Tuesday, February 23, 2016

My shark moment!

I love to swim - it has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. There's lots of exercise that I find difficult because of my dodgy back and knees, but I find swimming just fantastic and try to do some laps every day to keep the body and mind straightened out.  I also find swimming a great meditation; I love the daily baptism of plunging myself into the ocean and the suspense of gravity and noise when I am in the water - just me, my breathing, and the big blue.

Summer magic Brunswick River

Now, I know people who have seen the Jaws movie once and never gone in the ocean again - I have purposely never watched it. Those kind of folk often ask me if I am not either mad or scared to death every time I am out there for I love deep-water ocean swimming.  My reply is that it is a calculated risk and I have far more chance of being run over by a bus (I actually say that I know more sharks driving around in Mercedes, but best not to go there!).

Brunswick River

My local swimming spot is either Torakina Beach or the river at Brunswick Heads - it's a beautiful watery playground for everyone.  I have asked the Brunswick old timers about the risk of sharks in the river and their reply has always been the same, that it is too shallow and tidal and they have never seen one there, but that you do get them in the main part of the river that is deeper and calmer.

So yesterday found me doing my usual thing and striking out at high tide to do my laps in the river - swimming across and bridge to bridge.  It was a bit later than normal, 6.30pm, and not too many people about.  I was half way across when I heard some people on the bridge shouting and waving their arms and pointing behind me - I even heard a scream! I turned, and my heart sank, there was a large black shape in the water about two metres behind me.  In that instant, I knew there was not a lot I could do and panic stricken I swam as fast as I could to shallow water and basically just surrendered to my fate.   It was then that two black shapes surfaced beside me and I realised that they were dolphins - a mother and baby and, now I know that I really must be bonkers, because I carried on swimming and they came with me.

When the panic had subsided it actually became quite magical for every time they submerged and I put my head under the water, I could hear them talking to each other in squeak language.  The thought did then cross my mind that if there were dolphins in this part of the river, where I had never seen them before, there could also be sharks.  It was then I saw what they were probably after, a run of mullet, and I decided that it probably really was time that I got out of there.

Two of my granddaughters 5 and 6 enjoying the Brunswick River

My advice to those who would like to swim and either are afraid or can't get their rhythm right:
  • Get yourself a silicone swimming cap - it keeps the hair out of your eyes, makes you more buoyant, and your hair doesn't get messed up.  There is no way that I could swim every day if my hair got wet every time.
  • Buy some decent goggles that fit - it's important to be able to see and not be irritated by water getting in your eyes.
  • Pay for some swimming or stroke correction lessons. I do this every few years because, even though I am a good swimmer, we get into bad habits, or learned to swim such a long time ago that techniques have changed and the experts can give you tips that put less strain on the body.  For example - when I learned freestyle sixty years ago, the arm came right out of the water, straight like a windmill - hence the other name for it 'overarm'.  If you watch good swimmers these days they don't do that anymore - the elbow if just lifts up straight from the body before stretching into the water.  This puts a lot less strain on the shoulders, is more efficient, and you actually swim faster.
I have never had a swim that didn't make me feel better so I thought I would share with you some of my favourite swimming spots.

 You'll have to take my word for it on this one - me swimming with the dolphins Torakina Beach 2014
Poulati, Sifnos, Greece - magical walk through the herb scented hillsides from Ardomonis, along ancient Byzantine pathways to this crystal clear cove.

Adrina Beach, Skopelos, Greece (known to us as A Dreamer Beach, Skoffalot)

 Symi, Greece where I just flopped into the water from our lunch table

Komodo Islands, Flores, Indonesia on our way to Pink Sand Cove

Nissaki, Corfu, Greece

Victoria's villa, Ahmed, Bali in the shadow of Mt Agung

My best swim ever on beautiful Sifnos - from Chryssopigi monastery to the taverna on the beach in the fading evening light when the sky and sea became opalescent.

 Parsley Bay, Sydney where I taught my children to swim

The Ladies Baths, Coogee, Sydney

Bronte Baths, Sydney

 Number 3 grandchild, Nielsen Park, Sydney - still a favourite spot for swimming and picnics.

 Clovelly, Sydney

 North Bondi with my fellow ocean swimmers, Karen and Sue.  I still swim with them every Tuesday morning when I am in Sydney

Camp Cove, Sydney

Perhentian Islands, Malaysia - some of the best snorkelling I have ever done - live coral, wonderful fish and turtles.

Sarakiniko, Milos, Greece - very hard to beat this spot - it was magical

My Mum and Dad (in their 80's) at Torakina Beach - must be in the genes!

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Cycling from Innsbruck to Verona: Day 5 Lake Garda to Verona

Day 5 Lake Garda to Verona 35 km
(Just realised I had better conclude the story of this trip because it is almost a year since we did it - wow, where did that go?)

Lake Garda

Last day of our mammoth cycle ride and ONLY 35 km today.  Was very glad that we had elected not to carry on to Venice because Italy was experiencing very hot unseasonal weather and they were expecting 40oC today after an exceptionally hot day yesterday.

Well, today nearly killed both of us (I wrote in my diary "I never want to see that bloody bike again"). Our morning route was quite pleasant that took us through rolling countryside with grapes, peaches, apricots and lots kiwifruit and what made it even more enjoyable was that we were away from the main roads for a few hours.  We then caught our first sight of the Adige Valley and the approach to Verona.

It was very hot which was exacerbated by the fact that we were out in the sun for most of the afternoon, with very little shade, as the bike track came down out of rural Veneto to follow the Adige Canal into Verona - bitumen and concrete and no trees. Several times during the afternoon, found me lying down on a foot-wide piece of road-side verge, amongst all manner rubbish and some things I can't bear to think about, in the shade, feeling quite nauseous and about to blow a gasket.

Excitement and frustration was mounting in equal measure as we headed for our final destination - it was 25 years since I had last been to Verona and me cycling mate had never been to Italy before.  He has had had to listen to me, though, banging on about it with a far away, dreamlike look in my eyes.  I had gone there in 1990 to sing Verdi's Requiem with Pavarotti in the Arena de Verona (me and 3,000 other choristers - but it sounds good doesn't it) - and having been one of the most memorable experiences of my life, I was almost scared to go back lest the spell be broken. 

A long way to Verona
Our difficulty with the heat today was compounded today by the fact that the tireder we became, the busier the roads as we approached Verona, and we had to negotiate screaming autostradas via lengthy detours and underpasses.  On top of this, when we finally got there,we discovered that our hotel in Verona was outside of the old town and could only be reached after traversing two motorways - we could see it's multi-storey edifice like a beacon in the distance - but do you think we could work out how to get to it?  Finally we made it to our room in the Hotel Leon D'Oro. I chucked my cycling shorts in the bin, had a shower, ordered room service and collapsed in bed for about twenty hours - Verona would have to wait.  Fortunately we had booked an extra couple of nights before having to catch a flight back to Athens from Milan.

Verona - entering the old town through the Porta Nuova

So relieved to wake up and realise that we had made it and I didn't have to; get our bags ready for forwarding to the next hotel by 8am, put on my cycling gear, eat another stale croissant that I had found in the bottom of my pannnier when I was starving and miles from anywhere and - more importantly, get back on the bike again and cycle the 75km to Venice - yeah!!  Bonjourno Verona!

Although it was very hot again 38oC, we did our best to see as much as possible - starting out where my memories were kept and walked to the Arena, built by the Romans in1st century AD, and Piazza Bra where it was in full tourist and opera season.  There is no room in the Arena building to house the lavish sets for each production so they are just kept out in the Piazza - like these props for the upcoming Aida concerts - fortunately it doesn't rain much at this time of year! Verona is an art lovers paradise that rivals Venice - you just need the energy to explore it's treasures.

We decided that taking the city tour bus was the best option on a day like today - and it was wonderful - we saw lots of parts of the city that I had never seen the first time around.  Hopped off when we saw a trattoria that had big fans with vapour mists blowing over the diners - tops!  An insalata caprese and Aperol Spritzer fortified us for the afternoon session on the bus - then a very long siesta before dinner.

We took a taxi late to the Duomo area - the loveliest part of the city I think. It was cool enough now to enjoy wandering around the beautiful cathedral and soak up the atmospheric back alleys and glorious buildings. Verona was just crawling with tourists and we wanted to find somewhere away from them, where the locals might go - so we headed for the Duomo 'Slow Food' restaurant Antica Osteria and were not disappointed.  Me mate was happy because they served local wines (and he could ask for corposa - a red wine with the corpse in it) and I was happy because we had a lovely table outside in a gorgeous courtyard seated next to a Veronese family dressed in fabulous style and smelling divine - and that was just the men!

And so our wonderful journey had come to an end - would I do it again - of course!

".........Of course I should love to throw a toothbrush into a bag, and just go, quite vaguely, without any plans or even real destination.  It is the Wanderlust. .............."
Vita Sackville West

Verona Cathedral

Day 4 Trento to Lake Garda 50 km

Day 3 Bolzano to Trento (click here)
Day 2 Bressanone to Bolzano (click here)
Day 1 Innsbruck to Bressanone (click here)

The pressure was on today because we had to get to the ferry terminal at Riva del Garda by 1.45pm and had 50km to cycle.  Situated at the northernmost tip of Lake Garda, we had to pick up the ferry from there to take us on a five hour boat trip on the lake to the southernmost port of Peschiera - and there was only one ferry a day so we couldn't be late.  Believe me, my little legs were peddling nineteen-to-the-dozen and I ended up being in a kind of daze for most of the morning, valley hugging the Adige River through fruit farms, vineyards and fields of maize.

Our first glimpse of Lake Garda

We set out early - very sad to leave Trento vowing to return one day, but it was a good job we did for today put many obstacles in our path by way of detours and wrong turns - one of which added another 12km to our journey.

I was getting seriously overheated as temperatures had risen today to above 35oC and we had several climbs before we could freewheel down to the lake - what a welcome sight that was.

Day 4 and I have finally managed to work out the gears on the bike, the saddle height and padding in the shorts to stop numb-bum and the trip finishes tomorrow!!

Everything changed today and we knew we were in Italy.  Whenever we stopped on the bikes, looking lost, someone would come up to us and offer help - such a welcome change from the unfriendliness we had experienced on the first part of our trip.  An old chap in the little village of Marco was typical.  "Turn right by the machina bianco - go over the ponta and past the fabrica" and parted with a "how romantic, the two of you on bicycles".  At last I could understand a little of what everyone was saying (my father had been in Italy during the war, learned to speak Italian and spoke to us kids in Italian).  How lovely is a smile and a friendly exchange when you are in a strange place - priceless!

Lake Garda suddenly appeared beneath us as the Dolomites parted - like a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow - we had an hour to make the ferry.  Then the strangest thing happened.  We could see the ferry port of Riva del Garda around the top of the lake to the north with boats chugging in and out but, no matter how hard we peddled, it seemed to get further away - it just never seemed to be getting any closer.

Finally, we dropped down to a bike track that skirted this Italian water-sport playground - it was such a lovely sight, with everyone, young and old, having fun on; surf kites, wind surfs, yachts large and small, peddle boats and stand-up boards.  I spotted number plates on camper vans from every corner of Europe and, I could certainly see why they would make the journey here - it was fun and it was warm and there was water and a beach!

We made it - Riva del Garda

And we had time for a very welcome Aperol Spritz and handsome prosciutto, cheese and salad panini.  We had discovered these very strange looking bright orange drinks in Trento (where they originate from) and they became our pre-dinner drink for the rest of our time in Europe - once tasted, there was no going back.  They are made from Aperol vermouth (bitter orange, gentian and rhubarb) prosecco and mineral water with a slice of orange - tops.
Aperol Spritz - probably number 20 on Sifnos Island, Greece

Again, we would have liked more time to look around Riva which was full of fabulous medieval buildings with a beautiful water-ilned piazza but, we had a ferry to catch.

The last time I had been on Lake Garda was in 1990 (singing with Pavarotti!) and, while maintaining that charm and beauty I remembered from twenty-five years before, it was just incredibly busy.  Traditionally the playground of wealthy Venetians, going back centuries, the shoreline is dotted with elegant villas, draped in scarlet bougainvillea, gardens punctuated with Lombardy cypress trees, and private moorings that sported classy motor cruisers that would probably cost more than my house - all shiny timber and sleek lines.  I was waiting for George Clooney to come zooming past flashing a smile and an ad. for Nescafe.

There was so much to see that the five hours went in a flash - the fact that they served prosecco in real bubble flutes, albeit plastic ones, may have helped and I spent most of the time just gazing, dreaming and writing my diary.  The lake is 50km long, mountainous in the north with reliable winds whistling down from the Dolomites with the accompanying choppy waters, to flat terrain and calmer waters in the south.  Italians have been holidaying here since Roman times - and eating and drinking - the area is famous for its lakeside vineyards and fish restaurants.

Hotel Puccini in Peschiera turned out to be a rare dud - it definitely did not sing!  We met other cyclists on the ferry heading for the same hotel and we turned up like the peloton on the Tour de France - equally as tired and hot as we were, only to be told that the pool closed in five minutes!!  I was also looking forward to a swim before breakfast only to find out that it didn't open until 10am.  What is that?  I thought hotel amenities were there for the convenience of hotel guests, not the staff.  It was also the only place in three months that we were asked to pay for WiFi; there were no products in the bathroom, apart from one minuscule bar of soap that was like trying to lather up putty, and the fridge was totally empty - not even a bottle of water.

Fortunately Peschiera itself was another gem and well worth a visit.  We were back in the land of oleanders, figs, potted geraniums and olive trees that skirted the lakeside esplanade as we walked from our hotel in search of dinner.  We found a floating restaurant that was just gorgeous.  One of the bonuses of being Europe in summertime are the long days - it doesn't get dark until after 10pm at night and people eat late, enjoying the long twilight and balmy evenings.


NOTE:  While I go for the prosecco and pinot gris, me mate always drinks red wine and, having zero Italian, was having a bit of difficulty explaining to waitstaff that he likes a full-bodied, robust wine.  Paolo, our very nice young waiter in Peschiera, gave hime a good tip - he told him that should ask for corposa - which literally means having the corpse in it!! 

Even after a few corpses, he still managed to get back on the bike the next day for our final run to Verona.

Noodle Salad - for you and the kiddies

I had a 'eureka' moment this evening thinking about what to make myself for dinner.

Uppermost in my mind had been my recent trip to Sydney and seeing my daughter having the same dilemma I used to go through - feeding the children (aged 2 and 4) something they will like and you like too without cooking two meals - not easy! This is what popped out of the garden, fridge and larder without too much fuss - I hope you enjoy it too!

This is one of those very adaptable dishes that you tweak to your families' tastes which I will break down into NEGOTIABLE and NON-NEGOTIABLE just to make it easier.

Rice vermicelli noodles, soaked as per instructions on packet
Left-over bbq meat - I used duck, but it could be chicken, beef or pork (vegetarians could used tofu) thinly sliced.
NOTE: Starting from scratch without having any of the above, you could marinate a free-range chicken breast in soy sauce, honey and garlic for an hour or so, and then bbq or pan fry.  I just happen to be a big fan of duck and had some breast left-over.
1/2 mango OR nectarine/peach or papaya
1/2 cup raw peanuts or cashews
1/2 cup desiccated coconut
Handful of mint leaves
NOTE:  A dish like this would normally have handfuls of coriander in it too but, I find, most young children don't like it - so we'll stick with the mint - it still tastes really yummy

Juice of one lime
1 tbsp caster sugar
1 tbsp good soy sauce (i.e naturally fermented with no MSG like Kikoman)
1 tsp fish sauce

Shredded carrot
Finely shredded crunchy lettuce or cabbage
Finely chopped green beans
Snow peas, steamed or raw
Fresh bean shoots
Thinly sliced red capsicum
Chopped chives or spring onions
Thai basil
Vietnamese mint
Sauce of freshly chopped red chilli and fish sauce for  for the adults - prik nam pal in Thai cuisine

1.  In a dry wok, toast raw peanuts and when they are golden, toss in the coconut until golden too.  When cool, chop together.
2.  In a large bowl toss vermicelli, vegetables and mix together.
3.  Make sauce by combining all ingredients.
4.  Top salad with chopped, toasted peanuts and coconut and sliced bbq meat.
5.  Add sauce and serve.

You could pretend it's deconstructed sushi??!!

Rose Bay - my morning coffee spot in Sydney - wonder what seagull would taste like in this?

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Simple Tomato Relish

I have tomatoes coming out of my ears at the moment - every time I go out into the garden I come back with a small bucketful, which brings that old-fashioned word glut to mind (from the Latin gluttire - to swallow, and where we get in English glutton). I also have a mini glut of the lovely lantern chillies - now this bush would make a fabulous Christmas decoration when it is covered in its scarlet lanterns and bright green leaves!

What to do with them - well you can't really go past this very delicious and super easy relish

Tomato Relish
1kg ripe tomatoes, washed
As many red chillies as you can handle, washed 
NOTE: Remove the seeds if you don't want it too hot
1/3 cup olive oil
2 large brown onions
3 cloves garlic
2 bay leaves
1 cup dark brown soft sugar
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
1 tsp sea salt

1.  In a food processor, chop the onion and garlic - stop before it gets to mush!
2.  Heat olive oil in heavy bottomed, large saucepan.
3.  Add chopped onion and garlic and cook well until just becoming slightly golden.
4.  Whiz up tomatoes and chillies in food processor until all large chunks have gone.
5.  Add to onion mix and increase heat.
6.  Add balsamic vinegar, sugar and bay leaves and leave to simmer until most of the liquid has evaporated off and looks 'jammy'.  Add salt to taste (don't burn your tongue!) and STIR regularly.  Done!
7.  Let it cool a little and then put in warm, sterilised jars.
8.  Will keep in fridge for a while - as long as you use a clean spoon!!

Delicious with cheese, burgers and barbecues.  I tried this batch with some barbecued chicken that I was cooking while I was looking at this.  Happy cooking!