Wednesday, 27 August 2014

The wonderful world(s) of Europe

One of the joys of travelling is being affected by places, having your world view turned inside out, your misconceptions "corrected". I've had my mind changed, and opened, a few times while travelling around Europe these past few months. 

Beautiful, coastal Portugal
For one thing, coming from Australia, I've always thought of Europe as relatively small, and overpopulated. But Europe is bigger, wilder and more blue-skied than I'd remembered it to be. 

I realised my mistake as soon as I started zigzagging from one side of the continent to the other (which cost a small fortune, in different currencies – more on that below): from Germany down to Portugal, over to Croatia, up to Norway (I spent a day and a night on the train travelling north of Oslo, for instance, and still didn't reach the northern tip of the country).

I've learned that much of Europe is uninhabited, or barely inhabited, if you look in the right places. That there are wild landscapes all over the continent: beaches and islands, canyons and mountains. I surfed in Portugal, went sea kayaking in Croatia, hiking in Switzerland and hardly saw another soul.

Good question...
But the main thing I've learned is this: there's more than one Europe. Which can make travelling there tricky, particularly for non-Europeans. Let me explain...

There’s Europe the continent, a land mass that extends north of the Mediterranean Sea to Nordkapp in Norway (mainland Europe's most northerly point) and from the Atlantic to the Black Sea, and includes islands such as Iceland and the United Kingdom. 

There’s the European Union (EU) consisting of 28 countries, though some European countries, such as Norway and Switzerland, aren’t in the EU, and others are in the process of applying for membership such as Serbia and Turkey.

Bear Grylls on
the walls of Zagreb
There’s the Eurozone, made up of 18 EU countries that use the euro. So not every country in the EU uses the euro. The UK is the obvious exception, but Croatia, the EU's newest member (as of 2013), still uses the kuna. Then there are micro-countries that use the euro, such as Monaco and the Vatican City. 

Then there's Schengen Europe. Um, what? I'd never heard of it either. The Schengen Area comprises 26 European (EU and non-EU) countries that signed the Schengen Agreement (in Schengen, Luxembourg) in 1995 to abolish border checks between them. 

What Schengen means for non-European travellers: we can travel in and between any of the Schengen countries without passport checks, and stay in the Schengen zone for up to 90 days within a 180-day period (to stay longer, in other words, you have to leave Schengen Europe for 90 days and re-enter). 

Portugal for sale
The trap for new players is that some European countries (such as Croatia), even some countries in the EU (such as Ireland), aren’t in the Schengen zone, while some non-EU countries (such as Norway, Switzerland and Iceland) are.

Finally, there's "Europe" as defined by Eurail - a Eurail pass is valid in 24 European countries, which is pretty much all of Europe (including non-EU countries like Turkey) except the UK, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania, and Iceland.

Some European countries  like Portugal, Spain, Germany, France, Italy, Finland, the Netherlands and Belgium – make life easy for everyone by being in the EU, the Eurozone and Schengen (and within Eurail Europe).

Other European countries make travel akin to code-breaking (in a good way!). 

To illustrate: In three months in "Europe" I visited 11 countries (eight EU, three non-EU countries), went in and out of the Schengen zone a few times and used eight (!) currencies:
  • Portugal – which is in the EU, the Eurozone and Schengen Europe
  • Croatia – in the EU but not Schengen and doesn’t use the euro; the kuna was my first non-euro currency. Because I spent 16 days in Croatia, my 90 days in Schengen stretched to 106 days in Europe, which was an unexpected bonus...
  • Switzerland – proudly, defiantly not in the EU and doesn’t use the euro (enter my second currency, the Swiss franc) but is in Schengen
  • Denmark and Sweden – both in the EU and Schengen, but don't use the euro (they use Danish and Swedish kroner)
  • Norway – not in the EU and doesn’t use the euro (why can’t all Scandinavian countries at least use the same kroner?) but is in Schengen
  • Germany – another “normal” European nation: in the EU, in Schengen, uses the euro. Bless Deutschland
  • Hungary – in the EU and Schengen but doesn't use the euro (I had to buy forints for a too-brief river cruise stopover in Budapest)
  • Serbia – not in the EU (yet), the Eurozone (they use the dinar) or Schengen 
  • Slovakia – in the EU, the Eurozone and Schengen
  • Austria – another "truly" European nation: in the EU, in Schengen, uses euros.
The good news is that every country in Europe drives on the right, and uses the same two-pin electrical plug :-) 

The moral of the story: Before you travel in Europe and buy your euros or a Eurail pass, check the status of your destination. Then dive headlong into the wonderful world(s) of Europe.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

The best things in life are free - even in Switzerland

Two and a half weeks housesitting for a friend who lives in a ski village in French Switzerland – how could I say “non”? This is a part of the world that knows how to turn up the dial on mountain landscapes. The weather wasn't all blue skies – only six of my 18 days in Villars-sur-Ollon (near Montreux) were sunny – but when the sun does shine, man, you need a couple of rainy, misty days to recover from the scenic splendour. 

Scenic splendour - from
the deck of the house
The challenge: How to live simply in one of the most expensive countries in Europe and in a mountain town that has TWO of the most expensive schools in the world (Beau Soleil and Aiglon College).

The outcome? It turns out that even in Switzerland, in summer, the best things in life are free, such as:

1. Getting around, if you ride bikes and walk, instead of driving. (The family I was housesitting for have a Tesla electric car, which is ridiculously cheap to run, but since I would be driving on the wrong side of the winding mountain roads, I decided to leave it in the garage, plugged in.) The bonus with walking is that you get to see the details in your surroundings: geraniums in window boxes, heart cut-outs in the wooden verandahs, piles of chopped wood waiting for winter...

Walk this way...
2. Hiking. Even getting up into the mountains is inexpensive, thanks to the Villars-Gryon Free Access Card, valid May-October. Although it's technically "free" only in name, for 10 Swiss francs (about $12), you can use any bus, train or gondola in the area for a whole day. Fifty francs ($60) buys you free transport for the whole summer.

The mountain I woke up to
every morning
3. Looking at mountains. Even after a week of constantly stopping to look at 3000-metre peaks in every direction, I still couldn't wait to open the curtains each morning to see them again. What would they be like today? Is there fresh snow from last night's rain? I started to wonder how people who live here get anything done. How do they not get so distracted by alpine beauty that they forget their jobs, their errands, their children's names? I still don't know.

No such thing as a free lunch?
This comes pretty close...
4. Eating in, and out. This being French Switzerland, the food was a highlight (and probably the main reason my friend Janet flew all the way across the US and the Atlantic to housesit with me...). It was also surprisingly affordable. Lunch was always "the best picnic ever": a fresh and crusty baguette, at least two kinds of cheese, an avocado and some nuts (for some non-dairy nutrition), and a block of Cailler dark chocolate, served on a makeshift tablecloth (in this pic, some red checked paper napkins).

For other meals we cooked instead of eating out (the advantage of having a kitchen) and spent almost as long in the chocolate aisle as in the whole rest of the supermarket. And still we'd always make sure we had a few francs leftover for pains au chocolat from the boulangerie. It was like being in Paris - with clean air and mountain views.

5. Swimming in Lake Geneva (once you've paid the train fare to Montreux). This was another highlight of our stay (even though we had to swim in our underwear, because it had been raining and cold when we'd left the mountains and we hadn’t expected Montreux to be sunny and 22 degrees C and the lake so irresistible). Sometimes the best things in life are spontaneous too. 

Up to my neck in Lake Geneva
Not only that but we swam right next to Chateau de Chillon, an incredible 12th century castle right on the lake, just after watching a ballet company rehearsing for that evening's performance, for the price of admission, a mere 12 francs. Oh, Switzerland, how do you do it?

6. Doing nothing. One of the best ways to save money is to do nothing. Well, nothing more than reading in the sun on the deck, playing badminton on the lawn, talking over cups of tea...

A posy of wildflowers
7. The kindness of strangers. One day we caught a bus (using the Free Access Card) to Solalex, a glacial cul de sac at the foot of an enormous slab of rock called the Miroir d'Argentine. We'd just been tandem paragliding for the first time (which isn't free, of course, but was much cheaper than back home, go figure) and were celebrating with a couple of Boxer beers (who knew the Swiss made beer?) at Le Restaurant du Miroir d'Argentine, when the aproned waiter came over and offered us two slices of peach flan and some freshly whipped cream, as they were about to close. This is what I love about travelling. Kindness, and dessert, when you least expect it.

8. Speaking French. Practising my schoolgirl French – priceless. Attempting to speak another language in a country that speaks it all around you is a little-known form of entertainment, and not just for the locals (!). I love places where you can live simply but still have another language and culture to keep things interesting. 

Freshly picked strawberries
 9. Summerberries. I learned a new appreciation for summer by picking strawberries in the garden of the house where we were staying - so precious when you know the ground will soon covered in snow. We also met hikers picking wild strawberries beside the trail.

10. Friends. Having friends in high (as in altitude) places makes even the most expensive destinations affordable (big thanks to Keith and Yvette for opening up your home to us while you were away). But even when you don't know anyone where you're going, there are other ways to housesit, like Trustedhousesitters, which has assignments all over the world and you usually stay for free in exchange for looking after the owners' house, garden and/or animal friends.

Got any tips for travelling on a budget in expensive countries? 

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Yoga, surfing and the "vida simples" (simple life) in Portugal

You can do a lot of living in seven days, in Portugal – without dancing ‘til dawn in a Lisbon nightclub. I’m talking about a simpler, unplugged kind of living. One endless summer's day after another. 

Tipi heaven, the western Algarve
And a couple of weeks ago I found just the place to try it, if only for a week (for starters): Tipi Valley, a surf-and-yoga camp on Portugal's rugged Atlantic coast.

Europe's most unspoilt coast
This part of Portugal, the western Algarve (about 20km from the south-western tip of Europe and four hours by bus south of Lisbon), is about as far from the popular notion of "Europe in summer" as you can get without leaving the continent. (That's a good thing.)

Rock fishing, Algarve-style
Here, land meets sea at pristine beaches flanked by dramatic cliffs, and fishermen perch 30 metres above the crashing Atlantic, hoping for a bite that won't pull them to their deaths. The only signs of man are a few snaking coastal roads and cobble-streeted villages nestled in lush valleys (many of their terracotta-tile roofs sporting solar panels, a new decree).

Track markers on a tree
Oh, and a new 110-kilometre walking trail, the Rota Vicentina (opened in 2013), along what The Guardian calls “the wildest, most unspoilt coastline in southern Europe” in Southwest Alentijo and Vicentine Coast Natural Park. (I day-walked part of it before arriving at Tipi Valley and found a paradise of wildflowers - see the pics here). 

Why the teepees? 
The camp is the accidental dream of Laurie Quirk, an Australian surfer I met when we were both living in Japan 20 years ago (which is how I came to stay at Tipi Valley). 

A nomad by nature, he was lured to this part of Portugal by the promise of perfect, uncrowded waves 10 years ago, found some land (six hectares) in a peaceful valley near the historic town of Aljezur (we saw a man in a donkey-drawn cart in the main street one afternoon), bought a teepee "made in the Netherlands from a Belgian guy living in a German fire truck" and dived headfirst into a simple, natural life - surfing, doing yoga, growing his own organic vegetables. 

The big teepee, by night
One night, Laurie was sitting around a campfire with a few mates when one of them said, "You know, a lot of people would love to come and live like this for a week: to surf (or learn how to), do yoga, live simply in a natural place." So Tipi Valley was born - authentically, out of Laurie's own life. 

Simple + sustainable
Eight years on, Tipi Valley remains faithful to its simple roots. It's small, accommodating up to 12 guests at a time (there were only six of us the week I was there). It's off-the-grid: there's no mains electricity or town water, no mobile reception or wifi. There's solar electricity, water from a well, bottled gas for cooking. (And no need for a generator, so the camp is blissfully quiet at night, but for the rumble of the surf). 

My bamboo-and-canvas tent
It's rustic, but not rough. There are comfortable beds with mosquito nets in every teepee/tent. Posies of wildflowers in glass jars. Locally sourced bamboo-walled bathrooms (with solar hot showers) open to the sky and the stars. The Moroccan Lounge communal tent has couches, books and a hamper of blankets for cool nights.

Shivasana under the cork trees
There's a beautifully simple yoga space: a hessian-covered padded floor (yoga mats are provided too) shaded by native cork trees, with views past the big teepee down the valley.

The camp is also open only half the year (May-October). People would come at other times, Laurie says, particularly to escape the northern European winter, but in keeping with Tipi Valley's low-impact ethos, he and his staff remove all trace of it at the end of each summer to let the land rest between seasons. 

Off to surf school...
Yoga, surfing and Portugese tarts
Our days tumbled into an easy routine. After morning yoga and breakfast, David from Odeceixe Surf School would pick us up in his lime-green, ex-Portugese army jeep to take us to one of three local beaches: Odeceixe, Monte Clerigo or Amoreira. 

Pastel de nata (mmm)
I'd surf while the others had a two-hour lesson, then we'd all hang out on the beach, swim (in the freezing Atlantic! We wore 4/3 wetsuits when surfing) and treat ourselves to post-surf pasteis de nata (Portugese for baked deliciousness) or Sagres beer. 

(As yoga retreats go, it was pleasantly relaxed in relation to sugar, caffeine and alcohol: we even had a bottle of local wine with dinner one night.) 

Back at camp, there'd be time for showers before the evening yoga session, then dinner, made from ingredients gathered from the garden or local fish and produce from Aljezur's market. 

Portugal is a surfers' paradise
Beautiful beaches
A couple of mornings, Laurie picked me up in his ute (he lives in a passive-solar house he built on the property) for an early surf before breakfast. 

One spot, a right-hander at the end of a steep and deeply rutted dirt road, looked lost in time. No one around, the undeveloped coastline stretching north and south as far as we could see. "It's like Rincon [a now-famous break in southern California] in the '60s," Laurie said, half-joking. We surfed it by ourselves for an hour, then drove to the nearest village to warm up with espressos and freshly baked pasteis de nata. A mini surf trip, Portugese-style.

Casa Verde, Monte Clerigo beach
On our last day, we all surfed at Monte Clerigo, my favourite beach of the trip for its pastel-coloured houses, the little cafe/bar with tables and chairs right on the sand and the headland walk from where you can look down at rock pools and the turquoise sea. (Who knew the Atlantic could look like this? Not me.)

I even found my next European summerhouse (maybe): right on the beach, with a hand-painted "for rent" sign and a very No Impact Girl name on the gate: Casa Verde ("green house").

Dinner light
A week of "getting back to it all"
Tipi Valley is a special place: where life slows down, a week feels like a month and everything you do is simple, natural goodness for body, heart and soul (yes, even the daily pasteis de nata!).

You eat all your meals outdoors, forget to wear shoes and tune in to daily miracles like the waves falling over each other onto the shore and nature's ever-changing light show, presented by our ever-generous sponsor, the sun.

Beach yoga with new friends
Liberated from our devices, away from news and emails, we interacted only with the people we could speak to, face to face (in my case, five beautiful, like-minded women from the UK, New York and the Netherlands). Isn't that always the way, only we just need reminding now and then? Disconnecting from the wider world, we reconnect with those around us, and to the day's rhythms, and our own.

Yoga + surfing = happy
Pic by Becky Westcott
It's just as Tasmanian photographer Peter Dombrovskis (1945-1996) said, years ago: "When you go out there [to the wilderness], you don't get away from it all, you get back to it all. You come home to what's important. You come home to yourself." 

Thanks, Tipi Valley, for a week that will stay with me for a long time, until I find my way back to you... 

More info: Tipi Valley runs all-inclusive, fun and healthy (for body, heart and soul) 5-day and 7-day surf-and-yoga programs between May and October from 595. See 

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Top 10 travel apps to simplify your next trip

Like any convert, I've become evangelical - about travel apps. Six months ago, I didn't even have a smartphone. Then I bought my first iPhone and the petals of my world fell open. Now I'm telling anyone with ears that an iPhone is the must-have travel accessory for any 21st century traveller - largely because it simplifies travel so beautifully. (It's true: simplicity and technology CAN be friends!) There's a caveat, though: my iPhone would be next to useless without a swag of great travel apps.

Here are the top 10 travel apps I now can't leave home without:

1. Rome2rio  A simple concept, brilliantly executed. As its name suggests, Rome2rio (which is actually based in Melbourne), helps you find out how to get from A to B anywhere in the world (even in your home city) by any means (well, by plane, train, bus, ferry and automobile). It will give you the travel time, connections, costs, and links to, say, airline websites to book flights - in any language or currency you choose. It looks great, is easy to use, you can even enter "direct flights" as your destination and Rome2rio will tell you where you can go, nicely of course. Free.

2. Trail Wallet – Designed by a couple of digital nomads from the UK who have been on the road for four years now (see, Trail Wallet is the best app I've found to help me keep tabs on my travel expenses, in both local currencies and my home currency. You can see at a glance how much you're spending every day, week or month on food, transport, activities, shopping. It works offline. (I use it at home, too.) It's free for up to 25 entries; the full version costs a mere $2.99. 

3. Xe Currency App – The three things I love most about this classic currency converter app (apart from its little built-in calculator, so cute!) is that you can toggle between different currencies, it works offline and the exchange rates are automatically updated whenever you're online. Oh, and it's free.

4. TripIt – I’ve used this app for three trips now, and it works like a dream. TripIt basically compiles a travel itinerary from emails you send to, giving you easy access to necessary contact details, booking numbers, even maps. You can share your travel plans with others (e.g your family, for backup). It's also useful when booking flights while travelling as there's no need to print an eticket; just flash your phone at check-in! Free.

5. Google Maps Simply the best online guidance system known to man (and androids). I love that maps you download while online are available offline. It can even be used as a GPS, complete with voice commands, when driving. There's also CityMaps2Go which gives you maps, travel content and insider tips for cities and regions in every country in the world, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Both these map apps are free.

6. Zite – The best source of news that matters to you, from all over the world, wherever you are. This app curates content according to your interests (chosen from 40,000 possible topics), scanning the webosphere and displaying news on your phone from magazines, newspapers, blogs and sites you'd never find otherwise. It looks even better when viewed on an iPad. Free.

7. Airbnb – One of the most beautiful travel apps around, Airbnb's app is travel eye-candy/inspiration as well as a tool for booking accommodation anywhere in the world, from long-term to last-minute. There are now more than 450,000 listings in 34,000 cities! (Airbnb, for the unitiated, is a worldwide network of people who rent out everything from treehouses to penthouses to fellow travellers. I've used it in Bali, Nairobi and Vienna and have met some great people this way.)

8. Viber – What started out as a way for those in the iPhone club to keep in touch - you can call or text anyone who has Viber, for free, using wifi, anywhere in the world - has become an app for everybody (welcome, Androids). It doesn't have video like Skype or Facetime (though you can send pics), but that might be why Viber often seems to work better, particularly with patchy wifi connections - it's simpler. There's no need to register or send invitations either; Viber searches your contact list to find your Viber-using friends.

9. Seatguru – This one is great for long-haul flights especially, to ensure you don't get a dud seat near the toilets or any crying babies (well, that's chance, but Seatguru can help you avoid known parents-with-infants zones). Just enter your airline, flight number (or destination) and departure date, and Seatguru will bring up a colour-coded seat map for that aircraft (colours indicate good, bad and be-aware seats) as well as information about seat configuration, entertainment options, meals and seat pitch. Free.

10. The Weather Channel – The beauty of this app is that you can see, at a glance, what the weather is like anywhere in the world. (Where I am inSwitzerland right now, for instance, it's 11C, the sun will set at 9.27pm and there's a 10% chance of rain.) Scroll down to see hourly predictions and 10-day forecasts. There are also prominent extreme weather alerts. (In Australia, Willyweather is my favourite weather app; besides the regular stuff, it shows moon info, tide times, and swell size and direction. Both apps are free.)

What are your favourite, never-leave-home-without travel apps?