On just another rainy September day a lifetime ago (or 2004 to be precise), two people met each other on a bus. He’d later tell people he noticed those dark brown curls and bright eyes and she’d tell her friends she liked his laugh and the way he was sitting reading his newspaper. It was not long after this moment that Chris Ashton and Amy Foster fell in love and it was ten years later in Venice, on a street lit bridge in the silent shadows of the Teatro Fenice that he would ask her hand in marriage, to which she would agree. And off they walked into those shadows, hand in hand once more to the next adventure, whatever that may bring.
Since we returned home to England from our travels in 2012, it would be fair to say that things have been anything but dull - we now own a house, both have careers and even have a dog, a lovely little King Charles spaniel named Esther who, as any dog owner will attest, has essentially become our child! Esther aside. However, despite now being permanently rooted in Manchester the embers of wanderlust persist and it
is with a reliable regularity that we each feel the intermittent itch to make off with those trusty backpacks. Most commonly this feeling occurs on yet another dreary Manchester morning filled with rain and the kind of dread that can only exist with the imminent threat of a 6am alarm signalling the commencement of the working day.
However, we have not simply abandoned our backpacks and settled into a ‘normal’ life, nor has our life been devoid of all the excitement and intrigue of permanent life on the road and as such, we have settled ourselves with getting the most out of what holidays our jobs provide in order to scratch the aforementioned itch.
One advantage of being thousands of miles from home for so long is that you come to appreciate what is on your doorstep and as such, we are indeed spoiled with Europe within easy and relatively cheap reach. So, we have spent the ensuing time since our return making the most of exactly that. The last two years have taken us to another eleven countries - from the searing summer heat of Marrakech to a frozen November in Moscow. We essentially resorted to simply
looking at flight comparison websites, asking ourselves where we hadn’t been before and off we went. In keeping with our exploits of a few years ago in Asia and South America, there were some amazing sights and moments along the way, one or two disappointments and the odd near death experience as standard. So, business as usual, as it were. And to cap it all off, an engagement a long time in the making.
We each had individual trips with friends or family to Copenhagen, Hvar, and Barcelona but our first trip together took us on a crisp December jaunt on the Danube. Budapest is a truly beautiful city and we enjoyed a number of evenings walking, albeit briskly given the plummeting temperatures, along the riverside; peering across the Danube at the city’s Parliamentary building, its illuminated façade shimmering in the waters below. Between the long strolls and stops at the Christmas markets, we indulged ourselves with an evening of symphony at the Hungarian State Opera House, an opulent testament to Neo-Renaissance architecture from the late 1800’s. For such a beautiful and historic building, tickets are remarkably cheap – we even shelled out for a private box
for a modest sum to enjoy the music.
Brussels & Bruges
Waffles and beer are what perhaps best sum up our time in Belgium. Somewhat unexpectedly, for us Brussels proved a more enjoyable stop off than the more aesthetically renowned Bruges, which we were left a little disappointed by. Bruges seemed to exist as something of a tourist trap and whilst its canals and rivers look beautiful, the town itself just seemed to be missing something in the way of a pulse – granted our time there was just a day but for a town of such renown, we came away feeling a bit let down. Brussels on the other hand was much livelier – we spent most of our time based around the Grand Place, the famed square surrounded on all sides by beautiful buildings and in August the Tapis de Fleurs adorns its cobbled floors, something we sadly missed given the time of year we visited. Sure it also attracts the tourists and I’m aware of the irony there based on my criticisms levied at Bruges, but whilst wandering off down any one of its numerous alleys to find a pub to sample Belgian fare, we
found there to be a completely different atmosphere and authenticity around the city and square.
If Bruges lacked soul, Lisbon is very much the opposite. Its historic streets packed with friendly locals at all times of the day, and as I have recently discovered (I also went to Lisbon on a stag party a couple of months ago) well into the evening too in the especially vibrant Bairro Alto. The only downside to our stay in Lisbon, other than being offered cocaine or marijuana or ‘something special’ every ten meters on Avenida de Liberdade, was it seemed we had brought the Manchester weather with us as it rained consistently for the three days we were in the city, limiting our opportunities to be outside enjoying that greatest of our pastimes: people watching. During the short intervals the rain held off, we spent our evenings venturing up the Elevador da Gloria into Bairro Alto where we enjoyed our evening meals and a few of the local bars, appreciating the casualness with which the local musicians ventured into different bars for a brief 3-4 song set before they moved along, to be replaced a short while later by the
I’m sure it’s been said by many but Prague and Budapest have a lot of similarities. Based on the Vltava River, its castles, National Theatre building and architecture are very similar to the Hungarian capital, thought at least this time we were able to enjoy the city in much more friendly temperatures. Amongst the highlights of our time in Prague were evening walks along the Charles Bridge, its cobbles lit in the evening by the many lanterns which intersperse the saints lined along the bridge’s walls. Other than the obvious sites, like the astronomical clock and St Vitus Cathedral, we enjoyed the history of the Jewish Cemetery and evening drinks at Café Louvre, whose famous customers have included Kafka and Einstein.
Ah yes, the near death experience…or something of the like, at least from our point of view (I may have over exaggerated this somewhat). We actually decided on a week away in a resort in Agadir for a bit of a break from work. Whilst the backpackers reading this blog perhaps feel the near death experience came from boredom, it unfortunately did not! Whilst our hotel was lovely, we quickly remembered
why we aren’t especially fond of resorts and mid-way through the trip, made our way to the local bus station and bought a ticket for Marrakech. The evening bustle and sounds of the Jemaa el Fna had appealed to us for a long time so it was with great excitement that we quickly checked into our beautiful Riad and headed out for a day of exploring. First on the agenda was the tanneries on the outskirts of the walled old town, with the smaller less touristy tanneries being our preference. We were aided somewhat along the way with verbal directions from a young market worker closer to the town centre as Marrakech is a very easy place to become disorientated. After finding the tanneries, we engaged with an older man at the entrance who spoke English and offered us a somewhat unofficial tour, complete with mint leaves to mask the truly horrendous smell of the rotting tanneries. So far so good, and we know the way these things go – man shows you around, cracks a few jokes and you pay him some money at the end for the trouble, which we dutifully did. And the money was worth it
just for those mint leaves.
However, it was near the exit of the tanneries, down a narrowed alley that things took a turn for the worst. As we approached, it was clear there were 5-6 other local men whom our guide was very friendly with semi-blocking our path. In a building to the right, our guide offered us the chance to see some leather products crafted in the tanneries through which we had just wandered high on mint! Not wanting to offend or quite honestly anger those around us, we decided we’d take a quick look and politely decline to purchase anything. After going into the building, and walking through to the next room, it became apparent that a number of the people who had previously been blocking our exit from the alley had followed us into the building…and then of course came the moment you realise there are no other tourists or even locals in sight, in a very isolated part of town.
Very quickly we forced our way towards the exit of the building past the remonstrating local men who began shouting and cursing at us in broken English and becoming more and more aggressive. What’s
more, we even noticed one who had joined them was the young man from the centre of town who had pointed the direction of the tanneries to us. I suddenly realised Amy had spun around and unleashed a verbal lashing at the leader of the rabble which actually stunned him somewhat to the point he clearly didn’t quite know what to make of this turn of events. At this stage we were actually back out on the alley and into the street where one or two other people were walking by. At this point we just turned again and headed back for the town centre as briskly as we could down the labyrinth of identical alleys of Marrakech.
Once back in the Jemaa el Fna, it took us a few hours for the adrenaline to settle. Once it had however, we set about exploring the more obvious sights of Marrakech, snake charmers and all. A couple of the more beautiful scenes we’d experienced recently came towards the evening, the first as we headed out for dinner to completely deserted streets during evening prayers. Its stands a marked contrast between the jostle of the day and the complete stillness during
this time. That evening in the main square, we also enjoyed observing the Moroccan storytellers as they regaled the local crowds with folk tales of varying amounts of comedy and drama. And with that, we headed back for the beach.
Having finally visited Paris (although Amy is quick to correct me that she had been twice before), it is remarkable that British people take so long to see one of the world’s greatest cities given it is a cheap, one hour flight away. More remarkable still is the fact that despite this city’s monumental history with a story on every street and avenue, perhaps the most memorable aspect of the trip for me was a particular blueberry & white chocolate mountain of pancakes I attempted at a little café called, yes, “Breakfast in America”, a diner-styled establishment which apparently specialises in doling out beautiful stacks of pure diabetes…what’s that you ask? Maple Syrup? Yes please, and leave the bottle.
That shouldn’t take away from what a brilliant city Paris is to explore and experience. But the pancake stack very much belongs in a city of masterpieces.
Moscow in November is cold. Bitterly cold.
So freezing that no matter the number or depth of layers worn, those Siberian winds will simply cut right through to the bone. And rather masochistically, we loved it – there’s something rather enjoyable about visiting Russia in the cold, though I’m finding it difficult to put my still frost bitten finger on what that would be. Red Square is a gem, as is the vibrant St Basel’s Cathedral, which presides over the cobbled square and whose colours dominate the landmark day and night. The Kremlin has an eerie quality to it – so many late 80’s/early 90’s action films as well as some modern news outlets have likely conditioned me to believe some form of dastardly plot was being hatched behind those very walls as we walked by. Sure they can parade their soldiers outside the Kremlin walls to stand guard and occasionally perform an extremely enthusiastic changing of the guard ceremony to the delight of the watching crowds but we know Kremlin, we know…”sneaky Russians”, as some wise cockney once proclaimed, we know you’re up to no good!
For us, one of the highlights of the trip was taking a wander away from the city centre as
we headed for Bulgakov’s Patriarch’s Pond, setting of the infamous beheading of Berlioz bythe work of the devil in The Master & Margarita (Amy’s favourite book). Naturally frozen over given the plunging temperatures and quite plain and unremarkable, we took in a street lit stroll around the pond one evening enjoying the fact that a major setting for a literary masterpiece of counter culture was wonderfully devoid of any tourists.
Where to begin? Perhaps at the beginning, of course. Amy and I had actually had to cancel two previous trips to Venice over the years for different reasons, so with this being the third attempt at this city, I felt this would be the perfect time to pop the question. Whilst giving Amy the impression we had booked into our typical wallet friendly hostel, I’d sneakily booked us a stay at the Hotel Al Reali, a beautiful former palace overlooking a quiet canal which links the Rialto Bridge with the Bridge of Sighs. I had everything planned out, except of course the actual bridge where I would ask Amy to be my wife. I just knew I wanted it to be somewhere quiet. As we had arrived
early on our first day, we had plenty of time for me to look around and find somewhere beautiful and quiet, and I eventually settled on the Ponte de Piscina, a lovely bridge leading away from the Teatro Fenice in a quiet little corner of Venice.
That evening we went for a meal I had booked at the Club Del Doge in the Gritti Palace Hotel, enjoying a few bottles of wine and great food. Until that point I did not have any nerves about asking the question, but on the walk from the restaurant to the bridge, the nerves caught up with me somewhat. Approaching the bridge, I could see it was empty, and lit by a single street light. The rest was a bit of a blur of smiles, tears and kisses as Amy said yes after I’d dropped to one knee – though I do remember one couple happening upon the scene who kindly held back into the shadows until eventually crossing and giving us a smiling congratulations along their way!
One perfect evening led into the next as we had a plan for our New Year’s Eve – first we enjoyed an amazing Opera
at the incredibly beautiful Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista. The wine and food were included in the ticket so we were a little drunk on Prosecco to say the least. As the Opera finished, we noticed we had enough time to scarper down to the Piazza San Marco (with a borrowed bottle of Prosecco in hand) to join the tightly packed crowds for the midnight fireworks to see in the New Year.
Our final day in Venice, we indulged in some spa treatments at our hotel during the day before heading out in the evening for a meal in the beautiful Castello. On our way back to the hotel we paid a particularly friendly Gondolier for a moonlit Gondola ride which took us around near the Teatro Fenice, seeing the bridge where two nights earlier we had been engaged, and finally down the Grand Canal and not once on our whole journey that evening did we see another Gondola, perhaps due to it being Jan 1st
and the city was much quieter that day, but not for the first time on our trip, it seemed for a moment we had Venice completely to ourselves.
It has been too long since we have made a conscious effort to note our trips in this space and it is something we are endeavouring to recommit to. We have a number of really exciting trips planned for this year already, which included Northern Lights hunting in Iceland (blog to follow) and a visits to Istanbul (finally we’ll be going somewhere that is warm again!) and Berlin for my Birthday. Also, we are heading back to Italy again, as we have booked our wedding in Tuscany, so will be heading to Siena in May to see the venue and also to do a bit of exploring too of course!
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