Annchen

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So, clearly we’ve traveled a lot. And also, I have a Masters in Museum Studies. 

So I thought I’d combine my powers to bring you

THE ULTIMATE MUSEUM HACKS AROUND THE WORLD

Well, *ultimate* might be a strong word, but I think it’s pretty good.

The problem with museums is that they are big, they are threatening to burst with quantity and diversity, and yet when you’ve seen one French Romantic painting, you’ve seen ‘em all, right? (The answer is no.) But the point is they can get kind of repetitive. 

Ugh, museums, amirite? WRONG. You’ve been doing it wrong, you fool.

And unless you are some kind of crazy genius that knows everything about everything, half of the time you don’t know what it is you’re looking at or why it should be important and/or interesting. Or unless you get a guide, but guides are expensive, and audio guides are sometimes just that much more than you want to spend and most of the time they get pretty boring, which is why – and here’s my first hack!!!! = I often listen to the numbers set out for kids on audioguides, because it’s essentially the same information in half the time. Also, very often the kids’ version draws you in to visually engage with a painting far better (but sometimes you’ll have to ignore those melodramatic voice actors). 

But ya’ll still go to museums because it’s in the guidebooks. (also, they are the repositories of knowledge and memory of human history, and very often in super gorgeous ex-palaces or mansions, or something). 

But most of the time the problem isn’t museums, it’s that you’ve been going to the wrong ones (I know this for a fact). Because for every great big popular grand meta-narrative museum, there is a smaller, quieter, off-the-radar one that manages to tell personal or relatable stories that will make you immediately want to re-tell it to someone else. And for each one of those, there’s a real obscure one, hidden in the quiet or abandoned nooks of the city, holding bizarre secrets, or curious collections. And I know where to find them, and now you will, too.

So i’ve chosen a couple of major cities in the world, and for each I’ve given you one crucial tip for one of the big museums (because I know you’ll still go), but then for each there is a lesser known but not totally obscure museum, and then there is museum that is really off the beaten path – and these are the most rewarding. Trust me, I should know, I am Master of the Museums. Also, I’m super humble. 

But before we get specific, here are two hacks in general to always keep in mind:

MAIN HACK #1

Museums are often closed on Mondays. All around the world.

MAIN HACK #2

STORAGE:

Try not to go to Museums with large bags, or backpacks or certainly not suitcases. First of all, you won’t be allowed in, and then you have to waste time and energy to find and use the lockers (usually downstairs).

OR ,

DO GO TO MUSEUMS with your backpack for free/cheap storage – if you have time to kill but nowhere to store your backpack, because most of the big museums have lockers so you can leave it there, pop in to the museum (or not), walk around the city, come back and get it later! All for free, or a 1EUR deposit. Voíla.

PARIS

Quick Tip for the Big One:

Download the Louvre app and choose a self-guided tour (and remember your earphones). I’d recommend the Masterpieces tour – it’s €1 and about an hour long (including walking time between art works), and you’ll see all the big stuff. The louvre is big and overwhelming without a plan. 

The Museum Less Traveled: 

Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, or as we regular unfancies call it: The Museum of Hunting and Nature. I cannot in words describe how wonderful this museum is. It feels more like a the beautiful love baby of an art installation and a colonial cigar parlour. The history of hunting and nature is thematically divided amongst the luxurious rooms, each styled according to a certain animal and colour scheme. Within each room is a mixture of contemporary and historical art, furniture, installations, and expertly executed and curated taxidermy. It is interesting and creative and easy. It sucks to say, but three qualities often amiss in the big famous museums. 

USEFUL INFO: €8 will get you inside (€6 reduced), at 62 rue des Archives.

Ultimate museum hacks - Paris: The Museum of Hunting and Nature

Way of the Beaten Track: 

The Hunting Museum in Senlis. To stick with the theme, I recently added the Senlis hunting museum to my list of all-time favourite museums. It’s the village version of the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, beautifully and symmetrically curated, colour-coordinated, and lit with natural light flooding the French windows. It’s at once modest and totally extravagant, located in a little French countryside mansion in the castle estate near the forest, and every available bit of ceiling space has been occupied by mounted deer antlers, dated and detailed. 

BONUS: It comes with the most adorable little French town of Senlis, only a 30-minute bus ride from Charles de Gaulle Airport. 

USEFUL INFO: €6 get you in (€3,50 reduced). It’s at Place Notre-Dame; closed Monday and Tuesday, by appointment Wednesday through Friday, 10am to 6pm on the weekends.

Ultimate museum hacks - Paris: The Museum of Hunting in Senlis

LONDON

Quick Tip for the Big One:

Use the back entrance of the British Museum! The front entrance of the museum is usually crawling with all kinds of tour groups or anti-BP activists, and it takes long to get in as all bags have to be searched (refer to main hack #2 above), but the back entrance, on Montague Place, almost never has a line.

I am seriously confused why more people don’t do this.  

Bonus Tip: the Tate café has an incredible view of the Thames – break up your visit with a coffee on the 6th floor. 

The Museum Less Traveled:

The Monument of the Great Fire of London. Or, just The Monument, to those that know about it.

Okay, technically not a museum. Actually, it’s just a single Doric column on the very place where the Great fire of 1616 supposedly originated. But for a small fee you can go inside, climb the 311 steps to the top and get spectacular London views. Despite its central location – right by London Bridge, close to St. Paul’s – it’s missed by most (even Londoners). Plus, you get a certificate of completion on your way out, which is just the most adorable thing ever. 

USEFUL INFO: £4,50 gets you up (multiple reduced rates), at the junction of Monument Street and Fish Hill Street. Open daily 9am to 5.30pm/6pm (winter/summer times).

Ultimate museum hacks - London: The Monument to the Great Fire of London
Views for days est. 1677.

Way off the Beaten Track: 

Dennis Severs’ House – 18 Folgate Street. 

It was a tight choice between The Monument and this house museum, because they are equally off the beaten track, and actually this museum gets a bit of a queue in front because they only let like 10 people in at a time, but I would say this is a more obscure museum, but certainly one of my favourite museums ever (maybe second-favourite). 

It is a house museum set between 1724 and the early 1900s. And the residents – the French Huguenot silk-weavers – are still in residence. You’ll enter each room (in strict silence), just as the family had seemingly departed it, tea half-drunk, candle still it, with sounds emanating from rooms you just left or will enter next. 

It is a gorgeous portrait of working-class life in the Georgian and Elizabethan eras (the house becoming increasingly modern as the stories ascend), filled with an overwhelming bevy of intricate details (you’ll see the calendar flipped open on the day’s date, but centuries ago, and the kitchen is filled with actual food that would have been made at the time). It a feast for the senses, truly. 

The best time to go is during the Christmas season, when it’s decorated with gingerbread cookies and christmas trees and candles. 

USEFUL INFO: £10, or £5 reduced (CASH!). It’s open only Monday during lunchtime (12pm – 2pm), and Sundays (12pm – 4pm). Closed in July. The Christmas tour is more expensive (£17,50), from 5pm – 8pm on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and bookings have to be made online.

Ultimate museum hacks - London: Dennis Sever's House
Dennis Sever’s House made up all 19th/20th century traditional for the Christmas special

BERLIN 

Quick Tip for the Big One:

The best view of Berlin is from the dome of the Berlin Cathedral, which is included in the entry price. I am always surprised that it is not swarming with people up there, but then again, they are all too busy standing in lines for all the museums on Museum Island down below. 

BONUS TIP: You have to have to have to go at opening time if you want to visit the Pergamon Museum (the one that has the colossal gate of Babylon) and actually enjoy it. It gets flooded with people.

Bonus bonus tip: Try avoid the DDR/GDR Museum on the weekends, as it’s a family destination. 

Ultimate museum hacks - Berlin: The Berlin Cathedral
I made all my friends go up there

The Museum Less Traveled: 

You can visit the ex-HQ of the GDR (East Germany) Intelligence service, which is widely regarded to have been “one of the most effective and repressive intelligence and secret police agencies ever to have existed” (and that is a Wikipedia quote so you know it’s true.). 

Going to the actual building, in which the head offices were all left in tact, from where the German Soviet state conducted its infamous espionage makes for an eerie, and in turn impactful visit. It’s far from central Berlin, which is why it’s never too busy. 

Pro tip: This museum is not air-conditioned in the summer, so I would suggest avoiding it in the dire heat.

USEFUL INFO: €8 or €6 reduced. Open daily with English tours at 3pm Mon – Thu. Highly recommended audio guides at €2.  

Ultimate museum hacks - Berlin: The Stasi Museum
Where the GDR’s secret police spied on anybody and everybody.

Way of the Beaten Track:

The Museum of Things is located in central Berlin, but wholly obscure and tucked away in a courtyard alley in Kreuzberg. Organised as an open storage displaying ‘things’ (aka ‘stuff’ or products) that signal the culture of mass-production and industrialisation in the 20th and 21st centuries, it is essentially an eclectic and theatrical exercise in taxonomy. 

Expect to be persuaded by the magic of everyday ordinary things, a la Wes Anderson. 

Pro tip: it’s better with a guide.

USEFUL INFO: €6 will get you in (or €4 reduced), except on Mondays and Tuesdays when it is closed. 25 Oranienstraße.

Ultimate museum hacks - Berlin: Museum of Things
Guys. It’s a collection of mini furniture (I’m not crying).

ISTANBUL

Quick tip for the big one: 

Do not attempt to see all of the Topkapi in one standing go. Perk up with some hellishly strong Turkish tea at their café, which is one of my favourite places for tea-with-a-view (of the Bosphorus) in Istanbul. 

The Museum Less Traveled: 

The Istanbul Modern, on the bank of the Bosphorus would have been a good choice here, but my favourite less-popular museum is the Pera Museum, at the very top of the hill. Besides its positively sumptuous collection of 19th-century Orientalist art, hung on deep red walls, it also has a semi-permanent exhibition on the history of Turkish tea, the Islamic measurement system and structures, and impressive temporary exhibitions. My favourite has been a Giacometti retrospective and an exhibition about the history of public bathing in the Bosphorus. 

The best part of the museum? It’s small. All of the museum with none of the fatigue. 

USEFUL INFO: 25TL gets you in (10TL concession), except on Mondays when it is closed. At Meşrutiyet Caddesi No:65.

Ultimate museum hacks - Istanbul: Pera Museum

Way of the Beaten Track: 

The Museum of Innocence. 

OMG. 

This is my favourite museum ever. It’s absolute in its uniqueness and its ability to draw nostalgia from thin air. Created by Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, alongside a very long novel of the same name, it’s a museum of objects around which a beautifully depressing love story is told in Istanbul’s modernising years of the 1970s and 1980s. You’ll get drawn in by the wall of cigarette butts – 4213 of them, smoked by the main character and sneakily collected by her head-over-heels suitor.

I loved this museum so much, I made it my mission to work there, which I did in 2015. 

Bonus: It’s located in one of the best neighbourhoods of Istanbul. 

NB: YOU DON’T HAVE TO HAVE READ THE NOVEL TO BE ABLE TO APPRECIATE THE MUSEUM. Don’t listen to those lies. The first time I went I hadn’t read it either. Also, good luck to you when you ever do try and read it.

USEFUL INFO: 25TL, or 15TL reduced. The museum is closed on Mondays, but open late on Thursdays. In Çukurcuma Street (get off at Tophane station).

Ultimate museum hacks - Istanbul: Museum of Innocence
Ultimate museum hacks - Istanbul: Museum of Innocence
Get lost in the magic of things.

WASHINGTON DC

Quick Tip for the Big One: 

Catch the Jazz in the Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery of Art during the summers. Grab a jug or two of sangria and find a spot on the lawn, get tipsy, and then rent some city bikes at dusk. It’s a good plan, trust me. 

Bonus tip for all big ones: I had one of my favourite self-guided tours ever at the National Gallery of Art. How, you ask?

Well, a museum guard saw me snickering at the dog pooping in a church in a Dutch painting (IMPORTANT MUSEUM HACK: always look our for the pooping dog in Dutch church interior scenes), and asked if I liked weird stuff like that. (He may have used the word ‘uncanny’), he then proceeded to mark out all the strangest paintings in the gallery on my map, and off I went looking at all the most obscure things at the National Gallery. 

So my tip is: ask the guards what their favourite, or what the strangest, artworks are. 

Ultimate museum hacks - look for the damn dogs
Always look for the naughty dog in Dutch paintings

The Museum Less Traveled: 

I don’t think there is a Museum Less Traveled in DC. It is museum central – I worked there and I tried all of them, and they are all equally big and impressive. But I’ll say don’t miss The Museum of African Art, if you’re into that thing. It’s all underground, behind an unassuming front door, next to the Smithsonian castle. And honestly, probably the best collection and exhibitions of African art anywhere in the world. 

It’s big budget stuff for African art, which doesn’t happen very often.

Way off the Beaten Track: Refer to above; no such thing. Unless you leave the state and then it won’t count.

USEFUL INFO: It’s free, like all of the Smithsonian, and about halfway down the Mall at 950 Independence Avenue.

Ultimate museum hacks - DC: National Museum of African Art
Don’t overlook this modest entrance!

CAPE TOWN

Quick Tip for the Big One: 

Well, which is the big one? Cape Town is more about drinking wine and the mountains and oceans and the wild outdoors, but probably if you’re looking to go to a museum two big ones will pop up.

So, if it’s the South African National Gallery of Art…just go! This museum is so straightforward, pretty small and has fantastic modern and contemporary South African art. Also, it’s curated to reflect the South African high school art syllabus – yeah! It’s not for the empty enjoyment of you, tourist, but the enrichment of South African education (fist pump!). 

If it’s the Zeitz MOCAA (Museum of Contemporary African Art), save some souvenir dollars for the gift shop. You could get some cool things to take home that aren’t as kitsch and embarrassing as regular souvenirs tend to be.

Ultimate museum hacks - Cape Town: Zeitz MOCAA
The Zeitz MOCAA – it’s a whole thing.

The Museum Less Traveled: 

The Slave Lodge, but more specifically the exhibition on the first floor (up the stairs, Americans) on the relationship between protest and music in South Africa. This is a fan-f***n-tastic exhibition that I would honestly put on all tourists’ and locals’ must-see lists in Cape Town. Really, my friend Gera and I were blown away by this amazing one-room exhibit. And Gera has her PhD in museum stuff so who are you to argue?

USEFUL INFO: Free on Fridays! Free on commemorative holidays! Only R30 other days (except on Sundays, when it is closed). On the corner of Adderley Street and Wale Street.

Way off the Beaten Track:

The Heart of Cape Town Museum, or the Christiaan Barnard Museum, or however they like to call themselves. This is a weird one that most locals have never heard of and I absolutely love it. 

So there’s this South African guy, he’s a surgeon, Christiaan Barnard, and he does the very first heart transplant and they made a museum right where it happened. It’s in the Groote Schuur Hospital and Madame Tussaud’s made all the wax figures (except they are made from silicon, not wax) so the quality is bomb. 

USEFUL INFO: Admission is at 09.00, 11.00, 13.00, and 15.00 (because it starts with a tour and a video), daily. At Groote Schuur Hospital, Main Road.

Ultimate museum hacks - Cape Town: The Heart of Cape Town Museum
History frozen in time. Who can resist?

ROME: THE CHURCH EDITION 

Disclaimer, churches are the museums in Rome.

Quick Tip for the Big One:

You cannot enjoy anything in Rome with a sense of peace and quiet 3 hours after sunrise. So when you go to the Vatican City to see Saint Peter’s Basilica, drag your butt out of bed at the crack of dawn, and get there when it opens. One hour later and it will be swarming with other tourists just like you, except you persevered. 

Ultimate museum hacks - Rome: The Vatican

Quick Tip for the Big One #2:

It is VITAL that you buy your Colosseum ticket online. Otherwise you will face a queue that seemingly wraps around the world twice. The tickets were actually sold out online a few days before we planned on going, so we didn’t buy our tickets online.

IN THIS CASE:

BUY YOUR TICKETS AT THE ENTRANCE TO THE PALATINE HILL. Wow, I cannot stress this enough. The line here was only a few people long. You will get a timed entry for the colosseum, so if it’s only an hour or two from when you buy it don’t go into the Forum just yet, as you will be rushed and can only go in once with your ticket. Just hang around and wait for your colosseum time, then go to the colosseum queue 15 minutes before (you won’t be allowed in earlier) your entry time (you’ll bypass the really long queue to a shorter queue for people who already have tickets.). 

People must really learn how to use the internet, I cannot fathom that colosseum queue.

Ultimate museum hacks - Rome: Colosseum

The One Less Traveled:

The Jesuit church of Saint Ignazio was my very favourite church in Rome, nay, Europe, because it has the most theatrical spectacular tromp l’oeil dome. I love a good tromp l’oeil (fancy french word for making flat surfaces look 3D, like that sidewalk chalk artist guy from the internet). Basically, a flat circular canvas is painted to create the illusion of a grand dome. Then you can toss 2EUR or something in a coin thing and the ceiling lights up and it looks even more dramatic. I am all for this gimmick. 

The rest of the ceiling is pretty good (read: magnificent), too.

Ultimate museum hacks - Rome: The Jesuit Church of Saint Ignazio
The dome that never was, and other significant eye trickeries

And that more or less rounds up the ultimate museum hacks for major cities around the world. Museums are great, ya’ll – you just gotta be smart about it. Like,

  • check if it’s actually open before you go.
  • find a museum that display stuff that you might like. (For some reason this is not that obvious to people).
  • Have a plan. ‘To see stuff’ is not a plan, by the way.
  • Use the café! ‘Museum legs’ is a real thing.

Anyway, you get it.

And finally, to amend and appropriate something Van Gogh once said: if you hear a voice within you that says ‘you cannot enjoy museums’ then by all means go enjoy some museums and that voice will be silenced.

But Van Gogh quite literally also said: “You should in any case go to the museum more often.” So be more like Van Gogh.

Photographs of Rome, Senlis, and the view from the Berlin cathedral are my own. The rest I have sourced through google. You can do a reverse image search to see where they are from. 

We met Dario outside of a small three-floor concrete apartment block, the grey version of some pastel colour that I can’t seem to remember. We nodded and yessed and ofcoursed to all of his instructions inside the second-floor apartment – don’t run two energy heavy appliances at the same time, no smoking, no noise before 7am and after 11pm, because there’s a family with small children upstairs (the parents of whom ironically woke us up at 3am twice a week with the loudest …intercourse imaginable – you can ask us about this for more info) – and then left us there, our home just outside of Venice for the next 5 weeks. 

We decided to check out the fitness centre with a pool close to us, which we had identified on Google Maps a few weeks before we came. I think it was then, in that pool place, with the lady trying to help us in strictly Italian and us responding in only English and her yelling at us in Italian for stupidly trying to go through to see the pool without being in swimwear (she was still nice about it, I think), that it hit us what a sort of strange, uncanny episode we have started in our lives (we never figured out the pool situation, and never returned). 

The episode is ‘The One Where Annchen And Joel Live In A Venetian Suburb For A Month So That Annchen Can Do Some PhD Research’. I had just started my PhD at the University of Cape Town, and my project is about South African art at what is basically the world’s biggest exhibition. It’s called the Venice Biennale and it happens every two years in Venice. It was happening so we quickly made plans to go. I managed to secure some funding (who knew doing your PhD is mostly all about getting money for things you have no time to do because you are always asking for money to do it), and we secured an Airbnb apartment (enter supporting actor Dario of the first paragraph) for a sweet discounted deal – it was actually cheaper than our apartment at home. 

I spent a bulk of my time ‘capturing data’ (with no time to actually read what I am getting, there’s so much of it) in the Biennale library, on the eastern, less-touristed reaches of the island, and a bulk of my time doing the same at the Biennale archive, in the shade-less industrial area on the other side of the train tracks – the last bus stop on the mainland before the bridge over to Venice. The other times I set out to see as much art as I could, with a crumpled up map of the sprawling exhibition that goes all over the city. Some days Joel and I took off, and we drove 1 to 3 hours north to the Dolomiti, for spectacular hikes and to get away from the Venetian haze and the people; one weekend we even went to Rome and came back exhausted. There was time left over to go for evening walks, hang out with my mom and oom Thys when they visited us for a week, try every type of cheese and cured meat imaginable sourceable from any of the three grocery stores within walking distance, catch up with our London neighbours who came to town, and even play tennis at the local court (we are getting pretty good now, as in, we aren’t terrible). Most of my time I spent waiting for that damned 7/7E bus, though (please picture me yelling with ‘damn you 7E!’ with a booming, echoing voice into the distance and a raised fist.). 

Living in Venice: often the best part id getting out of Venice, like the time we went to Pompeii (highly recommended!).
We managed to squeeze in a visit to Pompeii, too.

After about three weeks, things felt familiar. I had a sort of routine. As much of a routine you could expect for an episode like this. That is also when the vertigo set in. I had spent most of my time at the library – situated within the main exhibition venue, a 30-minute vaporetto ride from the main bus station on Venice. As you must be well aware, the buses and trains to Venice stop right across the bridge, from there on out you take vaporetti (waterbuses), or navigate the maze of a city and let the bridges determine your route. I would get to the library, find a seat, and get to work, only to find the world swaying when I look up every now and then, as if the whole city is floating on the waves. 

Vertigo in Venice. Huh, I thought. Ya, that makes sense. This strange sensation dissipated in a few days. 

We were staying on the outskirts of Mestre, the nearest town on the mainland. It is small, and already feels like a suburb of Venice, so the edge of town really felt like a suburb. But a European suburb, as in equipped with all the essential services in walking distance and connected with public transport (or whatever semblance of public transport Italy claims to have). There was a free parking lot, always only with 4 or 5 cars, where we could park our teeny tiny Fiat Panda; there’s the  nice supermarket (shoutout to Cadoro), and the cheap one from which we stocked our mozzarella in bulk; there’s the friendly labrador that always came to say hello; the café bar where Joel would go work while drinking 1EUR cappuccinos; the local gelato place ‘Icebear’ with the owner who raved abut Cape Town because he had just gone windsurfing there; the basketball court; the pharmacy that had a condom vending machine outside with ludicrously high prices (catholic tax?); the tobacco shop for public transport passes; the ‘Fast Sushi’ restaurant for when we got tired of pizza. Further afield is ‘Positanos’ – where we ate so much that they offered us a free meal on our last night. 

After three weeks I felt like we had been there a whole while, getting to know this random nook of the suburb we were based in pretty well. We got a grip of the characters in town, the system, the aisles in the grocery store, the parents’ sex schedule upstairs (I wish I was joking), the automated toll points driving in and out of town, the way you had to wangle the key a few times to get the door to open, the graveyard of tennis balls behind court number 7, the time windows I could rely on on getting a bus (haha just kidding, you can never rely on getting a bus). 

So now we are back, and people look at us with stars in their eyes, asking: “How was Venice?”

And it’s hard to say. 

To be honest, we never liked Venice. We’ve been a couple of times for short trips before, and it’s not really a city we ever would jump to go to. There is no denying how pretty it is, absolutely. But it is also crowded, expensive, erratically smelly, impractical, and run by bands of dirty pigeons. I never liked it. Before. 

But the more time I spent in these labyrinthine streets (as they became less and less labyrinthine), and along the canals, and in the crowded waterbus, at morning, noon, sunset, night, as not a tourist but not a resident, the more ambiguous the city became. It was no longer a dirty smelly busy crowded expensive place (even when it still was) – it was a network of habitual routes, solid unmoving ground after an hour’s standing commute, the smell of jasmine right as you get off the waterbus, cold clean drinking water from ever-gushing public fountains, a ‘ciao’ and a ‘grazie’ from a familiar face, quiet corners away from the noise, home to many ‘can’t believe I’m doing this’ moments, and, of course, that exquisite Venetian light. Venice became increasingly hard to describe. And as this happened, it allowed me to experience it in a meaningful way, unconstrained by simply ‘liking’ or ‘disliking’. 

Living in Venice: It's hard to describe.

By the fourth week everything was so normal. We did things without thinking. I was tired when I got home in the evenings. I said the little bits of Italian you use to get by without thinking (so much so that I stumbled over my German when we got to Berlin a week later and I had to switch to a more familiar language). The one english-speaking staff member immediately stepped forward to help us when we entered the bakery or restaurant. Then all of a sudden our final week approached, and it felt like we had just arrived, like it was no time at all. And I guess, in the life cycle of Mestre, it was no time at all. We had been a blip on the radar, an unobservable sand kernel in the modern history of Mestre. We came in, collected data here and there, did some groceries, and left. Maybe some people started to recognise our faces around town just when we left without a trace. But surely we made no impact on this bizarre (to us) little suburb (except for, of course, the Positanos pizza place, where business immediately dropped 30% when we left). But we will never forget our fleeting, non-tourist-non-resident-somewhere-in-between life on the outskirts of Mestre. 

So that’s how Venice was. 

Fingers crossed that my doctoral or post-doctoral career allows me to repeat this little live-abroad trip in Venice aka Mestre again, but if you told me I would never have to wait for that 7/7E bus ever again, I will die a happy woman. 

Living in Venice: It's hard to describe.
Living in Venice: It's hard to describe.
Living in Venice: It's hard to describe.
Living in Venice: It's hard to describe.
Living in Venice: getting to the Dolomiti was one of our favourite things to do.
We took Emily and Angelo hiking in the mountains before seeing the city.
We managed to trick Angelo and Emily into the mountains despite the fact the Emily had never seen Venice before.
The DIY play park at Ai Pioppi's Osteria is equal parts danger and unadulterated fun.
We took my mom to a DIY theme park in the back of a restaurant shack about 40 minutes north of Venice. Do you have the stamina, or the medical insurance, to cycles yourself into a 360-degree loop?
Living in Venice: nothing wring with Italian wine!
There's some excellent wine tasting to be had in Venice.
Had one of the best wine tasting moments in the Venetian Hills.
Venice: the commute is a bit much in the rain.
In our second week of Venice we were greeted with cold and continuous rain, which allows for a *particularly* awful commute.
The magnificent Dolomiti is only between 1 and 3 hours' drive away from Venice.
The closest of the Dolomiti is just about an hour’s drive north, and from there things get increasingly more German and we can understand and communicate things again.
The magnificent Dolomiti is only between 1 and 3 hours' drive away from Venice.
Living in Venice: it's hard to describe.
Living in Venice: it's hard to describe.
Living in Venice: it's hard to describe.
Living in Venice: it's hard to describe.

We have been to many a mosque during our stays and travels, so I knew to cover up my legs, shoulders and hair for our visit to the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, Oman. I was wearing a long black dress, three-quarter sleeves, and had wrapped my scarf around my head to cover my hair. And yet still we were stopped at the entrance. The official pointed to my forearms. 

Dang, Oman. 

Okay, fair enough. 

The mosque’s official gift shop rents out scarves and abaya for this purpose, and he pointed me to the store. They had some nice scarves for hijab-purposes, but at around 3 OMR a pop for hire, they were way above what we would ever pay, simply because we are major cheapskates. 

SPECIAL INSERT

Abayas are kind of like long-sleeve tunics or dresses that will cover everything except for you hands. They look amazing and very impressive, I think, inside a grand mosque. And are probably very fun to wear (I wouldn’t know, because of our above-mentioned cheap status). Also, some of them have pockets and what more could you want?

But girls, they are not props! 

You are supposed to be covered when you wear them, so let them cover you. Don’t let your hair be coyly spilling out at the sides. This mosque isn’t your Instagram studio set and the abaya isn’t a costume. 


It was our first week in Oman and we were staying for a month. We had plenty of time to see the mosque without paying for rental hijab and abayas. So we returned a different day. I was wearing loose pants, a t-shirt, a denim jacket and my scarf wrapped around my hair and I was a-okay. Time to see this grand mosque errybody been talking about.

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

DRESS CODE

Oman is a religious country, especially outside of the capital, and the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is the only mosque that allows tourists to disrupt the locals worshipping. So the rules are strict: Cover it all. 

No arms, legs, chest, or hair. 

If you are wearing a shirt that is cut lower than your collar bone, make sure to cover up your chest with your scarf. 

Insta babes, this is really your chance to show whether you understand truly simple instructions!

WHAT’S INSIDE?

Oman’s most kickass Sultan ever, the man Qaboos himself, commissioned that Grand Mosque and it took almost seven years to complete the construction. It’s a top-shelf mosque. I wouldn’t even try and bury it down a list of ‘things you gotta see in Muscat.’ It’s up there. 

The library, the women’s prayer hall, the men’s prayer hall, the washing areas, the polished courtyards, the sparkling dome, the towering minarets, the beautifully landscaped gardens, the brilliant sandstone, the golden door knobs and sprawling carpets. Everything about the Grand Mosque is meant to impress, and it does. 

But the crowning glory is that chandelier. It was the largest chandelier in the world when the mosque was inaugurated in 2001. It’s 14 meters in length and weighs more than an elephant (literally) with all its 600,000 Swarovski crystals. 

But things move fast, opulence-wise, in the Arabian Gulf and the Qataris have since mounted a chandelier weighing more than 10,000kg more than that, so it’s the second-largest chandelier in the world now.

Bummer.

Still, it’s mesmerising.

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque Chandelier
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque Chandelier

WHAT ABOUT PRAYER TIMES?

Lots of mosques around the world close for tourists at prayer times. The Grand Mosque is more straightforward. It is only open from 8am to 11am, daily, excepting Fridays, which is the most important day of prayer in the Muslim week in case you were wondering. 

MY KIDS ARE GONNA LOVE IT!

Lol no. 

Unless they are 10 years or older, which is apparently the age when kids become significantly less annoying in public according to Sultan Qaboos (he is not wrong?). 

To be clear: Kids under 10 are not allowed. 

The Short

WHERE: Sultan Qaboos St, ولاية بوشر، Oman

WHEN: Saturday to Thursday, 8am – 11am

DRESS CODE: Cover everything! Even when you are doing it for the gram (Can you feel my eye rolls?)

HOW MUCH: No money. 0 OMR. Nothing. Free.

In short, there’s not much to it. Definitely go. It is one of the most beautiful mosques we have ever seen, and worth at least a quick visit before you head out to the Omani wilderness. All you gotta do is remember to not show all that sexy skin, and you’re good to go.

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

2018 was a wild ride at Autobahn speed: We moved from London to Berlin, moved apartments twice in Berlin, Mari Kondo’d our possessions five times in the first half of the year, did a whole lot of visa runs to Eastern Europe, quit a job, moved out and didn’t move in anywhere else, traveled straight for 6 months, haphazardly managed to cross the borders of 24 countries (many of them 2 or 3 times), walk on 4 continents, and took 60-something flights.

It was an erratic way of life, that was mostly by determined flight routes and discounts and visa regulations. It was a lifestyle that made us crave the thing we sort of abandoned a few years ago: stability, dependability, the safe embrace of a ritualised day-to-day. We came to realise that extensive travel isn’t an unattainable far away dream – it is just something you plan for that costs you other things that matter (friends, home, insurance, etc.).

So now we’ve finally settled back in Cape Town. We signed an 11-month lease, which a whole mindset switch – the idea that I can unpack all the things we have and find them in the same place 10 months later. And we are so happy to have a home, and a car, and a gym membership.

So to tie up these crazy loose ends of a year of travel, I’ve highlighted one memory of each country we’ve been to, and chosen one photo (not necessarily related to the memory). These memories range from throwing up in a mall, to sleeping under the stars, to overcoming fears with my family – just a whole lot of good, bad, and ugly memories. It includes one last trip that we took in 2019, as we both agreed that our year officially only starts 1 February, after diving in Mozambique.

Not included are memories from our trips home: California and Cape Town. These moments are so rooted in a specific history and intertwined with people and emotions – between snow on Christmas day and my brother getting married, I set it aside as an impossible feat.

The rest, however, have been uncovered. From January 2018 to February 2019, in chronological order:

Bansko, Bulgaria

The dust had finally settled after moving our life from London to Berlin in as few bags as possible. I had started the long trek to get my German residency visa, but it was arduous and there were many obstacles. I still had my Schengen visa, so it was okay, but it didn’t take us long to realise that I was gonna have to make a lot of visa runs to stretch my stay until my residency came through. 

It was with half-hearted intentions to learn how to ski for cheap, and whole-hearted intentions to get out of the Schengen state to somewhere close where I don’t need a visa, that we ended up in the fairly unappealing mountain resort town of Bansko, Bulgaria (after we figured out how to get the clamp off our wheel in Sofia). 

Bansko was blanketed in fresh white snow, and I just got a new bright orange sweater, and our new Fujifilm XT20, so it was perfect timing. We didn’t end up skiing (I’ll get there one day), but we spent a night going through all the delirious highs and lows of ice skating. Joel guided me chivalrously while I sometimes giggled feverishly, sometimes tensed up as Bulgarian tweens got too close, sometimes gripped the edges with white knuckles, sometimes felt like I was gliding confidently (though, I almost certainly never was). We paid for our boots with a credit card, and I remember we thought how wild it was that we can use a credit card in this random ass town in Bulgaria, but almost nowhere in Berlin. 

By the end of our long weekend I had not only successfully added 3 days to my Schengen visa, but also kind of learnt how to ice skate.

Bansko, Bulgaria


Bucharest, Romania

We probably would have canceled this trip if it weren’t a necessary visa run. Joel was under the weather and we were heading to Bucharest. It was a long weekend of loitering around the streets of the city, and going into as many bookshops as possible, while Joel recuperated in the Airbnb. 

But on the horizon beyond this shabby-cool city lies a lush tropical garden inside a giant crystal palace – Therme Bucharest, aka Europe’s largest wellness centre. The giant indoor and outdoor pools and jacuzzis (and the accompanying in-pool bars) all rest on a huge well of underground geothermal water. And for some reason it has not yet reached the average ‘things to do’ list, so it really is Bucharest’s best kept secret. And there we soaked away the troubles of threatening colds and the memories of a rather random long weekend in Romania.

The Therme, Bucharest


Kotor, Montenegro

Joel is the guy who gets his hair cut around the world. That is part of what makes Joel Joel. On four continents there are little snippets of Joel’s hair discarded in the trash somewhere. Well, Joel needed a haircut, AGAIN. And we had time during our lazy Balkan road trip, so he stepped into a nice-looking salon in one if the squares in the medieval city of Kotor, but was largely ignored by some very rude hair ladies. Forget you guys, we said. 

Later we saw a lady standing in a door in an alley, smoking a cigarette. Behind her – a barber’s chair. This your place, Joel, I said. He stepped in and maybe 3 words were exchanged before she pulled out the buzzer. ‘Haircut’ was one of them. She nodded, with a face showing she knows exactly what to do, and gestured towards the chair in the shop, which was basically the size of two closets put together.

And in one of those ‘pinch me is this real’ moments, we recognised the hilarity of Joel receiving a haircut from this lady without any explanation in the middle of Montenegro. 

It wasn’t the best haircut he’s ever had.

Fun fact: these are the countries Joel’s been groomed in

  • South Africa
  • USA
  • India
  • Thailand
  • Cambodia
  • Montenegro 
  • Oman
  • Germany
  • England 
  • Ireland
  • the Philippines
  • Indonesia
  • Guatemala
P.S. Kotor is also the unofficial cat capital of Europe


Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina

Everybody was aware of the war in Sarajevo, but for a long time no one realised that Mostar, the famous quaint Bosnian destination town, had been made a battleground. The Croats on the one side of the river, the Bosnians on the other, and the 16th-century Ottoman bridge spanning the two banks. A local filmmaker was documenting the war around his home, and managed to film the moment the Croats deliberately blew up the bridge. He transferred his film to tape, traversed underground tunnels to get out of the war zone, then traveled on horseback all the way to Sarajevo. Here he handed the tapes over to the BBC, who broadcasted the destruction abroad. That’s how the world found out about the battle in Mostar. 

We met him and his wife in Mostar, when we stayed in their house. 

End of the road in Blagaj, a little village close to Mostar


Zagreb, Croatia

I was starting to feel nauseous by the end of our Balkan road trip, so on our last day in Zagreb we decided to just take it easy. Joel looked up the movies and saw Ready Player One was on at the mall – cool, let’s just do that. Wait a second, it’s a 4-D movie?? Awesome! Let’s definitely do that, great idea!

False.

Terrible idea. 

I stumbled-sprinted to the bathrooms halfway through being shook around in my seat and threw up in the toilets. After regaining my strength, I endured the rest of the movie from the floor, as all the seats were swirling around and up and down. On our way out, the concession stand vendors wouldn’t give me an empty box, and I barely made it to the trash can next to the escalators, while Joel held my hair back and a group of Croatian teenagers laughed at me. 

I read the book a few months later and it’s way better than the movie. 

Plitvice Falls National Park, Croatia


Ras al Hadd, Oman

We were jogging behind our Airbnb host at night in the dark on a beach in the Eastern reaches of Oman. He stopped and asked if we’re ready. We nodded excitedly. Then he dimly lit the huge giant turtle from behind. She was burrowing the 100-something eggs she had just lain, kicking so strongly that the sand flew against our legs as we edged closer. I forgot and suddenly remembered that I was still holding a baby turtle in between my forefinger and thumb, kicking furiously, that Salem picked up on the road towards the beach. He said, let’s go, and we followed him to the lapping waves. keeping an eye on a menacing crab nearby, he said, ok let it go, and I placed the baby turtle in the black water, which was now also lit up with blue phosphorescent plankton, like stars. 

That was some kind of magic Arabian night. 

The Bimmah sink hole, Oman


Cappadocia, Turkey

I’ve tried over and over to convey the feelings of a hot air balloon ride over the alien Cappadocia landscape. A thousand words can’t do it justice. But equally as tactile a memory was waking up before the crack of dawn to see them float to the sky. 

We had gone to Cappadocia once before, and stayed a cave house that used to be winery thousands of years ago (casual.). When you step out of your room onto the little porch, there’s a big flat area where the balloons take to the sky almost every day of the year. Best view in town. 

So when my mom decided to join us for our second time, we booked the same place, not telling her that it is also the site of the balloon launch. I hurriedly knocked on her door one the first early dark morning, telling her to grab her camera and come look outside. She pulled on a sweater and followed me outside, to be surprised by a field of giant balloons inflating with hot gas right on our doorstep. Isn’t that just the most satisfying feeling? Surprising someone with a view so grand? 

And there we stood quietly watching the sky slowly turn pinker and bluer and lighter, watching the balloons silently drift up and up and farther away, all the while with the urgent feeling of anticipation that tomorrow we will be in those baskets, floating thousands of feet away from here. 

P.S. This is the ultimate guide you’ll ever need for going to Cappadocia

The view from our Airbnb. Insert hot air balloons here.


Toronto, Canada

It was a hop and skip in Toronto for work before heading to California, and nothing much happened, but we likely won’t forget the moment we opened our hotel room and saw the most bizarre hotel view of views. We had no idea that the Marriot in Toronto was actually built into the city’s baseball stadium, and only found out when the uber pulled up to the hotel foyer. We’ve been upgraded to some executive whatever suite, we were told. 

The view is the baseball stadium. You can literally book this room for a game, and watch the match from your bed. Or the little living room. Needless to say, it made the list of the best places we stayed at in 2018. 

Room with a view, Toronto


Saint Petersburg, Russia

Russia was probably, no definitely, the country that has been my longest-standing bucket list destination. Ever since I was little, before I knew about bucket lists or visas or planes or borders, I wanted to go to Russia (find out here why). And in a shocking turn of events we ended up in Russia for the FIFA World Cup.

We got tickets to one game: Russia vs Egypt in Saint Petersburg. Of course we were rooting for Egypt. Not least because I am from the African continent, but mostly because of Mohammed Salah. We would proclaim our support to all Egyptians we managed to run into, but we had no way to show our support. We had no golden pharaoh hat, or black red and white face paint, or Egyptian flags. The face painters at the stadium weren’t offering the Egyptian flag, and all the Egyptian merch was sold out. We were lamenting this tragedy all the way to the stadium, when suddenly, from the heavens above, an Egyptian flag literally flew into my hands. We couldn’t believe it. The Egyptian gods have provided, and we waved our flag proudly despite the struggle. 

Egypt lost. 

We consoled the two Egyptians next to us as best we could, packed our little heaven-sent flag away, and, being the loyal people we are, immediately started chanting ROS – SI – A, ROS – SI – A on the way home. It was a wild warm night in the streets of Saint Petersburg and we basked in the unadulterated exuberance until the small hours of the morning when we watched the canal bridges draw in the forever-dusk of the never-ending Russian white nights in June.

The Saint Petersburg bridges draw around 2am, and the sun never truly sets in summer.


Pialdier, Italy

It was a lazy afternoon, and we were all lounging around, discussing this and that when our airbnb doorbell rang. We looked around, and one of us slowly opened the door. A middle-aged man started speaking and gesturing in Italian, showing no signs of recognition of the confusion in our faces. When he paused we said, sorry, we don’t speak Italian. He replied in Italian. No sorry, we mumbled and exchanged sympathetic glances. He continued in Italian making sweeping motions with his arms, exclaiming, oover! oover! 

Ooohhhhhhhhhhh, I clicked. Hoover? 

Si, si! Oover! 

Guys, he is selling hoovers. Vacuum cleaners. 

No way, we all said. 

Yes way. 

Sorry, we said again, no italiano. 

Ah, si, si. He carries on in Italian and eventually excuses himself. 

Wow, we said as he left, how is there a universe where a door-to-door vacuum salesman is still practicing and in a teeny tiny ass Italian mountain town? And how are we in that universe right now? 

The Sanctuary of Madonna Della Corona, built on a rock face outside of Verona


Reutte, Austria

If Korene and Dathan weren’t pushing Ryder (11 years old) to do it, I would have opted out of the 114-meter high suspension bridge near the Austrian-Bavarian border. We stumbled upon this crazy thing on our way to the fairytale castle Neuschwanstein when we made an unplanned stop by castle ruins on the side of the road (casual). 114 meters are a lot when you can see the little trucks on the highway passing underneath your feet through the steel grid bottom. Also, it is very movey!!! Whoever built this thing does not get my approval. Also, 400 meters is a long way to walk when all of the above points are in play. 

The best part? You have to walk all the way back when you’ve finally made it across alive. 

But what better way to face your fears than with the most supportive family in the world (and with your 9-year-old niece skipping over like nothing is the matter, because God neglected to put rational fear in her little heart.) 

Despite all the possible trauma, silently facing the suspension bridge is one of the fondest memories of the family visit to Europe. 

Korene taking in the Alps in Zell am See, Austria


Munich, Germany

I was very excited to show everyone (our visiting Californian family) the Hofbräuhaus in Munich. I went there when I was 11 with my mom and my brother and I remember the place like a Kandinsky painting.

It was very busy. (I was relieved – the idea of having them see it quiet seemed sad to me). Waiters were flying by, not affording us even one look, and all the tables in our view were taken. We sort of stood around amidst the chaos aimlessly. 

Then an old man with a long white beard beckoned us to his table. We squeezed in next to him and some other tourists. These tourists had just received their order of sausage, and the German man watched them patiently, before he grabbed their plate and started cutting at it. They stared at him, not knowing what to do. After he had taken the skin off the sausage, he passed it back to them, went to the waiters’ station, opened the drawer and brought them pack some packets of mustard. How adorable. 

Our drinks had come, and I asked Kami (9) to lift up her mini kids’ Stein for a photo. The old man reached over and took the drink from her, put it down, and passed his giant Stein towards her. He lifted up his palm, as if to say, there – no that’s a photo. Kami, who – along with Ryder (11) and mom Korene – seemed just a bit shell-shocked at all this German beer-drinking commotion – started warming up to this strange old man soon after. 

Good thing I was the family member sitting next to him, because he only spoke German. I told him my memories of coming here, when I was Kami’s age. I asked him if he comes here often.

Everyday, he says and shows me his stack of table reservations in his jacket pocket. 

He gathered some menus, wrote ‘München’ and the date on the corners, and hid them in his newspaper. When you go, he said, you have to take these menus, as a souvenir.

Won’t they stop me at the door?

No, just say I gave them to you. 

Lol, ok.

The food came, and he jumped up as soon as he saw Korene eating a Brezel without mustard. Off to the waiters’ station he goes again, helping himself to the mustard sachets. He handed them to her. Gesturing with his hand – that’s how you eat them. 

He told me all about the beerhall and the war, how everything was bombed in except for the room we are sitting in. 

When it was time to go, he joked, no – Joel and Dathan can’t leave before they try the dark beer! (Joel and Dathan almost got another beer just to satiate him.)

He smiled for a photo with me, and wished us well as we left. 

The Hofbräuhaus Angel, we said. 

We half expected to see his painting hung on the wall along with men from another century. Maybe he is the ghost of one of the founders. 

Whoever he is, it seems that he spends his days drinking beer and making sure the tourists at his table take the skin off their sausages and eat mustard with their pretzels. 

May the Hofbräuhaus Angel look after you when you go, too. 

The Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany


Singapore

We noticed some funny signage when we went hiking in the Central Catchment Nature Reserve. It showed thunder and lightning, and a man running from underneath a tree as a branch came falling down. We laughed at the extremity of this. 

Fast forward two months when we touched back on Singapore and convinced my cousin, Hendrik, to join us from Malaysia. We returned to the Nature Reserve for the same hike. We had just crossed the suspension bridge when the rain gently started coming down. Good – a relief from the pressing Singaporean humidity. We passed a ranger’s lapa, but voted to carry on – the rain wasn’t that bad and we didn’t have long to go. The shelter was well out of sight when it started pounding, together with a frightfully loud bang from the now-thunderous clouds. We put on a speed walk, hurrying down the wooden walkway for the next ranger’s lapa. We were almost there when a large, thick broken off branch landed with a thud right in front of Joel. Omg. We started jogging, finally we made it and squeezed under the little roof with the rest of the hikers. We waited out the storm for about 40 minutes until the rain had subsided to a drizzle again. 

Damn, Singapore. That’s aggressive. 

We didn’t find that sign so funny anymore. 

The Super Tree Grove – the safer Singaporean jungle


Nusa Penida, Bali

We were on our way to see yet another gorgeous beach on Nusa Penida, the stunning island just a little bit east from Bali. It was a long ride – two people on a scooter for one hour equals about three car hours – and towards the end we drove through a village, where about seventy people (though I am historically bad at guesstimating, so it may be more or less), all men, were drumming around under a large palm-roofed lapa. I saw a flash of feathers above their heads and immediately recognised it as a cock fight. Omg, cock fight, I said, and we parked the scooter. 

We approached the group hesitantly. Cock fights are normally practiced clandestinely, though I haven’t seen any kind of authority on the island since we arrived 4 or 5 days ago. Fights are occasionally legally allowed during certain religious ceremonies, but it is illegal to gamble. Well, the group was in the bet-taking stage of the fight when we joined the outskirts of the circle.

Two men were yelling things and taking large bills from the men in the round, whilst another guy was making notes in a ledger book. While the bets were taken, the two cocks that were to fight were being psyched out to each other. Then the circle became silent. A bell announced the commencement of the first round and the cocks were sort of pushed to each other to begin the battle. The crowd ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ and applauded when the cocks made giant jumps or huge slashes, sending feathers flying. The bell rang – end of the round. 

It was easy getting into it.

We kind of agreed we wouldn’t take photos, in case people get angry. But the men on the side were sending us friendly vibes (Balinese people are hands-down THE friendliest people on the planet), so I took out my camera and asked if it was okay. Not only did vigorous nodding affirm my question, but the crowd basically opened up so I can stand closer to the front. People were holding out their chickens proudly for photos.

The cocks are patched up and the blades are tightened before the second round. 

We stayed a couple of rounds, forgetting almost completely what we were busy doing in the first place. We almost started betting when we decided we should get going. We hopped on our bike and continued, our normal day plans having just been interrupted by a village cock fight.

A prize rooster proudly held for a photograph in Nusa Penida


Malacca, Malaysia

In one of the more bizarre, out-of-place moments, we found ourselves sitting in an air-conditioned room in Malacca, Malaysia, with my cousin, Hendrik, and his girlfriend, Ameline, waiting for a band of huskies, and having paid for it. It’s called the Huskitory and when Joel saw it on the ‘things to do’ list on Tripadvisor we all laughed really hard, saying how weird it is and that we have to do it. I have tried cat cafés, and I don’t love it. But a room full of huskies? I mean…yes, sign me up. 

We were given the rules, and then from outside around the corner heard a spectacular chorus of barking fast approaching. And through the door came leaping the huskies, barking, almost tripping over each other, they seemed so excited. We laughed so hard and so much.

Little did we know they were excited for snacks, because, they do not give a flying F about you if you don’t have a little bag of snacks that you can buy from the Huskitory. That’s how they get you. 

So, yea of course we bought a snack baggie, and made some huskies very happy. They even drew blood when Ameline was trying to feed them. 

Eventually the huskies were ushered out, and the puppies ushered in. One puppy was passed around carefully around the room to be held – he wasn’t allowed to touch the floor (?) – it was a strange but endearing experience. 

We later learned that they (all the dogs) just live upstairs. We felt weird about it, but the dogs look good and get a lot of friendly attention. 

Malaysia can be a confusing place. 

The Huskitory, Malaysia


Oslob, Philippines 

Somewhere in the shabby little town of Oslob on Cebu island is a shabby little karaoke bar. We were sitting at a table with our airbnb host and our driver, drinking the local beer and watching the band set up. Our host said we should rather listen to the band, because they take song requests – she seemed super excited about this. Plus, the karaoke room was already occupied by one guy singing Filipino songs. Cover bands is a Filipino culture. It seems that almost everyone sings or plays an instrument, and this band was actually pretty good! They sang most of our requests, but we had to leave before I could find out of they were gonna do ‘Kiss from a Rose’ (probably not), because we were getting up early the next morning to dive with whale sharks. 

Diving with whale sharks in Oslob, Cebu island

Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt

If you look up what the best dive sites in the world are, the Shark Reef and Yolanda Wreck in Sharm el Sheikh will show up on any of them. And this year we got to dive there for a second time. The dive starts with the colossal Shark Reef and winds around to the wreck of Yolanda, which sank their in 1980 with her load of bathroom supplies – toilets and basins are scattered along the reef. The descent of this dive is my favourite memory of our trip to Sharm this year.

We dropped down into the striking deep blue, deeper and deeper, and deeper. The blue around us was so vibrant and all-encompassing that without each other, the other divers, we surely would lose all sense of meaningful direction. Save for the Shark reef, which wraps around like a giant Poseidon’s pillar, stretching all the way down, 750 meters down to where the sun’s light doesn’t reach. I felt a response which could be loosely describe as speechlessness until we hit 25 meters, and started working against the current, which we expected would have gone the other way. 

I am confident I won’t forget sinking into that deep blue that day.

We also did a day trip on a bus to Cairo, which is 7/8 hours’ drive from Sharm el Sheikh, and really chaotic and not advised. Read what that was like here

The Pyramids of Giza


Istanbul, Turkey

We had a day’s layover in Istanbul, the apple of my eye, so we organised to hang out with our friend Dilan. It was a red eye flight though, so I made sure to mention the date and time that we will be arriving. These things can be confusing when you plan around midnights – is it early in the morning of the next day or late the night of the previous day? Whichever it was, we arrived at Dilan’s flat at around 5 or 6am. She flashed us big Dilan-smile from her window above and buzzed us in. She welcomed us in her flat, and made us feel at home, and we took a power nap before the best breakfast we’ve ever had in our lives (amen). It turns out she was expecting us only the next morning. But that feeling, of feeling so welcomed back and  naturally at the right moment in time and, even though to her we were 24 hours early, that’s a special feeling. That’s the feeling of a friendship that is so right in all the right ways. 

Just hanging out in Dilan, eating our weight’s worth in menemen (the best breakfast in the world) and rice pudding and walking along the Bosphorus on a typically sunny day with cats brushing up against our legs in the park, that was one of our favourite days in Istanbul ever.

The one and only Dilan and the world’s best breakfast


Masirah island, Oman

We spent a couple of nights on a literal desert island, off the southern coast of Oman. Masirah island is home to a couple of 1000-strong villages, all clustered around an army based on the northern part. The rest of the island is a mountainous desert, with barely anyone in sight. With the help of a dang good Turkish restaurant in the populated north, we managed to camp 3 nights in the isolated south, where we had, for the first time in weeks in Oman, a sunset over the sea. 

We won’t ever forget the first night. When the dusk had changed to darkness, and we finished our 2-minute noodle dinner, the stars started glittering. It was just something we could never have anticipated. The milky way rolled boldly out above us, silver and blue. We rolled our foam mats out on the sand, and watched the sky explode with shooting stars as we listened to Sufjan Stevens’ Planetarium album. 

Then the stars lost just a bit of their shimmer as the moon rose blood red behind us, over the darkened desert. 

We often tell people that spending a month in Oman is a total time-warp. But the pace of life on the desert island is something so indescribably slow and serene. And this night seemed to last forever. 

Our little tent under the stars on Masirah Island, Oman


Havana, Cuba

We picked the hottest day in Cuba to be our beach day and we decided on going to Playa Bucarano – deemed to be more low-key, mostly for locals, and the best Havana beach for snorkelling, which is always Joel’s number one priority.

It was definitely low key. There was a handful of loitering locals, and 3 or 4 more tourists on the small bay. We asked about renting snorkelling gear. There was a lot of yelling to each other in Spanish; this guy orders that one somewhere; he delegates it to two other people; more shouting from the first guy, etc. We are given our gear, and ask where to pay. They point to a guy under an umbrella. We head there, but he seems confused. More passionate yelling. 

A different group of yelling has originated now, and it is becoming more urgent and intense. People seem to be getting mad, and we are nervous that we caused some of it. One guy is yelling so hard, his vein is throbbing in his thick neck, and his face has gone red. 

‘What’s the matter?’ we ask the lady that speaks English. 

‘Huh?’ 

‘Is something wrong?’ 

‘Oh. no, no worries. Just Baseball.’ 

Wow, okay. 

We thought she was lying because how can people get so upset so quickly about Baseball.

But the next day on our walking tour, our guide told us about the public squares in Havana. You see the same old men coming to the same benches, he said, everyday to talk. They get really mad and always fight about stuff. Not politics. Baseball. 

So maybe she wasn’t lying – baseball seems to be a huge freaking deal in Havana. 

Our ride for a day in Havana


Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

We reluctantly got ready to go to a club for New Year’s Eve. The reason we like traveling over New Year’s is to escape that ‘we gonna have an epic night’ expectation. We’ve always vehemently kicked against the expectations to have so much fun on NYE. But the group of friends we were with was fully buying into this and were psyching each other out. They were ready to party; we would’ve rather stayed and drank wine and watch the fireworks from the porch.

Our mood turned instantly when we got to the teeny bar. A band was playing all kinds of Latin music foreign to us, and Angelo, our Guatemalan neighbour from London, had started pouring the ‘Agua de Fuego.’ We danced and drank and danced the night away. On the stools and the tables, on the street, and also the dancefloor. At midnight Joel lit his Cuban with a sparkler that the bar had handed out to everyone, and we spilled outside to watch people set off fireworks in the street. 

We topped our night with 1am tacos, and called it a year. 

Emily and Angelo, and Joel and I headed home in a tuk-tuk, right after we made sure the two single guys found their next bar. 

It was euphoria; it was, without a doubt, our best new years eve ever. 

Watching the sunset over the volcano of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala


Mexico City, Mexico

We met our Eduardo and Diana in front of Arena Mexico and they graciously took charge of speaking the Spanish and getting the best tickets they could. They suggested getting something at the souvenir stalls here, because it has the most variety. So we bought a t-shirt for my brother. 

We made our way inside the arena and took our seats up in the gallery. 

The Arena is huge, seating a couple thousand people all around the ring. 

We were so damn excited to real. life. lucha. libre.

People started filling in (lots of families!), and Eduardo and Joel went to go get some beer from the guys at the cooler boxes scattered around the arena, while the lights started flashing and smoke machines whirring as the first group of masked fighters ran to the stage under big fanfare. 

Lucha libre is professional Mexican wrestling, (Think Nacho Libre with Jack Black), and it’s AMAZING. A cocktail of bad acting, breathtaking gymnastics, and brute strength, it’s a feast for the senses. And the atmosphere is contagious – even without speaking Spanish, we were immediately drawn into the ethos of each character and each match and each manoeuvre. We gasped when the good guys somersaulted themselves on the bad guys, booed when the bad guys clapped back, and cheered when little people joined the fight (always on the good guys’ teams). Obviously it’s all show, but sometimes they slap each other in the face resulting in such a sound you’d think they definitely burst a eardrum from the impact or something.

Two hours of absolutely unforgettable entertainment. 

A cenote in Playa del Carmen, Mexico


Tofo, Mozambique

The dive site is called Manta Reef. It’s a 40-minute ride out to sea along the coast on a small 3-meter boat on seas that are almost never calm and serene. But the mantas go there to be cleaned so often that we were almost guaranteed to see manta rays. The site is amazing. 

But no mantas. 

It was a bit disappointing despite the gorgeous dive site. 

Then on the way back, there was a big commotion. Someone had spotted something in the water. A whale shark.

We all grabbed fins and masks and jumped in. 

And there it was. A smallish whale shark – 5 or 6 meters in length – gracefully swimming towards us. When you chance upon a whale shark in the wild, time stands still. It glided past me in slow motion, I felt like my jaw dropped, but I was biting into my snorkel. Then the hard work began. 

Swimming at full speed, stopping to catch my breath every now and then, always keeping my eyes on it – its silver matt skin, the white dots scattered like stars in the sky, the gash in its tail where a boat’s motor broke the skin. Every now and then kicking furiously to get out of its way when it made large circles. 

One moment I saw our dive master had slipped on a tank and he was swimming 10 meters below, under the shark, then I looked back to see who else was coming, and the next moment it was gone. I surfaced to find myself 200 meters from the boat, with everyone inside. I felt as though I could’ve followed that whale shark all the way up the Mozambican coast.  

That’s a 2018 travelogue of memories right there.

It is wildly surreal thinking back on this unrooted, unsettling, unbearably exciting year. I am not sure I have the stamina to do another one of these years in 2019, or 2020, but for 2018 it was perfect.

And for every memory in every place there’s a million more to look back on whenever I need a pick-me-up from our much-needed and much-craved daily routine.

If we’re being totally honest here, I pretty much measure time by when I’ll get to eat again. When I was young (read: current age) I would actually think about when I’d get to eat breakfast as soon as I finish my dinner (read: during dinner). When I was really little (really), my mom would set one spot for breakfast when she went to bed, so that I can go eat my breakfast immediately when I wake up at 5 or 6am.

This post is not an ode to breakfast in case you were confused.

It’s an ode to all the best meals we’ve had in 2018. Obviously we got to travel a fair amount. Last year we accidentally set foot in 22 countries, and while each meal is important, some meals are more important than others. These were the meals we wanted to write home about:

P.S. Italy did not even make the list.

THE BEST MEALS OF 2018:

SOFIA, BULGARIA

Via some Schengen visa running and halfhearted intentions to go skiing (for cheap), we ended up in Bansko, Bulgaria one weekend in February. We arrived just in time for dinner and ready for it too, and found the nearest and best traditional restaurant to get in to the Bulgarian swing of things. Tucked in a quiet corner, this restaurant was decked out with wooden ceilings and hog heads and stone walls and quilted cloths and giant copper domes and all kind of other traditional knick knacks. No sooner had we ordered a meal, the traditional band with an accordion and everything started playing and taking actual folk song requests from what we assume must be Bulgarians.

And then the food came out, and the rest of the evening is a blur because holy heck Bulgarian food is actually incredible. Juicy roasted meats, kebabs as long as our torsos, grilled breads and homemade wines. And of course that quintessential Shopska salad. 

WHERE: The Hadjidragana Tavern, Sofia

WHAT TO ORDER: The Chopska salad and whatever meats your heart desires. 

MOSTAR, BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA 

We have definitively rated Bosnia & Herzegovina as the single most underrated place we have ever been to, and Bosnian food must have been one of the biggest surprises of 2018, because it is actually incredible. It may have helped that we were very almost hangry by the time we sat down for our first Bosnian meal, but when I sunk my teeth into that lamb chop grilled over the open coals I felt home. This is what grilled lamb is supposed to taste like. I know, because I am South African. 

Meat that tastes like a South African braai + everything else that tastes like Turkish food = am I dead and is this heaven? 

WHERE: Restaurant Hindin Han

WHAT TO ORDER: LAMB CHOPS! 

Bosnian food is life!

CAMBRIA, USA 

Always listen to your parents! 

We spent a night in cutest Cambria during the greatest little central Californian road trip of 2018. Everything went right: our Airbnb was everything that we love about Airbnb, Hearst Castle appealed to our wildest and fanciest eccentricities, and the coastal drives were pristinely Californian. Most of all, however, the rightest of right, was The Sea Chest, which came highly recommended by our California parents. A quintessential Cambria eatery inside a historic beach home, where locals cook and eat at the open kitchen bar. The scallops, the oysters, the crisp Californian wine. It wasn’t cheap, but hot damn it was good. 

WHERE: The Sea Chest

WHAT TO GET: Oysters!

BUELLTON, USA 

I know Chris knows all the good places, but still I was skeptical when we pulled into a bunch of warehouses in Buellton for lunch. A line of people spilling outside an otherwise empty industrial parkin area gently reassured me of this place’s reputation. And let me just say, if I were you I would get in line. 

We ordered entirely too much from the vague menu, which lists only the main ingredients for the dishes that aren’t sandwiches or pizza. This part of the menu is literally titled ‘not pizza,’ and when we ordered ‘porchetta, potato, pasilla, egg’ we thought we might get some small tapa kind of thing instead of a giant mound of porchetta with a sunny side egg on top. 

“The best food memories almost never includes moderation. ”   – me, I said that.

WHERE: Industrial Eats 

WHAT TO GET: The Wilby sandwich, ANY pizza, and the cauliflower. 



MOSCOW, RUSSIA

Who cares about waiting for a table if you can have Bloody Marys at a dark wooden bar reminiscent of a 19th century pharmacy in Moscow? 

This was one of our favourite dining experiences of the year. We had no idea really what to expect, but our jaws hit the floor once we stepped inside Café Pushkin, which feels more like a library meets pharmacy meets palace. Servers move about with impressive speed and precision, ducking around FIFA-clad tourists and their backpacks without being dicks about it. 

At this point we have long since been sold on Café Pushkin, even when our bar for Russian cuisine was rather low. It would be our first traditional meal after eating pizza and whatever at whichever place was showing the World Cup games. But we were quickly won over when the watermelon salad was set, deeply agreeing as the steaming dumplings came out, and long past needing to be convinced as we sipped our post-lunch vodkas

The absolute perfect meal to end off our moments in Moscow before hopping on the Red Arrow to St Petersburg. 

WHERE: Café Pushkin

WHAT TO ORDER: Russian dumplings and vodka 

BALI, INDONESIA

We knew we’d eat well when we took off to Asia for 2 months, but we’ve never heard people raving about Balinese food like the way people talk about Vietnamese or Thai food. 

Well, surprise surprise: Balinese food is GOOD. Like, actually really good. Ginger and chilli and onions and coconut and fresh fish and satay and can you ever get enough of that sambal? It’s good. 

But beyond this, WHO KNEW that our favourite meal in Bali would be the 5-courses cooked by yours truly in a traditional Balinese kitchen with 4 other strangers in a cooking class? Chicken meatball soup, chicken satay on lemongrass skewers, tofu and tempeh curry, salad, rice, and green coconut pancakes.

We are pretty good cooking Balinese food, if I do say so myself.

WHERE: Dong Ding Cooking Class 

WHAT TO EAT: All the things you made yourself like a boss. 

No big deal.

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA 

We have been so spoilt.

First we spent 2 years in one of the restaurant districts in one of the top food capitals in the world (London). Then we went to Berlin where the Asian food scene is actually off the charts. So when my cousin boasted of the food scene of his second home, Kuala Lumpur, I rolled my eyes. Ok, sure, buddy. 

Well I am rolling my eyes at my past eye-rolling self.

In reality, our visit to Kuala Lumpur, a South East Asian melting pot, was just a string of eating one mouthwatering meal after another. There are too many good meals to mention after only just a week, but there is one which we cannot gloss over:

The famous Nasi Lemak at Village Park. 

Fat puffy coconut rice marries the crispiest fried chicken you could ever imagine. 

One boiled egg, fresh cucumber, spicy as sambal, and, weird, but just let it slide, sneaky dried anchovies. We went here twice and my cousin had to hold us back or we wouldn’t have tried anything else after going to this place.

WHERE: Village Park Restaurant

WHAT TO GET: GET THE NASI FREAKIN LEMAK. If you are feeling extra, the Milo Dinosaur is a chocolate milk drink so extravagant it shouldn’t be legal. 

BOHOL, PHILIPPINES 

I am going to be honest here. Overall, Philippines does not come through food-wise. In a region with incredible food, it’s dropping the ball a bit. 

But then there’s Pilya!

It’s just a little kiosk in an alleyway on an island, but it is big on flavour. Really very big. And on an island full of below-average sandwich, burger and pizza places – or, if you’re like us, eating pringles for breakfast before a day of diving – it’s the perfect opportunity to see how good traditional Filipino food can be. Ok, not exactly ‘traditional,’ but something close to it.   

WHERE: Pilya! Basta Cuisine

WHAT TO GET: Bistec, a traditional pork dish. 

SINGAPORE

Every taxi driver, every hotel clerk, every Singaporean resident that we spoke to in Singapore very proudly insisted that we try the local favourite: Chilli Crab. Everyone had differing opinions of where the best chilli crab is served and how much it should cost, but everyone agreed that it is where it’s at. We were at first entirely overwhelmed with the wealth of incredible street food, and how affordable it all is, that we gave the chilli crab a skip. It seemed far too expensive, having just landed from Berlin. 

However, we rendezvoused back in Singapore after a month or so of backpacking in Bali and staying with my family in Malaysia. We had convinced my cousin to join us, and after eating for cheap for that long, we were ready to splurge a bit. Chilli Crab is on the menu.

Plus our Singaporean friend Sarah took all the guess work out of where to get it and what varieties to get. Fast forward a few hours waiting for the table and then the crab, two giant pans were brought to our table, filled each with two steaming crabs: one pan classic chilli, the other salted egg. It was so decadent and rich, and so singular; we felt extra extravagant. 

After each country I would ask Joel what our favourite meal was. Of course Chilli Crab waster favourite meal in Singapore. But it also beat out all the other Asian favourites. So that must mean that Chilli Crab in Singapore with Sarah and Hendrik was our favourite meal of our whole two months in SE Asia. 

WHERE: Jumbo Seafood Restaurant 

WHAT: Classic chilli crab 

ISTANBUL, TURKEY 

You can bet that if we’ve been to Turkey that we would’ve had some of our best meals there, because Turkish food is actually what dreams are made of. And the crowning glory of all Turkish meals is the most important meal of the day. The Turkish ‘Kavahlti’ is quite honestly the reason to get out of bed in mornings. The last few years we have tried to spend all our free time in Turkey so we are pseudo-experts, and then when we weren’t in Turkey we were living in Berlin’s Kreuzberg, nicknamed ‘Little Istanbul’, which is the next best thing to actually living in Istanbul. So we thought we knew all the best spots for breakfast. 

And then, after years of going to Istanbul and eating breakfasts at our favourite places, our friend Dilan took us to a place called Beyaz Firin (the White Oven), and now we are convinced we’ve had the best breakfast in the city, and in life, forever and ever amen. 

WHERE: Beyaz Firin, Besiktas

WHAT: Any and all the breakfast items on the menu, but most specifically the breakfast pan and the traditional breakfast. 

RAS AL HADD, OMAN

In a small fishing village on the easternmost point of Oman, where there is nothing besides a tea shop and a market, and there is nothing to do but fish and rescue baby turtles, is an Airbnb host who has somehow become our friend. Salem is the probably the wildest guy we know; he also makes the best bbq’d fish we’ve ever eaten.

The second time we stayed with Salem he immediately took us to the beach where the little boats pull in loaded with the day’s catch, grabbed a giant mahi-mahi (dorado or dolphin fish), proceeded to cut it up in portions (carefully removing a whole squid from the thing’s stomach) right there on the beach, and that was our dinner a few hours later. Nobody pays for mahi-mahi or snapper or tuna or any kind of fish in Ras al Hadd, at least not Salem, who barrels through the village like a berber force. 

Grilled on the coals, stewed in the pot, whichever way it’s been served to us (and always with gigantic portions of rice with fresh tomatoes and dates and thick chunks of onion), it is every time better than the time before. 

WHERE: Book your stay with Salem on airbnb, and you’ll see what we mean. Use this discount code if it’s your first time.

Salem cutting up our dinner right on the beach

VENTURA, USA 

We have spent a lot of time getting cheap and juicy middle eastern food from various shabby institutions in London, and especially in Berlin, where the Turkish dürüm has taken on a whole new German meaning. We love these meals. We get them sober. 

I suppose these kinds of take away foods are a staple in big cities but scantly available in the suburbs, which is why I was surprised to hear Joel’s family rave about some middle eastern place in a little convenience store in Ventura, which is basically a large coastal suburb dressed as a small city. 

We found the market, passed the sodas and the cereals, and sure enough, all the way in the back, was a slowly churning dripping döner kebab. Our eyes lit up with sparkling stars. 

We have had a lot of döner wraps. Like an ungodly amount. In all kinds of places. 

This beef lamb mix wrap, with the pickles and the garlic sauce on the side, has been, for now, the best of them.

Don’t be Californian and get the greek salad or whatever else seems healthiest, get that doner kebab in toasted wrap. It’s the bomb.

WHERE: Santa Cruz Market, Ventura, California

WHAT TO GET: Tri-tip and lamb wrap 

Honestly, this is the best middle eastern wrap food we’ve ever had.

HAVANA, CUBA 

La Guarida is one of the oldest paladars in Havana (private family-run restaurants as oppose to government institutions), and used to be operated illegally. Now it is one of the most famous, and admittedly most expensive, restaurants in Havana (as in £10 – £14 for a main meal.). We splurged and celebrated our 6th anniversary at La Guarida, and we immediately recognised it as one of the best meals of 2018. Everything was perfectly prepared and beautifully served; by any accounts this was a meal that we would not be able to afford in the States or Europe. 

Plus it helps that the restaurant is housed in one of the most breathtaking, photogenic, quintessentially crumbling Cuban mansions. 

WHERE: Paladar La Guarida

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO 

There is absolutely no shortage of mouthwatering Mexican food in California, but there is nothing like eating tacos in Mexico City. I don’t even remember any specific taco (it might be because we ate like 40 each over 2 and a half days), I just remember that we haven’t had tacos that good. From chain restaurants, from cool hip places, from less-than-kosher-looking kiosks and stands, every taco was as good as or better than the next. Granted, there are some less-than-appetising varieties (octopus tacos are rich, pork skin tacos are downright dirty – and not in a good way), so you might want to proceed with caution. 

But then you can always chase it with freshly fried churros or some horchata from the other side of the street. It’s a win-win-win.

WHERE: Taco stands, Mexico City

WHAT TO GET: All of the tacos. (None of the pork skin). 



From the most underrated (hello Bulgaria!) to the most obvious (tacos in Mexico, who knew?) 2018 did not help our weight loss strategies. But like I always say, when you travel you want the richest most intense experiences – you want to try the specialities and all the local favourites – and no place is ever known for an egg white omelet with spinach.

These meals are out memories.