A Travellerspoint blog

September 2012

Exactly How Green Was My Valley?

A South Wales Road Trip


“Have you got your passport,” I casually ask, looking up from the road map as we are careening down the M32 towards the Severn Bridge and South Wales.

“What, no,” my friend says swivelling back and forth from the road to me, looking, hoping rather for a sign of a joke.

“Well it is a different country,” I say, but before she could slam on the brakes and call the whole trip off I start laughing at my own hilariousness. To Wales we go. This compact little slice of Great Britain packs in some of the most stunning scenery, amazing history, impressive fortresses and castles, pristine coastline, rolling green valleys and ‘flowery adjective here’ mountains. In other words, it’s some of the best shit on offer in the mother country.

It’s land abounds in natures gift, with lush, rolling hills and green fields, it’s really not surprising that when Australia was settled and our decision makers stood out on the edges of the settlement at Sydney cove, looking at the marshy estuaries, the dry, barren landscape and the golden sandy beaches that they thought, ‘it’s a dead spit for me home in the valleys in south Wales”. Thus history was made. So here we were, heading to South Wales, old South Wales.

As it is, navigating British roads is a nightmare given their penchant for massive roundabouts and late signage which leads to a lot of “oh shit that was it”, lane cutting, re-entering roundabouts, exiting and re-entering major motorways and ‘chuckin’ U-ies’. So the bilingual signage was an extra challenge, given too that my friend and driver kept trying to read Welsh.

“Canol y dref?” preparing slam on the brakes and turn back.

“Read above,”

“O, town centre”.

A man’s home is his castle and Wales has more castles per capita than any other country. I must say I am a sucker for a good castle, you can keep your churches, cathedrals and stately homes, give me a good old fashioned defensive castle to climb on and explore, let my imagination run wild and maybe also give me a sword in case I want to re-enact a battle. Welsh history is filled with invasion and battle and everyone has had a slice of the Welsh rarebit, from the Celts, Romans and Vikings to the Normans and Saxons. Long before there was a united Wales to plunder, the many small Welsh kingdoms battled and conquered each other. The rest of the time they were just trying to keep the English and their big noses out, while the English tried to keep the Welsh with their unruly Celtic roots far from their civilised society so with all this drama castles of all shapes and sizes sprung up throughout the land.

One of the largest and best preserved castles in the UK, Caerphilly Castle is a good old fashioned 13th century stronghold with a lake forming a natural moat, big turrets, hidden passage ways and secret slots to tip hot oil on the enemy or bow and arrow people right in the eyeball.

I love having a historical aspect to my travels and because I have a decent knowledge of history it means often people believe what I say, which is great, only I often tell ever-so-slight untruths for my own amusement. For example while we were at The Tower of London I told someone that you couldn’t be a Beefeater if you were a vegetarian.

My friend and I were sitting in the room of this 900-odd year old castle to escape yet another Welsh downpour on our summer holiday and I looked up at the light switch,

“That’s a nice authentic, medieval light switch” I say, seemingly impressed.

My friend looked at me with trepidation, trusting that she was wrong but also confused given I had done a semester of Welsh history at university so there’s really no telling what facts I could know.

“…must be super old,” I say, ignoring her confusion

“How old is tha..” she fumbles for a sentence, fully aware at this point she was about to say something dumb. “When did...when did electricity come to England?” she asks as if she knows the answer but isn’t convinced she’s right.

“Oh the Romans brought it with them”, I say nonchalantly, “clever, invented plumbing, floor heating...” I trail off as I get up and walk out of the room.

An hour later we were standing on the site of Franciscan Friary, I told her it was a kitchen where they fried stuff like fish and chips. Basically I will eventually yet deservedly, lose all credibility regarding historical facts.

The other most impressive of the castle stops was Carreg Cennen, a grand castle ruin sitting atop a natural stone mountain above the rolling fields of the Brecon Beacons. The castle stands high on the landscape between the green grass and the blue sky. From the top you can see for miles, no invading army or visit from the in-laws stood a chance.

We drove on through country side, through lush forests, the beautiful rocky coastline of Pembrokeshire through flat farm land, back through the mountains of the Brecon Beacons, rocky cliffs, dense trees, into the rolling countryside of the valleys then the lush, green, Wye Valley with the river running perfectly through the centre.

South Wales is of course known for its valleys, the coal mining industry fed the country for over a century. The once booming, now rather sleepy UNESCO town of Blaenarvon is home to Big Pit, one of the last of the deep mines in Wales to close. Now converted into an educational facility, Big Pit gives visitors an insight into the mining history in Wales. You can see exhibits, the old shower room which is filled with equipment and the stories about the bleak life of coal miners.

The best part is you can go down an actual coal mine and experience the mining life for yourself, free of course from the hard work and misery, and jazzed up with novel equipment and jokes.

As well as the beauty of Wales, the main highlight is it’s filled with slightly unhinged, hilarious accented Welsh people. We file into the mine entrance, a bunch of Welsh men in yellow mining suits are waiting for us, I get a helmet nailed on to my head with a few taps and shuffle forward to another who is fixing my generator belt and flash light attachment.

“Where you from then?” he asks in his delightfully whimsical Welsh valley accent.

“Australia but I live in England, in Bristol,” I say

“England”, he spits and puts down the generator belt he was in the middle of putting around me in disgust.

“Why would you live in England”, he says in mock outrage.

Not wanting to lose a potential Welsh miner friend I jumped to my own defence,

“…I used to live in Swansea for a bit”

“You did,” he said cheering up, “that’s alright then,” and he picks the belt back up and fastened what is about 2kgs around my waist, pulling heavily on my lower back, where I hold my stress anyway.

We left all our belongings behind in order not to blow up the mine with signals and batteries and the like and filed into a small metal cage lift and descended 90ft below the surface into the deep, dark, caverns of Big Pit. It was enough time for the temperature to drop, the miner to tell some classic gags about the toilets leaking so mind the drips and for me to speculate wildly on the relationship of an old man, a young Thai woman and 5-year old girl.

Big Pit was a working mine until 1980 and is still checked daily for gasses and potential dangers which is why we had nothing but our mine-safe generators. I would have preferred a canary but it wasn’t made available. We learnt the ins and outs of mines and miners, obviously I was already pretty knowledgeable on the matter because I’d seen How Green Was My Valley. We looked through noting several decades of work and the changes that occurred from building materials, brick and wood arches to steel arches and the workmen themselves, which began with men, women and young children before workplace rules came in to practice and union regulations changed the course of miners’ life dramatically. Even horses lived down there; they were blind because they only came to the surface once a year. As well as the hard labour, dangerous environment and threat of coal dust in your lungs and dying in general, rats and other vermin stole their lunches and crawled up trouser legs, so it was a wonderful place to live and work.

As we were walking through I came to chatting with my miner guide, in his thick Welsh accent he asked me what I do, I had enjoyed Blaenarvon and the guys seemed like they have a craic of a time stopping the lifts on one another and bantering. I fancied myself in hardhat with attached flashlight, great for secret, night time snacking I thought, and a yellow jumpsuit is something I would wear well.

“Not much,” I said, “Do you have any jobs going?”

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Posted by The Tipsy Gipsy 14:12 Archived in Wales Tagged road_trip castle mines welsh valleys south_wales caerphilly pembrokeshire carreg_cennen the_tipsy_gipsy Comments (2)

A Coffee and Cannoli Overlooking Stromboli

I-talia, it's the besta food in the worlda

sunny 33 °C

“Mangi mangi”, the Old Italian Nonna living in my head says as I attack a family-sized pizza at 1:30am. Yes, a whole one and yes I had already had dinner, but the imaginary Nonna also tells me,
“Mangi bambino, you are just skin and bone”.

“Si Nonna, si”

It’s true I am just skin in bone only with a hefty carbohydrate layer protecting me from the elements. The Italian love of the 3 P’s is certainly not lost on me, and a philosophy I can get behind. A daily dose of pasta, pizza and pane (bread) will get you through life happy, maybe a little lumpy around the edges, but certainly happy.

As you may have noticed previously I do like a good old fashioned eating holiday. I take them under a guise of a normal, cultural and historical expedition, but I intend for them to be a non-stop snaxcursion.

Italy is responsible for some of my favourite food groups, fresh produce, tasty flavour, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, bread and delicious desserts, including my personal raison d'être, gelato. So it was fitting that for my second 2012 jaunt/food holiday it would be back to everyone’s favourite boot and in particular, it’s football, Sicily.

Yeah, sure I was excited for relaxing on the beaches in some well-missed sunshine. I was going for the Sicilian culture and the beauty of Italy, but I was staying for the cannoli, and anyone who tells you otherwise is a big, fat, pistachio-encrusted liar.

A lot of great Italian food comes from Sicily, they gave us the tasty street snacks like arancini – stuffed, deep fried risotto balls, desserts like cannoli and cassata as well as seafood dishes of countless concoctions. While planning my holiday I compiled a list of foods I needed to eat and the restaurants and cafes who were the best purveyors of said foods, I managed to pen this song which sums up my mindset.

Pizza and pasta and Sicilian caponata,
Arancini, gelato – limone or fragola
Blanco or rosso what vino you bring
These are a few of the edible things.
Coffee and cannoli overlooking Stromboli…etc.

I was excited about my breakfasts, lunches and dinners, and on a 10-day adventure I couldn’t afford to waste a single meal on something not amazing and not part of my culinary adventure. About here my mother would say, “stop thinking about your stomach” but in my defence the cuisine is as much tied to the nation’s culture and traditions as the sights. So not only is it legitimate to have a food holiday, if you don’t partake then you are missing out on a perfect, prosciutto and mozzarella stuffed slice of authentic Italian life.

I don’t want to give you the impression I attacked Italy like Pac-Man, consuming all that was in my way. It’s not entirely inaccurate but I do have some class, and some rules, tips and tricks to share with you about embarking on an Italian food holiday, or if you prefer, a cultural and historical visit with a subtle, high-level food focus.

First and foremost, the first stop by one and all upon arrival, the gelataria. Well, first city stop, it’s not unusual for me to have a coffee purchased and consumed in airport arrivals. Find an artisanal gelataria, where someone is following old family recipes and churning gelato with a mixture of sugar, cream and liquid happiness. Gelato is not only allowed, but required to be eaten at least once a day, if it is particularly hot you can have it more than once.
A breakfast gelato is perfectly acceptable but one must stick to breakfast flavours like your fruit varieties, coffee is also acceptable.
For other flavours you must wait until noon...okay, 10:30am.
In Sicily you are allowed to have a scoop of gelato inside a brioche bun. It’s a Sicilian speciality so technically it’s a cultural exercise to indulge in such a grossly obese breakfast item.

Gelato Tip: Think about your flavours, those who mix cream-based flavours with fruit flavours are the goon drinkers of the gelato connoisseur world. For example, ordering a zesty, refreshing lemon with a creamy Nutella gelato is the action of a monster/serial killer.
Also when practicing your excellent Italian while ordering, note that incorrect pronunciation of Pesca (peach) and Pesce (fish) produce very different results.
Sick of gelato? Sacrilege. Try a granita, a Sicilian drink made with crushed ice but in the fancier parts more a creamy, runny ice cream.
Also feel free to buy a brioche and dip that bad boy in there as well. Totally acceptable.

Coffee. Your daily cappuccino and croissant is a breakfast that merely lines your stomach for further gastronomic delights. You are only supposed to order a cappuccino at breakfast from then on just throw back an espresso to really feel your heart beat.

Coffee tip: A latte as we say in Australia, well, “la-day”, is a glass of hot milk in Italy.
My friend was tired and feeling ill when she went in to the bar to order her coffee. As the girl brought out my café latte and her latte, I laughed hysterically for 10 minutes, I was making such a scene even the guy at the other table started laughing. Lesson reinforced.

Other Sicilian specialities include fish, mussels, swordfish and other under the sea critters, molluscs and crustaceans. So much fresh seafood is for sale at the Catania Fish Market. I had to foolishly worn sandals and had to deal with the trauma of wet, fish gutsy feet. The giant swordfish is a sight of pure misery, when I think about how they were probably just swimming about, no doubt playing pirates with their noses as one would if one had a sword for a nose, then boom, dead on an old plastic bag of ice in a filthy bucket.
The highlight was old men peeling prawns amongst piles of rubbish in the gutter under a bridge, an old guy with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth as he serves an old lady, picks up a fish and throws it on the scales, the ash dropping on the display of marine life, some of which was still wiggling no doubt wondering why they were on ice and couldn’t quite swim away. Oh the panic.
I did try some swordfish, the taste was meaty, salty but otherwise unfishy. I was also going to be adventurous and try another local speciality, a stuffed sardine and I very nearly did, my fork touched 4 crumbs of the stuffing and I wretched.
I also tried a seafood risotto which tastes like the beach, being dunked by a wave specifically.

So seafood is lost on me, but while Sicily has all the usual delicious suspects like pizza and pasta, what I needed to get my fat, little pork sausage fingers on was the desserts. I wasn’t to be leaving the island without eating a cannoli, a pastry tube filled with sweetened ricotta. It was decadent and creamy with a slight crunch from the shell and the pistachio encrusted ends.
You’d have someone whacked for one. And I imagine the Mafia do all the time.

My food excursion/cultural visit to Italy was complete with a cooking course in Rome, where we whipped up a gnocchi with a fresh tomato sauce, tiramisu, stuffed peppers and stuffed pumpkin flowers.

Arrrrrghhhlll *drools on keyboard*

I am no professional but with a class of mostly Americans I would consider myself a Michelin Star-level chef (or Michelin man-sized chef) in comparison, primarily because I didn’t ask things like “gnocchi, what’s a gnocchi I’ve never heard of it” or when shown how to crack a walnut say “oh my gawwd that’s awwwwesome”. Yes it is… it really is. It must be wondrous to be so easily impressed.
I learnt some facts about eggs, garlic and tomato but more that I wish I were Italian and that I want to have a Nonna to take me to the markets with her to buy fresh fruit and vegetables, perhaps a whole swordfish, then help her whip up delicious meals while she told me to eat more tiramisu because I’m nothing but skin and bones. I want that.

So in conclusion not only do I love Italy and Italian food but I am officially in the market for an adoptive Italian family. My Italian is limited but with some lessons, a bit of sun and some darker hair dye I could pass as a local. In exchange I’ll do what I do for my own family, eat their food, live in their house, dance in the TV ad breaks and sing in the car over the radio. Forward any interest to my email address.

Ah Italy, you are a country so great, so amazing, so delicious you fill both my soul and my stomach with glee. Alas though, you make the post travel misery even more prevalent as I look at the Tesco sandwich selection, wondering who would buy a plain cheese sandwich, and long for an arancini stuffed with mozzarella and prosciutto.

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Posted by The Tipsy Gipsy 08:01 Archived in Italy Tagged food travel italy sicily pizza pasta italian_cuisine the_tipsy_gipsy Comments (1)

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