York: People and a pastry

My last day in York dawned bright and blue-skied, a welcome sight after my wet Wednesday, so I was up, checked out and ready for a cruise on the Ouse (pronounced ‘ooz’ peeps – just to explain my rhyming turn of phrase) only to find that all trips for that day had been cancelled…due to flooding.

Hmmmm…

So I wandered around the Yorkshire Museum Gardens for half an hour – to make the most of the sunshine (in case it disappeared)…

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…before deciding to head into the Museum itself.

The Yorkshire Museum turned out to be my favourite thing-to-do of the trip – and that’s in a trip full of great things to do. I loved walking through the early years of York – or Eboracum as it was originally known – reading about its people and each era’s way of life. I walked in the steps of the Romans then uncovered some Viking and Anglo-Saxon treasures…

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….before meandering to the Normans (from 1066) and into the reign of King Richard III (during the late 1400s). There was so much to pore over and read about as I wound my way through all of these exhibits. It was fabulous.

And that wasn’t all. The museum had a fascinating exhibit on Extinction. Did you know that 99% of all species that have ever lived are extinct? The exhibit began with an overview of the Five Mass Extinctions and how they happened. What followed was a range of cases displaying fossils from each period which brought each extinction chapter to life – here are just a few:

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The story ended with a showcase of the conservation efforts aimed at some currently endangered species as well as examples of where re-introducing species had not worked. It all led to the final question of the exhibit: ‘Should we just let nature take its course?’. It was a thought-provoking note to end on.

After a bite to eat, I decided on a slightly more modern turn for the afternoon and headed over to Treasurer’s House. The property is tucked away behind York Minster and was donated to the National Trust by Frank Green in 1930. Green was the son of a wealthy industrialist and although he did not always restore faithfully ‘to the period’, the house is a testament to his passion for architecture and antiques. It was also the Trust’s first fully furnished property.

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I spent a pleasant hour or so admiring and reading about each of the rooms and the house’s grand visitors which included King James I and the future King Edward VII.

I also enjoyed learning about Frank Green’s vision for the property. His vision was incredibly specific, so much so that his gift to the Trust came with a condition – that the house would always be displayed as he’d left it. One example: While he had lived in the house, he’d had studs placed in the floor to ensure that the furniture was always positioned exactly where he wanted it.

This practice is still adhered to more than a century later.

This might seem to be – okay it is – the legacy of a control freak but what I ended up seeing was his home exactly as he lived in it and not some version that had been tinkered with over time. It poses a number of interesting questions about the restoration of historic properties and how far this should go before they move away from being ‘original’.

I had a couple of hours before my train back to London and I could think of nothing I wanted more than a return visit to Betty’s Tearooms. I lingered leisurely over some home-made soup and then all but inhaled the most heavenly vanilla slice I have ever eaten. Seriously peeps, I do not have enough words to express just how delicious it was. Needless to say it was my favourite thing-to-eat for my entire stay.

Then it was back to the hotel to collect my bag before trundling back across Lendal Bridge to the train station.

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A sunset-kissed farewell from York while standing on Lendal Bridge

So that ends my marvellous minibreak in York. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. I’d especially love it if this series of posts has inspired you to go and discover its treasures for yourself. Please let me know if you do…

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My four York posts:

Photo tour: A walk in York

York: The tower, tour and tearooms

York: Amus-(eum)-ing myself

York: People and a pastry

York: Amus-(eum)-ing myself

Let’s begin by establishing that my second full day in York was a wet one. The skies grizzled ominously and gushed forth in turn so it was just as well there were plenty of indoor activities to keep me amused.

After a bracing walk along the river, I spent the morning at the York Castle Museum. Located just by Clifford’s Tower, it’s comprised of two buildings – the old Female Prison to the left and the old Debtors Prison to the right – with a gift shop (there’s always a gift shop) and cafe in between. The museum weaves an eclectic route through York society and culture during the 1800s-1900s and all it takes is a tenner to get amongst it.

I began with the Female Prison Building – containing exhibitions covering the changing nature of homes and living – and a nod to one of York’s great pillars of commerce, chocolate.

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The Rowntree’s company in York invented the Kit Kat and the Terry’s Chocolate…Apple?

I wandered through the toys exhibit…

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…passed a number of rooms set up to show life in York’s different social circles…

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A single room cottage – cosy!

…and ended by meandering around the museum’s indoor streetscape, Kirkgate.

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There was also an exhibit called Shaping The Body covering the history of body shape and size, the advent of fashion and food trends as well as an overview of various exercise fads over the last 400 years. I had a little chuckle at the irony of this given York’s chocolate connection!

Next I headed across to the Debtors Prison Building for the exhibition on The Great War (World War I). If you like war history this would be right up your street. I spent 45 minutes or so wandering through but to be honest, I struggled to stay interested.

I also visited the old prison cells in this building and learned about some of the people incarcerated there – you can actually stand in the cell where highwayman Dick Turpin was held before his execution and hear ‘him’ speak.

As I was heading out to the museum exit, I saw a sign pointing to a ’60s exhibition. A peek outside confirmed that it was still raining buckets so I dashed across to the annex and enjoyed a brush with a replica lunar module, pondered fashion and homewares from the decade and listened to a blast from the past – the theme tune from Doctor Who.

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At this point more than three hours had passed and I was well and truly ready for lunch. Brolly up, I emerged into the downpour and headed over to Castlegate for a pleasant (and dry) spell at Source.

With the rain looking like it was going nowhere fast, I decided to spend the afternoon at the National Railway Museum. This is free and contains an extraordinary number of trains and related exhibits. I am no trainspotter and I still managed to spend just under three hours here…

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I especially liked the display on the warehouse mezzanine floor which showed all of the technologies used to manage the rail network. Of particular interest was the signalling system – anyone who uses the tube and train network in the UK is familiar with ‘signal failure’ being a cause of disruption in their journey. But for the life of me, I could not work out how to read the computer screen showing the real-time ‘ins and outs’ of York Station. Best I stick to my day job.

The damp squib continued outside and the thought of a pint of something somewhere warm was growing in appeal. While strolling down Stonegate a couple of days earlier, I’d come across a sign pointing to an intriguing alleyway so that was where I headed – to Ye Olde Starre Inne, one of York’s oldest (and supposedly haunted) pubs…

It was here that, as I relaxed by the open fire and sipped my pint, I read the news about the Westminster terror attack. Feeling thankful that I was well away from it all (and that I could reassure family and friends I was safe), I was taken back five months when that very place had been part of my daily commute. I shed a few shocked tears at the horror of it all yet tucked safely in a warm and cosy corner of an historic city that had survived so much, it felt like I was in the perfect place to reflect.

And as I fell into an(other) exhausted sleep that night, I thought about the importance of living life to the fullest and being present to life’s many joys every day.

Then Thursday dawned, crisp and sunny…

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My four York posts:

Photo tour: A walk in York

York: The tower, tour and tearooms

York: Amus-(eum)-ing myself

York: People and a pastry

York: The tower, tour and tearooms

As a history buff and fan of the city break, a visit to York has been on my to-do list for quite some time (okay, since I moved here thirteen years ago). So in March, I finally got my act together, booked a bed and a spot of breakfast for a few days and hopped on a train for the two hour journey north.

I had three days to spend and a list of things I wanted to do. The weather managed to mix it up too – bursts of sunshine book-ended drizzle, rain and even a flurry of snow. But it was blue skies that beckoned as I got off the train, bouncing off bobbing yellow daffodils and brushing the distant Minster tower with soft light. So I checked into my hotel (Marmadukes Town House Hotel), dumped my stuff and headed out to explore.

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I spent the last few hours of daylight wandering through the walled city’s cobbled streets and when the light finally faded, I found a cosy spot at the Lamb and Lion Inn (right under the old City Gate, Bootham Bar) to prepare my plan of attack over a quiet pint of something local.

It was a full three days – a wonderful mix of history, curiosities, architecture and breathtaking views – and I have so much to share with you. So I’ve split my York warblings into three Armchair Tours to cover the things I loved about each day.

Here’s Part One…enjoy!

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Photo tour: A walk in York

I went to York for three days in March. It’s a city that’s absolutely chock full of history – which I love – and is wonderfully walk-able – which I also love. Quite frankly, I’m astounded that it’s taken me thirteen years to get there.

True to form, the English weather prevaricated between gloriously crisp blue-sky days and a grey drizzle that bordered on menacingly unfriendly from time to time.  Needless to say there were lots of layers-off-layers-on moments as I adjusted to these changes. But that did not stop me doing loads of great stuff and taking oodles of photos.

To whet your appetite for the posts to come, I thought I’d share some of the pics that take me back and even now, take my breath away. Enjoy!

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A question of culture: Assimilate or die?

This week I attended a evening of talks at China Exchange, a charity based in London’s Chinatown whose mission it is to create ways of exploring Chinese culture and China’s influence on the world. I fell across them late last year in attending a provocative discussion between Sir David Tang and Mr & Mrs Smith CEO James Lohan and have been keen to attend something else ever since.

This one-night-only event featured five speakers who had eight minutes each on their allotted subject followed by questions from the audience. They covered a range of topics from Chinese medicine (and what is it really?), Hinkley Point C and the role of Chinese investment, feminism in China and the opportunity that Chinese tourists represent for the British economy.

I know very little about China and Chinese culture. During an emerging market project about 18 months ago, I was surprised by the level of Chinese investment in large infrastructure projects in Africa and I’ve only had limited exposure to ‘Chinese’ medicine. Needless to say I found it an educational and thought-provoking evening.

But the eight minutes that really left me thinking were delivered by Dr Victor Fan, a Senior Lecturer at King’s College. His topic was ‘white washing’ in the entertainment industry i.e. non-Asian people playing Asian roles. It was every bit as interesting as the others but it was when he spoke about his experience of getting a visa to live and work in Quebec, Canada – one that specified that he would speak French and adopt local practices – that something struck a chord.

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When a foodie goes to Melbourne: By night

I spent two and a half weeks in Melbourne (the one in Australia not Florida – just to be clear) over the Christmas-New Year period visiting family and catching up with a few friends. It was hot – much hotter than I’m used to even in the warmer parts of Europe – but that did not stop me from doing loads and eating even more.

Last time I tap-tap-tapped away about the high points of our daytime eating adventures and promised to follow up with the same for our culinary exploits after dark. So here it is, post number two.

Fat Bob’s Bar & Grill – Moorabbin

For at least three years, my loved ones have been Facebook posting about Fat Bob’s and when I arrived for a visit two years ago, I was sadly informed that Fat Bob’s was closed until the day after I was due to fly back to the UK. This time Lil Chicky was on the case – Fat Bob’s would be closed from Christmas Eve so nine hours after I got off the plane on December 23rd, we were scoffing amazing burgers, more-ish fries and some super scrumptious fried apple dumplings.

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Tucked away in an industrial estate in Moorabbin, once you walk through the gate there are vintage signs everywhere you look.

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There’s a good range of craft brews and ciders to pair with your burger. My White Rabbit Dark Ale was smooth and easy (too easy?) to drink and my Victa burger – a crumbed chicken fillet with Asian slaw, Japanese mayo and BBQ sauce – was completely scoff-worthy

It’s a fabulously unpretentious place and was definitely worth the wait. The food was served in plastic baskets with the burgers wrapped in foil (helps to stop the drips as you hoe in) and cutlery was kind of optional frowned upon. If you love a dirty burger and a retro approach to decorating, get yourself to Fat Bob’s…and leave your tiara at home.

Mexico City – Bentleigh

The original Mexico City restaurant opened in 2011 around the corner from where I used to live in Elsternwick but I’ve been away since 2004 so when Lil Chicky told me that there was a new one in Bentleigh, it seemed the perfect place to stop for a pre-cinema dinner. It’s quite a small place and as we were only two people and didn’t have a booking, we had a choice of sitting at the bar or at the window. We chose the latter and ordered a couple of Moscow Mules to sip with our complimentary corn chips and salsa before our meals arrived. I loved my vegetarian burrito and Lil Chicky enjoyed her Mexican trio. But be warned – the portions are huge so if you want to have more than one course, I’d suggest sharing.

Favorite Noodle & Dumpling Restaurant – Moorabbin

This is a family-run business right across the highway from Moorabbin train station. It’s a large restaurant with an extensive menu of dumplings and Chinese stir fries. Mum, Licensed-To-Grill and Lil Chicky all raved about the dumplings so that was what I chose. They were soft and melt-in-the-mouth delicious – definitely the best I’ve had. I’d been eating elsewhere in the day so couldn’t fit anything else in but again I was gobsmacked by how big everyone else’s portions were.

It got really busy while we were there and the service, while still friendly, did suffer a bit as a result. There was also a little lost in translation moment when pea-hater Lil Chicky asked whether there were peas in the fried rice. (We were absolutely assured there were no peas, just beans, only for Lil Chicky to be faced with picking out all the peas when it did arrive.)  But it’s cheap and cheerful and if I lived there, I’d probably be doing a dumpling run at least once a week.

Bad Frankie – Fitzroy

I was reading one of the daily newspapers at Lil Chicky’s in turns marvelling at how clueless I am about Australian celebrities nowadays and checking out all of the things-to-do recommendations. It was the word ‘jaffles’ that caught my eye – these were the mainstay of many a Sunday night dinner growing up and were crammed full of things like baked beans, ham, tuna, tomato and savoury mince but always with loads of gooey melted cheese. I managed to convince some friends to have a jaffle-themed catch-up…and what a catch-up it was!

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Top row: Look out for the sign when you turn off Smith Street into Greeve Street; Quirky decor  Bottom row: Retro cocktail glassware; the traditional ham and cheese jaffle with a side of tomato chutney; the infamous lamington jaffle – there are no words – you’ve got to experience it for yourself!

Bad Frankie specialises in Australian spirits and the drinks list is pages and pages long (who knew we Aussies were so prolific outside wine and a bit of boutique beer) so we went with cocktails served in the types of glassware you might find at the back of your Mum’s kitchen cupboard. We chose a range of savoury jaffles to begin with – which were yum – then tackled the lamington jaffle. Chocolate sponge filled with jam and rolled in coconut was served warm from the jaffle maker with cream on the side – it was scrumptious and VERY rich, making us all glad we had decided to share. The others also tried the ANZAC Bikkie jaffle (brioche toasted with rolled oats and golden syrup) which they reported tasted faithfully of its namesake.

To my mind Bad Frankie was an absolute find. The decor is quirky and cosy and everything is very laid-back. We’d been in the City in the afternoon and the promise of jaffles and boozing did take us out of our way but it was a chilled and convivial evening with an easy tram ride at either end. Just go!

Okami – Hampton Street

Okami is a chain of five Japanese restaurants across Melbourne and on my last night, we decided to tackle the All-You-Can-Eat offer at the Hampton Street branch. You get a two-hour sitting, a menu and then you just keep ordering dishes until you can’t eat any more. We shared many great dishes but stand outs for me were the Chicken Karaage and the Teriyaki Chicken Skewer. We also tried the Octopus Ball – which turned out to be balls of octopus meat versus something akin to a Bush Tucker Trial – better served with soy sauce than the mayonnaise they came with I thought.

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Domo arigato for a job well done! 

We managed to find a small space at the end for some cold vanilla ice-cream (it was 38C that day – that’s really hot!) and pretty much rolled out the door. And all of this for less than $30 (approx. £18) each.

And that peeps ends the culinary tour. The next day I boarded a plane for the long trek home with an underweight suitcase (believe me, it took careful packing to manage this with the amount of shopping I did). However I cannot say the same for yours truly and I must admit to my comfy travelling trousers feeling slightly snugger than when I arrived two and half weeks earlier. But what are holidays for, I ask you?

I hope this has whet the appetite of those of you  living in or travelling to Melbourne…if you are a glutton for punishment and want more or missed the partner post on daytime eating in my hometown, you’ll find it here so in the words of my childhood dinners…

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Dig in. Don’t wait!

 

When a foodie goes to Melbourne: By day

I spent two and a half weeks over Christmas and New Year in Melbourne. It is my hometown – not the place I was born but rather the place that I endured the pangs of teenage angst, the excitement of leaving home and the hopeful anticipation of beginning my career – in essence my transition to adulthood (although some my argue that this happened much later). In any case, it’s a city that holds a huge piece of my expat heart hostage and as Mum and Lil Chicky still live there, it has become something of a habit to make a bi-annual pilgrimage Down Under.

We shopped and hung out and laughed and did a whole lot of stuff while I was there – more of which I’ll post about soon – but mostly we ate. As with most holiday ‘diets’, calories became a distant memory and it was not uncommon for us to be tucking in to some meal somewhere and be talking about where we should have the next one!

As a result I’ve clocked up quite a few great recommendations if you happen to be in Melbourne around the City or down towards the bayside suburbs of Brighton, Mentone, Hampton and Parkdale. There are too many for one post so they will come to you in two parts – by day and by night.

Here’s where I suggest you spend your days.

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Breakfast/Brunch – for a cracking start to your day, I really liked these three:

Urchin Bar – Hampton

Ostensibly this is a Turkish restaurant and bar but serves a great breakfast and we lingered here for a couple of hours catching up over fresh juice, delicious food and great coffee. The service was friendly and laid back and whilst they were attentive, at no stage did we feel rushed by the staff. Don’t let the average website put you off and if you go, make sure you walk through the bar and snag a table in the covered courtyard out the back.

The Groove Train – Brighton

This is one of my regulars when I visit and is a particular fave for breakfast. It’s located in upmarket Church Street and when we were there, the glass doors were concertina-ed aside, opening the whole place out onto the street. I have never had a bad coffee here and my breakfast burrito wrap was chock full of scrumptious stuff. Lil Chicky’s smashed avocado concoction looked pretty amazing as well.

Parkdale Beach Cafe & Kiosk – Parkdale

If you want food with a view, then this place is for you. Perched on the cliff top overlooking Port Phillip Bay, this cafe serves great coffee and a small but excellent selection of food to both tables inside and at loungers outside under the shade of the umbrellas. Mum and I happened to coincide our visit with a Greek Orthodox New Year celebration which moved from the boardwalk that runs along the beach up to the BBQ area next to the cafe. So we decided to enjoy our warm banana bread with fresh berries and mascarpone cream from a inside table with an excellent position by the window…

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Window seats –  the view from our table

This place gets busy but there’s something so unbelievably magnificent about the location that for me, the hustle to get a seat/table is worth it.

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Lunch/Coffee and a little something – as the day goes on, you’ll need to keep your strength up so try these three:

Larsen & Co – Hampton

This calm Scandi oasis is tucked into the lane that leads from Hampton Street through to the station car park and features clean Scandinavian decor inside and 3-4 shaded wooden tables outside. The menu is not extensive but the quality was excellent – I had an amazing superfood salad while Lil Chicky enjoyed her fried calamari with orange, baby fennel, feta and mint. The portions were big – so great value for money – and the service was friendly and efficient (after all we had a train to catch). It’s worth mentioning the excellent toilet facilities here too.

Brunetti – City Square

The original Brunetti opened in Carlton in 1985 and has since expanded to include this outdoor cafe that commandeers the south end of Melbourne’s City Square on Swanston Street. The biggest problem you’ll have is choosing which of the myriad cakes and slices to have. To complicate matters even further, you can also get yourself a little tub of fresh gelati…

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Left: My delicious hazelnut and coffee slice  Right: Ice-cream anyone?

There’s plenty of seating – although not all of it is under cover – and the bird life can get a bit cheeky with any leftovers but if you clean your plate (as well you should), watching the hierarchy of sparrows, pigeons and a seagull or two oust each other for the crumbs can be quite entertaining. Of course Brunetti’s Italian heritage means the coffee is outstanding.

Hopetoun Tea Rooms  – Block Arcade, City Centre

Melbourne’s arcades are something of an institution and the elegant Block Arcade, running between Collins and Little Collins Street, is no exception. Built in the 1890s, it features some of Melbourne’s most delightful retailers and none more delightful than the Hopetoun Tea Rooms. I was told that the line to get a table is usually out the door, down the arcade and around the corner into the street but we found ourselves here at 10am on a Tuesday morning with only a 10 minute wait ahead of us – so plenty of time to window shop…

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Clockwise from top left: Window shopping of the best kind; the mirror dating from 1892; red velvet cake; chocolate and pecan tart

This place is decorated tastefully ‘of the period’ featuring a mirror from 1892, flocked wallpaper and a display of crystal wares in one of the cabinets. It can seem a little cramped when you come through the door (one-in one-out is the best way to manage the traffic flow here) but once seated there was ample elbow room for us to tuck into our sweet treats. My chocolate and pecan tart was so delicious and I have it on good authority that the red velvet cake and the crepes with fresh berries and cream were every bit as good. This is not a place to linger and chat so go for the experience and the cakes rather than the conversation.

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And then there’s the best-laid plans and all that…

The Local on Como – Parkdale

I am a huge Audrey Hepburn fan and when Mum and Lil Chicky discovered this place, they couldn’t wait to tell me and put it on the ‘visit list’. Unfortunately it was closed for the entire time I was in Melbourne so I had to be satisfied with peering in the window…

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Awesome Audrey mural at The Local on Como (there was also a purple coffee machine!)

…so I cannot tell you anything about the coffee, the ambiance or any of the vittles on offer. But it must be pretty good – Lil Chicky does not do bad coffee. And the mural was worth the walk on a mighty warm Summer day.

That completes my haunts by day. You may like to pause (as we did often) and ready yourself for the next installment – my favourite culinary haunts after the sun went down. They’re coming soon…

Favourite things: Returning home

I’ve been back home in London for a few days now. The weather is about 30 degrees (celsius) cooler than when I left Melbourne on Sunday and while I love the sun and heat, I have been enjoying feeling the brisk air on my face when outdoors followed by that cosy rush of warmth when I venture inside again. The real test will come tomorrow with temperatures forecast to get down below zero overnight and remain that way for the next week. I’m guessing there will be little opportunity to show off my holiday tan.

Speaking of holidays, I am due a post about my month away – an indulgent week in a Thai resort followed by two and a half weeks in Melbourne with family – and there’s a whole lot of stuff milling around inside my head but it’s resisting taking shape right now. But rest assured that something will appear soon…in some form or other.

But right now, I am battling the jet lag and indulging in some cocoon-like time at home enjoying some of my favourite things to do.

Sleeping

I love a good night’s sleep and I haven’t slept through the night since my return. I went to my first yoga session in a month yesterday – which no doubt will hurt quite a bit tomorrow – and then managed about five and a half hours sleeping straight through last night so it’s all going in the right direction. I am trying to be patient with myself / this but I wish it would all just hurry up.

Reading

After an absolute glut of Kindle reading at the end of 2016, I returned home inspired to read some of the stuff that’s been on my bookshelf for a while. At the moment I am really enjoying Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay before I see him interviewed next week.

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Catch-up telly

My mid-December departure meant that I missed the final episode in season two of the sci-fi series Humans – which has had me glued to my TV screen each Sunday night – and the Strictly Come Dancing Grand Final. Both have been addressed and enjoyed with equal fervor. I also saw that the first episodes of two new shows – The Voice and Let It Shine – had aired so have gotten these under my belt too. My particular jury’s out on these but may return with a more positive verdict in the coming weeks.

Cooking

The thing that I’ve loved the most since being back at home is cooking. I ate so many fabulous meals during my trip but after a month, I couldn’t wait to get back in the kitchen and cook for myself. It was with much excitement that I got my grocery order delivered on Tuesday and made a quick trip to my local fruit and veg shop to fill the fridge again.

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I’ve been planning different meals each night and in my pottering in the kitchen, have managed to try some new things as well.

The day that I returned, I was so pleased to find a portion of my vegetable and chilli mince in the freezer and so I stirred that through some spaghetti for one of my favourite comfort meals.

I’ve also baked some beetroot, a tip I picked up from Mum’s partner Mr Licensed-To-Grill who BBQ’ed these scrumptious suckers while I was Down Under. It was lovely with my crumbed chicken breast and steamed greens. And I’ve been mindful of getting my leafy greens quota up again by stir-frying some chard with onion, garlic, ginger and chilli to have with my Thai salmon fishcake last night. Tonight’s plan is a roasted butternut squash and turkey bacon pasta with a cube of my kale and walnut pesto stirred in…and I can’t wait.

The funny thing about all this is that when I left Australia almost thirteen years ago, my family and friends would never have said that I was great in the kitchen. Oh I could whip up a basic tuna pasta but I was a competent compiler of platters and carpet picnics and the fridge was generally used for wine, cheese and little else. But a penchant for pottering about among the pots and pans has definitely snuck up on me and it was with some surprise that I found myself pining for it.

So until I sort the holiday stories into some semblance of interesting reading, I will be sleeping, reading and wielding my spatula with enthusiasm…and wondering at how Julie Andrews’ trilling about bright copper kettles as one of her favourite things became one of mine.

En route to Christmas

I am currently sitting on the couch at my sister’s place in Melbourne. It’s been a hot day and the night is balmy and warm meaning that we have every possible window and door open in an effort to catch the breeze. It’s my bi-annual pilgrimage Down Under for a family Christmas, it’s day number two and with Christmas Day looking like a scorcher, I couldn’t be much further away from the chill of a London winter.

It’s a long way so as is my usual habit, I paused for a week on the way through to soak up some sun, read lots of books and enjoy some amazing food. This time the pause was in Hua Hin in Thailand at the gorgeous Anantara Resort.

I had a room overlooking the pool…

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After a ‘busy’ day poolside, I would spend a couple of hours curled up on this comfortable couch before heading out for dinner.

…and there was a lovely message from Dow, my room housekeeper, on my pillow every evening.

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Speaking of locals, there were elephants everywhere – this cutie was my favourite…

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A welcoming hello at the entrance, just one of the Elephant Parade installation scattered throughout the grounds.

…and Alex, the resident blue and green macaw, was a colourful sight around the resort.

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Apparently Alex is bi-lingual (English and Thai in case you were wondering)

All up nature was at her best whether big and breathtaking…

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View from the beach bar at the Anantara Hua Hin resort…it’s a tough life for some.

…small and delicate…

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There are orchids of all sorts everywhere. I passed this one every day on the way to breakfast.

…or there for just a moment.

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This water lily had blossomed overnight so I got this shot on the way to breakfast in the morning – the flower had drooped by mid afternoon and was gone by the evening.

The food was delicious..

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A traditional Thai appetiser. Take a leaf and add a bit of everything – peanuts, dried shrimp, dried coconut, shallot, garlic, lime, chilli and palm sugar paste. Wrap up the little parcel and pop it in your mouth. Delicious!

…and the cocktails many and varied across the balmy evenings…

…but in the main, I lay by the pool – cooling off with a dip in the water every so often – and read.

I devoured four magazines (two Vanity Fair and one each of Raconteur and The Economist’s 1843) and five books: Emma Donoghue’s absorbing The Wonder, Jeffrey Archer’s sixth in The Clifton Chronicles (Cometh the Hour) and the eighth novel in Bernard Cornwell’s Viking series (The Empty Throne), a light and fluffy Lift and Separate by Marilyn Simon Rothstein and the utterly gripping How I Lost You from Jenny Blackhurst. I was also halfway through Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings when I left.

It was such a blissfully solitary and self-indulgent week. Reading is my favourite thing to do and is exactly what I book the holiday for (as well as a much-needed dose of sun). It also stands me in good stead for the next phase of my trip – a little me-time before the hustle and bustle of Christmas and the inevitable flurry of activity with family and friends.

Which brings me back to where I started – a balmy night in the Melbourne suburbs on the night before Christmas. So before I embark on the various opporunities for festive cheer scheduled in the days ahead, all that remains for me to do is wish you a happy holiday season however and wherever you are spending it.

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

Belem, two hills and a valley

The story so far: Lil Chicky and I managed a six day rendezvous in Lisbon at the beginning of October. We ate, walked, had a day out of town and took squillions of photos – here’s another installment of our adventures.

Having already booked our day trip to Sintra and our Lisbon Eats Walking Tour, we knew we had four days left to explore Lisbon itself. We are both big fans of a Hop-On-Hop-Off bus (hereafter referred to as the HOHO bus) and decided that buying a 48 hour ticket was the perfect way to get our bearings – by the end of our first day, we had managed to combine all of the things we wanted to see into some semblance of a plan.

The valley

The central districts of Lisbon are built across two main hills and the valley that lies between them. If you stand with your back to the River Tagus at Praca do Comercio, the valley lies in front of you and follows a path through Baixa, Rossio, Restauradores and the Avenida da Liberdade.

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L to R: Looking towards the River Tagus through the arch leading onto Praca do Comercio; turn around and head straight to Rossio where in the top left corner, you’ll find the gorgeous Rossio train station; a brisk 20 minute walk up the Avenida da Liberdade from the station will take you to the Pombal roundabout and this view of Praca Dom Eduardo VII.

We spent a fair bit of time here: The HOHO bus routes all start from the Pombal roundabout and stop in Rossio which itself was less than a ten minute walk from our apartment. Several times we found ourselves wandering through the streets of Baixa on our way back to the apartment and after walking for several hours each day, we were pretty grateful for this flat, easy route home.

Rossio is also the location of two of our pasteis de nata haunts – Cafe Nicola and Pastelaria Suica – and the neighbouring Praca de Figueria held a third – Confeitaria Nacional. Combined with Praca de Martim Moniz, with its cluster of food huts and outdoor tables at one end and The Mundial with its fabulous rooftop bar at the other, we had plenty of places to eat, drink and watch the world go by.

The hill on the right

Coming back to the Praca do Comercio, if you look to your right the Castelo de Sao Jorge perches atop the hill…

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This is the view of ‘the valley’ from Castelo de Sao Jorge on the hill to the right. The longer stretch of green running from left to right at the top of the picture is Restauradores and the square is Praca de Martim Moniz – we stayed in an Air BnB apartment in the building where the yellow bus is. It was a great location and fabulous view of the castle from the window every morning.

…with the Alfama district cluttered busily below.

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L to R: Alfama is full of meandering passages and lots of steps; the view from Castelo de Sao Jorge over Alfama – you can just see the 25th of April bridge over the river and the Christo Rei statue on the other side. 

We spent a good couple of hours up at the castle early on the Tuesday morning. The views are absolutely spectacular and you get to see Lisbon from all sorts of angles especially if you climb up and walk around the ramparts.

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Another stunning view from the Castelo de Sao Jorge

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Clockwise L to R: View of Castelo de Sao Jorge from our apartment; entering the fort; the ramparts; the nearby archaeological site; the main entrance to the castle is a short walk up hill from Largos das Portas do Sol.

We spent the rest of that day wandering back down through Alfama, stopping to admire the wares at the Feira da Ladra (The Thieves Market) and to visit the Panteo Nacional at the Church of Santa Engracia.

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The Feira da Ladra: My vintage handbag (bottom right) was a bargain and I managed to squeeze it into my carry-on to get it home. Happy days!

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Clockwise from top left: The dome of the church of Santa Engracia against a bright blue sky; interior view at ground level; another fantastic spot to capture the view; eagle eye view of the interior; a moment to rest in the shade.

The hill on the left

Looking left from the Praca do Comercio you can see Bairro Alto rising up from Chiado with the viewing deck of the Elevador de Santa Justa just visible between the roof tops.

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Santa Justa views: From Baixa at the bottom (left) and of the spot we stood from the viewing deck at the top (right).

Rather than join the queue to go up in the lift from Baixa, we took an alternative – and more circuitous – route to get to the top. We caught the #28 tram from Martim Moniz early Wednesday morning, weaving through the hilly streets around the castle and down through Alfama (much easier on the legs than all of the walking we did the day before). We got off at the Biaxa-Chiado Metro station for breakfast at the nearby Cafe A Brasileira in Rue Garrett before the short walk up the hill to visit the 14th century ruins of Igreja do Carmo.

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Top left: The magnificent entrance to the remains of the old carmelite church that remain standing from the earthquake in 1755. Right: View of the site from the viewing deck of the Santa Justa elevator.

After a couple of hours here we walked straight across to the viewing deck entrance at the top of the Elevador de Santa Justa and took in the stunning views from the other side of the valley.

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Left: Spiral stairs lead up to the viewing platform. Right: Yet another spectacular view across Lisbon to the Castelo de Sao Jorge on the opposite hill.

Then it was a wander through the streets of Bairro Alto before catching the Elevador da Gloria (a funicular running between Restauradores and Bairro Alto) back down to the valley again.

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Scenes from our wanders through Bairro Alto and the funicular that transported us down the hill again.

We had been told that the time to really see Bairro Alto come to life is at night but it was pleasant to walk through the streets in the sunshine and take our time. We ended up at an outdoor cafe on Miradour de San Pedro de Alcantara eating, drinking and listening to a bit of Marvin Gaye under the trees.

Belem

And finally we went a little further afield and took the HOHO bus out to Belem. There’s plenty to see and do including…

…the Monument to the Discoveries – covered with scaffolding…

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…and the Torre de Belem, where the queue was so long, we didn’t go in.

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Thankfully we had better luck at the Jeronimos Monastery

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…where we spent a glorious couple of hours wandering through the cloisters, the refectory and the church where the tomb of Vasco da Gama lies. We took loads of photos here but it’s really difficult to do it justice. Suffice to say it is absolutely worth the visit but leave yourself plenty of time to see everything, perhaps taking a meander through the market as well as popping across the road to Pasteis de Belem for a custard tart.

So as you can imagine we had a pretty full four days and there were still plenty of things we did not see. But I hope in this and the last two posts, I’ve shared enough to whet your appetite for this wonderful city and all it has to offer.


Other posts in this series: