In search of the perfect falafel in Jordan

In November I visited Jordan, which was the final holiday of my career break (soon to be finished as I return to the world of work!). Jordan had never occurred to me as a holiday destination, but a couple of my friends wanted to go and I’m glad they convinced me. This was one of the most unique holidays I’ve experienced.

There’s much to love about Jordan. There’s the friendliness of the people, for example this conversation which happened repeatedly:

Stranger: Where you from?

Us: England!

Stranger: WELCOME TO JORDAN!

Then of course, there’s the food (if I’m honest food is probably the main reason I go on holiday). Since meeting Omar I’ve adopted high standards for Middle Eastern food, and Jordan exceeded them. There was a lot of meat, but also plenty for veggies: humous, za’atar and flatbread, aubergine stews, kunafa, baklava… And I can’t not mention the landscape. Jordan had some of the most unreal landscapes I’ve ever seen, like being on a movie set. If you want to come somewhere to be struck by an unoriginal but nonetheless sublime realisation of your own smallness and insignificance, this is the place.

In order to see as much of Jordan as possible, we hired a car. This is probably the best way to do things, although beware, the driving can be hazardous!

Amman

We landed in Amman at about three in the morning and spent an uncomfortable few hours curled up fully-clothed on the sofas in our hostel’s common area. Despite having no sleep, in the spirit of tireless thrill-seekers we got up in the morning, splashed cold water on our faces and set about exploring; we only had one full day in Amman and wanted to make the most of it. There had been heavy rain and flooding in Jordan just before we arrived, so many of the main sights in Amman such as the Citadel were closed, but we still found plenty to do. We ate a hearty pancake brunch, did a self-guided walking tour, and ate ice cream at Mr. Lollies (the owner is the coolest) and dinner at Sufra restaurant. Dinner was delicious, but that night I was struck by a horrible bout of gastritis which left me unable to function or eat anything for a day and a half. Let’s move swiftly past that.

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Petra

Petra, the ancient capital of the Nabataen Kingdom whose stunning buildings are carved into the rose-coloured rock, is a must-see in Jordan. A few days previously Petra had been evacuated because of flash floods, but fortunately it was open again by the time we arrived. We were staying with a couple in the nearby Bedouin village who arranged for a guide to take us on a tour, including the Treasury, the Monastery, the Royal Tombs and the Roman Theatre. At the end of a long and tiring day our guide took us up to the Monastery to watch a stunning sunset (apparently ‘the best view in the world’). The downside: when climbing down the uneven, slippery steps in darkness afterwards, two of my friends slipped and sprained their ankles. This obviously sucked, but it did show us the kindness of our hosts, who rescued us with a donkey and car and then cooked us a free dinner when we returned to the house. 

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At the Treasury in Petra, blissfully unaware of the ankle-related disasters which lay in our future

Aqaba

Aqaba is a coastal city which felt more touristy than Amman. Our plan to spend some time on the beach was slightly scuppered by my poor injured friends having to go to the (overly relaxed) doctor to get crutches, but we did have an excellent lunch at Baba Za’atar, which serves za’atar (a mix of herbs) along with other toppings like cheese, egg, meat, yoghurt and honey slathered on flatbread. Things on Bread being one of my favourite meals, this was pleasing. We managed a brief stroll on the beach as the sun set and then ate dinner at Alibaba restaurant, which is touristy but still good. Seafood is the speciality in Aqaba, and my friends said it was delicious, though as a veggie with a still-tender stomach I stuck to Things on Bread and salad.

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Lunch at Baba Za’atar (plus a hungry impatient hand)

Wadi Rum

Wadi Rum, a protected desert area in the south, was my highlight of the trip. There are several different companies, such as Wadi Rum Nomads, who’ll arrange desert tours on jeeps, camels, or both (we avoided the camels!). This was where I spent a day gazing across breathtaking landscapes that made me feel as if I were on another planet; the Jordanian deserts have actually been used to depict Mars in films. We zoomed across the orange sands in a Jeep with our guide, Rashid, climbed huge rock formations and sand dunes, clambered through canyons, teetered nervously on naturally formed bridges and took hundreds of photos.

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One of about 400 photos. Yes, that is actually reality in the background

After sitting around the campfire to watch the sun sink behind the dunes, we headed to the base camp where we ate ‘zarb’, meat cooked in an earth oven under the ground (and vegetables for me). We slept in a tent, listening to the sound of torrential rain hammering on the roof – yes, it rains in the desert too, copiously if that night is anything to go by – and headed back the next morning after breakfast. One of the things I enjoyed most about Jordan, both in Wadi Rum and Petra, was learning about the Bedouins’ way of life and their deep love of being outdoors. Although many of them had houses, those we spoke to said they preferred solitude and simplicity would always choose sleeping in a tent or cave or under the stars – making sure their Smartphones were fully charged first!

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Bedouin for a day

The Dead Sea

We spent the last leg of our trip relaxing by the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth where you can famously float in the mineral-rich water. At this point we were so close to Israel our phone operators were sending us welcome texts, and as the Dead Sea is slowly drying up due to intense irrigation, one of our Jordanian hosts joked that soon we’d be able to paddle across to Israel.

There isn’t any decent budget accommodation in this area, so we embraced (semi-)luxury and stayed in the Ramada Dead Sea Resort for a night. Although it was nice to drink readily available wine and binge on a breakfast buffet, the resort didn’t feel particularly Jordanian; there was little Jordanian food on the menu, for example, meaning I couldn’t get my falafel fix. Due to bad weather we couldn’t go deep enough into the sea to float, but we did have fun slathering ourselves in thick, slimy mud on the beach. Looking extremely silly is worth it for the soft skin afterwards. 

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Finally, it was back to Amman for a final few hours of shopping before our flight; we also managed to squeeze in the Citadel which we’d missed on the first day. We had our last supper in Amman’s famous vegetarian restaurant, Hashem, where they make life easy: you don’t order off a menu but sit down and wait for them to bring you a variety of mouthwatering dishes. It was here that I discovered the Holy Grail: the perfect falafel. It was incredible. I still dream about its perfect crispy outside and soft, crumbly inside…

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ALL HAIL THE PERFECT FALAFEL

What an adventure this was. Tourism in Jordan has suffered due to its proximity to conflicted regions, and even I was a little nervous before going, but I needn’t have worried. Jordan is a stable country, Jordanians are extremely welcoming, and as a group of females we were always treated with courtesy and respect. I’m already scheming about my next trip to the Middle East. Somewhere out there, there might be an even more perfect falafel waiting for me to eat it…

A pho-nomenal (sorry) journey through Vietnam

Last month I travelled across Vietnam, a country that I’ve been longing to visit for a long time. When my friends and I were planning our itinerary we felt overwhelmed by possibility. There are so many places to visit and so many ways to travel between them. For inspiration, I read a lot of travel blogs. Now I’ve been there myself, I thought, why not add one more to the mix? 

Our journey started in Ho Chi Minh. We then travelled back up to Hanoi, chasing the good weather; we also preferred to start in the more hectic Ho Chi Minh (when we were full of beans) and finish in the comparatively chilled Hanoi (by which point ‘clean clothes’ really meant ‘least dirty clothes’). We mostly stayed in private rooms in hostels, which are essentially budget hotels – basic, but clean, safe and well-serviced. From Ho Chi Minh we went to Hoi An, then Hue, then Phong Nha and finally Hanoi, where we took a cruise to Bai Tu Long Bay. Our schedule was packed and there was a lot of time spent on trains, buses and planes, but it’s unavoidable unless you want to stay in one or two places. I reckon you’d need at least a month to really explore Vietnam, but I think we did pretty well with our two weeks! 

Ho Chi Minh (Saigon)

Ho Chi Minh was probably our least favourite stop, but we only spent one day here. More intrepid travellers might love the moped-rammed streets and chaotic vibe, but we were jet-lagged after a sleepless overnight flight and so found ourselves hiding in the familiar safety of H&M under the pretence of needing more billowy trousers (we may not have been very intrepid travellers but we wanted to look the part, at least). In search of a more authentic experience, we rallied ourselves and went to a local restaurant for our first bowls of pho.

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Mmmmmm pho (I’m still vegetarian, honest)

After a night’s sleep, we were ready to learn about the Vietnam War with trips to the War Remnants Museum and the Cu Chi Tunnels. This was a harrowing day. Despite editing history books for years, I shamefully didn’t know much about the Vietnam War. In the War Remnants Museum we learned how brutal and devastating it was, and how many innocent people suffered terribly and are still suffering; the photographs lining the walls are painful to see, but it felt important that we understood the extent of what happened. At the Cu Chi tunnels we learnt about the resistance led by the Viet Cong, crawled through replica tunnels, and saw the gruesome booby traps the guerrilla fighters set for American soldiers. This showed us a different aspect of the war, which was interesting to compare with what we’d seen earlier in the day.

Hoi An

The next day we flew to Da Nang, travelling almost halfway up the country, and transferred to Hoi An, famous for its lanterns. We loved Hoi An. That might have been because we spent the most time there, meaning we could relax more; we borrowed bikes from our hostel and cycled to An Bang beach, through the paddy fields, and into town to see the Japanese Bridge and browse the tailors’ shops. We had one of our favourite meals at a restaurant called Little Faifo. We also took an excellent cooking course at Red Bridge Cooking School, where we got our lesson plus an enormous dinner for all of £16. I worried I’d be eating spring rolls every day as a vegetarian, but there was so much variety that most nights I ended up utterly stuffed! On our final day we visited the My Son Hindu temples, took a boat ride and had full body massages (we went for a fancy spa and it was still a bargain!). 

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Mesmerised by the lanterns of Hoi An

Hue

Hue is the former capital of Vietnam and seat of the Nguyen emperors. Immediately we felt we were in a more Westernised place, with burger bars and Italian restaurants lining the streets and big groups of tourists being whizzed around in ‘cyclos’. There was no denying it felt comfortable, albeit a little unexciting. On our first evening we walked along the river where groups of Vietnamese students let us join in their games in exchange for helping them practise their English – all the people we met throughout the trip were really friendly and outgoing. The next day we visited the Imperial Citadel, where we made the excellent decision of hiring a tour guide. Our guide Hui spent hours with us, staying beyond the end of his shift to tell us detailed stories about the lives of each emperor (as well as the grisly execution methods they used). The citadel is beautiful but might not be as interesting without its historical context, so definitely get a guide (ask for Hui!).

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Exploring Hue with Hui

Phong Nha

Next, we took a bus to Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park. After spending most of the holiday in more built-up and touristy locations, we were keen to get back to nature and visit Phong Nha’s famous caves. It’s home to the largest cave in Asia, Son Doong – it’s large enough that helicopters can fly inside, and contains its own jungles – although only 1,000 tourists a year can visit for a mere $3000 (so we gave it a miss…). We visited Paradise Cave, which contains stalactites and stalagmites so weird and beautiful it felt like walking through a film set. Afterwards we visited Dark Cave, where we went zip-lining, swam in a river, clambered through the cave with head torches, had a mud bath and then kayaked. Since I’m terrified of swimming in anything that isn’t a sterilised pool that definitely doesn’t contain any slimy things, I’m amazed that I not only survived this experience, but enjoyed it!

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Is it a freakish pine cone? No, it’s a stalagmite in Paradise Cave, Phong Nha

Hanoi

The journey from Phong Nha to Hanoi is long. We didn’t fancy taking an overnight bus, and the timings of the flights were awkward, so we ended up taking a 10-hour train. We had books, cards and downloads, which entertained us for a while, but didn’t stop us from going just a little crazy towards the end. In retrospect, I’d probably have opted for the flight! After a delicious dinner topped off with egg coffee and coconut coffee (my new obsessions) we browsed Hanoi’s night market and did some souvenir shopping. The next day, we headed off on our Bai Tu Long bay cruise.

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I will happily fork out extortionate amounts of money to the trendy London coffee shop that starts serving egg coffee

Bai Tu Long Bay

Most cruises from Hanoi go to Halong Bay, but since it’s now extremely crowded and the views are ruined by the number of boats, we chose the Indochina Junk cruise which travels to the more unspoiled Bai Tu Long Bay. We didn’t regret spending more money on this part of the trip, because after our train journey (during which I also discovered my bag was infested by ants) it was nice to be pampered! The rooms were more luxurious than most of the hostels we stayed in, the staff were delightful (they all had fake names like Milk Man, named after his strange obsession with milk, and Harry Potter, who did magic tricks), the food was copious and delicious, and activities were included: kayaking, a trip to a cave and a water puppet show on the way home.

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Successfully not capsizing a kayak in Bai Tu Long Bay

Back to Hanoi

We had one final day in Hanoi before flying home. We spent it visiting the Temple of Literature and Museum of Ethnography, and though we could have crammed in more sights – the Women’s Museum or the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, for example – we decided to take it easy and spend our last few hours watching the sun set over the city with cocktails in the Summit Bar before a final dinner at Green Farm Restaurant.

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Goodbye, beautiful Vietnam… goodbye, £5 cocktails

Vietnam didn’t disappoint. Although we spent a lot of time travelling, it was worth the effort (even the 10-hour train!) because each place we visited had such a unique character. Vietnam is a wonderfully diverse country, from the buzz and glimmer of Ho Chi Minh to the otherworldly stillness of the Phong Nha caves, but everywhere we went the people were smiling and chatty, the culture and history were fascinating, the crispy spring rolls were irresistible and the coffee was strong and sweet. There wasn’t time to see everything I wanted, but that just means another trip is on the cards…

Coming soon, a summary of my more recent adventures in Jordan!

Retreating

Late year I was daydreaming at work. The idea had entered my mind that I might leave my job, but I wasn’t decided. I thought that if I did quit, I’d love to go on a writing retreat. On a whim I googled writing retreats Scotland and came across Moniack Mhor, a writing centre in the Scottish Highlands. There were ‘limited places available’ on the May retreat. I booked there and then.

Usually I’d book off holiday from work at the same time, but this time I didn’t. In my head, this was the first stepping stone to making my idea of quitting a reality. I can be stubborn and irrational: now I had something booked, I had to see the idea through.

About six months later I was on my way to Scotland, officially unemployed, remembering that moment at my desk. I’d actually done the thing! I left behind an oppressively hot and grimy London with a pounding headache, but when I stepped off the plane at Inverness the air was damp and bright and refreshing. It felt symbolic of my new beginning in life.

I lingered outside Inverness rail station, waiting for the shared taxi that would take me to Moniack. I shyly observed every artsy-looking person around me: could it be them? I was unsure of the kind of people who went on these retreats. Would they be mega-serious professional writers who would make me feel like a child splashing about in a paddling pool in comparison? Would they be achingly cool, or exhaustingly eccentric? The taxi driver appeared and led me over to a group of people who looked… normal. People like me. I immediately felt comfortable in the presence of other writers.

We arrived at Moniack and were shown to our rooms, which were simple, cosy and most importantly, lacking in distractions. Mine had a beautiful view of the surrounding landscape, where horses and cows outnumbered houses fifty to one. I lay on my bed for a while, my senses amplified: I could hear floorboards creaking, wind gently rattling the window, Highland cows lowing. It was the most peaceful I’d felt in a while, as if somebody were sweeping out the cluttered contents of my head and filling it with air and light.

In the dining room there was there was wine, tagine and chocolate brownies, and good conversation. We were a mix of novelists, poets, short story writers and playwrights, all there for different reasons – editing, finishing first drafts or starting something new – but we were united by our love of writing, which was so strong we wanted to do nothing else for a week. When I said I’d recently quit my job to write, there were no baffled looks; on the contrary, everybody applauded. I knew I was in the right place.

On the first day the light woke me up at 6.45am, and weirdly I didn’t want to collapse back into my pillow and sleep for another hour. Not being tired was strange: I was light-headed, dizzy. I went out to the straw bale studio in the garden for some morning yoga. Yoga takes on a new dimension when you do it in front of a panoramic view of the Highlands amid silence sprinkled with birdsong. In Surrey I’ve adapted to the constant roar of the nearby motorway, and so true silence was unnerving; the only roar I could hear was the wind through the trees. By the time I was lying on my back watching gauzy clouds drift past the porthole in the ceiling, I was used to it. I could have laid there all day – but there was writing to be done.

And done it was. From 8.30 to 5.30 every day I wrote almost constantly, pausing only to read, eat or walk, and after four days I had over 12,000 words. I’ll admit I was a little dubious about retreats before I came: why not just hire out a cottage for a weekend and make your own? Actually, Omar and I did this once, and we did do some writing, but we also spent a lot of time watching films. There’s something different about a formal retreat – something in the combination of the scenery, the lack of distractions, and the inspiration provided by fellow writers – which creates the perfect space for productivity.

I’d begun the week worried about what the other writers would be like; I ended it convinced that my fellow writers were the best thing about the retreat. My group were the perfect balance of hardworking and sociable. Whenever I was lagging, someone would motivate me. On the last night we ate haggis and drank whiskey, listened to bagpipes, and even contemplated an impromptu ceilidh (although after the whiskey, it’s probably good that didn’t happen), which was great fun. It was wonderful to meet writers working on such different projects, and to grow my writing circle a little larger.

I’m so pleased I made that spur-of-the-moment decision to book onto a retreat, not only because it inspired me to make an important life change, but because it was invigorating, relaxing and extremely productive. It also gave me confidence: I now know the novel idea I spent months brewing in my head while wrapping things up at work might just have some mileage.

In the month since the retreat, I haven’t quite managed to replicate my 3,000 words a day, unfortunately. I know that’s only natural, but still, I’m wondering… when can I go on my next retreat?

Emma’s 2017 adventures part four: Boston

A few weeks ago I went to Boston for work and then play. I preferred Boston to Denver in January, but this may have something to do with the fact Denver was minus seventeen degrees and Boston was thirty, or that in Boston I caught up with a friend I hadn’t seen in five years. Also, Boston’s speciality is clam chowder and cream pies, while Denver does great beer: all nice things, but one leaves you feeling much worse the next morning if you overindulge.

Instead of boring you with typical tourist things you could read about on TripAdvisor, I’ll share my favourite five things about Boston.

The seafood

I’m not that into seafood, because anything with pincers, tentacles or suckers should not go in my mouth, but when in Boston… The must-try dish is the clam ‘chowdah’, which is how a Bostonian would pronounce it. I tried it in a place called Legal Seafood – a chain, but apparently a good one – and it was creamy and salty and warming and oh so good. The crab cakes were excellent too, and I’m sure the lobster is something else, although I didn’t try it because pincers.

Cannoli

I know you can get cannoli, a delicious roll of pastry filled with sweetened ricotta, in many places, for example Italy, which I’m willing to bet does better Italian food than places that aren’t Italy. Boston’s cannoli is famous, though, and the place to try some is either Modern Pastry or Mike’s, both in Little Italy. There’s a heated debate between which establishment does it better (my friend insisted on Modern), but I didn’t really care so long as I got to stuff cannoli in my face. Which I did, and my face was happy.

Outdoor reading spaces

I’m no longer so obsessed with doing every tourist activity in a place at the expense of actually relaxing. In Boston I spent hours reading in the sunshine, as there are so many green spaces: the Public Gardens where there are swan boats and a decent busker on every corner, and the Rose Kennedy Greenway, which was created after a highway was rebuilt underground to reduce congestion and create a greener city. On a side note, the book I was reading was Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, about a demagogue who becomes US president and introduces a brutal totalitarian regime… hmm.

Art

I’m always momentarily shocked when I go to an art gallery or museum in another country and have to pay to get in. London has spoiled me. Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in is worth the entrance fee, though, because I spent a good five hours there. They had an impressive range of exhibitions from Matisse’s relationship with objects to Botticelli and faith to Henryk Ross’ photos of the Lodz Ghetto. The exhibitions were really well-curated and easy to follow and understand: unpretentious without feeling dumbed-down.

History

As a Londoner used to seeing centuries-old buildings every day, I appreciated Boston’s sense of history. Walking the Freedom Trail reveals cobbled streets and colonial-era buildings, like the 250-year-old house of Paul Revere (AKA guy who rode a horse really quickly during the American Revolution) and the Old North Church. Next to the latter building there’s also a Historic Printing Office where you can see how the Declaration of Independence was printed; we got a demonstration from a man who seemed to love his job more than anyone I’ve ever met. I know very little about the American Revolution, so found this aspect of Boston fascinating.

Emma’s 2017 adventures, part three: Cyprus

I’m making good progress towards my new year’s resolution to visit four new countries in 2017. I’ve just visited my third: Cyprus. And it’s only April!

I hadn’t planned on going to Cyprus, but the opportunity arose and, unless I’m totally broke, I’ll never say no to visiting a new country. Cyprus hadn’t been on my hit list either, because to be honest I’d always associated it with the kind of beach-and-clubbing holiday I would actually find less enjoyable than being at work. I’m glad I went, though, because Cyprus has so much more to offer than just Ayia Napa.

My friend and I had decided that this was going to be one of those holidays without a packed itinerary; in fact, we had a strong anti-itinerary agenda. We didn’t even want to plan what time we woke up each morning: a day without an alarm set on my phone is the ultimate luxury for me. When the weather wasn’t great on our first day in Cyprus, we didn’t stress out, but took the opportunity to hang out on the balcony of our house with a guitar and write songs about vegetables. Yes, that’s right. I won’t tell you why we did this but needless to say genius happened.

The next day was gloriously sunny, so we headed out to see the sights. We were staying in Limassol, which isn’t one of the beach resort areas, but it’s easy to drive anywhere on the island within a couple of hours. Lovelier than the beaches, in my opinion, are the Troodos mountains in the centre of the island, which we explored on our first ‘proper’ day. We drove up into the mountains – just enjoying cruising past the beautiful, Game-of-Thronesy views as I called them – until we stopped at the start of the Caledonia falls walking trail. Strolling through the dappled light of a forest and clambering over rocks beside tumbling waters was the perfect antidote to the London commuter life I’d been desperate to escape for weeks.

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The Caledonia Falls

There are also dozens of beautiful monasteries nestled in the mountains, though you’re not allowed to go inside many of them; we walked around the grounds of one, until our explorations were cut short by a miniature disaster: a mosquito-bite-gone-wrong, an eyelid so swollen children cowered in the supermarket as we desperately searched for antihistamines, and an impromptu trip to the hospital. I won’t treat you to a picture of that one. It was an adventure, to say the least, though not the kind we were expecting!

We’d had a good dose of nature, so the next day was culture’s turn. A short drive from Limassol is the Kourian archaeological site, well worth the visit if you’re in the area. During the Roman period Kourion was an important coastal city in Cyprus; it was destroyed by several devastating earthquakes, rebuilt in the 5th century, but then raided by Arabs in the 7th century and completely obliterated. It was interesting to see the ruins of a house destroyed by the earthquakes, where the bones of a family plus their horse were found, and where you can still see the horse’s stone trough torn in two by the force of the quake. You can also see the remains of a palace, the Agora, a theatre, the gladiators’ barracks and baths. Once we were ruined out (I’m going to say it: most ruins look the same after a while) we had lunch on the beach nearby: halloumi, iced coffee, views of the Mediterranean and a side helping of smugness.

After lunch we hit the road again and headed somewhere that I hoped would be close to heaven for me: St Nicholas Monastery of the Cats, a monastery surrounded by hundreds of cats, supposedly brought over from Egypt to rid the island of snakes. I’m not sure if my readers know the full extent of my feelings towards cats, but let’s just say I shout ‘cat!’ and point like a five-year-old every time I see one – which in Cyprus was a lot. I only saw about twelve, and they all refused to be fussed over or take selfies with me, which was disappointing. It’s a tranquil monastery, but I’d say that unless you like cats as much as the loser pictured below, you’d probably prefer to spend your time elsewhere.

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CATS CATS CATS

Our final tourist stop that day was Kolossi Castle, a small castle on the outskirts of Limassol containing odd, uncontextualized art installations which blew my mind with their profundity. It has an interesting history – built by the Hospitallers as a Crusader stronghold – and is a pleasant forty-five minute stop. We loved the herb gardens surrounding the castle; rosemary bushes gave the air a sweet fragrance which made just sitting in the sunshine with our eyes closed breathing a deeply therapeutic thing. We finished off the day chilling out on the beach with books and a guitar, though we decided not to blow the minds of the general public with our extreme jealously-invoking talent for composing vegetable-related ditties.

We loved the Troodos mountains so much that we went back the next day for an even longer walk. If you really love nature and inadequate toilet facilities, you could spend several days camping there (can you tell I’m not a camping fan?). This time we tackled the Artemis nature trail, a 2.5 hour circular walk around the top of Mount Olympus, through black pine forests and across rocky precipices that made me feel, just briefly, as if I were on some epic Lord of the Rings-style quest. Who would’ve thought it, there was snow too – you can even go skiing in Cyprus. The walk was breathtakingly beautiful, although our main memory of it is getting terribly lost and me getting heatstroke. It took my friend bursting out of the trees and running into the road, flailing her arms to stop a passing car, for us to discover that we were actually a fifteen-minute walk from where we’d parked our car… nailed it. Definitely do the walk, but definitely don’t get lost.

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The Artemis trail in the Troodos mountains

After our traumatic fight-for-survival in the wilderness we felt we deserved a treat, and so instead of cooking we went for dinner in Limassol Marina that evening. The Marina, with its yachts moored in the glassy water and its luxury flats, bars and restaurants – including a KFC that almost managed to look posh – is a world of its own, and a cool, lively place to spend an evening drinking cocktails and eating fancy seafood. It was the ideal way for us to see off our last full day in Cyprus, and to relax after a holiday that featured several unexpected adventures!

It was a fleeting visit to Cyprus, and I certainly could have stayed longer had I not had a wedding to get back to England for. There was plenty we didn’t get around to doing – more ruins to ramble, more cats to harass, more beaches to lounge on, more mezze to eat – and Troodos alone could have kept me happy for several days. And of course, since I’ll be 30 in the not-too-distant future, I’d better squeeze in that Ayia Napa clubbing package holiday before I’m totally past it.

Emma’s 2017 adventures, part two: Ireland

Two months, two new countries: I’m doing pretty well so far! (I don’t think I’ll be able to keep this up, sadly.)

My second trip of 2017 was to Dublin. I’ve never been to Ireland before and it seemed a pretty easy fix, so one rainy Thursday morning Omar and I hopped on a plane and crossed the sea to the Emerald Isle – which to be honest looked more grey than emerald as the plane landed, but what can you expect for February? February definitely isn’t peak season for Dublin, since Ireland has a reputation for being drizzly at the best of times, but that worked for us: the less stag and hen parties, the better!

Dublin is very much a city break – don’t go there if you’re expecting rolling green hills covered in shamrocks, leprechaun gold and taverns full of eccentric locals playing the fiddle, and even the city itself felt similar to London, rather than somewhere more picturesque like Edinburgh – but as city breaks go, it’s a fun one. I was particularly impressed by the eating and drinking options. We arrived in the evening, so of course the first thing we wanted to do was eat. We ended up in the excellent Yamamori restaurant, which has great Japanese food and even greater cocktails. Not very typically Irish, so after that we headed over to The Cobblestone pub, a place which didn’t look like much from the outside, but was packed inside – on a night when even Temple Bar was oddly quiet – and was the most ‘Irish-feeling’ place we went. It’s famous for hosting live traditional music every night of the week, though the music isn’t so much a performance as the musicians jamming in the corner while you sip beer and soak up the atmosphere. It’s a little way out from the centre, but definitely worth the trip.

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Joycean strolls around Trinity College Dublin

The next day, the sightseeing began with Trinity College, where we paid the obligatory visit to the Book of Kells, an illuminated book of the Gospels produced from the 6th to 9th centuries. There isn’t much to actually see in the exhibition – you get to see the book itself at the end, but mostly it’s information about the book’s journey through history (it seems remarkable we still have it considering all the fires and Viking raids) – but we did spend ten minutes being utterly mesmerised by a video of someone making a book out of vellum using traditional techniques. I also enjoyed reading about perhaps the most famous cat in literature, Pangur Ban.

After that, we mostly just wandered around the surrounding area and St Stephens Green ‘being Joycean’ (Joycean strolls are probably more enjoyable in the sunshine), inhaling some monstrously calorific doughnuts from Aungier Danger before hopping in a taxi to the Dublin Writers Museum. It’s not a huge museum, but if you love literature, you’ll get a lot out of this. It contains the expected display cases dedicated to Joyce, Years, Beckett and Wilde, but also to Irish writers I wasn’t familiar with (and, I’ll admit, writers I didn’t realise were Irish…). From there, it was quite a contrast to go to the Guinness Storehouse, where you can join the shoals of tourists to learn how Guinness is made in an enormous corporate building full of flashy displays, where a peppy man with a microphone teaches you and 70 other people to become a ‘Guinness tasting expert’ in 5 minute slots and you can get a photo of you looking like a chump pulling your own pint (can you tell I wasn’t much of a fan?). It is one of those ‘must-do’ activities, though, and the free pint of Guinness you’re served in a bar overlooking Dublin almost makes it worth the ticket price. Finally, we had dinner in Fallon & Byrne, a food hall, wine basement and restaurant that unsurprisingly serves fantastic wine. It’s pricey, but good if you want to go somewhere a bit more sophisticated before hitting the rather less sophisticated (but more fun) pubs.

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I am an expert after drinking this tiny pint of Guinness

The next day we paid a brief visit to Dublin Castle; you can get tours, but if you don’t want to pay to see inside the castle – which we didn’t, though it’s not too pricey – this doesn’t take up a huge amount of time. We walked around, took some nice photos and then headed over to Ulysses Rare Books. Omar and I were planning on buying one another a second-hand book each as a souvenir, but we released each other from this pact when we realised the shop mostly sells first-edition signed books costing 200-500 Euros. Still, it was fun, to manhandle a first edition of Dubliners or a signed copy of Midnight’s Children – though it felt wrong that a greasy-fingered pleb like me was allowed.

Since it amazingly wasn’t raining that day, we decided on an outing to Howth, a fishing village a 30-minute train ride away from Dublin. If you want some fresh air and more picturesque scenery than you’ll find in Dublin, this is highly recommended; there are some beautiful walks, though we didn’t have time for the longer ones, so we strolled along the harbour to the lighthouse, visited the castle grounds and  ate fish and chips in one of the many fish restaurants. It has the wholesome atmosphere of a posh Cornish village, and visiting was a great way to cleanse ourselves before heading back to Dublin for some final-night drinking. We visited the bustling pubs on Dame Lane and then progressed to The Brazen Head, which calls itself the oldest pub in Ireland (and was also hosting live music when we visited, though it was more of the dad-rock variety). Drinking isn’t going to cost you much less in Dublin than it will in London, so prepare yourself for that!

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Dublin Castle, and a rare sighting of sunshine

The next morning we flew home. I had a great time in Dublin; it’s a perfect place for a weekend, though if we’d had more time we’d have hired a car and driven around the more rural, scenic parts of Ireland. Dublin was less steeped in culture than I was expecting, but the culture is there – you just have to seek it out – and if you’re a foodie (and a drinkie), you’ll be spoilt for choice. Yes, the stag and hen parties can be annoying, and if you’re staying in the centre of town you may not get much sleep, but I was prepared for that and so didn’t let it spoil my experience of the city.

The next new country on my hit list: Poland. That won’t be for a few months, though, so I’ll have to think of something else to talk about in the meantime!

Emma’s 2017 adventures part one: the USA

One of my aims for 2017 is to visit four new countries, and write about all of them. I’ve already ticked off country number one: the USA.

Yes, somehow I’ve never been to the USA before – I suppose I’ve always preferred to travel to places more culturally different to where I live – and I thought I’d better fit it in before January 20 and the dawn of the Trump dystopia. My first visit to the US was not to New York or Washington or San Francisco or anywhere obvious, but Denver, Colorado. I went there for work, not for play, which you might consider cheating, but I promised I’d write about every new place, and so here goes.

I mostly saw Denver by night, since during the days I was at a conference, and when we went out in the evenings we rocketed towards the bars we wanted to go to, because the -17c temperatures and heavy snow didn’t exactly make for pleasant strolling (and as always, I’d dressed for a mild winter’s day in England, unable to conceive of actual extreme temperatures). What I did see, I liked. Denver is great for beer – it hosts a massive beer festival every year – and we visited several tap rooms. I’m not usually a beer person, but in Denver I was, sipping my IPAs and my Ambers, feeling substantially more of a dude than I am. Our favourite was a place called Freshcraft: when we asked the tattooed and prodigiously-bearded server for recommendations, he’d launch into a passionate ten-minute speech which would inevitably end in us going, ‘Yes, that one. That sounds good,’ because ignoring his recommendations would have been like kicking a puppy (and they were always great, anyway).

Having said the USA isn’t that culturally different to England, I did notice some differences. In Denver there’s a very chilled-out vibe, and everyone is extremely friendly, whereas in London everyone you encounter on the street and/or on the underground wants to fake-apologise you to death for accidentally making eye contact with them. (I’m told I’d feel much more at home in New York or Boston.) If a taxi driver tried to talk to me in London, I’d consider opening the door and rolling into the gutter; in Denver, I just went along with it, enjoying my ability to charm people just by saying inane things in my accent. People in shops and restaurants are similarly effusive – I heard ‘you’re so welcome!’ many times when I thanked people for serving me – though I’m not sure to what extent that’s because people rely on tips more. I like to take a positive view of human nature, and so I’m going to say it seemed genuine and a result of everyone being more relaxed and getting more fresh air. 

If you’re planning on visiting Denver, beware of the altitude; perched beside the Rocky Mountains, it’s known as the Mile High City. I’d heard people talking about how the altitude effects your body – someone warned me not to drink too much because my hangovers would be far worse – but I didn’t think I’d notice it. The nosebleed I got when I arrived immediately disillusioned me. As well as giving me worse hangovers (as I discovered on my final day, after trying a few too many beers the night before), the very thin, very dry air meant I was constantly gasping for water, and became a hideous scaled creature with cracked hands and lips that felt like two lumps of wire wool stuck to my face. Slathering my entire face in Vaseline didn’t seem to make much of a difference. 

Although I was working, I feel like I didn’t make the most of my time there. I wished either that I could ski – I’ve never gone skiing but assume I’d spend most of my time falling over or face-planting trees – or that I’d visited Denver in the summer. If I smushed my face against my hotel window at a particular angle, I could just about see the Rockies, and they were stunning. Had it been sunny and warm, I’d have extended my stay and gone hiking in the mountains, and hopefully hung out with some moose (I’m so desperate to see a moose, it’s a bit weird – they just look so badass with their massive antlers!). But I’m sure there will be more trips to the USA to come, and I’ll have a chance to do all of these things. Except face-plant a tree, which I’ll pass on.

That’s all I can really say about my Denver experience. Country number two is already on the cards for the end of this month: Ireland. Yes, I’ve also never been to Ireland before, which is even more disgraceful. I apologise to all my Irish friends and will be righting that wrong soon. This time I’ll be going for play, so should have some more interesting things to say. Until then!

Hong Kong: dim sum, dancing water, daring heights and other delights

I know I haven’t been around for a while – sorry. You must have missed me terribly. I’ve been busy working on my book, but I’ve also been on holiday to Hong Kong with Omar (who is no longer the Ruffian, which felt too silly – therefore his identity is revealed) and a couple of other friends. Let me tell you all about it!

When we arrived in Hong Kong, we hadn’t had any sleep on the 12 hour flight and had no idea what time of day it was – but knew we were hungry. Our hotel was in Mong Kok, the hectic centre of Kowloon crowded with market stalls and street food, so that’s where we ventured out in search of dinner. I was slightly delirious and overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and smells of Mong Kok: muggy heat, raw fish, flashing shop signs, roaring traffic, the chatter of Cantonese. We stumbled into a restaurant we’d found recommended online, which specialised in Hakka cuisine, and were reassured to see we were the only tourists there. Eating like locals, we thought – but our smugness disappeared when we attempted to navigate the menu. Going by the prices, we ordered what we thought a reasonable meal in London would cost. Mistake. An embarrassingly huge banquet was laid out in front of us: a mountain of salt-baked chicken, a cauldron of rice with chicken and prawns, a vat of bean curd, vegetables drowning in a lake of sauce… though we barely made a dent in it, it was all delicious. We’d learnt our first lesson about Hong Kong: food is both cheap and good, an impossibility in London.

The next day, still jet-lagged, we eased ourself into sightseeing by wandering around the city, soaking in the atmosphere. We began with brunch at the Tasty Congee & Noodle Wunton Shop, a very different brunch to the avocado-and-egg affairs we’re used to in London. Congee is a kind of rice porridge or gruel which sounds disgusting, but is actually delicious. Accompanied by noodles and wantons in broth, it fuelled us for a day of exploration. We took the Mid-Levels Escalator – a bit like a normal escalator, but half a mile more fun – up to the Mid-Levels, which I can only describe as Hong Kong’s Soho, a trendy area full of international cuisine and hip coffee shops. Here we stumbled upon the Man Mo temple, the oldest in Hong Kong, built in 1848 to honour the god of War and the god of Literature (so of course I had to step inside). Dark and smoky, with giant incense coils burning slowly overhead, it was a peaceful oasis in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the city. Afterwards, we walked around Victoria Park and the surrounding shopping malls, where I was introduced to Gudetama, an inexplicable children’s character whose tortured expression seems to represent a prolonged cry of existential angst and suffering.

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‘Please, someone have mercy…’

To cheer ourselves up we had a drink on a rooftop bar (there are many in Hong Kong) and Japanese pork cutlets. We scrubbed up in our hotel before hitting the tallest bar in the world: Ozone, on the 118th floor of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in the International Commerce centre. This building makes the Shard look diminutive, although it’s only about tenth in the ranking. The bar is so high that the view wasn’t that good, since we were literally in the middle of a cloud, but if you go on a clear night the views will be spectacular. Cocktails are about £18 each, which is similar to any London bar with an inferior view, and they’re good – the kind that don’t give you a headache the next morning.

Having grown accustomed to the life of luxury, we kicked off our next day with lunch in a Michelin star restaurant: Tim Ho Wan, which is sadly no longer the cheapest Michelin star restaurant in the world, having been beaten by some place in Singapore. My friend’s Cantonese parents ordered for us, meaning we could sit back and be presented with an array of wonderful dim sum. The steamed and baked pork buns were a highlight, and we also tried some more unusual dishes like water chestnut jelly and a sweet steamed egg cake. After this we hiked the Dragon’s Back trail, a coastal walk across the bumpy hilltops (hence a dragon’s back), which wouldn’t have been so strenuous had it not been for the 28 degree heat. Although drenched in sweat, we savoured the beautiful stretches of deep blue island-studded sea and cloudless sky, and especially the occasional ruffle of sea breeze. You can end the hike at Big Wave Bay and take a dip in the sea, but we got the bus back into town and opted for food instead: milk tea and thick slices of toast slathered in peanut butter and condensed milk, which I felt was well-deserved.

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The view from the Dragon’s Back hike

This was a busy day: next we headed up to the Peak to take in the view of Hong Kong’s skyline whilst the sun set and the skyscrapers lit up. It was heaving on the viewing platform, and we had to do some aggressive elbow-jostling to get a good spot, but it was worth it; the views of the glittering bay really are spectacular. Finally, we saw the skyline from a different angle by sitting on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront and watching the laser light show, A Symphony of Lights, which takes place at 8pm every day. I’ll admit we found this a bit of an anticlimax, but still worth seeing if you’re in the area. To finish off the day, we went to the Garden of Stars (usually the Avenue of Stars, but it’s being refurbished) to visit the Bruce Lee statue and join the queue to do bad imitations of his pose, like the typical unimaginative tourists that we were.

The next day Omar forced me to eat a McDonald’s breakfast, which is apparently much better than McDonald’s in the UK (I will not admit to secretly enjoying the trashiness). We then took the cable cars at Tung Chung to see the Big Buddha and Po Lin Monastery in the hills. The cable car is expensive but necessary unless you walk, which you don’t want to do if you value your legs. (Interesting side note: we were in the cable car with a horrified Japanese businessman watching his stocks plummet as Trump’s victory was revealed.) The monastery isn’t as peaceful as it should be due to all the tourists, but the enormous bronze Buddha statue, although built in 1993, has a quality of age-old wisdom and stillness that is awe-inspiring. We also had vegetarian meal in the monastery, which since I’m normally pescatarian I really valued, since it’s hard to come by a good vegetarian meal in Hong Kong. From there, we were going to get a bus to Tai O village – a glimpse of a more traditional world of stilt houses and fishermen – but sadly ran out of time.

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The mesmerising view of Hong Kong’s skyline from the Peak

Instead of a proper dinner, we decided to hit the street food stalls of Mong Kok and eat on our feet as we browsed the stalls of the Ladies’ Market, where you can buy a variety of knock-off designer goods and souvenirs. I also enjoyed walking down the streets selling pets (I had to be dragged away from the kittens in the shop windows) and the Goldfish Market where the shops have bags of live fish hanging outside. This area felt very different to the polished and more Westernised world of the malls full of designer brands and expensive restaurants, and I preferred it for that.

The next day, armed with our passports, we took the ferry to Macau. Like Hong Kong, it’s part of China but an autonomous territory, but it feels very different to Hong Kong; it was a Portuguese colony for many years, creating a unique fusion of Portuguese and Chinese culture. It’s also known for being the ‘Vegas of China’ and contains several massive super casinos. While it was an interesting experience, Macau wasn’t for us. We enjoyed strolling around the old town, looking at the crumbling Portuguese buildings and sampling the local specialities (including the custard tart), but casinos were pandemonium and we found their grandiosity and extravagance rather evil. The highlights were our Portuguese dinner – the African chicken is a must-try dish – and the House of Dancing Water show, a water-based circus show featuring divers, gymnasts and (bizarrely) motorbikes. If you’re going to Macau, you should book a show or a nice dinner, otherwise you might not feel it’s worth the journey.

Our last full day began with a visit to the Hong Kong Museum of History, which covers prehistory through Hong Hong’s time as British colony, the Opium Wars and Japanese Occupation during the Second World War, up to the present. The lesson I took away is that Hong Kong has been through some bad times, but the residents always seem to just get on with things. We then had another Michelin star dim sum experience at Din Tau Lung, a Taiwanese restaurant in a shopping mall (the food in Hong Kong malls is very different to the sorry fast food offerings we get in the UK). This was followed by my favourite activity of the week: cycling in the New Territories, Hong Kong’s suburbia. We wanted a more local experience, so hired bikes and cycled the paths that run for miles alongside the waterfront, until the skyscrapers became hills and smaller blocks of residential flats. After about three hours, by which point we were ravenous, we ended up at a local barbecue restaurant. You pay for a table outside with your own barbecue, then choose from unlimited skewers of meat and stuff yourself with as much meat (and garlic bread, vegetables, barbecued bananas and pineapple) as you possibly can. We talked, laughed and drank beer, and it felt like a chilled evening in the summertime; a fitting grand finale to our week of extravagant  and unashamed consumption.

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A traditional Cantonese barbecue – all the meat you can eat!

The next day we just about had time to zoom around the Chi Lin Nunnery and Nan Lian garden. It’s a traditional Buddhist temple surrounded by a peaceful garden containing lily ponds and an elaborate red-and-gold pagoda, which felt more like the temples I remember seeing in mainland China or in Japan. The contrast of the elegant wooden architecture of the temple with the skyscrapers rising in the background summed up Hong Kong for me. I wished we’d had more time to relax in the gardens, but since we had a flight to catch we had to do power laps; I’d allow yourself a couple of hours to stroll around the complex instead of the 45 minutes we gave ourselves.

One more allegedly superior McDonald’s chicken burger in the airport and we were heading home. 12 hours is a long flight to endure for a week-long holiday (particularly when you’re sandwiched between two grumpy strangers) but I think Hong Kong is worth it. I’d recommend it to anyone who loves food, which I hope is everyone, or for anyone making a first trip to Asia, since it’s fairly small, easy to navigate and has some home comforts, but you can also have a very local experience if you want to – and there’s plenty to do, as the length of this post would suggest!

Pastry consumption in the happiest city in the world.

Over the years my holiday planning has become less and less rigorous. Detailed day-by-day itineraries including my daily budget, transport links and a list of nearby restaurants have descended into me flicking through a guidebook to look at the pretty pictures and frantically checking on the day of my flight to see what airport I’m flying from. It’s heading to the point where I turn up five minutes before the flight with nothing but my passport in my back pocket (and then realise I’m at the wrong airport).

It’s strange, because in other areas of my life I like to think I’m very organised and efficient. I suppose everyone has an Achilles’ heel, and mine is holidays. Anyway, it always works out in the end. A couple of weeks ago I managed to turn up to the correct airport and make it all the way to Copenhagen, with no plans at all – and I had a great time. It might even be my new favourite European city. I can see why it’s called the happiest city on earth, especially if pastries equal happiness.

Pastries.

Sorry, where was I?

Yes. Copenhagen. We arrived late on Friday and by the time we reached our sickeningly trendy Nørrebro apartment – having tickled a bus driver with our bungled pronunciation of Nørrebro (and indeed every other Danish word) – it was too late to find a restaurant. Copenhagen glitters with Michelin stars, but it’s as expensive to eat out as everyone says, unless, like us you’re happy with a greasy pizza from the takeaway around the corner. We sat in the apartment devouring it and making plans for the next day.

Every time I visit a new city, I book a free walking tour – almost everywhere has them, and they’re all pretty good. After our first pastry breakfast at Lagkagehuset, we embarked on our tour of the city’s main sights. Christiansborg Palace looked gorgeous under a bright blue sky, and there were horses (which I still believe are all up to no good, but I’ll admit they looked fairly regal).

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Shifty-looking creatures…

We also saw the oldest street in Copenhagen – the city has burned down an embarrassing number of times, so there aren’t many old buildings – as well as the Nyhavn waterfront area, which is the place you see on all the postcards, except without the throngs of tourists queuing for canal tours. Our tour ended at the Amalienborg Palace, where supposedly the Danish royal family can be seen strolling around without a care in the world. Sadly we didn’t bump into any princes. Afterwards we walked along the harbour to the statue of Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid, which we were really hyped to see, considering it was voted one of the most disappointing tourist attractions in the world. We took lots of photos of strangers’ heads, and even some of the statue too. Had to be done, I suppose!

We then turned back on ourselves and strolled along Strøget, Copenhagen’s main shopping street, towards the Rundetaarn. This is a 17th-century tower, designed as an observatory, which was given a spiral slope rather than stairs so that Christian IV (who couldn’t be bothered to get off his horse) could ride all the way to the top. I vote installing one of those in my office, where the lift has been broken for three years.

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The view from the top of Frederik’s Church

Anyway, the view from the top was pretty lovely, but we found an even lovelier view the next day, when we ascended to the top of Frederik’s Church. It was wet and blustery, but that added a certain drama to the view and to our photos, which involved a lot of sexy hair-blowing. We then visited Rosenborg Castle, a former royal residence and another of Christian IV’s architectural projects (I know nothing about Christian IV except that he loved building stuff). You can pay to go inside, but since we had a pastry habit to fund, we just took lots of hilarious photos of us pretending to be caught in the middle of Storm Katie. Because you don’t have to be a grown-up when you’re on holiday.

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I am a sensible adult able to effectively perform a job.

We finished the day in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, a cool sculpture museum  containing the collection of the man who founded Carlsberg (if Carlsberg did art museums…). It contains a lot of sculptures from ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece, meaning endless potential for taking photos of you imitating the funny faces of busts. In seriousness: Copenhagen contains a high number of museums and galleries in proportion to its size, so if you like art and history you’ll be spoilt for choice; we only had time for one, though I would’ve liked to have seen the National Museum too.

The sun was out again the next day, so after a hearty Danish breakfast plate we visited the Assistens Cemetery next to our apartment, which is the resting place of Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Anderson; though cemeteries give me the chills, I could have spent hours contemplating life there. After a quick forty-five minutes of life contemplation, there was one final place to tick off: Christiania, Copenhagen’s hippy commune. It’s a charming, ramshackle world of vibrant graffiti, sections of the old city ramparts, some (erm) unique-sounding buskers and even a hippy church. We trundled around the ‘green light district’ with our suitcases, trying not to breathe too much cannabis-scented air… fortunately no-one seems to care who you are in Christiania, so we weren’t made to feel like the glaring tourists we obviously were.

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Inadvertent perfectly framed hipster shot of a complete stranger in Christiania. Looking good, bro.

Writing this, I’m surprised at how much we packed in, considering we just turned up to see what was there. There’s so much more we could have done – we didn’t hire a bike, or visit Tivoli gardens, or go on a canal boat, or get a table at Noma (ha) – but that just means another trip, and I’d definitely go again. I can’t imagine anyone not liking Copenhagen: there’s heaps to do, it’s beautiful, extremely clean and easy to get around, the people are friendly and way cooler than Londoners (especially me), and the pastries. Go for them alone. Seriously.

Moments from Japan

Konnichiwa! I have returned triumphant from my travels in Japan. As I wandered down my drizzly London street, crippled under a backpack full of clothes as sweaty and crumpled as myself after a sleepless 19 hour flight, and was greeted by a man urinating into a bush outside of my house, I thought to myself: it’s good to be home.

Normally I like to write about all the things I’ve done on a holiday – for my own benefit more than anyone else’s – but to write it all down this time would take far too long.  I’d rather my memories remain a glorious blur of shrines, bamboo, mist-shrouded mountaintops, neon cityscapes, high-tech toilets and food… so, so much food. Instead, I’ll pick out some of the holiday’s best moments. While I was away I was thinking about that American guy who wrote a list of his observations about England that everyone was inexplicably excited about recently. Though I didn’t think his comments were really as astute as the internet seemed to think, here are some of my own observations about Japan:

1. Halloween is a VERY BIG DEAL (I’m not sure why… possibility because of the potential for dressing up in cute pumpkin outfits, because everything must be cute).

2. Japan is a small-bladdered person’s paradise. You cannot walk five minutes without coming across a (clean!) public toilet. All the toilets have a ‘flushing song’ you can play while you’re relieving yourself, just in case anyone catches on to the fact you are actually having a wee (how uncouth).

3. Every other woman is wearing culottes, a baggy t-shirt, ankle boots with thick socks and a slouchy hat. They all look great, but if you try to replicate this look you will look like a sad gnome wearing oversized pyjamas.

4. The food is healthy… then they add sugar. So, so much sugar. How people remain so petite is a mystery yet to be solved. In the meantime, someone PLEASE get me a salad.

5. I hope you like matcha flavoured things and red bean paste.

6. No train is ever even a minute late and the amount of legroom is glorious. If you’re happy to put up with sitting next to the occasional salaryman swigging a can or seven of beer, you’re golden.

7. Mercifully no Costas, but Starbucks everywhere.

8. No-one can handle their drink. Everyone appears to be either stone-cold sober or completely sloshed. The normal response to being sloshed is to crumple politely onto the floor/train seat while those around you pretend it’s not happening.

9. People are so polite that they would rather inconvenience themselves than tell you you’re inconveniencing them. For example, if you’re walking in the cycle path they will cycle quietly behind you at walking pace for five minutes instead of just ringing their bell.

10. There are no normal-sized dogs, only rat-dogs.

11. Despite the extremely high standard of cleanliness (I’ll miss those hand towels before every meal!) there is an incongruous and infuriating lack of soap in public toilets.

12. We must all wait for the red man to turn green on this completely deserted road…

13. If you think your London flat is small, spend a week in an AirBnB place in Tokyo and you’ll stop complaining. What little space there is tends to be filled with random trendy objects that serve no purpose.

I had many other observations, but I won’t bore you with them; instead, here are some of my favourite moments from my travels. I think they highlight the fact that whatever you like doing, there’s probably something for you in Japan: arts and culture, history, natural beauty, nightlife, fantastic food, and a totally different experience to a holiday in Europe, or even anywhere else in Asia. I’ve wanted to go to Japan my whole life, and it didn’t let me down (no Paris Syndrome equivalent for me). 

Tuna auction failure, sushi success

Every morning at about 5am, there’s a tuna auction at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, and restauranteurs will turn up to put in their bids for the day’s best catches. If you turn up early enough, you’ll get to be one of the 120 people who are allowed in to watch. We were up at 3am, having been told to get there for 4am. After wandering aimlessly around for a while, trying to find the entrance and watching the fish sellers beginning to set up their stalls, we eventually met another tourist who told us the slots had filled up by half 3. Who else would be crazy enough to wake up before the crack of dawn to see fish being sold, we thought? Everyone, it turns out. So I can’t tell you whether the tuna auction is worth the early start, but I can recommend you go to the fish market just for the sushi. In a half-asleep and slightly disappointed daze we stumbled blinking into the brightly-lit Sushi Zanmai, a 24-hour sushi restaurant in the middle of the market, where we were soon woken up by the best sushi I’ve ever eaten. I didn’t think I’d want to eat anything at 4.30am, let alone raw fish, but it was made as I sat watching at the bar and was absolutely delicious. It’s also extremely cheap for the quality of the food. Not that I can afford to buy my lunch at Itsu anyway, but it’s been ruined forever…

4.30am sushi breakfast

4.30am sushi breakfast

A tourist spot that lives up to the hype?

As we approached Miyajima island by ferry and saw the floating Torii gate – the most iconic symbol of the Itsukushima Shrine located there – we worried the day was going to be a bit of a let-down, to be honest. Nothing ever looks as stunning as the professional photographs you see on the front of travel guides, where the weather is always perfect and there aren’t hundreds of other tourists swarming around trying to take selfies, and we thought the gate looked rather diminutive. Up close, though, it does look stunning, painted bright vermillion to keep evil spirits away and reflected in the water; in the Shinto religion, it’s a gateway between the human and spirit worlds, and in the past commoners would pass through it by boat on their way to the shrine, forbidden to set foot on the actual earth of the island. Fortunately, commoners like me are now permitted. After marvelling at the gate in the company of some hungry wild deer, and then entering the shrine itself, we took a cable car to the top of Mt Misen, where we were rewarded with the most beautiful view of the surrounding sea studded with other islands. We took the leisurely route back down, strolling through a cool, damp forest of conifers and firs. Back down in the old town, we sampled some Japanese snacks – steamed buns, oysters, rice burgers and deep-fried cakes on sticks – and got accosted by groups of Japanese school children who wanted to take photos with us, which was a little weird. We shouldn’t have been so cynical about Miyajima: it was one of the most memorable days of the holiday.

The great Torii at Miyajima

The great Torii at Miyajima

A really big Buddha…

While we still enjoyed Miyajima despite the hordes of fellow tourists, Nara wasn’t quite the same; it didn’t live up to the rave reviews we heard from other travellers. If it hadn’t been hyped up so much, though, I don’t think we’d have been at all disappointed. The first permanent capital of Japan, and the site of some of its most historic temples, Nara is worth going to for the spectacular Todaiji temple alone. We almost didn’t go inside because of the numbers of children on school trips (in their adorable matching yellow hats) pouring in, but I’m glad we did, because I had a breath-taken-away moment when I saw it. The main hall is the largest wooden building in the world, and it’s amazing to think it’s been standing since 1692. The hall contains a huge 15 metre tall bronze Buddha, which presides over the tourist chatter and flashing cameras with a sense of timelessness and silent wisdom that I found quite overawing. Like on Miyajima, the grounds around the temple are full of wild deer, thought to be messengers of the gods, who are so used to being around humans that you might get one of them to bow to you if you offer them a deer biscuit. (It’s 50-50 whether your chosen deer will do that or rut you in the crotch, though, so we didn’t risk it.)

Making new friends in Nara

Making new friends in Nara

Sliding doors, tatami mats and chilling in the onsen

Staying in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese guest house, is a must-do in Japan. Most people recommend doing this in Kyoto, but they’re all very expensive, so we booked a night in a cheaper ryokan in Takayama, a small city in the mountainous Hida region (famous for its beef – which, as a not-particularly-carnivorous person, I can confirm is heavenly). Takayama itself is lovely: I could’ve spent hours wandering up and down its old-fashioned streets and browsing little shops full of traditional arts and crafts. It’s also got a bizarre and eclectic museum that recreates Japan in the Showa (pre-WWII) period, full of creepy plastic dolls and rusty vintage cars. My favourite thing about Takayama was staying in the ryokan, though. Having spent the rest of the holiday either in hostels or other people’s flats tiptoeing around trying not to break anything, it was great to be treated as an honoured guest. Tiny ladies in kimonos shuffled around bringing us green tea, and we were given kimonos of our own to wear to a traditional Japanese dinner, where we sat nodding furiously as the servers explained to us in Japanese (accompanied by copious hand gestures) what the dishes were (we didn’t get much other than that ‘pac pac pac pac pac!’ meant stuff our faces… which we did). We also chilled out in the hotel’s onsen, a traditional Japanese bath which left me feeling cleaner than I thought it was possible to be; we ended up doing this three times over the holiday (it’s the best thing to do when hungover, although falling asleep in one wasn’t my finest moment…).

Browsing the shops in Takayama

Browsing the shops in Takayama

Geisha-spotting in old Kyoto

It’s a tough choice, but I think Kyoto was my favourite place in Japan. It’s a big city with loads of good restaurants and nightlife, but it’s also full of history (having escaped bombing during the war). One of my favourite mornings was spent exploring Southern Higayishima, Kyoto’s most important sightseeing district, which is packed with temples, pagodas, beautiful pedestrian lanes that feel like they’re from another century and Gion, the geisha district, where sumptuously-dressed geishas still entertain in geisha houses and elite bars and restaurants. From following a string of prayer beads around a pitch-black stone corridor and ending up at a weird rotating stone illuminated by a single light (an experience that’s meant to replicate being in the womb) to winding around the picturesque Ishibei-koji Lane, eating sweetened shaved ice in an old teahouse and admiring hand-painted fans in a craft-shop, Kyoto crystallised all the images that entered my mind when I thought of Japan previously. It’s also a great base to go on day trips to places like Naoshima art island (another fantastic day I don’t have time to write about) and Nara. We spent five days there, but still didn’t do everything there was to do. I guess that means I’ll have to have another trip back there one day… what an inconvenience.

A view over Kyoto on a sunny morning

A view over Kyoto on a sunny morning