My guide to boss travel: Introduction

Trevi Fountain, Rome

Trevi Fountain, Rome

When you’re stuck at your desk at lunchtime, it can seem like half of the people you scroll past in your social media feeds are travelling somewhere amazing. The other half are squee-ing over a kitten, puppy or child, but that’s another thing entirely.

If you want to travel more often, but don’t know where to start, buckle up. As someone who isn’t truly happy unless I’m planning my next trip, I’ve got some tried-and-tested tips to share with you. Soon you’ll be posting your own fab photos of your next big adventure or little getaway.

I can’t do anything about your budget, but I can help you break trip planning down into manageable steps so that you don’t have to feel overwhelmed by logistics, discover tools to find good deals, and give you ways to cut the drama and enjoy yourself.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that many people (who tell me that I travel too much) tend to completely dismiss the idea of travelling without doing any research or math – they just tell themselves it’s impossible and leave it at that. That might be true, but have you ever thought to create a breakdown of the actual costs? You might be surprised. Or you might not be, depending on your obligations and other priorities.

This weekly series will walk you through everything you need to know and do for a great holiday. My travel focus, and true love, is the cities of Europe, so most of my advice will be geared towards North Americans travelling to the UK and the continent. But a lot of this advice will also be handy for shorter trips closer to home.

Keep an eye out for posts on the next six Fridays, including:

  1. Deciding where to go, and when
  2. Who’s joining you?
  3. Time to dream
  4. Sorting out the boring stuff
  5. In transit
  6. Your trip, your way

Venice

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Oh Venice. I resisted you for so long, but a little voice told me to go. So we did. I’m glad I listened.

The resistance came from a lifetime of generalisations, of other people’s stories of a hot, smelly, overpriced Venice completely taken over by hoards of tourists disgorging from cruise ships. And Venice had always seemed like the biggest travel cliché, ever. How could it possibly live up to all the hype?

Then I watched the Venice episode of Travel Man. Richard Ayoade and Jo Brand were wearing coats, scarves and cozy, warm hats while eating cicchetti and gelato, or learning how to row gondolas. Wintertime. That was the answer. An answer this introverted misanthrope is almost loathe to share. But hey, my readership is miniscule so I figure any Venetians hoping for winter peace and quiet will continue unmolested by my rapturous praise.

We had a wonderful stay at Hotel Al Ponte Mocenigo – a small, well-priced hotel I’m certain we’d never have managed to snap up in a busier season. In the San Polo district, it was a very short walk to everything, mere metres from the San Stae vaporetto (waterbus) station, and our hosts were friendly and anxious to make sure our stay was a blissful one. Our luxurious room’s decor wouldn’t have been out of place in the Doge’s Palace; golden green silk-panelled walls, a gilt headboard and heavy, opulent curtains over windows that looked out into an ancient courtyard.

Armchair Travel
For stunning photos, check out National Geographic‘s Venice Photos  and Harper’s Bazaar‘s 20 PHOTOS THAT WILL MAKE YOU WANT TO BOOK A FLIGHT TO VENICE. (ALL CAPS necessary, therefore not removed)

We referred to Design Sponge‘s 24 Hours in Venice, Italy again and again. It steered us toward great areas that we might not have thought to visit.

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A Toronto homecoming – what I ate and the supplies I brought back

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I recently scooped up a cheap flight to Toronto that happened to coincide nicely with Canadian Thanksgiving, although next time I’ll give myself a few more days recovering from jet lag before hitting the feast itself, so I will actually remember it properly. Note to self: over-tiredness and a generously poured Riesling do not mix. Unless you want to cement your reputation as the loopiest member of the family when you’re not falling asleep in your ham.

My reasons for visiting were to see family and friends, walk the mean streets of Toronto from the perspective of being away for over a year, and compare it to my new life in Leeds. Oh, and eat a few meals that I have been craving for ages:

  • Caplansky’s – haven’t been able to find Jewish deli food that tastes like home over here – it’s just different. My first bite of brisket on rye produced an “oh” sound that was half sensual, half heartache.

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    Brisket on rye, with fries, dill pickles and a Coke Diete (good ol’ bilingualism)

  • Banjara – I have two experiments going on right now. I know what curries in Leeds are like, and wanted to see how my old fave, Banjara, measured up. I also have a Yorkshire native heading to Toronto next spring and I want to see what he thinks too. Banjara did fine, but living in the Leeds Bradford area means I don’t need a ticket home for amazing curries.
  • Dim Sum at Kwan. Something all of my friends have in common is their ability to take me to restaurants that are exactly what I was craving, even if I didn’t know it. Went for lunch/brunch and noticed that I didn’t have dinner that night. That almost never happens.
  • Bagels and cream cheese – yes, I know there’s Bagel Nash in Leeds, and they are very good, but bagels and cream cheese are simply ubiquitous in Toronto, meaning I could get my fix in the morning pretty much the moment I craved one, owing to the afore-mentioned ubiquitousness. It would be a bit like a bacon buttie over here.
  • Despite a bit of effort, I didn’t make it to Terroni, and after a friend treated me to pizza at Mattachioni, I didn’t have to. Great pizza, fantastic wine list.
  • Deep-fried pierogies  – I missed the CNE this year, its Food Building and what I thought was my only chance at deep-fried pierogies, but my friend took me to the new Loaded Pierogi where I could simultaneously kill my craving for buffalo chicken and pierogi. You haven’t lived until you’ve had it deep fried.

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    Rommel delivers a home run for my final Toronto lunch 

I also returned home to pick up some much-needed supplies that I haven’t been able to find easily in the UK or were added to the list once I was Toronto-bound.

  • Indoor temperature and humidity reader – we were quite cold in our house last winter and we were curious as to whether it was the temperature or the damp chill settling into the very marrow of our bones. Now we’ll be able to tell much more easily!
  • Crest Pro-Health toothpaste – it was suggested that this was my only real reason for flying to Toronto, and well, they’re not wrong. Shopper’s Drug Mart even met me half way by having it on sale. Any friends or family heading over here, please pack some for me. It will become your rent for our guestroom. I hope you know I’m not kidding. And Crest – if you want to do a Tim Horton’s-style commercial of an expat’s aching need for your product, call me!
  • A small (200 ml) bottle of Grand Marnier  – as much as I love the fact that grocery stores, off-licences and little shops sell booze here, I do feel homesick for the huge selection and expertise the LCBO offers, along with a variety of bottle sizes for liquor. I use Grand Marnier in a few recipes at Christmas and don’t need a huge, expensive bottle of it.
  • Sale rack finds at Anthropologie and Banana Republic. Two stores where I always walk straight to the sale section, as the regular prices are just laughable. Others must think so too, because the sale selection is always great!
  • Girl Guide thin mint cookies (photo not available as I et them all). Synonymous with October for me.
  • MEC raincoat with an adjustable hood that makes an umbrella unnecessary. Ha – that model is tall; it’s pretty much knee-length on me.  I know there are similar stores to MEC over here, but they’re not MEC. You know?
  • Toothbrush holder – why can I only find cups here? Gross! Honestly – with the no clothes dryers and the lack of airiness to your toothbrush cups, I think you Brits create a lot of your own damp issues.

Regrets, I have a few

  • Didn’t make it over to Toronto Island
  • Most days were hot enough that I never actually craved slightly stodgy but utterly delicious poutine, but now I’m kicking myself
  • Didn’t visit The Caledonian (a Scottish whisky pub) but will console myself with another trip to Glasgow

I’ve gone native Brit-styles  Continue reading

Scotland – Glasgow

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Ok people – what the damn hell? Over the years I’ve heard so many negative things about Glasgow. After visiting I am extremely happy to report that what I’d heard is about as clichéd and out of date as the people who think the UK only serves fish and chips, warm beer and doesn’t have ice cubes.

I originally had visions of a grimy city with uninspired architecture and angry, sullen residents. Edinburgh’s ugly step-sister. But then I started reading about Glasgow, how it’s a city that has been allowed to evolve and change, not being shackled by Edinburgh’s UNESCO World Heritage Site status. From that I inferred, wrongly, that Glasgow’s city centre wouldn’t necessarily blow my mind. I really didn’t do my research obviously. My friend was visiting from Canada, wanted to see a bit of Scotland along with London and some Yorkshire countryside and I chose Glasgow because I wanted to avoid the costs and crowds of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. And then I spent 90% of my time planning our London itinerary and day trips in Yorkshire. I think the extent of my Glasgow planning involved picking a hotel and making note of a great whisky pub my friend recommended.

I will be the first to say that Edinburgh is truly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. You should go. I’ve already covered it in an earlier post and I was very happy to return for a second visit.

But Glasgow. Street after street of stunning Victorian and Mackintosh architecture, culminating in George Square. After wandering around the crazy streets of Leeds, York and London, the city centre’s right-angled grid of wide streets was reassuring and homey to this Torontonian. Glasgow has done a very nice job of juxtaposing its modern buildings into the mix. And the scale of the buildings made the streets feel more like the canyons of Manhattan (and oddly, Budapest) than any place in Europe I’ve yet been.

With all the tourists flocking to Edinburgh, we really felt like we had the place to ourselves. I saw one store selling plaids and kilts, and another selling knicky-knacky thingies, but otherwise, the shops and businesses had more to do with people’s everyday needs and wants.

Armchair Travel
It’s true enough that when I read Glasgow’s slogan on their official visitor’s site – People Make Glasgow I thought of all the warm and friendly people we spoke to during our visit and yeah, it’s a great, fitting slogan.

I think it’s photos like the one used on the front page of Lonely Planet’s Glasgow pages that might have had me expecting a very modern city centre. (Not that there’s anything wrong with modern architecture!)

EDIT: How could I have forgotten about researching Glasgow in Scotland Now? A true forehead-slapping oversight: 10 hidden gems you didn’t know were in Glasgow

Food and Drink
This is a short list as we really didn’t spend much time in the city itself. In order of how happy they made me:

The Pot Still  – Whisky Bar
So great we went twice in the same day. Bartender was worried about my choice of such a peaty whisky (LAPHROAIG QUARTER CASK) and wondered if I’d like a taste first before he poured it, bless him.

Cafe Wander
Three words: Full Scottish Breakfast. Everything perfectly cooked, friendly service and my new litmus test for a breakfast joint – when I ask them to hold the eggs, I really like it when a server asks me what I’d like more of, instead.

Bread Meats Bread – gourmet hamburgers
Hungry travellers fresh off a train that contained an exuberant, heavily perfumed hen party, this place caught our eye on Yelp. Jeff and I both ordered burgers, but Ann really won this round with the Angry Bird Poutine. Happily it was so huge she needed help.

The Butterfly and the Pig – The Dining Room Downstairs
Shabby chic and a super quirky menu of comfort food classics. It was nice and cool in Glasgow after a hot week in London so I could dig into mac and cheese with bacon. Big portion, could only eat half. Really wished our hotel room had a kitchenette so I could have taken the second half with me.

Regretfully, we didn’t spot a single deep-fried Mars bar, deep-fried pizza or a munchy box. But then, I don’t think I was drunk enough to really want any of those things anyway.

Fun
Trust me there are tons more things to do than we managed owing to the whirlwind nature of our trip but we managed to fit these in:

Glasgow Botanic Gardens
I can imagine how nice it would be to enter the glass houses during a dull, wet day in January for a fresh transfusion of green, tropical plants.

Glasgow Cathedral and the Necropolis
Over 800 hundred years old, we went because I had an Outlander fan moment and they had used it as a location, but that soon turned into simple appreciation of its beauty. The nearby Necropolis is great for an uphill walk and good views of the city.

Discover Scotland – coach tours and day trips
We did the Jacobite Steam Train, Glenfinnan and Mallaig tour, which was spectacular. Great driver/tour guide, lots of great stories and anecdotes about the points of interest. It was about a 12-hour day (tour van leaves George Square at 8:00am sharp and returns at about 7:30 pm) but very relaxing to let someone else plan the day’s events and stops! Our feet thanked us for taking a day off.

I am going to finish my thoughts here today with the realisation that I – gasp – prefer Glasgow to Edinburgh and look forward to visiting again.

 

Amsterdam

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I’m just going to get this off my chest now because it’s the main reason I didn’t post much on Facebook during my visit to Amsterdam. Yes – sometimes I caught whiffs of marijuana as we wandered through the narrow streets of the city centre, but I get tired of people who assume it’s the top (or only) reason to visit. Even Anthony Bourdain is getting a bit bored and refers to this juvenile assumption in his travel tips. Sigh.

Amsterdam is full of distinctive seventeenth century architecture, more canals than Venice, a swoon-worthy amount of art and friendly, laid-back locals for whom a smart-ass sense of humour seems to be mandatory. Either that or I ask a lot of stupid questions. I loved how they would take my earnestness, set me back on my heels with a wee bit of sass and make me instantly comfortable.

It’s an emotional city for me as well. My parents are Dutch, so being surrounded by soft, guttural Dutch speech transports me back to childhood family gatherings. During one cozy breakfast in a small café, the radio was on and the morning show DJ sounded exactly like my late father. 

And the food! Whether it’s the sausages and cheese I grew up with on every brown café menu, the abundance of pancake houses or the little speculaas or stroopwafel biscuits that appear with each cup of coffee or tea, I’m never far from my roots.

This was our first experience using AirbnbWe planned this trip rather quickly and our visit fell during the Tulip Festival so available hotel rooms either had Manhattan prices, or were so small that we’d be able to dive into the bed from the doorway. Our rented flat was in a great location near the museums and a short walk to the city centre. I’m definitely a convert – for less money than a tiny hotel room, we had a large, airy flat with a huge open-concept living room/kitchen, along with a comfortable bedroom and bathroom. Our hosts were easy to reach by text and email, punctual and helpful. We’ve used other flat and house rental agencies in the past, but Airbnb has moved to the top of the list.

When we last visited Amsterdam in 2011, we quickly realised we could have easily added at least three more days to our itinerary so I whipped up this short trip to right that ancient wrong. And it was my birthday. There’s nothing like waking up in a different, exciting city on your birthday.

Armchair Travel
Stunningly beautiful pictures of Amsterdam (exactly what it says on the tin)

I always love me some travel shows when I’m researching, and my two travel gurus are Anthony Bourdain and Rick Steves. Bourdain’s bad boy balances out Mr. Steve’s more wholesome ethos and delivery. But as much as I’d rather have a night out with Anthony,  it’s my man Rick’s insistence on travelling with only carry-on luggage that has saved my ass on multiple occasions, so…I think Rick wins.

More specifics on food, drink and fun below. Continue reading

Two Quiet Armchair Travel Films

Let me be clear – these are quiet films. Not chick flicks, not rom-coms; no explosions, zombies or decapitations. No Byzantine plots with multiple storylines. No A-list celebrities sculpted and styled to perfection.

These two simple films will draw you in and are less like watching a movie and more like that feeling when you reach the part of your holiday when time has slowed down, you’ve finally shucked off your workday cares and sitting at an outdoor café in the sun watching the passing parade is your only reason for being.

Both films remind me of Lost in Translation, but nobody needs to tell you to watch that. Both films are easy to file into the back of your mind and never actually get around to watching. I know, because I heard about them every so often and I never bothered to watch them either. Until I did.

The Lunchbox
Do yourself a favour and plan to watch this film when you have already picked up a takeaway Indian curry. Do not do what I did and watch this film while eating butternut squash ravioli with arrabbiata sauce. The dissonance was almost painful. This film will make you want to buy a tiffin box for your lunch and maybe branch out from your usual butter chicken or tikka masala next time you’re in the mood for Indian food.

Set in Mumbai. If you’re short on patience/time, don’t miss the sequence near the beginning of the film which depicts the delivery system of home-cooked lunches in tiffin tins to Mumbai’s workforce. Absolutely amazing!

Note: The version I’ve linked to doesn’t have subtitles, but you can probably find it on Netflix.

Cairo Time
One of my favourite books, Moon Tigeris partly set in Cairo. It’s a book that always lingers in my mind long after I’ve finished it, and I decided to watch Cairo Time. I began to watch it to sneak a few glimpses of the city, but I quickly became engrossed in the characters and story. It’s a fascinating depiction of a city I’ve been curious about since childhood. Come for the cityscapes, stay for the stunning shots of the pyramids.

The next time you’re looking for something a bit different to watch on a bleak winter night, give one of these films a go!

 

Budapest

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Budapest. Say it with me now; Boo-dah-pesht.

I’m going to let Anthony B. introduce it as I’d just be echoing him anyway:

Once we stepped off the plane, we were struck by how familiar the climate felt, with the temperature hovering around zero and a lack of humidity very similar to a Toronto winter. Intrepid Canadians, we’d brought our A-game; winter coats, scarves, gloves and hats and were perfectly content.

With Christmas less than 10 days away, the city was filled with fairy lights – wrapped around trees marching down major avenues, festooned in café windows and showering down the sides of five-star hotels. Christmas markets were filled with stands selling mulled wine, goulash, kielbasa and tins of paprika.

Taking advantage of Central Europe’s affordability and the off-season, we splurged on a five-star hotel, the Corinthia. While booking it, I couldn’t get scenes from The Grand Budapest Hotel out of my head and was floored to discover this article in Condé Nast Traveler a few moments later. We’re used to staying in three-star hotels in Europe, so this was definitely a new, luxurious experience for us.

We walked and walked down streets filled with distinctive architecture, everything from Gothic and Neo-Gothic to Art Nouveau, looking up at building after building, detail after detail. The chilly nights were certainly helped by mulled wine in paper cups – although it’s not legal to walk around with open alcohol, strict regulations weren’t in place at the Christmas markets (no enclosed, licensed areas like Toronto would have), so we could keep warm as we wandered. I noticed many restaurants and cafés had heated patios; each chair with a blanket neatly folded on it – a nice touch.

Armchair Travel

Check out 29 Places That Prove Budapest Is the Most Stunning City in Europe (BuzzFeed) for some incredible photography – my version of buying postcards to supplement my own trip photos.

And I know his voiceover can come across as a bit hokey, but Rick Steves is brilliant, especially his books. He’s responsible for convincing us to travel with only carry-on suitcases, which makes everything from sprinting across airports to dealing with out-of-order escalators so much easier.

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