60 Under 30 #7: Slovenia

“Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”

Sounds like something right out of a high school graduation speech to a bunch of teenagers with hopes that still feel like a distant dream. We dream of becoming pilots that fly rockets into space, doctors who cure cancer or famous athletes making millions of dollars to play their favourite sport.

The harsh reality that all but a very small percentage end up facing is that not everyone can save the world, be rich and famous or rocket into space. As we grow up, expectations become tempered and reality sets in. We take a job that pays well because it means security. Dreams become tangible goals such as buying our first house or getting that next raise. Every once in a while you’ll read about someone who quit their “ordinary” job to do something they’ve always dreamed of. To those people, I commend your courage, however, not everyone is wired that way. Some of us are just meant to be “ordinary”.

I promise this wasn’t meant to depress you. There is nothing wrong with ordinary. The wonderful thing about this world and being able to travel across it is that you meet people from all sorts of backgrounds and who possess a wealth of experience. Everywhere you go, you find a whole new definition of what can be seen as “ordinary”.

It’s during these experiences, that every once in a while, you’ll meet someone doing a job that they were clearly meant to be doing. These people take something ordinary and make it exceptional. Everything about the way they talk about their work, carry themselves while doing it and the way they interact with others conveys the feeling that they love what they do.

On this particular trip, I had been travelling through Croatia, Slovenia and on to Austria with my family. The previous stop had been Piran on the Slovenian coast where we had sampled some of the most incredible seafood in the Venetian city and were keen to experience the cuisine of the country’s capital, Ljubljana.

The Vander Restaurant is located alongside the Ljubljanica river. On this particular warm July night, my parents, brother and I found ourselves wandering the streets of Ljubljana after a day visiting Lake Bled. As we walked past the Vander, we noticed it’s lovely patio adjacent to the river and my brother, of course, noticed the delicious sounding steaks on the menu. Done deal. Almost immediately after being sat at a lovely table for four on the patio, we were greeted by the food and beverage manager, Matjaž.

I probably don’t need to tell you that Matjaž is the type of person I’ve been talking about all the way along. From the moment he greeted us he and his team turned an ordinary dinner into something exceptional. Not only was the food delicious but he took the time to ask about our tastes, making excellent recommendations that complemented the meal. Local beer and wine, an Irish whiskey that we still remember to this day, in fact, I have a bottle of the Irish whiskey sitting on my shelf in London.

 

The Meal

Of course, no dinner can truly be complete without food to match the experience and in this regard, there was certainly nothing to disappoint. Our appetizer (a recommendation, of course) was salmon marinated in rum with horseradish and red pepper oil. I honestly struggle to describe it other than an excellent way to start a meal. Guess you’ll just have to try it for yourselves. Make sure you ask for a local beer to taste as well.

For our main courses, my brother, father and I each had the Australian ribeye, while my mother tried the roast chicken fillets. Each was paired with deliciously recommended wines and cooked to perfection. Sometimes comfort foods just can’t be beaten.

We were on holiday so naturally we couldn’t possibly skip dessert, however, we did need to share as we were starting to feel our waistbands getting tighter. If you can only pick one thing, do yourself the favour of their signature Pavlova, and ask for some extra macaroons if you want an extra little treat.

Just writing this made me hungry…

Now I’ve worked in a restaurant before. For several years in high school and university, I spent my summers working at a high-end restaurant in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. I can say wholeheartedly and with a lot of experience that it is a tough job. High stress, on your feet all day running between kitchens, bars, dining rooms and patios often without a break for yourself. I’ve often said that everyone should be made to wait tables at least once in their lives and that you can learn an awful lot about a person based on how they speak to a server. Some people can be absolutely horrible to servers and often for things entirely out of their control. With all this said, I find it even more amazing when I come across someone in the food and beverage industry who is able to turn the ordinary into the exceptional.

So thank you, Vander Restaurant, Matjaž and your team, for giving my family an experience to remember by loving what you do.

60 Under 30 #6: England

On May 26th, 1959 the “Empress of England” arrived at the port of Liverpool after travelling across the Atlantic from Montreal. Aboard the ship was my twenty-three year old grandfather James Elliott and his mother Ivy Jordan, travelling to England to visit a family friend living in Folkestone on the south coast for a three and a half week holiday. It was during this trip at a small local pub called the Earl of Clarendon that he would meet his eventual wife and my grandmother, Lois.

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Ship log for the Empress of England

The town my grandmother grew up in is a small part of the city of Folkestone known as Sandgate which lies on the south-eastern English coast roughly fifteen miles west of Dover. The year after my grandmother was born, World War II began, which initially resulted in Folkestone being the evacuation destination of thousands of children escaping London, and as the war progressed many of the evacuees and residents were pushed farther west to Wales in an effort to escape the German bombing runs.

My grandmother grew up during the war as a small child, and eventually when the war ended, grew up through the re-build of the town and moved to London. It would be another 20 years following the war before Folkestone would return to the resort town it once was. Examples of the 1950s and 60s era re-build can still be seen along the beach especially towards Sandgate as you walk west. It was during one of her many visits home from the city to see her mother that she would meet my grandfather.

Since I moved to England a year and a half ago, and with my grandmother’s heritage being the reason I was able to live in the UK (I was granted an Ancestry visa given that I have a grandparent born in the United Kingdom), I felt determined to explore the area she was from, where she met my grandfather and where so many important events that eventually led to my existence occurred.

Having decided to make a proper journey of it, my housemate and I set off on a hike along the white cliffs from Dover to Folkestone. After an hour train ride from King’s Cross and a coffee shop barista who looked at us like we were insane when we said what our plan was for the day, we set off.

About half an hour in, we realized that we should have asked the barista why she looked at us why were insane. It turns out that, although possible, when hiking from Dover to Folkestone there isn’t exactly what you would call a defined path. Our initial idea was to follow the coast, however given that the cliffs don’t always include a beach or flat surface at the bottom, that dream was quickly crushed amongst the waves smashing into the cliff faces below. After a brief attempt at following Plan B (also known as foolishly walking along the main road that turned into a major motorway), climbing over what turned out to be not one, but two barbed wire fences and desperately hoping the road we found ourselves on was not some sort of military rifle range, we found what resembled a hiking trail. We got to the top of the hill and was greeted with a spectacular view of the sea, Folkestone in the distance and the cliffs along the way. Screw you Plan A and B, we like Plan C better anyways.

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Our final destination off in the distance

We trekked on, enjoying the view along the water, the railway below and waving to the sheep in the pasture as we passed. Ten kilometres in, we reached the outskirts of Folkestone and were feeling pretty good about ourselves. Thoughts of a cold pint, maybe a nice pie and mash carried us the final bit into the city centre where we sat for a quick drink while I looked up the location of the pub.

Now I have greatly underestimated several things before in my life. I foolishly did not listen to people who said just how hard an engineering degree actually would be. I moved to a new country without knowing anyone and somehow was still surprised at the effort required to start a new life. Neither of these come close to comparing to how badly I misjudged just how far it was exactly from the Dover train station to my grandmother’s house in Sandgate. I’ll just Google Maps from Dover to Folkestone I said. It’s England, that’ll be close enough I said. Ryan you are fucking idiot, I said.

I’m pretty sure that the look of horror on my face made my housemate think someone had died. I am normally great at planning things, I know how far I need to go to get from the airport to my hostel, where the main area of the city is and any day trips I’d like to do. Apparently I lose this ability when exploring my own country. I made sure to buy another round of drinks before breaking the news that sadly, we were about halfway there as the pub was located on the far west edge of Sandgate, completely on the opposite end of the city. Ryan, you fucking idiot indeed.

We’d come this far, so there was no turning back. Nicely enough it turns out that the entire waterfront in Folkestone was developed into a lovely garden park that transitioned eventually into the stone beaches of Sandgate I mentioned previously. Ellen DeGeneres’ “just keep swimming”, “just keep swimming” echoed in our heads as we marched on, through the greenery and across the pebbles. After what seemed an eternity later, we reached the corner, then the street and finally the pub. 10 minutes after they finished serving food. Ryan, you fucking idiot.

Hunger aside, it was sobering to be in the place that decades previously so much of my family history began. I owe my entire existence as the person I am to the chance of fate that two people met in that pub all those years ago. As I stood in awe of a seemingly ordinary pub, on an ordinary English street next to an ordinary house that my grandmother lived in as a child whilst German fighter planes flew overhead, even taking shots at her on some occasions, the other pub patrons couldn’t help but ask why the place seemed like a Holy Grail to me. After a brief chat, several of them mentioned that the owner of the pub at the time my grandmother lived there had passed away in 1990, only two months after my parents had visited the pub during their trip to England. After possibly the most glorious pint of our lives, and assuring that although we were likely not the brightest individuals that day we would not be walking all the way back to Dover, we made our way home.

Twenty-two kilometres, a March sunburn and blisters, cuts and bruises all over, somehow it all seemed worth it as we walked the distance back to the Folkestone train station and headed back to London. It’s a remarkable thing to be able to explore a foreign country and find your own history along the way.

As I arrived back at my flat in Brixton in South London, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps someday a distant relative of mine could walk down my very street, to find a seemingly ordinary flat amongst hundreds knowing that part of their history was written there and that they too, owed it all to a chance of fate that two people, decades ago, met in a tiny pub in Folkestone.

 

 

60 under 30 #5: Portugal

Off the beaten path.

It doesn’t mean necessarily to go where no one has gone before – not everyone can be Captain Kirk – but to go where most people don’t. Sometimes it means going where the locals are and sometimes it just means skipping the tourist attractions in search of something a bit more authentic.

If you key in the word “travel” on Google you will end up with an endless result of “Top 50 beaches to visit” or “Can’t miss sites to visit in Berlin” and more city and country guides then you could imagine. These guides inevitably feed into the open top bus driven, audio guided, fanny pack wearing tourism industry that generates an absolutely whopping 9.8% of the world’s GDP which equates to roughly 1 in 11 jobs worldwide.

Going off the beaten path is, by its very definition, among the minority. While 9.3 million people are lining up for the Louvre annually, there are a small percentage of travellers out there who are intent on finding something more. As you can imagine, as previously unexplored areas get discovered, slowly but surely the tourists move in. Many travellers will tell you that In many cases this has proven that to go off the beaten path is something that has to be earned, it is no longer as simple as walking a few miles down the beach to the lesser inhabited stretches. If it is that easy, you can assume it has been done before.

But what if it that isn’t necessarily true? What if it was possible to explore the same areas as the tourists but find hidden gems among the signs advertising “authentic” local cuisine and expensive day trips. Every city has locals that have their favourite restaurants, bars and ways to spend their days not at work. I grew up fifteen minutes from Niagara Falls, one of the biggest tourist attractions in Canada, and I can tell you I was not spending my weekends eating at T.G.I.Friday’s on Clifton Hill.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the best way to find out where the local hotspots are is from a local. What does take some creativity is figuring out how to find a local that can show you. Enter these guys. We Hate Tourism Tours are an outfit of locals in Lisbon founded on the very idea of an off the beaten path experience. They offer a variety of tours ranging from having one of their guides actually cook you an authentic Portuguese lunch in their home to customized tours of Lisbon and the surrounding area catered to suit.

The first time I visited Lisbon a year ago, I missed out on getting to check out the world famous surf of the Atlantic coast so this time around I was determined to test out my skills on the waves. The tour we (we being myself and two friends from back home Chloe and Marty) decided to check out after Marty found the company online was the Lisbon Surf Experience. We liked what we read about the philosophy of the company and after a few e-mails back and forth we were all booked.

The tour met early in Rossio Square in the heart of Lisbon, and having done several organized tours previously I was pleasantly surprised to find that out tour group would consist of only ourselves and two others plus our guide. Pedro, a local from across the bay in Caparica where our tour would be headed turned up and immediately we knew we were in for a good day.  Piling into the van, the obvious culture of the company became evident. The back ofthe driver’s seat had printed on it “The driver sucks but this van is cool”. Right from the get go we got a sense that not only was the company true to it’s idea but it was easy to tell that Pedro truly enjoyed showing us his city.

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“The driver sucks but this van is cool”

Most surf lessons out of Lisbon take you north of the city to Cascais, a well known tourist area and full of surf schools. Our day however was to begin to the south of Lisbon just outside the beach town of Caparica. Anyone who has visited the Iberian peninsula can attest to the fact that the locals are not typically early risers. This was made abundantly clear as we rolled up in our van to the beach around 9:00 to find it completely deserted with the exception of the locals running the surf school we would be participating in. Our experience was all the more authentic as our lesson was occasionally required to be translated from Portuguese to English by Pedro if our instructors words and charades-esque demonstrations didn’t quite get the point across.

In no time at all we were in the salty Atlantic getting battered by the ocean as we learned the hard way what a breaking wave does to an unattended surfboard. Eventually we pushed past the break and out into the swells where we were afforded a break from the struggling and allowed to relax for a short while. Now the true test came. The three-step motion from flat on your stomach to standing and riding a wave seemed so easy on land, yet somehow when you are attempting the same feat on a crashing wave one’s brain has a tendency to revert into state akin to a deer in the headlights. After a few attempts each, all three of us managed to ride at least one not-so-spectacular wave nearly all the way in without falling off. Considering this a success, the time called for a cold beer.

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Our “we caught at least one wave” surfer pose

It was at this point that the true benefit of a tour such as ours was made abundantly clear. Pedro had taken the time to get to know us a bit and instead of a set itinerary, he was able to suggest a few options for the afternoon. Perhaps it was the vast amount of salt water we had ingested, but food was very much a priority. It was decided that we would venture back into the town of Caparica to dine at a local favourite called A Merendeira. The restaurant serves up a delightful special of stone over baked bread filled with chorizo alongside a local soup of the name Caldo Verde. I can’t say I’ve ever had a Portuguese meal that I didn’t like but this one was especially delicious.

The afternoon consisted of a drive down the beach road to a small fisherman’s village where we explored the small side streets that zigzagged in among the houses and enjoyed a glass of the famous Portuguese “vinho verde” graciously provided by our guide as we lounged on a beach on the edge of town. With the exception of a few locals, we had the beach almost entirely to ourselves. Here we were on one of the nicest beaches we had ever set foot on, with not another tourist in sight. In those moments, it is impossible to feel anything but relaxed and I must say I had one of the most serene naps of my life. 

The last stop of the day was a personal favourite. No matter where I visit I feel the need to find a high point to get a proper view of the area I am exploring. Pedro did not disappoint as our van turned a corner and suddenly we were on top of the world. Here we were, truly off the beaten path as we had a view that most tourists would kill for, all to ourselves. After a half hour to revel in the beautiful sight before us and reflect on what a great day was had experiencing the area as only a local could, we loaded back up into the van one last time and headed back to Lisbon. Along the way Pedro provided numerous recommendations for places to eat, bars to visit and lesser known sights to see. Although I ran out of time on this visit, I made sure to note each one, knowing I would be back to check them out. 

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Panoramic view of Caparica from the last stop of the tour

Portugal is a country that I have fallen in love with, and I would recommend a visit to any person travelling through Europe. The people are some of the friendliest in the world, the food is to die for and from the beaches of the Algarve, to the surf of the Atlantic coast and all the way up to the wine country surrounding Porto, there is something for anyone and everyone. But once you’ve tried a pasteis de nata, sipped a bit of port wine and danced the night away in Bairro Alto, put down the guide book and take a step off the beaten path.

You won’t be disappointed.