Hi Mum, I’m in Tuscany

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Not long after settling down in London and beginning to feel like normal members of society again, we stopped all that for a completely idyllic fortnight in Tuscany. Alex was turning the big 3-0 and his folks plus some friends from Melbourne and London came to Tuscany to live with us in a villa, laze around the pool, go wine-tasting and to fabulous markets and generally have a gorgeous and relaxing time. What good friends, to put up with such a lot.

We stayed in a villa in a tiny place outside San Casciano, in Tuscany. This was about a 35 minute drive or so south of Florence, so of course we had a few day trips there.

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Florence was – is always – a glorious place, even when filled with tourists as far as the eye can see. We found some fantastic gelato (and some truly dire stuff, allegedly kiwifruit flavoured but it went into the rubbish after a few tastes) and an incredible cafe. I, the least enthusiastic coffee drinker to come out of Melbourne, fell in love with the stuff and eagerly joined Alex and the others in standing up at the bar for a quick espresso (though I haven’t yet joined Bjarne and his love of slamming down several doppio in a single sitting standing.)

We climbed the Duomo and admired the hideous depths of imagination to which people who believe in hell can descend.

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We spent a lot of time in the garden of the villa and by the pool, playing Scrabble and cards, reading books, and trying not to get hit by the shot which occasionally cascaded over us (as the shooting season opened while we were there).

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On the advice of our hosts, we visited a local winery called Villa Cigliano, on the outskirts of San Casciano. We weren’t anticipating much – a tour of the winery, and a light lunch while tasting some wines. We found a wonderfully welcoming owner, an outstanding and fascinating villa that had been in the family for over 500 years, a wonderful spread of food and some downright delicious wine and oil.

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Their family tree, covering many centuries:
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We’d recommend a visit in a heartbeat – it was a terrific day out.

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The other recommended place for a visit has to be the village of Greve in Chianti, where the Saturday markets brought Alex’s favourite thing in the world – the porchetta van. Whole roasted pigs stuffed with thyme, garlic and rosemary, with thick slices served up in a panino. Completely delicious.

Greve is also home to the most wondrous place for pork fanatics – Macelleria Falorni.

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This is the place for pork products. They practically literally hit you in the head when you walk in.

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Alex and I stocked up on cheese, pancetta, salumi and more from this place. Their products are just amazing.

Finally, we couldn’t forget the reason for being in Italy in the first place – Alex’s birthday. We went out for a meal to a small town called Panzano, where a butcher opened a restaurant. It was a great night out and after everyone was done we all – everyone who had eaten that night – stood around on the streets of the village and drank grappa with our host. Good fun.

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Ain’t nothing more romantic than posing in front of a meat locker.

So anyway – big thanks to Eileen and Bjarne for making the trip possible. It was a wonderful trip (and one that we may be replicating this year…)

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Hi Mum, I’m in Beijing

Gosh, China’s big, isn’t it?

That’s pretty much the feeling I had almost every second in Beijing.

But back to the start. We arrived early morning in Beijing and faced a horrendous queue at the train station for a taxi to our hostel. The Chinese, unlike the English, are not gifted at queuing, and it was a complete schmozzle. After getting kneecapped a few times (and reciprocating in turn) we finally made it out of the train station and to the youth hostel. We had a great time at the Peking International Youth Hostel and can recommend it. It’s located right next to the Forbidden City, in an old area filled with local food and only a couple of streets away from the insanity of Wanfujing, one of the main shopping streets in Beijing. On our first morning we set out for food, and ate like kings at a local eatery – 7 yuan (about a dollar) will get you a bowl of congee, a bowl of dumpling soup, three small and wonderfully juicy steamed buns and two you tiao, fresh deepfried doughsticks. Unsurprisingly, we ended up back there twice more for hearty and cheap breakfasts, this time getting stuck into the warm, sweetened soymilk.

The awesome food expectations dissipated a bit when we went to investigate Wanfujing’s “Snack Street”, a dire tourist-fest of tacky shock-value foods on a stick. If you want some unhygienic-looking barbecued meat, some (still-wriggling) scorpions, centipedes or lizards, this is the place for you. This was not the place for us; we continued on and ate a late lunch at a restaurant on Donghuamen where the food was great (they served fried slow-roasted meat, similar to the cumin pork ribs at Dainty Sichuan) and the service ridiculously surly. I’ve not seen such sulky and grumpy behaviour since year 9.

That wasn’t the end of the great food, though. We had a delicious meal at an old family-run restaurant in the hutongs (apparently owned by the same family for more than 100 years) and – of course – hunted down some good old Peking Duck. We had this delicacy twice, about a week apart, and each time it was fantastic. Our first attempt was at a very local, middle-class restaurant in the burbs. We waited the requisite 50 minutes for our duck (given that we hadn’t ordered in advance) and the wait was definitely worth it. The skin was lacquered and the fat highly rendered – it reminded me of pork crackling. All the condiments were perfect and it left us feeling appropriately rotund. A great meal.

The following week, we tried the upper end of the scale and ordered the duck at Duck de Chine, a high end restaurant in the expat-heavy part of Beijing. This duck was similarly attractive to look at, and (embarrasingly) the waitress banged a small gong to announce its arrival at our table. This time, the duck sauce was heightened with garlic and sesame paste and the duck itself was surprisingly light. We left the restaurant well-fed but lacking the feeling of being suffused by duck fat that we’re so used to after a meal at Old Kingdom. Verdict: Peking Duck in Peking/Beijing is as good as you’d hope.

Anyway, getting back on track. The rest of our first day was consumed by mundane chores – queuing to submit paperwork for Mongolian visas, picking up train tickets, queuing to collect visas (man, I hate getting visas. The opportunity for a petty-minded bureaucrat to completely stuff up your plans is just too great for my liking). But with all that in order, it was time to hit the sights.

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Wandering around Tianan’men Square was great fun (Alex wanted to change this to “it was a blast”, but I vetoed it). Given the massacre, is that inappropriate? That event did come to mind, but given that it is (unsurprisingly) completely ignored and unmarked by any kind of plaque or memorial, it was pretty easy to forget that this was the site of that event. We were in Beijing for the week leading up to May Day, the big public holiday celebrating the workers of the country, and the city was packed. Huge LED screens were being set up in the Square, plus a soft-focus portrait of this guy. Who is he?

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People, including plenty of kids, carried Chinese flags around with them, and posed for photographs in front of the big Mao portrait, or in front of the huge Monument to the People’s Heroes, or Mao’s mausoleum.

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Of course, this meant that we’re both now in plenty of candid family snaps too.

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That guy on the end thought he was just so cool. And do you notice me sneakily hiding the can of beer I was drinking as I wandered around?

We also visited the immense Forbidden City. Given the impending national holiday, there were loads of domestic tourists and we were a bit worried that our experience of the place would be hampered. But in reality, the place is so bloody huge that it could swallow the thousands of tourists swarming around it and end up feeling relatively empty.

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It’s really an astonishing place, but the word ‘cosy’ most definitely did not come to mind. We were feeling the effect of the Siberian winds that sweep Mongolia (often picking up sand and dust) and buffet Beijing regularly – it was icy out there. I wondered how the Imperial Chinese kept warm in amongst all that stone.

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While in Beijing we thought we’d check out the old Olympic site. Given China’s ability to do things on a grand scale, we weren’t disappointed. The Bird’s Nest Stadium is pretty cool – the structure of the covering ‘Nest’ in intricate and interesting to see.

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But even better stuff was hidden away from the track. We found a huge gift shop, still selling Bird’s Nest keyrings, tea mugs, posters, ornamental pen holders, “authentic” “genuine” Chinese vases, toys, statues… the selection was endless. And people were buying them! The Chinese tourists we came across really are into their souvenirs.

Next to the giftshop was a bizarre little display – wax figures of all the IOC presidents. Now I know where to go when I need a plastic-looking, creepy version of Jacques Rogge or Pierre de Coubertin. It was wonderfully odd.

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Here is a photo of a photo of Juan Antonio Samaranch looking decidedly startled upon meeting Wax Juan Antonio Samaranch.

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We also enjoyed the ‘Do not walk on the grass’ signs outside. How wonderfully twee.

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No trip to Beijing is complete without a visit to the Great Wall. Many cities have ‘must-see’ destinations, but this would have to be one of the most ‘must-see’ places I’ve been.

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The wall, segmented as it is, can be accessed from a few different places on day-trips from Beijing, and the most common is the Disneyland of Badaling. We opted instead to head further out of the city and spent a day hiking the ruined and partially-restored wall at Simatai, its most lofty point. The wall curled around the mountains to the west “like a dragon’s tail” (as per the sign) and gave constantly entrancing views. We climbed and climbed, passing about 12 watchtowers and feeling the strain in muscles we hadn’t used for a while. The steps were uneven and often very narrow, necessitating a weird sideways approach.

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We planned to reach the highest accessible point and then catch the chairlift part of the way down the mountain, thrilled that we didn’t have to negotiate the stairs back down (with gravity ever eager to make the descent more rapid). But – bugger it, due to the high winds the chairlift was closed. We carefully crept back down the wall and made it, safe and sound. All along the trip, we stopped constantly to marvel at the sights. After the heavy smog of Beijing we were thrilled by the endless views.

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Finally, when I said at the start that everything is bigger in China, I meant everything. Check out this magnificent mullet.

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Impressive!

Hi Mum, I’m in Chengdu (and Xi’an)

Oh Chengdu, you were the shining light in our itinerary. We had spent many happy hours speculating about what a giant Dainty Sichuan restaurant you were going to be. So why the fuck did I get gastro there the day I arrived!? It’s not fair.

We arrived in Chengdu in the morning, after two days spent on the train and were both eager to hunt down some ma la (that’s the signature Sichuanese combination of hot and numbing) food. We even went so far as to walk in to a local Carrefour and inhale over the huge mounds of Sichuan pepper sitting there. It’s a bit sad I know, but all our fellow Dainty Sichuan devotees/junkies will understand. That night, we had planned to meet up with a Canadian girl, living in Chengdu, who writes a blog on local food and go out for a mouth-numbing and ring-of-fire inducing hot pot. Sadly for me, it wasn’t to be. I’d begun a to feel a bit off colour during the afternoon and tried napping it off, but by the time we were walking across town to the restaurant things were looking bad. We arrived at the restaurant, and as much as I really, really, really wanted to want to eat, the overpowering smells of chilli, pepper and meat made my stomach turn in an ominous way. So I headed for the safety of bed with its proximal porcelain. Apparently the hot pot was amazing. So it goes. I should add that I did get to try the hot pot on our last night in Chengdu, and it was amazing. Hot to the point of chilli sweats and disconcertingly numbing, but a simmering pot of gold that makes everything that goes in come out delicious.

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By the afternoon of the next day, I was prepared to face the strenuous activities on offer at the Wenshu Monastery and, more specifically, its teahouse. These included: drinking tea, having your teacup refilled, drinking tea and watching old people playing cards, drinking tea and having their ears cleaned by roving excavators. The pace of life in Chengdu, while a big city (about 11m people), is very laid back and this place was typical of that – people just seem to spend their days hanging out. It was the perfect place to convalesce.

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That night, I was ready for some good local cuisine. We asked the girls at the hostel where we could get some good ma po doufu – one of our Dainty favourites and usually a good source of chilli and Sichuan pepper. They recommended the place down the road and we arrived with high hopes. We ordered the ma po along with some fish-flavoured eggplant and were disappointed to find a lack of heat in both dishes. Something was wrong. We later realised that we’d forgotten to specify that we wanted the dishes spicy – the default position at restaurants in Asia is to remove all traces of chilli whenever they see a white face. This was a mistake we didn’t repeat.

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Our third day, we were off to see Chengdu’s other tourist attraction – Pandas (aka China’s diplomatic weapon of choice). There isn’t much to say about them except for the fact that they’re incredibly cute. I think the photos say it best. We were lucky that we arrived early, as got to see the pandas in action and they tend to spend the rest of the day asleep after consuming their body weight in bamboo.

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That afternoon, we had another crack at getting some good food into us, and we hit the jackpot, using our Dainty Sichuan menu as an aid to my rudimentary Chinese. The result was three dishes that were hot, numbing and oh so delicious. I could go on and on about how good they were, but that would be cruel. Feeling smug with our discovery, we headed back to our hostel to sleep off our food babies, but our joy was short lived. Amanda had started to feel a bit off colour. So began another round of bed rest and tea house convalescence.

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Our combined days laid up in bed and our tender stomachs put paid to our plans to both eat obscene amounts of Sichuanese food and also to visit the nearby town of Langzhong, but that’s the way things go. The food we did try fell both sides of the benchmark set by our beloved Dainty Sichuan – I have to say that while the Melbourne version holds up pretty well againt its Chengdu counterparts, the local version still wins by a few lengths. Chengdu also boasts a few “Sichuanified” snacks that I wish we could get at home. The first is Lay’s “Numb & Spicy Hot Pot Flavor” chips. These bags of awesomeness are seriously addictive and do an impressive rendition of the actual hot pot taste. If you ever see them, buy them. The second was McDonalds’ “ma la chicken burger”. We had to try this burger (for research purposes only, of course). And you should feel lucky that we tried it so that you don’t have to. The burger does have some hot and numbing flavour, but it tasted really artificial and came with the latent regret that only McDonalds can deliver.

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Having done Chengdu, we decided to make a 36-hour stopover in Xi’an on our way through to Beijing. Xi’an was a whirlwind stop of delicious muslim Chinese food, a drunken evening out with the population of our hostel making dumplings and visiting a local nightclub, and a hungover trip out to the terracotta warriors. The excavated warriors were an awe-inspiring sight, even through our whisky haze, and were our first taste of the massive scale on which Chinese imperial monuments are constructed. If we’d known how much we would enjoy Xi’an, we probably would have spent an extra couple of days there; however, as we were getting toward the big May Day holidays, we needed to book all our travel in advance. Oh well, there’s always next time…

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Hi Mum, I’m in Hoi An

Another country, another UNESCO World Heritage-listed site. Yawn.

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Except not. Hoi An, the 18th-19th century village that served as a hub for Vietnamese/Chinese/Japanese trading, managed to escape the ravages of the Vietnam War and of the rampant growth which seems prominent in other cities in Vietnam. Its small streets, picturesque river and tiny alleys serve as a reminder of what the town used to be like, long before the tailors and the tourists moved in.

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There must be thousands of tailors in Hoi An. As soon as you mention that you’re passing through Hoi An, everyone has something to say about the tailoring. It’s great! So cheap! Really shoddy quality! Not as good as you’d get in Bangkok/Hong Kong/Saigon/Melbourne/Mumbai! Overpriced! Not worth it! Absolutely worth it!

Something that gets as many polarised views as this can’t be all bad. (See: Vang Vieng.) We’re moving to London and need a new wardrobe anyway, so why not? We ended up spending four days in Hoi An (having planned to spend a lot of that time at nearby China Beach, but the grey skies and low 20s weather put paid to that idea) and end up buying clothes from four tailors. We spend amazing amounts of time getting fittings, being carted around town on the back of a moped, often wearing bits of the suit being made, to visit ‘my uncle’, the head tailor, who’ll fix this lapel or that shirt. We make very good friends with the young, bored, vain girls who work in their family’s shop and spend their spare time looking in the mirror and buying cool, commercially made stuff. (Bespoke clothes? How old-fashioned!) We fend off continual cries of ‘Hello, you want something? Come into my shop!” In the end, we ship 15kg of suits, jackets, shirts and dresses to London, having paid a relatively tiny amount for what we think is really good work. (One of our tailors, Mr Xe, was only “90% happy” with one of Alex’s suits, and has promised to make him another one gratis and send it to London.) And we have a lot of fun doing it.

In the down time, we cook (a bit).

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We did a morning class at Morning Glory restaurant’s cooking school. It’s more of an exercise in assembling ingredients than really cooking, because (as you can see) there is absolutely no prep work to be done. Luckily, the food we make is delicious and we’ll be using these recipes again.

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We also spend a lot of time just wandering the streets and enjoying the sights.

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And of course, we eat. We have the local speciality, cau lau, a spicy broth with chewy wheat noodles, ‘croutons’ (deep fried squares of the same noodles) and herbs, down in the bustling market. It’s wonderful. The woman in the stall next door orders us to come and sample her banh xeo, small crispy mungbean flour crepes with pork and prawns, eaten with a handful of herbs and wrapped in rice paper. We are very obedient.

Another evening we find this woman plying her wares down by the waterfront.

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She was making banh can tiny little fried crepes filled with a single quail egg in each, eaten with lettuce, herbs, papaya salad, a vinegar dressing and a dollop of the local chili jam.

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It’s so delicious that we return the next day, and make friends with the little girls who were eating here as a treat, because it was the 35th anniversary of the liberation of Hoi An.

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It also coincided with Earth Day, when all (well, almost all) electrical items were switched off in the town for an hour. The townsfolk sold paper lanterns with small candles for people to float down the river while the power was out. It was a beautiful night.

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Despite the inevitable carnage.

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