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

A Tuscan Romance

My impression of Italy was tarnished by the holiday to Sorrento I went on with my parents when I was 15. After a glorious few days of visiting Pompeii, driving along precarious cliff edges and eating all the gelato I could fit into my body, things went downhill after The Lasagna – probably the most memorable meal of my life, and not in a good way. Tasting like a twice-reheated microwave meal but somehow still lukewarm, with the texture of a tough, chewy piece of leather coated in claggy cheese sauce, it only took a few hours for my stomach to object. The following 24 hours were extremely traumatic. Every time I thought of Italy after that I couldn’t remember anything but The Lasagna and the irony of eating the worst Italian food I’ve ever tasted in Italy. It wasn’t very fair to a country which is otherwise highly rated, so I thought I’d better give it another chance to redeem itself.

My friend Pip and I did a mini road trip of Tuscany, taking in Florence, Siena, Pisa and the beautiful Chianti countryside in between. Bar a few minor mishaps, most of which involved public transport – a risky business in London let alone somewhere you don’t speak the language – we had a wonderful time, and most importantly, the food was incredible and I didn’t get the slightest bit of food poisoning. Not spending a day huddled over a toilet bowl is quite high on the list of factors I take into account when rating how successful a holiday was.

Our first afternoon was spent wandering around Florence, trying to adjust our delicate English constitutions to the 35 degree heat. I’d heard that Florence is one of the prettiest cities in Italy, full of beautiful churches and beautiful people drifting across the paved streets in floaty dresses and designer sunglasses, and I wasn’t disappointed: almost every street we turned onto contained yet another medieval building, the enormous dome of the 13th-century Cattedrale di Santa Maria rising above them all (and stopping us from getting lost). We walked for hours with no plan, just soaking in the sunshine and history. Unsurprisingly for a beautiful city on a sunny day, every piazza was swarming with tourists, making it impossible to get a photo without a backpack or selfie stick invading your shot – but you can’t complain when you’re part of the problem. We climbed the bell tower of the cathedral, and after trooping up a seemingly endless flight of narrow stone stairs in a gloomy, claustrophobic spiral stairwell we were rewarded with a gorgeous views over the city.

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We then crossed over the Arno river via the Ponte Vecchio, a bridge first built in Roman times but replaced in 1345. As in medieval times the bridge is still lined with shops, but instead of butchers and tanners it now contains expensive jewellery shops and men trying to sell you blobs of goo you can throw at walls and selfie sticks (repeating the word ‘selfie? Selfie? Selfie?’ with a dead look in their eyes as everyone ignores them, which seemed a sad indictment of 21st century life to me… anyway). We walked up into the hills, which ended in another view of the city (there are a lot of views in Florence. I became accustomed to them, which was quite a shock when I returned home to the vista of some upturned plastic chairs on a patio and the back of a shed I enjoy from my bedroom). Exhausted from the heat and walking we devoured our first pizza of the holiday: the beginning of a week-long carbohydrate and cheese blowout. The one thing that disappointed us a little about Florence was the restaurants. We knew there had to be loads of authentic trattoria hidden in the cobbled side streets, but we struggled to find them amongst places featuring laminated menus with pictures, the kind of places I associate with The Lasagna. That said, any pizza you eat in Florence is probably going to be better than a Pizza Hut, so we felt we were on pretty safe ground.

On day two in Florence we crossed the river again to visit the Boboli Gardens, situated behind the Pitti Palace (where the Medici family lived). These are lavish and formal gardens featuring lawns, gravel walkways, sculptures and fountains, once intended only for the Medici dukes to enjoy, but now open for people like us to debase by taking stupid photos of us posing with the sculptures. The gardens are in the Oltrano district, a trendier and more chilled out place than the area around the Duomo – the Piazza Santa Spirito in particular is full of cool bars and restaurants. We then queued for half an hour to get inside the Duomo, but upon getting to the front were told we weren’t allowed in with uncovered shoulders, which was fun. We brushed off our failure and visited the Uffizi Gallery, which is one of the oldest art galleries in the world. It’s full of famous works by Italian masters, which means there are a lot (A LOT) of religious paintings. Not being an art historian I must admit I started to find them a bit samey, but the gallery is still definitely worth a visit. If you book in advance you can avoid having to queue for three hours (yes, really). We finished the day with al fresco wine and antipasti in an enoteca (wine shop and restaurant) just of the Piazza Santa Croche, possibly our favourite meal of the week.

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The next day we picked up our car and drove to Impruneta, a small town just on the outskirts of the Chianti wine-producing region. We’d booked a couple of nights in a secluded farmhouse, exactly what we needed after the bustle of Florence. There isn’t much interesting to say here – we essentially did nothing other than lie by the pool, read, eat and drive around the surrounding small towns and villages – but it was my favourite part of the holiday. The old farmhouse was quirky and charming, the family who ran it extremely friendly, the views over the vineyards from the poolside so perfect it felt like a film set, the sound of silence alien to my ears. We ate a four course meal with prosecco, wine and limoncello thrown in, all cooked by the family, for 25 euros, and it was exactly the kind of hearty, rustic Italian fare you’d expect from a Tuscan farmhouse. We also discovered limoncello is not intended to be drunk as a shot. I could go back to that place and spend an entire week there; it would be the perfect place to bring my laptop or just a notebook and write, and a great place to get married too (not that I’m planning on it any time soon).

On one of the evenings, we headed back to Florence to watch Carmen in St Mark’s English Church. It’s an Anglican church that puts on operas largely aimed at English-speaking tourists, perfect if you’ve never seen an opera before because there’s a guy who comes on between the songs and explains to you what on earth is going on. It’s a lot cheaper than going to see a ‘real’ opera, probably shorter too, and because the church is quite small you can get up close to the singers rather than squinting through a tiny pair of binoculars (but avoid the front row if you don’t want to get spat on). Our failure to find the correct bus after an hour of searching, and then our failure to flag a taxi, meant we didn’t get back to our farmhouse until after the family had gone to bed, and there was no-one to let us through the gates. After ten minutes of me despairingly ringing the bell and contemplating a night sleeping in the car – something which would take a long time to become retrospectively funny – Pip scaled the wall in a maxi dress to open the gates from the inside and let us in, after which we caused a power cut in the entire house by switching on our air conditioning unit (don’t tell them it was us). My bikini then fell out of the window and onto the roof where I couldn’t reach it and we were getting devoured by mosquitos because we had to open the window to avoid melting. We’d reached the point where everything was going so wrong that all we could do was laugh – it’s counterproductive when you get stressed about things on holiday, right?

That brings us to day five. We drove to our next hotel in Siena, a medieval town up in the hills which I actually preferred to Florence. It’s smaller and less thronging with tourists, and I thought its 12th-century Duomo was even more spectacular. The Piazza del Campo, the town’s main square, is where the famous Palio takes place twice a year, in which bareback riders from ten of the city’s contrade – I imagine Romeo and Juliet style factions – race in an intense 90-second battle for glory. The Palio actually took place the day before we arrived in Siena, but we did get to see members of the winning contrade dressed in their silly outfits involving tight leggings, shoulder pads and puffy hats, marching through the streets banging drums and waving flags, so we still experienced some of the atmosphere of the event. I found the choice of restaurants in Siena better – because it’s smaller, those little trattoria are easier to find – and we had another excellent dinner washed down with wine and gelato.

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One of the highlights of the holiday was day six, when we went on a much-anticipated wine-tasting Vespa tour. I realise this sounds legally dubious and in defiance of all kinds of health and safety recommendations, and we only booked it after drinking a bottle of wine each. We didn’t regret it, though, because it was awesome. We drove around a few different Chianti villages and stopped for wine-tasting and lunch at a farmhouse  (where we were encouraged to spit the wine out, I should add). I say we drove, but I’ll make an embarrassing confession here: during the training session at the beginning of the tour, I was deemed too bad to ride the Vespa myself. I blame this on the fact my legs were too short to reach the ground when I sat on one… which doesn’t make the situation any less embarrassing, really. I had to ride on the back with the tour guide, which did mean I could drink all the wine I wanted and take in the scenery without worrying about barreling into the middle of a roundabout or flying over the edge of a steep hill to my extremely cool and retro but still pretty gruesome death, which is definitely what would have happened if I’d tried to drive myself.

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The morning of our final day was spent by the pool, and at lunchtime we drove to Pisa. There isn’t much to do other than look at the leaning tower, so an afternoon is definitely enough. You can also take the obligatory photo of you pretending to prop it up, but if you do I’ll despise you forever. I hate that pose so much that I started to take photos of people taking the photo just to make them feel embarrassed at their lack of originality, but even that got boring since everyone was doing it and no-one seemed to have any shame or dignity. The tower is fascinating, though, and it’s a shame that its lean eclipses its beauty and also its history – although reading why it leans and how the lean was reduced through restoration work is also interesting. It’s safe to go up the tower now, but we didn’t fancy it, mainly because it costs thirty euros because also because it’s leaning. We then hung around drinking cocktails and eating obscene amounts of pasta and tiramisu, after which we sunk into our final carbohydrate coma: a fitting end to a largely food-based holiday. The next morning it was time to board a plane with a disproportionately high number of extremely unhappy children… just the welcome home I needed.

Italy, you have successfully redeemed yourself; I forgive you for The Lasagna Incident. It’s been ten years now and I need to get over it. Though it was a very expensive holiday, and I think I may have developed a lactose intolerance entirely from eating gelato (there were just so many flavours), Tuscany was worth every penny and every calorie for me. It’s not the kind of place you go on a shoestring, and definitely not the kind of place you go on a diet. As I sit here writing this and staring at the back of a shed, the scorching 22 degree heat beating against my window pane, that farmhouse and those vineyards are calling me back already…

Consuming nature

A few years ago now I wrote a blog post about the importance of ‘looking up’: taking a few moments to let ourselves get distracted from the A-to-B mentality of our everyday lives and notice the strange and beautiful things that are above (but also sometimes around) us – things we might never have noticed before, even in the most familiar settings. I’ve now realised that even when we do look up, sometimes we still don’t appreciate what we’re seeing in front of us. We never allow ourselves to enjoy things exactly as they are in the moment, but instead filter them through a lens of consumerism and think about how we might portray our experience of them to other people in order to make our lives look more exciting and glamorous. Let me explain by telling you about where I’ve been these past few days.

On Saturday night I spent a very long time looking up. I was in a forest somewhere in Iceland at about eleven o’ clock at night, waiting for the appearance of the aurora borealis (or northern lights). We were told by our guide that there were three important ingredients for a good sighting of the lights: luck, luck and luck. But we were lucky, she reassured us, because the light activity was very strong that night, and we were visiting Iceland at the best time of the year to see them. We had also been driven to a forest where the sky was apparently very clear that night. Our expectations were high: everything was in our favour. All we had to do was be patient, and we would be rewarded with a spectacular celestial light show.

Unfortunately, the sky above the forest was clogged up with clouds; we couldn’t even see a single star, let alone the lights, though our guide assured us that they were there. Eventually we thought we saw a greenish tint, although it could have just been our eyes. No-one had told us before that the lights don’t always look very colourful to the naked eye; unless you’re extremely lucky you’ll probably only see a faint green glow, and it isn’t until you take a photo on a camera with the right settings that you see the lights in their full intensity. When I took a photo it came out completely black, no matter how much I fiddled with my camera settings. My friends had slightly more success. On their camera screens that faint glow on the horizon was in fact bright green. It was cool, but the photos were grainy and not very impressive: no-one would care much if we posted them on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

We were standing on top of a hill in the midst of a big cluster of tourists from other coaches, and I had to crane my neck to see the sky above the heads of the people in front of me. The people lucky enough to be at the front stayed there, naturally, cameras pointed at the sky, ruthlessly patient. Others farther back became disgruntled. People started to call out: ‘Excuse me, are you even taking any photos up there? Because some of us aren’t getting the chance of a good shot.’ ‘For goodness’ sake, turn your flash off! Didn’t you hear the guide? You’re ruining the lights!’ The people at the front still didn’t move. They weren’t going to let anyone else take away from their moment. I was quite astonished at how grumpy and discourteous everyone had become, probably myself included, despite standing in the presence of a natural phenomenon – but one that hadn’t quite lived up to our expectations. We were a group of customers who felt we hadn’t got value for our money, or that others were encroaching on our right to get our fair share of the northern lights. Didn’t we deserve to see them after paying all that money for a ticket and standing in the cold for so many hours?

My friends and I had a vague awareness of what was happening, but it wasn’t until my friend articulated it that we realised how ridiculous we were being.

‘Oh my goodness, guys,’ she said, ‘we’re consuming the northern lights.’

Once it was stated we could only find this hilarious, because of course she had hit the nail on the head. We had paid for an experience and were disgruntled that it wasn’t being delivered, but of course nature doesn’t work that way. It’s unpredictable, and doesn’t fit into the ‘want-it-have-it-now’ capitalist system we’ve grown up with; it also doesn’t care whether our friends are envious of our lives as portrayed by social media or not. There’s no filter that can make the northern lights look better when they’re just not there. It was frustrating, but also strangely refreshing to be in a situation where our expectations were irrelevant, where we had no right to anything and could control nothing.

Since the clouds weren’t moving, our guide decided we would move to another location where the sky was clearer. We started to walk back to the coaches, but when I looked over my shoulder I saw that a vague patch of light in the sky was brighter. As I watched it grew more and more intense, streaking downwards like a trail left by luminous green powder falling through water. ‘They’re flickering!’ called the guide, and everyone started to ooh and ah. They weren’t spectacular – nothing like what you see on the postcards – but you could tell they would be if the clouds weren’t in the way. They were flickering away behind that thick veil, uncaring of whether we saw them or not, and I found that mere sense of the unseen awe-inspiring. We were lucky that they decided to show eve the slightest glimpse of themselves to us, since they had no obligation to. I’m not sure why I’ve bestowed them with consciousness, but it seems appropriate. The lights were an electromagnetic smirk dancing across Earth’s atmosphere: perhaps mocking the little frustrated huddle of bodies down below, perhaps completely indifferent to us – but we could never really be sure, since they faded away into the deadpan expression of a starless sky whenever we tried to look at them too hard.

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A few days later, nature got the better of us once again. We got on the coach to embark on our final excursion of the holiday, the Golden Circle tour. We’d get to see the geysers, the Gulfoss waterfall and the Thingvellir National Park where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates are slowly drifting apart. All sounds amazing, right? If you want to see photos of any of these things, you’ll have to search for them yourself. I don’t have any, because I didn’t get to go.

It was probably for the best, since when the coach first set off I was rather afraid for my life. In Iceland the sun doesn’t rise until about eleven o’ clock in winter and so it was dark as night at nine, and the snow was the heaviest I’ve ever seen: a solid-seeming wall of white slamming against the front windshield while the wind pounded its sides. The daredevil driver seemed to be loving it, but the terrified tourists were not. You could only see the headlights of an oncoming car when it was metres away, and the view from the window wasn’t exactly like scenery from an HD nature documentary. The guide began her commentary with, ‘If you could see anything at all, you would see that we’re driving through lava fields right now.’ After struggling through the blizzard for about half an hour the driver received instructions to turn around, since the weather was even worse where we were heading. It wasn’t safe, but even if we’d made it to the geysers without getting stuck in a snowdrift or veering off the road it would have been pointless; we wouldn’t have been able to see a thing. It was our last day in Iceland, so we couldn’t reschedule the trip – no Golden Circle for us.

On the way back the guide made an admirable attempt to console us with some fun facts about Iceland. People only live on the coast there, since the middle of the country is covered in volcanos. It was amazing to me that people would decide to settle in a country so uninhabitable, with five-hour days in winter and twenty-four hour daylight in summer, but I could also see why they would want to. It is extremely beautiful, has a rich cultural history, and felt like nowhere else I’ve ever been. I got the sense (and perhaps this is completely wrong) that Icelanders see themselves as stewards of their country, treating the natural world with great respect because they are at its mercy – rather than trying to build on and populate every inch of it as we do here in the UK, because we can. Iceland is physically fairly large, but in terms of human population it is tiny: there are only about 323,000 people living there, compared to over 8 million in London alone. The difference is very, very obvious, as I discovered on my way home today. Victoria underground station is stressful at the best of times, but seems like utter pandemonium when you’ve spent the previous day walking down the almost empty streets of Reykjavik in a heavy snowstorm.

I’m ashamed to admit that one of my first thoughts on hearing the Golden Circle tour was cancelled was: think of all the lost photo opportunities! I quickly realised how stupid this was, and that it wasn’t about the photos at all, since no-one was going to ask me to provide evidence if I claimed to have seen the geysers and the waterfall. What I was actually the most gutted to miss out on was the experience of seeing those things with my own eyes: feeling the spray on my face, hearing the roar of water tumbling between rocks, treading on the land where the Icelandic parliament (the oldest in the world) first met in 930. Of course I would rather have seen those things and not been allowed to take a single photo or even tell anyone that I had seen them. That’s what travelling is really about: the doing, the feeling, and the telling (or writing) about it afterwards.

To put things in a more positive light, I did still spend a hilarious day trudging through Reykjavik with my friends, becoming so cold and desperate that we considered a visit to the Phallological Museum just to get out of the snow (but since you had to pay to giggle at artistic representations of penises, we ended up camping out in a restaurant instead). We talked for hours and got to know one another much better. I can also say that while I didn’t get to experience the Golden Circle, I did experience an Icelandic snowstorm in all its glory. I suppose not everyone in the world can say that.

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I know these aren’t particularly deep or original thoughts – the equivalent of jotting the classic ‘man vs. nature’ in the margin of a poetry book – but my experiences of the unpredictability of the elements really hammered home how spoilt our generation of gap-year travellers is. We have an unshakeable sense of entitlement and want to collect cultural experiences and natural wonders in the same way our parents’ generation would collect stamps, shiny coins or pretty shells from the beach. I used to roll my eyes at the endless Facebook albums of friends jetting off to Thailand to drink cheap cocktails out of buckets. Now I realise I’m in danger of become a supposedly more ‘cultured’ version of those people, travelling in an even more pretentious way to places I perceive to be ‘niche’ so that I can see them ‘before they’re destroyed by tourism’ – and making sure I get plenty of photos with my beaming face in front of everything along the way. I need to remember that travelling is not a right but an immense privilege; I have relatives who have never left this country, and had others who only left it to go and fight in a war. They would never have dreamed of living the kind of life I do now, and perhaps they would even have been shocked by my extravagance and ungratefulness.

Speaking of extravagance, I am seriously considering going back to Iceland in the next few years. It seems ridiculous considering the number of others places I want to go, but you have to understand that having only begun the Golden Circle and not finished it, the sense of incompleteness will never stop niggling at me. But what if I pay all that money and the lights refuse to show themselves to me again? What if a volcano erupts and the ash makes flying impossible, cancelling the holiday altogether? Well, that’s just nature. It’s a very real possibility, and a chance I would simply have to take.

Reykjavik, December 2014
Reykjavik, December 2014