Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Five Reasons to Visit Venice Now

Nick and I recently celebrated our 11 year getting-together-aversary which is not so much an anniversary of a first date but of the moment we realised that we just couldn’t deny how we felt about each other any longer. A month or so of absolute carnage ensued but it was oh so worth it looking back because we’re still very much together and happier than ever. Travelling together full time is one of the best decisions we’ve ever made and spending three months in what might just be the world’s smallest van has done nothing to change that! When we realised that our anniversary was fast approaching we decided to go somewhere neither of us had ever been, somewhere a little different to anywhere else we’d visited on the road trip so far and somewhere tote's romantic - Venice!

I’d heard many great things about Venice in the past but nothing that had pushed me to book a plane ticket. I visited both Rome and Pompeii when I was a teenager and adored both places so I’m not sure what’s been keeping Italy and I apart for so long other than the fact that there were so many countries that I’d never even set foot in within spitting distance of Italian shores and I always found myself drawn elsewhere, until now anyway.

The city took my breath away as soon as I took my first steps into it’s stunning maze of streets, it’s ridicuously beautiful and within seconds I was envisioning myself living there, spending the majority of my time writing sonnets and staring out of my window at one of the most stunning places I’ve ever laid eyes on (and that’s coming from someone who was in Dubrovnik only a week earlier.) I suspect that moving to Venice would not make me start writing sonnets in real life, perhaps staring out of the window eating gelato would be more realistic?!

Anyway, as you can tell, I'm a big fan of Venice and I think that you should visit sooner rather than later. So, without further ado, here are the top five things I think you absolutely have to do in Venice.

• Eat Pizza

As a vegan you sometimes have to skip whatever speciality food a country is famous for but that is definitely not the case in Italy. Pizza is queen and I for one was happy to partake every chance I got. I basically just ate pizza. It was awesome. You have two great options in Venice, marinara or Pizzeria L’Angelo. Marinara is ubiquitous (and cheap) as long as you’re away from the tourist hotspots around Piazza San Marco and the Rialto bridge. This is pizza at it’s simplest, dough, marinara sauce and garlic. It’s both delicious and traditional, I’m a fan. Pizzeria L’Angelo is the place to go when you want to experience cheesy Italian pizza vegan style. They have Italian made MozzaRisella as their cheese of choice and a what a fantastic choice it is too. It melts beautifully, almost too well if you’re impatient like me and can’t wait the two to three minutes it needs to cool down from molten lava to something more enjoyable. They also have two kinds of seitan if you’re in need of a protein hit or something more hearty. I went simple with a classic order of a Margherita with spinach on a couple of occasions, simple and delicious, but on my final visit I pushed out the boat and ordered the Patate vegan style. Yeah, that’s a pizza covered in chunky chips and melted cheese. Yeah, it was as amazing as it looks. I would definitely stick with the regular size in this case but otherwise plump for the family size if you have a dining companion - I swear you won’t regret it.

• Ride the Number 1 Bus

Now I don’t know about you but when I imagined visiting Venice I envisaged gliding down canals via Gondola staring into my lovers eyes… well, I did until I got researching and realised that a gondola ride costs €80 for 30 minutes. €80! If you were with a group of 6 (the max number of people allowed in a gondola) I’d say go for it. It looks super fun and you get to chat to your gondaleer about archetecture and life on the canals but if there are only two of you, your money comes from the same pool and you’re on a budget I’d recommend skipping it and taking the bus. The bus? That doesn’t sound the same at all! Well, in Venice, the busses are boats! The whole city centre is car free so Venetians take vaporetto busses when they aren’t feeling up for walking through busy city streets and the number 1 is totally the best line to ride to get a feel of the city. It costs €7.50 for a single trip on the bus and you definitely get the most bang for your buck on this line, running from Pizzale Roma all the way down to Lido but if you make it to Arsenale you’ll be whizzing down the grand canal past Piazza San Marco, The Rialto Bridge and about a thousand other stunning buildings. My second number 1 bus related tip is to make sure you hop on at Pizzale Roma before the majority of tourists board outside the central station stop just around the corner. Oh and grab a seat outside on the port side, that way you’ll get the most spectacular views of Piazza San Marco without 20 cameras in between you and it!

• Escape the Crowds

Venice is busy. We were there towards the end of September and whilst the weekend was more crowded the weekdays were hardly what you could call quiet. More than a handful of huge cruise ships arrive at the port every day meaning that there will be large groups of people jostling for the best positions in front of attractions almost all the time. I have two crowd busting tips. Arrive at night and check out Venice’s well lit streets and buildings in the dark first. The Piazza San Marco especially was much more pleasant at night and I really enjoyed getting my first glimpse of the city when there was space to breathe. Secondly, get out of the main tourist areas. Venice is an incredibly walkable city especially if you have either a good sense of direction or a map app to guide you to where you need to be once you're done getting lost. I would highly recommend getting away from the crowds by wandering around the city’s residential neighbourhoods. The streets are beautiful and in a lot of cases they’ll be yours and yours alone. Perfect. 

• Get Your Gelato On

My second foodie tip is to find and eat all of the sorbet and gelato the city has to offer. Vegan options are varied, plentiful and in almost every neighbourhood, it would actually be challenging not to stumble upon one of these options if you’re doing Venice right. My favourite spots in order because I’m ruthless and able to pick favourites are Gelatoteca Suso, Stickhouse, Alaska Gelateria (pictured above) and Vizio Virtu Cioccolateria. The veganised white with black cherry ice cream pictured below) from top ranked spot Gelatoteca Suso might just be the fluffiest most amazing ice cream I've ever eaten, vegan or not, and the mint sorbet fem Alaska Gelateria blew me away. Even the supermarkets have a range of vegan ice cream options which will be perfect for midnight snacks at your Air B&B.

Pear Popsicle with Chocolate and Hazelnuts from Stickhouse & the Vegano from Gelatoteca Suso.

• La Biennale di Venezia / Venice Biennale

If you’re into super contemporary modern art then The bi-annual Venice Biennale is for you. Taking place this year from 09.05.15 - 22.11.15 there’s still plenty of time for you to take a last minute trip. With work on display from 89 participating countries you get a varied sense of present day modern art. Rather than one overarching theme as I believe is usual for the Biennale this year's themes intersect under the banner All The World’s Futures which was perfect for me as I like my art to be as political, challenging and thought provoking as possible. My favourite works included Paperwork and The Will of Capital - An Account of Flora as Witness by Taryn Simon which cleverly tied together photographs of flower arrangements and pressed flowers with (dubious at best, criminal at worst) international treaties, contracts and agreements. I was also blown away by some stunning neons as well as three or four of the movie pieces I had time to engage with (I still need to find the movies made as part of the China Village Documentary Project online) and Barthélémy Togou's woodcut bust stamp sculptures, part of which is pictured above. I wish I'd had longer to explore The Biennale, a week would be ideal but a long weekend would be totally doable just make sure you go Thurs - Sun as the majority of exhibits are closed on a Monday. 

Make it cheaper: Venice is notoriously expensive and accommodation is no exception. There are definitely a couple of ways you can make your stay more affordable though, Air B&B or camping. Nick and I stayed just out of town at Camping Rialto which, as well as having space for camper vans and tents, also hosts guests in pop up tents or wood cabins with teepee style tents being available for larger groups. It wasn’t perfect by any means (what’s with campsites thinking it’s okay not to provide toilet paper or soap in the bathrooms? Stop being gross!) but it was affordable and the number 19 bus runs from just outside the gates to the central bus stop (as close as you can get to the city in any vehicle) four times an hour (twice on Sundays and holidays) and only costs €1.50 for a single ticket or €3 for a return. Given that boat busses within the city centre run at a hefty €7.50 for a one way ticket this is a definite bargain. Air B&B is another great way to save a few Euro’s on your stay especially if you’d like to be a little closer to the action. if you’ve never Air B&B’d before you can get $25 off of your first stay by clicking on this link

Somehow Venice manages not to feel stifling like so many heavily touristed cities do (I’m looking at you Prague!), the lack of cars and abundance of water create a sense of peace, calm and open space that I adored. It’s also incredibly easy to be vegan here especially if you’re an avid pizza and gelato fan, but supermarkets have you covered too with well labelled ranges of vegan meat products, soya yoghurts and chocolate, Gianduiotti anyone?! 

Rest assured I’ll be back Venice, I have my eye on you!

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Adventures in (and around) Prishtina, Kosovo

Kosovo had been high on my must-visit list for a while, it was certainly one of the places that made me decide that a Balkan road trip was the best way to spend this summer, and I’m so happy I was finally be able to visit. Our time in Kosovo was short but sweet; driving a borrowed van in a country where you can only get 3rd party insurance and where everyone drives like a maniac is something that's best kept to a minimum and curiously there are also zero campsites in Kosovo meaning that we had to super splurge on a hotel with underground parking for our poor uninsured van leaving us with just under 48 hours to explore. We made the most of the time by exploring Prishtina, visiting a bear sanctuary and squeezing in a visit to Prizren, somewhere multiple people both outside and within the country told us we absolutely must visit. 

Prishtina is a really fun city to explore on foot as walking is one of the main things local people do here. Unemployment in Kosovo is high, 60.2% for 16-24 year olds [ref], so going out isn't really an option for Prishtina's young population. An evening stroll on pedestrianised Nëna Terezë Street, where the pavement is lined with cafes interspersed with a very occasional big brand store or bank, is the thing to do and you’ll see families, couples and groups of teenagers enjoying this national pastime, getting some fresh air and mingling with friends. This definitely pushes people watching to the top of the list of things to do here of an evening but also up there is grabbing dinner at popular local spot Baba Ghanoush. Baba Ghanoush also happens to be the only vegetarian eatery in the city but thankfully the food is delicious so you could happily eat here more than once mixing together different small plates from around the menu. After a warm welcome from the owner Nick and I went big after a lunch of bananas, granola bars and Manner wafers from the local supermarket, and ordered a double order of falafel alongside hummus, potatoes, fried mushrooms, tabbouleh and bread.

This was definitely one of the most enjoyable meals we'd eaten in a while, the tabbouleh was heavy on the herbs and flavourful fresh tomatoes making it one of the best I've ever eaten and the smooth and creamy falafel is the stuff my dreams are made of. I've eaten slightly better falafel in my time but this was still at the damned good end of the spectrum and the portion size of both the bread basket and the thinly cut deep fried potatoes were spot on. I only wish we'd been able to go back!

Prishtina is a city of contrasts, one evening after an hour or so of strolling back and forth Nick and I headed from Nëna Terezë Street, past the Skenderbeg monument and the new government building and into the old quarter where we immediately felt like we’d stepped into a different city. A lack of generators in this area meant that a power cut had left this part of town with an almost post apocalyptic feel as people stumbled around on uneven and unlit pavements passing shops only aglow with the light of a mobile phone screen whilst fire engine sirens pierced the air highlighting their struggle to get through the gridlocked streets.  It almost felt as if Prishtina is made up of two parts. During the day the area felt much more welcoming but it was still unmistakably different, we got lost wandering along residential streets before stumbling into the bustling bazaar that reminded me more of a Thai or Vietnamese market place rather than anywhere I’ve ever seen in Europe. Car parts jostled for space next to kitchenwares, vegetables and fresh cheese which, at first glance, I hoped was tofu before remembering where I was. 

Oh yeah and then there's the Bill clinton monument. Strange but better I guess than the road named after Bush that we stumbled upon in another city!

You also must check out the super interesting university library which stands proudly atop a small hill on the way into the city.

Just outside the city down a dirt track alongside a lake just off of the main highway is the Prishtina Bear Sanctuary run by Four Paws, a charity who, as the name suggests, pour all of their energies into caring for animals including, but not limited to, bears. 

Until November 2010 it was legal to keep a bear in Kosovo, not as a pet so much as for entertainment and to draw customers into your restaurant or cafe. Brown bears, often stolen from the forests of Albania or Kosovo, lived in terrible conditions in chains or shackles in cages outside such establishments but the fact that this is now outdated and illegal is just one example of how Kosovo is changing. The rescued bears are now living out the rest of their lives happily and in peace under the care of Four Paws. I was so pleased to be able to visit and take a peek at these magnificent animals living their lives in more natural conditions.

A long hot walk up the hill to the furthest side of the 15 hectare park was rewarded with a wonderful moment where Nick and I were able to watch three bears playing in a pool before coming over close to us to munch on some cabbage that had been left for them earlier in the day. It was a beautiful moment.

One bear gets through just over 15kg of food a day costing the sanctuary €3539 a year per bear. They're currently caring for 13 bears, you do the math! If you currently have any spare cash and would like to help pay for the cost of bear snacks - then please consider donating here.

After our time in Prishtina and at the bear sanctuary we had a little time to spare and despite it being in totally the wrong direction we decided to take a quick trip to Prizren to see another side of Kosovan life away from the capital. Prizren is pretty touristy, with most coming from Albania, and it was another very walkable town. Sadly we didn’t have time to climb up to the walls of the fortress but they were definitely impressive from a distance and I really enjoyed getting a peek into smaller city life after the hustle and bustle of Prishtina. 

Whilst Kosovo isn't going to be appearing on any vegan top ten lists anytime soon it's totally possible to eat there and I loved every moment of the short amount of time I was able to spend there. I'd recommend a visit to anyone with a sense of adventure looking to explore one of the world's newest and most fascinating countries.