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When we were children there was a very popular vinyl record which was comprised of a whole bunch of songs, sung by Danny Kaye, based around Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales. One of these was the song, Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen. We’ve recently returned from a short trip to Denmark’s capital and the song, somehow recalled from many years ago, gave us a semi-permanent ear-worm as we explored the city. But is Copenhagen wonderful? We think so. We spent five days in Copenhagen, and around, discovering what the city had to offer.
Getting to Copenhagen Central from the Airport
We got chatting to a number of people during our trip, some of whom had very different experiences of getting into the city. An elderly couple from the USA were shocked to have paid around 55 Euros for the journey in a taxi. And at the other end of the travelling spectrum – we met a holidaymaker from the UK on his first ever visit abroad who decided to walk the 8km from the airport for free! We recommend the train.
The easiest and most cost-effective way is to take the train or the metro. On arrival at the airport, after exiting the baggage area, follow the signs to the train station. There will be a whole bunch of ticket machines just before the entrance to the platforms. The ticket machines are red.
You can choose the English language option. Just select the destination, number of passengers and time of travel. You will receive a zone 3 card, which covers both passengers, that can be used within an hour and a half time slot. Head down to the platform. Trains are very regular, there will be signs on the platform indicating the destinations and you want to make sure your train stops at København H. The journey takes around 15-20 minutes and costs 30DKK (August 2023).
Accommodation in Denmark is on the pricey side. We chose a small room at the Wake Up, which was just a 10 minute walk from the main station. We were delighted to be upgraded to a larger room on arrival, but it did rather make us wonder what the small room was like because the large room was pretty compact! Still, as with most accommodation, we don’t need anything more than basic facilities – a bed and a bathroom will do just fine.
Planning Your Visit
There are a fair few things that you can do in Copenhagen for free but many attractions have a charge and Denmark isn’t a cheap country to visit. So, prior to taking our trip, we looked into the Copenhagen Card. Depending on what you are planning to see you can make good savings by purchasing a card which offers admission to over 80 attractions and free public transportation within the Copenhagen area. You can select a card for 24, 48, 72, 96 or 120 hours. Download the app onto your phone and you can activate the card at the first attraction/transport option. It will then count down the time until it expires.
You can only visit each attraction once, with the exception of Tivoli where you can re-enter the park on the same day only, if you get a stamp.
For our five days in Copenhagen we chose to buy a 72 hour card.
Five Days in Copenhagen: Day 1
National Museum of Denmark
The National Museum is located on Ny Vestergade. It showcases Denmark’s long and fascinating history with both permanent and temporary exhibitions. Particular highlights include the Viking history exhibition, which feature wooden parts of an extraordinarily long longboat and include an audio-visual opportunity to join a Viking raid, and the modern collection which shows many aspects of Danish culture.
On our visit there was an interactive exhibit about money and finance around the world which was surprisingly fun.
Ride the Rollercoaster at Tivoli Gardens
One of the most delightful things about Copenhagen is that, rather than having a central business district full of corporate offices and commercial buildings, it has a park right in the middle of the city. Directly opposite the central station and just a 10 minute walk from the National Museum, this delightful amusement park is the third oldest in the world and dates from 1843. It is one of Denmark’s most visited attractions and is a lovely place to visit for both the young and young at heart. Set in a very pretty garden, it has a number of stages for performances and white-knuckle rides for intrepid thrill-seekers.
The Copenhagen card will provide entrance to the park but not the rides. If you plan to spend a lot of time in Tivoli and want to enjoy all the rides it’s worth buying a wristband for unlimited access. There are machines all over the park. If you just want to go on a ride or two you can queue as normal then pay for each with your credit card at the gate just before you get on.
We didn’t plan to spend all day in the park but we did want to ride Rutschebanen, a wooden rollercoaster which dates from 1914 and is one of the oldest still operating. It is one of the few left in the world which has a brake operator in a car on each train, manually slowing the cars on the big slopes if needed.
It’s great fun to ride.
If you are visiting Tivoli you can get a stamp which allows you re-entry to the park on that day only. The security guards at the exits, armed with ink, will be able to provide one.
Tivoli food hall is adjacent to the park and has the same opening hours. You don’t need a ticket to Tivoli to visit the food hall. There are all sorts of Danish and international dishes on offer.
The Planetarium, on Gammel Kongevej, is well worth a visit. It has a number of exhibitions on the ground floor and also runs a number of films in the largest tilted dome in Europe, a hugely impressive space. It offered a view of the current night sky and then ran a documentary about the probes that have been exploring our planets over the years. Headsets for an English translation of the commentary are available at reception.
We walked from the Planetarium to the Fredericksberg area. Bus 7A will go there from the city centre if you don’t fancy walking and the Copenhagen card will cover the cost – just show the card to the bus driver. You will need to get on at the front of the bus. There are lots of things to do here, including visiting the zoo. We had some cultural activities in mind.
This is the museum of humour and satire where we received a very friendly welcome.
The downstairs area showcases the history of Danish humour (only in Danish but you can use a QR code on your phone to get a translation) but also has a few rooms dedicated to humour for children – chock full of surreal objects and fart gags.
Upstairs is an exhibition dedicated to the work of Storm P, the cartoonist, illustrator and satirist Robert Storm Petersen. There is a large collection of his artwork with explanations in English as well as a set-up of his workspace.
A fabulous idea for an art gallery, Cisternene used to be an underground reservoir! Beneath the green, green grass of Søndermarken Park this dark, cavernous space hosts an exhibition by a different artist each year. You need to be a bit walking careful inside – it’s dark and damp and you need to keep on the pathway or get wet feet – but it was one of the most delightful and unusual art galleries we have ever visited.
We saw the display from South Korean artist Kimsooja whose light installation was colourful, beautiful and otherworldly.
Evening at Tivoli
The 7A bus (the bus stop is just outside the zoo) will take you back to the city centre to enjoy dinner and a beer. Because the stamps on our arms were just about visible, we popped back to Tivoli. There were performances on some of the stages interspersed with squeals of delight as the white-knuckle rides simultaneously enthused and terrified.
A Day Trip To Hamlet’s Castle and A Fabulous Art Gallery
The Copenhagen card also includes the opportunity to take some day trips outside of Copenhagen. You can take the train from Copenhagen Central to Helsingor to visit Kronborg castle. Just get on the train. If you are asked for a ticket, show the officer the card and they will scan it. If Helsingor sounds familiar, it is more commonly known as Elsinore in England and is, of course, the location of Shakespeare’s Hamlet’s Castle. Kronborg is a 15 minute walk from the station – you can see the castle from the station.
Originally built as a fortress in the 15th century, it was significantly upgraded by Frederick II between 1574-1585, and again by Christian IV following a fire. A UNESCO heritage site, it’s a highly interactive attraction with actors and jesters throughout the castle as well as guides who can offer information about the history of the castle. You can even meet ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Yorrick’ in the grand ballroom.
Yes, that’s Hamlet and Ophelia just outside Helsingor station.
Louisiana Museum of Modern Art
The return train stops at Humlaebek, just 10 minutes from Helsingor, and this is an essential stop for the Lousiana Museum of Modern Art. A 15 minute walk from the station this remarkable modern art gallery, also included on the Copenhagen Card, offers an amazing collection, including works by Warhol, Lichtenstein, Picasso, Bourgeois, Bacon, Hockney and Moore, amongst many, many others, as well as temporary exhibitions showing the work of local and international artists.
It has the most wonderful setting as well, a light, airy space for the network of galleries that all surround a sculpture park which looks out to the sea. Highly recommended.
A Boat Trip
We got up early to be first in the queue for a boat trip around the canals of Copenhagen. These are included on the card if you are boarding at Stromma (but not at Nyhavn). You need to show your card at the ticket office then get a ticket to board the broad boat for a journey that takes around an hour. There will be a commentary in English and usually another European language.
It’s a pleasant way to see Copenhagen from a very different perspective.
Visit Christiansborg Palace
Although Christiansborg Palace now houses the Danish Parliament it used to be the palace of the Danish kings and queens.
A visit to the ruins underneath the palace offers a fascinating history of the development and construction of the building and you can also visit the former kitchens and stables. The card covers entry to all these, but you need to show it at each location.
The Round Tower
We then headed to the northern part of the city. The Round Tower was constructed between 1637 and 1642 and is the oldest functioning observatory in Europe. Located adjacent to Trinity Church it was designed to be Denmark’s national observatory. You can climb the tower. One of the great things about this is that there are very few stairs. Like Seville’s Giralda tower, you ascend via a ramp with just a few steps at the top.
The Round Tower’s final staircase is quite narrow but, thanks to Danish efficiency, there is a red light/green light system to allow visitors to go up and down in turns. The view from the top is wonderful.
Another construction built by Christian IV, Rosenborg palace was apparently the revered king’s favourite. Set amidst a large park, this impressive castle is very popular as a tourist attraction, so tickets should be pre-booked (go to the website and select the Copenhagen card option). One of the top attractions are the crown jewels, and apparently the only jewels in the world that are on display and used by the Danish queen.
The Design Museum of Denmark
Highly recommended, the Design Museum of Denmark, on Bredgade, is a brilliant space showcasing art, crafts and design from a number of Danish and international designers. It explains the difference between art and design and also reinforces how important design is within our everyday lives. Thought-provoking and interesting, this was a highlight museum.
On day 4 we sneaked in a visit to the Museum of Copenhagen, during the very last hour of our Copenhagen card. If the card expires during a visit, don’t worry, they won’t kick you out!
Museum of Copenhagen
This interesting museum takes you on a historical journey through the development of the city. It also has temporary exhibitions and we were lucky to catch one about commercial artist and designer Ib Antoni, known as The Great Dane, who created highly distinctive art, much of which was to promote Denmark and Copenhagen.
No visit to Copenhagen would be complete without seeing Nyhavn, the gloriously colourful canal district. The canal was constructed between 1670 and 1675, intended to enable a passage from King’s Square in the city to the sea. It was notorious for being an area of ill-repute, where salty sailors and prostitutes hung out and much beer was consumed – the water not being very conducive to healthy living at the time.
Hans Christian Anderson lived at no 67 between 1845 and 1864. It became less important as ships became larger and these days there are loads of bars, restaurants and tourists. The area is undeniably pretty though.
Visit the Kastellet Fort
Walking further north from Nyehavn is the Kastellet, also known as the citadel. It is a fort designed in the shape of a pentagon. Originally part of the wider ramparts that circled Copenhagen, this is all that remains. It was constructed by Christian IV in 1626 and is one of the best preserved fortresses of its type in Europe.
There is a lovely park to wander through and a number of buildings within the site’s grounds. It currently houses military barracks and offices but some of the buildings are open for visitors with exhibitions to explore.
The Little Mermaid
Located on the shore on the far side of Kastellet is the city’s most photographed attraction. Based on Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytale, this bronze statue by Edvard Eriksen, depicts the mermaid as she transforms into human form.
Be prepared for a plethora of tourists surrounding the mermaid, who is genuinely little at just 1.25m tall, climbing over the rocks to snap that perfect shot. A zoom on your camera and a bit of patience is a safer option.
A Quick Trip to Hospital
Okay, so almost certainly not top of anyone’s list of places to visit (or indeed on anyone’s list at all) we just had to check out Rigshospitalet. As fans of Danish cinema and TV, we adored Lars Von Trier’s utterly bonkers and completely brilliant series, The Kingdom. Realising it was set in Copenhagen’s actual hospital, we just had to stop by to take a photo!
A Day Trip to Sweden
Another TV connection with Copenhagen is that of The Bridge, the popular Scandinavian-noir drama series. It was set on and around the Oresund Bridge, a remarkable construction that joins Denmark with Sweden.
There are loads of trains that leave from the central station to Sweden. You can reach the nearest city, Malmo, in around 45 minutes and it’s a nice place to spend the day. If you do take the train, pick up at ticket from the machine at the station and don’t forget to bring your passport. We weren’t asked to show ours but checks do happen.
Malmo is a pretty city with a cute canal, where you can take a boat trip. And there are plenty of squares filled with restaurants.
Lilla Torg is a popular – and very picturesque – square with plenty of restaurants.
Disappointingly they were all serving international food and we really struggled to find a Swedish restaurant in Sweden!
Malmo castle is well worth a visit. Part castle, part museum, part art gallery, part natural history museum and part aquarium, there is something for everyone! A combined ticket for 100 SK will also ensure entry to the science and maritime museum across the road.
Five Days in Copenhagen – ‘Let Us Clink and Drink One Down!’
Copenhagen has a plethora of restaurants and drinking establishments. Chatting to some local people about Danish cuisine we were told that it wasn’t that exciting, largely in the realms of meat and potatoes.
But it’s good, honest, filling grub – meat, potatoes and pickles. Pork is a popular menu item – and the best restaurants deliver crackin’ crackling!
But Denmark is also the land of the smorrebrod – the open sandwich of great deliciousness and beauty!
We enjoyed a lunchtime special of a smorrebrod platter at the Canal Caffeen restaurant. You are provided with bread, butter and a platter of various ingredients. Then you butter the bread (smorrebrod literally means ‘buttered bread’) and combine the toppings to make your own smorrebrod. We were advised about traditional Danish combinations but also told it was perfectly okay to make our up own.
The platter comprised: fried fish fillet with remoulade, herring (to be eaten with the rye spread with lard instead of the usual butter), roast beef with onion, horseradish and remoulade, chicken with mayonnaise, roast pork with cabbage and pickles and brie with radish. It was a feast.
The meat packing district behind the central station (i.e. on the opposite side to Tivoli) is a former market trading area and now home to a large number of restaurants.
Brewpub War Pig not only offers a range of its own beers but the smokehouse has a variety of meaty dishes on offer.
Copenhagen also has many varieties of beer on offer. In centuries past the water supply wasn’t as clean as it could have been so it was safer for the locals to drink beer than water. They developed a taste for it. Denmark may be the home of Carlsberg but there are also lots of (more) interesting craft beers to try. Brewpub on Vestergade offered a tasting flight featuring a variety of their own brews.
Cheap Eats and Drinks
There’s no getting away from the fact that Copenhagen, like many Scandinavian countries, is not a cheap place to visit if you are not from Scandinavia. We found Denmark to be cheaper than other countries we have visited in this region but still more pricey than home. However, we did find a few places to eat and drink that weren’t bank-breakingly expensive and offered good value.
Lilian’s Smorrebrod on Vester Voldgade was our top breakfast location. With a friendly welcome and huge variety of smorrebrod on offer from around 22-25DKK each, plus a cup of good coffee for the same price, we enjoyed breakfast/brunch at Lilian’s almost every day.
Rio Bravo on Vester Voldgade offered typical Danish fare including an all-you-can-eat pork, potato and parsley sauce dish if you’re feeling super-hungry. Well, you have to try Danish bacon in Denmark, right? The plate comes piled high and you are offered seconds – but we couldn’t manage them!
For cheap beer, Heidi’s on Vestergade offers a selection of good beers at what we would term UK prices (probably cheaper than London prices!).
The amusingly named Bastard Café on Rådhusstræde also offered a decent selection of reasonably cheap beer. This sprawling café, sited across multiple rooms within a large building which also houses a deeply cool cinema, has a plethora of board games you can borrow. The beer is good but the food not that exciting – toasted sandwiches and fried things – but you’re not really there for fine dining.
Singing Copenhagen, wonderful, wonderful – Copenhagen for me!
Our five days in Copenhagen were pretty packed and that reflects the diversity of things to do in this vibrant and cosmopolitan city. It really does have something for everyone.
Danny Kaye was right all those years ago. Copenhagen is truly wonderful.
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The northern city of Hanoi is an essential place to visit on a trip to Vietnam. It’s a city we would describe as ‘shabby chic’ compared with the ‘bling’ of Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) in the south. Hanoi has a long and interesting history and lots of fascinating sights. Many are located within a reasonable distance of each other, close to the old part of the city. Here are our suggestions for a one day Hanoi itinerary.
A Brief History of Hanoi
The location where the city now stands has been populated for around 5000 years, and was the capital of the Au Lac, the Vietnamese nation during the 3rd century BCE, but the area was conquered by the Han Dynasty and ruled by China for hundreds of years. In 939 the Vietnamese Ngo dynasty was founded when Ngo Quyen conquered the Chinese in the Battle of Bach Dang River. The last king of this dynasty, the sadistic Le Long Dinh died in 1009.
Power transferred to a palace guard chief called Ly Cong Uan who became Emperor Ly Thau To, founding emperor of Ly dynasty. He established a political centre in the north of the country, naming it Thang Long which means ‘ascending dragon’. Highly revered, he was the emperor who established an era of prosperity for the city. Thang Long was the capital of Vietnam until 1802 when the Nguyen dynasty moved the administration to Hue. In 1831 Thang Long was renamed Hanoi, which means ‘inside the rivers.’ Vietnam was colonised by the French in 1873 and they designated Hanoi to be the capital of the whole of French Indochina. The French abandoned Vietnam during World War 2.
Ho Chi Minh, leader of the communist revolutionary party the Viet Minh, declared Vietnamese independence on the 2nd September 1945 and established Hanoi as the capital of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, an independent country. The city endured turbulent times during the last half of the twentieth century – the French returned in 1946 so Ho Chi Minh led a guerilla war and defeated them in 1954 in the First Indochina War.
The Second Indochina War, better known as the Vietnam War (although in Vietnam, local people refer to it as the American War) followed immediately and was fought from 1955 to 1975, eventually leading to the reunification of Vietnam. Since 1976 Hanoi has been the capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
Getting Around Hanoi
There are plenty of options for getting to Hanoi’s attractions. We stayed very close to the Old Quarter which was perfect for exploring the area. Most of the attractions mentioned here are within walking distance. Although beware, the very first thing that will strike you about Vietnam is the sheer number of scooters and motorcycles. They are everywhere!
The next thing that will strike you is – how do you cross the road? We have a helpful video guide in this post. Wandering around Hanoi is a pleasure in itself – an undeniable assault on the senses perhaps, but walking in this city is a great way to discover its marvellous nooks and crannies.
Alternatively, there are buses and taxis available for transportation.
One Day Hanoi Itinerary – Morning in The Ba Dinh District
Ho Chi Minh – The Father of the People
The morning started with a visit to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum on Ba Dinh Square, the final resting place of the highly revered Vietnam revolutionary leader. Inspired by Lenin’s tomb and other communist leaders, the body of Ho Chi Minh has been embalmed and lies in state, guarded at all times. It is possible to visit the grand marble construction and file past the body.
You will most likely need to queue to enter the mausoleum. Respectful dress is required (sleeveless shirts and shorts are not allowed) and you may need to leave your backpack in a locker. You are also expected to pass by the body in silence as a mark of respect. If you are visiting the mausoleum between the 4th of September and the 4th of November, the body will not be available for viewing because it goes to Russia for maintenance at this time.
Interestingly, Ho Chi Minh himself wanted to be cremated and have his ashes distributed through different regions of Vietnam. But the communist party wanted to celebrate and commemorate him, so the mausoleum was constructed in his honour. His wish seemed, to us, to be a much more humble approach.
Our next stop was the presidential palace and former residence of Ho Chi Minh.
Although Ho could have used the opulent presidential palace as a residence he chose to live somewhere much less ostentatious. The two room stilt house, set amidst a pretty garden with a carp pond, was his ostensible home from 1958 to 1969. A simple traditional building with minimal facilities. It’s possible to look through the windows to see how Ho lived.
It was fascinating to learn about Ho and quite easy to understand how he was – and still is – revered by the Vietnamese people in Hanoi.
One Pillar Pagoda
Just to the south of the complex is the One Pillar Pagoda (note this is open every morning but closed on Monday and Friday afternoons). It is a wooden pagoda built on a single stone pillar that sits in the middle of a serene lotus pond that is designed to give the appearance of a lotus flower emerging from the water. It is a Buddhist pagoda and was constructed in 1049 by Emperor Ly Thai To apparently to celebrate the birth of a male heir.
The Temple of Literature
Moving south again, the morning concludes with a visit to the remarkable Temple of Literature. It was constructed in 1070 to honour philosopher Confucious and went on to become Hanoi’s first university in 1076, a prestigious seat of learning. It is another legacy of the Ly dynasty. Students learned mathematics, literature and calligraphy. Although it is no longer a university (and hasn’t been since 1779) it is a monument to education. Even today, Vietnamese students often visit the temple to receive blessings for their own studies.
A beautiful site to visit it has five courtyards.
In the centre is a pool, the well of heavenly clarity. It can be seen on the 100,000 dong note.
You will see many tortoises throughout the temple – these represent wisdom. There are multiple stelae onto which the names and birthplaces of graduates of the university (renowned for its incredibly difficult exams) are carved. The crane standing on top of a tortoise is a symbol of longevity.
Again, this is a site that is considered hugely culturally important so it is important to behave respectfully. There are even rules about not stroking the tortoises’ heads (quite right too!).
The street on the eastern road adjacent to the Temple of Literature has a large number of restaurants. There’s a great variety of local food here, perfect for stopping for lunch.
One Day Hanoi Itinerary – Afternoon In The Old Quarter
Just up the road from the Temple of Literature is the Vietnam Museum of Fine Arts. If you like art, especially discovering local art, this is definitely a must-see attraction. It’s perfect for a leisurely after-lunch visit.
Hoan Kiem Lake
Visiting Hanoi’s old quarter, which lies around a kilometre to the east of the museum. Follow Trang Ti to reach Hoan Kiem Lake (also known as the Lake of the Restored Sword) and the Ngoc Son Temple.
Again, this is a hugely important historic area with a legend that dates back to the founding of Hanoi (as Thăng Long) by Emperor Ly Thai To. A giant golden turtle lived in this lake and gave the Emperor a magical sword which he used to defeat the Chinese occupiers. As soon as he had won the battle, Ly Thai To respectfully returned the sword to the turtle, who dived back into the lake in order to give it back to the gods. It’s very pleasant to walk around the lake.
The lake has an island where the Ngoc Son Temple, also known as the Temple of the Jade Mountain, is situated. It is accessible via a vermillion bridge.
It celebrates Van Xuong who was a revered scholar, La To, and General Tran Hung Dao who defeated the Mongol invaders in the 13th century, a glorious victory.
A Cyclo Tour
An enjoyable way to explore the old town is via a cyclo tour. An hour’s tour takes in the atmosphere of Hanoi’s old quarter and is a relaxing way to end this busy day of sightseeing. You also get to experience the thrill of being on the road amidst all those scooters – an experience in itself.
The old quarter is comprised of 36 streets located within a square kilometre just north and west of the lake. The streets have been named for the artisans and craftspeople who traded specific merchandise in that street: bamboo street, silver street, decoration street and silk street to name a few.
Part of the tour can include a visit an ancient Vietnamese ‘long house’. One of the characteristics of the architecture in Hanoi is that the houses are very thin and tall. The width can be as short as just 2.5m, sometimes up to 5m. However, when you go inside the houses seem to stretch forever. This is because properties used to be taxed according to the amount of façade on the street, so they were constructed this way to minimise costs. This house had a lovely open feel to it thanks to its open balconies, despite the narrow width.
Evening in Hanoi
There are lots of places to eat in Hanoi, ranging from posh dining to street food. The old quarter is a perfect place to hang out in the evening. There is a night market right in the heart of the area. Another popular place is the Bia Hoy Corner which is frequented by both tourists and locals. Be prepared for plastic seats, street snacks, cheap beer and a chance to get chatting with new friends.
The Water Puppet Theatre is a popular attraction, and it’s worth making a booking. It’s located by the north side of Hoan Kiem Lake.
While this is a pretty intense itinerary, it is possible to make the most of a single day in Hanoi.
Just as there are differences between the culture of north and south Vietnam, the cuisine reflects this as well. Food from northern Vietnam is subtle with a balance of flavours, whereas southern dishes are often more spicy. And even though regional variations exist, pho can be found all over Vietnam and is the country’s national dish.
There’s No Business Like Pho Business
Pho is a noodle soup – soft rice noodles served in a warm, very slightly spicy, bone broth with thin slices of meat such as beef (pho bo) and chicken (pho ga). These are the traditional varieties of pho in Hanoi.
Pho is a staple of Vietnamese cuisine. Its pronunciation is like the French word, feu (fire), which is appropriate because it’s thought that the name derives from the term ‘pot au feu’, or French beef stew. It’s so good that you can have it for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Or indeed breakfast, lunch and dinner if you feel so inclined. Yes, we did. In Vietnam it is primarily a breakfast dish – healthy and hearty – it truly sets you up for the day ahead.
The soup is meant to be drunk. Like Japanese ramen, the broth is absolutely key to the flavour. The best broths will have been simmered for hours. A beef stock will use the bones, a chicken stock often uses an entire chicken. Spices such as cinnamon, ginger, cardamom and cloves may add a subtle heat in addition to flavour. The soup should be clear.
The noodles are soft but with a bit of bite. They are cooked separately inside a wire basket that is plunged into boiling water for a few minutes. These are then added to the serving bowl before the broth and meat are added.
One of the best things about pho is that you can flavour it to your own taste. Alongside each nourishing bowl of pho a plate containing all sorts of potential flavours and textures will be served. Want heat? Add chilli (the smaller the chilli, the hotter the spice). Like sour flavours? Squeeze in some lime juice.
Texture and crunch? Add beansprouts or green onion. More flavour? You’ll be offered a variety of aromatic herbs, commonly coriander, holy basil and mint which can be added in whichever ratio you desire.
But the key is making sure that you taste the broth before you start wading in with additional garnishes. And, while Vietnamese pho restaurants in other countries often offer sauces such as hoisin or chilli to add to the soup, it is unlikely that you would ever see this in Vietnam. It would be a shame to add sauce which detracts from the delicate flavour of the broth.
You eat pho using chopsticks to pick up the meat and noodles. There is usually a spoon available to sip the broth. Actually, it’s okay to bring the bowl to your lips and drink directly from it. Slurping is fine. For British people who were brought up to believe that it’s rude to slurp your soup, it’s actually quite difficult to do this without spilling the broth or accidentally spluttering! A very positive side effect of consuming so much pho was that we were kept well hydrated in the warm, humid climate.
Bun Cha Ha Noi
Another typical dish from the northern region is Bun (noodles) Cha (grilled pork). It is a delicious combination of grilled pork slices and/or meatballs accompanied by rice noodles and herbs, in a spicy and flavoursome sauce. It is thought to have originated in Hanoi.
Bo La Lot
Another delicious dish is Bo La Lot – grilled beef balls wrapped in betel leaves. Served with a sweet and fragrant dipping sauce, these are juicy, full of flavour and make for a brilliant starter or snack.
One of the best garnishes is Vietnamese pickled garlic, a zingy condiment. We have a recipe for this – it’s great for accompanying Vietnamese food but really versatile for other dishes as well.
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Sarajevo is the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is situated inland and lies in the valley of the Miljacka River in the Dinaric Alps. We visited this lively and cosmopolitan city as part of a road trip though Bosnia and Croatia.It takes a couple of hours to reach there from Mostar and an hour or so from Travnik and Konjic. So is Sarajevo worth visiting? The answer is an emphatic yes! It’s a lovely city with a fascinating history as well as plenty of things to see and do.
Driving in Bosnia is generally a pleasure, but is quite slow in the countryside. The closer you get to Sarajevo the wider and faster the roads become. Driving in the city itself isn’t too difficult either, the traffic was busy but not overwhelming, but make sure you have practiced your hill starts if you’re driving a manual transmission car – the suburbs are very hilly and some of roads are quite narrow.
Welcome to Sarajevo
A walking tour is a really good way to discover a new city, it’s a great means of finding your bearings and discovering places to explore in more depth. Local guides are also a useful resource for getting recommendations for places to eat and drink. We spent our first morning on a walking tour with a small group of international visitors who were also keen to discover what Sarajevo had to offer.
When we first met the guide he asked us, “can you tell me anything about Sarajevo?” Sadly, the only things we could think of were negative – the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War in the 1990s and the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand which led to the commencement of the First World War. Our guide acknowledged that Sarajevo has had more than its fair share of world history, but also that it hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984, which was a positive thing. And he also pointed out that Sarajevo is a hugely multicultural city with a rich history.
Our walking tour started in the old town. On the pavement of Ferhadija there is a plate bearing an inscription:
This represents the boundary between the old (Ottoman) and new (Austro-Hungarian) parts of the city. The walk conveniently followed the history of Sarajevo.
Sarajevo’s Ottoman Old Town
Although there had been settlements in the area, Sarajevo as we know it was founded during the Ottoman empire in 1
461 by Isa-Beg Ishaković, who constructed a number of buildings including mosques, a market and bath houses.
It was Gazi Husrev-beg, governor of the Sanjak of Bosnia in the mid 16th century, who developed the city and enabled it to thrive. Importantly, he recognised Sarajevo’s strategic importance along trade routes and set up free accommodation for traders passing through the city. It reflected the hospitality of the time but also ensured that the area flourished. The old city has a large covered marketplace and several mosques.
The city’s clock tower was an important building. It tells the time in an unconventional way – when the hands are at midnight this denotes the time of sunset. This would have been an important way for Muslims observing Ramadan to know when they could start eating.
Of course, sunset occurs at a slightly different time every day, so the clock would have had to be changed manually. In addition, Sarajevo is a located in a steep valley, surrounded by mountains and the city has outgrown the clock. These days, a cannon is fired from the Yellow Fortress to mark an audible sunset alert for all Muslims.
Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque is dedicated to the city’s benefactor and was built in 1530. It is an impressive structure, highly decorated.
It is located next to the covered market, which still operates as a market, albeit with more touristy goods on offer these days.
The complexity of the water system that was developed during Ottoman times can be seen in the ornate fountains.
With a clock tower, library, religious schools, bathhouses and a sophisticated water system, Sarajevo was one of the most important and enlightened cities of the Ottoman empire, second only to Istanbul.
It is a delight wandering through the old town. There are lots of streets with all sorts of goods to buy and craftspeople making and selling their wares. Lots of foodie shops and restaurants too! If you want to buy a coffee set or indeed some delicious coffee there are plenty of emporia in the area to choose from.
Like many places it can get crowded, so we were advised to beware of pickpockets, be alert and keep valuables safe.
In the 16th century Christians and Sephardic Jews, who were fleeing persecution, moved to the city and established places of worship. Sarajevo remains a places where people of multiple religions live together.
After walking through the old town we reached the river Miljacka which has carved its way through the mountains over the millennia. By 1878 Bosnia Herzegovina had been annexed to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A series of modern buildings were constructed along the river’s banks. One of these was the town hall. Designed in 1891 it bears Moorish influences.
This impressive building had many functions over the years, including as a parliament building and national library.
It was hit by incendiary bombs in 1992 during the Bosnian War and the library, along with most of the books, was lost in a fire which destroyed the building. However, it was rebuilt and opened again in 2014.
On the other side of the river is a building known as the spite house, which was located on the site where the main building was to be constructed. Despite many financial incentives, the owner refused to sell his house and so the authorities eventually relocated it on the other side of the river. Known as Inat Kuca, it is now a restaurant.
It’s a pleasant walk along the river banks, although the muddy river was very much a contrast to the crystal clear waters of Mostar and other rivers in the region.
Crossing back over the river via the Latinska Ćuprija bridge we reached another location that placed Sarajevo in the history books.
It was on the corner of the street leading onto this bridge where Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, who was heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife, Sophie, were shot at close range on 28 June 1914 by nationalist Bosnian Serb student Gavrilo Princip. This event led to the start of World War One.
Following the end of the war, the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed and Bosnia and Herzegovina was absorbed into Yugoslavia. During World War Two the city was invaded by the Nazis. Of the 12,000 Jewish people living in Bosnia and Herzegovina 10,000 lived in a thriving community in Sarajevo. It is estimated that 8,000 lost their lives in the Holocaust.
Learning About The Siege of Sarajevo
1992 saw the break up of Yugoslavia and, tragically, the commencement of the Bosnian War. Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia but following a referendum, which Bosnian Serbs refused to participate in, the Serbs encircled Sarajevo and blocked all routes to and from the city. Sarajevo remained besieged for 1425 days, the longest siege in modern history.
During our Sarajevo walking tour we learned about how the local people coped during this horrific time. The city was constantly shelled by forces located in the surrounding hills. Our guide told us that when the water and electricity supplies were halted, people would have to risk their lives crossing the river carrying containers so that they could get access to water from the Sarajevo brewery. It is estimated that nearly 14,000 people were killed, over a third of them civilians.
The film Welcome to Sarajevo (1997) by Michael Winterbottom tells a powerful story, which includes real footage of the war. It makes for difficult viewing but offers a compelling insight into a horrible war.
The siege ended on the 29th February 1996. In the years following the war a number of perpetrators and their superiors were convicted for Crimes Against Humanity.
Further Exploration of Sarajevo
We thoroughly enjoyed the small Sarajevo brewery museum. The delightful guide showed us around and told us about the history of the brewery.
However, when we went to the adjoining bar to enjoy some of their beers, we were turned away because apparently we didn’t comply with their dress code. We were wearing t-shirts, long trousers and walking shoes, not tracksuits, trainers and baseball caps. We checked the requirements and confirmed that we were not in contravention. The manager, dressed in a t-shirt and shorts, eventually accepted that we were dressed correctly. To be honest, though, we didn’t want to drink where we weren’t welcome. Their loss.
We also visited some of the churches. Sacred Heart Cathedral is a catholic church and the largest cathedral in the country. It was completed in 1887. It was damaged during the siege of Sarajevo but has since been restored.
In the pavement in front of the church there is a square which has a mortar shell crater filled with red concrete, creating a pattern. It’s there to remind people of the war.
Constructed in 1863, the Cathedral Church of the Nativity of the Theotokos is Sarajevo’s largest Orthodox church.
Beside the Europa Hotel it is possible to see the remains of a caravanserai, known as Taslihan, which was originally constructed in the mid-16th century. It was only discovered when the hotel was being renovated but now the former walls are a part of the garden. In its day it was a large market which also offered accommodation for merchants.
A Bosnian Cookery Course
Aside from city walking tours we also love taking cookery lessons whenever we visit a new country. We were delighted to join Mersiha and Mustapha from Bosnian Cooking Lessons at their home to learn how to cook traditional Bosnian cuisine. There were five dishes on the menu:
Sogan dolma – Onions filled with minced meat, rice and spices
Japrak mangel/spinach leaves rolled and filled with minced meat, rice and spices
Dolma paprika filled with minced meat, rice and spices
Bosnian pita – Phyllo dough rolled with cheese and phyllo rolled with peppery potatoes
We arrived at Mersiha and Mustafa’s home located high in the hills surrounding Sarajevo. It had a lovely view of the city. Mersiha and Mustafa grow a lot of vegetables in their garden and we enjoyed chatting with them about growing food. We were offered some traditional Bosnian snacks and a nice cool beer.
Then it was into the kitchen. Firstly we made the stuffing preparing the minced meat with rice and spices.
We learned how to stuff onions, layer by layer, as well as paprika. We also learned a technique for preparing and filling the mangel leaves. The folding technique was brilliant and we have used it since. These would all be cooked together in a lovely, lightly spiced, tomato sauce. We were impressed that Mersiha made sure that nothing went to waste. Any leftover bits of vegetable went into the sauce to add to its richness.
Next step was preparing phyllo. Mersiha expertly prepared a dough to exactly the right consistency and let it rest. When it was ready it was rolled onto the tablecloth and had another rest while we prepared two fillings: one of soft cheese and egg, and another of grated potato with lots of black pepper. Then we pulled the dough, by hand, so that it covered the entire table! It was so very thin – paper thin – but yet elastic and strong enough to take a filling. Mersiha was an excellent teacher and guided us really well.
After adding the filling in a long line, the phyllo was rolled up to create a sausage shape, then cut into pieces and rolled into swirls before baking.
Both dishes came together at the same time. It was a really fun afternoon which culminated in us all enjoying a delicious dinner together.
Mustapha and Mersiha were delightful hosts and excellent teachers. We thoroughly enjoyed not only cooking and dining with them, but also chatting with them about life in Sarajevo.
Sarajevo for Foodies
We stayed at the Hotel Aziza, which was close to the Yellow Fortress and a short downhill walk from the old town. You quickly find that you get a good workout walking anywhere in the city, especially in the suburbs, and it was a robust walk back up the steep hill every time we wandered into the old town. The Aziza offered a buffet breakfast with all sorts of interesting goodies, while not necessarily typical Bosnian, definitely the best brekkie we enjoyed in Bosnia.
There are loads of restaurants in Sarajevo offering typical Bosnian fare. Bosanski sahan is a dish comprising meat with mixed vegetables in a sauce and sitni cevap is veal meat in sauce. These were served with delicious fluffy Bosnian bread and salad.
It’s essential to try cevapi – little meat sausages inside soft pillowy bread, accompanied with finely sliced onion. Make sure you order a large portion, they are so delicious.
Desserts are luscious and sweet. We particularly enjoyed hurmasica, a gooey, syrupy cake. Coffee culture is also very important and the sweetness of the desserts is beautifully offset by the bitterness of the strong coffee.
If you enjoy a tipple, it’s impossible to visit Bosnia without tying domace rakija – homemade brandy. It is made from fermented fruits which are distilled. The more common fruits that form the base of the rakija are grapes and plums but other fruits such as pears, cherries and raspberries are used as well. Some of the more unusual flavours are honey, quince and walnut.
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Biryani is a delicious aromatic spicy rice dish that is a meal in itself. Eaten all over India, it is also very popular in Tamil Nadu, the south eastern state which runs from Chennai in the north, all along the Bay of Bengal to Kanyakumari in the south. We visited this brilliant state a couple of years ago and were not only inspired by wonderful places to visit but also the deliciousness of south Indian cuisine. And we have a recipe for vegetable biryani Tamil Nadu style.
Although biryani is best known as a dish from India it is thought that it probably originated in the Middle East. The Persian word ‘birinj biriyan’ means ‘fried rice’. The cuisine of the Mughals, who ruled much of South Asia between the 16th and 19th centuries, had a significant influence on Indian food. The Mughals also introduced ingredients, such yoghurt, and also the ‘dum’ technique of cooking the dish over a low heat in a sealed pot which helps retain all the flavours as the food cooks.
This recipe comes from Tamil Nadu courtesy of our dear friend, Shankari. We were lucky to be gifted a traditional Indian pressure cooker which is absolutely perfect for cooking this delicious biryani but we have adapted and tested the recipe for a standard hob top pan as well. We often use a rice cooker to cook rice but we find it really doesn’t work very well with biryani because you are sautéing spices and vegetables beforehand and the rice is layered on top of these. A rice cooker can do this to some extent but not really enough to properly cook the spices.
Many people in Tamil Nadu are vegetarian so this dish contains no meat. When we visited this region every restaurant offered both a veg and non-veg meal option. This biryani could easily be adapted to include lamb or chicken but we love the simplicity of the vegetables and it is so tasty, you really don’t miss the meat. The spice combinations are warming and aromatic. If you wish to make the dish vegan, fry the ingredients in oil and omit the yoghurt.
The process involves cooking whole spices first to release their oils and to maximise the flavour. We leave the whole spices in the finished biryani but they aren’t really designed to be eaten – they won’t harm you if you do but you might get an overly intense hit of flavour if you chomp on a clove!
The quantities here will serve 2 hungry people but you can double up to feed more people, or you can use these quantities if you are accompanying the biryani with other dishes. We use a cup that is around 200ml in volume.
How To Make Vegetable Biryani from Tamil Nadu
1 bay leaf
1 stick of cinnamon
3 green cardomom pods
2 tbs mint leaves
2 tbs coriander leaves
½ teaspoon red chilli powder
½ teaspoon coriander powder
1/8 teaspoon turmeric powder
½ teaspoon garam masala
1 cup of Basmati rice
2 tbs ghee or butter (use vegetable oil for a vegan biryani)
Small, finely chopped tomato
2 tbs natural yogurt
1 tsp ginger garlic paste (you can buy this frozen or in jars, or you can crush 2 cloves of garlic and a thumb of ginger in pestle and mortar)
1 green chilli (add another if you like spice)
Chopped vegetables (anything you like but beans, carrot, peas and cauliflower work really well)
Add 1 cup basmati rice to a bowl and soak it in water for 30 minutes.
Heat 2 tablespoons oil or ghee or butter in a pot or pressure cooker.
Add whole spices:
1 bay leaf
1 inch cinnamon
3 green cardomom
When the spices, begin to crackle, add 1 sliced onion and 1 chopped green chilli. On a medium heat, sauté until the onions turn golden.
Add 1 teaspoon ginger garlic paste. Sauté this for a couple of minutes until the raw smell goes away.
Add 1 cup chopped mix veggies and sauté on a medium heat for 2 -3 minutes.
Add the following:
2 tablespoons mint leaves
2 tablespoons coriander leaves
½ teaspoon red chilli powder
1/2 teaspoon coriander powder
1/8 teaspoon turmeric powder
½ teaspoon garam masala
1 small finely chopped tomato
2 tablespoons of yogurt
Mix and fry again for 5 minutes on a medium heat until the tomatoes break down. The mixture turns aromatic after frying.
Add the drained rice and spread it evenly across the top of the mixture.
If you are using a pressure cooker: add 1 cup of water and salt to taste.
If you are using a pot: add 1.5 cups of water (this is because some steam will escape) and salt to taste.
Cover the pot or pressure cooker with the lid.
Pressure cooker – cook on a medium-high flame for one whistle
Pot – cook on low heat until all of the water is absorbed and rice cooked is nicely.
Once the rice is cooked, take the biryani off the heat and let it rest for 15 minutes.
Serve on its own as a main meal, with a biryani raita, or it also makes a great accompaniment to other dishes.
We often enjoy it as an accompaniment to palak paneer – a paneer cheese and spinach curry – for a really delicious veggie meal.
It has long been an ambition to see the Aurora Borealis, that strange and ethereal natural phenomenon when charged particles from the sun crash into the earth’s ionosphere and the Northern Lights dance in the sky. We failed to see them on a winter trip to Iceland so thought we would try again in a new country – Norway – a place we had very much wanted to visit. Our plan was to spend some time in the lovely northern city of Tromso from where we could fly up to enjoy a Svalbard holiday.
Svalbard is also known as Spitsbergen. It’s an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean located about halfway between the top of Norway and the North Pole. It is part of the Kingdom of Norway.
The islands were discovered by a Dutchman, Willem Barentsz, in 1596 and were used as a base by whalers in the 17th and 18th centuries. A coal mining industry was established in the early 20th century and people began to settle there. Longyearbyen is the largest settlement and has a population of around 2000 people from 50 different nationalities.
We visited Svalbard in winter but many of the activities we enjoyed can also be adapted for summer visits.
Arrival at Longyearbyen
As we flew from Tromso, we could see the sun slowly setting from the window. This would be the last daylight we would see for four days.
It was already night time when our aeroplane landed at 2pm, with only the runway and terminal building lit up in the perpetual darkness. All passengers will have their passports checked before flying in, so we effectively entered Svalbard when we left Tromso. Hence there was no need to go through any form of immigration on arrival at the airport.
Transfers are easy to arrange – there are two buses which each follow a particular route, dropping visitors off at hotels or the university accommodation. Alternatively it is possible to get a taxi.
We were travelling with carry-on luggage so hopped straight off the plane and found the friendly bus drivers who indicated which bus we should get on to reach our hotel. We had to wait inside the terminal until everyone was ready to leave. Well, we didn’t but it was really cold outside! Basically as soon as all the passengers have grabbed their stuff, the staff switch off the lights at the airport and everyone goes home.
The bus fare was 200NOK (Jan 2023). It is possible to pay with plastic everywhere in Norway, we didn’t need the nominal amount of cash we brought. (The bus drivers were happy to take cash as well and even joked that they’d have our boots if that was our only means to pay!) The bus dropped us off on the road by our hotel, The Vault, which was just a two minute walk (five minutes if we were walking on ice without spikes) from the town centre.
(The transfers back to the airport basically follow the bus routes in reverse. Your hotel should be able to give you the bus pickup time for your flight. It’s worth arriving a few minutes early – wrapped up warm, of course. There isn’t a bus stop per se – we just waited on the other side of the road from where we were dropped off and flagged the bus down when it arrived.)
On arrival in our cosy room the TV screen was on. It was counting the days until the sun would appear as well as providing useful weather information and aurora forecasts.
Practicalities for Visiting Longyearbyen
Most shops and restaurants are located along the main road in Longyearbyen. There is a supermarket, booze emporium, various clothing stores, a mini mall and a tourist information centre all within close vicinity. If you have forgotten any items of kit or haven’t brought warm enough clothing there are shops where you can buy suitable outdoor clothes or expedition gear if you are feeling intrepid.
If you are walking around Longyearbyen you must stay within the safe zone. This defined area means that you are safe from polar bears! If you are outside the zone, marked by the polar bear sign, you should carry a gun (eep!) and know how to use it (double eep!). The safe zone is pretty large and covers the main town area.
Hence, as visitors, while it is fine to walk around the safe zone and visit local attractions it is essential to pre-book tours with operators who know the region and know what they are doing in terms understanding the risk.
During winter in Svalbard it is dark all the time. And cold all the time. But it’s a strangely refreshing cold because the humidity is very low. However it is absolutely essential to wrap up warmly because when the wind blows it blows right through you.
Things to do on a Svalbard Holiday
While we travelled in the hope of seeing the Northern Lights, we didn’t plan to sit around waiting for them to appear. It’s largely a matter of luck as to whether they will come out to play when you are there. Longyearbyen has a couple of interesting museums, an lovely art gallery and plenty of excursions to enjoy.
North Pole Museum
This small and friendly museum showcases expeditions to the North Pole. Unlike Antarctica, where the South Pole is located on a land mass, the North Pole is located on top of the sea, so expeditions to travel to reach it were significantly more challenging. Throughout our trip to the Arctic, we discovered the bravery and ingenuity of explorers, who attempted to reach the pole via ships drifting through the pack ice or by airship.
The museum offers a plethora of exhibits, including documents, newspapers, cine-films, letters, artifacts and even bits of airship.
The whole exhibition is fascinating. And, we learned, it wasn’t until 1969 that a British Trans-Arctic Expedition actually managed to reach the North Pole on foot, just a couple of months before humans landed on the moon!
The Svalbard museum has a large interactive room exhibiting all aspects of the archipelago, from the geology and geography to the wildlife and industry.
They also offered a small temporary exhibition about the people of Longyearbyen.
Located on the main road in town a new art gallery has opened recently. It’s a cool space to view art and also has a café.
We discovered the remarkable works of Kåre Tveter, an artist whose minimalist approach to painting perfectly captures Svalbard’s landscapes.
With just a few colours his art conveys the stark beauty of the region.
Husky Sled and Ice Cave Visit
One of the best trips we took was a full day husky sled drive excursion to an ice cave. Nikolas from Green Dog picked us up from our hotel and took us to their base a few kilometres out of town.
Green Dog provided all the equipment we needed so we changed into our exposure suits, mittens, hard hats with torches and boots, and went straight out to the dog yard. Karl was the first dog we met and he was super-keen to have a hug. In fact, all the dogs wanted cuddles.
Huskies have evolved and been bred to enjoy the cold weather. They have two coats – a thick undercoat for warmth and a guard coat with coarse hairs that are water, wind and snow-proof. Each dog has its own kennel in the yard but it had to be really cold for them to actually sleep inside them.
We received a briefing on how to use the sled, how to direct the dogs, how to get them to stop and how to get the sled to stop in an emergency.
Then we fastened the dogs to the harness. They were itching to go, barking excitedly and jumping. As soon as we set off the dogs were absolutely silent, fully focussed on pulling the sled.
We travelled through stark and beautiful landscapes in the dark. As we reached the ice cave we let the dogs off their harnesses and rewarded them with some hunks of meat.
Then it was time to visit the ice cave. The cave is part of a glacier – around 60% of the archipelago is covered with glaciers. The ice cave changes each year as the glacier melts during the summer months and re-freezes. There are some wide bits and wiggly bits to traverse through. It’s not an extensive route but it’s great fun to slip and slide inside the cave and marvel at the ice formations – you can see rocks sticking out of the sides of the wall and crystal-like icicles.
After a quick lunch of rehydrated food – which was surprisingly tasty – we hitched up the dogs and started the return journey. We flew across the glacial moraine fields back to the dog yard.
We are always cautious about doing activities which involve animals as we want to be sure that they are treated well but we can honestly say that the huskies were the happiest dogs we had ever met.
If you visit in summer it is possible to go sledding on wheeled sleds. The ice cave isn’t available for exploration but the route will take you through some interesting scenery.
It is also possible to visit the ice cave via snowmobiles during the winter. You need a valid driving licence and a good command of Norweigian or English to be able to drive one.
Gruve 3 Coal Mine Visit
We also enjoyed an excursion to Mine Number 3. Longyearbyen was established as a settlement after excellent quality coal was discovered. It might seem surprising that an Arctic landscape with no trees should have coal. But around 65 million years ago Svalbard was located near the equator and the movement of tectonic plates over the millennia has now placed it in its icy position in the world. The seam is very thin – twelve metres of forest turned into just one metre of coal.
We were able to visit the mine and learn about its history, construction, its people and how they mined. There is around 200 metres of mountain above the mine so safety was really important, especially in terms of shoring up the tunnels. Apparently you can hear the mountain creak.
This was also the first mine to employ female workers. They were largely involved with engineering jobs but some women worked at the coal face and were very much respected by their male counterparts.
The miners would crawl along the seam, in a tunnel that was between 38cm and 50cm high, and mine using heavy drills for 8 hours a day. Pay was exceptionally good.
You can borrow an overall (choose one that’s size larger than your usual size as you just wear it over your clothes) and crawl into the seam. It is incredibly claustrophobic. Not sure either of us would last even an hour in there, no matter how much pay we received.
The mine also holds a seed bank and archive for a number of countries.
The trip is easy to book via Get Your Guide.
The world international seed bank is also located near the mine. It stores millions of seeds from all around the world, the idea being to help provide a degree of food security for the world.
Snow Cat Northern Lights Tour
The aurora forecast indicated that our best chance of seeing the lights was on our last day so we booked a snow cat tour to take us out to the countryside, away from the city lights, to see if we could spot them.
The trip is probably more exciting if the Northern Lights are in the sky. You get in a big vehicle with a load of other people, drive to a hut, have a warm drink, wait for the lights, come back.
Sadly, we didn’t get to see the Aurora. With this sort of thing it is pure luck; we had booked the trip several weeks beforehand so there was no real way of knowing how active the sun and how cloudy the weather would be. Ever the optimists, we plan to try again!
Svalbard for Foodies
The great thing about Longyearbyen is that it’s located at 78 degrees north so you can say that you’ve eaten the world’s northernmost food, drunk the world’s northernmost beer and so on. The fish in Svalbard – and indeed the rest of Norway – is excellent quality and highly recommended. Our breakfast at the Vault was a buffet comprising smoked and pickled fish, rye bread, brown cheese and pickles. Perfect!
Svalbard Brewery is located a couple of kilometres out of town (but still within the polar bear safety zone). They are open for brewery tours and some evenings the taphouse is open for drinking but you do need to book in advance.
We enjoyed a tasting flight and then some more of their fine beers. They have a broad variety of styles on offer.
The best was the Gruve 3 stout, inspired by a local miner – bourbon and caramel flavours combine in this delicious 9% beer. Yeah, we caught a taxi back to the hotel. (The brewery kindly phoned for one for us.)
Fine Dining at Huset
We decided to treat ourselves to a dinner at acclaimed restaurant Huset. Set in a former community centre built in the 1950s, it’s located a few kilometres out of town, so we needed to take a taxi to get there. Taxis are plentiful but not very cheap. Still, this was a treat. The ethos of this restaurant is to present food from the region in the form of a Nordic tasting menu.
Our welcome was warm and friendly, each dish was presented beautifully and came not only with an explanation of what we were eating but information about its provenance, sometimes even including the name of the hunter. It was also lovely to see the chef himself serve some of the courses – it’s always nice to be able to compliment the cook directly.
Prices for the tasting menu were similar to tasting menus in the UK.
The lovely staff at Huset also offered us a chance to tour the building and see their astonishingly well-stocked wine cellar. It’s one of the best in Europe and has around 15,000 bottles. We tentatively tiptoed around the cellar, a little bit scared of turning too quickly and knocking over several thousand pounds worth of exceptionally good wine.
The tasting menu can be accompanied by a wine pairing and it is also possible to request a beer pairing to accompany each dish. All the beers are local and supplied by Svalbard Brewery.
The food was exquisite and beautifully presented. It made for a truly memorable evening.
Our hotel restaurant just happened to transform into the Nuga Sushi Bar in the evenings so we felt it would be rude not to partake, especially as sushi is our favourite food in the world. It’s always interesting to see how other cultures present sushi and Norway is one of the largest seafood exporters in the world, so local fish is guaranteed to be very fresh and top quality. We enjoyed a sushi platter. The tuna was – unsurprisingly – not the greatest we have ever tried (tuna not being a fish indigenous to Norway’s waters) but the salmon was fresh and delicious and the scallops were probably the largest and juiciest we have ever eaten.
There are plenty of restaurants along the main street and in the mall. Stationen offered what we would call pub grub. Straightforward honest food and some seriously good fish and chips!
The supermarket in town has a wide variety of products if you don’t fancy eating out. There are all sorts of fresh products and convenience food. You can even buy dried expedition food which you can rehydrate if you have a kettle in your hotel room.
If you enjoy a tipple, alcohol in Norway is expensive. Svalbard is actually less expensive than the mainland due to a different tax regime but it’s still pretty pricey. You can only buy booze in the alcohol store, next door to the supermarket. Keep an eye out for opening times.
There are alcohol restrictions for local people. They can buy as much wine as they like but are restricted on how much beer or spirits they can buy in a month. Residents have an alcohol card to record their purchases. This convention dates back to Longyearbyen’s mining heritage – apparently miners aren’t fond of drinking wine but enjoy beer and spirits!
Tourists can buy as much booze as they can drink but will need to show their airline boarding pass or ticket at the checkout to prove that they are not living in the area. And there will be restrictions on how much alcohol you can take off the island.
What to Bring to Svalbard in Winter
Warm clothes. When we say warm clothes we mean proper warm clothes. We recommend layers and clothing to cover your whole body. We took a base layer (tops and bottoms), several long sleeved tops, thick trousers, double pairs of socks plus hats, gloves, scarves and balaclavas.
Solid outdoor shoes – in winter you will be walking on ice and in snow. You need to have decent walking boots and they need to be waterproof.
Spikes – these nifty little rubber fittings have small metal spikes underneath and can be attached to most types of shoe and boot. They give a massive amount of grip when walking on ice and make the world of difference between slipping and sliding all over the place and walking normally.
Reflective jacket or strips. It’s dark all the time so it’s good to be visible to oncoming cars if you need to cross the road. The tourist information bureau has some that you can borrow if you wish.
Indoor Shoes – Longyearbyen was established as a mining settlement and the miners spent long days at the coal face. When they returned to their accommodation their boots would be covered in coal dust – so there is a convention that people remove their shoes indoors. Our hotel had multiple lockers to put boots in. We did take some indoor shoes to wear but changing them was a bit of a faff so we ended up walking around indoors in our socks, which worked fine for us. But bring some indoor shoes or slippers if you wish.
A camera that works well in low light. In retrospect, our phones and camera struggled with the darkness. Many of the shots we took were wobbly due to the light conditions.
Although some of the shots turned out to be quite arty and cool – quite by accident.
Even though we didn’t see the Northern Lights, we had an amazing time in Svalbard. Everyone was very friendly and welcoming and it was strange but curiously wonderful to experience darkness all day.
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Everything Stops for Tea
Afternoon tea is a very British tradition. The British are, of course, well known for their love of tea.
Tea to the English is really a picnic indoors.
Afternoon tea originated in the early 19th Century. It was a time when tea drinking was becoming extremely popular amongst all classes but this was also a time when people tended only to have two meals a day: breakfast and supper. Supper was usually taken around 8pm in the evening which meant that there was an awfully long gap between meals.
Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford and friend of Queen Victoria, invented the afternoon tea. She had decided that the gap between breakfast and supper was just too long (who can help but agree?) and she would start feeling peckish mid-afternoon. She solved this problem in around 1840 by indulging in a cup of tea and a snack at around 4pm. The tea was generally accompanied by bread and butter and some cake. She invited her friends to join her and soon enough afternoon tea became highly popular amongst high society.
The elements comprising afternoon tea evolved over the years. Fortunately sandwiches had already been invented by the Earl of Sandwich, who had discovered the joys of putting something delicious between two slices of bread in 1762, so afternoon tea could accommodate this as a menu item as well.
Scone? Or Scone?
Scones are also considered to be an essential element of afternoon tea these days. These are traditionally sweet scones, eaten with jam and clotted cream. The scones are presented whole: they should be cut in half and the jam/cream or cream/jam combination applied copiously. Never reveal whether you put the jam or the cream onto the scone first to anyone from the West Country. Devon and Cornish folk have very different ideas about the order in which the scone should be adorned. We politely suggest that they taste wonderful either way.
As well as disputes about how to eat scones the English also disagree on how to pronounce the word – is it scone to rhyme with ‘gone’ or scone to rhyme with ‘stone’? We’re originally from the south of England so both use the former but have regular arguments with friends about the true pronunciation.
How To Enjoy Traditional Afternoon Tea
The quintessential afternoon tea comprises a selection of sandwiches, a couple of scones served with clotted cream and jam and a variety of miniature pastries, cakes or sweet treats. Served with a cup of tea. This might simply be an ordinary cuppa but it is more likely that you would be offered some speciality teas or herbal infusions. Coffee and hot chocolate are usually available for non-tea-drinkers. The more indulgent modern afternoon teas may also offer a tall glass of fizz; Champagne (preferably) or Prosecco to accompany the treats.
Etiquette suggests that you start with the savouries on the bottom tier. Scones should be eaten next, then finish with the sweet treats on the top tier.
This particular tea had four pastries each, including a fruity pannacotta and layered cake.
Almost a meal in itself, afternoon tea is refined and decadent.
Afternoon Tea in Coventry – Coombe Abbey Country Park
Coombe Abbey and Country Park is located a few kilometres outside Coventry city centre and is a delightful place to not only enjoy afternoon tea but also to spend time in the extensive 500 acre park, woodlands and gardens.
It’s possible to drive to Coombe Abbey. It takes around 15 minutes from Coventry city centre and parking fees are payable. It is a very popular place to visit at weekends and bank holidays, so sometimes the car park can be full. Alternatively you can catch the bus from Coventry’s central Pool Meadow bus station. The No 53 bus will get you there in about 40 minutes.
Coombe Abbey was originally a 12th-century Cistercian abbey that has now been converted into a hotel.
Afternoon tea is held in a lovely garden room, a light and airy space.
There are a variety of options available from traditional afternoon tea to savoury offerings. There is a wide variety of teas on offer – from great quality black tea to some more unusual options such as gin and tonic tea. If you’re feeling decadent, a glass of bubbly is also available.
The petit fours are beautifully made.
Prices range from £20 to £47 (July 2023) depending on the decadence of your choice of tea and whether you wish to indulge in fizz. The prices also vary depending on whether you are visiting during the week or at the weekend (weekend prices are higher). Afternoon teas at Coombe Abbey are very popular so booking is essential.
Other Things to Do In The Area
The grounds of the country park are delightful for walking in. There are several lakes and an extensive woodland to explore.
If you are feeling adventurous there is also a Go Ape facility where you can exercise your inner child and go climbing in the treetops and enjoy the exhilaration of zip wires and a tarzan swing! (Probably best to enjoy before taking afternoon tea!)
And if you’re still feeling hungry, Coombe Abbey offers mediaeval banquets in the evenings – great food and entertainment guaranteed.
Afternoon Tea in Coventry – Tales of Tea at St Mary’s Guildhall
Recently refurbished, St Mary’s Guildhall is one of the most important surviving guildhalls in the country, dating back to the 1340s.
Afternoon tea at Tales of Tea is served daily in St Mary’s undercroft, a delightful and historic setting.
On this occasion we enjoyed a savoury tea. Although afternoon tea is delightful we do sometimes find that by the time you have eaten the scones and the first of the petit fours there is a bit of a sugar overload.
The menu does vary regularly but we enjoyed sausage rolls, pork pies, haddock croquettes, mini quiches and cheese scones amongst other savoury delights
And just a little sweetness with an edible flowerpot filled with mousse and dark chocolate ‘soil’.
Tales of Tea is very popular so we recommend making a booking. Prices range from £25-£30 depending on whether you want a sweet or savoury tea. (July 2023) The undercroft becomes a fine dining restaurant in the evening.
Other Things to Do In The Area
St Mary’s Guildhall itself is definitely worth visiting so make sure you pop across the atrium from the undercroft.
It boasts the England’s oldest mediaeval tapestry, a remarkable work that was woven in its original place – it is over 500 years old.
A recent refurbishment has revealed a mediaeval kitchen now restored to its former glory.
The Guildhall is located next to the ruins of Coventry’s cathedral which itself has a fascinating history. St Michael’s cathedral was constructed in the 15th Century but destroyed in 1941 during the Coventry Blitz in World War 2.
A new cathedral was built alongside the ruins of the old. Both are very much living spaces – both for worship as well as art, music and cultural events that are held throughout the year. It is possible to enjoy a guided cathedral quarter walking tour.
The Herbert Museum and Art Gallery is a 2 minute walk away. It hosts multiple free art exhibitions several times a year and has a permanent exhibition space on the ground floor showcasing Coventry’s history.
Afternoon Tea in Coventry – Telegraph Hotel
Founded in 1891 as The Midland Daily Telegraph, but with a name change in 1941, The Coventry Evening Telegraph was the city’s first daily newspaper. In times gone by it was a tabloid paper located in a large building in the city centre which housed enormous printing presses. But times have changed and the printing presses are no longer needed, so staff have relocated to the Canal Basin in Coventry. The site was opened up to the public in 2017 and temporarily hosted local art exhibitions.
The building has now been converted into a hotel but the decor very much reflects its heritage. Afternoon tea is available. Currently on offer, afternoon tea for two people, with a glass of fizz costs £39.50 (July 2023).
The afternoon tea is more traditional but generous and delicious. The sweet treats included pistachio macarons, chocolate delice with yuzu gel, passion fruit tarts and a strawberry and elderflower cheesecake. The tea was so filling we had to ask for a box to take some scones home with us.
Other Things To Do In The Area
Coventry Transport Museum is around a two minute walk away. It’s a great museum to visit, even if you’re not particularly interested in cars. Coventry was once the city of motor manufacturing and the museum houses a huge number of vehicles from some of the earliest vehicles to land-speed-record breakers.
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Every spring we make the most of foraging for greens in the English countryside. Wild garlic is our absolute favourite and we have a fabulous recipe for wild garlic pesto. But pesto uses cheese! So we also have a recipe for vegan wild garlic pesto.
In the UK you can forage wild garlic for free as long as you just take the leaves, stems and flowers. All these parts are edible. We make it a rule never to take more food than we need as it’s nice to leave some for other people and also ensure that the plant will appear next year. We try to pick one leaf from each stem so as not to disturb the plant too much.
Foraging for Wild Garlic
Wild garlic is pretty easy to recognise and has a very definite garlicky smell. Pick a leaf and crush it in your hand – it has a wonderful scent.
A little later into the season lovely white flowers appear. These have a very mild garlic flavour – we use them to garnish dishes.
As with any foraging, you have to be 100% certain of what you are picking. Poisonous plants can grow near wild garlic. Arum maculatum, also known as Lords and Ladies, is very toxic. Apparently even putting the leaves into your mouth will result in an immediate burning sensation. It can grows worryingly close to the wild garlic. When it’s more mature it develops shiny arrow-head shaped leaves but when young, looks very similar to wild garlic.
Bluebells, or their white-flowered counterparts, which can also easily be confused with wild garlic’s white flowers, can also grow nearby. Bluebells are extremely pretty but also poisonous.
If you are the slightest bit uncertain, DON’T eat it!
Vegan Wild Garlic Pesto Recipe
Just like our standard recipe our vegan wild garlic pesto isn’t precise. We use cashew nuts but you can also use pine nuts (and weep at the expense) or pistachios. You can use a blender to mix everything together but if you’re feeling hardcore you can use a pestle and mortar.
We use nutritional yeast as a substitute for the cheese. It’s a brilliant product that is really good for you – a great source of protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals. More importantly it has a cheesy flavour, perfect for adding that umami element to the pesto amidst the creamy cashew and heavenly garlicky scent.
Bunch of wild garlic leaves (around 150g)
Handful of cashew nuts (around 150g)
Generous sprinkle of nutritional yeast flakes (we recommend couple of tablespoons if you’re measuring)
Slosh of extra virgin olive oil
Squeeze of lemon
Pinch of salt
Roughly chop the wild garlic leaves and place into a blender. Throw in the nuts and nutritional yeast flakes. We recommend adding the leaves first – to the bottom of the blender – so that the weight of the nuts helps with the grinding process.
To take advantage of the season we make industrial quantities and freeze it, so we can enjoy the scented flavour of spring throughout the year. We don’t add the oil, lemon and salt before seasoning but stir it in after it has defrosted.
Blend together until you get the texture you like – smooth or nutty – both work well.
If you want to freeze the pesto, decant it into containers and put it into the freezer. It will freeze well and will last many months.
If you want to eat the pesto straight away (or store it in the fridge for a couple of days) add the oil, lemon juice and salt.
The great thing about this recipe is that is so easily adaptable – you can mix and match ingredients. It’s the underlying gentle garlicky flavour that the wild garlic leaves produce that make this such a brilliant pesto. We’ll be foraging and freezing for as long as the season lasts.
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Lebanon is a really compact country. It’s easy to get pretty much anywhere from its capital, Beirut, within a couple of hours. Lebanon is about half the size of Wales (the standard international unit for country size), has the most fantastic Mediterranean coastline and, moving inland, also boasts wonderful mountain ranges and beautiful valleys. It has a long and fascinating history and some spectacular sites to visit. Here are some ideas for where to go in Lebanon.
The great thing about Lebanon is that it’s possible to visit most of the attractions from Beirut within a day so it is possible to stay there as a base. Another option would be to tour the country and stay in some of the locations that you visit. We would recommend the latter as some of the attractions are a couple of hours’ drive away which would leave less time to explore the sites.
There are good accommodation and restaurant options close to the popular attractions. And you can be assured of a very friendly welcome.
For full disclosure, it has been some years since we visited Lebanon. However, this post aims to show you some of the many places that visitors can enjoy.
Many of Lebanon’s major towns and cities are located along its coastline. It has settlements dotted along it every 50km or so from north to south, or indeed from south to north; this distance apparently being about a day’s journey for sea traders in ancient times.
Lebanon’s capital is the obvious place to start exploring this fascinating country. Beirut has a long and troubled history and is a city that is changing all the time. It was a prosperous trading city since the time of the Phoenicians and was the site of a famous law school in Roman times. Its location has ensured its position as a centre of commerce. Once dubbed the “Paris of the Middle East” in the middle of the 20th century, it gained a reputation as a place of glamour and decadence.
However, it suffered greatly during the Lebanese Civil War that took place between 1975 and 1990.
The city has a waterfront promenade called the Corniche, with two remarkable rock formations rising from the sea. They are called Pigeons’ Rock, which seems wildly inappropriate given their splendour. Rock of Raouché, for the neighbourhood they are located near, feels like a more suitable moniker.
The National Museum is definitely worth setting time aside for. It is located on what was the Green Line during the Lebanese civil war and was significantly damaged as a result. However, it was renovated and restored to its former glory – a grand and imposing building. These days it hosts fascinating displays that exhibit Lebanon’s long and rich history.
The Beirut Art Centre hosts regular exhibitions of Lebanese and international art.
Beirut has changed dramatically in the days since the war. The scarred buildings have been replaced with modern constructions. Sadly, a huge explosion at the Port of Beirut in 2020 damaged a significant part of the city. The Lebanese economy was in crisis at the time, and the blast has exacerbated this. But we have no doubt that this resilient city will rebuild once again one day.
One of the oldest continuously inhabited cites in the world Tyre was founded in about 2750 BCE. The centre of the Phoenician civilisation, it was later conquered by the Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Muslims, Christian Crusaders and Mamluk civilisations. It is located around 85km south of Beirut, around 20km from the Lebanese border with Israel.
Many cities have thrived on their ability to produce a highly desired commodity and Tyre became famous for the Tyrian purple dye, derived from a type of mollusc, that was so expensive and exclusive that only royalty could use it. (Our own city of Coventry became famous for its blue dye – known as Coventry Blue which held fast and coined the phrase, ‘true blue’.)
There are extensive Roman ruins to explore in Tyre – the UNESCO heritage sites of Al Mina and Al Bass.
At Al Bass the hippodrome is enormous in its scale, and considered to be one of the largest and best preserved in the world. It was primarily used for chariot races – you can imagine the excitement of the crowds cheering the horse and carriages thundering round the track.
Al Bass also boasts a triumphal arch and necropolis.
Al Mina is located close to the sea and you can walk along the colonnaded street.
It is interesting to see the ruins continue into the Mediterranean, a legacy from when sea levels were lower.
Another city with a long history, Sidon is located around half-way between Tyre and Beirut. It is thought to have been inhabited as early as 4000 BCE.
Its main attraction is the sea castle, built in 1228 by Christian crusaders, on a small island which is connected to the mainland via a bridge. It is thought that it was built upon a Phoenician temple – there is evidence of a Phonecian settlement under the sea nearby. It has been partially destroyed and renovated over the years. There is a small domed mosque, built during the Ottoman era, that sits atop the castle.
The medina is another essential place to visit – a labyrinth of alleyways in the old stone city, it’s perfect for exploring and getting lost in. There is a soap museum which was originally a factory. You can see the ingredients and understand the techniques used to make soap. And, of course, buy a bar or two.
Beiteddine is located south-east of Beirut and is easy to visit as a side trip when seeing Sidon. It is an Ottoman palace built between 1788 and 1818 and set in a lovely valley close to Deir el Qamar. The palace itself is a place of very great beauty – with gorgeous architecture throughout it is adorned with mosaics and has serene courtyards and fountains.
Many of the interiors are carved with cedar wood. It is also the location of the Beiteddine Art Festival which is held every year and showcases the work of local and international artists.
North of Beirut, Byblos also has a claim to being the world’s oldest continuously inhabited town. The Phoenicians developed their alphabet there and it is thought that the word ‘bible’ is derived from Byblos. It is a fascinating town to explore with its castle and museums.
The Crusaders arrived in 1103. They called the town Gibelet, after the Lords of Gibelet, members of the Embriaco family from Genoa. They built a castle which was sacked when Saladin attacked the town in 1188 and parts of the walls were taken down.
The town was then recaptured in 1197 by the Crusaders and the castle’s fortifications reinforced. They remained in power until the 13th century.
Byblos boasts an excellent beach and also has number of bars and restaurants by the harbour area where you can enjoy a drink or mezze watching the sun set over the sea.
Further north up the coast Tripoli was a town where we particularly enjoyed exploring the souks. Everywhere we went we were welcomed warmly. One of Tripoli’s main attractions is the Citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles, a crusader fortress originally constructed in 1103 which has been rebuilt over the centuries.
It’s a great place to explore and you can climb onto the walls to get spectacular views of the city.
Qadisha Valley and Bcharre
The Qadisha valley is a beautiful area at the foot of Mount al-Makmal and is home to a number of Christian monasteries. Qadisha means ‘holy’ in Aramaic and the river, Nahr Qadisha, flows through the valley. There are some lovely walks in the area.
It was here that we discovered Kahlil Ghibran, a Lebanese poet, artist and philosopher, who was born in Bcharre. There is a fascinating museum dedicated to his life and works in the former monastery of Mar Sarkis. His book, The Prophet, a series of 26 fables in the form of poems, is one of the most translated books in history and has never been out of print since its publication in 1923.
The source of the Nahr Qadisha lies in a cave and is located very close to the Cedars of Lebanon. These are known as the Cedars of God and comprise hundreds of trees, some of which are thought to be over 1000 years old.
These trees are so important to the country’s heritage and culture, Lebanon’s flag features the cedar at its emblem.
Crossing the Lebanon mountain range into the Beqaa Valley we arrived at Baalbek.
There are many spectacular ruins throughout the Middle East, including in Lebanon and also the Roman city of Jerash in Jordan. But the ruins at Baalbek, a UNESCO site, are astonishing in their scale.
Baalbek was known by the Greeks as Heliopolis, which means ‘Sun City’, and was the place where the Phoenicians worshipped the sun god Baal.
The Temple of Jupiter is the largest complex and, even though it has suffered extensive damage over the years, is still hugely impressive. It is thought that construction started in around 16 BCE.
The temple comprises a main plaza set upon a large base comprising foundation walls and a podium. It holds many archaeological mysteries, notably the enormous monoliths from which the walls were constructed – they weigh between 300 and 1200 tonnes. The stones came from a nearby quarry but it is not fully understood how they were placed as it is believed that known Roman construction equipment of the time would not have had the capacity to move them. It’s possible that a bespoke crane was constructed for the purpose or the stones may have been rolled downhill from the quarry.
Originally the temple was encircled by 54 columns, but only 6 remain intact.
The Temple of Bacchus is the best preserved of all the temples as it had been partially buried and hence was protected from multiple earthquakes over the centuries. It was thought to have been completed in 190 CE by Septimius Severus.
It’s a splendid structure with remarkable details in the stonework showing vines, poppies and wheat, symbols of Bacchus and highly appropriate for the god of wine and festivities. Sometimes you can get lucky and have the whole place to yourself!
The final temple is the Temple of Venus, also known as Nymphaeum.
A special mention has to go to the Palmyra Hotel in Baalbek, a glorious, decadent building that was built in 1874 and has remained open ever since. Filled with original Jean Cocteau paintings it has hosted artists, musicians, writers, celebrities and even royalty over the decades. It has most definitely seen better days but was a fabulous place to stay.
Anjar is a fortified town that is completely different to other sites in the country. It was a city developed during the early 8th century CE and is the best example of an inland centre of commerce in the region. The Umayyads, the first hereditary dynasty of Islam, created an empire from around 660 to 750 CE. They were highly skilled in planning and development and the empire prospered until they were defeated by the Abbasids.
It’s a fascinating site to explore. Umayyad Caliph Walid I commenced construction in 714. Based on a Roman layout , Anjar had over multiple shops, a Grand Palace, a mosque and thermal baths. However, the site was later abandoned.
The Grand Palace is one of the best preserved ruins. It has an impressive courtyard that is heralded by magnificent arches.
Lebanese Food and Drink
A trip to the Middle East wouldn’t be complete without a mezze. Mezze is often described as middle-eastern tapas – a selection of small dishes shared by everyone at the table. It’s a lovely, sociable way of eating and you can get to try a variety of dishes.
Amongst the many dishes on offer we had creamy hummus heavily laced with tahini and drizzled with olive oil, smoky baba ganoush (aubergine dip), crispy falafel (deep fried chickpea fritters), foul (bean stew, pronounced ‘full’, not ‘fowl’!), spicy, herby kibbe (small meatballs of lamb mince and cracked wheat), cauliflower tarata (a sauce of tahini sesame paste, lemon juice, garlic, and parsley), multiple salads, including fattoush, which has lots of bread to soak up the lemony olive oil dressing. All enjoyed with delicious flatbreads and sometimes chips.
Grilled meats are popular for main courses – they are delicately spiced and very juicy. Lamb and chicken are likely to be the meats on offer.
And you can’t go to Lebanon and not try the street food. Shawarma is a flat bread filled with grilled meats and chips!
Alcohol is freely available in Lebanon. The spirit of choice is Arak – a distilled aniseed flavoured drink. It’s a bit of a love-hate thing, Colin loves the flavour and could easily drink it all day, Mitch really can’t bear aniseed and shivers at the thought of it.
It’s a little known fact that Lebanese wine is absolutely awesome. Lebanon is one of the oldest wine-producing countries in the world (along with Georgia and the Caucasus region in general). Vineyards are mainly located in the southern part of the Beqaa Valley and they produce delicious and very quaffable fruity reds. Chateau Musar is one of the most famous wine producers.
Chateau Ksara is Lebanon’s oldest and largest winery and it is possible to visit the vineyards and winery. Dating from 1857, Jesuit monks planted French vines and stored their wine in local caves. Their wine is absolutely delicious. They do export it so try to get hold of a bottle or three if you can.
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Regular readers of this blog will know that we are absolutely in love with Japan. The land of the rising sun is beguiling, fascinating and loads of fun. It is a country where bright, vibrant, blaring neon cities contrast with the elegance of traditional castles, temples, pagodas and exquisite gardens. We first visited Japan over twenty years ago and have returned many, many times. Here’s our guide to planning a trip to Japan.
Most people will fly into Japan either to Tokyo or Kansai (Osaka). Both airports are located a fair distance from the cities they serve but it’s easy to pick up public transport options to reach the metropolis. There are train services that run regularly and also limousine buses, which can get you to the city centres very easily.
Japan’s public transportation system is fully integrated and highly efficient. If you are travelling for any length of time and especially travelling between cities, we recommend the Japan Rail Pass.(It’s not recommended if you are only staying in one city as it wouldn’t be cost-effective.) The JR Pass is valid on all Japan Rail services, including the shinkansen bullet train, with the exception of the super-fast Nozomi service. Don’t worry, the other bullet trains are still pretty damned fast! And they are the most amazing way to travel.
You can buy a pass that is valid for 7, 14, or 21 days. Also, the JR Pass allows you to book seats on the shinkansen for free. Just book your seats at any JR office at any station.
You need to order the pass before you travel. You will receive a voucher. This is then exchanged at a JR station for your pass. It is time-stamped and valid from the first day of use on the stamp. There is a ticket office at Narita airport where you can get your pass – just follow the signs for the trains. Be aware that there may be a queue as lots of other tourists will be wanting to do the same as soon as they get off the plane. If you don’t want to activate it straight away, that’s fine.
When using the pass you don’t need to go through the usual entry/exit barriers. Just show your pass to the station staff in the office located at one side of the barriers and they will wave you through.
If travelling by train you can plan your journey using the excellent hyperdia website. Note that there are some private railways in Japan, notably in more rural areas, and the JR Pass is not valid on these.
Bus services in Japan are reliable and reasonably comfortable. They are especially useful when travelling through the countryside.
Taxis are available in most cities but they are expensive. They all have automatic doors.
Car hire is also easy to arrange if you want to visit rural areas. There is really no need to hire a car if you are visiting cities.
There are a variety of options depending on your budget. You can book standard hotels via the usual booking sites.
We tend to stay in business hotels, especially in the cities, as they offer cheap accommodation, albeit in tiny rooms. You can see our post about business hotels. They are very small but they contain all the facilities you might need. And you’re in Japan – you don’t want to spend all your time in a hotel room!
However, it is also worth splurging for a night or two to stay in a ryokan – a traditional Japanese inn. These often comprise several rooms, all laid out with tatami (reed) mat flooring. Your bedding will be a futon laid out on the floor.
You may well be served your dinner in your room. At other establishments you will eat dinner in the restaurant and your futon will be laid out by the maid while you are dining.
Ryokan may be ensuite although sometimes these establishments will have shared facilities. Some have lovely baths and you may be offered a time slot for bathing.
Japan is still a largely cash-based society and, although ATMs have become more common over the years, are still not as widespread as you might think. We tend to take Japanese yen with us. And, while no destination is 100% safe, we have always felt comfortable carrying cash and have never had any problems while doing so.
Most hotels and increasing numbers of shops and restaurants accept credit cards these days.
You can also get IC cards – Passmo and Suica are popular ones in Tokyo – that you can all over the metropolitan area you are visiting. You can tap them to use public transport, such as the metro, and use them to buy some products as well. It is possible to charge them up by adding more cash at convenience stores (known as konbini), such as Family Mart, Lawson and 7-11, which can be found all over Japan.
Just be careful that they are valid within the area you are travelling. For example a card used in Tokyo and the surrounding area may not be accepted in the Kansai region.
Eating and Drinking
Dining when you can’t understand the writing on the menu can be a bit daunting. When we first visited Japan English menus didn’t exist but these days increasing numbers of restaurants offer menus in English, Chinese and Korean.
And many restaurants have picture menus or plastic models of the food in the window. They will also show the prices, sometimes in ordinary numerals but sometimes in Kanji (the Japanese writing system). If you get really stuck, take your server outside and point at what you want!
Food is eaten with chopsticks and occasionally a spoon. It is rare to find knives and forks, and restaurants are usually unable to supply them. Bring your own if needed, but, better, learn to use chopsticks – it isn’t that difficult!
Most people will know the Japanese foods sushi, sashimi and ramen noodles but the cuisine has so much for offer.
There are prices to suit all budgets, from noodles at a railway station stand, where you eat standing up, to the full-on kaiseki ryori, Japanese haute cuisine.
And, if you are travelling on the train, it’s essential to enjoy a bento box meal – a lunch box full of goodies. There are even regional variations of bento sold at railway stations, known as eki-ben.
Izakaya are Japanese style pubs where you can enjoy drinks as well as order a variety of dishes.They are a great way to spend an evening.
Beware the cover charge, known as otoshi or tsukidashi, which is basically a table charge. Some establishments will have a fixed charge for drinking and eating there. It’s usually a few hundred yen per person and its aim is to encourage you to stay at that establishment. If you get a small starter or plate of snacks just after you sit at your table, it’s not a freebie, you are likely to be charged for it. Some bars in Tokyo will indicate whether a cover charge applies but it’s not always clear.
Tipping is not expected nor required in Japanese restaurants or bars – which makes life very easy. Just pay the bill. We have had some instances where restaurant proprietors have run after us with 5 yen change!
Customs and Etiquette
When we first visited Japan we were worried that we would fail to follow etiquette and make terrible faux pas all the way around the country. In fact Japanese people are incredibly friendly and welcoming and would not ostracise a visitor. But if you get the etiquette correct, your efforts are really appreciated.
As with travelling anywhere, it goes without saying that you should be polite and respectful. ‘Arigato’ means ‘thank you’ and ‘sumimasen’ means ‘excuse me’.
Absolute no-nos are wearing outdoor shoes inside. Always remove them before entering a home. Some restaurants may also request shoe removal and provide a locker for your shoes and some slippers that you can wear inside.
If you are using a shared bathroom at your accommodation bear in mind that your room slippers need to be changed for bathroom slippers. (Don’t forget to change them back when leaving the bathroom!)
If using a shared bath, for example at an onsen (hot spring resort), you should wash before getting into the bath so that you are clean before you start bathing. The bath is all about having a lovely, relaxing soak at the end of a day’s sightseeing.
If you are wearing a yukata (a cotton kimono) make sure that the left side of the material overlaps the right side- right over left is for dressing the dead.
Tattoos are still taboo in Japan because they are associated with yakuza (gangsters). If you plan to spend time in an onsen it is worth covering small tattoos with a sticking plaster. Be aware of tattoo polices, some accept people with tattoos, others may turn you away.
As mentioned above, you don’t tip in Japan. Unless you are staying at a high-end ryokan, where it is polite to leave a few hundred yen for the maid who will have laid out your bedding, although this isn’t compulsory. It is considered rude to hand people cash, so leave any tip in an envelope.
Handy Travelling Tips
If you are travelling on public transport and have a lot of luggage, it’s not the most comfortable way to travel, especially if you are lugging unwieldy cases. Instead you could use the Takkyubin service – a courier delivery service that will transfer your luggage to your next location (or beyond, hotels are usually happy to store your bags for a few days). Just ask for ‘Takkyubin’ at a hotel. The staff will be able to arrange it for you and take payment on your behalf. It’s a pretty cheap service and is extremely efficient. Our bags have travelled from one end of the country to the other overnight and we’ve just swanned up at the hotel with a daysack the following day and our luggage arrived ahear of us.
Useful hint: it’s helpful to have the address of your destination hotel written in Japanese – hotel staff will be happy to fill in the form for you. If you are using a booking service such as Booking.com, you can obtain a printout or use the app to find the address in the original language.
Another thing that you will notice about Japan is the sheer number of vending machines. It feels as though there is one on every corner. You can buy pretty much anything. Most are snacks and drinks machines, some will be able to sell hot beverages as well, and you can even buy beer. (We couldn’t imagine a full and working vending machine selling beer in the UK – it would get trashed in seconds!)
And you can drink the tap water in Japan, so make sure to bring a reusable water bottle with you.
Planning A Trip To Japan -Things to Do
Of course Japan offers all the usual attractions for tourists, such as museums, galleries, entertainment and shopping opportunities galore. But here are some quintessentially Japanese activities.
Kabuki is a form of Japanese highly stylised drama and it’s possible to visit the theatre in Ginza, Tokyo to see a play. When we visited we were given a leaflet which explained the plot for the play we were watching. The word kabuki is a combination of three characters which mean song (ka), dance (bu) and acting (ki) so you can expect all of these elements. All performers are male, even those playing female roles.
Another thing that surprised us is that there is an element of audience participation where viewers shout words of encouragement to their favourite actors. You can get tickets for a single act or a whole play.
If you’re a big kid and enjoy playing video games you’ll love the arcades in Japan. They can be found in any city. We can’t resist them – you can play all sorts of games from musical (drumming or dancing) to driving to betting on horse races. There are some where you can stand alongside a mannequin comedian and attempt to perform as a manzai (straight man, funny man comedy).
Just make sure you have a stash of 100 Yen coins.
Karaoke was invented in Japan and is now popular all over the world. The word derives from ‘kara’, meaning empty and ‘oke’ which is an abbreviation of ōkesutora (orchestra). In Japan you can visit karaoke establishments and hire a room for a set time period – just for you and your mates or travelling companions – thumb through the extensive book of songs (there will be loads in English) and sing your socks off. It’s great fun and there’s no need to worry about singing in front of strangers.
Big Echo is one of the most famous karaoke venues. You can also get a nomihodai – all you can drink – deal. There’s a phone where you can order drinks – although it would be helpful to be able to speak a bit of Japanese. The phone will also ring to let you know when you have 10 minutes before the room hire expires – the perfect time make Bohemian Rhapsody your final number!
Manga, Anime and Electronics
Japanese culture, particularly manga and anime, has become hugely popular all over the world and there are lots of opportunities to visit museums, such as the wonderful Studio Ghibli museum, and even museums located by some of the animation studios. There are some areas within certain cities which have hubs where you can go shopping for all the latest hi-tech gear or discover pop culture galore. Akihabara in Tokyo and DenDen town in Osaka offer loads of exciting places to explore for tech and culture fans alike.
Sumo is Japan’s national sport and is fascinating to watch. There are tournaments six times a year (three in Tokyo, alternating with ones in Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka) You can spend a day at the sumo if your trip coincides with a basho.
The rules of sumo are very simple: Two wrestlers face each other in a ring and, at the signal of mutual consent to begin, the bout commences. A wrestler loses when he is either forced out of the ring or touches the floor with any part of his body other than his feet.
You can read about our day at the sumo in this post. And if you can’t attend, you can often watch sumo wrestlers training at their stables.
Pachinko is definitely the loudest and possibly the most impenetrable activity we have ever done in Japan. It’s kind of like a vertical pinball machine where you pay for a bucket of silver balls, put them in the machine and turn the nob. Sometimes you might win a whole bunch of silver balls. You exchange these for a prize (which can be a bit bizarre, such as a box of razor blades!) which can then be swapped for cash in the booth outside the pachinko parlour.
This is gambling, which isn’t strictly legal in Japan, which is why you win a ‘prize’ rather than directly winning cash. The most we have ever spent is 1000 Yen (a few pounds) and, of course, we lost. We didn’t have a clue what we were doing but it was lots of fun anyway. Although our ears were ringing after leaving the room.
Because Japan is located in the Pacific Ring of Fire it is geothermally very active and has a lot of hot springs. And a country that has a lot of hot springs has a lot of hot spring resorts. Onsen are delightful places to relax and unwind, soaking in natural spring water. Some ryokan have their own onsen. A rotemburo is an outdoor onsen where you can relax and enjoy the natural surroundings. It’s worth knowing that some onsen are sex-segregated. We like bathing together, so tend to seek out private baths where we can relax together. Some of the ryokan we have stayed have a rotemburo which can be booked for a set time each evening.
The bath etiquette is that you undress in the changing area then have a shower/wash before you get into the bath. Make sure you have thoroughly rinsed off all soapy water. This means that you are clean before bathing and can just enjoy a lovely relaxing time in the warm water.
There are thousands of castles all over Japan. These impressive fortresses, constructed from stone and wood, were often strategically located along trade routes and were designed to provide strong defences. Many become the residences of feudal lords, known as daimyo,
Many Japanese castles are reconstructions, having been destroyed by fire and rebuilt over the centuries.
Some of the best castles are to be found at Matsumoto – the black crow castle…
Japanese gardens feature traditional designs that have their roots, if you will, in the country’s indigenous Shinto religion which recognises gods and spirits that are found in all things. Gardens often reflect the nature of the landscape and Japan’s distinctive seasons and use natural materials such as rocks, stones and water. Some gardens are very specialist, such as the zen gardens which comprise a minimalist landscape of rocks and stones.
Planning a Trip To Japan – Top Places to Visit
Here are a few suggestions for places to visit which will hopefully give you a flavour of what Japan has to offer as well whet your appetite for some local regional dishes.
Honshu – the main island
Japan’s capital city is a sprawling metropolis. There are so many places to explore and things to do you could spend your entire holiday here. Popular districts are Shinjuku, Shibuya (the place where young people hang out), Asakusa (a laid-back area with old-world feel which is home to the Senso-ji temple), Akihabara (the cool hi-tech area which has a lot of manga and anime stores as well as the Tokyo Anime Center) and Roppongi (the area where a lot of overseas residents and visitors reside or hang out).
We tend to stay in Shinjuku as it’s very central. There are all sorts of things to do, including foodie tours.
The Meiji shrine, dedicated to the deity of the Emperor Meiji is set in a lovely extensive park. It has a dramatic torii gate at its entrance.
Shibuya is the location of the famous road crossing – known as ‘The Scramble’ – and seen in many films and TV series where over 2000 people can cross in a single cycle of the pedestrian lights.
If you like the animations of Studio Ghibli, The Ghibli Museum in Mitaka is a must-see but you do have to book in advance.
Odaiba is an entertainment hub on an artificial island set in Tokyo Bay. Cross the rainbow bridge to find all sorts of activities and shopping. And a monument that somehow seems familiar…
There are also plenty of day trips from Tokyo. Nikko is a historic city and the home of the Toshogu Shinto shrine.
A tour of the Fuji Five Lakes area is a possibility from Tokyo. You might get a glimpse of Japan’s iconic mountain (if the weather is clear!) and sail on a pirate ship across Lake Ashinoko.
A few hours from Tokyo on the bullet train Kansai’s commercial capital is a neon paradise and a fantastic place for foodies. Head out to the dotonbori area for a range of amazing restaurants and a vibrant nightlife.
Typical Osaka dishes include okonomiyaki (kind of a cross between an pancake and a pizza) and takoyaki – octopus balls in batter.
A tour of this ancient city offers lots of historic buildings, temples and pagodas to explore all set within a park. The highlight is Tōdai-ji which houses Daibutsu, a 15m-high bronze Buddha.
A fascinating and beautiful place, just watch out for the local deer who roam across the park – they are usually hungry!
Japan’s former capital doesn’t look the part initially but has some beautiful and important historic places to visit. Just look closely and you will find a temple almost everywhere. A hop-on, hop-off bus tour is a great way to explore the city. Amongst the many treasures, there are some must-see highlights:
The Temple of the Golden Pavilion
The Ryoanji zen garden is a place for contemplation
And the Fushimi Inari shrine, a short train ride outside the main city, with its plethora of vermillion torii (temple gates) to wander through.
A city with an horrific history, Hiroshima has recovered to become a modern, cosmopolitan city. The Peace Park and museum give a balanced history of the atomic bombing and, while it is a difficult place to visit, is also a peaceful and contemplative place.
The Peace Park has a non-eternal flame which will be extinguished when the last nuclear weapon on earth has been decommissioned.
Don’t forget to visit the island of Miyajima which is a short journey away. Tours are available from Hiroshima. You can see the iconic Torii gate in the sea, one of the top three iconic views of Japan.
If you enjoy hiking in splendid countryside, the Japan Alps are ideal. Kamikochi and Norikura Kogen are delightful places to visit.
And the gassho houses of rural Honshu offer a fascinating glimpse into traditional rural life. You can stay in a farmhouse in Ainokura.
Staying in a gassho you are likely to try the local produce – fresh river fish and mountain vegetables.
There are a number of tours available to visit these delightful villages.
Hokkaido – The Northern Island
The capital of Hokkaido is a laid back city. It has a snow festival every winter and you can view amazing snow sculptures in the extensive city park.
You can visit the Sapporo beer museum to learn about – and taste – some of Japan’s most famous beers.
A day trip from Sapporo to Yoichi is a great opportunity to try Japanese whiskey at the Nikka distillery – the area has a similar soil type and climate conditions to Scotland. There are freebie samples in the tasting hall too!
If you like seafood, particularly crab, head to Hakodate where you can enjoy crab for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Rice bowls are available for good prices at the market.
Kyushu – The Southern Island
Another city famous for its history Nagasaki was the port city through which Japan traded with the outside world during the Tokugawa shogunate between 1639 and 1859 period, when the rest of the country was effectively isolated.
A major shipbuilding centre, it was the target for the second atomic bomb that was dropped on Japan. Like Hiroshima, the city has recovered and also has a museum about the bombing, with a significant emphasis on the call to ban nuclear weapons.
Nagasaki is famous for its champon noodle dish, inspired by Chinese cuisine. The noodles are boiled in the soup and hence acquire some its rich flavour.
This is a lively city in the shadow of the very active Sakurajima volcano.
Sakurajima is still very active.
Kagoshima is famous for its kuro buta – black pork, from a specific breed of pig. The tonkotsu ramen, with its creamy umami broth and topped with pork slices, is sublime.
Sometimes described as the Las Vegas of Japan (it isn’t really), Beppu is a resort town well known for its onsen hot springs.
A place to relax and unwind, as well as to visit the “Hells” – thermal hot springs each of which has a specific theme.
A ferry ride away from Kagoshima this small island is a wonderful place to explore. It was the inspiration for the setting of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke anime.
The cuisine on Yakushima is fresh, local seafood and vegetables and is delicious.
The fourth largest of Japan’s major islands Shikoku offers an opportunity to experience a more rural Japan. It has a pilgrimage route, dedicated to the 9th-century monk Kukai, which comprises 88 Buddhist temples over a 1200km route.
Okinawa is an archipelago south of the main islands and offers a very different view of Japan. It’s sometimes known as the ‘Hawaii of Japan’ and is off the beaten track. It has broad, sandy beaches and crystal clear water as well as a great natural beauty. It also has its own cuisine which offers a variety of dishes that are a contrast to mainland Japanese food.
Japan has so many other amazing places to visit, this post could have gone on for several more pages. Hopefully this has offered a taste of the many wonderful things Japan can offer. We can’t recommend a visit highly enough. We’re already planning our next trip…
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Ethiopia is a country we had long wanted to visit. When we visited Armenia in the late 1990s a number of people we met were travelling there because they seemed – to us youngsters – to have visited everywhere else. On a trip to the beautiful Armenian rock-hewn Geghard Monastery a couple told us about the underground churches of Lalibela and in that moment Ethiopia was added to the To-Visit list. It would be many years before we could make the journey but we found a local company who were able to offer us a tour.
Although it was Lalibela that piqued our interest, we discovered that this wonderful country has so much more to offer than its star attraction. With a rich history, stunning landscapes and amazing wildlife, here is our guide to the tourist attractions in Ethiopia.
A Northern Ethiopia Itinerary
Ethiopia is huge. Our itinerary covered some of the best historical sites and spectacular landscapes in the northern part of the country. Although the route involved a lot of driving, we also needed to fly between key locations. This itinerary took 13 days to complete. This post is intended to provide an overview of the tourist attractions. We have some other posts on the blog that provide more detail about some of the places we visited.
We started off in Addis, Ethiopia’s sprawling capital city. Emperor Menelik’s third wife Empress Taytu Betul settled in the region in 1886. Eventually the emperor established himself there in 1887 and the city started developing. Addis became the capital in 1889 after It has continued to expand to this day. Its name means ‘new flower’. It is a lively, bustling city and a centre of commerce. The Merkato district is home to the largest open market in Africa. There are plenty of interesting places to visit .
National History Museum
This museum houses a collection of artefacts, set out in chronological order, depicting Ethiopia’s long and fascinating history.
One of the most interesting exhibits is that of ‘Lucy’ – a 3.2 million year old skeleton, who was discovered in the mid-1970s and became enormously famous as the oldest human. Lucy is no longer the oldest since ‘Ardi’ was discovered – she predated Lucy by about 1.2 million years, but she was a local lass as well, suggesting that Ethiopia could well have been the place where humans evolved to stand upright.
This museum, located at Addis university, exhibits all sorts of cultural artefacts, including tools, clothing and cooking implements.
A coffee ceremony set – something that is hugely important in Ethiopian culture.
The entrance is interesting – it has a staircase to nowhere constructed by the Italians who occupied Ethiopia from 1935/6 until 1941. Each step represents a year of Mussolini’s power. But at the top of the staircase is the Lion of Judah, which represents the Ethiopian monarchy. It was placed there as an insult to the occupation.
Day trip to Bishoftu
A visit to the resort town of Bishoftu (formerly known as Debrezeit) which is located around 50km southeast of Addis, is a popular day trip. There are five crater lakes to visit. These formed following a number of volcanic eruptions which created the craters that then filled with water over the years.
It’s a very pleasant area to go walking and there are plenty of places to enjoy a nice meal with some drinks while observing the plethora of birds that can be found in the area. These cormorants were enjoying drying their wings in the sunshine.
Fly to Bahirdar
We flew from Addis to the town of Bahirdar. Its main attraction is Lake Tana which is the source of the Blue Nile. It’s a lovely place to visit where you can see a variety of wildlife and, of course, the amazing Blue Nile waterfall.
A boat trip across the lake took us to the the Zege peninsualar where we visited the Ura Kidanne Mehret convent. This is a living church where services still take place.
The structure is circular and the inside is decorated with beautiful centuries-old murals, many painted by Alaga Engida. We would see these distinctive designs through out this region.
We saw lots of wildlife on the boat trip on the way back.
Lake Tana is the source of the Blue Nile and is located around 30 km from the lake itself is the Blue Nile waterfall. The 42m high falls are known as Tis Abay, meaning ‘great smoke’ in Amharic, which is a far more romantic name than Blue Nile Waterfall. The moniker is highly appropriate- they are spectacular. But it’s worth noting that they are spectacular in the rainy season. There is a hydro-electric power station which regulates much of the water flow these days, so it’s worth checking whether you are likely to see a cascade or a dribble.
Drive to Gondar
The City of Gondar
Gondar sounds like a city from Lord of the Rings and also looks like a city from Lord of the Rings. It has a grand history. It was the central location of the Ethiopian government and home of the Ethiopian emperors for several centuries and is a UNESCO heritage site.
Established by Emperor Fasilides in the 17th century, the city of Gondar boasts a number of castles and palaces that were residences to successive Ethiopian leaders. The buildings are particularly interesting because they resemble European mediaeval castles.
The history of the emperors is fascinating. There are all sorts of tales of skullduggery – poisonings, murders and mysterious deaths. It is possible to explore the ruins of the castles, palaces and royal baths.
Fasilides was emperor of Ethiopia from 1632 until 1667 and decided to establish Gondar as the capital of Ethiopia. He built the Royal Enclosure which was further developed by his successors. A little way out of town he also constructed a remarkable bath complex, compete with bathing pool, tower and bridge. It is considered a sacred site to this day.
On leaving Gondar we got into a van and had a bumpy ride to the spectacular Simien mountains national park. This is another UNESCO world heritage site. There are plenty of opportunities to go hiking amidst spectacular scenery and have a drink at the highest bar in Africa.
In the Simien mountains you can walk among wild gelada monkeys in fields scented of wild thyme, a magical experience.
Fly to Lalibela
We caught a flight from Gondar to Lalibela where we spent a couple of days exploring the astonishing rock-hewn churches. They were as spectacular as we had been promised many years before.
Another UNESCO world heritage site the churches date from the 7th to the 13th centuries. They are remarkable because rather than being constructed from the ground up, they have been hewn from within the rock, using basic tools such as chisels and hammers, and were built from the top down. This meant that they couldn’t be seen from a distance.
Fly to Tigray
More history beckoned when we flew to the far north of the country to the region of Tigray. Tigray has had a difficult history in recent times. It was the location of the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s, which prompted the Band Aid and Live Aid appeals. And recently it has been engaged in a civil war between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the Ethiopian government. A peace treaty was signed in November 2022 and we very much hope that tourism will be able to be revived in the area once more.
First stop was Axum, which has a history dating back to 400 BCE. It was the capital of the Aksumite empire which ruled the region until the 10th century. It is famous for its towering stelae, obelisks that are around 1700 years old. They were designed as impressive grave markers for royal burial chambers. They are huge – the tallest is 33m. Some of them have fallen and others were taken, notably King Ezana’s obelisk which was transported to Rome after Italy’s occupation of Ethiopia ended.
The Aksumite Empire ended in the 10th century and the emperors of Ethiopia moved southwards, eventually settling in Gondar some centuries later, when Fasilides established his government there.
Churches of Our Lady Mary of Zion
Axum is also home to two important churches. The church of Our Lady Mary of Zion was built by Fasilides in 1665. It is rumoured to have housed the Ark of the Covenant.
Emperor Haile Selassie built a new cathedral of St Mary of Zion next to the old church. It is possible to enter this church and to watch the services.
Tombs of the Kings
A few kilometres out of the town of Axum are the Tombs of the Kings which date from the 3rd century.
King Kaleb’s tomb is located here. Kaleb was king of Axum between 514–542 CE.
Nearby is the Ezana Stone, a stelae, which shows an inscription in three different languages: Ethiopian Ge’ez, South Arabian Sabaean, and Greek. It’s similar to the Rosetta Stone.
Beware though, the stone is cursed and anyone who touches it is likely to meet an untimely end. (No, we didn’t dare!)
The final stage of our journey through the Tigray region involved a drive across the countryside to Gheralta where we could view the rock churches of Tigray.
There are over 100 churches in the regions, largely dating from the 6th to the 14th centuries and they are mainly carved into cliff sides or rocky outcrops.
And that concluded our Ethiopian itinerary. We drove to Mekele, the major city in the region, and caught a flight back to Addis before our return home.
Something that intrigued us before we arrived was Ethiopian food: we had absolutely no idea about what to expect. A quick internet search revealed ‘injera’: Ethiopian traditional bread.
We still had no idea what to expect.
Injera is a flatbread that looks like a cross between a dirty dishcloth and a sponge.
It really doesn’t look enticing at all. This was about as attractive as it got.
Actually, it tastes really good. It has soft texture and a slightly sour flavour. Injera is made from teff, apparently the world’s latest superfood – a grain that is highly nutritious. Injera is made using a fermenting process rather like sourdough or dosas. A combination of teff flour and water are combined to make a batter which takes a few days to ferment. When the mixture is bubbly and smells sour it is ready. It can be fried on a skillet (on one side only) until the characteristic bubbles appear in the surface.
It is often served laid out flat with stew (wat) or with meat and vegetables placed on top – you can pull off chunks of the injera to scoop up the stew. So it serves as plate, cutlery and delicious food.
The local people we met were quite surprised that we were willing to eat injera and that we enjoyed spicy food.
In the UK the county of Yorkshire is renowned for providing large portions of food. Ethiopian portions are so enormous that we quickly discovered that one meal between the two of us was more than enough to fill us up. We generally only needed to eat brekkie, then we shared all other meals.
Ethiopia can claim to be the country where the coffea arabica originates. Coffee has been grown in Ethiopia for centuries and it forms an important part of the culture.
Coffee ceremony is highly social activity and the ceremony is usually performed by the female members of a household. The process starts with green coffee beans which are roasted in a pan over a flame and then ground using a mortar and pestle. Then the ground coffee is placed into a pot which has a spherical base and long neck and water added. It then boils on the flame so that the coffee can infuse and is then filtered using a sieve. The finished drink is poured from height into small cups. The grounds may be brewed a couple more times.
It is also possible to drink home-made beer in Ethiopia. Bars aren’t common in rural areas so you need to know someone local because the beer is only available in private homes. These are called tella places. We were lucky to have a guide who invited us to a tella place to enjoy the beer. It’s a beer brewed with teff or sometimes sorghum and the variety we tried was quite light – around 3%. Drinking beer in a home was a nice way to enjoy a tipple with local people.
Some Interesting Facts About Ethiopia For Travellers
Because Ethiopia isn’t located too far from the equator daylight and nighttime are pretty much equal all through the year. The Ethiopian time system is very different to ours and uses a 12 hour clock. Sunrise, at 6am, is 12:00 dawn time. Night starts at 12:00 dusk, which is the equivalent to 6pm international time. While many tour guides will work on international time, it can get a little confusing if you are looking at a local clock, especially if you have a flight to catch.
Additionally, Ethiopia has thirteen months in its year. This means that, at the time of writing in 2023, it is still 2015.
Another interesting element to Ethiopian culture is that many people follow the Ethiopian Orthodox church and hence don’t eat meat on Wednesdays and Fridays. This is great for vegetarian/vegan visitors as there is a good selection of veggie food available. Ravenous meat-eaters don’t need to worry though, hotels and restaurants will still offer meat on those days.
Ethiopia has so much to offer – a fascinating history and culture, remarkable architecture and really beautiful landscapes and wildlife. We received a warm welcome wherever we visited and would love to return to explore the south of the country.
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