Cliff Hangers

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It was terror!

9, caged like animals, hanging by a cable 1.5km above a precipice in the dying light as maddening, childlike laughter spread a panic amongst us, the captives. A Chinese teenager in the biggest pink duffel coat, during a moment of unthinkable disregard for regulation, had Kung Fu leapt through the closing doors of our cable car to join his friends on the way down from Tianmen Mountain. His wild abandon had spread laughter amongst his friends and panic amongst Mira and a middle-aged Chinese gentleman.

“Nooooo” Mira cried in anguish, “Maximum of 8 people, not 9!” But it was too late… the doors were shut tight, we’d left the station, hanging high above the ground below, and we were going to be trapped for the next half an hour. Would the reinforced steel cable be able to take the additional burden of a young man who probably weighed less than his coat? Mira tried to convince herself referring to the row of Chinese teens “It’s probably okay, they’re all quite small anyway”

Let’s rewind.

After an overnight train from Beijing – soft sleeper, no cockroaches or mice despite what we’d read on the net – we visit Hua Shan mountain, one of China’s 5 sacred mountains. We climb 3 peaks of the mountain over 2 days, pulling ourselves up thousands of the world’s steepest steps, ladders, the famed Heavenly Staircase, and one of the world’s highest cable ways, dangling us 2km up in the sky between two peaks as I try to snap pictures and Mira wonders what the hell she’s doing in a box attached to a piece of string in the stratosphere.

Whilst single-handedly keeping the Redbull and Snickers companies in business we witness some of the most breath-taking views China has to offer, sample some of the best bbq bacon-steak cooked and sold by the locals, and leave our mark on the bitterly frozen West Peak in the form of an engraved pad-lock, as is the tradition.

Our tour through China takes us to two other mountains. The first one is Tianzi Mountain in Zhanjiajie National Forest Park – the place that inspired and featured as the floating mountains in James Cameron’s sci-fi epic, Avatar. We arrived early and stepped into a sky elevator to take us up 800 metres to view the pillars. 8 of us in the elevator when suddenly we hear a chilling sound. The megaphoned shrilling rapidly heading our way meant only one thing – A Guided Tour had arrived. Suddenly a worker was packing bodies into the elevator as the tour guide and her flag joined. “Come on! 32, 32!” the worker was yelling. Referring to the number of sardined humans she intended to cram into the lift. No joke. Mira and I try to keep sight of each other as we drown in a sea of obedient Chinese OAPs nodding and inching in with their bazooka-sized cameras held above their heads.

The plateau at the top provided no escape, there were already a dozen guided tours each with there own megaphoned or amped up drill-sergeant. If you ever go to Tianzi Mountain, get there early. Tianmen Mountain was the final climb of our Chinese adventure featuring a 7.5km cable way – and the aforementioned cable car incident. Reaching an altitude of 1600m, glass plank walkways around the table top mountain at the same altitude, and a serpentine mountain road of 99 bends, built over 80 years that takes tourists to the highest karst cave in the world, Tianmen Cave. This again was a completely different breathtaking experience.

Our adventures up and down the mountains of China took us to over 25km of cable ways and probably 2,000,000,000 steps. Full of challenges and jaw-dropping wow moments that stay with you forever, completing the mountains was a fantastic life experience I’d recommend to anyone.

@adamoverthere

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We were adopted for a while by a group of kids from Chengdu

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Traditional red ribbons for good luck

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Mountain Fuel

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Hua Shan North Peak

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About to take on the Heavenly Staircase

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IMG_0707 usoverthere.com 01.11.2014 Done!

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The famous tea house on the south peak

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Mira loves cable cars

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Hua Shan Mountain wildlife – Giant Wood Spider

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Just Another Day In Beijing

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So we hear about this place called HouHai. We go there one night for a beer (Adam) and a cocktail (me). We find the stunning lake in the middle of this huge city surrounded by masses of flashy, bright and loud local’s favourite open-mic bars. Hundreds of them. You know, just bring your guitar, plug it in and sing your heart out; if you’re good of course. We pick one of them. No sign of tourists anywhere. Then a young very trendy kid comes in, sits down, plugs in his guitar and starts to sing. Everyone stops talking. We stay and listen to him for couple of hours. We start talking to his cool girlfriend who tells us he is one of the Chinese Idol runner up (erm, what?). We drink, chat, and having the best time. We make friends for life. We leave way later than thought. Next day we realise that we don’t have our GoPro. Fuck!

Aaaa what do we do? After throwing out all my clothes from my backpack and then across the room for an hour, I’m getting on the phone, Christine CAAAN YOOOUUU HEEELPPP??? (our ‘tip bragging’ but lovely tour guide from the day before). She calls the driver. Our driver speaks to another driver. Our hotel receptionist is on the phone too. Everyone is on the phone to someone. Half of Beijing is looking for the camera. Finally we check our Chinese-apps-pimped phones and discover our new best friends have been trying to contact us since last night. Yes, they have got it. We left it in the bar. Yay! Panic over.

So basically we shoot across the town in a taxi to pick up our GoPro, which is at the flat of The Chinese Idol, to make our Kung Fu show in the evening. Rush hour, masses of people (you know 21 million) come on, we can do it…

@mirahearts

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Zhao Xiao Hao

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Red Theatre, Beijing

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Red Theatre, Beijing

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Red Theatre, Beijing

Love For Guided Tours

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We all know that China – particularly Beijing – is famous for its preserved history of dynasties spanning two thousand years, but what you may not be aware of is that there is a new dynasty. The dynasty of the Group Guided Tour.

These tours, like some warped cross between herding and military drill, parade victims… ahem… tourists through various silk or Jade “factories” to the megaphoned propaganda of the Chinglish speaking guides demanding you to “go pee” before getting on the bus, or “take a nap” when they are not speaking.

At the rear of each tiny show-room…sorry… factory a pack of proverbial wolves – yes they have these in China – awaits, salivating, ready to ambush the bewildered middle-aged-cap-wearing Americans, enthusiastic Europeans and rural Chinese, who whimper helplessly like doe-eyed deer as they are stripped of their cash for a “hand-made” piece of green glass that they are assured is of the highest quality and offered to them at a “very good price, my friend”.

I am indulging myself a bit, and we only went on one of these unofficial shopping tours, which was hilarious. But this is a thriving industry in Beijing as fresh meat is delivered daily by the truckload.

After visiting the Jade factory – we all know full well what it was but we’ll call it that for now – we have a dash to one of the quieter Ming Tombs before a very good lunch at a nearby eatery where the local alcoholic takes a liking to our new Dutch victim friend (a member of our small tour group). After we are ordered to go pee we are driven to the Bedaling Great Wall and given half an hour to walk around.

Mira and I return to the cattle wagon after two and a half hours and are reprimanded by our guide – at least we aren’t ordered to do push-ups.

We head to a Chinese healing centre where we are given a foot massage by “highly trained professionals” as professor Wang and his assistant gives us a palm reading of our health whilst attempting to sell us special healing tea straight from the Himalayas to cure our fabricated ailments (apparently I need to exercise more and Mira is in danger of becoming infertile) for hundreds of pounds a box. Honestly. I’m not making this up.

As each attempt to sell fails, the massage on my foot becomes firmer and firmer, to the point that after a few minutes agonising pain is rendering the “professor’s” words inaudible as I writhe in the chair biting my fist and praying that I’ll be able to walk again.

Limping on we finally arrive at a Tea Etiquette house which looks suspiciously like an expensive shop. We’re taken into an etiquette room by a wonderfully soft-spoken tea mistress, in traditional dress, and introduced to a selection of special teas, each with different… yes you’ve guessed it.. healing properties. We sample a few and are introduced to the “Pee Boy” – look it up CAREFULLY – and then after a 10 minute pitch comes the “how many boxes?”

Unsurprisingly no one buys any but our tea mistress pursues a couple into the expensive shop trying to sell them a tea cup with a decoration of symbols that changes to an image of the Great Wall when hot tea is introduced. I believe we have something similar in the UK involving a hot woman and a bikini.

The funniest moment of the day, and probably my year, comes as her pitch fails, the tea mistress makes a final desperate attempt with “but this is a magic cup!”

In dishonourable failure she grabs a leather jacket, cigarette, and storms out.

Don’t bother with a group tour when visiting the wonderful sights of Beijing, public transportation there is excellent. But, if you do find yourself with a day spare, take a big pinch of salt and indulge in a tour. Have some fun with it and it just might turn out to be one of the most memorable days of your vacation.

@adamoverthere

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Our tour guide, Christine, at The Ming Tombs

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At The Great Wall

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The Forbidden City

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Summer Palace

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Made In China

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After a very comfortable flight (thank you Qatar Airways) and a brief connection in probably the largest airport in the world, Doha – seriously, we thought we were walking to China on one of those conveyor belt things – we arrive in Beijing’s famous bird’s nest airport. The queue to get through customs takes almost as long as the flight and the titles above the check-points are somewhat interesting: Chinese / Foreigners

Beijing is huge. HUGE!!! Forget London, its 10 million is tiny. 21.6 million people live here – which is more than many countries. Remember Slovenia we visited? 12.7 times as many people live in Beijing as they do in the entire country of Slovenia.

In Beijing you will:
Find the oddest, grossest street food (cockroaches or bats anyone?). Oh, sea snake tastes like squid btw.
Be harassed by the largest population of OAP street sales people on the planet.
See dozens of people taking open-air dance classes in city squares, or simple on street corners.
See cute old people doing weird morning exercises (twisting their one wrist for hours while popping their hip).
Be dazzled by thousands of enormous neon symbols, none of which you can understand.
Generally; YOU WONT UNDERSTAND ANYTHING.
Have your phone “pimped” by your Chinese friends so you can engage in phone-swapping-translator-app conversations.
Say goodbye to Facebook and ALL social media, sob (censorship) – and then you’ll realise you don’t miss it as much you thought.
Be disgusted by the constant spitting by the older locals.
Be tempted to buy a face-mask to avoid the smog pollution.
Remark to your partner how stupid the westerners look in their face-masks.
Wish you had bought a face-mask too.
Eat Peking duck.
See the most amazing historical sites (you know: Great Wall Of China, The Summer Palace, The Ming Dynasty tombs; practically the entire China is a UNESCO site).
Feel inspired by the street fashionistas who look like they’ve just stepped out of the latest ‘Rita Ora-Disney Micky Mouse Club in the future’ music video.
Be wowed by the cuteness of teddy-bear-onesie-wearing Chinese toddlers on a daily basis.
Be surrounded by school children in their iconic shell-suit uniforms.
Learn that Chinese LOVE group tours.
Spend your entire time in China to avoid the group tours.
Generally discover that in some ways we are seriously behind China.
Fall in love with the place big time.

@adamoverthere @mirahearts

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There’s No Place Like Home

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We reach the last country of our road-trip by country roads. Yes, all 250 miles! As you gathered from previous posts, I wasn’t a fan of the motorways, so I’m trying to use the ‘oh but we can see the country from all different perspective’ approach and about 8 hours later we are crossing my homeland border. Yay! We stop at Bielsko- Biala first, about 2am – and I’m being told my mum called like 5 times already… Good to be back 🙂

Krakow is one of my favourite places in the world. I’m not saying that because I’m from Poland (Katowice to be precised, just next door) but because is one of the oldest and most significant towns in Poland and simply it is an absolutely stunning city. A UNESCO Site, Krakow’s heritage as a major city throughout the history of Europe has given it a clear identity, and you feel as soon as you step on the cobbled streets. The gorgeous Old Town Main Square is booming with bohemian cafes, shops, restaurants and street food ( yes! polish sausages- Kiełbasa, sauerkraut – Kapusta or fried dumplings- Pierogi).

You will love Wawel (a gorgeous castle – make sure you will learn about the legend of the Wawel’s dragon), the St.Mary’s Basilica next to Barbican, or Jewish Centre. If you have time, most definitely visit Auschwitz (just outside the city) or Wieliczka Salt Mine too.

Simply just walking around and absorbing the city or taking a horse-drawn carriage and spotting all the historic sites and culture is a perfect introduction to the city. We are doing it a proper Polish way by sampling some yummy Polish cherry liquour (30%) Wiśniówka and eating eating eating. And soon after Adam learns that eating amazing food is simply THE THING we do over here.

We spend a few great days in Krakow (also celebrating Adam’s Birthday) and take a train to Katowice (my hometown) to see my parents. Then the eating continues – my mum is well prepared to greet us :-)…

@mirahearts

We arrive at Krakow airport and handover the car to my step-dad, Alan, and his friend Andy, as they prepare for their own road-trip back to the UK.

Krakow is beautiful, just beautiful. For some reason (I was explaining to Mira) I’m a big fan of city trams, it kind of adds something for me – and Krakow has them. But obviously it’s not the trams that make this city; it’s bustling, bohemian, simply breathtaking. As Mira said, our hotel is right on Ulica Grodzka in the city centre. Very quiet in our huge room, but lively when we go out onto the cobbled street. The buildings here are gorgeous, with french and jewish influences all around. I love it!

We try the restaurant food and the street food. OMG! I’m not exaggerating, simply some of the best food in Europe.

We get to mama and tata’s in Katowice, and we’re greeted with more incredible food – and I’m greeted with a big warm hug and kiss on the cheek. Mira has told me about Polish hospitality, and her mum is a legend, ensuring that I remain as close to bursting point as possible, and topped up with coffee, juice, beer on a regular basis. In short, I’m spoiled.

I’m shown the customary childhood photos of Mira, much to her embarrassment, and fed more and more food whilst Danuta, and Henryk provide the anecdotal entertainment.

By the time we catch the train to Warsaw – with kotlet for the journey provided by Danuta – I feel like I’m leaving old friends, and I can’t help but wish we had longer.

The last two weeks have been crazy, we’ve seen so much and I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet. But there’s no time to think about it because passport in one hand, kotlet in the other, we’re off to Beijing

@adamoverthere

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Krakow

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Krakow

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Krakow

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Katowice

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Katowice

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Katowice

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Warsaw

Auschwitz

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The last country on our European road-trip, before we head east to Beijing, is Poland. I’m very excited to see Krakow and meet Mira’s parents in Katowice, however before that we’re going to visit a place I’ve wanted to see for a long time… Auschwitz.

Despite what you’ve heard, or read, despite the huge number of students and tourists, nothing can prepare you for Auschwitz.

Originally an army barracks for the Polish, it became operational as a concentration camp for Polish POWs in 1940 as Nazi Germany annexed South-West Poland. Political prisoners, its inmates were largely well educated, and included doctors and scientists as well as politicians. The first exterminations at the camp took place in September 1941, and Jewish prisoners began arriving in their thousands from early 1942 as part of the Nazi “Final Solution to the Jewish question”

Walking around Auschwitz 1 the photos of inmates with their date of arrival and death are extremely harrowing, but for me the room where 2 tonnes of human hair – that’s 80,000 scalps worth – makes the horror real. The possessions and suitcases further make the point.

Birkenau is the iconic site, where Sonderkommando units collected the bodies of their fellow countrymen and friends, incinerated them and crushed the bones to ash after Nazi doctors had killed them with Zyklon B, a pesticide developed in the US prior to the war.

Sometimes close to tears, I’m left astonished that only 70 years ago the most unthinkably nightmarish acts were being carried out by humans on humans in their millions.

Saddening though it is, I highly recommend a trip to Auschwitz for anyone visiting Poland. It’s a powerful reminder of the worst that humans have been capable of and just how lucky we are today.

@adamoverthere

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The famous cynical Auschwitz 1 main gate: Work Makes Freedom

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Auschwitz 1

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Auschwitz 1

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Auschwitz 2: Birkenau

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Auschwitz 1

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Auschwitz 2: Birkenau

Slavic Hospitality and a Viennese Stroll

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Police at the Slovenia border fine me €165 for not having a Vignette on the windscreen. Yes! Me too! What the hell is a Vignette? Right? Instead of tolls on roads in Slovenia they have Vignettes which cost around €15 and I missed that in my pre-trip prep. Soooo annoying, as those that know me know I’m meticulous about these things. For anyone travelling in Europe, Austria and Czech Republic also use vignettes.

After swearing several times we drive through the beautiful little country – an entire population of around 2 million. Green fields and quaint little villages decorate the countryside on either side of the motorway and it really is a pleasant drive…

Pleasant, that is, until we are surrounded by trucks again. Sandwiched between 3 as an on-ramp joins the motorway I’m forced to break suddenly as a truck pulls into our lane without leaving me room. The truck behind then slams on its breaks before furiously roaring its horn. We decide it’s time to leave the motorways.

We get to our hotel (Gostisce Pod Orehi – guesthouse under the walnuts) late (again) and are met by our host Viktor who greets us with very tasty walnut liquour (for Mira), and plum spirit similar to grappa or schnapps (for me).

A fantastic home-cooked dinner turns into a drinking session of more spirits and local wine with Viktor as we discuss the escapades of the local exorcist, politics and the history of former Yugoslavia. It might sound heavy but it was great, just like 3 old friends catching up.

As stunning as Slovenia is we are on a tight schedule, and after a reviving early morning jacuzzi and sauna at the hotel we’re off again.

As we go for a night walk we are shocked to discover that Vienna stinks of urine. However, next day we quickly learn that somehow this doesn’t matter that much as the city is simply stunning and very vibrant! First we notice – Everyone here, and I mean EVERYONE looks amazing. Simply the best dressed people we’ve seen on the trip so far, in particular I was surprised how smart and polished the guys are here. And it’s easy to see why, with so many of the world’s top designer brands in one space, like the Kohlmarkt. The gorgeous streets are filled with famous coffee shops, restaurants, bars, galleries, the best museums, theatres and everything is surrounded by incredible architecture. Not too surprising given it’s important role in the history of Europe.

An incredible city with intricately detailed architecture from the Baroque, Gothic, and Renaissance periods, mixed with 20th century innovations. Vienna has an intensely cool look and feel and it’s great to be amongst it all. We even stumbled upon another great car, this time old American classic. Sadly we only have time for a quick look around before we have to move on again, but we will most definitely be back for more Apfelstrudel.

@adamoverthere

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It has to be top-down

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Welcome to Slovenia

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Na zdravje!

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Stunning Slovenian countryside

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St Stephan’s Cathedral

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A throw back

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Kohlmarkt

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Old and new

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Hofburg Palace

City of Love

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This time we decided to go for an apartment instead of a hotel or B&B. After ten days of cute, but let’s say cosy hotel rooms, it was great to have the entire flat to ourselves. On our way there we stopped at an Italian supermarket and did some real food shopping. Oh the joy of cooking a proper homemade aubergine pasta! A romantic candle lit dinner in our new Italian pad was perfect after our stormy intro to Italy.

People say you either love Venice or you don’t really care. It is such a unique place, nothing like any others you’ve seen before. If you’re into old, good romance, and I mean ‘I’m the king of the world’, ‘Nobody puts Baby in the corner’ or ‘you had me at Hello’ kind of romance, then, Venice is a place for you. But let’s face it – George put it truly back on the map again.

Incredible Venetian masks everywhere, the tiniest streets with the smallest, almost toy like, colourful brick houses, the best dressed Italian men and their women enjoying Aperol Spritz on every corner and typical Italian outdoor restaurants with all the sea food dishes set in a labyrinth of canals and gondolas; it feels like a massive movie set. Then you add: gorgeous Piazza San Marco, spectacular St.Mark’s Basilica, the iconic Doge’s Palace, or charming Rialto Bridge with classical music in the air played by piano quartets, you’ll either feel part of a Hollywood romance, or feel a bit sick.

We sit by the Rialto Bridge and having a mandatory pizza, wine and Limoncello. We chat to the waiters, one of them whats up me a picture of George Clooney on the gondola from few days ago. We all take a selfie with a selfie stick. Good times!

Before we leave we take a gondola night tour around the canals (it’s a must, right?), seeing Casanova’s home along the way. A bit disappointed our punter wasn’t singing O Sole Mio, but perhaps it’s cos we managed to get the tour half price. Who knows.

Either way, I’m adding Venice to my ever growing list of ‘that is a def long weekend trip’ places as we’re planning our next day drive through Slovenia. After all, I do need to come back to buy one of those fab Venetian masks!

@mirahearts

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View from The Bridge of Sighs

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The iconic Venetian Masks

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A proper Negroni, a signature Aperol Spritz and Arancini to die for!

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View from Campanile Di San Marco

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Romantic Piazza San Marco

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A perfect wedding location

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Stunning views all around

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Make a wish 😉

Alpine Adventure

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By the time we can gather the willpower to leave Monaco for the Autostrada del Fiori it’s sunset, and instead of flowers as the name would suggest, the trucks are back. Lots of them! I take in the incredible views as Mira panics about the trucks and many, many of the highest viaducts and tunnels in Europe along its 160km. Seriously! Have a look!

By midnight we’re in the middle of a huge storm, driving towards massive sheet lightning on the edge of the Italian Alps, having sat for 2 hours in traffic due to an accident. Activities indulged by Mira at this point to entertain herself involve trying to photo the lightning, pretending to be dead, singing, and asking me “Around the World” quiz questions which she continued to make up after the cards had ran out. I think I lost the will after she asked me what the capital of France was.

By 2am I’m running up and down the roadside on my 3rd stop desperately trying to wake myself up as we edge slowly closer to the hotel at lake Como. We finally arrive at 3am in pitch black and very ready for bed.

Over a superb breakfast including delicious home-made jams and olive oil, Livio tells us how the hotel, Agriturismo Crotto di Somana has been converted from a wine cellar by him and his wife, Marianne. This place is full of charm, and the attention to detail very impressive and the personal spa (sauna and candle lit jacuzzi) completes the mountain escape vibe.

We hike into the mountains and meet some locals – one of which is a 90 year old mountain hiker – but unfortunately the lingering fog from the storm prevents the breathtaking views that the lake is famous for.

But what really made our stay was Agriturismo La Selvaggia, which simply is a MUST if you visit Mandello. You can only get a table by booking in advance and everyone eats the same menu at the same time. You need to walk 10 mins up a steep, pitch black mountain path to get there, so take a torch; and ladies opt for comfortable shoes if you can (Mira had flip flops…!) but trust me it is really worth it!

Just as you think there is nothing up the hill, you see the restaurant lights. It just looks like a mountain cabin but when you open the door you’re hit with a room full of people laughing and drinking, the smell bursting from the kitchen fills the room as Angela greets us with a huge smile. There is a huge buzz about this place and it’s infectious.

Not only is the food here homemade, it’s home produced and reared. But not only that, owner Fermino De Marcellis built the place from scratch! And as we eat, the 80 year old former Olympic boxing manager is playing guitar – which then is passed around the guests for a play too.

After 5 courses of insanely good food and 3 bottles (I’m not joking) of wine, our bill of around £40 leaves us in disbelief – in London you’d pay upwards of £100 a head for this kind of experience.
The following morning we’re greeted with Torrential rain which means no hiking and no ferries to Bellagio which is a shame because the beauty in this place is clear even through the fog.

I guess its time to move on. Venice, here we come.

@adamoverthere

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