The joys of 2015: the experiences that made my year

Travel adventures abounded for me in 2015. Yes, I know how fortunate I am. It was a year full of amazing journeys, discovering new countries and revisiting old ones on three continents. Here are some of my favourite bits.

March

My Blue Train odyssey

It’s always been my dream to experience one of the world’s great train journeys. And this trip from Cape Town to Pretoria lived up to every expectation. Top quality service, amazing food, the comfiest of cabins and of course the ever-changing scenery on a journey through the majesty of South Africa. 27-hours of pure magic.

Find out more about The Blue Train by clicking here.

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The stylish Blue Train leaves the Mother City, heading north

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The Blue Train has arguably the best breakfast menu in the world…and also the best eggs Benedict

June

A spontaneous short break to Barcelona

One of my favourite cities in the world, Barcelona has everything going for it. Amazing architecture, friendly people, great shopping, a huge beach, endless bars and restaurants serving amazing food and wine. And this trip was even better as it was a last-minute booking, an escape from a chilly grey London to the energy and blueness of a fabulous Spanish city.

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Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, the most stunning unfinished building in the world

And of course there’s the Boqueria, probably the best food market in the world – I know I should calm down with the superlatives. I reckon I could spend a whole holiday in here alone, with the mission of tasting something from every stall – a challenge I’d embrace whole heartedly.

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One of the tempting tapas bars in La Boqueria

July

I embarked on a cruise around Northern Europe with my brother Ray, nephew Zak and niece Maxi. And our mascot Sigmund (the toy baboon, reflecting our African roots) who we took everywhere with us. It was a real adventure, visiting new countries like Estonia and Finland and starting off in wonderful Copenhagen where we spent a few days. There were three real standout experiences in a wonderful fortnight where we made new friends and discovered new lands.

Discovering the beauty of Copenhagen

This charming Scandinavian city was a revelation. Truly fabulous restaurants – we devoured course after course at the Michelin-starred Studio. We also shopped up a storm, caught up with old friends, ambled around picturesque Nyhaven and took in all the tourist sights. And the cherry on the top was that Elton John was playing in the world-famous Tivoli Gardens – and we got tickets. What more can I say?

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One of many amazing and delicious courses we tucked into at Studio

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The very little mermaid (she’s very beautiful, too), with our travelling companion Sigmund

Marvelling at St Petersburg

I hate the phrase bucket list – maybe it’s because (if I had one) I’m sure it would go on forever and be way too intimidating to tackle. Having said that I think St Petersburg should on everyone’s…from the grandeur of the Hermitage, the sheer scale and amazing design of the city, the majestic buildings and the somewhat brutal history. Oh and the caviar. When in Russia!

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The Church on the Spilled Blood has to be the most stunning church I’ve ever visited

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Sampling caviar with Zak and Maxine, and Sigmund of course

Sailing down the Thames through Tower Bridge

The cruise ended in London, I mean right in the centre of London – we sailed down the Thames with the city’s landmarks getting closer and closer until Tower Bridge opened up to let us through. I’ve lived in London most of my life and truly love the place. When the crowds lining the river cheered us through I had tears in my eyes. We spent our final night on the river overlooking Tower Bridge, The Shard and the Tower of London. Just perfect.

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The unique view of London’s landmarks from the River Thames

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The beautiful lights of Tower Bridge at night seen from our ship

August

Loving the beachlife (and everything else) in sun-drenched Spain.

I visit La Manga in Spain every year and explore more and more of this versatile region each time. It seems there’s always something new to discover. The markets with their fabulous fresh produce and bargainous clothes, bags, shoes and jewellery, the many beaches lined with restaurants and bars serving delicious Spanish fare, the welcoming people and the sunshine and blue skies, how I love those Spanish skies.

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Early morning on the beach in Cabo de Palos, heavenly!

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A break from sun worshipping and swimming for a chilled Rose

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The purple light of a summer night in Spain

September

At the end of September I embarked on another cruise. This time starting in Rhodes in Greece and sailing around the island of Symi before heading into Turkey. Our eight-berth Turkish gulet, the Muhtesem A was a joy to live on for a week in harmony with nature with endless seas and skies of blue. There were two highlights in a week of chilled-out happiness.

Our beautiful boat in the blues of Greece

Our beautiful boat in the blues of Greece

Absorbing the delights of  dreamlike Symi Harbour

My love affair with Greece continues. On the island of Symi you inhale the wild herbs at every step and the panoramas are endless. A hike to the top of the hill at sunset finished with my first taste of Retsina, a trip to the local herb man to stock up (of course) and a feeling of joy at this picturesque town.

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Our boat berthed in Symi Harbour, picture perfect

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I couldn’t leave Symi without buying plenty of herbs from the charming Stavros

Sleeping under the Turkish stars.

Our idyllic days began with yoga and continued with absorbing the ever-changing landscapes, swimming in the crystal clear sea and eating delicious local food. They turned into starlit nights where I clambered on top of the boat, wrapped in a fluffy blanket and slept tight under the stars, waking to the sunrise, the bleating goats on shore and the early morning bread delivery by boat. A once-in-a-lifetime experience – one I hope to repeat!

You can find out more about Mediterranean Fitness Voyages by clicking here.

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Perfect pinks and blues get the day off to the best start

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The bread man turns up just after dawn with freshly baked goods

October

Living the beach life Thai-style in Koh Samui

Another of my favourite places, the islands of Thailand call me back again and again – well I am a beach baby, after all. The Land of Smiles is the ultimate place to re-energise with warm, crystal-clear waters, laid back shopping days, beautiful scenery wherever you look, the myriad of fruit shakes and cocktails and all those tasty Thai dishes…I ate seafood every day in many different styles and it’s all such great value. Thailand rocks.

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Welcome to Koh Samui with a cocktail on the beach

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My favourite Thai salad – spicy green papaya with prawns. Yum!

Well, what a year. Happy new year to you all, wishing you lots of adventures in 2016. As one of my favourite sayings goes: “Travel is the only thing you pay for that makes you richer.” How true is that?

Where is the best place you went in 2015? Where should I go next? I’d love you to inspire me with your travelling tales.

A magical journey from Rhodes to Marmaris

I love travelling the globe and am lucky enough to have visited many stunning destinations. I was very excited to be heading for Rhodes in Greece to embark on my Mediterranean Delights Fitness Voyage around Greece and Turkey.

Travel can come with its downsides though. Like being delayed 17 hours at Gatwick Airport! This involved eight hours sitting on two planes on the runway for a raft of reasons before being herded back into the airport for a night in the (very nice) Hilton Hotel and an early morning wake up to try all over again. Tedious to say the least.

This did have the positive effect of making my eventual arrival in Rhodes even more joyous. Due to the shocking weather our voyage was delayed, too, and I explored this beautiful town in a torrential downpour.

Rhodes Old Town is a charming place packed with history and lots of great shopping and eating opportunities. Even in the rain!

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Grey skies and waterlogged streets couldn’t spoil the beauty of Rhodes

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Time for some shelter and a delicious traditional Greek lunch

And every cloud has a silver lining – or in this case a rainbow!

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The perfect rainbow lit up the cloud-laden sky

I was told that Rhodes supplies a lot of the country with water, so the rain was a good thing – and having grown up on the farm I get that. But I was pleased when it stopped and we could embark on our adventure, early the next morning. Our beautiful Turkish gulet was heading for the Greek island of Symi. First stop the Panormitis monastery.

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The imposing building seen from our boat

No one seems definite about exactly when everything was built but it’s thought the church was constructed around 450AD over the site of an ancient temple. It stands on the left of a beautiful courtyard and is dedicated to the Archangel Michael. Tradition has it that if you ask a favour of Archangel Michael (and loads of people do), you must give him something in return, so the little, elaborately decorated church is packed with an array of gifts. Rooms are available to rent in the monastery, I’d imagine it’s the ideal place to get away from everything and enjoy some peace and Greek sunshine by the sea.

Explorations complete, it was time to embark on our first hike. Right up to the top of the hill. There’s a herbal aroma like no other in Symi with wild sage aplenty, hints of oregano and thyme and the refreshing scent of fresh pine needles. We breathed in the heady cocktail as we ascended higher and higher with a widening panorama of blue to feast our eyes on.

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On top of the world looking towards Turkey

The hike was a good work out but nothing too taxing with a wide, beautiful and somewhat wild path to follow. It felt like we could be the only people on top of a beautiful world. What a perfect first morning.

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Hiking doesn’t get better than this in its shades of blue and green

There are endless photo opportunities on this trip, perfectly encapsulated here as we all stop to snap away at each other, the views and even ourselves.

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A picture-taking extravaganza

We sailed every day, but never very far. Another cove in Symi revealed steep cliffs, a little beach, another monastery (tiny this time) and plenty of goats nimbly descending precipitous slopes. I’ll always feel a sense of happiness when I hear the tinkle of goat bells again.

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Moored in the cove for swimming and chilling time

Daily stops varied from us being the only boat in sight enveloped in the most beautiful peacefulness you could imagine to harbourside mooring in lovely seaside towns. The perfect combination of get-away-from-it-all relaxation and happy exploration with welcoming locals, bustling bars and restaurants and amazing shopping opportunities.

I fell in love with Symi Harbour instantly. I mean, do villages get more beautiful than this?

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Picture perfect Symi with our beautiful boat in the foreground

With herbs growing aplenty it wasn’t surprising to find the most wonderful array on sale. Here’s Stavros’s stall, a real treasure trove of delights sold with a smile and a chat. Great value too, I bought a big bag of the most aromatic oregano ever and some herb tea that I’ve been drinking copiously since my return home.

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My kind of shop – herbs and spices galore

Our second hike of the trip, just before sunset, took us around the side of the harbour, up a stone path to the very top and another picturesque monastery.

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Up the hill we go as the sun sets

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Beautiful views all around in the last of the day’s sunlight

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Monasteries exude their peace everywhere

Symi’s where Rick Stein did his cooking in his recent TV series, From Venice to Istanbul. I have a great job, but I’ve got to say, his has to be better! As I watched the series avidly I recognised the town and felt immediately at home in it. It’s the perfect holiday spot, one that I hope to visit again for a longer stay.

We did have time to test out a couple of the bars and I convinced one of my fellow travellers to share a jug of Retsina with me. I’d recently read a novel based in Crete and it seemed that every house the main characters went to (and it was a lot of houses), they were offered Retsina and bowls of olives. When in Greece…

I quite liked the Retsina with its earthy, somewhat weird taste. I’d describe it as kind of like a cross between Grappa and wine. Nothing wrong with that.

This was our last stop in Greece,  a couple of hours sailing across the bay and everything felt very different. Welcome to Turkey and Bozburun, another seaside port with its own  unique charm. And amazingly welcoming, friendly people.

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The contrast of super yachts and mosques in Turkey

We were even invited to a local home for lunch. Now that’s friendly. A meander up the hill and we arrived to a table set under the trees laden with a delicious home-cooked meal.

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The best way to sample local cuisine – freshly cooked for you at home

This beautiful dish of pumpkin leaves stuffed with tasty, savoury rice was a real labour of love…and it tasted like it.

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Stuffed pumpkin leaves in the dappled sunshine

We were also presented with large chillis picked straight out of the garden, a beautifully fresh salad and a big bowl of aubergines cooked with tomatoes and garlic. All produce straight out of the garden a few metres away. Just fabulous.

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Salad with a bit of spice on the side

A post-lunch wander back through town to our boat home and it was out into the wide blue yonder again and away from civilisation into a perfect azure cove for the night. We hadn’t been anchored for long before shopping opportunities came to us. My first experience of boat shops…an ice cream man, a load of beautiful towels and linens and even freshly baked bread first thing in the morning.

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This has got to be the best way to shop

As we headed towards our final destination, Marmaris, we stopped off opposite Paradise Island for a final dip in the ever-warm sea. How I miss that sea.

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Paradise island is covered in lush trees

The final sail of the week and we headed into Marmaris Harbour. From my favourite spot on the top of the boat (officially know as the sunning area), all set to the tones of Johnny Cash (a boat tradition apparently) which somehow seemed to add an extra poignancy – and ultimately a couple more songs to my iPod.

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There’s plenty of boat life in Marmaris

Here’s the view from our final mooring of the journey in Marmaris. An amazingly buzzy holiday town, with the front coast-facing road packed with a cornucopia of restaurants offering delicious Turkish fare. And there’s Bar Street running parallel behind it, no confusion as to what happens there.

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Lovely Marmaris with its restaurants with great views

I loved the Grand Bazaar (a smaller less hectic version of the one in Istanbul) with an exotic mix of spices, souvenirs, clothes, bags and pretty much anything else you could desire. All dotted with great food stalls and coffee stops. I could meander here for days and snapped up bags of chilli powder, sumac and dried pomelo. Great flavours to take home.

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The greatest collection of spices and herbs I’ve ever seen in one place.

Here’s a final shot of our wonderful gulet the Muhtesem A. My home for a wonderful week and one I really didn’t want to leave.

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Our beautiful home, the Muhtesem A

Voyage itineraries have to be a bit flexible, taking weather into consideration – as I discovered. Who’d have thought it could rain that much in one afternoon in Greece. Here’s the map so you can get an idea of the geography. The stars denote Rhodes (our starting point, Symi, Bozburun and Maramaris (our finishing point).

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Find out more about Mediterranean Delights Fitness Voyages by clicking here. It’s a truly great way to explore this beautiful region. There are a range of fabulous trips available for 2016.

Sailing delight in Greece and Turkey

This September I boarded a beautiful Turkish gulet, the Muhtesem A, for a week of heaven in the Mediterranean. For someone who’s pretty well travelled, I’ve discovered the beauty of Greece and Turkey late in my travelling life so I’m soaking up every moment of these wonderful countries – trying to make up for lost time, I guess. And there’s no better way to do it than on this ultimate get-away-from-it-all voyage.

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Our beautiful boat moored in one of the many picture-perfect coves we visited

My Mediterranean Delights Fitness Voyage (MDFV) took us from Rhodes in Greece to Marmaris in Turkey (more of the actual route in a later post). From the instant I stepped onboard in a very rainy Rhodes (my flight had been delayed for a tedious 17 hours) I felt like I had come home. My heart leapt with happiness as I discarded my shoes (no shoes to be worn onboard at any time) and was shown to my lovely cabin.

I mean seriously lovely…a huge double bed, plenty of cupboard space to unpack into (always a good thing) and a spacious bathroom with large shower. And three portholes. Actual portholes that I could leave open to let in that Mediterranean sea air. The bed was amazingly comfortable and combined with the boat’s gentle motion led to lots of restful sleep.

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My lovely cabin with a comfortably large double bed

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Here’s one of the ever-changing views through my porthole

The MDFV voyages offer a combination of fitness with yoga, hiking and swimming, healthy (and delicious) eating, cruising to fabulous places and a chance to absorb local culture.

Days unfolded at a leisurely pace and I very quickly grew into my new life. For pre-breakfast (yes, I know, pre-breakfast) I soon developed a voracious appetite for Turkish tea with Turkish honey, sipped while looking out over shades of blue. The perfect way to wake up.

Then it was time for yoga. I’m always up for a bit of fitness, love walking and swimming and haul myself off to the gym fairly regularly. Yoga…not so sure. I did try it once many years back (I think I was 17) and remember the instructor laughing at my beginner’s efforts. Let’s just say it didn’t encourage me to keep going, although I was open to try again now this opportunity had presented itself.

Our yoga instructor Jen hailed from LA – Santa Monica to be exact – the perfect California Girl. And she didn’t laugh at me but offered encouragement and easier options when the going got tough. I miss those yoga sessions, I could feel the good they were doing me even after a week, I feel more yoga in my future life.

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Yoga up front in the early morning sun

Itineraries varied, depending on our destination, with a mix of exploration, hiking, swimming or snorkelling and even a bit of shopping – plenty of time to soak up the local culture. All led with style by our knowledgable Tour Director Ali Yalcin.

Meals were all served on board. Captain Aytekin Karayigit is also in charge of the menu, and ably assisted by the lovely Ayla, produced healthy, tasty cuisine all using fresh local ingredients. For breakfast, plates of fresh cucumber and tomato, cheese, eggs, cereal and bowls of olives. Bowls of olives with everything, don’t know if I’ve ever seen so many olives consumed!

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Fresh food and beautiful views at breakfast

Lunch was a wide range of vegetarian dishes – salads, peppers, beans, courgettes, aubergines, spinach, amazing potatoes and rice dishes, yogurt in many forms, traditional pastries. A table of delights every time, showcasing the wonderful flavours of Greece and Turkey.

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More tasty dishes and sparkling views for lunch

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Happiness is…dining together

More local specialities for dinner, often with the addition of a meaty plate, including the best meatballs, fabulous chicken pieces and kebabs. And the best thing ever – whenever we sailed the crew threw lines overboard and usually caught quite a lot of fish (often mackerel). And that would be our dinner – barbecued upfront on a little barbecue cleverly bolted onto the front of the boat. Fish doesn’t get fresher than this and boy could you taste it.

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The clever barbecue with the best views

It sounds like we ate a lot, and I guess we did but I felt the healthiness of it all – no worries with getting your five-a-day here, and it felt like a pleasure rather than a chore.

Okay, back to the boat and my favourite place on it. Up the steps to the top for the upper deck. Covered with plenty of plump mattresses it made the perfect sunbathing chill-out spot and as I soon discovered, sleeping spot, too. When I could tear myself away from the comfort of my cabin, up the steps I went armed with my pillow and the huge fluffly blanket supplied which I wrapped myself up in for the perfect night under the stars. The ultimate in peaceful sleep, with an awakening by the sunrise and the gentle sound of goats bleating on shore.

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Good morning after a night out in the fresh air

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The perfect spot for chilling out in the day, too

Journeys don’t get better than this. From the wonderful boat and its many comforts, to the joy of jumping into the balmy, azure sea daily (at least) for a swim and snorkel, to exploring out-of-the-way places and picturesque towns, to the simple tranquility of it all and yes, the yoga, too. And the crew – knowledgable, friendly, fun – making for one of the loveliest holidays of my life. My love affair with Greece and Turkey continues.

You can find out all about next year’s Mediterranean Delights Fitness Voyages  by clicking here.

Next time I’ll tell you all about the places we visited. Like magnificent, dreamlike Symi. Watch this space.

 

The best Christmas stuffing ever

So it’s the last day of 2014 – I can’t believe how quickly this year has passed. For my last post of the year, I thought I’d share this spectacular stuffing recipe with you for your next Christmas dinner – it’s my brother Ray’s creation. For our family Christmas everyone has their part to play in the food preparation and Ray’s in charge of turkeys, stuffing and gravy.

His stuffing is legendary and a real labour of love. I haven’t given exact quantities for everything as you can experiment with the ingredients to design your own personalised stuffing. This made enough to stuff two large turkeys with some left over.

A cornucopia of ingredients

A cornucopia of ingredients

3 packets of streaky bacon, chopped

4 onions, chopped

1 small pack of mushrooms, chopped

2 red peppers, chopped

2 yellow peppers, chopped

A mix of dried apricots, peaches and cranberries

1 cup of ginger

1 cup of garlic

2 handfuls of fresh coriander

2 handfuls of fresh basil

2 fresh peaches, chopped

500g pork sausages, meat taken out of the skin

6 eggs, beaten

2 cups mixed nuts

Fry the ginger, garlic and onion in olive oil until softened. Set aside.

Fry the bacon, set aside.

Fry the peppers and mushrooms, set aside.

Mix all the cooked ingredients together. Add all the rest of the ingredients and stir well.

If you want thicker stuffing, leave it like this and stuff your turkey or chicken now.

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Here’s the stuffing before it gets blended

We blend it all together for a much smoother mix.

Here's the smoother version after blending

Here’s the smoother version after blending

Do you have any special Christmas recipes? I’d love to hear about them.

 

A feast of travel in Europe

I can’t believe it’s been three weeks since I posted. I’ve been on a once-in-a-lifetime holiday starting with a couple of days in Rome, then cruising the Med with five amazing stops and finishing in Istanbul where I spent four fascinating days. My head is full of history, memories of the most beautiful of scenery and architecture and of course the flavours of many meals eaten in Italy, Greece and Turkey.

I travelled with my brother and his two children aged 11 and 12. Our odyssey started in Rome.

Going to Rome is like stepping into the world’s biggest al fresco museum. The city is bursting with history with a story around every corner. And the food is simply amazing, including the first of many Caprese salads!

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Loved travelling around Italy sampling Caprese

My favourite thing about my first cruise was waking up every morning to somewhere new and beautiful. You just didn’t know what you’d see when you drew back those curtains.

First stop: Sorrento. Beautiful hill-top town painted in Mediterranean colours with fabulous winding streets where we shopped extensively and ate and drank. Simply the best pizza and Caprese salad twice – once in a magical lemon-grove of a restaurant.

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The pizza in Sorrento was the best ever

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Day two’s Caprese, possibly the best one yet

Next morning it was Taormina in Sicily, perched high up on the cliff with truly spectacular views. The town has an enchanted feeling and amazing views with Mount Etna, Europe’s highest active volcano, to one side an ancient Greek theatre and azure blue seas. Plus the best veal dish ever and a contender for best dish of the holiday!

The view from our restaurant

The view from our restaurant

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Veal rolls, possibly the best dish of the holiday

And on to Greece. Mykonos is a labyrinth of blue and white…designed specially so invaders and pirates would get lost meandering through the streets. Of course this means that everyone gets lost, including us. Mykonos is where you go to party with lovely beaches and hectic nightlife…I’ll be back.

Beautiful Little Venice in Mykonos

Beautiful Little Venice in Mykonos

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A selection of Greek delights

Good morning Santorini! Honestly, I woke up this morning, opened my curtains and couldn’t believe the sight. Huddling on a cliff top and only accessible (from our side) by cable car, walking or donkey. A truly unique experience and not ideal for the vertiginously challenged (me!). We got the cable car up and walked down a steep zig zag of steps, dodging frisky, disorderly donkeys all the way.

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Beautiful Santorini, you can see the zig zag path we walked down

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Greek yogurt and beer on high with our ship in the distance

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Our favourite lamb dish of the trip

Kusadasi is a holiday town in Turkey. While the beaches are nice enough, the real attraction was the ancient city of Ephesus about half an hour’s drive away. It’s nearly 4,000 years old and was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. In the 1st century BC it had a population of 250,000, making it one of the largest cities in the Mediterranean world – and amazingly they had plumbing, heating, running water and toilets. The streets are paved with marble and you can see the remains of the theatre, library, even the equivalent of the Houses of Parliament. A real revelation.

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The remains of the library at Ephesus

Last stop Istanbul where we disembarked from our stunning, luxurious cruise liner, the Crystal Symphony. All a bit of a shock after being treated like kings for nine days, suddenly we had to fend for ourselves. Of course we managed

Istanbul is a fascinating city bursting with stories going back so far in time. I’m still digesting it all. Amazingly it is situated on two continents, one half in Europe and the other in Asia with the Bosphorus in between. And it’s huge with a population of around 14 million. We hired a fabulous guide who bombarded us with information!

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An amazing array of starters to choose from

Street food is big in Istanbul with donner kebab stands everywhere. We watched the chicken man loading his up every morning with literally hundreds of deboned, marinated chickens! They tasted amazing too, the best wraps ever.

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Every morning we watched this man load hundreds of deboned chickens onto his kebab

We discovered an amazing Turkish Delight and baklava shop where we popped in for pudding one day. Super-sweet and sticky!

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Four different kinds of baklava

What can I say! A real whirlwind of a holiday with so many new experiences and food delights. Like trying ouzo for the first time – and really loving it; dodging donkeys; bargaining in the Grand Bazaar and getting everything for less than half the original price; tasting tomatoes (my favourite) throughout the continent…I could go on and on.

Hope you enjoy reading about it all. Would love to hear from anyone who’s been to any of these amazing places and what your experiences were, so do get in touch.

And keep reading for more great recipes. I’m bursting with ideas after such an inspiring trip.