A view from the top: St Peter’s Basilica – Vatican City

Did you know Vatican City is the smallest country in the world? Pretty cool, huh? It’s not just a city in the middle of Italy, it is an actual independent city-state, where it issues its own stamps and passports and everything. So when in Rome… you can’t really pass up an opportunity to go see it for yourself! My favourite part of Vatican City was climbing the dome of St Peter’s Basilica to get some spectacular views over St Peter’s Square and Rome.

view from the top of St Peter's Basilica

Because the Vatican City is a religious site, the dress code must be respected – no shorts, bare shoulders or short skirts. For us visiting in November, this wasn’t a problem as it was pretty chilly. We also found the queues in November perfectly fine, it took us around half an hour to get through security checks. Again, this might be somewhat more lengthy during summer.

There are two ways to climb the dome – climb all the way by foot (551 steps) or go part way in the lift and climb the rest (320 steps). There is a slight price difference, obviously climbing by foot is slightly cheaper.

People standing at the highest point of the climb at the top of the dome (St Peter's Basilica)
People standing at the highest point of the climb at the top of the dome

Pros – The view! The climb is quite an experience but it’s worth it when you reach the top, even just for bragging rights and a quick instagram snap.

Cons – 551 steps is A LONG WAY! My dad didn’t even bother coming up the dome with us as he hates heights but to be honest, I think he might have found the climb too much of a challenge. In addition to the number of steps there are also parts that are very narrow, especially where you’re climbing inside the curve of the dome.

View inside the Basilica from the interior balcony - St Peter's Basilica, Vatican City.
View inside the Basilica from the interior balcony

Surprises – After the initial climb (or where I believe the lift may take you to) you reach the interior balcony where you are still inside the dome and can look down on the people visiting inside St Peter’s. At first we were a bit like, is this it?! But then we realised you can climb a little further to get those spectacular views from outside and over the square. Oh and there’s a cafe and shop on a terrace part way up too.

Verdict – When in Rome… make this a priority.


If you liked this then you might enjoy the view from Campanile di San Marco in Venice or any of my other View from the Top posts.

Alphabet Dating - K is for Kids for the day

Alphabet Dating – K is for Kids for the day

Well we finally got round to our ‘K’ date! We decided to go to London and be kids for the day – something that anyone can do anywhere and is pretty much open to interpretation, in fact I reckon we could be kids for the day for several more dates and still not run out of things to do!

Our date began at the Natural History Museum, somewhere that neither of us have been since we were school children and my husband had told me that he was particularly fond of dinosaurs as a child. The other thing about the Natural History Museum is that its free! Perfect!

I enjoyed the animal exhibitions such as learning about toothless mammals and mammals with pouches. We also got to see some ginormous antlers, as well as a Moeritherium – one of the earliest known relatives to the elephant. And a Kirk’s Dik Dik because I was disappointed I didn’t see them at Chester Zoo (even though this was just a taxidermy one in a glass display).

Moeritherium - relative of the elephant
Moeritherium – relative of the elephant
Kirk's Dik Dik - Natural History Museum
So cute

Of course, I’m not gonna lie, the friggin great big animatronic T-Rex they had in the dinosaur bit was pretty awesome!  Yep dinosaurs in general are pretty amazing when you think about it.

T-Rex at the Natural History Museum in London

After lunch (which should have been a McDonalds Happy Meal but wasn’t because neither of us fancied it) we headed to our next stop – Alice’s Adventures Underground. Now you may remember that I already had a Wonderland experience 2 years ago with some friends, well it’s back and because I banged on about it so much first time around my husband decided he wanted to go. This of course represents a huge part of my childhood as I watched this Disney classic more times than I can tell you.

Alice Underground London

This time I chose the ‘eat me’ route and became a diamond. We met the frog, Cheshire Cat and Humpty Dumpty. We inspected the jam tarts that were being made (I was forced to hold the baby pig… not real, sadly) and we also heard the Mock Turtle sing.

Instead of eating the jams tarts (like I did last time), as a diamond we were spying on one of the other suits who were eating the jam tarts!

The ‘falling down the rabbit hole’ part as well as meeting Tweedledee and Tweedledum, plus the tea party scene, were all the same as last time around. The court scene, however, felt slightly different and I’m pretty certain that the guilty suit who ate the tarts was different to last time around too.

If you haven’t a clue what I am on about (we’re all mad here) then begin at the beginning and read about the last time I fell down the rabbit hole in Alice’s Adventures Underground.

Alice Underground

Play some flamingo croquet

After a brief pitstop in Skinny Dip to buy myself a fabulous new purse, our day of fun ended with freakshakes at Maxwell’s in Covent Garden. We ordered the Salted Caramel Donut Freakshake and the Unicorn Freakshake – you can guess which one mine was. The Unicorn Freakshake looks beautiful but the bubblegum flavour was a bit too much for me and I think I would have enjoyed it more if it had been strawberry flavoured. Ah well!

Freakshakes at Maxwell's in Covent Garden

And there ends our day of being kids, let’s not dwell too much on me accidentally using the men’s toilets at Alice in Wonderland and hubby ordering himself a beer to go with his freakshake haha.

We did want to go to a Lego exhibition and Ballie Ballerson (the ball pit bar) but we were tired and ended up just going home. There are so many possibilities with the ‘Kids for the day’ date idea ranging from spending the day at a theme park (Disneyland please!) to a movie marathon of all your favourite childhood films!

What would be your perfect ‘Kids for the day’ date? If you need some suggestions then why not have a quick read of my 10 ways to embrace your inner child.

Moroccan and Lebanese Cooking Class - Alphabet Dating Idea

Alphabet Dating – M is for Moroccan Cooking Class

Moroccan and Lebanese Cooking Class

Although the blogging has taken a bit of a back seat to other parts of my life right now, hubby and I are still managing to carry on with our Alphabet Dating, even if it is a little haphazard (much like this blog really!).

April was our ‘M’ date which saw us attend a Moroccan cooking class. Ok… well to be honest, it was mostly Lebanese but we had already done our ‘L’ date so I’m calling it Moroccan!

Based in Surrey, our cooking class was held by a lovely Lebanese-born lady named Mona – the founder and owner of Samara Cuisine, a Lebanese and Moroccan catering company. When we arrived at her house, we were greeted with mint tea and delicious spicy smells emanating from the kitchen. We sat at her large dining table and waited for the other guests to arrive. There were 10 of us, plus Mona, and we were to be making four dishes that day.

Samara Cuisine - Moroccan and Lebanese cooking class

The Moroccan and Lebanese cooking class began with Mona showing us how to make Bistilla, which is a Moroccan chicken pie using filo pastry and an assortment of spices.

Bistilla - Moroccan chicken pie
Bistilla – Moroccan chicken pie

We also made muhamara – a pepper and walnut dip not too dissimilar to hummus and batata harrah aka hot potato salad using lots of tasty ingredients such as garlic and paprika. The last dish was called sfouf, a type of cake using semolina.

Muhamara and flatbread
Muhamara and flatbread
Batata Harrah
Batata Harrah

Although the class was mostly demonstration based, we did get involved in laying out the pastry and chopping peppers, and other people were hands on measuring out ingredients.

Of course, at the end of the class we got to eat what we had made and it was delicious! We had some flatbreads to go with the muhamara and we helped ourselves to the batata harrah. The bistilla was amazing and had a sweetness to it where it had been dusted in icing sugar and cinnamon. I think the only dish I probably wouldn’t make again is the sfouf as it was quite thick and I prefer something a little lighter, sweeter and creamier!

Sfouf - Lebanese cake
Sfouf – Lebanese cake

We had a lovely few hours, our fellow chefs were very chatty and friendly, and Mona gave us all a parting gift of some baklava. I would definitely recommend if you’re looking for something a little different!

Our class was the last class of the year due to wedding season etc, but Samara Cuisine’s classes will be back next year. Click here to book your own Moroccan and Lebanese cooking class, or click here for more alphabet dating adventures!

For an alphabet dating idea why not try a cooking class?
Bon Appetit!
Alphabet Dating: L is for Levison Wood

Alphabet Dating – L is for Levison Wood

An evening with Levison Wood

ABCDEFGHIJL… something’s missing?!

Our ‘K’ date should have occurred in February but we went to Costa Rica (which unfortunately begins with a ‘C’ so doesn’t count – I’m not gonna start pulling that Kardashian shit on you) and then March happened along with our ‘L’ date sooooo….. here it is – L is for Levison Wood!

We went to see Mr Wood on his UK tour, giving talks about his various exciting escapades. For those who don’t know who Levison Wood is, he is a British Explorer famous for walking everywhere. But when I say walking, don’t be expecting some gentle National Trust type stroll through the English countryside, oh no, his first television show called Walking the Nile showed him walking the length of the Nile from Rwanda to Egypt, through some quite harsh and dangerous climates.

An evening with Levison Wood

Levison’s second television adventure Walking the Himalayas saw him walking the length of the world’s highest mountain range. While his ‘thing’ is walking everywhere, there was one point on his journey where due to some political unrest of some sort in Nepal, he and some people who were accompanying him on that particular part of the journey ended up having to take a short taxi ride to a nearby village. Ironically, the one time Levison decides to get into a vehicle, it shoots over a cliff and hurtles 150m down a mountain, nearly killing everyone in the car.

Thankfully no one died, although this isn’t the first time tragedy has struck one of Levison’s adventures. During Walking the Nile, he was accompanied at one point of the journey by some journalists. Tragically, an American journalist named Matthew Power died from heatstroke while accompanying Levison in a remote part of Uganda. Reminding us just how dangerous these expeditions can be.

Levison Wood’s most recent adventure saw him Walking the Americas. Starting in Mexico where he met his friend, a Mexican fashion photographer named Alberto, who walked the entire journey with him. And ending triumphantly in Colombia. Me, hubby and my two work friends who also love Lev actually got to meet Alberto on the night. He was incredibly funny and charismatic. I asked him where his favourite place was and he said Nicaragua but Costa Rica was his second favourite. He told me that Nicaragua was alot cheaper than Costa Rica too!

me: * adds Nicaragua to the ever-growing bucket list *

Meeting Alberto from Walking the Americas

We didn’t get to meet Levison himself but we enjoyed listening to him tell his stories, from backpacking along the Silk Road in his youth, to the time he lost his wallet at a theme park and it was returned by post to him from someone in the Army. He wrote back to thank them and then to ask advice on how to get into the army. Because that was how he was going to fulfil his childhood ambition to become an Explorer!

He inspired me by saying that you should take opportunities when you can, because even unpaid jobs can lead to bigger things. For him, this was an unpaid job he took after leaving the army where he delivered a couple of ambulances from London to Malawi for a charity project, which, to cut a long story short, ended up with him landing his first television gig!

At the end of the talk there was a little Q&A session which if you’re curious – his scariest moment was the car crash in Nepal. He was also pretty scared of a situation involving walking into a field where there were landmines in Africa. He wouldn’t tell us where his next adventure was but I know wherever it is, he is there right now as I am writing this. And there is another expedition in the planning for next year which will see Alberto accompany him again. As for Alberto, the thing he missed the most about his everyday life while he was walking the Americas was in actual fact his toilet!!!

See, I told you he was funny 🙂

Now hubby and I are playing a guessing game of where we think Lev might travel to next but I guess we will just have to wait and see!

Walking the... Nile, Himalayas, Americas - what's next?

A girl's guide to volunteering in Costa Rica

A girl’s guide to… volunteering in Costa Rica

Volunteering in Costa Rica

I’ve always had a fascination for the animal kingdom, so being rich in nature and wildlife, Costa Rica has been on my travel wishlist for a while. Costa Rica covers just a tiny proportion of our planet yet is host to 5% of the world’s biodiversity, something that the nation is particularly proud of. And you don’t have to venture too far to see some of its native creatures. Just relaxing by the pool at our hotel in Manuel Antonio we managed to spot lizards, capuchin monkeys and various birdlife, including toucans!

As someone developing a keen interest in all things zoological, I decided that I would like to combine my sightseeing holiday with volunteer work, so spent a week at the Costa Rica Animal Rescue Center, around 20-30 minutes from Juan Santamaria International Airport.

Volunteering in Costa Rica - spending a week at an animal rescue centre was a very rewarding experience.
One of the many murals decorating the walls at the centre

We were picked up by a driver at the airport, along with 3 other jetlagged Brits. We arrived at the centre late afternoon and were shown to our 12 bed dorm. There are around 5 dorms in total and most were almost full, accommodating over 50 volunteers in total – alot more than I was expecting!

We met the owner Bernal and his howler monkey, Feluco. Feluco is an orphan whose mother was killed by a dog. Because he lost his mother at such a young age, his immune system is very weak. He also has a cleft pallet which gives him breathing problems. Feluco would stand no chance of survival out in the wild but luckily he is very well looked after at the centre. We learnt more about the other animals and the centre itself, but I will tell you more about the story of the rescue centre in another post.

An orphaned howler monkey being cared for at a wildlife rescue centre in Costa Rica
Feluco

The next morning we were given a tour of the centre which at the time of our visit is home to an assortment of birds including parrots, owls, a peacock, a curassow and some chickens and ducks. There are also pigs, goats, 3 types of monkey (howler, spider and capuchin), two and three toed sloths, a tortoise, porcupine, marmoset, opossum, hedgehog, squirrels, two kinkajous, an olingo and a couple of pet dogs. There was also a toucan but as it was going to be released back into the wild, only the resident biologist was allowed anywhere near it.

Costa Rica Animal Rescue Center - rescue, rehabilitate and release Costa Rican wildlife.

As volunteers, the only animals besides the toucan that we were not responsible for were the spider monkeys, capuchin monkeys and some of the baby creatures inside the animal hospital.

A baby three-toed sloth being rehabilitated at a wildlife rescue centre in Costa Rica
One of the baby sloths from the hospital with her teddy bear <3

For your first two days volunteering, you must shadow someone and not enter the enclosures, with the exception of the goats and pigs. I must admit being a little wary of Oscar the male goat, but the mama and two baby goats were sweet. I did enjoy going into the pig pen and we were encouraged to go visit the pigs to stop them from getting lonely.

Feeding the resident pigs on a Costa Rican volunteering holiday!
Feeding my piggy pals

A typical day

7am – Breakfast in the common area.

8am – Meeting in the common area – this is to go over any points of discussion and extra duties (one day every single person got involved in shifting a spider monkey cage, for example). Each volunteer is put into one of five teams and then each team has set tasks for the day on a morning and afternoon rota. The rota is repeated every 5 days so everyone has a chance to be involved with different animals and different aspects of the work.

Food preparation at a wildlife rescue centre
Food preparation for the animals – one of the rota tasks

A typical day may go something like this…

AM

  • Clean enclosures and supply fresh food and water for: the goats, the sloths beside the goat enclosure (aka The Goat Sloths), the owls, peacock, curassow and parrots.
  • Collect grass for the goats.
  • Tidy the garden.

The morning shift would usually last until 11am.

A scarlet macaw in Costa Rica
A cheeky scarlet macaw – the parrots were always entertaining the volunteers!

12 noon – Lunch in the common area.

Free time.

1.30pm – Meeting in the common area.

PM

  • Clean enclosures and supply fresh water for the porcupine, hedgehog, squirrels, opossum and teen sloths.
  • Feed the squirrels.
  • Give the porcupine, hedgehog and opossum their snacks at 4pm.
  • Give the teen sloths their branches at 5pm.
  • Feed the porcupine, hedgehog, opossum and teen sloths at 7pm.
Squirrel at a rescue centre in Costa Rica
One of these inquisitive squirrels decided to climb on me and run round my legs!

The afternoon shift would usually last until 4pm. Of course, every day was different as if your team were responsible for some of the nocturnal animals that day, you had a few jobs to do after 4pm, but who’s complaining when you have a kinkajou climbing on your head at the 7pm feed! You aren’t supposed to touch the animals but an excitable kinkajou did decide my head looked like a fun place to climb!

Vet feeding a pair of kinkajou. These animals are nocturnal but required veterinary attention during the day, giving us a rare glimpse of them during daylight hours.
Normally nocturnal, the kinkajou woke up to receive their electrolytes from the vet

6pm – Dinner.

Free time.

10pm – Lights out.

There was a swimming pool and some hammocks for chilling during down time. The living conditions were basic and I didn’t mind the cold showers and sharing a dorm, however the sleeping wasn’t easy due to the various, and quite loud, noises of the local wildlife and vehicles on the nearby road. My body also ached for somewhere comfortable to sit – yeah yeah I’m an old granny alright!

The people at the rescue centre, both staff and volunteers, were really friendly and the work felt very rewarding. As someone who volunteers at a cat rescue centre close to home, it was a great learning experience to be so close to the native animals of a different country, and I could tell that the other volunteers felt the same.

Volunteering in Costa Rica - caring for howler monkeys among other animals.
Chew with your mouth closed! – Me in with the Howler Monkeys

I would like to thank Costa Rica Animal Rescue Center for being the wildlife warriors that they are and for allowing me to play a small part in their story.

And I would urge anyone who wants to make a difference, no matter how small, to get out there and do it!

Pura Vida!


If you would like to help the CRARC you can donate money, supplies or your time by following this link.

Famous for its wildlife, Costa Rica is a great place to spending some time volunteering with animals. This is my personal account of when I spent time at the Costa Rica Animal Rescue Center. Pin for later!