Sunday, 23 April 2017

Curry noodles, somewhere in the Gion backstreets, Kyoto, Japan

Dinner on our first night in Kyoto was on of my favourite meals during our two weeks in Japan last year.

Before we went on holiday Becks bought me a copy of Rice, Noodle, Fish, a book about the food culture and unique dining experiences of Japan. One of my memories from the book is the stories of small restaurants run by individuals striving to be the best they they can. They frequently only serve one dish and spend their careers perfecting their craft.

Dinner that night in Kyoto felt like one of those places.
The small restaurant only sat 8-10 people along a single counter and was run by a friendly man who took our order, served us drinks and most importantly cooked for us. He only cooked two things, noodles and tempura.

I ordered the curried udon noodles. The handmade noodles still had a touch of bite and the curry sauce was the perfect consistency to coat them on their way into my mouth! I really enjoyed the balance and subtly of the curry sauce.

Becks ordered the aubergine noodles which slightly to my surprise came served as a whole deep fried aubergine. Everything came served in some beautiful hand made pottery.
While we were eating a few locals popped in and out for a bowl of noodles. Another person bought in a friend to watch them eat a bowl of noodles. I couldn't understand what they were saying, but I got the impression that they were getting their friend to try a favourite place.

More than just the food that night, which was good, it felt like we'd had a cultural experience and were starting to get under the skin of Japan a tiny bit.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Palma, Mallorca: a civilised boys' weekend

Palma's cathedral
A few weekends ago Ed, Mike and I jetted off to Palma for our first boys' weekend since our adventure in Lyon at the end of 2015.

Friday was a complete washout with torrential rain all day. We made the best of it by hopping between a few nice bars, but I was beginning to wonder what we'd done. Had we chosen a dud destination?
Parc de la Mar / Lagoon in front of the cathedral
Ed and I woke up early(ish) on Saturday morning and headed out for a run along the coast. The sun had come out and a beautiful walled city was revealing itself. Any thoughts that we'd come somewhere duff were completely dispelled.

Palma has a compact centre with lots of narrow streets and small squares. It was perfect for exploring on foot and we were never far from somewhere that we recognised so it was easy to get back to our apartment any time that we wanted to.
Inside the merchants hall
We started Saturday off by walking down to the cathedral and then doing a loop of the Parc de la Mer / lagoon. We continued our drift west and stumbled across the Lonja de Mallorca, the beautiful merchant's hall with its spiralled columns and high ceilings. I saw a sign saying that there were great views from the roof, but unfortunately none of the corner stair cases were open to enable us to get up there.
After a coffee stop in a pleasant little square near the merchants hall we found ourselves in the Santa Catalina area and when we saw the local covered market I immediately wanted to go inside. There were lots of locals shopping at the stalls selling meat (fresh and cured), fish and fruit & vegetables. There were a few places to stand around and eat and drink at stalls preparing some of the fresh produce.
Mercat de Santa Catalina
After a lazy, and incredibly good value fixed priced lunch, we spent the afternoon drifting round more of the historic centre of Palma and checking out the few bits of Gaudi architecture that we stumbled across (below).

On Sunday morning Ed and I repeated our run along the coast on an equally bright and sunny morning. We saw people setting up for what we guessed was a local 5km or 10km race and quite a few other people out exercising on the path along the coast.
Gaudi designed opticians
Having pretty thoroughly explored the centre of town on Friday and Saturday we decided to head north from the centre. We had breakfast in Plaça d'Espanya and then continued north through the Parc de les Estacions. We were drifting without too much of a plan and came across the bull ring in the backstreets. There were high fences all the way round the ring and it had the look of somewhere which might be abandoned, but it was a very impressive structure so hopefully it doesn't fall into disrepair.
Bull ring
We made our away across to the San Juan Gastronomic Market for lunch before making our way back into the centre to grab our bags and then to take the bus back to the airport for our flight back to London.

Thanks Palma for the great weekend!
Colourful streets of Palma

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Ski week in Wengen, Switzerland

At the top of the Shilthorn
Last week I was lucky enough to go skiing in Wengen, Switzerland, with my dad for the week. We had absolutely stunning weather all week with barely a cloud during the time that we were there. It made for some absolutely stunning scenery and with the lack of crowds on the slopes we could enjoy everything to the full. There were a few downsides, namely that I got a slightly sun burnt nose and combined with the end of the season it meant that in the afternoons the lower slopes could get pretty slushy. Although by staying high and picking the north facing slopes we managed to ski until 4pm most days.

My favourite run was bombing off the top of the Shilthorn on a virtually empty piste. The steep start makes you feel like an accomplished skier (which I'm not) before you drop into the bowl for some sweeping carving turns. Can I got back up the cable car another four times to do it again please?
Lunch in Grindelwald
I'm used to a ski resort being just ski lifts and slopes, so one of the things which really struck me was how much extra Wengen had a on offer. For the skiers there were several speed traps, timed slalom courses and fixed cameras around the resort that you could take advantage of. At the end of each day you could also get a print out of the activity logged against your ski pass for that day (number of lifts taken, a graph of the altitude you skied at, how long you'd been skiing etc..). It all added to the fun.

For the non-skier there were plenty of toboggan runs across the resort plus a zip wire in Grindelwald and over in Murren they were making much more of the James Bond connection that than I've seen on previous visits. All the attractions seem to be working as there were quite a few non-skiing tourists in the resort.
Timothy Dalton at the Shiltorn 
We stayed at the Hotel Belvedere in Wengen, a fairly solid 3* hotel. It isn't going to win any awards but was a solid choice. It is short walk from the lifts so being able to leave our skis and boots at the hire shop (Skiset) every night was a bonus.
About to hit the slopes underneath the Eigernordland chair

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Hiroshima Peace Museum and Okayama

Our visit to Okayama was my favourite day of our trip to Japan, but it started on a rather sombre note. I woke early and walked the less than five minutes from our apartment to the Hiroshima Peace Museum to get there for opening time.

I wasn't sure what to expect from the museum, but in the end it was one of those situations where there were so many crowds that you could barely see the displays cases. I filed round at the same speed as everyone else and in the end left feeling very little. I've no doubt it would have been a very sombre and moving affair if you were able to experience the museum at a quieter time.
On leaving Hiroshima we decided to break up our trip to Kyoto with a stop in Okayama having read that the gardens there were one of the top three gardens in all of Japan. We jumped out of the bullet train, left our bags at a bike hire shops close to the station (as all of the lockers inside the station were full) and caught a tram across to the gardens.

We had glorious sunshine and the gardens were simply stunning. I'm not sure my description would add much so I'll let you enjoy the photos and point you in the direction of the official website if you'd like to know more.

After our hour in the gardens we headed back to the station, collected our bags, picked up a quick bento box from a supermarket in the station and then it was onwards to Kyoto where one of my favourite days was topped off with one of my favourite meals of the holiday too.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Joshua Trees
When we were planning our trip to California, I was determined to fit in a visit to a National Park when I was there. When I was reading reviews, Joshua Tree very rarely came up, or at least if it did it was pretty far down the list. However, all of the blockbuster parks were further from our base of LA than we wanted to drive we decided to take a chance on Joshua Tree. I'm really pleased we did as our day inside the park was easily my favourite day of the holiday.
Hidden Valley trail
We started our day in the park office close to our Air BnB apartment to pay our park fee and get some advice on what to do during the day and then we were off into the park!

Our first stop was the Barker Dam trail. As with all the walk during the day it was an easy 30 min - 1 hr loop from the car park which head out to a small, and now empty, dam that was built by cattle ranches in first half of the last century. On the way to the dam we saw some ancient rock paintings which, if I remember correctly, a TV crew had painted over to make them stand our more for their filming!
Inside the Hidden Valley
It was then a short drive to the Hidden Valley a one mile loop through large boulders in, surprisingly enough, a hidden valley. There were a number of rock climbers inside the valley who were looking for challenges to climb.
Hidden Valley rock formations
After we'd come out of the valley we sat at some of the nearby picnic benches to eat our lunch and soak in the amazing view below of hundreds of Joshua Trees as far as the eye could see.
Joshua Trees as far as the eye can see
After lunch we drove up to the Keys View lookout, which had hazy views down to the Mexican border which you can apparently see when the smog isn't too bad.
Skull Rock
We then drove onto Skull Rock which really does look like a skull, as you can see for yourself from the photo above.

We then drove across to the Cholla cactus garden. I was pretty nervous walking along the paths and in between the cacti as there were signs telling you that the needles were really difficult to remove if you managed to prick yourself. Not somewhere that you'd want to lose your footing....
Cholla Cactus Garden Trail
The cholla cactus garden also marked the point where the national park transitioned from the Mojave dessert where we had spent most of the day to the Sonoran dessert below us. There were huge and vastly different vistas.
Our trusty hire car
Our final stop of the day, as the shadows were lengthening, was the White Tank camping ground for a short walk round one of the trails and a visit to the rock arch below.
The arch at White Tank

And with that our Californian holiday came to and end. It has only taken me fifteen months to get the final blog of our holiday posted!

Sunday, 5 March 2017

I should be Souvlaki at The Old Nun's Head

Haloumi Souvlaki 
It has been three years (really?) since we last visited The Old Nun's Head to check out Burger Bear who are still taking over the kitchen a couple of nights a week to serve their awesome burgers. This time we were back to try I should be Souvlaki who take over the kitchen on Wednesdays.

We both ordered the haloumi souvlaki (£8). The soft Greek pita really made the wrap for me (so often they can be drying), with plenty of haloumi, fresh tomato, a few chips and enough of the yoghurt dressing to keep things moist without being horribly messy the pita was really enjoyable.
Feta fries

I'd hoped to also try the beefy fries but as they'd sold out we settled for the feta fries instead. Fairly priced at £4 the fries were sprinkled with oregano, feta, red onion and drizzled with more of the yoghurt sauce. I would have liked a bit more of the yoghurt sauce and bit less red onion.

It was a very enjoyable and reasonably priced date night. I'd happily return for another haloumi souvlaki or to try one of their meaty options.

Old Nun's Head
15 Nunhead Green
SE15 3QQ

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Noak revisted, Brockley

The Quite Healthy
In my first blog post about Noak I wrote that it "makes me want to love it and pull my hair out in almost equal measure." The food we've tried has always been pretty  good, it was just the service that was letting the place down.

We visited again a couple weeks ago and we were greeted when we arrived, shown to a table, given menus, our order was taken and then the food arrived after a perfectly acceptable wait. They had a generous number of staff working and an order of service seems to have been established, making a big difference to our enjoyment of the café. I know it sounds basic, but previously it wasn't always the case.

I had the 'Quite Healthy'. A bowl of halloumi, avocado, home made beans, roasted tomatoes, sourdough, courgette ribbons and an egg cooked to your liking (£10.50). All of the components were well done and the two thick slices of sourdough were a welcome filling addition.

Noak felt like it was on the way to being the café we all hoped it would be when they first opened, so it was a shame that is wasn't full on a Saturday lunchtime. If, like us, others have previously been put off, hopefully they too will give Noak another try.

209–211 Mantle Road