s impossible to get a word in edgeways in any conversation, you just have to keep speaking over the other person until they stop.
  10. They all think Berlusconi’s insane too.