Oban is a town in Argyll and Bute located around a pretty bay on the west coast of Scotland. It’s a popular place to visit and also has a ferry port from which it’s possible to travel to some of the western islands and as such is often considered the gateway to the Hebridean islands. But there are plenty of things to do in Oban itself and the surrounding area.
A Towering Folly
McCaig’s Tower is the town’s most prominent landmark, set on a hill looking over the bay. It was funded by John Stuart McCaig in 1897, a local banker who wanted to ensure employment for local builders and stonemasons as well as to leave a monument dedicated to his family. But he died before his plans fully came to fruition and, although he left a legacy for its completion, his family contested this and work stopped.
McCaig had apparently wanted a grand design based on the Colosseum in Rome, which would have been impressive, but it was not to be. It is a folly, but is nice to climb the hill and walk around the tower to have a look at the design and also to get a panoramic view of Oban below.
Visit Oban Distillery
Oban has one of the smaller whisky distilleries in Scotland. In fact the town developed around the distillery which was established in 1794. Hence it’s very conveniently located right in the centre of Oban. Because of its location the distillery didn’t really have the opportunity to expand so it remains small but perfectly formed. Also, because it’s town-based, there are no issues with someone having to drive to the distillery if you want to indulge in a tasting and are staying locally.
Of course they offer tasting tours. It’s definitely worth making a booking. At the time we visited it wasn’t possible to tour the distillery itself (although you can make a booking through their website) due to Covid but a tutored tasting was possible. On arrival you are shown to a table and presented with some samples in little glasses and a tasting card.
It was really useful to have some guidance as to how to taste whisky. The advice was to sip and don’t sniff the whisky on the first taste. Definitely don’t quaff the shot or you will just get a burn at the back of the throat. Sipping again, your mouth is now used to the whisky, so let the whisky lie on your tongue for 15-20 secs to let the saliva glands release saliva and savour the flavour. You don’t expect to get a peaty whisky in Oban, the water is sourced from a local loch, about three miles away.
When whisky is first distilled it is a clear liquid. Its colour and flavour derives from the barrels it is stored in and the length of time the whisky is aged. There are some interesting techniques – the whisky can be aged in bourbon or sherry barrels but the casks can only be used a certain number of times (around five). Some barrels are charred inside, then the burned timber is scraped away to expose new timber and this offers a new flavour. Some whiskies are tripled matured in three casks. We tried the 14 year old whisky, which had a light, citrusy flavour; the 14 year old (charred barrel); the Distiller’s Edition which had been aged in a bourbon and then a sherry cask, which had a sweeter, more caramel roundness; and the triple matured Little Bay, which had a great complexity of flavour.
Of course, there are lots of bottles of whisky available to buy. We were quite taken with their Game of Thrones special edition.
Things to Do Around Oban – Day Trips
We recommend using a car to get around Scotland if you can – the driving is generally easy, the routes are guaranteed to look beautiful and it gave us flexibility to explore the wider area. However, there are public transport options if that is preferable.
Easdale Slate Island
Easdale is a tiny island located around 25 km from Oban. It’s easy to reach but first you have to cross the Bridge Over The Atlantic – possibly the cutest bridge in Scotland. Clachan Bridge joins Seil Island to the Scottish mainland so it really does cross the Atlantic – sort of! It’s a darling humpbacked bridge, built in 1792. It’s on a single track road, so take care when crossing.
From there head to Ellenabeich, which has a large car park and the ferry port for the three minute journey across the sea to the island. It costs just a few pounds to make the crossing.
On arrival at Easdale you discover that there are no cars but it is the most delightful place to go walking. There is a café/reastaurant and a folk museum.
Easdale was once the focal point of the Scottish slate industry. As such it has a number of slate quarries, many of which are now flooded. Despite the industry, the island is really beautiful. Skimming Quarry holds a national stone skipping competition every September.
It’s very easy to walk all the way around the island and sometimes you get lucky with perfect weather.
Kilmarten Glen and the Standing Stones
Driving further south towards Kilmarten it’s possible to explore some of Scotland’s prehistoric monuments, including cairns and standing stones.
Stopping in Kilmarten itself there is a museum which gives a history of the area, and the church next door, which has a collection of early grave slabs.
Further down the road there is a car park and, after crossing the road into the field, it’s possible to see Nether Largie Stones. The stones, believed to have been erected 3200 years ago, align with the midwinter sunrise and the autumn and winter equinoxes.
Temple Wood is a stone circle which has a cairn in its centre. It was originally a wood circle, dating from about 5000 years ago but the wood was later replaced with stones. Cremated remains, dating from around 3300 years ago, were found inside the centre of the circle.
Another short walk just down the lane takes you to the Nether Largie South cairn, a Neolithic chamber tomb. It is thought that it was constructed around 5600-5500 years ago. It’s believed that it was used for burials in the early Bronze Age as well.
Seafood and Eat It!
On our return to Oban we discovered plentiful restaurants, many of which offer seafood. Blessed with a long and beautiful coastline, Scotland’s seafood is fantastic! If you want the very best, which is also incredibly good value for money, there is only one place to go: Oban Seafood Shack, also known as The Green Shack, located by the harbour on the railway pier.
It’s so good, there will almost certainly be a long queue, but it’s emphatically worth the wait as you can order a huge variety of fresh seafood. It is literally a shack – a tiny hut – where you place your order. There’s not much seating, just a small covered area next to the shack and some tables for standing. It’s not the place for an intimate dinner but who cares when the food is this good? We ordered the seafood platter which was just divine: lobster, crab claw, langoustine, mussels, prawns, scallop in butter sauce, hot smoked salmon, pickled herring, crab sticks, squid rings. It was served with simple bread and butter, Marie Rose and sweet chilli sauce.
There was so much we needed a platter for the debris. We ate standing up, using our fingers (they have a wash station), although forks were provided to pick crab and lobster meat.
The seafood shack offered food as it should be – fresh ingredients, perfectly cooked, friendly service, no pretension whatsoever. Perfect. (It’s worth noting that at the time of our visit they only accepted cash as payment.)
The following day we skipped breakfast at the hotel in favour popping down to the shack to pick up some prawn and crab sandwiches. Absolutely delish! It set us up for the day to continue our journey through Scotland and onto the Isle of Skye.
Other Attractions in the Area
If you like castles, there are a couple close by: Dunollie Castle is located about 1.5km north of Oban. You can visit the castle, a museum and the grounds. There’s also Dunstaffnage Castle & Chapel, one of the oldest stone castles in Scotland which stands on an enormous rock overlooking the Firth of Lorn.
Oban is also gateway to some of Scotland’s marvellous Hebridean islands via the ferry port. It is possible to enjoy trips to Mull, Lismore, Coll, Kerrera and Barra, some either as day trips or to continue your journey through Scotland. Check the Calmac website for information and timetables.
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We have recently returned from a holiday travelling through Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina, two countries that we have long wanted to visit. We decided to take a fly-drive trip, flying in and then hiring a car so that we could have flexibility touring through these two beautiful countries.
Driving in Bosnia and Croatia
We flew into Dubrovnik in Croatia (as that worked best for our flights from the UK) and then hired a car at the airport. It’s always worth pre-booking the hire car. Driving in both countries is pretty easy – the roads are generally good (they are better in Croatia which has a more established tourism infrastructure) and, even better, usually free of traffic. Due to the mountainous nature of region dual carriageways were rare and the drives were leisurely but the scenery throughout each drive was spectacular. We kept to the speed limit – and be aware that there are speed cameras, particularly close to schools in towns – but were overtaken on quite a few occasions.
An ordinary driving licence was fine for driving in Croatia but we needed to obtain an International Driving Permit (1968 version, available from Post Offices in the UK for £5.50) in order to drive in Bosnia Herzegovina. It was also important to ensure that the car hire company provided the car’s registration and insurance paperwork as we could have been asked to show it to police or customs officials at any time, particularly in Bosnia.
Border crossings were generally easy – we just needed to join the queue for cars and simply hand over our passports at the first check-in booth and then answer any questions as the next one, the customs booth. In Bosnia Herzegovina proof of Covid vaccination was needed (at the time of travelling). We had printed our Covid passes out so they were easily to hand but a mobile phone app would have been just as good. Our itinerary took us in and out of both countries. After an overnight stay in Mali Ston we headed into Bosnia Herzegovina.
Bosnia and Herzegovina’s History
Bosnia Herzegovina has a long and complex history. Its location in the Balkans is often described as the crossroads between south and south-east Europe. Populated by south Slavic people it was annexed into the Ottoman Empire, who brought Islam to the area, in the middle of the 15th century. Hence the population comprises Serb (Orthodox Christians), Croat (Catholic) and Bosniak (Muslim) peoples. This is reflected in the multitude of churches and mosques that can be seen throughout the region.
Mostar is the main (in fact, the only) city in Herzegovina. (The northern region of the country is Bosnia, with Sarajevo as its capital, and Herzegovina is the south.) Mostar is located on the Neretva river, surely one of the world’s most beautiful rivers, with its crystal clear turquoise water. The city is most famous for the Stari Most bridge that crosses the river. It was commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1557 and completed somewhere between 1566 and 1567.
It was the widest constructed arch in the world at the time at 30 metres long and 4 metres wide. The drop to the water is around 20 metres depending on the river level. The Ottomans were clever in that this was the only bridge spanning the river for several centuries – the word Mostar derives from ‘mostari’ – bridge keepers – so that the authorities could impose tolls on the traders who needed to cross as they moved their goods through the region. The bridge is flanked by two impressive towers.
Following the decline of the Ottoman Empire and then the annexation of Bosnia Herzegovina by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1909, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was established in 1929 after World War 1. This became the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, under the rule of Josip Broz Tito, following World War 2. The region remained stable until the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Following Slovenia and Croatia’s respective secessions from Yugoslavia, Bosnia Herzegovina held an independence referendum in February 1992. The outcome was in favour but, while most Bosnian Croats and Muslim Bosniaks had voted, the referendum had been boycotted most of the Bosnian Serbs, a significant proportion of the population. A series of events following this led to war breaking out between the different groups. It lasted until December 1995.
It is incredibly difficult to summarise – let alone truly understand – the complexities of the war but what is undeniable is how horrific it was. This was a war that happened during our lifetime – we remember from seeing news reports on the television at the time. We spoke to a number of local people – from all ethnicities – during our time in Bosnia Herzegovina and they told us about their experiences living through the war, notably the Siege of Sarajevo. Following the peace declaration, the government structure in Bosnia Herzegovina has become incredibly complex with representatives from each ethnic group holding positions of power. For example, the country has three presidents: a Bosniak, a Serb, and a Croat.
One of the consequences of the war for Mostar was the destruction of the Stari Most bridge in December 1993. It was not only considered to be a strategic bridge (the other bridges crossing the river in Mostar were also destroyed) but also a cultural icon. The bridge was rebuilt after the war using funding from a variety of sources and many different countries contributed to the fund. The aim was to reconstruct the bridge in identical style and using similar materials (some salvaged from the original bridge where possible). It was reopened in 2004.
Places to Visit in Mostar – A Walking Tour
When visiting a new city, particularly when we are touring and short on time, we enjoy taking a walking tour. There are usually lots of options available but we especially like the ‘free tours’ which are run by local guides (who will expect a tip at the end of the tour and absolutely deserve one) who can show you the main places to visit in Mostar, explain the history of the area and give some personal insight into the country. They are also the perfect people to recommend local food and restaurants.
We started at the Spanish Gymnasium, which is the first public school in Mostar (the word derives from the European term for high school rather than being an exercise centre). It’s about a 20 minute walk from the centre of the city and is a good meeting point as its orange colour is very easy to spot. It is a working school so entering the building isn’t possible.
The gymnasium is located next to the Zrinjevac City Park, which is a pretty park that has a rather unusual statue. We really weren’t expecting to see a life-sized (well, apparently it’s 4cm short of life-sized) statue of Bruce Lee. Apparently he was chosen as a symbol of diversity and couldn’t be perceived to have an affiliation with any of the local ethnicities, but rather represented “loyalty, skill, friendship and justice.”
When walking around Mostar the scars of the war remain. We walked through the former financial district – many of the buildings are still shells. Our guide explained that while reconstruction work had taken place following the war, the capital Sarajevo had received more money to rebuild. There was still a lot of work that needed to be undertaken throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Walking across the Most Musula bridge we could see good views to the hills above. Although walking up to the summit would ensure a magnificent panorama of the city, the area sadly still contains land-mines.
We then headed towards the older part of the city. The Karadoz Bey Mosque is one of the largest mosques in the region and dates from the same year as the Stari Most bridge.
It is possible to visit the Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque. It is located on a side street just away from the main street.
Outside is a fountain traditionally used for washing before entering the mosque to pray.
For visitors it costs 4 Euros to enter the mosque and a further 4 Euros to climb the minaret. Photos were allowed and, although we asked if they would like us to remove our shoes and cover our heads, we were told that it wasn’t necessary.
The interior of the mosque itself is quite compact and the climb to the top of the minaret was fairly claustrophobic.
However the view across the river to the bridge was spectacular. The balcony of the minaret was pretty narrow so we were lucky that there was only one other visitor there. You can also enter the small garden adjacent to the mosque for more river views.
Wandering through the old town, there are lots of shops and restaurants. It is very touristy and can get crowded during the day. There are also a couple of museums in this area, The Museum of War and Genocide Victims 1992-1995 and also the Bridge Museum, which we were keen to visit, but sadly it was closed. There were reminders of the war as we walked through the streets.
Approaching Stari Most again we crossed the river over the old bridge. The steps can be quite slippery.
One thing that is very popular is watching locals who dive from the bridge into the crystal clear water below. You’ll see them hanging around at the top of the bridge, sitting on the top railing, and they will usually dive once they have raised enough money – normally in the region of 50 Euros – from tourists. You will be able to tell when they are ready to dive when either one of them dons a wetsuit or they start splashing themselves with cold water because the temperature of the river is extremely cold, especially in spring and early summer. We were some distance from the bridge, upriver, when we saw a diver preparing to go. Despite the camera being focussed and on full zoom, we only managed to capture the splash! There are diving competitions held in Mostar each year.
It’s worth noting that the bridge is a focal point for tourists and, because the city is only a couple of hours’ drive away from Croatia, it gets very busy during the late morning and afternoon as day trippers arrive in their coachloads. The surrounding streets and bazaars will be teeming with people. So staying overnight to explore the area and view the bridge when it’s less busy is definitely recommended.
Our walking tour concluded by another stone bridge – the Crooked Bridge – just a five minute walk away from Stari Most. It dates from 1558. It was strategically important because it allowed traffic to be controlled from the towers of the old bridge. This, too, is a reconstruction – sadly the original was destroyed during floods in 1999, but it was rebuilt in 2002.
Dining Out in Mostar
There are loads of eateries offering tasty food in Mostar. The restaurants closest to the bridge, or those with a good view of it, are likely to be more expensive than those in the surrounding streets. Mostar was our first introduction to Bosnian cuisine. The national dish is considered to be cevapi – little meaty sausages/kebabs served inside a bread called somun which is a flatbread like pitta but has a really nice focaccia-like spongey texture. It’s served with chopped raw onions, which are quite sweet in flavour rather than being too pungent. You usually get a choice of a small portion (5 little sausages) or larger portion (10 little sausages). Many of the dishes we tried in both Bosnia Herzegovina and Croatia were accompanied by ajvar, a condiment made from red peppers (it isn’t spicy).
There are plenty of sweet dishes on offer as well. Baklava is a familiar dessert, a sweet, filo-based pastry, filled with layers of nuts and a sweet syrup, popular across the region and the Middle East. We particularly enjoyed hurmasica, a pastry doused in lemon-flavoured sugar syrup. It comes in an oblong shape and is very sweet but really delicious with a nice gooey cake-like texture.
And a meal wouldn’t be complete without a cup of incredibly strong, rich, sweet coffee. Coffee culture is very important in this part of the world.
There was also a very good craft beer emporium in Mostar,on Gojka Vukovica, close to the Crooked Bridge. It had a wide variety of local beers on offer, brewed in both Mostar and Sarajevo. We particularly enjoyed Marakuja, an American Pale Ale, Onano Maze, a rich porter, Darkness, a dry Irish Stout and Kukambera, a cucumber-infused lager which was really refreshing on a hot spring day.
And if you’re after something stronger, rakija is the local brandy made from fermented fruit. Its alcohol content can range from around 40% to 60%. It’s not uncommon for local people to make their own rakija. One of the guides we met told us that it was the cure for all ailments! What’s nice about it is that, even though the alcohol content is strong, you don’t just get a blast of booze, the flavours of the base fruit really do come through – it’s a pleasant tipple.
After dinner, when the day trippers have melted away, it’s lovely to wander through the city at night. The bridge and local buildings are lit up beautifully and Mostar becomes a much more peaceful place.
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We visited Osaka (pronounced O-saka rather than o-SAR-ka) on our very first trip to Japan many years ago. We had already spent time exploring Tokyo, Hakone and Kamakura and it was following an afternoon and evening in Osaka, exploring the neon arcades and playing video games, taking silly photos in the print club booths, riding the Hep 5 big wheel and singing our socks off in a karaoke bar (where you get a private booth rather than have to sing in front of complete strangers), that we realised that we had fallen in love with Japan. The following day we visited the Dotonbori area in the Namba district and discovered Osaka’s restaurants. We decided that Osaka was our favourite place in the world.
We’ve returned to Osaka many times over the years and we always make a beeline for Dotonbori. We’ve often stayed in business hotels close by. It’s a short walk away from the JR Namba Station Exit 14 (Yamatoji line), which is especially useful if you are using your JR Pass. Be aware that Namba is a big station. If you are arriving on the shinkansen (bullet train) you can get there from Shin-Osaka using the subway Midosuji line to Shinsaibashi Exit 4-B. (N.B. you can’t use your JR Pass on the subway.)
Osaka is known for being one of Japan’s centres of commerce, indeed there’s a phrase that many salarymen use as a greeting: ‘mokari makka’ which means ‘are you making money?’ The residents of Osaka speak Kansai Ben, the dialect of the region. It’s quite different to the Japanese we’ve learned in classes. For example, Osaka residents will say, ‘okini’ as thanks instead of ‘arigato’; although arigato will absolutely be understood you may well receive a big smile if you use ‘okini.’
Dotonbori means ‘Doton Canal’ and the history of the area goes back several hundred years to 1612 when Yasui Doton, a local merchant, started constructing a canal system in the area to link the Kizugawa river to the Umezu river. However, he was killed in 1615 during the Siege of Osaka and his cousins completed the canal project, naming it after Doton. Following completion, the area thrived, trade increased due to the better transportation along the canal and Dotonburi became an entertainment district, with theatres, teahouses and restaurants. It’s a fantastic place to visit, especially for foodies!
The district is defined by street between the Dotonboribashi Bridge to Nipponbashi Bridge. Probably the most iconic image of the area is that of the Glico running man – and it’s essential to see him at night, brightly lit in neon. Glico is a sweet manufacturer established in 1922 and famous across Japan. They are probably best know for those delicious Pocky coated biscuit sticks.
Dotonbori is one street, but actually the surrounding streets are also full of excellent bars and restaurants. We’ve had some of our best nights out in Osaka by wandering into random bars in the area. Locals and tourists alike are very friendly and we’ve often just started chatting with people. There was one particularly memorable night when a pair of airline pilots decided to buy Jagermeister bombs (a Jagermeister shot inside a glass of Red Bull) for the denizens of the entire bar which resulted in a highly caffeinated boozy evening and us sleeping in so late that we missed much of a planned excursion to Kobe the following day!
Osaka Restaurants Japan
The word ‘kuidaore’ means to go bankrupt by extravagant spending on food and Dotonbori would be a place where you could have a really good attempt at achieving this as it is chock full of excellent restaurants.
One thing to remember when visiting cities in Japan is to look up! In the UK most shops and restaurants are located at ground level but Japan is a country with high rise buildings. Very often shops and restaurants will be located on multiple levels within the same building. You will often see boards outside the building advertising various emporia: F1, F2 etc to go up, B1, B2 etc to go down. (N.B. floor levels in Japan match the American model where the ground floor is called the first floor, unlike in the UK where the ‘ground floor’ is at street level and the next floor up is the ‘first floor’.)
Essential Osaka Restaurants Japan
Takoyaki – The Best Street Food
Takoyaki is quintessential Osaka street food. It comprises spherical octopus pieces in a batter which are cooked en masse in a griddle.
The takoyaki maker expertly and deftly turns each octopus ball by hand so that they are cooked evenly.
Served with mayonnaise, takoyaki sauce (which is similar to brown sauce) and bonito flakes (skipjack tuna flakes shaved to wafer thin slices – which are rich in umami and are often used to make Japanese dashi stock), which undulate gently in the heat of the takoyaki. You just have to wait a little while before scoffing because they will be extremely hot as soon as they come out of the griddle.
Okonomiyaki – As You Like It
Okonomiyaki, which translates as ‘as you like it’, is often described as a cross between a pancake and a pizza. It’s a cabbage based batter (but don’t let that put you off – it’s really delicious) with multiple fillings and toppings. Some establishments have a chef prepare the okonomiyaki, others will let you sit at the griddle and you can cook it yourself.
The basic batter mixture is prepared and cooked on the griddle.
Then you have a choice of toppings – meat and prawns are popular choices and veggie options, such as kimchi are also available.
The okonomiyaki will be garnished with a variety of yummy things, including mayo, okonomiyaki sauce (similar to takoyaki sauce/brown sauce), flakes of nori seaweed and those delightful undulating bonito flakes. Chilli sauce may also be available. The chef will embellish your okonomiyaki in the most delightful way. And of course, when the chef asks you what garnish you would like, the correct answer is EVERYTHING!
Fugu – Dare You Try Puffer Fish?
Fugu is the fish that has a formidable reputation – it’s the puffer fish, parts of which are deadly poison particularly the liver, the ovaries, eyes, and skin. The toxin basically paralyses you and you asphyxiate while still conscious. Not very nice at all.
But fugu is also a prized delicacy. The non-poisonous bits are fine to eat but absolutely can only be prepared by a licenced chef who has trained for several years. You can eat fugu all over Japan but it was at Zubora-ya, with its highly distinctive sign comprising a giant pufferfish lantern outside the restaurant, that we first tasted this fearsome fish.
We thoroughly enjoyed a set menu at Zubora-ya – sushi and sashimi is the conventional way to enjoy fugu. It has a mild flavour and a firm texture that is something like a cross between squid and monkfish. It was delicious. And we survived!
Sadly, Zubora-ya had to close during the pandemic and has not reopened.
Kani – Crab Heaven
Kani Doraku is another distinctive restaurant which has a model of a giant crab waving its pincers on the outside wall, beckoning you inside (well, that’s our interpretation!).
We have eaten here several times and always had a hugely enjoyable meal. Again, it’s a multi-storey building and, depending on how busy it is you may eat within the restaurant or be taken to a private room with tatami mat flooring and a telephone. The telephone was a bit daunting first time around but we picked up the phone and said, ‘kite kudasai,’ (please come here) and someone came along to take our order – which largely involved pointing at a picture menu. Even though it’s a large restaurant it’s very popular these days so it’s worth booking. There are actually multiple restaurants of this chain along Dotonbori, so check out the others if the first one you try is full. (The most popular is closest to the Glico Man.) The set menus aren’t cheap but they are good value and the food is utterly delicious.
We’ve enjoyed crab sushi and sashimi, crab chawan mushi (steamed egg custard), crab tempura and crab gratin with a clear soup and matcha ice cream for dessert. Utterly delicious.
Osaka Restaurants Japan – Other Dotonbori Establishments
There are loads of other restaurants along Dotonbori and the surrounding area. Kuidaore was an enormous eight storey restaurant founded in 1949. It was recognisable by its iconic Kuidaore Taro Clown, a vaguely creepy mechanical drumming puppet at the entrance. Sadly it closed some years ago but the building was populated by different shops and restaurants in what’s now known as the Nakaza Cui-daore Building.
If you like ramen noodles (and who doesn’t?) there are three Kinryu restaurants along the street. Kinryu translates as ‘golden dragon’ and the restaurants can easily be found by their distinctive dragons on the hoardings above the shopfront.
And even the standard restaurants on Dotonbori, those without the amazing neon signs, are worth checking out. One of the great things about dining in Osaka – and indeed throughout Japan – is that you don’t need to speak or read Japanese. Many restaurants will have an English, Chinese or Korean menu and those that don’t will often have a picture menu or, better, realistic models of the food in the window, usually with prices. You can take a photo of your desired dish or even take your food server outside and point to the dish you want.
The models of the food are surprisingly realistic and many are made in Osaka. We managed to find a shop that sold them but they are hideously expensive, so we treated ourselves to a couple of sushi fridge magnets as a souvenir.
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The Island That Inspired The Setting of Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke
Anyone who is familiar with the delightful animations of Japan’s Studio Ghibli will that know that its founders, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, created very distinctive locations for the settings of their films. Princess Mononoke was one of the first Ghibli films really to break into public consciousness, albeit largely with animation fans, in western countries in 1998 (the smash hit Oscar winning Spirited Away in 2001 ensured that the studio’s fame was assured). Princess Mononoke’s setting was inspired by the island of Yakushima, located around 60km from the southernmost point of Kyushu, Japan’s third largest island, which is part of the Osumi chain of islands. The island is almost perfectly round and mountainous. It’s also very beautiful indeed. And even if you aren’t familiar with the films of Studio Ghibli there are all sorts of things to do if you visit Yakushima.
GETTING TO YAKUSHIMA
Being big fans of Studio Ghibli and, having visited the fabulous Studio Ghibli museum on previous visits to Japan, we decided that we definitely wanted to visit Yakushima for a couple of days. On this trip we had decided explore Kyushu. We flew into Osaka and then caught the shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagasaki and then across to the southern city of Kagoshima. Kagoshima is a lovely laid-back city set in the shadow of the active volcano Sakurajima, which regularly emits rumblings of ash and smoke. It’s possible to visit the volcano by crossing the picturesque bay on a ferry.
In Kagoshima we chose a business hotel that was close to the port. The staff were happy to look after our luggage for a couple of days, so we just packed a small bag, which meant that we could travel light. The excellent YesYakushima company helped us to visit Yakushima – they booked ferry tickets, car hire and accommodation for us. (This isn’t an affiliate link but we’ll happily recommend their free booking service which was absolutely excellent.) We were happy to explore for the island for ourselves but YesYakushima do offer guided tours if desired.
We caught the mid-morning Toppy/Rocket hydro-foil from Kagoshima port. It’s a picturesque journey as you sail across the bay. There are other options, such as a car ferry, but this was the quickest means of transport and it took around 2.5 hours.
Our boat stopped off at Tanegashima island before arriving at Yakushima. (Some boats go direct, so check the timetable.) When we arrived at Anbo port our hire car was waiting for us, so we picked it up and were on our way. Driving was mainly very easy but if you don’t fancy getting behind the wheel buses are available.
VISIT YAKUSHIMA – STAYING ON THE ISLAND
We treated ourselves to a stay at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. Usually when we plan our trips to Japan we use a combination of cheap business hotels and then splash out on a few nights at a ryokan or two, which is more expensive but definitely worth the extra cost. The traditional inns usually have tatami (reed mat) flooring and you sleep on a futon, which is usually laid out for you while you eat dinner. We stayed at Tashiro Bekkan at Miyanoura.
The ryokan had a large tatami room, private bathroom and balcony with a view across the crystal clear Miyanoura river.
We chose to stay on a half-board basis, so ate the most exquisite food which included local ingredients such as seafood, mountain vegetables and, of course, kuro buta (black/Berkshire pork), a speciality of the region. The staff were delightful and we managed to have a few conversations with them in bad Japanese (our Japanese was bad, theirs was fine!)
The ryokan was also able to offer us a bento lunch box – we simply placed an order the night before – and then picked it up before we went hiking the following morning.
HIKING IN THE SHIRATANI UNSUIKYO PARK
This park was the inspiration for the forest in Princess Mononoke and it is very clear to see how the artist Oga Kazuo used the stunningly beautiful landscape for the setting of the animation. It has ancient cedar trees and mossy paths as well as streams and waterfalls running through it. There are multiple trails from the car park and the walking is generally easy, although you need to take care of large tree roots that have grown across the path.
VISIT YAKUSHIMA – CIRCUMNAVIGATE THE ISLAND
On our final day we decided to circumnavigate the island in the car before heading back to the hydrofoil. It’s largely a very easy drive but on the Seibu Rindo Forest path on the western part of the island the road narrows through the forest and becomes single track in some places, so you have to take care. We narrowly avoided a minor collision with a coach coming the other way.
From Miyanoura we drove north, stopping at the Shitoko Banyan Tree Park. Banyan trees are a complete contrast to the cedars of Shiratani Unsuikyo. These trees grow by dropping roots from the branches which eventually reach the ground and embed themselves in the soil creating additional roots to support the tree. They can also form around other types of tree and can eventually kill them as they choke the existing root system.
Isso Beach and Isso lighthouse on the peninsular.
Swimming is only possible on the beach in the summer months when lifeguards are available. Also, turtles nest here during May and June, so care must be taken so as not to disturb them.
Then it’s a beautiful drive through the Seibu Rindo Forest. The road can be narrow and very winding as it wends its way through the mountain forest.
There’s an excellent chance of seeing Yakushika (native deer) and Yakuzaru (the Yakushima macaque) – and indeed we did.
Yakushima has a number of waterfalls to explore. The falls are usually well signposted from the main road and there is usually a car park close by.
At 88m high, Ohko no Taki waterfall in the south west corner of Yakushima is one of Japan’s top 100 waterfalls. Sadly we didn’t have time to hike to the falls but even from a distance, it’s an impressive drop.
There are a number of outdoor onsen (hot springs) by the coast, which are worth a visit. Some of these are tidal, so are only accessible at low tide. There are a couple of neighbouring villages on the south cosast, Yudomari and Hirauchi, accessible by single track roads off the main circular route on Yakushima. It’s important to note that tattoos are something of a taboo in Japan as they are associated with gangsters, so is it worth covering any with sticking plaster. We enjoyed a warm footbath whilst looking out across the sea. (There are other onsen resorts at some hotels on the island if hot spring bathing is your thing.)
There’s an honesty box for payment (N.B. the price has increased to 200 yen since we visited).
Sempiro-no-taki is another impressive waterfall which falls across an extensive granite gorge.
Toroki falls are just downriver from Sempiro and can be seen after walking a short distance from the road. You can see the vermillion bridge in the background.
Then it was time to head north towards Anbo port. There was a convenient petrol station right by the turn off to the port’s car park so we filled up the car and experienced the best in Japanese service – a full tank of fuel, windscreen cleaned and, best of all, the attendants running out to the road to stop the traffic so that we could exit the petrol station. Then it was a hop onto the boat to return to Kagoshima.
Yakushima is a destination that is off the beaten track but it is a beautiful island with plenty of walking, terrific food and delightful people. It’s a bit of a journey to get there but if you manage to visit you will not be disappointed.
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Originating from the Indian subcontinent and celebrating the arrival of spring, Holi is known as the Festival of Colour, Festival of Spring or the Festival of Love. And it really is all three of those things. Like many festivals across the world its date is based on a lunar calendar and it falls on the last full moon of winter. It is celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains and has become an increasingly popular event all over the world. In the countries that celebrate, Holi is a national holiday when everyone comes together to celebrate spring and love. We were lucky to spend Holi in Nepal a few years ago.
There are a number of rituals associated with the festival and these can vary between different regions. The celebrations start in the evening before Holi with a Holika Dahan where communities gather and light a fire, burning a symbolic effigy of a demoness who attempted to kill her nephew, Prahlad, a worshipper of the God Vishnu. This represents the triumph of good over evil. Traditionally participants contribute wood for the fire and dance and sing together. It’s important to remember that Holi is also about love and repairing broken relationships.
The following morning is Rangwali Holi (Dhuleti), the festival of colour. And it doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from, you are welcome to join in the fun. Everyone takes part and those serious about ‘Playing Holi’ will be armed with all sorts of devices to make the day as colourful as possible – there will be powdered paints, water pistols containing ordinary or coloured water, water balloons (you have to watch out for those as they can be quite a surprise). People often wear white clothes in order to show off all the colours. You can buy paint powder from street vendors everywhere.
HOLI IN NEPAL
In Nepal Holi celebrations begin eight days before the full moon, starting off with the raising of a chir – a long bamboo pole embellished with brightly coloured strips of cloth in three circular layers. This chir will be burned on the night before the full moon, again symbolising the burning of Holika and the victory of good over evil.
We were in Nepal during Holi a few years ago and it was one of the most fun days we have ever had when travelling. After a fantastic journey travelling through Bhutan and Southern Nepal, including a stay at the Neydo monastery and a couple of days in the Chitwan National Park where we undertook a walking safari and learned to cook with the local Tharu people. We had travelled back to Kathmandu to explore the capital as well as nearby Bhaktapur and Patan, all cities with an incredibly rich cultural heritage. (We will post about these in detail another time.)
Bhaktapur, also known as Khwopa, is a UNESCO world heritage site, a city located some 13km from Kathmandu. It has some of the most remarkable architecture, with squares that contain beautiful temples and statues.
Patan is another UNESCO site. Around 5km from Kathmandu, it is so close to the capital that even though it is Nepal’s third largest city, it almost feels like a suburb of Kathmandu these days. Along with the capital and Bhaktapur it is one of Nepal’s three royal cities. It is also known as Lalitpur – City of Beauty – a title that is hugely apt.
Sadly, both cities and their remarkable historic buildings were badly damaged during an earthquake in 2015 and repairs have been ongoing for some years.
HAPPY, HAPPY HOLI
Holi began tentatively for us. We were doing a walking tour in the early morning in Bhaktapur when a smiling young man approached us as we were strolling down a side street, smeared a little red powder paint on our cheeks, and declared “Happy Holi!”. We wished him the same.
As soon as we had paint on our faces we quickly discovered that we were fair game. People would come up to us and anoint us with paint powder. Children bearing water pistols would quietly approach us then squirt us before running away, shouting joyously as we gave chase, their families looking on smiling and laughing. And we loved every moment.
Moving on to Patan, by mid-afternoon the town squares were filled with crowds as music played loudly and colours filled the air.
Even one of the local dogs took part.
Walking through the town people were singing and dancing in the streets, “Happy, Happy, Holi!”
It was lovely looking out at the celebrations over Durbar Square.
HOLI IN NEPAL – CELEBRATORY FOOD
Of course we wanted to try some of the local food. At a tiny restaurant off one of the side-streets near Durbar Square in Patan, we joined local people sitting on benches in front of low tables, and discovered chatamari. We sat down on a bench and watched the cook expertly make this lovely dish. It’s a celebratory food and it seemed entirely appropriate for the day.
Chatamari is a specialty of the Newar community of the Kathmandu valley. It is like a pancake with toppings. The batter is made from rice flour, spices and eggs. It is then fried on top of a circular flat grill and various toppings are added as it cooks – ours comprised minced meat, onions and a fried egg – but fully veggie options are available.
These were the star dish but were accompanied with some roasted lamb, a potato curry and bhuteko bhatmas, soybeans roasted in Nepali spices, which were spicy, crunchy and absolutely delicious. (And perfectly complemented a nice, cool beer.)
After lunch it was time to head back into the happy mayhem and explore further. The local children were particularly interested in playing Holi with us. Just as we were about to leave Patan we asked a passer-by to take a photo of colourful us – by the time he had figured out the camera setting… PHOTOBOMB! The kids were very happy to show us their pre-prepared waterbombs.
Arriving back at our (relatively posh) hotel in Kathmandu, absolutely covered in paint, we were a little unsure about how we would be received. Nobody minded, they knew it was Holi, and the local people were delighted that we had taken part and we were greeted with smiles. We showered very carefully, doing our utmost not to get paint on the hotel’s towels. We were largely successful.
Holi in Nepal was one of the most colourful, delightful and – above all else – happy festivals we have ever attended. It was truly a day of joy.
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The Rose Red City
There are many magnificent archaeological sites in the world and the Rose Red City of Petra is undoubtedly one of the greatest. It had long been an ambition to visit and it was top of our list when exploring Jordan. Here is a guide to a visit to Petra.
The most famous image of Petra that of Al-Khazneh, The Treasury (the one you see in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) and we knew that we would walk through a dramatic canyon, known as As-Siq, to reach it. What we didn’t realise was quite how extensive the site is.
THE HISTORY OF PETRA
Petra was built by the Nabateans, an ancient Arab tribe, around the 1st Century BCE. The Nabateans were involved with caravaneering, trading in goods from all over the Middle East and Far East, and they became very wealthy protecting the region’s trade routes. Goods came from as far as China and India. What was fascinating about the Nabateans was that they were a clever, enlightened people. They believed in cultural inclusivity and appropriated technology from all over the world, absorbing influences from the places they traded with. You can see many different architectural styles throughout Petra.
In 106 CE the city was overtaken by the Romans who renamed it Arabia Petraea. The city did thrive under Roman rule for many years but its importance as a trade route declined as sea trading routes developed and became more important for transporting goods. It was significantly damaged by an earthquake in the 4th Century CE. It declined further during the Byzantine era and the city eventually was abandoned became ‘lost’ for centuries. It was re-discovered by explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812.
VISIT PETRA IN JORDAN – PRACTICALITIES
The site is located around 240km from Jordan’s capital city, Amman. The time it takes to reach the area does vary depending on the traffic, especially in Amman, which can be quite congested, but also the route you take. It’s around three hours by car on the modern desert highway or five hours on the King’s Highway. It is possible to do a day trip to Petra from Amman by bus, leaving early in the morning and returning in the evening, but the visit would be very rushed. It is also possible to reach the site using a hire car (the driving would be easy except in Amman where the roads are quite chaotic) or via a private tour – there are many options available.
You can’t stay in Petra itself (edit – that is, there are no hotels in Petra), but there is a town called Wadi Musa nearby. Our hotel was about a ten minute walk from the site entrance at Wadi Musa, which was a further kilometre away from the start of the Siq. Included in the ticket price is a horse ride to the Siq, which we declined. We don’t feel comfortable using animals when we are travelling as we can never be sure how they are treated, so avoided these. We prefer to walk anyway. Since we visited, an initiative has been established to use electric vehicles that will replace the horse-drawn carriages.
We had two full days to explore. We needed them. You cannot enter the site without purchasing a ticket at the visitor’s centre at Wadi Musa and we recommend finding a guide for at least part of your visit. We found the most delightful guide at the visitor’s centre who was with us the first morning; he showed us Petra’s main features and explained a lot of the history. We spent the rest of the time there exploring the site for ourselves. (This link will take you to current entrance fees and costs for guides.)
Just before the entrance to the Siq you can see the Obelisk Tomb and the Bab as-Siq Triclinium.
Then you enter the gorge itself. The Siq is about 1200 m long. It is deep (up to 80m in places), at times narrow, and stunningly beautiful. You can see all sorts of natural features, rock formations and fossils, as well as the remains of carvings showing caravans and camels.
The photo shows drainage channels carved into the rock, inspired by Chinese bamboo irrigation channels, which carried water to Petra.
Then, at the end of the walk, you get a tantalising glimpse…
…of the Treasury, Al Khazneh. It’s actually a tomb of a 1st century Nabatean king. It’s about 30m wide and over 40m high. As with all the tombs at Petra, it was carved from the top down. (This process is similar to the amazing underground churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia.) You can see lots of indentations in the sandstone at the side of the structure. No-one is really sure about what they were for, but they could have been used by the craftsmen and masons for climbing to the top.
The Treasury is just the start of the site. It’s the only place you are not allowed to go inside. Everywhere else is open for exploration. There are no restrictions and no barriers so you need to take care.
From the Treasury you follow the Street of Facades, which has rows of tombs, all intricately carved from the rock.
At the end of this street is the amphitheatre, carved into the rock, which appears to have a Roman influence. Its maximum capacity was around 7000 people.
At the end of the street you can see further Nabotean tombs to the right…
If you make a left turn you will walk along a colonnaded street, with marble pavement much of which is still preserved, which was effectively the city centre. It would have been lined with temples and public buildings.
At the end of the street is the route to the Monastery.
We climbed 800 steps to Ad-Deir, The Monastery, which we found to be a moderate walk. It is classed as difficult on the trail guide because some of the steps have worn over the years. We needed to scramble a little on some sections.
When we arrived we were delighted to discover that the Monastery was as spectacular at the Treasury.
If you look closely at the photo below you can see a man sitting on the building, high up on the central colonnade. We had watched him climb all the way up the adjacent cliff face and then onto the building itself, leaping across the colonnades with absolute confidence – an amazing form of parkour. It was utterly terrifying watching him.
EXPLORING THE TRAILS AT PETRA
There are numerous trails you can follow, some of which involve pretty tough climbs where the stairs have been eroded. The guide indicates the options available and the trails are well marked with brown signs.
The other walk we did was the Al Khubtha trail, a climb to view The Treasury from above. We met a woman who was on her way down who said she had counted the number of steps, and sadly we can’t quite remember what her count was, but it was several hundred. The view was fantastic when we reached the summit.
We also really loved the colours of the rock as we explored the various tombs. The white is silica, the red is iron oxide and the yellow, sandstone.
It is possible to see a night-time sound and light show at the Treasury. Walking through the Siq in the dark to see the Treasury lit up by lanterns is an ethereal sight.
PRACTICALITIES TO VISITING PETRA IN JORDAN
There are restrooms on site at either end of the colonnaded street and nearby cafes which offer refreshments. We recommend the lemon juice with mint drink – it’s refreshing and delicious.
It’s advisable to wear a sunhat and use sun protection if you are exploring the walking trails as there is no shelter from the sun. Good walking shoes are advisable. Make sure you carry water with you. Use the bins provided to dispose of rubbish.
Keep on the trails. You may meet local people as you walk – we ended up chatting with some people on the Al Khubtha trail and were invited to enjoy a cup of tea with them. (We weren’t asked for money but we did offer a contribution towards the tea.)
AFTER YOUR VISIT TO PETRA – A FOODIE EVENING AT THE PETRA KITCHEN
After a full day’s exploring we were pretty tired and there’s not a lot to do at Wadi Musa. But we did manage to join a cookery course at the Petra Kitchen on one of the evenings. One of the chefs was the uncle of the guide who showed us around the site. We learned to make Jordanian food and then eat it – a fine way to spend an evening. We made Shourbat Adas (lentil soup), Baba Ganoush, Fatoush, Tabbouleh, Tahina salad, Galayet Bandora, Araies Iahma (Bedouin pizza – pittas stuffed with minced meat and covered with Galayet Bandora) as a mezza. The main course was Maqluba, an upside-down hotpot, which was scrummy. Sadly, we were too busy cooking – and eating – to take photos! But we do plan to cook the recipes at home and will no doubt blog about them in the future.
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When you see travel guides to the UK Midlands they often mention the buzzing metropolis of Birmingham or the country towns of Warwickshire such as leafy Leamington Spa, historic Warwick with its castle, and Shakespeare’s Stratford-Upon-Avon, but the city of Coventry is often ignored, which is a shame because it has a lot of history and plenty of things to do and see. Coventry has great transport connections and is easy to reach from all parts of the UK. It’s just an hour away from London on the train.
History of Coventry – From Capital of England to Ghost Town
Coventry has a long and rich history but little is known about its origins. It is thought that a settlement was established around a nunnery to St Osburga in Saxon times. The name is thought to have originated from the phrase ‘cofa tree’ although no one really know what a cofa is.
Coventry’s most famous legend is that of Lady Godiva who was the wife of the Leofric, Earl of Mercia, who had founded a Benedictine monastery in Coventry in 1043. Leofric was one of the most important people in the country and imposed crippling taxes on the citizens of Coventry. Lady Godiva took pity on them and asked her husband to reduce the burden but he refused… unless she agreed to ride through the city naked. Which she did. And, in gratitude, the people of Coventry averted their eyes… except for one person: the Peeping Tom.
There is a statue to Godiva in Broadgate and Peeping Tom can also be found in the vicinity if you look carefully.
Coventry became an important trading location between 1150 and 1200 when merchants were allowed to visit the city and trade freely. The agricultural land surrounding the city was perfect for sheep grazing and wool production became an important industry. Textiles, weaving and dying in particular were very important and the Coventry’s blue coloured cloth (blue dye being a difficult colour to develop) was considered to be highly prized because of its ability to stay fast, coining the term ‘True Blue.’
Due to its importance as a centre of commerce a wall began to be constructed in the mid-14th century. Sandstone was quarried from the local district of Cheylesmore and a 3.5 km, 3.7m high wall was built around the city centre. It had twelve gatehouses located on the main routes into the city.
By the 15th century Coventry’s main churches had been constructed. St Michael’s Church, Holy Trinity and Greyfriars (Christ Church) all had magnificent spires which could be seen from miles away. The city actually became the capital of England, temporarily, on a few occasions. It was a wealthy city and considered to be hugely important by successive kings and queens of England.
During the English Civil War, Coventry was a stronghold of Parliamentarians and was attacked by Royalists on several occasions but the king’s soldiers failed to conquer the city walls. The city was used as a prison for captured Royalists and those incarcerated were not just treated with disdain – they were ignored completely. It is thought that this is the origin of the term, ‘being sent to Coventry.’
As the industrial revolution started Coventry, with its central location, became an important city of industrialisation. It was renowned for manufacturing textiles and ribbons, watches (many of watchmakers lived in the Chapelfields area of the city), bicycles and cars. The first British series production motor car was made in Coventry, by Daimler, in 1897.
Despite the industrialisation, the city centre retained a lot of its mediaeval buildings. However, because of the industrialisation, the city was a target during World War 2. On the night of 14/15 November 1940 Hitler ordered a bombing raid on the city. Most of the city centre was destroyed, including the interior of St Michael’s cathedral, and over 500 people lost their lives. Coventry has since become a city of peace and reconciliation and has twinned with some 23 cities across the world, including Dresden and Volvograd (formerly Stalingrad), both cities which also suffered devastating attacks during World War 2.
Following the war the city was rebuilt and was designed to be a modern city – it included one of Europe’s first ever pedestrianised precincts. The city thrived thanks to the car manufacturing industries during the 50s and 60s. Famous names include Jaguar, Standard-Triumph, Talbot, Peugot, and Alvis. London taxis – the iconic black cabs – were constructed in the city from the 1950s until 1994. However the industry – and consequently the city – suffered serious decline in the mid-1970s and 1980s due to industrial disputes and competition from other countries. One by one the car factories closed down. In the early 1980s Coventry band The Specials wrote the song Ghost Town about the decline of the city. Bands such as The Specials, The Selecter and The Beat were part of the 2Tone movement which developed in Coventry and was defined by their members being multi-racial and a musical style that combined punk/new wave music with Jamaican ska.
These days, Coventry is a lively city. With two universities, it’s also a young city with a diverse population which has an average age of 33 years. It is also the 2021 UK City of Culture, the start of which was slightly delayed due to the pandemic. As a result there are lots of events happening up until May.
Places to Visit
Although much of mediaeval Coventry was destroyed it is possible to see some older buildings in the city. Mediaeval Spon Street is largely comprised of old buildings although not all of these were originally built on the site but were relocated from other parts of the city.
Ford’s Hospital was constructed in 1509, as an almshouse.
Some parts of the original city wall can still be seen. Swanswell Gate is the best preserved of the city’s gates.
Dating from the 12th century, the old grammar school is now a conference or wedding venue which occasionally opens up for pop-up art events. You can see the original school chairs, carved by their previous occupants centuries ago.
Coventry Cathedral – old and new
St Michael’s Cathedral was largely destroyed during the Blitz raid but its outer walls and spire remain. It was decided that it should remain in situ. It contains a number of symbols of reconciliation, including a charred cross which was constructed from two fallen wooden beams.
A new cathedral, constructed alongside the ruins of the old, was consecrated in 1962 as a place of worship. Both cathedrals are very much part of the community. They often hold concerts, plays and other events, both indoors and outdoors. The old cathedral even became an ice rink during the winter Christmas season.
St Mary’s Guildhall
Currently being renovated, St Mary’s Guildhall dates back to 1352 and is considered to be one of the finest guildhalls in the country. Despite being located right next to the cathedral, it survived the bombing. It is home of the Coventry Tapestry, which is over 500 years old. The renovation is due to include a mediaeval kitchen.
Coventry Music Museum
Located just outside the city in the Ball Hill district, the Coventry Music Museum is a small but perfectly formed museum dedicated to the musical history of the city.
You always receive a friendly welcome. With a plethora of exhibits and memorabilia, including the original Ghost Town organ and a reproduction of a Two-Tone bedroom, it also looks to Coventry’s earlier music history including an exhibit looking at the work of Coventry born Delia Derbyshire, the pioneering electronic musician (who arranged the Dr Who theme tune). Deliaphonic is an annual celebration of her life and work which takes place in venues around the city.
You can also use the music room there – just pick up an instrument and play. Opposite the museum is the Two-Tone café and the excellent Simmer Down Caribbean restaurant.
Coventry Transport Museum
Located on Millennium Place, Hales Street and celebrating Coventry’s motor history, this is a fascinating museum which has the largest publicly owned collection of British cars in the world.
The museum offers a brilliant history of transportation and also of the city. It has lots of interactive exhibits and you can see an extensive variety of vintage vehicles as well as two of the fastest cars in the world: Thrust SSC and Thrust 2. Fun fact: part of the famous car chase from the film The Italian Job was filmed in Coventry. While the Mini Coopers enter and leave the tunnel in Turin, the actual tunnels were Coventry sewers which were being constructed at the time.
The Weaver’s House (Spon End) is a fascinating listed building which is quite unusual because it was the home of a poor person. Historic buildings are normally preserved because they are great big stately homes owned by important people. The weaver’s house is a remarkable construction because it has an internal jetty for the weaver’s loom, which is very rare. The weaver’s house is located close to the river Sherbourne before it enters the city, so the water would have been clean for washing and dyeing the cloth. The house doesn’t have regular opening hours, but check the website for the next open day when you can learn about its history and also visit its mediaeval garden.
Watch Museum A small but interesting museum dedicated to Coventry’s watchmaking heritage.
Herbert Art Gallery
A fantastic space, the Herbert has a permanent collection and regular temporary exhibitions. It’s located next to the cathedrals. With free entry to most exhibitions, it also hosted the 2021 Turner Prize.
Located to the east of the city, around a 15 minute walk from the city centre on Far Gosford Street, this is the Coventry’s creative quarter. With some quirky shops, great restaurants, venues and an on-site brewhouse it regularly hosts a variety of events.
Theatre and Music The Belgrade Theatre and Albany Theatre have a great programme of theatrical productions. There are lots of venues for music gigs, including the tiny but excellent Tin Music and Arts venue in the coal vaults at Coventry’s canal basin. Warwick Arts Centre, located a few kilometres out of town at Warwick University, has a full programme of music, theatre, film and arts events.
Coventry Biennial This festival of art is held every two years. What’s great about it is that it uses multiple venues around the city and also in some of the surrounding towns.
Litten Tree Building (until late 2022). This is a pop-up art venue in a disused space above a pub. (Just enter the Litten Tree pub in the Bull Yard, on the way in from the railway station and climb the staircase). It’s totally shabby-chic inside but offers a variety of exhibitions and gigs – just feel free to explore the building discovering fabulous art along the way.
Eating -Where to Eat in Coventry
Coventry has its share of the usual chain restaurants but there are a number of excellent independent restaurants.
The Pod Café – this is located on Far Gosford street and is one of our favourites. A vegan café it sources local ingredients, 70% of which are grown on its Food Union (a social activism initiative run by the local council) allotment on the other side of the city (and one that we volunteer at, so we may even have helped grow your lunch). The café also runs evening supper clubs with live music. And, naturally, the food is absolutely delicious.
Gourmet Food Kitchen – one of the most difficult restaurants to get a table at for chef Tony’s monumentally delicious gourmet evenings (you have to get lucky when slots on the website are released) this teeny restaurant located in Fargo Village also offers the best cooked breakfast in the land (which you can usually just show up for). Everything is home-made and utterly scrumptious.
Earlsdon Supper Club (secret location in Earlsdon – you’ll find the location when you book). This is a supper club where you join chef Tobias who cooks you a delicious tasting menu and describes his inspiration behind each dish.
Hello Vietnam (Smithford Street) offers a wonderful array of Vietnamese dishes.
A-Sushi (Hertford Street) – best sushi in Coventry, this Korean restaurant also offers a variety of Japanese and Korean dishes.
Shin Ramen (Priory Place) is a Japanese restaurant that serves izakaya style food, notably its authentic ramen noodles. The tonkotsu and champon ramen are particularly good.
Jinseong Korean BBQ (Priory Place) – meat eaters can enjoy Korean BBQ where you can cook a variety of meats over a charcoal fire. Their KFC (Korean Fried Chicken) is also delicious.
Pickles (Spon End). There are so many excellent Indian restaurants in Coventry (as there are all over the Midlands) but we’re big fans of Pickles where you get a warm welcome and delicious curries.
Tamils Taste of Asia (Foleshill Road) offers superb and authentic South Indian cuisine. Great if you are hankering after dosas, biryani and idli.
Anatolia (Earlsdon Street) offers amazing Turkish food with great mezze and succulent kebabs.
Drinking – Where to Drink in Coventry
Hops D’Amour – is a lovely micropub on Corporation Street serving craft beer, real ale and a variety of ciders. You can be sure of a friendly welcome and that you will have a different and interesting beer or cider experience every time you visit.
Broomfield Tavern – great beers and a huge variety of ciders are to be found in this small pub just outside the city centre, close to the Butts rugby ground. Teddy, the huge St Bernard dog, will offer a warm welcome, even if he sometimes pinches your seat.
Twisted Barrel – a brew-pub located in Fargo village. They offer a great variety of home-brewed and guest beers. They also have a mail order service so you can order their excellent beers online.
The Old Windmill – one of Coventry’s oldest pubs, located on Mediaeval Spon Street, this building has all sorts of nooks and crannies to sit in while enjoying your pint. It offers a great variety of beers and also locally sourced pork pies, ploughman’s platters and cheese boards.
Beer Gonzo (Earlsdon Street) – located in the suburb of Earlsdon this beer shop and tap room offers a wide variety of interesting beers from around the world. They regularly run “meet the brewer” events which result in a fun afternoon or evening enjoying a variety of beers. They too have an online shop.
Dhillons Spire Bar (next to the Bull Yard) is located within and around Christchurch spire, the third of Coventry’s three spires. You can sit in a personal booth (which has a heater when it’s cold) and drink locally brewed beer such as Ghost Town lager or Red Rebel IPA.
Green Spaces in Coventry
While Coventry has a reputation for being a dull concrete city, it actually has a huge number of green spaces, some close to the city centre and some a bit further out.
Lady Herbert’s Garden is located next to Swanswell Gate and the transport museum.
War Memorial Park is the city’s largest and best known park. Established in 1921 following World War I, it is absolutely huge and has tennis courts, football pitches, bowls green, footgolf course, an outdoor fitness trail and a cricket pitch. There are play facilities and skateboarding ramps too. It hosts the excellent three day Godiva Festival every year.
Coundon Wedge – about a mile down the Holyhead road leading out of the city towards the A45 and Birmingham, Coundon Wedge is a delightful slice of actual countryside. Coventry’s lovely little river Sherbourne flows through it.
Charterhouse Fields – Opposite the cemetery on the London Road, the Charterhouse of St Anne is a Grade 1 listed building. It was founded in 1381 and is currently being refurbished. It is surrounded by green fields which are located adjacent to the river Sherbourne after it has emerged from flowing under the city.
Coombe Abbey – a bit further out of the city on the way to Brinklow this is a historic hotel set in around 500 acres of parkland. The park is lovely to walk around – with woods and a lakeside to explore and they have also recently opened up a Go Ape venue. The hotel itself offers popular afternoon teas and bawdy mediaeval banquets (the banquets are available for pre-booked groups only).
Shopping in Coventry
Coventry hosts all the major retailers that you would expect from a city. As foodies living in a multi-cultural city, we love that there are all sorts of supermarkets or mini-marts from Asia, Eastern Europe, the Caribbean and Africa. And we are pretty sure that you can buy anything at Coventry market. Located inside a circular building (it took us about 5 years to work out how to leave it at the exit we wanted and we still get a bit lost on occasion) there are stalls for fresh food at great prices and pretty much anything else you might want.
The Best – Or Worst – Road in the World?
Talking of circular things, Coventry’s ring road is one of the world’s smaller ring roads. Indeed it’s so tiny that you can circumnavigate the entire city in less than two minutes. Because the ring road is so teeny cars both enter and leave on the same section of junction, which is usually quite a short distance. This means that it’s something of a challenge for novices to drive on. In fact, we know several people who will drive several miles out of their way to avoid using it. (If you want to avoid it there is a Park and Ride service at War Memorial Park.) But it does work and is hugely convenient. There is a convention: Once on the ring road move to the outer lane unless you are planning to leave at the next exit. When planning to leave at the next junction, move across to the exit lane and exit. If you are about to exit and a car ahead of you is on the junction and planning to enter, slow down and let them enter. Conversely, if you are planning to exit and the car planning to enter is behind you, they should give way. And the same etiquette applies if you are joining the ring road. If you miss your junction you can just go round again – it won’t take long.
Visiting in Tokyo in December is a great way of understanding Japanese New Year traditions, one of the country’s most important celebrations.
While Christmas Day is a normal working day in Japan (albeit one where it has become a custom to eat Kentucky Fried Chicken of all things – there’s a really interesting programme on the BBC World Service about this tradition), many businesses tend to close down for the new year period, usually from around the 28th December to the 4th January. Certainly most will be closed on the 1st to the 3rd January but some businesses may close for longer in order that proprietors and employees can spend time with their families. This means that if you are sightseeing, some ryokan may not be receiving guests and some museums and attractions will be closed.
We were in Japan around new year 2019-2020, our last trip before the world changed so dramatically.
See the Lights in Shibuya
Shibuya is a vibrant, bustling district in Tokyo which has loads of shops and restaurants. Its most famous features are found close to the station.
Its road crossing is possibly one of the best known in the world as it has featured in numerous films and adverts.
Apparently its nickname is ‘scramble’ because at its busiest time over 2,500 people can cross the road in the two minutes that the pedestrian lights allow.
As new year approaches, the crossing is the place to join the celebrations if you want a party. We visited in the afternoon as preparations were underway and also got to see some of the lights in the surrounding area.
The statue of Hachiko is a famous Shibuya landmark. Hachiko was an Akito dog owned by a professor in the 1920s. The professor used to go to work and each day his dog would wait for him to return at the station in the evening. The professor died in 1925 but Hachiko would still wait for him every evening for a decade until his own death. It’s a very moving story of canine loyalty and a statue was erected to the dog outside the station in 1934. Of course, he is dressed for the occasion at this time of year.
Japanese New Year Traditions –Noodles in Shinjuku
One of the traditional things to do on New Year’s Eve is to eat Toshikoshi Soba – year-end noodles. The principle is that long noodles equate to a long life, so they represent longevity and good luck. This is a popular tradition and soba shops are likely to be busy on New Year’s Eve. We had a wonderful meal with a dear friend at lunchtime at the food hall in Takashimaya Times Square, the vast department store just south of Shinjuku station, which has a variety of wonderful restaurants located on the top two floors. We chose the soba restaurant there. We had to queue for around 40 minutes which wasn’t a problem – it had such a nice atmosphere.
Once seated you are not rushed to finish your meal, even though there will be people waiting outside. If you want to dine on noodles in the evening your wait may be much longer – we saw very long queues in Shinjuku later that night.
We ordered the set menu which came with tempura and other treats. It wasn’t cheap but it wasn’t bank-breakingly expensive and the entire meal was simply divine.
The noodles are presented on a traditional platter and appear to arrive in the most enormous mound but, on closer inspection, actually have been cleverly placed on a conical tray.
Soba are buckwheat noodles that can be served hot or cold – on a winter’s day, hot was definitely the best way to enjoy them.
You are provided with a broth which you can season to your liking and then you dip the noodles in the broth. It is polite to slurp in Japan! (Which, when you’ve been brought up not to slurp your soup, is surprisingly difficult!)
As we were finishing the restaurant staff came around with a small teapot filled with a hot, white opaque broth. This was sobayu, the water that that the noodles had been boiled in. We mixed it with our leftover sauce, added any further condiments and drank it – it’s a very satisfying way to finish off the meal.
Back To The Hotel to Watch TV
New year is a family time and one particular Japanese new year tradition is that people stay home to see the new year in together. Kōhaku Uta Gassen is the NHK (the national broadcaster) TV channel’s new year show which has been running since the 1950s. It is a national custom to watch Kōhaku on New Year’s Eve. The format of the show is that popular singers, musicians and bands are invited to join and each are assigned to one of two teams – red and white. They each perform throughout the evening and the audience and judges decide which team was the best. Quite often western performers will take part as well. At the end of the show, just before midnight, everyone sings Hotaru no Hikari, a song similar to Auld Lang Syne. We spent some time in the early evening at our business hotel to catch some of the songs before heading out to see in the new year.
Japanese New Year Traditions – Seeing in the New Year
There are several choices depending on how you are feeling. Shibuya is the place to go for a party atmosphere. The famous road crossing is usually filled with people waiting to see the new year in (pre-Covid) and the atmosphere is guaranteed to be lively. Other possible places include Tokyo Tower, which has a countdown to the New Year, and Tokyo Disney and Disney Sea which have fireworks displays on New Year’s Eve. There will also be celebratory countdown events in hotels and izakaya across the city.
We chose to visit the Meiji Jingū. It’s one of Japan’s most important shrines, a Shinto shrine, just a couple of stops from Shinjuku, where we were staying. Meiji Jingū is a lovely place to visit at any time. It is set in a large, forested park which is very pleasant to wander through and is a completely serene contrast to the hustle and bustle of neon urban Tokyo. There are several JR stops that you can use to reach the shrine. We disembarked at Harajuku, the district where the cool kids hang out, and followed the crowds heading towards the shrine. We arrived at around 11:30 pm and were by no means the first people there. It’s a pleasant stroll from the beautiful wooden Torii at the entrance.
You need to bear in mind that it’s a one-way system as you walk through. You will see traditional lanterns and rows of sake barrels along the way.
Then we stopped at the barrier which had TV screens showing pictures of the crowd as it assembled and the shrine itself. We weren’t too far from the front but were still some way from the shrine. Even though the area was very crowded, everything was typically well-organised and there was a quiet buzz of excitement.
As the new year dawned 108 bells rang out. This is actually a Buddhist (Japan’s other main religion) custom, the number represents 108 temptations and the bell ringing is to reject 108 worldly desires. The bell is actually rung 107 times on the last day of the old year and just once after midnight. The bell rings aren’t uniform in length – some of the bells are rung in quicker succession than others.
We were reasonably close to the front at the Meiji shrine but it still took us around 45 minutes to reach the Naien, the inner area, which contains the shrine buildings. Marshalls were present wielding signs in both Japanese and English and beckoned visitors either to approach, or to ‘wait a short while, please’ before coming forward. This means that smaller groups of visitors were able to visit the shrine and offer prayers without it becoming over-crowded. It was an excellent system, especially as everyone co-operated beautifully.
When it was our turn, it wasn’t really possible to undertake the full Hatsumōde but we threw our coins, bowed, clapped and made our wishes and prayers for the new year. The Meiji shrine is the most famous shrine to visit and apparently attracts over three million visitors in the first three days of each year. A lot of people don’t quite make it to the very front of the queue.
Outside the main temple area there are stalls with refreshments and it’s possible to hang out and enjoy the atmosphere. We then walked back to Yoyogi station, where we knew the platforms were likely to be less crowded than Harajuku, and we hopped onto a very full, but joyous, train on the Yamanote line, just one stop back to Shinjuku. As we arrived back at our hotel, a barrel of sake had been opened in the lobby and we were invited to partake of a cup. We greeted the hotel staff, ‘Akemashita, omedetou gozaimasu!’ – meaning: the new year has dawned, congratulations!
Hatsumōde – Visiting a Temple
Another Japanese new year tradition is visiting a temple within the first three days of the year. Although we had been amongst the first to undertake Hatsumōde at the Meiji shrine the night before, we met up with our friend in Kichijoji. (Also, because we were out at the shrine to see in the new year, we hadn’t found out whether the red or the white team had won Kōhaku, so she was able to update us with this important information.)
Hatsumōde is considered to be a very important part of welcoming the new year and there will be queues at temples. We met quite early and had to queue for around 30 minutes. It was all very organised and the atmosphere lively.
There is a certain ritual that one undertakes when visiting a Shinto shrine. It is absolutely fine for anyone from any religion, or none, to visit a shrine and make an offering. First of all, it is important to purify oneself before entering the shrine. This is called ‘temizu’.
Approach the chozuya, which is a small pavilion which contains a purification font filled with water. There are multiple ladles laid next to the basin. Holding the ladle in your right hand, pour water over your left. Change hands and repeat. Change hands and then pour a little water into your left hand and take it into your mouth. You aren’t supposed to swallow the water but to spit it delicately into the drain.
Then walk up to the shrine itself and make an offering by throwing a coin. The monetary value isn’t important but 5 yen and 50 yen coins are considered to be lucky. Go-en (5 yen) sounds like ‘goen’ which means ‘good luck’ in Japanese.
Then you should bow deeply, from the waist, twice, then clap your hands twice, to show reverence to the kami-sama (the god; kami can also be interpreted as a spirit). Keep your hands together for a silent prayer.
We were delighted to be invited to our friend’s family home to enjoy osechi-ryōri, traditional new year foods.
New Year Food
New year is a time for feasting and there are some dishes that are particularly associated with celebrations. Osechi-ryōri comprises lots of little dishes beautifully presented. Much of the food is prepared in advance so that the whole family can eat together rather than spending loads of time in the kitchen.
The quintessential new year food is mochi. These are rice balls made by pounding steamed sticky rice with a big mallet in a large wooden container to achieve a stretchy and slightly sticky consistency. This is then formed into little rice dumplings. They have an unusual texture – very soft and delightfully squidgy. New year mochi is called kagami mochi and comprises two mochi balls one set on top of the other, with a tangerine on top.
Mochi may be flavoured and/or filled with all sorts of ingredients. Matcha green tea, milk flavouring and azuki bean paste are popular fillings. Sometimes the mochi will have a sesame coating.
Matcha mochi with azuki bean filling is delicious:
Kazunoko is a popular new year dish. It is marinated seasoned herring roe. The roe is yellow in colour and comprises hundreds of eggs all bound together. The texture is surprisingly crunchy and the flavour slightly salty. It is usually marinated overnight in ingredients such as dashi (Japanese stock), soy sauce and sake. We were lucky to enjoy home-made kazunoko marinated in sake lees and it was delicious. The multiple eggs in the roe are symbolic of a large family. The kuzunoko can be served on its own or with other delicious ingredients, in this case, with prawns and a scallop on top of cucumber.
Kobumaki is a piece of kelp seaweed. It will have been simmered for a while to soften and is one of the Japanese new year traditions is to present it in the shape of a bow. An alternative serving is a roll of kombu tied with a strip of dried daikon (a white radish); this is called hoshi daikon. Further variations include wrapping the kombu around a piece of meat or fish. The word ‘kombu’ also means ‘joy’ in celebration of a joyous day.
Sushi is not usually part of osechi-ryōri but it is a celebratory food and is often eaten on special occasions. It would be unusual for Japanese families to make their own sushi – they would leave it to the experts and buy some in.
Japanese New Year Tradition – Retail Therapy
Another Japanese new year tradition is Fukubukuro. When the shops reopen many will offer lucky bags – sealed bags or boxes – containing random merchandise. The value of the goods inside are greater than the price you would normally pay and sometimes you may – by sheer luck – end up with some very cool products. We met up with a dear friend in Nakano Broadway the following day and found a Lucky Box stall. At just 300 Yen we didn’t have high expectations but it was fun seeing what was in the box.
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Hewn From the Living Rock
When planning our visit to Ethiopia it was Lalibela’s rock churches that were top of the ‘must-see’ list. Lalibela is located in northern Ethiopia and you can fly direct from Addis Ababa, although we had spent some time exploring Gonder and the wonderful Simien mountains beforehand, so flew in from Gonder.
The town is named after the late-12th and early-13th century King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela of the Zagwe Dynasty, who was highly revered and was reputed to have commissioned the construction of the churches, but it is more likely that they were built over several centuries. Although the devout claim that holy angels played a part as well.
The churches, which were designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1978, 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 and then carved from within. There are three main groups: northern, eastern and western. It will take more than a day to explore them thoroughly so make sure you factor in enough time. You need to purchase a ticket at the main office – this is valid for five days. It’s not cheap but is definitely worth the price. You need to make sure that you keep your ticket as you may need to produce it when you enter each church. It’s generally okay to take photos (keep an eye out for signs indicating if photography is prohibited) but if you are taking photos of someone (and we found that many of the priests encouraged us to do so) it is polite to tip them. We also recommend getting a guide as they will be able to tell you the history of each of the churches as well as point out some of the more interesting features. The churches are open from 8am-5.30pm, but are closed for two hours at lunchtime, around midday.
These are very much living churches, highly revered by Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, and a place for pilgrims to visit. We were welcome to join the services.
We explored each cluster of churches in turn. The churches within each group are linked by subterranean passages.
The Northern Group Of The Lalibela Ethiopia Churches
Biete Medhane Alem, believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world, at approx 33 metres long, 23 metres wide, and 10 metres deep, is home to the Lalibela Cross. It has five aisles and its name means ‘Saviour of the World’.
Biete Maryam may be the oldest of the churches, named for Mary.
It has an incredibly deep pool outside which is believed to grant fertility to any woman who bathes in it.
Biete Golgotha Mikael is said to contain the tomb of King Lalibela himself.
The Eastern Group Of The Lalibela Ethiopia Churches
It is thought that some The Eastern Group may have been used as royal chapels or palaces.
Biete Amanuel (House of Immanuel), possibly the former royal chapel.
At Biete Abba Libanos you can see how the church was carved downwards from inside the rock.
Biete Lehem is the house of bread.
The Western Group Of The Lalibela Ethiopia Churches
Last, but by no means least, Biete Ghiorgis, the church of St George, which takes a cruciform shape, and is the most beautiful of the churches.
You cannot see it on your approach, so well is it hidden. (Actually you have to be careful not to fall into the courtyard.)
It also appears to be totally inaccessible but there is a passageway carved into the rock behind the church and you walk through a tunnel to arrive at the main entrance.
Day Trip from Lalibela
While you’re in the area, it’s also possible to visit Yemrehanna Kristos which is located around 20km from Lalibela. This would make for a pleasant morning or afternoon trip.
The church here is built inside a large cave on Mount Abuna Yosef. The church is named for Ethiopian king Yemrehana Krestos who reigned in the 11th Century.
The area is known for its honey. There is a legend that Gebre Mesqel Lalibela was surrounded by a swarm of bees shortly after his birth. Apparently his mother believed it to be a sign of his future greatness. Whether the legend is true or not, make sure you get to taste the local honey, it is absolutely delicious.
And if you want a tip for a good restaurant at the end of the day’s sightseeing you can’t go wrong with Ben Abeba. The building has a highly unusual design and you can either sit indoors or outside – we recommend the latter as there are some splendid views, especially if you time your visit for sunset. The food on offer is slightly unusual – of course, you can have Ethiopian food, but somewhat surprisingly there are a number of Scottish dishes on the menu! The restaurant is run by a very friendly Scots lady who now lives in Lalibela.
You can explore the Lalibela churches online via The Zamani Project who can offer several digital tours, including maps, photos, panoramas and 3D models of the site.
There’s a general assumption that the cuisines of many countries in South East Asia – Thailand, Lao, Cambodia and Vietnam – are pretty much the same but that would be doing them a great disservice. While they may share many ingredients and seasonings, each cuisine is different and it is a joy to be able to discover the nuances of the foods from each country. Lao, for example, being landlocked, relies on the river for its piscine bounties rather than the sea. Hence most of the fish served will be river fish. River weed, dried in in the sun and flavoured with seasonings, makes for a tasty snack. Luang Prabang, Lao’s former capital, located in the north of the country, lies on the Mekong river at its confluence with the Nam Khan.
It’s a lovely, laid back town with plenty of temples and palaces to explore, which are largely within easy walking distance.
Wat Xieng Thong is the best known of the temples, located a short walk from the confluence. The main Wat has an intricate design and a beautiful tree of life mural.
The Royal Palace was built in 1904 when Lao was under French occupation. The monarchy was overthrown by the communists in 1975 and the building converted into a museum.
Crossing the Mekong and following a short hike up a hill you can reach the small temple of Wat Chomphet with its old stupa and Wat Long Khone. It’s more peaceful and less touristy on this side of the river.
It’s also possible to hire a longboat and drift downriver at sunset, cool glass of beer in hand, enjoying the colours of the evening.
Lao’s formal name is Lao PDR – People’s Democratic Republic. Informally, locals will let you know that PDR stands for Please Don’t Rush – a wise philosophy which also means that you shouldn’t worry if service at restaurants is slow. (Actually, we didn’t notice particularly slow service anywhere we went.) But it’s a good reminder to relax and enjoy your time in this friendly country.
Luang Prabang Lao has a number of bars and restaurants which range from cheap eats to higher end offerings. Utopia is a short walk away from the town, set atop a cliff which overlooks the river. It’s a very laid-back place with a cool vibe and is located in a quirky garden setting.
There is a sorrowful side to the garden design though. Many of the flower pots are actually bomb shells from the time of the Vietnam War when, over the course of nine years, the US dropped roughly two million tonnes of bombs on Lao in a secret attempt to support the royal Lao government against the communists led by Pathet Lao, as well as impact the Ho Chi Minh trail. The country remains the most bombed per head of the population in history. Worse still, a significant amount of the ordnance – about a third of the devices dropped – failed to detonate and, more than forty years later, there is still a huge problem with unexploded bombs that remain embedded in the ground, despite some international efforts to clear them.
Utopia is popular amongst backpackers for its chilled atmosphere during the day (it has activities such as yoga lessons available) and livens up a lot at night, and it offers local and western food.
One of the best restaurants in Luang Prabang Lao for local food is Tamarind, on the Kingkitsarath Rd, and they specialise in local cuisine. They offer tasting menus which give visitors the chance to try various specialities. It’s a fantastic introduction to local fare. It’s a popular restaurant so it’s worth booking ahead if you can, although we got lucky with a walk-in for lunch.
We started with Lao-Lao shots as an aperitif. Lao-Lao is rice whiskey. Its name isn’t a cute term of endearment – the two words have different tones in pronunciation and hence different meanings. The first Lao means “alcohol” and the second means “from Lao”. The whiskey has a mild flavour but is pretty potent at round 40-45% alcohol.
The starter was chunky bamboo and vegetable soup. A lot of Lao food can be searingly hot, with chilli often providing the heat, but this wasn’t; whilst still spicy, it had a piquancy in the seasoning that allowed the flavour of the vegetables and herbs to shine through.
Then came a platter of Lao specialities. These included dinky little sausages with a variety of relishes, which varied in the amount of spice they delivered, as well as kaipen – crispy sun-dried river weed coated with sesame seeds.
The next dish was fragrant lemongrass stuffed with chicken which felt like a bit of a contradiction. Usually you would expect lemongrass to flavour the meat but this was soft minced chicken, delicately spiced, placed into the bulbous part of the lemongrass stalk, then steamed and fried. The gentle scent of the lemongrass imparted a delicate citrus flavour. It was accompanied by herbed river fish steamed in a banana leaf along with local vegetables.
Finally, purple sticky rice cooked in coconut milk with tamarind sauce – which was sweet and slightly sour as well as delightfully sticky – rounded off a splendid meal.