Chinese Garden of Friendship – Sydney

In the middle of Sydney’s loud and lavish CBD lies a delightfully tranquil sanctuary. In Tumbalong Park, a stone’s throw from the milling touristy crowds of Darling Harbour, you’ll find the Chinese Garden of Friendship, nonchalantly tucked away behind a couple of high walls.

In celebration of the long association of the Chinese community in Australia, this beautiful garden was conceived and created in the 1980s, a gift to Sydney from the city of Guangzhou (southern China).

The garden adheres to the Taoist principles of Yin-Yang, with the five opposite elements represented – earth, fire, water, metal and wood – for balance, and ‘Qi’, the circulating force of life and energy.

Plants aren’t intended to pull focus or dominate the scene, but rather integrate with the natural flow of the landscape. The result is a gently winding, relaxing space that provides a sense of harmony. It’s serene and green, and in springtime, punctuated with tiny bursts of blushing colour. There are birds by the pagodas, fish in the ponds, and perhaps surprisingly, several sunbathing Eastern Water Dragons, who prove to be popular photography subjects. (I’m guilty of course. Who doesn’t love lizards?)

I’ve visited this place four times, and I’m always staggered by how quiet it is. The low roar of the relentless traffic, elsewhere in the CBD inescapable, here seems so distant. And despite the imposing backdrop of hotels and shiny office complexes, it somehow still feels like an escape. A peaceful place offering refuge from the noise and bustle of the metropolis. For the most part, all you can hear is the soft waterfall, and the occasional scampering of a camera-shy amphibian.

I recommend you visit. There’s charm in the calm. It’s good for the soul. And at just $6 entry, in a city that typically commands a hefty price tag, it’s easy on your pocket too.

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Rhyme and reason

I am a logophile. I love words and the quiet power they wield. I spent my primary school years reading as much as I could (even sneakily with a torch in bed after ‘lights out’) and my high school years developing my own writing techniques and individual style.

Poetry is a creative form that I particularly enjoy (and caution: will likely feature in future blog posts). Rhymes, especially silly rhymes, tend to come easily to me, perhaps an effect of a healthy consumption of Roald Dahl in my youth.

Limericks are a fun form of verse but can be challenging to craft. I am prone to waffle, and the rigid limerick structure curbs this tendency. My freestyle prose can easily stretch a verse (or four) too far, with my inner editor failing to recognise the prime point at which to cap the Bic. With just five lines to tell the (often humorous) tale, word choice is paramount for a limerick to be effective. It’s forced ruthlessness.

The limerick has a rhyme scheme of AABBA, with the first, second and fifth lines sharing a rhyme, while the third and fourth lines are shorter and share a different rhyme. It’s traditional for the first line to introduce a person and place, with the place name establishing the rhyme for the second and last lines. Those familiar with the form may be able to predict the punchline from early in a stanza. (‘There was a young girl from Nantucket’ rather sets you on a narrow course.)

My recent tour of Ireland didn’t include Limerick, the city on its itinerary. We just missed it by a few measly miles. Pity. The tour however did feature limericks, the poetry. We had a friendly little limerick-writing contest, and as the trip drew to its close, the competition had grown fierce. Our scribblings were submitted, and our lovely tour director read them aloud to the captive coach audience. There were plenty of giggles and some big laughs. Feeling inspired and creatively juicy in the Emerald Isle, I’d put forward four limericks of my own. This one proved most popular:

Mick, a nudist from Kildare

Was famed for his cute derriere

When he’d stop and bend down

In the middle of town

The craic was sensational there

It had humour, Irish references, it had double entendre – I’d nailed it. And yet… The winning limerick was drawn from a hat. How had this become a game of chance? Nothing against the (unlikely) victor, but come on! Did his even get a laugh?! A creative writing competition should and could only be won through SKILL!

Competitive much? To be sure, to be sure.

Bellissimo: gluten free Italy

Travelling overseas can be daunting for someone with special dietary requirements. Where there is a language barrier, it is stressful trusting the dish served up is genuinely harmless. For me, consuming gluten would result in 48-72 hrs of violent illness, severe dehydration and exhaustion – less than ideal where lengthy flights or coach travel is involved.

I was diagnosed with Coeliac (Celiac) disease in 2007, and until that point had only ventured outside of Australia twice. I now rue the lost opportunities at travelling on a ‘normal’ diet. Carefree sure beats gluten free. It took me several years to gain the confidence to travel internationally adhering to this diet. Happily, I haven’t been ‘glutened’ overseas, which I put down to careful planning and a good deal of luck.

Italy, the carbs-laden land of pasta and pizza, reads like a Coeliac’s nightmare, but it’s actually very accommodating. My positive gastronomical experience in Rome 4 years ago was in part the catalyst for my recent return to the country. I was very glad to find Northern Italy brimming with senza glutine delicacies. (I even found beer and icecream cones at Cinque Terre – tricky enough to find these in Melbourne!)

My highlights:

MILAN
O Peperino e Milano
The most delicious capricciosa, followed by a tiramisu (that disappeared before a photo could be taken). Extensive GF options here. I was even asked if I needed a gluten free menu.

STRESA
Ristorante Pizzeria Il Portico
Risotto al persico. Beautiful perch. Easily the best risotto I’ve ever had. Cooked to perfection.

GENOA
Trattoria Alle Due Torri
Streppe al pesto. Odd-looking pasta but generous surface area to soak up that pesto! Three pages in the menu dedicated to GF. House made bread rolls were fantastic.

PORTOFINO
Ristorante Delfino
Penne al pomodoro. Simple flavour done well. Also had delicious frittata here.

MONTEROSSO, CINQUE TERRE
Ristorante da Ely
Gnocchi al pesto. Really tender, in a superb pesto.

Extra info:
* Not all menus will promote the availability of GF options, but I found every cafe I enquired at was able to cater, even if only minimal choices. Risottos were generally fine (but still do ask, in case barley is in the stock). And salads are a pretty safe bet, if you’re ever really unsure.

* It’s customary to be served bread before your meal appears. If you’ve specified “senza glutine”, you’ll probably receive suitable rolls or crackers, which makes even a small dish satisfying.

* Social media is great as a research tool. Instagram is very helpful for dining recommendations.

I encourage all Coeliacs to explore Italy. It’s foodie heaven, even gluten free. Buon appetito!

Kates, Debbies and Laurens of Arabia

Some travel destinations in this big, wide world can be challenging for a female. In the UAE, there are certainly more rules (religious and/or societal) than I am subjected to at home in Australia. As a non-Muslim in a Muslim state, you should always be mindful and respectful of where you are, particularly so as a female solo traveller.

Dress code aside, I have actually found Abu Dhabi quite liberating. I had a mixed experience in Dubai two years ago, but on this brief visit to the UAE’s capital city, I feel more comfortable and confident to be out and about. There are noticeably more women in the workforce here, particularly at a managerial level. The majority of university students are female. There is virtually no crime in Abu Dhabi (possibly linked to the absence of poverty – you can only stay here if you have a job), and as a woman, you feel safe and respected. You can readily make it from A to B without Emirati men furrowing their brows. It’s great. (Having said that, I did venture into the fish markets as part of a guided city tour yesterday – and instantly had a hundred pairs of male eyes on me. I guess I was a novelty for them. My eyes instead were firmly fixed on the morning’s haul of prawns. O.M.G. These local “shrimp” were massive, many about 9 or 10 inches in length! Somebody get some BBQs over here, stat!!)

And really, it’s not a huge deal to dress modestly in the UAE. Save your skimpy tops for the pool at the hotel. If you’re around worship areas you keep your shoulders covered. Easy. And it’s advised to not wear anything shorter than knee-length. (My modus operandi irrespective of location – my lily-white thighs could burn retinas.)

I strolled along the picturesque Corniche this evening. I sat alone, by a date palm, watching the sunset. A bright pink blush stained the dusk sky, and some of the highrise buildings around me disappeared into the humid haze. It was lovely, and it’s there for everyone – even lily-white non-Muslim women – to enjoy. We’re probably much better off sitting there than under the Flinders Street clocks, to be frank.

Passionistas

You can feel the love in Italy. It’s palpable and everywhere.

It’s not hard to love the place. From the major cities to the countryside, the Alpine regions to the beaches… It’s very easy to look it.

Italy is also very easy to listen to. I absolutely love the language. It’s emotive, charming and sexy and surely the envy of all other languages. If the well-tailored Lotharios of Milano are the eye-candy then surely the native tongue is the ear-chocolate.

It’s the passion of the Italian people that really resonates though. They are ardently, demonstrably passionate about so much in their lives, with a real zest for life itself. Many live simply but in doing so they live well. Work/life balance feels very achievable here. Priorities seem clearer.

They love their wine, and their food. Food is not fuel, it’s heritage, ritual and a daily celebration. It’s to be enjoyed slowly. The concept of a quick bite (or worse still, takeaway) is lost on these folk. You simply must sit for a couple of hours and enjoy. There’s a procedure to be respected and followed. After a delicious perch risotto on my 75-minute lunch stop in Stresa, I asked for the check. The waiter looked confused and asked “Check already?” I pointed to my watch, shrugged my shoulders and said “Sorry, no time”. I could see the pity in his eyes. I was a hopeless tourist who just didn’t get it. (Note, even if it’s the BEST RISOTTO OF YOUR LIFE, tour coaches wait for no-one).

They love their coffee too, and would love for you to love it their way, the right way. They will however make it the way you want it – I found the latte macchiato was very drinkable in many cafes – but just don’t blatantly add sugar. It’s a stake to the barista’s heart.

Italians certainly love their soccer, (or calcio). It dominates newspaper headlines. You can sense the national hurt over a World Cup senza Italia. I counted 8 soccer TV channels at one hotel. Imagine if they were actually taking part.

And operators of most forms of transport are evidently passionate about frightening the bejesus out of strangers. Italy is home to many of the world’s most incredible sports cars, and also an alarmingly large population of crazy drivers… anyone else see an issue with that? I vividly recall my transfer to Fiumicino airport a few years ago. I think the taxi may have been airborne at one point. This love for a speedy road trip contradicts their desire for a relaxed pace in most other facets of life. Perhaps the breakneck race home allows for a 4-hour, 6 course dinner. Priorities.

So many people travel extensively nowadays, and Italy remains a popular destination. My colleagues, family and friends talk about enjoying particular countries, liking them, being surprised or fascinated by them, but practically all visitors love Italy. Not only the land, but the lifestyle and the locals. It’s a package deal. Love is in the air there and some of it just sticks. It sneaks into your suitcase and into your soul. It’s profound. You know when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie? It’s exactly like that.

Paradise at a price

I’d like to be able to tell you that it’s true. All you’ve read, all you’ve heard, all the plaudits suggesting this little Italian resort village is one of the most stunningly exquisite locations on planet Earth. Well, it is all true. Portofino is divino. And possibly a little bit magical.

Travelling through the northern Italian lakes district, the weather had been stormy. Conditions affected visits to both lakes Como and Maggiore. Entering the Liguria region and reaching Santa Margherita, the skies remained dark and ominous. Portofino would prove to be the light at the end of our tunnel. We made the short trip there by boat and were greeted with incredible sunshine, right on cue. Every colour in the harbour was illuminated. Hashtag: ‘no filter’. We’d left Kansas and were now very much in Oz. (See, magical).

Portofino was primarily a fishing village for many years. Exactly which species inhabit this area nowadays is unclear to me, but if you’re single and have access to a bloody big boat, you’re a strong chance to hook a hottie.

From the 1950s this has been a holiday destination for the well-to-do, a picturesque locale for the rich and famous. A place to be seen and a flaunted lifestyle of excess, evident by the many moored giant luxury yachts, and the number of exclusive boutiques stocking high-end labels. This is for the creme de la creme (or more accurately, the crema di crema). It’s all about beauty and the finer things in life. No talk of controversial refugee policies or political instability here. Any ugliness is neatly off-show. It’s la bella figura cranked up to eleven, and a scene befitting a Robin Leach voiceover (for those old enough to get that reference).

There’s no denying the setting is stunning. Cheerfully painted buildings in red, peach and yellow hug the harbour, contrasting the crisp white watercraft, sapphire waters and verdant landscape – it’s gorgeous. And the pace is attractive. You can sit at one of the cafes with an Aperol Spritz or a glass of the local sassarini and watch a fancier world go by. Handsome boat crew in nautical stripes, smart chinos and Armani sunglasses casually fiddle about with ropes at the jetty, their olive arms glistening in the sun. I quite enjoyed this view.

I came prepared to pooh-pooh Portofino for all its lavish excesses but was instead seduced by the glamour. Resistance is futile. I couldn’t afford to stay there – I opted for a €0.60 postcard over a Rolex – but it was a fabulous place to wine, dine and while away a couple of hours. A glimpse into how the other half live, or at least how they appear to live.

Monumental beauty

Now, I’m one of those (peculiar) people who appreciates a good cemetery stroll. Let me tell you, the Cimitero Monumentale di Milano is like no cemetery I’d seen before.

The idea to build such a memorial garden first came about in 1837. Yet it was in 1862, after Milan had won independence from Austrian domination, that it started to take shape, influenced by Lombardy architect Carlo Maciachini. The result is spectacular, as the many wandering photographers can attest.

Beyond the grandiose entrance lies a necropolis filled with thousands of displays of artistic craftsmanship. Large, beautiful monuments adorn almost every grave. Maciachini’s work is a fusion of various art influences, reflecting the eclectic taste of the age. There are biblical and celestial figures, Roman gods, war heroes, as well as more personal homages. It’s like a magnificent open air gallery, set amongst lush gardens.

The mausoleums are also highly decorative. I suspect there’s some one-upmanship going on, a bit of ‘keeping up with the Giovannis’, however it’s all within the context of this visually stunning cemetery.

I respect that many will prefer simple, understated gravestones or plaques to remember their dearly departed. But to me these incredible works of art are a wonderful way to celebrate a life. These are lasting tributes for families to revere and revisit.

I’m grateful this hidden gem was recommended to me. In Milan, the style capital of the world, beauty really is all around.