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Things To Do In Oban, Scotland

Oban is a town in Argyll and Bute located around a pretty bay on the west coast of Scotland. It’s a popular place to visit and also has a ferry port from which it’s possible to travel to some of the western islands and as such is often considered the gateway to the Hebridean islands. But there are plenty of things to do in Oban itself and the surrounding area.

A Towering Folly

McCaig’s Tower is the town’s most prominent landmark, set on a hill looking over the bay. It was funded by John Stuart McCaig in 1897, a local banker who wanted to ensure employment for local builders and stonemasons as well as to leave a monument dedicated to his family. But he died before his plans fully came to fruition and, although he left a legacy for its completion, his family contested this and work stopped.

Things to do in Oban

McCaig had apparently wanted a grand design based on the Colosseum in Rome, which would have been impressive, but it was not to be. It is a folly, but is nice to climb the hill and walk around the tower to have a look at the design and also to get a panoramic view of Oban below.

Things to do in Oban
Oban view

Visit Oban Distillery

Oban has one of the smaller whisky distilleries in Scotland. In fact the town developed around the distillery which was established in 1794. Hence it’s very conveniently located right in the centre of Oban. Because of its location the distillery didn’t really have the opportunity to expand so it remains small but perfectly formed. Also, because it’s town-based, there are no issues with someone having to drive to the distillery if you want to indulge in a tasting and are staying locally.

Things to do in Oban Distillery

Of course they offer tasting tours. It’s definitely worth making a booking. At the time we visited it wasn’t possible to tour the distillery itself (although you can make a booking through their website) due to Covid but a tutored tasting was possible. On arrival you are shown to a table and presented with some samples in little glasses and a tasting card.

Things to do in Oban

It was really useful to have some guidance as to how to taste whisky. The advice was to sip and don’t sniff the whisky on the first taste. Definitely don’t quaff the shot or you will just get a burn at the back of the throat. Sipping again, your mouth is now used to the whisky, so let the whisky lie on your tongue for 15-20 secs to let the saliva glands release saliva and savour the flavour. You don’t expect to get a peaty whisky in Oban, the water is sourced from a local loch, about three miles away.

When whisky is first distilled it is a clear liquid. Its colour and flavour derives from the barrels it is stored in and the length of time the whisky is aged. There are some interesting techniques – the whisky can be aged in bourbon or sherry barrels but the casks can only be used a certain number of times (around five). Some barrels are charred inside, then the burned timber is scraped away to expose new timber and this offers a new flavour. Some whiskies are tripled matured in three casks. We tried the 14 year old whisky, which had a light, citrusy flavour; the 14 year old (charred barrel); the Distiller’s Edition which had been aged in a bourbon and then a sherry cask, which had a sweeter, more caramel roundness; and the triple matured Little Bay, which had a great complexity of flavour.

Of course, there are lots of bottles of whisky available to buy. We were quite taken with their Game of Thrones special edition.

Things to Do Around Oban – Day Trips

We recommend using a car to get around Scotland if you can – the driving is generally easy, the routes are guaranteed to look beautiful and it gave us flexibility to explore the wider area. However, there are public transport options if that is preferable.

Easdale Slate Island

Easdale is a tiny island located around 25 km from Oban. It’s easy to reach but first you have to cross the Bridge Over The Atlantic – possibly the cutest bridge in Scotland. Clachan Bridge joins Seil Island to the Scottish mainland so it really does cross the Atlantic – sort of! It’s a darling humpbacked bridge, built in 1792. It’s on a single track road, so take care when crossing.

Bridge over the Atlantic

From there head to Ellenabeich, which has a large car park and the ferry port for the three minute journey across the sea to the island. It costs just a few pounds to make the crossing.

On arrival at Easdale you discover that there are no cars but it is the most delightful place to go walking. There is a café/reastaurant and a folk museum.

Easdale was once the focal point of the Scottish slate industry. As such it has a number of slate quarries, many of which are now flooded. Despite the industry, the island is really beautiful. Skimming Quarry holds a national stone skipping competition every September.

Easdale Slate island
Easdale Slate island
Easdale Slate island

It’s very easy to walk all the way around the island and sometimes you get lucky with perfect weather.

Kilmarten Glen and the Standing Stones

Driving further south towards Kilmarten it’s possible to explore some of Scotland’s prehistoric monuments, including cairns and standing stones.

Stopping in Kilmarten itself there is a museum which gives a history of the area, and the church next door, which has a collection of early grave slabs.

Further down the road there is a car park and, after crossing the road into the field, it’s possible to see Nether Largie Stones. The stones, believed to have been erected 3200 years ago, align with the midwinter sunrise and the autumn and winter equinoxes.

Things to Do Oban Scotland

Temple Wood is a stone circle which has a cairn in its centre. It was originally a wood circle, dating from about 5000 years ago but the wood was later replaced with stones. Cremated remains, dating from around 3300 years ago, were found inside the centre of the circle.

Another short walk just down the lane takes you to the Nether Largie South cairn, a Neolithic chamber tomb. It is thought that it was constructed around 5600-5500 years ago. It’s believed that it was used for burials in the early Bronze Age as well.

Seafood and Eat It!

On our return to Oban we discovered plentiful restaurants, many of which offer seafood. Blessed with a long and beautiful coastline, Scotland’s seafood is fantastic! If you want the very best, which is also incredibly good value for money, there is only one place to go: Oban Seafood Shack, also known as The Green Shack, located by the harbour on the railway pier.

Things to Do Oban Scotland

It’s so good, there will almost certainly be a long queue, but it’s emphatically worth the wait as you can order a huge variety of fresh seafood. It is literally a shack – a tiny hut – where you place your order. There’s not much seating, just a small covered area next to the shack and some tables for standing. It’s not the place for an intimate dinner but who cares when the food is this good? We ordered the seafood platter which was just divine: lobster, crab claw, langoustine, mussels, prawns, scallop in butter sauce, hot smoked salmon, pickled herring, crab sticks, squid rings. It was served with simple bread and butter, Marie Rose and sweet chilli sauce.

seafood shack seafood platter

There was so much we needed a platter for the debris. We ate standing up, using our fingers (they have a wash station), although forks were provided to pick crab and lobster meat.

Things to Do Oban ScotlandThings to do in Oban

The seafood shack offered food as it should be – fresh ingredients, perfectly cooked, friendly service, no pretension whatsoever. Perfect. (It’s worth noting that at the time of our visit they only accepted cash as payment.)

The following day we skipped breakfast at the hotel in favour popping down to the shack to pick up some prawn and crab sandwiches. Absolutely delish! It set us up for the day to continue our journey through Scotland and onto the Isle of Skye.

Other Attractions in the Area

If you like castles, there are a couple close by: Dunollie Castle is located about 1.5km north of Oban. You can visit the castle, a museum and the grounds. There’s also Dunstaffnage Castle & Chapel, one of the oldest stone castles in Scotland which stands on an enormous rock overlooking the Firth of Lorn.

Oban is also gateway to some of Scotland’s marvellous Hebridean islands via the ferry port. It is possible to enjoy trips to Mull, Lismore, Coll, Kerrera and Barra, some either as day trips or to continue your journey through Scotland. Check the Calmac website for information and timetables.

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Places to Visit in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina

We have recently returned from a holiday travelling through Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina, two countries that we have long wanted to visit. We decided to take a fly-drive trip, flying in and then hiring a car so that we could have flexibility touring through these two beautiful countries.

Driving in Bosnia and Croatia

We flew into Dubrovnik in Croatia (as that worked best for our flights from the UK) and then hired a car at the airport. It’s always worth pre-booking the hire car. Driving in both countries is pretty easy – the roads are generally good (they are better in Croatia which has a more established tourism infrastructure) and, even better, usually free of traffic. Due to the mountainous nature of region dual carriageways were rare and the drives were leisurely but the scenery throughout each drive was spectacular. We kept to the speed limit – and be aware that there are speed cameras, particularly close to schools in towns – but were overtaken on quite a few occasions.

An ordinary driving licence was fine for driving in Croatia but we needed to obtain an International Driving Permit (1968 version, available from Post Offices in the UK for £5.50) in order to drive in Bosnia Herzegovina. It was also important to ensure that the car hire company provided the car’s registration and insurance paperwork as we could have been asked to show it to police or customs officials at any time, particularly in Bosnia.

Border crossings were generally easy – we just needed to join the queue for cars and simply hand over our passports at the first check-in booth and then answer any questions as the next one, the customs booth. In Bosnia Herzegovina proof of Covid vaccination was needed (at the time of travelling). We had printed our Covid passes out so they were easily to hand but a mobile phone app would have been just as good. Our itinerary took us in and out of both countries. After an overnight stay in Mali Ston we headed into Bosnia Herzegovina.

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s History

Bosnia Herzegovina has a long and complex history. Its location in the Balkans is often described as the crossroads between south and south-east Europe. Populated by south Slavic people it was annexed into the Ottoman Empire, who brought Islam to the area, in the middle of the 15th century. Hence the population comprises Serb (Orthodox Christians), Croat (Catholic) and Bosniak (Muslim) peoples. This is reflected in the multitude of churches and mosques that can be seen throughout the region.

Mostar is the main (in fact, the only) city in Herzegovina. (The northern region of the country is Bosnia, with Sarajevo as its capital, and Herzegovina is the south.) Mostar is located on the Neretva river, surely one of the world’s most beautiful rivers, with its crystal clear turquoise water. The city is most famous for the Stari Most bridge that crosses the river. It was commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1557 and completed somewhere between 1566 and 1567.

It was the widest constructed arch in the world at the time at 30 metres long and 4 metres wide. The drop to the water is around 20 metres depending on the river level. The Ottomans were clever in that this was the only bridge spanning the river for several centuries – the word Mostar derives from ‘mostari’ – bridge keepers – so that the authorities could impose tolls on the traders who needed to cross as they moved their goods through the region. The bridge is flanked by two impressive towers.

Place to visit Mostar

Following the decline of the Ottoman Empire and then the annexation of Bosnia Herzegovina by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1909, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was established in 1929 after World War 1. This became the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, under the rule of Josip Broz Tito, following World War 2. The region remained stable until the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Following Slovenia and Croatia’s respective secessions from Yugoslavia, Bosnia Herzegovina held an independence referendum in February 1992. The outcome was in favour but, while most Bosnian Croats and Muslim Bosniaks had voted, the referendum had been boycotted most of the Bosnian Serbs, a significant proportion of the population. A series of events following this led to war breaking out between the different groups. It lasted until December 1995.

It is incredibly difficult to summarise – let alone truly understand – the complexities of the war but what is undeniable is how horrific it was. This was a war that happened during our lifetime – we remember from seeing news reports on the television at the time. We spoke to a number of local people – from all ethnicities – during our time in Bosnia Herzegovina and they told us about their experiences living through the war, notably the Siege of Sarajevo. Following the peace declaration, the government structure in Bosnia Herzegovina has become incredibly complex with representatives from each ethnic group holding positions of power. For example, the country has three presidents: a Bosniak, a Serb, and a Croat.

One of the consequences of the war for Mostar was the destruction of the Stari Most bridge in December 1993. It was not only considered to be a strategic bridge (the other bridges crossing the river in Mostar were also destroyed) but also a cultural icon. The bridge was rebuilt after the war using funding from a variety of sources and many different countries contributed to the fund. The aim was to reconstruct the bridge in identical style and using similar materials (some salvaged from the original bridge where possible). It was reopened in 2004.

Places to Visit in Mostar – A Walking Tour

When visiting a new city, particularly when we are touring and short on time, we enjoy taking a walking tour. There are usually lots of options available but we especially like the ‘free tours’ which are run by local guides (who will expect a tip at the end of the tour and absolutely deserve one) who can show you the main places to visit in Mostar, explain the history of the area and give some personal insight into the country. They are also the perfect people to recommend local food and restaurants.

We started at the Spanish Gymnasium, which is the first public school in Mostar (the word derives from the European term for high school rather than being an exercise centre). It’s about a 20 minute walk from the centre of the city and is a good meeting point as its orange colour is very easy to spot. It is a working school so entering the building isn’t possible.

The gymnasium is located next to the Zrinjevac City Park, which is a pretty park that has a rather unusual statue. We really weren’t expecting to see a life-sized (well, apparently it’s 4cm short of life-sized) statue of Bruce Lee. Apparently he was chosen as a symbol of diversity and couldn’t be perceived to have an affiliation with any of the local ethnicities, but rather represented “loyalty, skill, friendship and justice.”

places to visit Mostar

When walking around Mostar the scars of the war remain. We walked through the former financial district – many of the buildings are still shells. Our guide explained that while reconstruction work had taken place following the war, the capital Sarajevo had received more money to rebuild. There was still a lot of work that needed to be undertaken throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Walking across the Most Musula bridge we could see good views to the hills above. Although walking up to the summit would ensure a magnificent panorama of the city, the area sadly still contains land-mines.

We then headed towards the older part of the city. The Karadoz Bey Mosque is one of the largest mosques in the region and dates from the same year as the Stari Most bridge.

Karadoz Bey Mosque mostar

It is possible to visit the Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque. It is located on a side street just away from the main street.

Outside is a fountain traditionally used for washing before entering the mosque to pray.

For visitors it costs 4 Euros to enter the mosque and a further 4 Euros to climb the minaret. Photos were allowed and, although we asked if they would like us to remove our shoes and cover our heads, we were told that it wasn’t necessary.

The interior of the mosque itself is quite compact and the climb to the top of the minaret was fairly claustrophobic.

However the view across the river to the bridge was spectacular. The balcony of the minaret was pretty narrow so we were lucky that there was only one other visitor there. You can also enter the small garden adjacent to the mosque for more river views.

Places to visit Mostar

Wandering through the old town, there are lots of shops and restaurants. It is very touristy and can get crowded during the day. There are also a couple of museums in this area, The Museum of War and Genocide Victims 1992-1995 and also the Bridge Museum, which we were keen to visit, but sadly it was closed. There were reminders of the war as we walked through the streets.

Approaching Stari Most again we crossed the river over the old bridge. The steps can be quite slippery.

Places to visit Mostar

One thing that is very popular is watching locals who dive from the bridge into the crystal clear water below. You’ll see them hanging around at the top of the bridge, sitting on the top railing, and they will usually dive once they have raised enough money – normally in the region of 50 Euros – from tourists. You will be able to tell when they are ready to dive when either one of them dons a wetsuit or they start splashing themselves with cold water because the temperature of the river is extremely cold, especially in spring and early summer. We were some distance from the bridge, upriver, when we saw a diver preparing to go. Despite the camera being focussed and on full zoom, we only managed to capture the splash! There are diving competitions held in Mostar each year.

Places to visit Mostar

It’s worth noting that the bridge is a focal point for tourists and, because the city is only a couple of hours’ drive away from Croatia, it gets very busy during the late morning and afternoon as day trippers arrive in their coachloads. The surrounding streets and bazaars will be teeming with people. So staying overnight to explore the area and view the bridge when it’s less busy is definitely recommended.

Our walking tour concluded by another stone bridge – the Crooked Bridge – just a five minute walk away from Stari Most. It dates from 1558. It was strategically important because it allowed traffic to be controlled from the towers of the old bridge. This, too, is a reconstruction – sadly the original was destroyed during floods in 1999, but it was rebuilt in 2002.

Places to visit Mostar

Dining Out in Mostar

There are loads of eateries offering tasty food in Mostar. The restaurants closest to the bridge, or those with a good view of it, are likely to be more expensive than those in the surrounding streets. Mostar was our first introduction to Bosnian cuisine. The national dish is considered to be cevapi – little meaty sausages/kebabs served inside a bread called somun which is a flatbread like pitta but has a really nice focaccia-like spongey texture. It’s served with chopped raw onions, which are quite sweet in flavour rather than being too pungent. You usually get a choice of a small portion (5 little sausages) or larger portion (10 little sausages). Many of the dishes we tried in both Bosnia Herzegovina and Croatia were accompanied by ajvar, a condiment made from red peppers (it isn’t spicy).

There are plenty of sweet dishes on offer as well. Baklava is a familiar dessert, a sweet, filo-based pastry, filled with layers of nuts and a sweet syrup, popular across the region and the Middle East. We particularly enjoyed hurmasica, a pastry doused in lemon-flavoured sugar syrup. It comes in an oblong shape and is very sweet but really delicious with a nice gooey cake-like texture.

hurmasica dessert

And a meal wouldn’t be complete without a cup of incredibly strong, rich, sweet coffee. Coffee culture is very important in this part of the world.

Places to visit Mostar

There was also a very good craft beer emporium in Mostar,on Gojka Vukovica, close to the Crooked Bridge. It had a wide variety of local beers on offer, brewed in both Mostar and Sarajevo. We particularly enjoyed Marakuja, an American Pale Ale, Onano Maze, a rich porter, Darkness, a dry Irish Stout and Kukambera, a cucumber-infused lager which was really refreshing on a hot spring day.

And if you’re after something stronger, rakija is the local brandy made from fermented fruit. Its alcohol content can range from around 40% to 60%. It’s not uncommon for local people to make their own rakija. One of the guides we met told us that it was the cure for all ailments! What’s nice about it is that, even though the alcohol content is strong, you don’t just get a blast of booze, the flavours of the base fruit really do come through – it’s a pleasant tipple.

After dinner, when the day trippers have melted away, it’s lovely to wander through the city at night. The bridge and local buildings are lit up beautifully and Mostar becomes a much more peaceful place.

Places to visit Mostar
Places to visit Mostar

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Osaka Restaurants Japan – Kuidaore on Dotonbori

We visited Osaka (pronounced O-saka rather than o-SAR-ka) on our very first trip to Japan many years ago. We had already spent time exploring Tokyo, Hakone and Kamakura and it was following an afternoon and evening in Osaka, exploring the neon arcades and playing video games, taking silly photos in the print club booths, riding the Hep 5 big wheel and singing our socks off in a karaoke bar (where you get a private booth rather than have to sing in front of complete strangers), that we realised that we had fallen in love with Japan. The following day we visited the Dotonbori area in the Namba district and discovered Osaka’s restaurants. We decided that Osaka was our favourite place in the world.

Osaka restaurants Japan

We’ve returned to Osaka many times over the years and we always make a beeline for Dotonbori. We’ve often stayed in business hotels close by. It’s a short walk away from the JR Namba Station Exit 14 (Yamatoji line), which is especially useful if you are using your JR Pass. Be aware that Namba is a big station. If you are arriving on the shinkansen (bullet train) you can get there from Shin-Osaka using the subway Midosuji line to Shinsaibashi Exit 4-B. (N.B. you can’t use your JR Pass on the subway.)

Osaka is known for being one of Japan’s centres of commerce, indeed there’s a phrase that many salarymen use as a greeting: ‘mokari makka’ which means ‘are you making money?’ The residents of Osaka speak Kansai Ben, the dialect of the region. It’s quite different to the Japanese we’ve learned in classes. For example, Osaka residents will say, ‘okini’ as thanks instead of ‘arigato’; although arigato will absolutely be understood you may well receive a big smile if you use ‘okini.’

Dotonbori History

Dotonbori means ‘Doton Canal’ and the history of the area goes back several hundred years to 1612 when Yasui Doton, a local merchant, started constructing a canal system in the area to link the Kizugawa river to the Umezu river. However, he was killed in 1615 during the Siege of Osaka and his cousins completed the canal project, naming it after Doton. Following completion, the area thrived, trade increased due to the better transportation along the canal and Dotonburi became an entertainment district, with theatres, teahouses and restaurants. It’s a fantastic place to visit, especially for foodies!

Osaka restaurant japan

The district is defined by street between the Dotonboribashi Bridge to Nipponbashi Bridge. Probably the most iconic image of the area is that of the Glico running man – and it’s essential to see him at night, brightly lit in neon. Glico is a sweet manufacturer established in 1922 and famous across Japan. They are probably best know for those delicious Pocky coated biscuit sticks.

Osaka restaurants Japan Dotonburi

Dotonbori is one street, but actually the surrounding streets are also full of excellent bars and restaurants. We’ve had some of our best nights out in Osaka by wandering into random bars in the area. Locals and tourists alike are very friendly and we’ve often just started chatting with people. There was one particularly memorable night when a pair of airline pilots decided to buy Jagermeister bombs (a Jagermeister shot inside a glass of Red Bull) for the denizens of the entire bar which resulted in a highly caffeinated boozy evening and us sleeping in so late that we missed much of a planned excursion to Kobe the following day!

Osaka Restaurants Japan

The word ‘kuidaore’ means to go bankrupt by extravagant spending on food and Dotonbori would be a place where you could have a really good attempt at achieving this as it is chock full of excellent restaurants.

Osaka restaurant japan
Takoyaki
Osaka restaurants Japan
Osaka restaurants Japan
Osaka restaurants Japan

One thing to remember when visiting cities in Japan is to look up! In the UK most shops and restaurants are located at ground level but Japan is a country with high rise buildings. Very often shops and restaurants will be located on multiple levels within the same building. You will often see boards outside the building advertising various emporia: F1, F2 etc to go up, B1, B2 etc to go down. (N.B. floor levels in Japan match the American model where the ground floor is called the first floor, unlike in the UK where the ‘ground floor’ is at street level and the next floor up is the ‘first floor’.)

Essential Osaka Restaurants Japan

Takoyaki – The Best Street Food

Takoyaki is quintessential Osaka street food. It comprises spherical octopus pieces in a batter which are cooked en masse in a griddle.

Takoyaki

The takoyaki maker expertly and deftly turns each octopus ball by hand so that they are cooked evenly.

Cooking takoyaki

Served with mayonnaise, takoyaki sauce (which is similar to brown sauce) and bonito flakes (skipjack tuna flakes shaved to wafer thin slices – which are rich in umami and are often used to make Japanese dashi stock), which undulate gently in the heat of the takoyaki. You just have to wait a little while before scoffing because they will be extremely hot as soon as they come out of the griddle.

Osaka restaurants Japan

Okonomiyaki – As You Like It

Okonomiyaki, which translates as ‘as you like it’, is often described as a cross between a pancake and a pizza. It’s a cabbage based batter (but don’t let that put you off – it’s really delicious) with multiple fillings and toppings. Some establishments have a chef prepare the okonomiyaki, others will let you sit at the griddle and you can cook it yourself.

Osaka restaurants Japan

The basic batter mixture is prepared and cooked on the griddle.

okonomiyaki

Then you have a choice of toppings – meat and prawns are popular choices and veggie options, such as kimchi are also available.

cooking okonomiyaki

The okonomiyaki will be garnished with a variety of yummy things, including mayo, okonomiyaki sauce (similar to takoyaki sauce/brown sauce), flakes of nori seaweed and those delightful undulating bonito flakes. Chilli sauce may also be available. The chef will embellish your okonomiyaki in the most delightful way. And of course, when the chef asks you what garnish you would like, the correct answer is EVERYTHING!

Osaka restaurants Japan
Osaka restaurants Japan

Fugu – Dare You Try Puffer Fish?

Fugu is the fish that has a formidable reputation – it’s the puffer fish, parts of which are deadly poison particularly the liver, the ovaries, eyes, and skin. The toxin basically paralyses you and you asphyxiate while still conscious. Not very nice at all.

But fugu is also a prized delicacy. The non-poisonous bits are fine to eat but absolutely can only be prepared by a licenced chef who has trained for several years. You can eat fugu all over Japan but it was at Zubora-ya, with its highly distinctive sign comprising a giant pufferfish lantern outside the restaurant, that we first tasted this fearsome fish.

Osaka restaurants Japan

We thoroughly enjoyed a set menu at Zubora-ya – sushi and sashimi is the conventional way to enjoy fugu. It has a mild flavour and a firm texture that is something like a cross between squid and monkfish. It was delicious. And we survived!

Osaka restaurants Japan

Sadly, Zubora-ya had to close during the pandemic and has not reopened.

Kani – Crab Heaven

Kani Doraku is another distinctive restaurant which has a model of a giant crab waving its pincers on the outside wall, beckoning you inside (well, that’s our interpretation!).

Osaka restaurants Japan Kani

We have eaten here several times and always had a hugely enjoyable meal. Again, it’s a multi-storey building and, depending on how busy it is you may eat within the restaurant or be taken to a private room with tatami mat flooring and a telephone. The telephone was a bit daunting first time around but we picked up the phone and said, ‘kite kudasai,’ (please come here) and someone came along to take our order – which largely involved pointing at a picture menu. Even though it’s a large restaurant it’s very popular these days so it’s worth booking. There are actually multiple restaurants of this chain along Dotonbori, so check out the others if the first one you try is full. (The most popular is closest to the Glico Man.) The set menus aren’t cheap but they are good value and the food is utterly delicious.

crab gratin
crab gratin
crab sushi
crab legs
crab tempura
Osaka restaurants Japan
Osaka restaurants Japan

We’ve enjoyed crab sushi and sashimi, crab chawan mushi (steamed egg custard), crab tempura and crab gratin with a clear soup and matcha ice cream for dessert. Utterly delicious.

Osaka Restaurants Japan – Other Dotonbori Establishments

There are loads of other restaurants along Dotonbori and the surrounding area. Kuidaore was an enormous eight storey restaurant founded in 1949. It was recognisable by its iconic Kuidaore Taro Clown, a vaguely creepy mechanical drumming puppet at the entrance. Sadly it closed some years ago but the building was populated by different shops and restaurants in what’s now known as the Nakaza Cui-daore Building.

If you like ramen noodles (and who doesn’t?) there are three Kinryu restaurants along the street. Kinryu translates as ‘golden dragon’ and the restaurants can easily be found by their distinctive dragons on the hoardings above the shopfront.

Osaka restaurant japan
Osaka restaurant japan Kinryu

And even the standard restaurants on Dotonbori, those without the amazing neon signs, are worth checking out. One of the great things about dining in Osaka – and indeed throughout Japan – is that you don’t need to speak or read Japanese. Many restaurants will have an English, Chinese or Korean menu and those that don’t will often have a picture menu or, better, realistic models of the food in the window, usually with prices. You can take a photo of your desired dish or even take your food server outside and point to the dish you want.

Osaka restaurants Japan

The models of the food are surprisingly realistic and many are made in Osaka. We managed to find a shop that sold them but they are hideously expensive, so we treated ourselves to a couple of sushi fridge magnets as a souvenir.

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Sent To Coventry

When you see travel guides to the UK Midlands they often mention the buzzing metropolis of Birmingham or the country towns of Warwickshire such as leafy Leamington Spa, historic Warwick with its castle, and Shakespeare’s Stratford-Upon-Avon, but the city of Coventry is often ignored, which is a shame because it has a lot of history and plenty of things to do and see. Coventry has great transport connections and is easy to reach from all parts of the UK. It’s just an hour away from London on the train.

History of Coventry – From Capital of England to Ghost Town

Coventry has a long and rich history but little is known about its origins. It is thought that a settlement was established around a nunnery to St Osburga in Saxon times. The name is thought to have originated from the phrase ‘cofa tree’ although no one really know what a cofa is.

Coventry’s most famous legend is that of Lady Godiva who was the wife of the Leofric, Earl of Mercia, who had founded a Benedictine monastery in Coventry in 1043. Leofric was one of the most important people in the country and imposed crippling taxes on the citizens of Coventry. Lady Godiva took pity on them and asked her husband to reduce the burden but he refused… unless she agreed to ride through the city naked. Which she did. And, in gratitude, the people of Coventry averted their eyes… except for one person: the Peeping Tom.

There is a statue to Godiva in Broadgate and Peeping Tom can also be found in the vicinity if you look carefully.

Coventry Lady Godiva

Coventry became an important trading location between 1150 and 1200 when merchants were allowed to visit the city and trade freely. The agricultural land surrounding the city was perfect for sheep grazing and wool production became an important industry. Textiles, weaving and dying in particular were very important and the Coventry’s blue coloured cloth (blue dye being a difficult colour to develop) was considered to be highly prized because of its ability to stay fast, coining the term ‘True Blue.’

Due to its importance as a centre of commerce a wall began to be constructed in the mid-14th century. Sandstone was quarried from the local district of Cheylesmore and a 3.5 km, 3.7m high wall was built around the city centre. It had twelve gatehouses located on the main routes into the city.

By the 15th century Coventry’s main churches had been constructed. St Michael’s Church, Holy Trinity and Greyfriars (Christ Church) all had magnificent spires which could be seen from miles away. The city actually became the capital of England, temporarily, on a few occasions. It was a wealthy city and considered to be hugely important by successive kings and queens of England.

During the English Civil War, Coventry was a stronghold of Parliamentarians and was attacked by Royalists on several occasions but the king’s soldiers failed to conquer the city walls. The city was used as a prison for captured Royalists and those incarcerated were not just treated with disdain – they were ignored completely. It is thought that this is the origin of the term, ‘being sent to Coventry.’

As the industrial revolution started Coventry, with its central location, became an important city of industrialisation. It was renowned for manufacturing textiles and ribbons, watches (many of watchmakers lived in the Chapelfields area of the city), bicycles and cars. The first British series production motor car was made in Coventry, by Daimler, in 1897.

Despite the industrialisation, the city centre retained a lot of its mediaeval buildings. However, because of the industrialisation, the city was a target during World War 2. On the night of 14/15 November 1940 Hitler ordered a bombing raid on the city. Most of the city centre was destroyed, including the interior of St Michael’s cathedral, and over 500 people lost their lives. Coventry has since become a city of peace and reconciliation and has twinned with some 23 cities across the world, including Dresden and Volvograd (formerly Stalingrad), both cities which also suffered devastating attacks during World War 2.

Following the war the city was rebuilt and was designed to be a modern city – it included one of Europe’s first ever pedestrianised precincts. The city thrived thanks to the car manufacturing industries during the 50s and 60s. Famous names include Jaguar, Standard-Triumph, Talbot, Peugot, and Alvis. London taxis – the iconic black cabs – were constructed in the city from the 1950s until 1994. However the industry – and consequently the city – suffered serious decline in the mid-1970s and 1980s due to industrial disputes and competition from other countries. One by one the car factories closed down. In the early 1980s Coventry band The Specials wrote the song Ghost Town about the decline of the city. Bands such as The Specials, The Selecter and The Beat were part of the 2Tone movement which developed in Coventry and was defined by their members being multi-racial and a musical style that combined punk/new wave music with Jamaican ska.

Coventry Music Museum

These days, Coventry is a lively city. With two universities, it’s also a young city with a diverse population which has an average age of 33 years. It is also the 2021 UK City of Culture, the start of which was slightly delayed due to the pandemic. As a result there are lots of events happening up until May.

Places to Visit

Although much of mediaeval Coventry was destroyed it is possible to see some older buildings in the city. Mediaeval Spon Street is largely comprised of old buildings although not all of these were originally built on the site but were relocated from other parts of the city.

Ford’s Hospital was constructed in 1509, as an almshouse.

Ford Hospital Coventry

Some parts of the original city wall can still be seen. Swanswell Gate is the best preserved of the city’s gates.

Swanswell gate

Dating from the 12th century, the old grammar school is now a conference or wedding venue which occasionally opens up for pop-up art events. You can see the original school chairs, carved by their previous occupants centuries ago.

Coventry Cathedral – old and new

St Michael’s Cathedral was largely destroyed during the Blitz raid but its outer walls and spire remain. It was decided that it should remain in situ. It contains a number of symbols of reconciliation, including a charred cross which was constructed from two fallen wooden beams.

A new cathedral, constructed alongside the ruins of the old, was consecrated in 1962 as a place of worship. Both cathedrals are very much part of the community. They often hold concerts, plays and other events, both indoors and outdoors. The old cathedral even became an ice rink during the winter Christmas season.

Things to do in Coventry
Coventry new cathedral window
Gaia at Coventry cathedral
Luke Jerram’s Gaia in the cathedral ruins

St Mary’s Guildhall

Currently being renovated, St Mary’s Guildhall dates back to 1352 and is considered to be one of the finest guildhalls in the country. Despite being located right next to the cathedral, it survived the bombing. It is home of the Coventry Tapestry, which is over 500 years old. The renovation is due to include a mediaeval kitchen.

St Mary's Guildhall Coventry

Coventry Music Museum

Located just outside the city in the Ball Hill district, the Coventry Music Museum is a small but perfectly formed museum dedicated to the musical history of the city.

Things to do in Coventry Music Museum

You always receive a friendly welcome. With a plethora of exhibits and memorabilia, including the original Ghost Town organ and a reproduction of a Two-Tone bedroom, it also looks to Coventry’s earlier music history including an exhibit looking at the work of Coventry born Delia Derbyshire, the pioneering electronic musician (who arranged the Dr Who theme tune). Deliaphonic is an annual celebration of her life and work which takes place in venues around the city.

You can also use the music room there – just pick up an instrument and play. Opposite the museum is the Two-Tone café and the excellent Simmer Down Caribbean restaurant.

Coventry Transport Museum

Located on Millennium Place, Hales Street and celebrating Coventry’s motor history, this is a fascinating museum which has the largest publicly owned collection of British cars in the world.

Things to do in Coventry

The museum offers a brilliant history of transportation and also of the city. It has lots of interactive exhibits and you can see an extensive variety of vintage vehicles as well as two of the fastest cars in the world: Thrust SSC and Thrust 2. Fun fact: part of the famous car chase from the film The Italian Job was filmed in Coventry. While the Mini Coopers enter and leave the tunnel in Turin, the actual tunnels were Coventry sewers which were being constructed at the time.

The Weaver’s House (Spon End) is a fascinating listed building which is quite unusual because it was the home of a poor person. Historic buildings are normally preserved because they are great big stately homes owned by important people. The weaver’s house is a remarkable construction because it has an internal jetty for the weaver’s loom, which is very rare. The weaver’s house is located close to the river Sherbourne before it enters the city, so the water would have been clean for washing and dyeing the cloth. The house doesn’t have regular opening hours, but check the website for the next open day when you can learn about its history and also visit its mediaeval garden.

Coventry Weavers House

Watch Museum A small but interesting museum dedicated to Coventry’s watchmaking heritage.

Culture

Herbert Art Gallery

A fantastic space, the Herbert has a permanent collection and regular temporary exhibitions. It’s located next to the cathedrals. With free entry to most exhibitions, it also hosted the 2021 Turner Prize.

Things to do in Coventry

Fargo Village

Located to the east of the city, around a 15 minute walk from the city centre on Far Gosford Street, this is the Coventry’s creative quarter. With some quirky shops, great restaurants, venues and an on-site brewhouse it regularly hosts a variety of events.

Theatre and Music The Belgrade Theatre and Albany Theatre have a great programme of theatrical productions. There are lots of venues for music gigs, including the tiny but excellent Tin Music and Arts venue in the coal vaults at Coventry’s canal basin. Warwick Arts Centre, located a few kilometres out of town at Warwick University, has a full programme of music, theatre, film and arts events.

Coventry Biennial This festival of art is held every two years. What’s great about it is that it uses multiple venues around the city and also in some of the surrounding towns.

Litten Tree Building (until late 2022). This is a pop-up art venue in a disused space above a pub. (Just enter the Litten Tree pub in the Bull Yard, on the way in from the railway station and climb the staircase). It’s totally shabby-chic inside but offers a variety of exhibitions and gigs – just feel free to explore the building discovering fabulous art along the way.  

Eating -Where to Eat in Coventry

Coventry has its share of the usual chain restaurants but there are a number of excellent independent restaurants.

The Pod Café – this is located on Far Gosford street and is one of our favourites. A vegan café it sources local ingredients, 70% of which are grown on its Food Union (a social activism initiative run by the local council) allotment on the other side of the city (and one that we volunteer at, so we may even have helped grow your lunch). The café also runs evening supper clubs with live music. And, naturally, the food is absolutely delicious.

Gourmet Food Kitchen – one of the most difficult restaurants to get a table at for chef Tony’s monumentally delicious gourmet evenings (you have to get lucky when slots on the website are released) this teeny restaurant located in Fargo Village also offers the best cooked breakfast in the land (which you can usually just show up for). Everything is home-made and utterly scrumptious.

Earlsdon Supper Club (secret location in Earlsdon – you’ll find the location when you book). This is a supper club where you join chef Tobias who cooks you a delicious tasting menu and describes his inspiration behind each dish.

Hello Vietnam (Smithford Street) offers a wonderful array of Vietnamese dishes.

A-Sushi (Hertford Street) – best sushi in Coventry, this Korean restaurant also offers a variety of Japanese and Korean dishes.

tonkotsu ramen

Shin Ramen (Priory Place) is a Japanese restaurant that serves izakaya style food, notably its authentic ramen noodles. The tonkotsu and champon ramen are particularly good.

Jinseong Korean BBQ (Priory Place) – meat eaters can enjoy Korean BBQ where you can cook a variety of meats over a charcoal fire. Their KFC (Korean Fried Chicken) is also delicious.

Pickles (Spon End). There are so many excellent Indian restaurants in Coventry (as there are all over the Midlands) but we’re big fans of Pickles where you get a warm welcome and delicious curries.

Tamils Taste of Asia (Foleshill Road) offers superb and authentic South Indian cuisine. Great if you are hankering after dosas, biryani and idli.

Anatolia (Earlsdon Street) offers amazing Turkish food with great mezze and succulent kebabs.

DrinkingWhere to Drink in Coventry

Hops D’Amour – is a lovely micropub on Corporation Street serving craft beer, real ale and a variety of ciders. You can be sure of a friendly welcome and that you will have a different and interesting beer or cider experience every time you visit.

Broomfield Tavern – great beers and a huge variety of ciders are to be found in this small pub just outside the city centre, close to the Butts rugby ground. Teddy, the huge St Bernard dog, will offer a warm welcome, even if he sometimes pinches your seat.

Twisted Barrel – a brew-pub located in Fargo village. They offer a great variety of home-brewed and guest beers. They also have a mail order service so you can order their excellent beers online.

The Old Windmill – one of Coventry’s oldest pubs, located on Mediaeval Spon Street, this building has all sorts of nooks and crannies to sit in while enjoying your pint. It offers a great variety of beers and also locally sourced pork pies, ploughman’s platters and cheese boards.

Beer Gonzo (Earlsdon Street)  – located in the suburb of Earlsdon this beer shop and tap room offers a wide variety of interesting beers from around the world. They regularly run “meet the brewer” events which result in a fun afternoon or evening enjoying a variety of beers. They too have an online shop.

Dhillons Spire Bar (next to the Bull Yard) is located within and around Christchurch spire, the third of Coventry’s three spires. You can sit in a personal booth (which has a heater when it’s cold) and drink locally brewed beer such as Ghost Town lager or Red Rebel IPA.

Green Spaces in Coventry

While Coventry has a reputation for being a dull concrete city, it actually has a huge number of green spaces, some close to the city centre and some a bit further out.

Lady Herbert’s Garden is located next to Swanswell Gate and the transport museum.

Lady Herbert's Garden Coventry

War Memorial Park is the city’s largest and best known park. Established in 1921 following World War I, it is absolutely huge and has tennis courts, football pitches, bowls green, footgolf course, an outdoor fitness trail and a cricket pitch. There are play facilities and skateboarding ramps too. It hosts the excellent three day Godiva Festival every year.

Coundon Wedge – about a mile down the Holyhead road leading out of the city towards the A45 and Birmingham, Coundon Wedge is a delightful slice of actual countryside. Coventry’s lovely little river Sherbourne flows through it.

Charterhouse Fields – Opposite the cemetery on the London Road, the Charterhouse of St Anne is a Grade 1 listed building. It was founded in 1381 and is currently being refurbished. It is surrounded by green fields which are located adjacent to the river Sherbourne after it has emerged from flowing under the city.

Coombe Abbey – a bit further out of the city on the way to Brinklow this is a historic hotel set in around 500 acres of parkland. The park is lovely to walk around – with woods and a lakeside to explore and they have also recently opened up a Go Ape venue. The hotel itself offers popular afternoon teas and bawdy mediaeval banquets (the banquets are available for pre-booked groups only).

Shopping in Coventry

Coventry hosts all the major retailers that you would expect from a city. As foodies living in a multi-cultural city, we love that there are all sorts of supermarkets or mini-marts from Asia, Eastern Europe, the Caribbean and Africa. And we are pretty sure that you can buy anything at Coventry market. Located inside a circular building (it took us about 5 years to work out how to leave it at the exit we wanted and we still get a bit lost on occasion) there are stalls for fresh food at great prices and pretty much anything else you might want.

The Best – Or Worst – Road in the World?

Talking of circular things, Coventry’s ring road is one of the world’s smaller ring roads. Indeed it’s so tiny that you can circumnavigate the entire city in less than two minutes. Because the ring road is so teeny cars both enter and leave on the same section of junction, which is usually quite a short distance. This means that it’s something of a challenge for novices to drive on. In fact, we know several people who will drive several miles out of their way to avoid using it. (If you want to avoid it there is a Park and Ride service at War Memorial Park.) But it does work and is hugely convenient. There is a convention: Once on the ring road move to the outer lane unless you are planning to leave at the next exit. When planning to leave at the next junction, move across to the exit lane and exit. If you are about to exit and a car ahead of you is on the junction and planning to enter, slow down and let them enter. Conversely, if you are planning to exit and the car planning to enter is behind you, they should give way. And the same etiquette applies if you are joining the ring road. If you miss your junction you can just go round again – it won’t take long.

Go With The Sloe – How to Make Sloe Gin

It’s autumn in the UK, which means it’s the perfect season for foraging for fruit and mushrooms in the countryside. We are lucky to have many sloe (blackthorn) bushes in our local area and one of our favourite things to do at this time of year is to make sloe gin.

Sloe gin is a liquer made from gin and sloes, although other alcohol bases can be used. Unlike gin, which is quite perfumed, sloe gin is much sweeter, deriving its flavour from the fruit infusing into the alcohol as well as some added sugar.

Gin is a very fashionable drink these days, with a huge number of flavours and variations available, as well as it forming the base of a vast array of liquers and cocktails. Sloe gin is available commercially but if you have access to sloe bushes it is great fun to make your own.

It’s a really easy process and you can adapt it to your personal taste. It just needs a little patience.

Here’s a flow chart – or, if you will, sloe chart:

How do make sloe gin
How do make sloe gin

This is what the colour will look like after around three months. You can see that already the gin has acquired the colour of the berries.

Cheers!

How to make sloe gin

Postscript – sloe gin is also great if you pop the bottle into the freezer for a couple of hours. The alcohol doesn’t freeze fully but becomes slightly syrupy. It’s delicious, so remember to keep some back for summertime.

As with all foraging, do make sure you are 100% certain about the fruit that you are picking. There are some great identification guides.

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Spirit of the Sea – A Visit to Fisher’s Gin Distillery at Aldeburgh

Suffolk, in East Anglia, located on the east coast of England, is a beautiful rural county and a fine place for foodies to visit.  It’s famous for its pig farming and high quality pork as well as the seafood bounty from its 50 mile coastline. Adnam’s brewery is also based in Suffolk and most pubs in the area seem to be associated with them. Suffolk can also boast the closest gin distillery to the sea.

Fishers Gin is located in the coastal town of Aldeburgh and the team aim to capture the flavours of the area in their gin using locally foraged botanicals such as samphire and sea purslane. The distillery is located right by the seashore – literally a stone’s throw from the beach. They offer tours of the distillery – an afternoon tour and, later, a sundowner, which has all the elements of the earlier tour but you also get to taste some local food and go home with a Fishers tote bag and a gin mug. We opted for the sundowner.

On arrival we were greeted with a warm, “Hello, would you like a G&T?” which is one of the best possible welcomes. The G&T (a double, of course) comprised Fishers original gin accompanied by a can of Double Dutch tonic water which contains less quinine than traditional tonic waters and hence is less bitter. The G&T was served in a rather splendid tin cup, a nice change from those enormous balloon glasses full of ice that seem to be so trendy these days. Ice and a slice were mandatory of course, but the ice cube was very large, so it kept the G&T cold and did not to dilute the gin. (Note to self: make very large ice cubes in future.) The garnish was a slice of dried orange and a sea purslane leaf. The gin itself is a London Dry Gin but is unusual because many of the botanicals are particularly savoury and have a salty edge to them. Samphire (rock and marsh samphire are both used in this gin) and sea purslane are key ingredients, foraged locally, and both have a flavour which subtly recalls the taste of the sea.

After watching an audio visual display about the local area and botanicals we met the still, which is named Watson after the owner’s dog. The gin making process was explained to us: The botanicals infuse in the base spirit for 16 hours before distillation. There are three outputs from the still: the head (the first few litres of liquid that emerge from the condenser), the heart and the tail (the last few litres). Like whisky, the head and tail are discarded.

As part of the tour we learned about the history of gin – that it originated in the Netherlands – and also about the different botanicals used in the gin-making process by making a botanical tea. We were provided with the botanicals and an empty teabag (as well as another G&T to help the process) and tasted a variety of flavours.  

Juniper is the flavour that defines gin as gin, so that was an essential. Then we experimented with various quantities of the botanicals used in Fishers gin to create a unique tea. Each ingredient was crushed using a dinky pestle and mortar to extract the oils and hence maximise the flavours.

The teabags were then infused in a cup of boiled water and we could taste how our particular combination of botanicals worked together.

After making the tea we were invited to a tasting. There were three gins on offer: Fishers original, Fishers Fifty (which is stronger, having an ABV of 50%) and Fishers Smoked.

The smoked gin used botanicals that had been smoked at Orford smoke house, just down the road from Aldeburgh, for six days. Curiously, you can almost smell smoked fish on the nose but the finished gin is smooth on the palette, loses any fishiness but retains a gorgeously subtle smoky flavour. What is particularly interesting about this gin is the way that Fishers use savoury flavouring in their gins. Salt won’t get through the distillation process but the oils from the botanicals allow some subtly salty flavours to come through. Fishers also have a small still to experiment with flavours when developing a new gin. 

And finally, we were offered a platter of local specialities: smoked mackerel pate from Orford, sesame hummus, sourdough and smoked salmon from l’Escargot deli, smoked cheddar and Stilton style cheeses from Orford.

And the evening was rounded off with a couple of cocktails. A Negroni which comprised of Fishers Gold, Campari and sweet vermouth in equal measure and a Mule which contained Fishers Smoked, ginger ale and lime. Both were delicious.

The Fishers team were very friendly, the tour was informative and the tastings hugely enjoyable (hic!). We ended up chatting with our hosts for much longer than the planned tour time as they were so welcoming and accommodating. The experience is highly recommended.

We attended this experience using our own resources.

Gorilla Trekking in Uganda

Gorillas in the Mist… And Pouring Rain

Although it has its fair share of excellent safari locations where you can see the so-called Big Five game animals, Uganda is also well known as a top destination to see primates. We had the opportunity to track chimpanzees in Kibale and mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable in the south-west region of the country. Gorilla trekking in Uganda is one of the country’s top attractions.

Gorilla Trekking Uganda

The mountain gorillas are critically endangered – there are only about 900 left in the wild and they can be found in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Uganda and Rwanda offer a limited number of gorilla tracking permits each day. We chose to travel in the low season when it is more likely to be rainy, because the cost of the permits is reduced significantly during certain months of the year. It’s worth booking the permits in advance. They are really expensive, even out of season, but the money goes directly towards the conservation of these marvellous creatures. And it is really a once in a lifetime experience.

The Ugandan conservation programme has ensured that half of the gorilla population has been habituated – wild, but comfortable in the presence of humans – and the other half remain completely wild. This is a good strategy. The conservationists’ greatest fear is that the gorillas, which share about 98% DNA with humans, could catch a human disease for which they have no immunity. You are requested not to track the gorillas if you have a cold. Following the start of the pandemic, the area was closed off for a while, Covid presenting risks both from the disease but also an increase in illegal poaching activities, but it has now opened up with extra precautions in place that trekkers need to adhere to in order to protect these magnificent creatures.

Gorilla Trekking In Uganda – The Briefing

The trip starts with a briefing at headquarters. Then you are allocated to a gorilla group – a maximum of eight people join each trek. It can take any time between 30 minutes and 6 hours to reach the gorillas – some parties have returned after nightfall in the past. Additionally, we were tracking at altitude, around 2300m above sea level, which enough to knock the breath out of you going up some of the steeper slopes! We were assigned the Bitakura group in the Ruhija area. One member of our party had mobility issues and was carried on a sedan by a team of four porters (who rotated shift with an additional four porters at regular intervals) who did an amazing job and ensured that she had full access to the gorillas. Our guide called it “the helicopter”. This system can be used if any trekker becomes unwell during their hike.

You wouldn’t have known it was the rainy season for most of our trip – virtually every day was bright and sunny and it had rained for a maximum of 15 minutes on just a couple of the days throughout our trip. Of course, on the day we really wanted it to stay dry the rain absolutely chucked it down.  That’s why we packed good walking boots and raincoats.

We were advised to borrow walking sticks and also to employ porters to accompany us on the trek. This was a really good idea. Not only do they carry your backpack (you are advised to take three litres of water and a box lunch because you just don’t know how long it will take to reach the gorillas and you will need the energy) they will also hold your hand to steady you if things get slippery and push/pull you over obstacles if necessary. Importantly, they are local people who can earn a decent living from tourists, so hiring a porter also contributes directly to the community. The porters are available at the starting location and will be allocated if you ask for one.

Gorilla Trekking In Uganda – The Trek

The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA – apparently pronounced Oo-er!) have an excellent system in place which ensures that you have practically 100% chance of seeing the gorillas: each morning two trackers head out into the forest to find the troop based on their location the previous day. They then radio to the guide, who will lead the tourists via the best route to see the gorillas. The trackers do an amazing job – they spend all day with the gorillas, even after the tourists have left, so that they know where to trace them to on the following day. We were advised that they would appreciate a personal tip as most tourists don’t recognise the brilliant job they do and we were delighted to do this.

There’s a reason the region is named “Bwindi Impenetrable”. We trekked along a main path – up and down some very steep, muddy and slippery slopes, for a couple of hours. Then our guide indicated that he was close to the trackers. The rangers/trackers cut through the forest with machetes and we followed a newly made path, through dense forest to where the gorillas were located.

Gorilla Trekking Uganda

We were soaked through to the skin, muddied, shattered and utterly bedraggled. But nothing beats the sight of wild gorillas just a few metres away from you. 

We saw one of the group’s silverbacks…

…some younger males…

…and a mother and child.

It’s difficult to find the words to describe how magical it was just being in their presence. The rules say that you are allowed one hour with these amazing creatures. It flew by. Then there was the slippery, steep trek back to base. It was a tough climb but we made it without difficulty. Gorilla trekking in Uganda was one of the most amazing things we have done. We were exhausted but elated.

The gorillas were feeling a bit sleepy too.

At the Elizabeth National Park we managed to purchase some Gorilla Coffee. Made from arabica beans it is grown, processed and roasted in Uganda, and is delicious. It has a lovely aroma – it smells of sweet, buttery caramel and has a smooth taste with just a touch of distinctive coffee bitterness. Even better, some of the profits from its sales go towards conservation efforts to help the marvellous mountain gorillas.

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Temple of Heaven, Beijing

The Temple of Heaven, along with the Forbidden City, is a must-see attraction in Beijing. Both of these amazing building complexes were constructed in the 15th century by the Yongle Emperor, the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty.

The Temple of Heaven comprises a complex of beautiful buildings set inside a lovely and extensive park. Its purpose was for the Emperor to pray for good harvests.

Temple of Heaven Beijing

The Circular Mound Altar was constructed in the 16th century in the time of the Ming Dynasty. Its purpose was for the Emperor to pray for favourable weather, particularly in times of drought. It has three circular terraces, each of which has four entrances with precisely nine steps. The number nine plays a significant part of the architectural design with many of the numbers of pillars and slates being multiples of nine. It is surrounded by gorgeous marble carvings. The design also allows sound to resonate throughout the construction creating an echo that amplifies a voice – useful for the Emperor to make certain that the gods would hear his prayers.

Temple of Heaven Beijing
Temple of Heaven Beijing

The Imperial Vault of Heaven is circular building, one storey tall.

Temple of Heaven Beijing

From this, a walkway leads to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. Like the Imperial Vault, it is a gorgeous circular construction, and large too, at 36 m across and 38m high. As its name suggests, it was here that the Emperor prayed for good harvests. A wooden construction, apparently built without using nails. The decoration is marvellous – highly detailed and intricate. The detailed decoration contains images of mythical creatures and birds and radiates with a wonderful glow as the light of the setting sun casts its rays upon the building.

Temple of Heaven Beijing
Temple of Heaven Beijing

Tea Houses Outside the Temple of Heaven Beijing

There are a number of tea houses just outside the Temple of Heaven. They provide an opportunity to taste a variety of Chinese teas.

Temple of Heaven Beijing

It was in one of these that we discovered blooming teas. These are neatly crafted hand-bundled into a small ball, a little smaller than a ping pong ball. They look rather nondescript folded up.

blooming tea

But pop them into some boiling water and they bloom into a flower whilst infusing the water to create tea. They are usually comprised of white tea or green tea leaves. Sometimes jasmine or similar flowers are used.

The flavour is mild but some have a touch of tannin.

Delicious and beautiful. You can buy these online. We also treated ourselves to a splendid glass teapot so that we could enjoy watching the flower bloom.

Couple of things worth noting. If you are on a tour you are likely be invited to purchase products in the inevitable shop that can be found alongside museums, factories, tourist attractions and tea shops. Our experience was that we weren’t pressured to buy anything. We also found that in some factory outlets prices were regulated by the government which meant that we didn’t have to haggle, much to our relief, because we’re rubbish at it. Although we did somehow come home bearing a vaccuum-packed silk duvet from one emporium because it was genuinely good value.

There are some scams whereby friendly people approach you and invite you to drink tea with them at a local tea house. It may be perfectly legitimate and genuine but there have been situations where you are taken to what appears to be a charming, authentic tea house and when the bill arrives it is considerably higher than you might expect for a pot of tea.


Temple of Heaven, Beijing

The Temple of Heaven, along with the Forbidden City, is a must-see attraction in Beijing. Both of these amazing building complexes were constructed in the 15th century by the Yongle Emperor, the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty.

The Temple of Heaven comprises a complex of beautiful buildings set inside a lovely and extensive park. Its purpose was for the Emperor to pray for good harvests.

Temple of Heaven Beijing

The Circular Mound Altar was constructed in the 16th century in the time of the Ming Dynasty. Its purpose was for the Emperor to pray for favourable weather, particularly in times of drought. It has three circular terraces, each of which has four entrances with precisely nine steps. The number nine plays a significant part of the architectural design with many of the numbers of pillars and slates being multiples of nine. It is surrounded by gorgeous marble carvings. The design also allows sound to resonate throughout the construction creating an echo that amplifies a voice – useful for the Emperor to make certain that the gods would hear his prayers.

Temple of Heaven Beijing
Temple of Heaven Beijing

The Imperial Vault of Heaven is circular building, one storey tall.

Temple of Heaven Beijing

From this, a walkway leads to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. Like the Imperial Vault, it is a gorgeous circular construction, and large too, at 36 m across and 38m high. As its name suggests, it was here that the Emperor prayed for good harvests. A wooden construction, apparently built without using nails. The decoration is marvellous – highly detailed and intricate. The detailed decoration contains images of mythical creatures and birds and radiates with a wonderful glow as the light of the setting sun casts its rays upon the building.

Temple of Heaven Beijing
Temple of Heaven Beijing

Tea Houses Outside the Temple of Heaven Beijing

There are a number of tea houses just outside the Temple of Heaven. They provide an opportunity to taste a variety of Chinese teas.

Temple of Heaven Beijing

It was in one of these that we discovered blooming teas. These are neatly crafted hand-bundled into a small ball, a little smaller than a ping pong ball. They look rather nondescript folded up.

blooming tea

But pop them into some boiling water and they bloom into a flower whilst infusing the water to create tea. They are usually comprised of white tea or green tea leaves. Sometimes jasmine or similar flowers are used.

blooming tea

The flavour is mild but some have a touch of tannin.

Delicious and beautiful. You can buy these online. We also treated ourselves to a splendid glass teapot so that we could enjoy watching the flower bloom.

Couple of things worth noting. If you are on a tour you are likely be invited to purchase products in the inevitable shop that can be found alongside museums, factories, tourist attractions and tea shops. Our experience was that we weren’t pressured to buy anything. We also found that in some factory outlets prices were regulated by the government which meant that we didn’t have to haggle, much to our relief, because we’re rubbish at it. Although we did somehow come home bearing a vaccuum-packed silk duvet from one emporium because it was genuinely good value.

There are some scams whereby friendly people approach you and invite you to drink tea with them at a local tea house. It may be perfectly legitimate and genuine but there have been situations where you are taken to what appears to be a charming, authentic tea house and when the bill arrives it is considerably higher than you might expect for a pot of tea.

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Luang Prabang Lao PDR (Please Don’t Rush)

There’s a general assumption that the cuisines of many countries in South East Asia – Thailand, Lao, Cambodia and Vietnam – are pretty much the same but that would be doing them a great disservice. While they may share many ingredients and seasonings, each cuisine is different and it is a joy to be able to discover the nuances of the foods from each country. Lao, for example, being landlocked, relies on the river for its piscine bounties rather than the sea. Hence most of the fish served will be river fish. River weed, dried in in the sun and flavoured with seasonings, makes for a tasty snack. Luang Prabang, Lao’s former capital, located in the north of the country, lies on the Mekong river at its confluence with the Nam Khan.

Luang Prabang Lao

It’s a lovely, laid back town with plenty of temples and palaces to explore, which are largely within easy walking distance.

Wat Xieng Thong is the best known of the temples, located a short walk from the confluence. The main Wat has an intricate design and a beautiful tree of life mural.

The Royal Palace was built in 1904 when Lao was under French occupation. The monarchy was overthrown by the communists in 1975 and the building converted into a museum.

Crossing the Mekong and following a short hike up a hill you can reach the small temple of Wat Chomphet with its old stupa and Wat Long Khone. It’s more peaceful and less touristy on this side of the river.

It’s also possible to hire a longboat and drift downriver at sunset, cool glass of beer in hand, enjoying the colours of the evening.

Lao’s formal name is Lao PDR – People’s Democratic Republic. Informally, locals will let you know that PDR stands for Please Don’t Rush – a wise philosophy which also means that you shouldn’t worry if service at restaurants is slow. (Actually, we didn’t notice particularly slow service anywhere we went.) But it’s a good reminder to relax and enjoy your time in this friendly country.

Luang Prabang Lao has a number of bars and restaurants which range from cheap eats to higher end offerings. Utopia is a short walk away from the town, set atop a cliff which overlooks the river. It’s a very laid-back place with a cool vibe and is located in a quirky garden setting.

There is a sorrowful side to the garden design though. Many of the flower pots are actually bomb shells from the time of the Vietnam War when, over the course of nine years, the US dropped roughly two million tonnes of bombs on Lao in a secret attempt to support the royal Lao government against the communists led by Pathet Lao, as well as impact the Ho Chi Minh trail. The country remains the most bombed per head of the population in history.  Worse still, a significant amount of the ordnance – about a third of the devices dropped – failed to detonate and, more than forty years later, there is still a huge problem with unexploded bombs that remain embedded in the ground, despite some international efforts to clear them.

Utopia is popular amongst backpackers for its chilled atmosphere during the day (it has activities such as yoga lessons available) and livens up a lot at night, and it offers local and western food.

One of the best restaurants in Luang Prabang Lao for local food is Tamarind, on the Kingkitsarath Rd, and they specialise in local cuisine. They offer tasting menus which give visitors the chance to try various specialities. It’s a fantastic introduction to local fare. It’s a popular restaurant so it’s worth booking ahead if you can, although we got lucky with a walk-in for lunch.

We started with Lao-Lao shots as an aperitif. Lao-Lao is rice whiskey. Its name isn’t a cute term of endearment – the two words have different tones in pronunciation and hence different meanings. The first Lao means “alcohol” and the second means “from Lao”. The whiskey has a mild flavour but is pretty potent at round 40-45% alcohol.

The starter was chunky bamboo and vegetable soup. A lot of Lao food can be searingly hot, with chilli often providing the heat, but this wasn’t; whilst still spicy, it had a piquancy in the seasoning that allowed the flavour of the vegetables and herbs to shine through.

Luang Prabang Lao

Then came a platter of Lao specialities. These included dinky little sausages with a variety of relishes, which varied in the amount of spice they delivered, as well as kaipen – crispy sun-dried river weed coated with sesame seeds.

Luang Prabang Lao

The next dish was fragrant lemongrass stuffed with chicken which felt like a bit of a contradiction. Usually you would expect lemongrass to flavour the meat but this was soft minced chicken, delicately spiced, placed into the bulbous part of the lemongrass stalk, then steamed and fried. The gentle scent of the lemongrass imparted a delicate citrus flavour. It was accompanied by herbed river fish steamed in a banana leaf along with local vegetables.

Finally, purple sticky rice cooked in coconut milk with tamarind sauce – which was sweet and slightly sour as well as delightfully sticky – rounded off a splendid meal.

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The Isle of Skye – The Skye’s The Limit

The Isle of Skye is a popular destination in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. It’s the largest island of the Inner Hebrides, located around 200 miles from Glasgow and it takes around 5-6 hours to drive there. There are some fantastic places to stop off along the way, though, either to stay for a night or two, or just to break up the drive for an hour or so.

If you are travelling from the mainland you can take a ferry ‘over the sea’ to Skye from Maillaig or drive to the Kyle of Lochalsh and cross the beautiful bridge.

Just before arriving at the Kyle of Lochalsh you can visit the 13th Century Eilean Donan castle located on a small islet just off the coast and accessible via a bridge.

The Isle of Skye is much, much larger than you think it is. You really need a car to be able to explore it. The scenery is spectacular so take it slowly and enjoy a leisurely drive.

It’s worth noting that a lot of the villages marked on the map are very tiny, usually comprising just a few houses. Portree is the largest town on the island and would be a good central location to stay for a few days especially if you are exploring the northern attractions.

We stayed in Broadford which had some nice hotels and restaurants and was closer to the Skye bridge but further from some of the attractions. It meant quite a lot of driving each day, especially as roads on Skye can be slow. But then if the view from your bed looks like this, you really can’t complain.

The Isle of Skye

Oh yes, our hotel had a Cornetto hotline – free ice-cream on demand – which is a policy that should be implemented in hotels across the world.

Cornetto Hotline!

The Northern Part of the Isle of Skye

The Isle of Skye has some fantastic scenery although it can get crowded as it is a popular destination. A lot of the roads near the main geographical attractions are single track and it’s worth knowing the convention for driving on these sort of roads: Single Track road advice – Skye Guides  Look ahead to see traffic that may be approaching and locate the next passing place. Only use the passing place to the left. If there is one on the right, wait on the correct side of the road and let the approaching car use the passing place.

If you have just passed a passing place but you can see that it would be difficult for oncoming traffic to have to reverse their car in order to allow you to pass (for example, if they have to reverse up a hill or around a corner) do the decent thing and reverse up. Also, if you are driving more slowly than other traffic, it’s polite to move into a passing place and stop briefly so that other drivers can overtake you. Take your time. The scenery around you is guaranteed to be gorgeous so relax and enjoy the drive.

There are also loads of walking opportunities across the whole island. The car park for the Old Man of Storr was absolutely chocka so we skipped that.

The Isle of Skye

There are car parks scattered along the road for much of the northern part of the island and they are mostly free but you have to pay to park at some of the more popular attractions. They are usually not very far from a fantastic view.

The Isle of Skye

The Quiraing offers an amazing walk. Located right at the north of the island via a single track road the car park is located at the top of the hill. You can do a circular walk or just trek along the path and back. It’s absolutely manageable for the average walker but there are some sections where you may need to scramble. And the views are splendid.

The Isle of Skye

Carrying on over the top of the hill from the Quairang takes you to Uig, which has a pleasant harbour and also the Skye Brewery which makes cracking beers. The beers on offer are broad in range but because it was a cold and windy day we opted for two of their darker varieties. (Which, of course, we imbibed later that evening as it was a long-ish drive back to the hotel.)

Skye Tarasgeir beer has a wonderfully complex flavour and you can really taste the peat on the malts. It’s light on the palate initially but the flavour develops and lingers on the finish. A fine quaffable beer.

Skye Tarasgeir beer

As expected, Skye Black is a very dark. On first taste it feels like a porter. Roasted malts give bitterness but this is tempered by the addition of local heather honey which comes through subtly. It also has rolled oats and hops which add to the flavour to the beer. 

Close to Uig is the Fairy Glen, a delightful landscape.

Neist Point is a remote lighthouse located on a peninsular and again offers spectacular and dramatic views. It is possible to walk to the lighthouse (just park with all the other cars along the roadside).

Further south on the western coast, the Talisker Distillery offers tours but can get very busy. It’s the oldest and probably the best known whisky distillery on the island. It’s well worth booking a tour in advance if you’d like to visit. Even the shop had a half hour queue when we turned up.

Leaving the Isle of Skye

On leaving the Isle of Skye and heading back into the Scottish mainland there are some other interesting stop-off points.

We were generally blessed with uncharacteristically good weather for much of our trip to Scotland. Unfortunately on our way back from Skye the rain swept in and, while we went to the Five Sisters of Kintail viewpoint, reputed to be one of the finest views in Scotland, we didn’t experience it at its finest.

The Glenelg Brochs, Dun Telve and Dun Troddan, are amazing dry stone constructions over 10m tall with a concentric design that provides an outer and an inner wall. They date back to the late Iron Age and are around 2000 years old.

They are something of a cross between and fort and a mightily impressive house. You are free to wander around them.

Incidentally, the little village of Glenelg has probably the coolest twinning on the planet.

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