Thursday 29 October 2015

Traversing Europe by Campervan: The Pros and Cons

I spent this summer travelling around Europe in what might just be the smallest camper van ever made, the 2009 Romahome Hylo, which is a converted Citroen Berlingo. Sadly these are no longer in production but the closest thing for comparison is a Romahome R20 Lo which is pretty damned similar. Like with any form of long term travel there are plusses and minuses to exploring the world in a van.

Nick and I left Brighton on a rainy summer morning in late June after spending a couple of nights renegade camping in the city’s streets and parks. Our initial planned route was taking us from Calais, up to Antwerp and over to Hanover before hitting Berlin but this is where one of my favourite plusses of both van life and long term travel come in to play. Freedom! We decided to take a detour! An online friend told me that the Amsterdam vegan festival was happening in a couple of days and I just had to go. Despite loving to make plans, it excites me to play around with schedules and ideas and to make sure that I’m in the right place at the right time, arriving in Tokyo the day the blossoms opened in 2014 was no happy accident, freedom is my most treasured right. I am keenly aware that it’s a privilege and not a right that everyone can avail themselves of; being able to travel at all, to be able to cross borders and to traverse the globe as I please is an amazing opportunity and I never forget that whilst I'm exploring the world. I loved that having our own transport meant that Nick and I had ultimate freedom to travel wherever, whenever. I enjoyed being able to make snap decisions about where our day / week / month would take us making it totally possible to change course to meet a new friend, to delve into a new vegan scene, or to detour away from a planned beach destination and scope out city life when the sun wasn't shining.

So, without further ado, here are ten pros and cons of van life which might help you decide whether or not you'd like to undertake this kind of adventure.

Monday 26 October 2015

Vegan Travels in Bosnia and Herzegovina

For some reason Bosnia and Herzegovina is one of those countries that has always felt far away. Geographically Sarajevo is about the same distance from London as Seattle is from San Diego but it’s always felt greater in my mind. I imagine that this is partly because I grew up seeing reports of the war in the 90's playing out on the news channels my parents tuned into and because, as a kid growing up in the west, you think that war is something that happens in far away places. 

As we were road tripping we crossed over into Bosnia and Herzegovina and onward to Mostar from just north of Dubrovnik in Croatia and found ourselves in the city less than an hour after crossing the border. Of course our main reason for checking out Mostar on our road trip was to take a look at Stari Most, a (pretty great) reconstruction of the 16th century ottoman bridge that stood there before it was bombed in the 1993 Croat-Bosniak war. 

After wandering around the old town and taking far too many pictures of both Stari Most and snoozing kitties we popped into the closest spot marked on Happy Cow, Sadrvan, for lunch. 

Thursday 22 October 2015

36 Hours in Helsinki

To balance mine and Nick's differing preferred travel styles we often have to come up with some compromises. If left to my own devices I'd fly everywhere in economy and Nick, for various reasons that do make total sense, would fly everywhere business class. As we'd prefer to sit together on flights we compromise and take shorter flights in economy and then either use points to upgrade or find fun and interesting ways to make business class happen without breaking the bank. This time around we found a good deal with Finnair but our flight had to originate outside the UK to make it work. We slept at Gatwick airport so that we'd be able to catch the 6am flight to Stockholm where the business class fun would begin. We actually hung out at Stockholm Arlanda for ages but lounge access made that fun rather than a tediouous and boring ordeal - there were beanbags! And wifi! And free crackers! After catching our flight to Helsinki we spent 36 hours there on layover and then caught our onward flight to Bangkok. It was a fun journey for sure and my favourite bonus (okay, getting a flat seat is pretty okay too) was getting to explore Helsinki. I've always wanted to visit Finland and Helsinki seemed like a great place to start. It must've made a great impression as I've been talking non-stop ever since about spending some time exploring the Nordic countries in the not too distant future.

We arrived pretty late and pretty hungry so after navigating our way through the shiny new still-in-construction airport and purchasing a couple of two day HSL rail passes, which are valid on all forms of local transport including trams and ferries, we were on our way.

I'd scoped out dining options in-between the central station and Eurohostel, our chosen place to crash during our Northern adventure, and come up pretty lacking as it was after 6pm when we arrived. It seems like in Finland, just like in the UK, a lot of places close super early. Our best bet seemed to be a stop at K Supermarket followed by a bed picnic and as soon as we stumbled upon the Wheaty section I knew we'd hit the jackpot. Soon we had bread, tofu, faux meat slices and cream cheese for dinner, juices, yoghurts and a snack bar for hostel breakfasting and, the most exciting thing ever, Delicatoboll's! 

Monday 19 October 2015

Goemon Ramen Bar, Brighton

Japanese is definitely my favourite cuisine, I love everything from maki to matcha and from soba noodles to silken tofu. No exceptions! Whilst I was visiting Tokyo last year I fell in love with ramen hence why I'm super excited to share the deets of this hot new restaurant with you. Goemon Ramen Bar recently opened on Brighton's Preston Street (often known locally as restaurant street) and, as the name suggests, they specialise in Japanese ramen. 

When they launched they had a vegetarian option on the menu which was veganisable and they've recently expanded that section of the menu to add some great 100% vegan options.

Tuesday 13 October 2015

The Albanian Riviera by Campervan

Exploring Albania by campervan was one of the highlights of this summer's European road trip adventure. I've always been fascinated by this Southern European country. As a kid I visited Corfu one summer with my family and as we sat at a restaurant for dinner one night we could see explosions across the water on the Albanian shore. I recall finding it bizarre that people could be fighting right there whilst we were just hanging out eating together as if everything was a-ok. As an adult my fascination with Albania never ceased and I knew that I needed to visit before the country changed too much. This very specific wanderlust was a driving force behind the road trip for sure.

We drove over the border from Igumenitsa in Northern Greece and it became immediately obvious that we were somewhere else. Gone were the whitewashed houses and manicured gardens of Greece and in their place were lived in but unfinished flat roofed homes (I read somewhere that if the building isn't finished the taxes you pay are different), pot holed roads, scrubby bush and litter. 

After driving for around 45 minutes from the Qafe Bote boarder crossing we reached the cable ferry we needed to take to get across the Vivari Channel to Vlorë County where one of Europe's newest archaeological sites, Butrint National Park, lies. The cable ferry was a fun adventure and it was surprisingly fast and easy given that we were initially a little scared to drive the van onto the rickety looking wooden planks to board and I definitely had a "That's it?" moment when we reached our destination.

Butrint was established in 2000 after being placed on a list of World Heritage in Danger by UNESCO because of looting and a lack of conservation. I loved exploring the site and I'm so pleased that it's now being looked after properly. There's an amazing Roman amphitheatre there alongside Bronze Age artefacts, Venetian castles and a Christian church - it's a real mish mash, but one of my favourite parts was this peaceful spot overlooking the channel. 

Our first overnight stop was near Ksamil where we stayed at the Ksamil Caravan Camping site which is just located in the garden of the owners home - if you pay attention you'll notice a pattern appearing as this post goes on! Albanians are renowned for their hospitality as we discovered at an Albanian run campsite in Macedonia where we were offered countless cups of coffee and shots of raki for breakfast; this offering of grapes was a little more welcome as neither of us drink caffeine and even the thought of hard liquor at breakfast makes me feel queasy. The grapes were grown in the campsite owners garden and they were suitably excited about them as they were from their first ever crop of grapes! I was so pleased to be able to share in their sweet excitement. One of the only downsides of travelling as a vegan is that you sometimes have to turn down people's hospitality and explaining why you won't try a campsite owner's baklava when there isn't much shared vocabulary is a less than fun challenge so when the gifts offered are accidentally vegan I'm always grateful and appreciative.

The beaches in this area aren't anything to write home about, the Albanian architects working on this part of the coast seem to have a fondness for using poured concrete to expand the areas in which they can squeeze an extra sun lounger or ten, but it was interesting to get a look into where local people and tourists from other parts of The Balkans and Russia holiday.

As we continued North we reached a spot that's up there with my favourite stretches of beach in all of Europe. This section of the Albanian Riviera is slowly changing but currently it's almost untouched by large developers and you'll find baby cows and wild pigs just hanging out by the side of the tracks leading down to the beaches.

Borsch beach was one of my favourite discoveries. I love that you can still just stop by the section of beach you want to sit on, park up, and hop into the ocean. Some people even took this a step further and just drove right on down to the shore!

Our campsite of choice for the next couple of nights was Camping Kranea by Livadhi beach. We set up camp on a fantastic pitch in the back corner of the site underneath a mature olive tree. Both the space and the beach opposite were fantastic places to while away a couple of days reading, listening to music and catching up on podcasts in the sun.

Whilst we relaxed we also made use of the self catering facilities in the van but when it was too hot to cook we snacked on some of Albania's best vegan eats. Lemon wafers, garlic Bake Rolls and Lay's Tzatziki flavoured crisps. Delicious.

Our drive north from Livadhi Beach towards the Dukat Valley and our pre-selected base for the night, Kamping pa Emer, was probably the most challenging of the trip. We had to drive up and over the Ceraunian Mountains crossing the infamous Llogara pass at 3,422 feet before descending though Llogora national park. The roads in this part of Albania (on the south side of the mountain at least) are incredibly well maintained and, I would guess, newly tarmaced, which was unexpected but pleasing for sure.

The picture above doesn't really do the intense nature of the road justice but as you can see Albanian's aren't big fans of a switchback, they favour long climbs that zig zag up and across the mountain. I was amazed at the sheer amount of cyclists attempting the hard slog to the top, a few of them did not look like they were having a whole lot of fun. Thankfully, unlike the few drivers we saw struggling along, our camper van, the 2009 Romahome Hylo which has since been replaced in the line with the Romahome R20 Lo, is small and fast and happily handled the corners and hills. It didn't really appreciate the bridge we discovered right at the end of our journey though but I doubt that most vehicles would. It was built at one of the more peculiar angles I've ever seen and it's definitely challenging not to scrape the underside of your bonnet coming off of the bridge!

Thankfully it's entirely worth doing a little damage to your vehicle as when we arrived at the campsite we were greeted by this view. Albania is seriously stunning, what an amazing place to wake up.

When I wasn't just staring at the view from the van I was walking on the beach, it wasn't warm enough for swimming the day we were there due to the wind but the sky was beautifully clear. I enjoyed spotting this beach bar set up - it reminded me of Thailand's island beaches and their ramshackle bars - and checking out the bunkers, a relic of Hoxha's time controlling the country with something of an iron fist, lying abandoned. You can find these all over the country on hillsides and beaches, some are intact, some, not so much.

After driving from our campsite at Kavaja past the somewhat ugly port town of Durrës we deviated from our coastal route to dip into Tirana for a day of sightseeing and to eat something we didn't have to cook ourselves at one of Albania's few vegan friendly Happy Cow listings, Bohemian Burgers

We stayed at Camping Tirana which was one of our favourite camping spots of the whole trip. Located around 14km outside the city centre down around a kilometre of rocky dirt track we found two of the kindest hosts and one of the quirkiest campsites we'd stumbled upon. Located, of course, in the back garden of the owner's home we were surrounded chickens and electricity pylons and had a view down to a lake. To get into Tirana we took the local bus to City Park which was an adventure in itself, when one woman missed the bus she called the driver who reversed back down the road to collect her, and then from there we took the free shuttle bus into the city centre. On the way home we'd have been too late for the local bus so after some texting we picked up the keys and one of the owners cars and drove that back from City Park. I'm still unsure how the car got to be there as the person handing us the keys had their own vehicle and the person whose car it was was at the campsite when we arrived. It's a mystery! The whole adventure was a strange and memorable in the best kind of way. Logistics aside I enjoyed Tirana itself, it's a super walkable city and I enjoyed exploring the Blloku district. It has a very young vibe with lots of under 25's hanging out enjoying coffee in street side cafe's and I could definitely have spent more time there if the road hadn't been calling our name.

Driving in Albania is definitely interesting, bikes cycle the wrong way down newly built dual carriageway and people cross over wherever they want leaving bridges unused in favour of makeshift wooden ladders or piles of bricks placed at their preferred route. Mercedes Benz, both old and new, share space on bumpy backroads with horse and carts which, in the rain, are ridden by men balanced on the front of the cart sheltered underneath black umbrellas giving their appearance a touch of the macabre. Markets spring up on roundabouts selling the most amazing fruit and veg - I ate the best tomatoes of my life here - at the cheapest prices.

On our last day Nick and I were desperately trying to spend £4 worth of Albanian Lek and four stops and four bags of shopping including bread, snacks, fruit and vegetables later we were only halfway there. Albania, specifically the Albanian Riviera, is a truly fascinating place to explore and I would highly recommend road tripping there. It's a wonderful way to see the country and I definitely see myself finding the time to go back and explore more of this beautiful country in the future.

Tuesday 6 October 2015

The Den at 23

The saddest part of any road trip is when it has to come to an end but luckily I’d planned some exciting things for the final leg of the journey to drop the van off in Ipswich including a few days in Brighton, hanging with my Sister in Law and her family and a tattoo appointment in Peterborough with one of my favourite artists Harriet Heath. I was really excited when I realised that Jen from blog turned bakery PS It’s Vegan’s cafe The Den at 23 wasn’t even a ridiculous detour on the drive from London to Ipswich meaning that I could finally try some of her delicious eats. 

The Den is located right in the centre of Colchester and it’s the only cafe on Crouch street which means that they’re really well positioned for both visiting vegans and hungry locals for whom The Den might be their first introduction to vegan food. 

Nick started with a hot chocolate which I was so jealous of that I had to order one for myself. I’m usually a soya milk girl but Jen’s partner Robert, the man in charge of the coffee machine, recommended coconut milk and I was so glad I listened to him. This was without a doubt the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had. It was smooth, creamy and intensely chocolatey without any lingering coconut flavour and to kick it up another notch it was also topped with the wonderfully indulgent and fun combo of whipped cream and marshmallows. 

Now I’ve taken my own mallows along to coffee shops to pop in my hot choc before but I’ve never been anywhere that just had them on the menu and I’d never had whipped cream on a hot chocolate before. I know! I didn’t get into whipped cream until after I went vegan (yay for Schlagfix!) so I’d always missed out on this fun treat and hoo boy is it good. If I lived near The Den I would order this all the time!

The cafe’s menu is a mix of breakfasts, burgers, sandwiches, salads and sweet treats which include waffles, a desert island burger and grilled cheese and ham sandwiches. Of course I ordered a grilled cheese, there were a few options but I eventually settled on cheese, ham and tomato after seeing that they were using Tofurky ham. The cheese is VioLife and it melts perfectly. 

Breakfast is served until they run out and thankfully they had just enough of their delicious tofu omelettes left to whip Nick up a breakfast bagel with an omelette, Linda McCartney sausages and plenty of ketchup.

Nick couldn’t resist a slice of their Apple Crumble Cheesecake which I was even tempted to try a forkful off despite my hatred for cheesecake. It was definitely the best cheesecake I’ve tried but as a cheesecake hater you can’t trust my opinion! Nick said it was epic which is a pretty excellent compliment.

I didn’t have enough space left for one of the cafe’s famous waffles but because Jen is the sweetest she gave me one to take away which I topped with bee free honee for dinner that evening. It was so delicious, I’ve never managed to make a waffle that good no matter how fancy the waffle maker, and if you’re visiting The Den I’d highly recommend ordering the toasted waffle with maple syrup and non dairy ice cream because how good does that sound?!

The Den also sell a small but well selected range of take away snacks including Vego bars, Ten Acre Crisps (the cheese and onion flavour is off the hook!), Spacebars and Freedom Mallows. 

Also in stock, as of last week, is my zine European Vegan which I’m super excited about! Sadly I’m having to put my Big Cartel stores on hiatus because the logistics of sending individual zines out to people from Thailand / Cambodia / South Korea / wherever else I end up in the next 10 months are just too complicated. It’s no biggie though you can now pick up copies of the zine from Infinity Foods, Herbivore, Rabbit Food Grocery, Dr Pogo, Active Distro, The Cowley Club, Black Cat Cafe and, of course, The Den.