food

New York

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New York has many names: The Big Apple, The Empire City, The City That Never Sleeps, Gotham, The Melting Pot, even the humble moniker The Capital Of The World. When the opportunity to visit was offered to us via our round-the-world ticket, we jumped at it. How could we pass up a chance to finally see the city that looms so large on the world stage? So we scheduled a week there, and while we did enjoy our stay in Gotham we learnt that doing it on the cheap is not necessarily the best way to visit. We certainly want to return there in the future, but next time we will stay in Manhattan and ensure we have plenty of cash on hand to get the most out of New York. Our attempt at budget living backfired, and indelibly coloured our experience of that great city.

There’s no way to avoid the fact: if you’re a traveller without a friend’s place to crash at, then staying in New York is not cheap. A quick search of hostelworld.com shows that even the cheapest dorm bed in a hostal will cost at least $25 per night per person, and a proper hotel room much more. And if you want a quality hotel room in Manhattan – ie. one that is quiet, comfortable and doesn’t double as a by-the-hour brothel most of the night – then you’re looking at $200 a day and up. That was simply too much for our budget, and we didn’t want to stay in a dorm for the whole week, so we scouted around for cheaper options.

We’ve written previously about using Globalfreeloaders.com, the website that offers couches, beds and rooms for free to travellers willing to stay in someone else’s home. We have had some excellent experiences using this service in Europe, and remain in contact with Lillian in Norway and Santosh in Switzerland. However we decided not to try it in New York City. While I’m sure there are heaps of places on offer, I had an unspoken feeling that there was a risk of becoming a storyline in a future episode of Law and Order if we used this service in NYC. That left airbnb.com, another website that offers beds and rooms (or even whole apartments) in private houses – but for a fee. It seemed like the best option overall. You get very cheap accommodation, and though you are staying in someone else’s house, because you’re paying for the privilege there would surely be a reasonable degree of freedom and courtesy on offer as well. Or so we thought…

Even using airbnb.com, staying in Manhattan was out of the question due to price. However we found a place in Queens, one of the other four boroughs of New York, that was only five minutes walk to the subway and then a twenty minute train ride to Manhattan. And the price was very cheap: just $35 a night for a whole room. This particular house had plenty of positive reviews on the website and was available for the dates we wanted, so we booked it months in advance to lock in the deal. Commuting to and from the suburbs didn’t faze us in the least; I mean we are from Sydney, where a minimum one hour journey to work (each way) is the norm! We arrived late on a Friday night, and after some dramas getting from Newark Airport in New Jersey to Queens (including a taxi driver who blamed us for not knowing where we were going) we headed straight to bed once we arrived.

Waking surprisingly early the next morning, we did some quick checking online using the room’s free wifi connection to see what our sightseeing options were. We decided to buy the New York Pass, a tourist ticket that offers entry to dozens of New York’s top sights and attractions for a one-off fee. It was pretty steep at $180 per person for the week, but when we added up the entry fees for all of the things we were likely to see and do it was a great saving. So we headed out into the morning sun to pick up these passes and see what New York had to offer. And discovered that Queens, or at least our tiny corner of it, was a rundown shambles of a place that had few, if any redeeming features. The road was crumbled and irregular, the only places to eat were variations on fast food joints, and we were stared at quite openly when walking down the street. We were dressed casually in normal traveller clothes, but somehow we stood out enough to draw the eye of many a passerby. We must have looked like we didn’t come from these parts, I guess. Oh well, we thought, at least it’s cheap and we headed underground for our trip to the city.

Getting out of the subway at 8th Avenue and 14th St, we headed north and found a simple yet tasty deli for breakfast. Continuing up 8th Avenue to the pickup venue for our New York Passes, we found the streets quite deserted on a Saturday morning. After a very long queue to pick up the passes, we headed to the famous Times Square for a look around. “Square” is not necessarily the right term to use for this landmark. Extending in a long skewed rectangle for several blocks towards Central Park, on the weekend it is a bustling market area that was beginning to get busy when we arrived. After spotting the Ball that drops at midnight on New Years Eve and taking some photos of the neon signs and billboards that dominate the plaza, we wandered up towards Central Park.

Partly we wanted to see Central Park, of course, and partly we wanted to sit down and decide what were the main sights to see during our week in New York. We walked for quite a few minutes before finding a suitable spot next to a baseball diamond, thinking we’d walked a fair way into the park (but in fact it was barely a tenth of it!). Our list of want-to-dos was long: go to the top of the Rockerfeller Centre during the day, and the Empire State Building at night; cycle around Central Park; do a walking tour of the West Village; a twilight cruise around the southern half of Manhattan, and a 3-hour whole island cruise; visit MOMA, the Met, and the Museum of Natural History; go to the 9/11 Memorial and associated Visitor Centre; go to the Intrepid Science and Space Museum; the Spy! Exhibit near Times Square; doing a Bronx or Brooklyn walking tour; and going to the largest Cathedral in the world on 112th St. All these things were included in our Pass, and the hardest part was working out when we could do them! There were plenty of other second-tier options as well, such as visiting Madame Tussaud’s, the New York Skyride and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, which we pencilled in as maybes if we were in the area. Plus there were other non-Pass options, like seeing a movie or a Broadway show, seeing a live band and visiting some choice bars recommended by Glenn, and of course eating in some of the countless restaurants that inhabit the city.

Resolving to try and lock in a few of these when we returned to our room, we crossed Central Park to the Upper East Side and caught a train downtown to the East Village. This is a rather trendy area filled with bars and restaurants, and we had a particular Japanese restaurant in mind for lunch. Souen is a macrobiotic restaurant that offered excellent set lunch options, and we would happily return there again if we could! Afterwards we headed west toward West Village and Greenwich Village, but lost the desire to wander after a while and opted instead to head home early. To keep the budget intact we planned to self-cater most meals, so we headed to the supermarket nearest our local train station for supplies.

After such a wonderful time feeding ourselves via supermarkets in Europe, shopping for groceries in Queens was a rude shock. In all the countries we visited in Europe the supermarkets offered excellent fresh produce and quality foods. Even the low-priced Aldi (or it’s offshoot Hofer) and Edeka stocked good products, and if you went to a premium place like Kaufland or Carrefour then the options were nearly limitless. And the range of prepared foods in supermarkets in England (eg. at Sainsburys or Waitrose) was so tasty that we had trouble choosing our favourite meals. Such choices are a world away from the bargain-basement feel of that first supermarket in Queens.

The mood was set when a burly security guard insisted we deposit our bags in the locker room. We had never had to do that before (although we have since encountered it several times in Ecuador). The range of highly processed food was extensive, the selection of fresh food limited and of rather dubious quality. Even the bread was disappointing. We knew already that American tastes favour sweetened bread, to the point where they add copious amounts of sugar to ordinary loaves of bread to make them sweet. We did not want that, so chose what we thought would be a sugar-free option: wholemeal bread (we were wrong). In the end we chose fruit and yoghurt for breakfast, ham and cheese to go with our (sweet) bread for lunch, and a couple of cans of chilli con carne for dinner. Even when we discovered a slightly better supermarket the next day, our options didn’t improve much and we ended up eating out more often than not that week.

Back to the house to make some plans for the following day, and what we thought would be a good night’s sleep. We didn’t interact much with our hosts the entire time we were there, in large part because their pattern of living was very different to most peoples’. The place was quite quiet until 9pm or 10pm, then they seemed to come alive and fill the house with loud talking, the crashing sound of dishes being washed, taking showers, and most surprising of all the sounds of their four-year-old son talking and playing until after midnight. Our sleep was interrupted that night, but it was a Saturday evening so we assumed (and hoped) that it was just a weekend thing.

The next morning, a Sunday, was our busiest and one of our best days of the whole week. Predicting that going early would beat the queues, we got up at the crack of dawn to get to the Rockerfeller Center when they opened at 8am. It was worth the effort: there were only a handful of other people queuing to visit New York’s highest observation deck at that time. The views were spectacular from the top, especially with the sun still low on the horizon, and we got some great photos in all directions that morning! Next mission was a visit to the docks on the west side of the island to pick up some tickets for a couple of island cruises later in the week. It took quite a while to walk there (there are no subways servicing that part of Manhattan) and back to Times Square, and we actually had to rush to make it to the start of our West Village walking tour.

This tour, scheduled for two hours but which in fact lasted almost three, was one of the best things we did in New York. James, the tour guide, was highly informative and entertaining as he walked us around just a handful of streets pointing out where famous actors, writers, painters and other artists lived or live. “Marlon Brando lived in this apartment when he first came to New York” (and then many others), or “Dustin Hoffman was living next door when the bomb went off” were some of the gems I remember! Interspersed with this was a surprising amount of info about the historical development of New York: from why the streets are numbered the way they are, to why a particular orientation of the bricks in your building indicated how wealthy you were during a certain period of time, to why people moved so frequently from apartment to apartment in previous decades, to how having an “active driveway” in New York today is a sign of extreme wealth. Combined with some rather negative commentary about New York University and a potted history of Washington Square Park, we were thoroughly entertained and informed and really glad to have been able to do this tour.

Because it ran over time we had to rush to our next appointment, grabbing a cab downtown so we could visit the 9/11 Memorial. While entry is free, you have to book for tickets for a particular timeslot so they can ensure an even flow of visitors and we just made it in time for our slot. They are still building the new World Trade Center towers but the Memorial is now finished, and it was a very moving and respectful experience. Where the bases of the original two towers stood there are now vast and deep sunken excavations, each faced with black marble and with water flowing constantly down the inside surfaces towards the bottom. From the edge you can’t see where the water ends and the effect is of an infinite and peaceful cascade. Around the edge of each section of the monument are the names of those who perished, and the rest of the park area is neatly landscaped with paving stones and trees.

Feeling in the mood for a drink afterwards, we followed up one of Glenn’s recommendations and headed to Ginger Man. This is a pub that is very serious about its beer, and I sampled a couple of very fine artisanal American drops while Kristen tackled some interesting Japanese beers (including one that tasted for all the world like a cold espresso coffee!). A great place, but we were aware that we still had a long journey to get home so after some snacks and a couple of drinks each we headed off. But we got a second wind on the train courtesy of some excellent platform buskers, and instead got off at Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn in search of a live band and found a wine bar instead. We met a local woman who was up for a chat, and we spent the rest of the evening discussing New York, Australia, the world and other random issues.

The next day was deemed a rest day, and we stayed in our local environs in Queens. Technically it’s just a few hundred metres from the border with Brooklyn, but it was a rather depressed area nonetheless and we decided this was the day to sample American fast food. Maccas was the first choice, and (perhaps not surprisingly?) it was tastier than in Australia! Dinner was brought to us by KFC, and the less said about that debacle of a meal the better. It was American fast food at its worst, so bad that Kristen couldn’t even finish it. And I know the food was prepared fresh because I had to wait 15 minutes for it to be cooked! Walking around the local area, I discovered that I could have started practising my Spanish, because we heard more of that language than English on the streets. Overall it was a day to catch up on a few administrative details and watch a lot of television via our laptop, but yet again the night was disturbed by our hosts. Neither of them worked during the day, and once again the place was quiet until 9pm or so when the animal spirits stirred and the noise resumed. I slept okay that night but Kristen reported they were up, talking loudly and washing dishes, until after 2am. To get the most out of our New York Pass we had to get up early, so we were deeply unthrilled about the limited sleep.

From this point on we did a lot less each day, partly due to lack of sleep but also due to Kristen becoming sick for a couple of days. With our weekly metro passes we had unlimited access to the subway and buses, but even with this you still need to do a lot of walking between attractions, subway stations and more subway stations to get around. Normally not a problem, but very tiring when sick. On the Tuesday we headed first to MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art. Though very well laid out and with an extensive and representative range of modern art, there were only small sections that we actually enjoyed and appreciated. It has a small but well-chosen selection of Impressionists, for example, and a handful of the social realist paintings sparked our interest. But many of the works from the 20th century left us cold, especially the abstracts. One particular work, Painterly Realism of a Boy with Knapsack – Color Masses in the Fourth Dimension by Kazimir Malevich, made Kristen extremely angry. It consisted solely of one black square of paint and one red square of paint on a white background – that was it (see it here). How on earth could something so simple be considered a work of great art? It was a giant wank, quite frankly, and to us it was an example of just how ridiculous modern art can be. The fact that similar paintings can sell for millions of dollars just underlined the point (a day or two later I read that another abstract work, considered highly significant and also consisting only of some variations in colour, was going to auction and was estimated to be worth US$50 million). We left the place after a couple of hours, satisfied that we had seen it but without any increased love for modern art.

After a cheap lunch at a decent pan-Asian restaurant near MoMa we visited a couple of our second-tier choices, Madame Tussaud’s and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!, because they were close to each other and “free”. They were both interesting enough, but we wouldn’t have done either of them if we’d had to pay the exorbitant entry fee in cash. As the weather this day was wet and windy we didn’t stay in town for long, instead opting to return home in the hope Kristen would feel better the next day.

On Wednesday we got up early again and headed into town for breakfast. Choosing to wander the East Village but not knowing where to go, we wandered around a bit before settling on Veselka. This Ukrainian restaurant is a bit of an institution in New York, so it turns out, and the authentic food was very tasty and filling. Suitably replenished, we headed out to complete the main mission of the day: shopping. For the preceding six months we’d lived with clothes that were suitable only for warmer climes, and with South America just around the corner we needed some cold weather gear quickly. We’d deliberately left shopping for such things until New York because we knew it would be cheap, and we weren’t disappointed. Armed with the addresses of several outdoor stores we traipsed around SoHo for hours, in the end buying everything we wanted in one session.

After lunch at a nearby restaurant we headed to a bar-café for an hour, then it was off to the docks again for the twilight boat tour. The weather was better than the previous day and the sun was out as we set off, heading south towards the bottom of the island as the sun was setting and providing ample photo opportunities. We rounded the island and set off up the East River for a while, then back for a closeup of the Statue of Liberty before returning to the dock as darkness fell. This was another highlight of the whole week, and strongly recommended to anyone in New York if the weather is good. On this day we also met a stranger on the train, got chatting and discovered that his wife used to live on the street we were currently staying in in Queens! He recommended we walk along the Brooklyn waterfront for its fine views of Manhattan, and we resolved to do just that the following day.

We headed home for the evening, for what we assumed and hoped would be a quiet night. Wrong. We’d had some more late night noise issues the previous evening, but this night was extra special with the young boy breaking out his recorder and electric keyboard for a solo jam session – at 11pm at night. The noise continued until after 2am and neither of us could sleep, but nor did we feel we had the right to tell someone to be quiet in their own home. It was so bad that we used that forced awake time to search the internet for other accommodation, as we didn’t think we could stomach two further nights of disturbance. But as noted earlier there simply aren’t any cheap places to stay in New York, and those few that were vaguely within reason got very bad reports on various travel websites. We simply couldn’t justify spending hundreds of dollars a night on a really good hotel, so it was a case of “suck it up sunshine” and just persevere.

The next morning (despite our tiredness) we headed to Brooklyn with the plan to walk along the waterfront, as suggested, and then over the Brooklyn Bridge to the city. Unfortunately virtually the whole waterfront is under development right now and mostly we could only see a huge construction zone. Kristen was still feeling a bit weak after her illness, and with half of the Brooklyn Bridge under covers for renovation we decided against walking over it. With most of the morning gone due to our Brooklyn excursion, lunch beckoned again and we decided to return to the bar-café we’d visited the previous day and in the end spent quite a few hours there chatting and planning. As this was the last night we could do anything late in New York we were keen to find a bar or club with live music, but neither of the friendly bar staff could offer us anything concrete to aim for. After much umming and ahhing we decided to simply head to Brooklyn again and follow our noses, hoping to find something of interest. We briefly visited another of Glenn’s bar recommendations, Barcade (a large bar with dozens of 1980s video games around the walls), but it wasn’t the right vibe for the night so we didn’t stay. After an appallingly dismal burrito meal at a nearby restaurant (nearly all of which was left on the plate), we reached the conclusion that there was no point flogging the horse and simply retired for the evening. But “retired for the evening” doesn’t mean we had a quiet night. Back at the ranch, and the locals were again keeping up their nighttime shenanigans. The young boy again brought out his musical instruments, and the adults were talking loudly, and all this was coming in clearly through our bedroom window. Just one more day, we consoled ourselves, one more day…

Our final day in New York, and again we rode with the masses on the morning train to Manhattan. We had a couple of options to fill our time that morning (The Met? The Museum of Natural History? The Intrepid Technology Museum?), and eventually chose to start the day with a visit to St John the Devine Cathedral followed by the Museum of Natural History, as they are both relatively close to each other and also close to subway stations. The ride there was probably the most entertaining part of the whole morning. The young man who announced the next stop and the usual safety warning about the closing doors spoke with the most unusual voice. He emphasised words in a very distinctive way when speaking: “please stand clear OF, the closing doors OF, the train. The next stop IS, 57th St.” Each emphasised word was almost shouted followed by a strange pause, it was like he was channelling Bill Cosby! The line we were on was the only one that went to the Bronx, and we never encountered this speech pattern on any other train, so perhaps it’s a very regional dialect?

The Cathedral looked very unattractive from the outside, and when we arrived we wondered why on earth we bothered to visit. Neither of us are religious and we’d seen more than enough churches in Europe, yet we were drawn by the fact it is apparently the largest Cathedral in the world. The inside was much more impressive, and the size truly vast. After a short wander around we hit the train again and headed south to the Museum of Natural History. We had high hopes for this place as we are both very interested in nature and the world, and the reality of the “museum” was massively disappointing.

In the movie Night at the Museum, Ben Stiller has to negotiate numerous display tableaux that come to life after dark. So we knew that such “still life” recreations were part of the museum and were not surprised to see some. But we expected there would be much more to the place, not just an endless series of frozen and rather dull window displays. Even the descriptions aside each were very short, and in the case of some of the native American scenes rather racist as well. It was clear that few if any of them had been modified since they were installed, and the whole place looked like it was frozen in a time warp where the 1960s and 1970s idea of a “museum” prevailed. It was entirely passive, not interactive, and even the handful of computer presentations in one small area failed to raise much interest. We left after barely half an hour, disappointed but glad that we hadn’t paid in cash the exorbitant $25 entry fee each (it was included in the New York Pass) for such a stultifying experience.

With some of the morning still to go, we decided to finally head deep into Greenwich Village and see what it has to offer. The walking tour of our second day was great but covered just a very small area, and this time we wandered from 14th St southwest. The shops here are “boutiques”, not stores, and the whole place is lined with trees and reeks of wealth. We really enjoyed wandering this area, as it felt so different to the other parts of Manhattan. We were also idly hunting around for somewhere to lunch and settled on Spasso, a charming bistro on the corner of Hudson St and Perry St. What a find! The food was exceptional and pretty cheap for its quality, and we wished we could have stayed there all afternoon just relaxing in the sun with a wine or three.

But as it was our last day we felt we should move on and keep sightseeing, and headed north again towards the High Line. This former elevated railway was disused and dilapidated for decades, before a movement for its renewal grew in the late 1990s and 2000s (supported by such local luminaries as Edward Norton, who now sits on its Board). It is now a landscaped public space that is very popular, if narrow, and offers great views of southern Manhattan. We’d heard about it during our West Village walking tour and were interested in seeing it, but it slipped off our radar during the week and it was a pleasant surprise to stumble across it. From it we spotted another landmark alluded to during the Village walk: the ultra-modern apartment building that houses, amongst others, Nicole Kidman’s New York pad. From there we headed home again for an early night, as we had to be up at 2.30am the next morning to prepare for our early flight to South America.

Overall we didn’t do anywhere near as much in New York as we had expected, and probably didn’t get great value out of our New York Pass. But that was due to a number of factors: limited sleep thanks to our hosts, poor weather on some days, Kristen being sick on others, and being based in Queens which added at least an hour a day to our plans. As the week progressed we also remembered our usual desire not to rush, something we have avoided doing for the entire year until we got to New York. But because of the Pass, plus the fact that this would be our only chance to visit New York for at least several years, we felt obliged to run around a lot trying to fit everything in. By the end of the week we were over that urge and frankly rather keen to leave New York, and we were simply looking forward to getting to Quito so we could relax.

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Paris

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When I first visited France for a month in September 2003, I deliberately made Paris my final stop. I suspected – correctly, I think – that if I had started in Paris then I may have gotten so swept up by life there that I wouldn’t want to leave. In the end I spent five days in the City of Light, and I deemed it just enough time to get a taste of the place without feeling that I’d left too soon. I ranked it as one of my favourite cities in the world after that visit, and I definitely wanted to go there again during our worldwide rambling this year.

Maybe it was because we found London so great, maybe it was because we wanted to simply relax a bit after the excitement of the previous week and a half, but neither of us were particularly excited by our week in Paris. It’s not that we disliked it, however we left feeling relatively indifferent about it in a way neither of us expected. While there are some lovely parts to be found, there are some decidedly un-lovely aspects as well. The trains, for example, while frequent and efficient (as they seem to be in almost all large cities except Sydney), were often downright ugly and depressing. I found the contrast from my first visit quite stark: perhaps without the rose-coloured tint of my first visit I could see Paris more clearly, perhaps Paris has changed, or perhaps I’ve just seen more of the world now than I had back then?

Despite our feelings about Paris overall, with a whole apartment to ourselves for the entire week we still greatly enjoyed our time there. In fact for the first two days we didn’t even leave the area immediately around it, as it was so comfortable and inviting! We found the apartment through the website airbnb.com, which allows people with private accommodation to rent to offer their apartment or house (or even just a room within it) to travellers at very affordable prices. During the preceding week we’d enquired about renting dozens of apartments in all corners of Paris, but discovered that just because something is listed on the website it doesn’t mean it’s actually available when you want it. Nevertheless with just a couple of days to go we got a few positive responses, and finally chose a bright and spacious place just outside the Ring Road that encircles central Paris.

The owner wasn’t able to meet us when we arrived at 9pm, but his father was waiting and explained all the features of the apartment and gave us the keys. There was even a welcome half bottle of wine, which was a pleasant surprise! The apartment had a good-sized kitchen with large island bench, fridge and all the condiments and utensils we needed, free internet, free phone calls to landlines in Australia, a printer and a huge flat-screen TV which we could plug our laptop into. In those first couple of days we luxuriated in having a proper “home” all to ourselves, and Kristen cooked a number of fine meals which we enjoyed on the sunny balcony 🙂

We did of course do some sightseeing in Paris, and our first day out and about took us to the Tuilleries garden, around the outside of the Louvre Palace, into Notre Dame Cathedral, and through some of the Left Bank streets to the Jardin de Luxembourg where we had lunch in the park. We found a nice shady spot on the grass, but were quickly told that the lawns in the sprawling garden complex were for looking at, not sitting on! A very pretty place nonetheless, and justifiably popular with Parisians whenever the sun comes out. In the afternoon we headed towards Montmartre, walking past one of Paris’ “hidden” vineyards and then enjoying the afternoon view from the front of Sacre Coeur. We discovered an excellent fruit and veg shop in Montmartre and bought a number of tasty items which were turned into yet another fine meal a la Kristen. Tres bien!

Over the following days we did visit some other tourist sites, such as walking around the base of the Eiffel Tower, going up the Arc de Triomphe, and viewing some of the amazing art held by the Musee d’Orsay. We also embarked on a hunt for a decent coffee, which is a harder task than you might think. We’d discovered during our roaming of the French countryside in the wohnwagen that French coffee often leaves a lot to be desired. The coffee culture of Australia and New Zealand is years ahead of France, and apart from some nice drops in Italy and London it had been months since we’d found reliably good brews. A bit of web searching revealed that we weren’t alone in our assessment, and in response there are in fact a few coffee shops dotted around Paris that aim to bring Antipodean standards to the French capital. One of the best of these is Coutume, so we tracked it down and were thoroughly impressed.

Coutume is pricey, but it’s very high quality and has a serious dedication to coffee. Kristen tried an iced coffee made with the Aeropress, a fairly new and simple invention that combines the best qualities of percolators and drip filters to give exceptionally pure and un-bitter coffee flavour. We were not surprised to find that the people running it on both days we went were Australian! We got talking to one of them, and she recommended an up-and-coming restaurant in the northeast of the city which we did visit the following day. It was interesting to try some nice bistro food, but it was our only restaurant experience in Paris and in fact only our second in all of France (almost all our other meals during our three weeks in France came courtesy of Kristen’s Kitchen).

The highlight of our time here was visiting the Palace of Versailles, the massive building and gardens of the former French monarchy located just outside Paris. The palace is huge and very impressive, especially the famed Hall of Mirrors which stretches along one entire side of the building, but for me the gardens were even more spectacular. Divided into quadrants each with a different design and theme, and with numerous fountains and statues dotted about, it was amazing to think that much of what we saw was created more than two centuries ago. We did a complete tour including all parts of the garden, the Grand Trianon and Petit Trianon, and even managed to watch one of the musical fountain displays that were a special event on the day of our visit.

Without such a nice place to stay, I think our Parisian adventure might have been quite disappointing. As it was it made a pleasant interlude between the excitement of London and stunning beauty of Switzerland, but neither of us will be in a rush to return anytime soon.

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London

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It’s hard to believe we were there just five weeks ago. We’ve gotten behind in our blogging during that time, but since we left London we’ve been to Paris, Versailles, Zurich, Bern, Lauterbrunnen (twice), Lucerne (twice), New York, Quito (twice) and the Galapagos Islands! Despite all that jetsetting, we both agree that our time in London is going to rank as one of the high points of this epic year of travel. It’s a city I could return to in a heartbeat, and I would even consider living there if the opportunity came about…

Some of the reasons why we loved London so much are as obvious as they were enjoyable. I have family living there, and we were able to catch up with my cousin Mark (who grew up in Sydney) several times during our eleven days in and around London. We got to know my uncle’s sister, Sonia, very well while she very kindly hosted us for most of our time there, as well as her children and grandchild. And we got to catch up again with Mike, a Londoner who we first met on that epic day in Penang near the start of our journey. Apart from spending wonderful time with Helga and JP in Graepel, dinner with CJ in Bangkok and a single day’s catchup with Andrew and Kara in Croatia, we have been starved of familiar company most of the year.

A less obvious but very real attraction of London is that English is its first language. We clearly love travelling to different countries – often the more different the better! – and usually make an effort to learn at least a bit of the local language while there. Even knowing just simple courtesies like hello and thank you can greatly enhance the travel experience, and in countries like Laos, Thailand, France and Germany we knew enough to get around fairly comfortably using the local lingo. But in all places we were a very long way from being able to hold a conversation or talk for more than 20 seconds, and it always took considerable thought and effort to remember the right words to use. In short it’s draining (though rewarding) to try and speak in foreign tongues, and after six continuous months of having to do so England shone like an oasis in the language desert. Imagine speaking without translating in your head first, being free to indulge in small talk and able to understand the conversations around you! We didn’t realise how much we would appreciate these simple pleasures until we got to England and started to live them.

London is also a city of endless possibilities, and we simply loved getting in amongst it and tasting what it has to offer. Below is a snapshot of some of the things we got up to:

  • Visiting pubs in Russell Square, Angel and Southbank. What better place to meet up with Mark than at a pub (or three)? London is a city that knows how to drink, and you’re never far from a watering hole to quench your thirst. Our catch up with Mike was also a potted tour of some of the nicer pubs around Southbank, including one that dates back to the 1600s.
  • Walking around Regent St, Carnaby St, Bond St, Oxford St, Hyde Park and Buckingham Palace. Window shopping in New Bond St was a walk down luxury lane, we stumbled across a great coffee shop off Carnaby St that was worthy of a return, and discovered that the deckchairs set up in Hyde Park are not free.
  • Checking out Notting Hill Carnival with Mark, only to find that it’s more crowd than carnival. The whole suburb was a seething mass of people looking for somewhere to go, and it wasn’t long before we ditched it completely and headed off to Jashan’s. Located in a less salubrious part of north London, it’s an excellent Indian restaurant that is several cuts above the usual curry joint.
  • Sonia took us on a very interesting tour of Hamstead Heath and Millionaire’s Row, and then contrasted the mega-rich properties of that area with a quick look at downtown Tottenham.  The local school behind the huge Whitehart Lane football stadium is prison-like in ambiance, with solid bars topped with razor wire and a full-time on-site police officer (Sonia’s daughter, Carla, works there and can tell some hair-raising stories of life there). The point was to show how different in character yet how close in distance these two areas are, and it was a thoroughly illuminating (and at times depressing) experience. The day also included a wonderful visit to Kenwood House for morning tea and a stroll around its gardens.
  • Op-shopping in Muswell Hill, the prosperous neighbourhood where Sonia lives. We also spent a great deal of time at the Sable D’Or café in Mussie, sampling its fine coffee and super-fast internet frequently on our way to or from the city.
  • Visiting Alexandra Palace, or “Ally Pally”, which is also quite close to Sonia’s place and Muswell Hill. This is a monstrous building superbly located on a hill with sweeping views of London, and surrounded by extensive gardens that are open to the public. The views from the top of the hill are wonderful and highly recommended for any visitor, and the Palace was the site of the first television broadcast by the BBC in 1936. It remained London’s primary TV transmitting centre for the Beeb until 1956.
  • Eating at Jashan’s again on one of our last nights in London. It’s a family favourite, and we shared a great meal with nearly all the Assirati clan 🙂
  • Discovering the joys of the Harrods food hall – late! The treats on offer here make the David Jones food hall on Market Street look like a cut-rate corner deli. Needless to say we were in heaven, and we managed to have nearly every meal on our last two days in London catered courtesy of that fine establishment!
  • Visiting the Imperial War Museum and strolling along Southbank. Even though nearly all of them are free, we didn’t do much in the way of museums while in London. However everyone we met said that the Imperial War Museum was a must-see, and we managed to visit it before leaving. It was quite overwhelming, in fact, and it’s a place that you could easily return to time and again to learn about different aspects of Britain’s wartime legacies. We followed it with a slow perambulation of the lengthy Southbank, which was thronged with people enjoying the evening.

The other major event we had planned for our time in London was outside of it: our pilgrimage to The Fat Duck. Kristen has already written extensively about that meal, so I will focus on the other aspects of the four day “holiday within a holiday” we took around our visit to that restaurant. It actually wasn’t meant to be four days, but we were enjoying ourselves so much that we tacked on a couple of days extra and simply relaxed in the wonderful environs of our hotel. The Oakley Court Hotel is a country estate near Windsor, conveniently located close to The Fat Duck and very prettily situated on the banks of the Thames. You can stroll along the water’s edge on manicured lawns, sit in the stately rooms of the main house or enjoy the sun on the outdoor terrace. All these things were fine attractions and we certainly did make use of them, but the clincher for our decision to stay there was that Oakley Court was used as the home of Dr Frank-N-Furter in the cult 1975 movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show. How could we not take up the opportunity to stay in the Rocky Horror house??

Our two days at Oakley Court extended to three, then to four, and on the last day we went to nearby Windsor to visit the Queen. Well, almost: Windsor Castle is the home of the Monarch and open to visitors most of the time. It’s a splendid castle with commanding views of the surrounding countryside, and we also went on an optional “behind the scenes” tour of the Great Kitchen. This short journey to less-visited parts of the castle was more about the fire of 1992, and what the subsequent renovations revealed about the hitherto hidden history of the castle, than it was about the kitchen, but it was very interesting nonetheless and gave an insight into the below-stairs life of the castle. We spent several hours there in total, visiting all the key sights including the State Rooms, the Doll House and St George chapel. Highly recommended, and thanks to Mike for suggesting it.

There was so much more we could have seen and done in London, and we seriously considered or intended to see a West End show, visit the Tower of London, go to The Clink, check out Camden Town and see a live band, amongst other activities. These are things we will have to save for our next visit!

Categories: family, food, Malaysia, Penang, travel | Leave a comment

Slovenia Love

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Slovenia always loomed large on our “must-do list” for Europe, even before we got to this enormous and endlessly varying continent. We’d been given the tip from two close friends (Adam and Steve), both of whom stated that Slovenia was one of – if not their most – favourite places in Europe. Tucked away south of Austria and east of Italy, as a component of the former Yugoslavia it flies completely underneath the radar of most Australians when they think of Europe. Armed with our tips we were ready to be wowed, but even so we were unprepared for just how much we would love this little country!

Our first taste of Slovenia occurred during our hard slog south to Plitvice Lakes. In one day we traversed half the country, from the far north east to the central south, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that we were delighted anew at almost every turn! The landscape was bucolic, rustic and charming, and even the larger towns were pleasant and welcoming (very unlike Italy, which defied our expectations in the most disappointing way). There were a couple of fleeting moments of urban unsightliness, but they were quickly followed with more rolling hills, roadside chapels and smile-inducing vistas. We departed Slovenia for Croatia that day a little saddened, but comforted by the knowledge that we would return there very soon.

After Plitvice Lakes we headed straight to Slovenia, aiming in particular to Bled in the northeastern corner of the country. We’d been pointed to this destination by specific recommendation, one which was supported by a completely random meeting near Plitvice. While buying groceries at the only supermarket in the area, we got chatting with an Australian couple who lived in Germany with their kids. They were on summer holidays and had recently come from Bled, and they said it was so nice there they wished they could have spent their entire holidays there, as they believed it was the most beautiful place in Europe! That was great news to us, as we had already booked a campsite right by the famous Bled Lake to ensure we had the best possible chance to enjoy it.

After a couple of nights at the very relaxing Camp Smlednik (with a surprising riverside nudist section for those so inclined), just north of Ljubljana, we headed for Bled and couldn’t believe how spectacular it is. Or how perfect our campsite was, just metres from the edge of the lake with a public beach/park right out front where you can take in the view. We’d already planned five nights there but in the end stayed for six – and we would have stayed longer if we’d had the time to do so!

With our perfect base to stay at, enjoying Bled and its surrounds was easy and I can’t emphasise highly enough how special that town is. On our first full day we walked around the lake, viewing its tiny island in the middle and the castle on the hill from all angles. After a coffee in town we carried on to Bled Castle, a beautifully restored site on a promontory overlooking the lake and surrounding valleys. The lure of the castle’s restaurant proved too strong to resist, and we settled down for what will remain one of my most memorable meals in Europe. The food was great: lamb carpaccio with truffle slices and parmesan and rocket, followed by veal in mushroom sauce with truffled polenta, then some of the local cream cake, but it was the setting that seduced even more. With its eyrie viewpoint we could see down the valley towards to Ljubljana in one direction, and to the peaks of the Slovenia Alps (the Julian Alps) in another. Below us the lake was spread open like a flower, the tiny island backed by our campsite snugly in the distance. It was a moment to savour, even more so as the weather was stunning that day and never regained the perfection we felt at that time….

On other days we walked the narrow and twisting Vintgar Gorge nearby, and spent plenty of time basking on the beachfront in front of our campsite. We intended to spend a day hiking in the Julian Alps but the weather took over, with rare rain and wind confining us to quarters for a day or two. We did have enough time to fit in a rewarding short trip to nearby Lake Bohinj, which is another popular tourist site, and with more time we would surely have stayed there too. Suffice it to say that if you want superlative natural beauty in an easy to enjoy setting, the area around Bled in Slovenia is pretty hard to beat!

When the weather relented we escaped back to Camp Smlednik, and used that as a base to explore the pretty capital for an afternoon. Walking through town, having lunch by the river (a sensational seafood restaurant noted by Lonely Planet), then up to the castle on the hill, a coffee by another part of the river, then back to camp. Ljubljana is a pretty capital and entirely doable in an afternoon – if you want to enjoy the food and wine then you can definitely stay longer 🙂

On our final day we headed south-west to Italy, mistakenly assuming that it would be as enticing as Slovenia. That false assumption was even more cruelly underlined by the amazing wine region we passed through as we trickled over the border to Italy. Near the remote border crossing of Gorjansko, the roads were tightly lined with curving hand-built yellow stone walls supporting carefully tended vineyards, some with fine trellising for even more care (and beauty). We both thought at the time “this is how Italy must look!” and marked that fabulous Slovenian region we were passing through as somewhere for future interest. If only we’d known, we’d have stopped right away and forsaken Italy entirely!!

Categories: food, travel | 4 Comments

Bangkok

Bangkok was always going to be a transition point. When we began to plan our epic journey all those months ago, the backbone of it was a Round The World (RTW) ticket with stops in Asia, Europe, New York and South America. It turned out that we could get a great deal on a RTW ticket that saw us arrive into Asia at Singapore and exit from Bangkok, taking three months to wander between the two. That fitted our plans perfectly, and avoided any unnecessary and costly backtracking, so we jumped at this option.

As we’d both been to Bangkok previously (separately) we didn’t intend to do much sightseeing this time around, and in fact were prepared to stay just one night if required to maximise our time elsewhere. Like much of the detailed planning for our travels, we were happy to leave the decision about exactly how many days Bangkok deserved until we were closer to the time. In the end we settled on three nights in Bangkok, as that would give us enough time to do two vital things before leaving Asia. In some ways both of those activities were the result of the randomness of travel: One had come from our impromptu Big Day Out in Penang weeks earlier, the other from a chance reading of a magazine in a hospital waiting room!

Meeting CJ in Penang was a great day for many reasons, as we’ve blogged about previously. He lives in Bangkok and we’d made a firm promise to catch up with him when we got there in mid-June. Fitting in with his work commitments required a little juggling, and we settled on a Tuesday night dinner at an Italian restaurant run by a mate of his in the sprawling Sukhumvit nightlife zone. It was great to catch up with him in person, instead of via regular facebook updates, and again he regaled us with some hilarious stories that are too racy to be recorded on the internet! Amongst many things he also updated us on the progress of the Pakistani movie he co-produced, Seedlings, which I’m pleased to say was selected for the NY Film Festival just a couple of weeks after our dinner.

As the night wore on and the conversation flowed, we were all sorely tempted to head out afterwards for some post-dinner drinks and more merriness. But our host, CJ’s mate, brought out a free round of home-made (very delicious and very alcoholic) limoncello. Followed by another one not too long after, then another…. I think? At the end of this another hour had passed, and since CJ had to work and I was nursing a cold we decided to be sensible and call it a night. A great night, might I add, and one I’m keen to repeat when next we hit Bangers 😀

The other “must-do” we planned for Bangkok had its genesis while we were sitting in a hospital waiting room. But not just any waiting room: the one at the Skin and Cosmetic Centre at Phuket’s Bangkok Hospital more closely resembles the foyer of a five-star hotel rather than a hospital, as you can see from the pic above. With smart wooden tables and armchairs, flowers everywhere and staff scuttling softly about it was a world away from the grim, utilitarian ambiance of the average Australian hospital experience.

While waiting to see a doctor, we were perusing the luxury-minded magazine Thailand Tatler (how appropriate for the surroundings) and came across a restaurant review that immediately captured our interest. We’d been musing for several weeks about having one last fine dining experience in Bangkok, because once we hit Europe such extravagances were going to be almost entirely off the menu. The restaurant in this review, Gaggan, hit all our buttons and we knew immediately that we’d found “The One” for Bangkok. It was newish and aimed high by offering the unique fusion of molecular gastronomy and Indian cuisine. We are both fans of the “molecular” cooking style – when done with restraint – which uses various powders, gels, liquid nitrogen and other strange options to play with the texture and presentation of dishes. Some of the most memorable meals we’ve shared have cleverly incorporated these techniques (Royal Mail Hotel in Victoria and Iggy’s in Singapore), and we are greatly looking forward to our pilgrimage to the high temple of this style of food: The Fat Duck in London on August 29th. The restaurant’s chef-owner, Anand Gaggan, had honed his skills with Ferran Adria at the legendary El Bulli in Spain, and like most of the planet we love Indian food. How could we not try this place out?

Though we both thought the meal was very good I enjoyed it more than Kristen, who had some reservations about the overall value and memorable-ness of its 12 courses. The obvious use of molecular techniques was wisely limited to just a couple of dishes, with chef Gaggan letting the sublime flavours of each dish shine most of the time. We both agreed the tranquil and spacious setting of our table – facing as it did out through the window into the plant-filled courtyard – was  lovely, and a nice touch was that Gaggan himself visited our table twice during the meal to see how we were enjoying it.

We also had a very friendly and camp waiter, an older Thai man who was very playful throughout the meal. He took a particular fancy to the makeshift camera case that I use for my pocket camera (a woven pink, blue and grey glove that fits my camera well… like a glove!), at one stage borrowing it to drape over his shoulder and parade around the room. He then proceeded to greet newly arriving guests, not remembering until halfway through that he was still wearing the glove!

The sommelier recommended an excellent wine match, Discovery Point sauvignon blanc from NZ, and for the record here is the menu with some comments noted in blue:

Degustation menu, Gaggan, 13th June 2012

Yoghurt – our signature, we can’t take it off the menu

Served in a spoon, this is the size and shape of an egg yolk but white. Texture on the tongue is exactly like a soft-cooked egg yolk, until the warmth of your tongue melts the surface and an explosion of yoghurt flavour ensues. Gimmicky but good, we both really enjoyed it

Non-Fried Samosa, and Papadams two ways – reconstructed chutney chips with potato filling and fresh fennel seeds; spiced glass of carrot crisps air-dried, and homemade rice crackers

Tasty, but didn’t quite work as well as the other dishes

Liar Liar – an artificial Bellini with fresh royal farm peach and cheap chardonnay carbonated together

Truffle air – pressurised truffle espuma with green chilli oil

the truffle flavour was very strong and the green chilli offering a spicy accent. The “espuma” was foam, which didn’t stay foamy long before melting into a watery truffle soup. One of the top dishes for both of us

Goose liver – foie gras with spiced red onion chutney on a naan bread

Eggs and greens – 62 degrees slow 2-hour cooked eggs with funny tasting greens and moilee curry

One of Kristen’s favourite dishes, the “funny tasting greens” somehow having the flavour of oysters!

Matar Paneer – Indian cottage cheese tortellini in a curried green peas sauce

Delicate, tasty and very carefully spiced. No fancy technique here, just great flavours

Back to Indian – minced chicken sheesh kebab with green chutney foam

The presentation of this dish left something to be desired (see pic above), but Kristen especially loved the samphire on the side. It was like “saltwater explosions in your mouth”

Go Goa!! – choice of fresh Spanish alaj or prawn and crab meat in spiced vindaloo curry

We both went with the prawn and crab option, this dish was very hot but balanced. Served with a superb naan bread

Lamb grilled with whiskey smoke – optional, cost approx. $10 extra p.p.

A worthy addition, this dish consisted of New Zealand lamb cutlets perfectly grilled and served with garlic cream and garlic chutney. A theatrical flourish was provided by it being served underneath a large glass bell filled with the smoke of burnt shavings from a Jack Daniels whiskey barrel. It added a definite (and delicious) whiskey flavour – our favourite dish of the night

Garden of Eden – Iranian pistachio 50-second cake with pacotized pistachio ice cream and edible flowers

Kristen loved this, I thought it good but not as great as the next dessert

I Love Chocolate – chocolate crisps, milk chocolate water mousse and cold chocolate powder

This had a wonderful golden “Crunchie” bar flavour, light with white chocolate foam underneath

We didn’t do any sightseeing at all over these three days in Bangkok, as the rest of our time was spent preparing for the next phase and simply relaxing around our excellent hotel, the Royal View Resort. We had masses of laundry to wash, blog posts to write and photos to upload, plus some shopping to be done. And we were both in various stages of dealing with colds, so there was plenty of down time too. We did everything we could to ensure that we entered our next phase as ready as possible: bring on Europe!!

Categories: food, Thailand, travel | Leave a comment

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