Europe, Travel

A Year in Ireland: Portrait of a Third-Life Crisis

2018 was always going to be an eventful year. Having trained as a journalist in New Zealand and worked in the industry full-time for five years, I thought it might be nice to move as far as possible to the other side of the world and try something completely different. Like, really different. Here’s how it went down:


It all started with a man named Paddy, which it was bound to, and a business selling industrial bleach as a cure for cancer, which seemed less likely altogether.

My boyfriend and I had been travelling around Europe and living out of a temperamental Opel Monterey for ten months. After such a long time teetering perilously on the edge of a scurvy diagnosis, it was time to settle down in the Emerald Isle and find something resembling a real job.

Paddy was advertising two nice sounding jobs in a nice sounding area. He needed managers for a rural B&B and an independent sustainable recycling plant. The town had a famous Celtic cross and a pub where Sandra Bullock went one time.

We organised an interview with Paddy while staying in an Air B&B in the closest affordable town to Dublin. There were pictures and statues of bleeding Jesuses everywhere to which I occasionally gave a cursory nod because surely you can’t just ignore that many pictures of bleeding Jesuses without some sort of divine consequence.

Beach near House of the bleeding Jesuses

The night before the interview, a scroll to the bottom of Paddy’s website revealed a few details that didn’t seem all that relevant to recycling or idyllic countryside B&Bs.

In time we found out that our friend Paddy was in fact a self-appointed bishop of the Genesis II Church of Healing, which promotes the use of Miracle Mineral Solution – the main ingredient of which is industrial bleach – as a cure for autism, HIV, malaria and cancer. Did Paddy want us to work at the sustainable recycling plant which was actually dissolved in 2014? No. Did he really want us to help him sell Miracle Mineral Solution to the unsuspecting people of County Kildare? Yes. Had Paddy had his house raided by the Garda and been convicted of selling an unauthorised medicinal product on the Irish market? Also yes.

And so we went to Galway instead.


It was raining in Galway, thick sheets of water that charged down from the heavens and hurt your face if you dared to look up at the source of it all.

A woman who we’ll call Beth-Louise wanted a kind and energetic nanny to look after her four boys all aged under eight which looked easy enough on paper because I had never looked after four boys aged under eight at the same time and had massively overestimated my ability to do so.

We had an interview at a nice café and Beth-Louise said “Just to warn you, I’m very particular”, I said that was fine because people called Beth-Louise are bound to be particular and I also didn’t realise that being particular meant we were going to have serious sit down conversations because I didn’t fold the baby blankets so that the thickest seams matched up.

Childminding in Ireland is a funny job because while the name implies that you are minding children, the reality is often that you are minding children, cooking dinner for an entire family, packing for the family’s holiday, taking the bins out, making a months worth of organic baby food from scratch and doing 17,000 loads of washing including several pairs of lacy g-strings which almost definitely don’t belong to the children.

One day Beth-Louise’s friend came to visit.

“Hello” I said.

“Oh” she said, and turned to Beth-Louise.

“It’s so nice you’ve got someone who speaks good English.”

And off they went.

I used my good English to call Beth-Louise’s friend a twat but unfortunately it was only in my head.

I stayed with the family for five months too long, which is to say that I stayed with them for four months and two weeks in total. There was a trip to Majorca on the horizon, and I thought palm trees and a pseudo-Spanish setting might make up for the patronising blanket conversations. There was a four star resort and an impressive buffet and that wonderful thing commonly known to people outside of Ireland as sunshine.


We were lounging under the loving rays of said sunshine one afternoon, the boys and I, when one of them dropped a towel.

“I want my towel Kristin” said Child #1

I said that he had arms and he could get it himself.

“But you’re our maid, you do everything for us”

I said I was no such thing.

“You’re mummy and daddy’s maid then”

Having had my personal crisis summed up so neatly by a seven year old, I left.

Everyone says Connemara is beautiful, but that doesn’t quite do it justice because it’s the kind of beauty that is so simultaneously dramatic and graceful and bleak it grabs you violently by the eyeballs and forces you to take notice of it every second of every day.

Killary Fjord, Connemara

I got a job on a boat, pulling pints and ropes and wearing a clip-on tie. I made bad flat whites and exchanged pleasantries with Americans desperately clinging to their Irish roots by wearing bumbags with shamrocks on them. I laughed until my sides hurt almost everyday.

I met another journalist on board one day, and sensing a distinctly un-Irish twang, he asked for my story, how I had ended up in rural Connemara, and what I had done for a living back home. I explained that I had been a TV reporter, a job I had wanted since childhood.

“Really?” he said, looking out at the vast expanse of water, former famine villages, and not much else. “What are you doing all the way out here then?”

The truth was I was there because I was experiencing something of a third-life crisis, too old to be your typical anything-goes Kiwi OE-er and too young to bear the thought of dedicating the rest of my life to my career or sending miniature versions of myself into the unforgiving world. I was there because in the city I expected nothing less than perfection from myself, and was therefore constantly disappointed. Beyond that, I was always on my phone. I was there because the people who I worked with and the people who I met and the people who lived in the area were nice and had no ulterior motives for being that way. I was there because there’s no greater antidepressant than standing outside in a gigantic yellow raincoat, soaked to the core, watching black clouds roll towards you and knowing that at the end of the day you’re just a sack of meat and bones on a tiny revolving rock in an endless galaxy.

But I couldn’t say all that, so instead I said, “just something different aye”.


Clip-on tie

We acquired a lamb, Oscar found him wandering alone on a country highway shortly after birth, mother sheep nowhere to be seen. The farmer said we could have him but that he would probably die anyway. He spent his early days trying to master the kitchen lino with his wobbly legs and smearing shit all over our textured wall with his floppy lamb tail. We took him camping and to the beach and he chased other animals because – thanks to his close relationship with the neighbours dog – he thought he was a Yorkshire terrier. He got sick and then well again. We had to let him go anyway, to be with his own kind, not that he cares much for their company.


It’s strange to call another country home, but home was what it felt like. I loved Ireland deeply. I loved the land, I loved the locals and the particular kind of international weirdos that rural living attracts. I loved late nights and pints of Guinness and Bulmers with ice and listening to old people singing old people songs in old people pubs. I loved long tea breaks and stupid jokes and the reflection of the mountains in the fjord and the way Irish people add redundant phrases onto the end of sentences for emphasis, so they do.

I spent a year in Ireland. I advanced my career not one bit, but I got to breathe the freshest of ocean air and gawk at my surroundings everyday. Very occasionally I learnt how to become less of a neurotic tangle of paranoid perfectionism, and I laughed a lot. Did I learn anything more practical from this experience other than to never work for rich people or convicted criminals? I’m not sure. But it was beautiful, and it was great craic.


How to travel long term: Tips and tricks from a tight-arse

I’m not good with money, never have been, probably never will be. I don’t understand the stock market, the housing market or any other market except the supermarket, where I blow my budget almost every week, so maybe I don’t understand that either. At one point my bank staged an intervention because I’d lost seven eftpos cards in two years, which was why I was pretty stoked with myself when my partner and I saved enough money to quit our jobs and travel around Europe and North Africa. We visited 22 countries and territories over nine months (280 days), and the one thing everyone asks when I tell them what we did is, “how did you afford it?”

Our trip was an even mix of living it up and it and barely living, we ate a lot and ate pretty well most of the time but we also lived in an abandoned beach hut until the local kids asked if we were homeless which, technically, we were. We spent around $50,000 NZD (including the purchase of a car) on our cross-continental journey, which you might think is incredible or pathetic depending on how frugal you are. Either way I’ve written some tips on what helped us reach our financial goal and what we would have done differently if we had a second go at it.

Before you leave

1. Lock that shit up


Alhambra, Grenada, Spain

It’s a cold, hard fact of life that your existence is going to be absolute misery in the lead up to any kind of big travel adventure. We saved for our trip for five years, and we went about it in a pretty half-arsed way until the last year, which was grim. No going out, no eating like a grown up. When you’re saving, the rule for leftover food is that if it’s not moving on its own, it’s good to go. This means that before left my job I had committed at least twelve unforgivable workplace lunch sins.

Remember that scene in the original Charlie and the Chocolate factory when Charlie Bucket’s mum is stirring that giant pot of boiled cabbage and they’re all very depressed about it? I ate like that, to the point brown rice and cabbage became my signature dish. Things really reached breaking point with my colleagues when I thought I could swing my leftover fish curry for one more day. I was wrong. Would I have preferred to toss that fish curry violently into the bin and go get Wishbone risotto? Hell yea I would have, but every payday I put practically every cent of extra cash into a locked account that would hit me with a $20 fee if I took anything out of it, and no Wishbone risotto is worth 25 bucks.

2. Embrace looking like crap

Unless you have a huge budget, your standards of personal beautification are going to drop dramatically once you are on the road, so you may as well get yourself used to it beforehand.


A self portrait after 9 months on the road

Here is a detailed but by no means exhaustive list of things that you do not need to spend your money on:

Hair cuts/colours
Any hair products other than shampoo and conditioner
Fancy clothes
Fancy make-up

You are beautiful and flawless and also fuck the patriarchy. Your face will look the best it’s ever looked after a few weeks of not slathering flesh-toned goo all over it. It’s a win all round.

3. Sell your stuff


Amsterdam, The Netherlands

It’s amazing how much I don’t miss having stuff. Carrying everything you own on your back is a great incentive to not buy a bunch of useless things, so trust me, you won’t be wishing you’d kept that decorative cardboard stag head when you finally return home. Fortunately, there are hundreds of Kiwis on Trademe who would all love to take your pointless DVD collection off your hands, and pay you for the privilege. Recycle Boutique will sell your good quality clothes and give you 50% of the profit back. Or you could take it all to your local secular charity shop of choice and hope that good karma will mean you find a $20 note on the ground.

4. Sort your money out


London – home of the Monzo card (and some other weird stuff)

Unless you want to find yourself breaking out in fee-induced stress hives at a foreign ATM, it’s best to get your cash cards properly sorted before you leave. If you’re planning on travelling around Europe like us, Westpac is the New Zealand bank to go with. Westpac is part of the Global ATM Alliance, which means you can get money out in the U.K, Spain, Italy, France, Poland and Germany and only pay the 3% transaction fee instead of the often hefty ATM withdrawal fee. They’ve also got you covered in large chunks of Africa, Asia, the US and Canada. If you’re starting in the U.K or visiting early on in your trip, you can also get a Monzo card, which will cover you for the countries not included in the Global ATM Alliance. You can get the equivalent of £200 cash out for free at any foreign ATM per month, with a 3% charge thereafter. Although free cash withdrawals were unlimited when we joined Monzo, this is still a pretty good deal. In countries where card machines at restaurants, hostels and supermarkets are plentiful, you can pay with your Monzo card and not pay a cent in fees.

When you’re there

1. Set a daily budget


Italy’s Cinque Terre – pricey but worth it


Feasting on the cheap in Kalamata, Greece


Paris, France

If you’ve been living like a hermit with bad eyebrows who only drinks Double Browns on their occasional ventures out of the house, you’ll be wanting to spend up large the second you step off home soil. “I fucking deserve this” you’ll say as you spend $80 on dumplings at Shanghai airport, “this is totally reasonable” you think, handing over 10 pounds for a vodka soda at a London bar, “I bloody love wax figures of the worlds hottest celebrities and political figures” you chant in your head as you weep into your dwindling pile of cash. I am a big fan of the treat yo’self mentality, but it’s easy to get carried away at the start of any trip. Try to set your daily spend at a reasonable half way point between point A) making it rain and point B) eating anything that involves boiled cabbage. We had a daily budget which we altered depending on the priciness of each country, and did an OK job of sticking to it. The less you spend, the longer you’ll be able to travel, which brings me to my next point.

2.The best things in life are free


Sunset at Poulithra, Greece


The Highlands, Scotland


The Rif Mountains, Morocco

I hate most quotes, I especially hate travel quotes. Seeing empty platitudes in swirly writing posted against a desert island backdrop sends me into a fit of completely irrational rage, but if there’s one idea I do believe in, it’s that you don’t have to pay to see beautiful things. Even the greatest museums pale in comparison to a stunning view, and when I think of the best times I’ve had overseas so far, all of them have involved being in the wonderfully cost-effective outdoors.

Keep this in mind when you’re considering joining the queue to see a castle, church or gallery. You will come across literally thousands of paid tourist attractions and half of them will leave you feeling extremely ripped off ( I’m looking at you Sistine Chapel), so try to pick just a couple that you want to see in any given country.

Half an hour on good old Google can also save you heaps, as you can often get into otherwise expensive attractions for free at certain times or on certain days of the week. Barcelona’s Parc Guell for example would have cost the two of us an outrageous €30 ($47NZD) during the day time, but if you visit before official opening or after it closes (hours vary depending on the time of year) it’s completely free.

In London, we were desperate to see a West End show, but didn’t have a West End budget. We entered the Monday night raffle for Book of Mormon (just show up at the theatre and put your name down) and won front row seats for £25. Score.

3. Buy a car


Brasov, Romania


Theth, Albania


Saorge, France

If you’re travelling for more than a few months, and you don’t mind roughing it, buy your own set of wheels. While car rental is cheap in some countries, it’s borderline daylight robbery in others, and the rental companies might give you a silly list of rules like “don’t take this Fiat Punto off-roading in the mountains” or “don’t use your coal barbecue in the boot”. You don’t need that kind of negativity in your life.

While using public transport is usually cheaper than paying for gas, it’s boring, time-consuming, and you have to smell the farts of 50 other people. Having a vehicle is not only quicker and more scenic, but it also cuts out other major expenses. Having a car big enough to sleep in or camp out of meant we only paid for accommodation for about two out of seven days of the week, and having a boot full of food meant we only ate out when we couldn’t find a place to pull over and cook a bowl of pasta. We would have saved thousands on food and accommodation in the six months we were travelling in the car and that was despite spending way too much on its purchase and upkeep. (See next point)

4. Buy a good car


Friendly Albanian mechanic


Somewhere in Greece

While this point may seem like straight-up common sense, I’m going to explain it anyway. We bought Monty the Monterey and his rusty trailer in Spain for a cool €2,500. If we were smart, we would have bought another car, not because we don’t love Monty, but because buying a car in a country where you don’t speak the language is a special kind of hell. After being passed around dozens of different council offices in three different Spanish cities, we were able to legally buy the car. Within three months of buying Monty, he had broken down in a pretty serious fashion on three separate occasions in three separate countries, something that would have been covered by the car dealers warranty if we had insisted he translated the entire contract from Spanish to English instead of a few select bits. Don’t buy a car that is massively uncommon in most of the areas you are travelling to, unless you want to be stuck in Albania for a month while you get parts shipped by a grumpy old man in Leeds. (Side note, Albania is actually wonderful and I wouldn’t mind being stuck there for six months, you can read more about it here)

5. Camp everywhere


Borsh, Albania


Botev Peak, Bulgaria


Shack, Nea Kios, Greece

I have never understood the idea of luxury hotels. Why hand over your hard earned cash for a room you’ve got your eyes closed in 90% of the time? You’re travelling to see the world, not a nicely painted ceiling, so harden up that wimpy back and get used to sleeping on any and all surfaces. Searching for camping spots is a great way to get deep into the boondocks, and you’ll inevitably get woken up early by the dew, the sun or an Italian cop pointing a gun at you, so you’re bound to get the most out of your day. Apps like iOverlander and park4night have thousands of free camping spots submitted by fellow travellers complete with co-ordinates and details about amenities. We also used the furgovw website which lists heaps of free camping spots in Spain and other parts of Western Europe (just translate it from Spanish).

6. Get yo’self a side gig


Reporting on the Barcelona terror attack for TVNZ

If you want to indulge in the occasional cheesy fridge magnet or novelty tea towel you might want to get yourself a bit of freelance work. This may be a little tricky if you’re a bricklayer, but super easy if you’re trained in something you can do on your laptop. I earned around $7000 from freelance journalism work while we were on the road, and given it was all up to me whether I did it or not, I really enjoyed it. Hours of stoned chit chat at hostels will turn your brain to mush if you’ve got nothing else to think about, so it’s good for your noggin. What’s extra great is that if you do your work for New Zealand companies, you can apply for a special tax rate, meaning you pay zero dollars and zero cents of tax while you’re overseas. Sites like Upwork post thousands of jobs a day for professions from computer programming to lawyering. If I’m honest, the writing jobs on Upwork are mostly ridiculous – “I need a ghost writer for a 10,000 word Mormon erotic thriller and my budget is $15” – but if you’re a web developer you could make some decent money, or if you’re simply desperate, you can dig around to find ok jobs that require nothing more than a reasonable understanding of the English language.

7. Cheap countries are the best countries


Legzira Beach, Morocco


Krakow, Poland


Lake Koman, Albania

Maybe it’s the tight arse in me, but I find that spending excessively on food/accommodation/fun just for the sake of being in a trendy part of the world diminishes the enjoyability factor by a minimum of 85%, by which point you may as well be somewhere else. We visited a good chunk of the European capital hotspots  but were still more awe-struck by the rugged beauty of rural Morocco , the time-warp paradise of Albania, the delicious food of Bulgaria and the fairytale castles and villages of Romania.  Your money will go twice or three times as far in those countries, and the relative lack of tourism means people will treat you better too. Want to make your money last longer? Go where the tourists aren’t.


Monemvasia, Greece


Lisbon, Portugal


Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

Side note: It goes without saying that I wouldn’t have been able to do all this if I didn’t lead an incredibly privileged life in New Zealand. I had a good job, I didn’t have to financially support my family and I didn’t have any costly mental or physical illnesses to deal with while I was saving. I also haven’t spent any money on proper grown-up things like a house, a wedding, or paying back my student loan (sorry IRD). You will see people living in all sorts of dire situations on your travels, so, to quote whoever makes up all those annoying travel quotes, always remember that you are #blessed.





Europe, Travel

How to spend a week in Bulgaria

Want to travel to a few different countries in a week? Don’t do that. Go to Bulgaria instead. Part ancient village and part cosmopolitan city, a week long driving tour will take you through such dramatically different spots you could be doing a multi country trip. The regional towns and villages are all little old ladies in headscarves and big blue trucks covered in frost, while effortlessly cool Sofia is brimming with trendy bars and highly aspirational winter fashion. Bulgarians themselves are helpful, direct, and fiercely passionate about their country (get them talking about yoghurt or roasted peppers). The best part is that Bulgaria is so cheap you’ll be able to live like an actual human and not a sad and dirty little travel rat. Here’s where you should go to make the most of what Bulgaria has to offer:

Day 1: Melnik & Yagodinska


If you’re coming from the south, Melnik is a great place to get a first impression of Bulgaria. Cute, compact and full of outstandingly photogenic brick-roofed houses, it’s a cracking place to spend a couple of hours before you kick off the rest of the trip. Fuel up with the first of the dozens of ginormous meals you will eat over the next 7 days. Bulgarians eat a lot and their standard fare is the definition of winter comfort food, try kavarma (meat stew in a clay pot), banitsa (delicious filo pastry pie stuffed with cheese) and feta on fries (self explanatory). You could spend hours eating and drinking in a local tavern or restaurant and spend less than €20. It’s heaven. On the way to your Day 2 destination, stop off at the Yagodinska cave, a delightfully Bulgarian tourist attraction where you can take a guided tour through the stalagmites in Bulgarian with exclusively Bulgarian tourists. There’s a Christmas tree in there and to this day I have no idea why, but it’s very nice.


Yagodinska cave (Source: Google)


Russian GAV truck common in the Bulgarian countryside

Day 2: Plovdiv


Plovdiv Old Town


Knyaz Aleksandar I – Plovdiv’s main pedestrian street


Musicians practice near the Roman theatre

Plovdiv sounds cute and looks cute and the people dress their dogs in little puffer jackets which takes all the cuteness to its absolute peak. Take a wander through the multicoloured and cobblestoned Old Town and get ready to be befriended by the local artists. If taking photos isn’t your strength, you can imprint Plovdiv permanently in your memory by buying some of the extremely affordable local sketches of the museum or the Roman theatre. Take in the best view in town and another one of those preposterously sized Bulgarian meals at Rahat Tepe before checking out the colourful pedestrian street and all the adorable jacketed dogs.


Zucchini fries and stew at Rahat Tepe

Day 3: Central Balkan National Park



Haute cuisine near Botev Peak


If you’re sick of adorable things after two days in Melnik and Plovdiv, get ready for a remedy in the form of fog-shrouded forests and the possibility of being attacked by a bear. The Central Balkan National Park is a real stunner, and seeing as you only have a day there you’ll get to see a lot more if it than those motivated exercise people seeing it by foot. If you’ve got a half decent 4wd (you can rent one from Sofia airport for about €35) you can make it almost up to Botev Peak and picnic among the clouds. There are some lovely fluffy horses up there which the bears will probably eat first, so you can relax on that front. Unless you’re on a 10 kilo sack of rice kind of budget, you’ll never have to worry about overspending on accommodation in Bulgaria, but if you’re intent on camping, living al fresco in the national park is the ultimate in peaceful yet freezing solitude.


Day 4: Koprivshtitsa


House museum in Koprivshtitsa


Ok, it’s more colourful old houses, but Koprivshtitsa really is worth a visit. While Plovdiv is only part old town and part metropolis, entering Koprivshtitsa is like driving through a seam on the time/space continuum and popping out in 1845. Horses and carts are still a common form of transport, and you can really get to know the town by visiting the house museums, the former dwellings of local heroes which have been restored and now hold exhibits. Koprivshtitsa lies in a valley which means it’s icy cold for about three quarters of the year, but never fear, Restaurant Chuchura is the place to go to warm up and guess what EAT SOME MORE. You can safely expect to gain a minimum of 8 kilos (one for each day) while in Bulgaria so you’d better have some elastic waisted pants.

Day 5 & 6: Sofia


Alexander Nevsky Cathedral



The Russian Church

I’m not much of a city slicker, but even I grew pretty fond of lively, soon-to-be hipster destination of choice, Sofia. Full of well utilised parks, underground bars, museums and extremely trendy eating spots, it takes a while to run out of things to do. Locals have capitalised on the unpretentiously hip nature of the city, and have crafted tours to match. On day 1 treat yourself on the Balkan Bites food tour, where you sample everything from burgers to traditional yoghurt soup. Payment for the tour is a tip and you don’t have to pay for the food. The New Sofia Pub Crawl is (mercifully) a far cry from the usual traipse through starkly inauthentic Irish bars. Sip raspberry wine in a converted apartment with themed rooms, or look down at the jazz pianist from the rafters of Hambara, a hidden bar that doesn’t advertise at all, but is consistently full. The pub crawl will cost you 20 lev (€10) but you get a decent sized drink at every spot, which means you’re guaranteed to make friends as you bond over pretending to enjoy rakia.


Sweet wine and cheese samples at Hadjidraganovite Izbi

On day 2, if it’s a weekend, hunt for bargains at the Sofia ski market, it’s held every Saturday and Sunday near the Vasil Levsky stadium and, like everything in Bulgaria, is outrageously cheap. You can buy skis for 10 lev (€5) and we bought two pairs of Goretex ski pants, a ski jacket, hat, gloves and a head torch for about 350 lev (€175). While most cold country dwellers dress head to toe like they’ve emerged from the crypt, women in Sofia love colour, fake fur, fake leather, diamantes, pom poms, big hair, perfect make-up and every other accoutrement you could typically find on RuPaul’s Drag Race. It’s amazing. Consider this on your shopping excursions, then if it’s snowing, take your pompommed self up to Vitosha mountain to one of Europe’s cheapest ski fields. If it’s too warm for snow, take a hike through more spooky forest. It’s an all-season win.


Dirt cheap gear at Sofia ski market



Mt Vitosha

Day 7: Rila Monastery 


Rila Monastery is not only Bulgaria’s most famous attraction, it’s also a top contender for World’s Holiest Building That Looks Like A Gingerbread House. The monastery was founded in the 10th century by a guy who lived as a hermit in a cave, which seems like a shame given how good looking it is. The candy cane stripes provide a welcome break from the usual Victorian cathedral drudgery you see around much of Western Europe, and even the most church-weary traveller is bound to feel a bit emotional watching the morning cloud lift over the turrets while monks shuffle around the courtyard. Admire the beautiful and occasionally terrifying frescoes (there’s a lot of devil stuff) then head just outside the monastery walls to the local bakery. Start your Bulgarian adventure how you began it (by eating) and grab some mekitsa (fried bread with icing sugar) for 50 lev cents a pop. What’s not to love.


Mekitsa at Rila Monastery



Europe, Travel

8 great reasons to get your ass to Albania

Long skirted women catch rides on the back of their husbands pushbikes in the rain. Farmers use scythes and wear suits to work. Everyone waves at everyone and people don’t lock their doors. You can’t buy a Big Mac, a Whopper or a skinny frap’ at Starbucks but you can buy hard liquor at a petrol station.

Thanks to prolonged and vicious bout of communism that finished only relatively recently, most of Albania feels like the rest of the world probably felt in the 50s, but the vintage vibe is no bad thing. There are dozens, but here are eight excellent reasons to get yourself to Albania ASAP.

The nature


Lake Koman

Small but perfectly formed, the Albanian landscape has it all, and is bound to make you wonder, often and loudly, why there aren’t a million other people there exploring it with you. Nevermind, the lack of camera flashes and fanny packs en masse makes the lakes, springs, beaches and mountain passes all the more serene. Catch a boat trip around untouched Lake Koman, it’s a guaranteed gasp-at-every-turn type situation, firstly because of its incredible beauty, and secondly because there’s a goat farmer waving at you from an perilously located clifftop cottage. How did he get there? What does he eat other than goats? It’s all part of the mystery. Theth, with its silence, grazing horses and mountain villages is storybook perfection. Prefer the beach? Head south along the Albanian rivièra and park up at one of the dozens of rustic (read: slightly abandoned) beach towns. Find the right spot and you might only be jostling for sand space with some friendly stray dogs or the occasional cow. The water is so clear you can see the flicker of a gill from 10 metres. Sounds terrible, doesn’t it?




The Albanian Riviera

The people


That time we were invited to a 30th birthday party on Lake Koran

If you’ve been served by one too many French waiters, you’ll know the value of feeling truly wanted in the country you’re in. When the Albanians say ‘welcome’ they really, honestly mean it. Cops pull you over just to shake your hand and tell you to have a nice time. Farmers invite you in for coffee if they find you camping in their paddock. From cities and towns to the most remote locations, the warmth and generosity of Albanians is such a constant you might find yourself questioning whether there’s a catch, there isn’t. Sit down with a glass or seven of raki (grape whisky that tastes like fire), hit the hardwood d-floor to some Albanian folk music and get to know some of the most memorable characters you’re likely to encounter in your travels.


Sick dance moves on display

The price


100 Lek to visit the Blue Eye Spring

Albania is outrageously cheap. Tourism is still a developing industry, which means shiny new hostels in the cities will only set you back about €6-7 a night, and guesthouses in the regions will be even less. A fancy, several dish dinner with drinks? €6-8 per person. Entrance to most museums and historical sites peaks at an outrageous 200 lek (€1.50). We hired a car from Shkodra for €11 a day, and the guy from the company dropped it off for free (told you they were nice).


200 Lek to visit the stunning Rozafa castle in Shkodra

Freedom camping


Setting up camp in Theth

Albania is one of those rare and delightful countries where free camping appears to be either completely legal, or at the very least people simply don’t care whether you do it or not. Pitch up at the beach, in the mountains or on the shore of a lake, you might even get some curious young visitors and their goat herd thrown in as a bonus. The hospitality of Albanians can’t be overstated, so if you’re wandering around looking lost, expect to be invited to camp on someone’s driveway or stay at their house.


Glamping(?) in Borsh


Seat for two near Lake Koman


Campfire time in Theth

The food


A €12 meal (including drinks) in Shkodra

The phrase ‘cut off from the world for 50 years’ isn’t one that usually gets your tastebuds tingling, but trust me, the food in Albania is delicious. It’s a country of farmers, so expect plenty of protein. You might struggle to find a two inch thick rib-eye, but what Albanian meat lacks in quality is made up for in quantity, marinade and a shitload of charcoal. Albanian cuisine is also greatly influenced by Greek and Italian food, which means you’ll be able to enjoy delicious souvlaki or a moon-sized pizza for a fraction of the usual price. Love coffee? Prepare for the inevitable but worth it onset of insomnia while you sip your 5th €1 cappuccino in the sun.



Delicious gyros in Berat

Old stuff


Berat Old town

If like me, you love a crumbly building or two, Berat and  Gjirokaster are the spots for you. Wind in and out of antique shops in the old town of Berat, and marvel at the driving skills of Gjirokaster locals as they manoeuvre up cobbled hills so narrow an overweight donkey would struggle to get through. You can watch a 360 degree sunset over Shkoder from Rozafa castle, or bike to the city outskirts to check out the Mes bridge. It’s just a bridge, but the ride takes you through a bit of countryside, and the myriad cheerful greetings yelled from the roadside or passing cars makes for a guaranteed 24 hour smile on your dial. If you’re after some not so ancient history you can head to the compact but excellent Site of Witness and Memory Museum in Shkodra to learn about the brutalities of communist Albania, or Bunk’art in Tirana – one of the thousands of underground bunkers built by paranoid dictator Enver Hoxha, which has been turned into a gallery/museum.




View from Rozafa Castle, Shkodra


Mes Bridge, Shkodra

New stuff


The Pyramid, Tirana

While much of Albania’s charm lies in the fact that it’s a bit of a time portal, you’ll still be able to get your cosmopolitan on in the big (ish) cities. Like a lop-sided muffin or one of those weird hairless dogs, the capital Tirana has an ugly but endearing charm. In an effort to make the admittedly hideous Communist apartment blocks look more appealing, Tirana’s former mayor set about painting them in more cheerful colours. The paint has faded a bit in some spots, meaning you can pass peeling pastels as you stroll from The Pyramid (the graffitied hangout spot for Tirana’s teens) to the flashy ‘New Market’ square. There are guys with twirly moustaches there, so you know it’s the real deal. The second biggest town of Shkoder also boasts a pretty cobbled pedestrian street where all the cool young things go to eat and drink.


Pedestrian street, Shkodra

(Mostly) undiscovered 


Lake Koman

For the greedy traveller, the best part of all of this is that you’ll barely have to share Albania with any other tourists. The rare lots of visitors won’t come in gigantic tour buses meaning the all-important photo album won’t be full of hats with neck-flaps. The lack of tourist dollars, of course, is not that great for the economy, and the Albanian government is putting a lot of effort into getting the numbers up. Metallic beachside resorts are starting to pop up in the south, and the fact many young Albanians speak excellent English will surely be a drawcard for those terrified of four syllable greetings.

Albania has transformed itself in just the last few decades, and it’s bound to change even more, so you’d better get there before everyone else gets the same idea.




The Blue Eye Spring




Africa, Travel

7 must-sees in majestic Morocco

It’s vibrant, stinky and beautiful. Its captivating and frustrating in equal measure. It’s also got a hell of a lot more to offer than souks and sand. For most, the mental image of Morocco is really an image of Marrakech, but the temperature and the people get a lot more pleasant outside of the biggest city. Here are my favourite spots from a one month driving tour around the land of mint tea, tagines and terrifying driving.



A hippies paradise, chilled out Essaouira definitely isn’t the tourist-free zone it once was, but if you like sea breezes and taking it so slow you’re barely moving, it’s the place for you. The hub of Essaouira is it’s seaside medina, and if you’ve been staying in a comparative firepit like Marrakech for a while a good slap to the face with a fishy gust of wind will do you no end of good. GOT fans can walk in the footsteps of the Mother of Dragons at the old ramparts, or you could spend your days bartering at the 1001 market stores. You may be pleasantly surprised to find that you don’t get verbally abused if you choose not to buy anything, and you may even find yourself purchasing a charming watercolour from a local artist who claims to know Cat Stevens (there really are a lot of hippies there). Those with a car can take a 20 minute drive out of town to check out south-west Morocco’s famous tree climbing goats, which are just as comical as they sound.




*side note – Essaouira has tried to market itself to the surfing crowd, and while the wind makes it a good spot for kitesurfers, those who like their water more blue than beige might be disappointed. Head to Taghazout if you want to hang 10.



In a country that’s often so hot it feels like your vital organs could melt out of any given orifice at any second, it’s a relief to find somewhere you can spend the whole day in the water and enjoy it. Morocco has countless beaches, but very few of them benefit from being clean enough to swim in without worrying you’re going to get tangled in fishing wire like an unfortunate seagull from a Greenpeace ad. Paradise Valley is a 20 minute drive from the small surf town of Taghazout, and it lives up to its name. Turquoise waters, private lagoons and cliff jumping spots to cater for all levels of insanity. There are multiple ways of getting there – some hostels in the area can take you out for the day, you can get a taxi where the drivers waits while you take a dip, although the best option is driving yourself. Pack a picnic and between the shuttle loads it’s likely you’ll have the place all to your little old self. Like the beaches, it’s not pristine, and if you come from a place where simply leaving an entire tagine at a waterhole isn’t commonplace, you might find it a little frustrating. The solution is to always take your own rubbish out, and if you can manage it, a bag of some other people’s rubbish too. Be the change you want to see and so on. Some people only do a day trip to Paradise Valley from a far away city, but I’d recommend booking a night in Taghazout to really make the most of it. It’s a tiny, colourful village where the water isn’t beige and the waves are surfable. Adventurekeys Hostel does a cracking breakfast and dinner, and does surf + yoga packages if you really want to zen the heck out.




Tizi n Test Pass


If you’ve been to Morocco and didn’t get hopelessly lost, did you really go? This rule applies to both the sprawling medinas and the roads throughout the country which do not correspond all that well with the easy-peasy instructions provided by Google maps. The Tizi n Test pass was the road we found ourselves on while lost on the way to Marrakech, and I don’t regret a second. The pass is a glittering example of Morocco’s highly unenthusiastic approach to health and safety. Overloaded trucks teeter along the edge of a 50 metre drop, the road is walled in some parts, in others it crumbled away some millenia ago and at certain corners the construction of life-preserving barriers was clearly just going to be too much hassle. Compete for road space with herds of goats that scamper to scale up the cliff face (watch your head, they might start a mini avalanche), and stop for tea at one of the cafés that looks like it’s balancing on the edge of the universe. If you have a crippling fear of heights, don’t worry, all that bile in your throat will disappear when you reach the next lookout. The view really is that good.



Cascade d’Ouzoud


Ok, the water is brown, and the sign says no swimming, but that’s probably just the dirt at the bottom and since when does anyone in Morocco read signs. Multi-levelled and glorious, Cascade d’Ouzoud, or Ouzoud Falls to tourists, is quite the sight. It’s a short walk down a mud track to get there (don’t pay a guide to take you or park in a paid car park, you don’t need to) and it’s likely you’ll meet a few cheeky macaques (tail-less monkeys) on the way. Once at the bottom take a moment to enjoy the thundering rush of water before jumping in yourself. You can swim behind the falls, or pay a guy on a boat to take you if you really don’t like muddy water. Then sit back and watch the locals fling themselves from the highest point. Unlike Paradise Valley, the climb up to the jumping spots is extremely slippery, and probably only worth doing if you have toes like a macaque. Get there before midday and it’s likely you’ll be the only tourists there. The falls are pretty amazing from every angle, so it’s worth walking up and down the stairs to get that perfect ‘gram.




Atlas Mountains


Another ‘thank god we got lost’ spot if you’re silly enough to drive through it is the Atlas Mountains. It’s a famous hiking destination, but if you’ve got limited time, or you’re just lazy, driving guarantees the highest number of jaw drops per hour. Crawl your way down gravel roads lined with mud houses. Wave like royalty as the kids in off-the-map Berber villages trail behind you on their donkeys. It’s not often you feel truly alone in Morocco, but sitting on the peaks of the multicoloured mountaintops that stretch for miles in each direction may well have you feeling you’re the only person left on earth. That is until a friendly local appears out of nowhere offering tea. Due to the state of the roads it is very unwise to do this drive in anything other than a 4WD, we did in a Fiat Punto and only just made it out alive.






If you ask a Moroccan about their favourite place to visit in the country, most will say Chefchaouen. Turquoise-tinged and visually stunning, Chefchaouen also has a refreshingly relaxed vibe most probably due by the enormous amount of weed grown in the region. If you’re there for a couple of days, spend the first wandering around the bright blue medina and snapping to your hearts content, then head up to the Spanish mosque on the mountainside to watch the sun go down. On day 2 head to Cascade d’Ackchour. Depending on the season, you might not see a waterfall, but there’ll still be crystal clear pools to take a dip in. Taxi vans regularly make the trip from the centre of Chefchaouen to the falls and if you’re lucky your driver will swing by the vast fields of marijuana the Rif Valley is famous for. There’s so much of it you could grab a handful as a souvenir, but I wouldn’t recommend it.




Erg Chebbi Desert


It’s a cliche, but a camel trek in the Sahara really is a must do. Watching the sun reflect off dunes the size of a small town while your camel farts and grunts it’s way to the next camp is truly surreal. If you can, do a 2 night trek with some sandboarding thrown in. As previously mentioned, health and safety requirements don’t appear to exist in Morocco, so your guide will have no qualms about shoving you down the side of a 100 foot dune on a pair of old skis. You’re guaranteed to remember the experience because a) it’s really fun and b) you’ll be picking sand out of your scalp for approximately the rest of your life. By night sit under the stars and share bad jokes with your guide. Moroccan men love their hash, so if your guide has bought their own stash for the trip (highly likely), it’s bound to be a memorable night.




Other ramblings



First published in May issue of Fishhead magazine

This year the Oxford Junior Dictionary, aimed at seven year olds, decided to ditch some words. Not enough pages apparently, so they got chopping; chestnuts, magpies, leopards and larks are out. Blogging, chatrooms and cut-and-paste are in. Net over nature, Outlook over the outdoors. A move to modernise, they said, a profoundly sad move that depressed language–lovers like myself to the very core. Now, more than ever, I want to self-implode every time I see a child with an iPad.

Children with iPads is a phenomenon that, like aerosol cheese, Crocs and Tony Abbott, wouldn’t exist if humans were doing things right. Having witnessed the zombifying effects of constant access to artificial entertainment on children as young as two, little slaves to the little silver square, I made a promise to myself to never plague my future spawn with that sort of handicap. In arguments, where friends would campaign for the ‘educational benefits’ of the imagination-sapping devil square I would find myself inwardly screaming “BLOODY MAGPIES ARE EDUCATIONAL.” It was infuriating.

Then I moved into a house with a dog. This is not just any dog, this is ‘the cutest dog ever,’ and I know that everybody says that about their dogs but everybody else is wrong. This dog, which will be referred to as Dog, is the best. I don’t quite mean that in a literal sense, in fact Dog is probably quite far from the best. Dog likes jumping on couches and tearing up pillows and sticking her nose in your food. Dog likes to wait until your TV show is on to jump on your face and demand attention. Dog gets so excited about walks on the beach she poops and vomits all the way home. And yet it’s a good thing that Dog can’t talk because if she asked for both of my kidneys I would give them to her, apologise for the delay and pay the medical bills in advance. If Dog asked for an iPad? “Sure thing!” I would say, “here’s a back catalogue of every season of The Bachelor ever filmed, fry your little doggie brain with it!” I would say, “as long as you’re having fun!” May I reiterate that this dog is not even mine.

How do parents who actually made and have at least partial ownership over their own children make these kinds of decisions? It’s all very well to not believe in iPads, to want to buy your kids multiple copies of the pre-2015 Oxford Junior dictionary and a worm farm and not let them back indoors until dinnertime. But what if they ask, in fact what if they beg? Get down on their little knees, round glistening eyes imploring you to give in just this once? That sounds like absolute torture. So what’s the solution? Thankfully me having kids is a few years away so at least I’ve got a while to plan whether I move into a remote commune devoid of technology or not. The rest of you are doomed.