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New Year in Japan

Spending New Year in Japan is a great way of understanding the traditions associated with 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.

Shibuya Tokyo

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.

Hachiko statue Shibuya Tokyo
Shibuya Lights

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.

New year soba noodle meal

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 noodles

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.

Soba condiments

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!)

New year soba dipping sauce

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 traditionally a family time in Japan and many families 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.

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.

Meiji Shrine Torii Tokyo

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.

Meiji shrine new year screen

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.

Meiji Shrine

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.

Hatsumode Kichijoji

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.

Traditional New Year Food

New year is a time for feasting and there are some dishes that are particularly associated with celebrations. Much of the food in osechi-ryōri 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. They 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 another 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.

Kazunoko herring roe

Kobumaki is a piece of kelp seaweed. It will have been simmered for a while to soften and is often presented 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.

Kobumaki kombu

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.

sushi selection

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.

Fukubukuro retail lucky boxes

Hewn From the Living Rock: The Churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia

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

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

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

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.

Lunching in Luang Prabang, Lao PDR (Please Don’t Rush)

There’s a general assumption that the cuisines of many countries in South East Asia – Thailand, Lao, Cambodia and Vietnam – are pretty much the same but that would be doing them a great disservice. While they may share many ingredients and seasonings, each cuisine is different and it is a joy to be able to discover the nuances of the foods from each country.

Lao, for example, being landlocked, relies on the river for its piscine bounties rather than the sea. Hence most of the fish served will be river fish. River weed, dried in in the sun and flavoured with seasonings, makes for a tasty snack.

Luang Prabang, Lao’s former capital, located in the north of the country, lies on the Mekong river at its confluence with the Nam Khan.

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 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 the city for Lao 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.

VTW Go Finland and Meet Leningrad Cowboys

They’ve been to America (Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989)) and they’ve met Moses (Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses (1994)) so VTW Go Finland is perhaps an appropriate foodie film excursion. Those curious about the Leningrad Cowboys band and their work with legendary low-key Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki should check out the review here before purchasing their cinematic output, including videos, for your education and pleasure.

While the band, instantly identifiable by their outrageously long and pointy quiff hairstyles and black winkle-picker shoes, have played gigs all over the world, one of their enterprises in Helsinki involves food and it is totally in tune (or out of tune depending on the gig in play!) with their unique musical style. Among their musical and lyrical thematic tendencies there are influences of vodka and tractors, both of which are also intrinsic their food.

Many years ago there used to be a Leningrad Cowboys Restaurant which had bonkers décor and a confusion of fusion menu that clashed cuisines from all over the world – where American assimilated with Asian, Mexican merged with Moroccan and Indian integrated with Italian – a broad range of flavours that shouldn’t have worked in so many ways but really, really did. It was there that we also discovered the joys of vanilla vodka straight out of the freezer. Quaffing Finnish spirits while sitting next to quiffing statues, who needs a pudding when you can combine your dessert and digestif in a scrumptious shot? We just had to make sure we could find our way back to the hotel at the end of the evening…

Sadly, it no longer seems to be there – we looked out for it on a recent trip to Helsinki –  which is a shame.

However, the Zetor Restaurant in Helsinki has been around for many years and continues to thrive. It takes its name from the leading Czech tractor brand  – “The first zetor tractor, the Z25, was ‘baptised’ on 15 March 1946,” according to the official website – and takes the tractor-restaurant concept to a wonderful and surreal zenith. Yes, you eat your meal…. on a tractor or sitting around a tractor.

Zetor Restaurant is owned by Aki Kaurismäki and designed by one of the Leningrad Cowboys. Rural kitsch bliss. Zetor declares itself to be a “110% Finnish restaurant,” and who are we to argue? Also, as is befitting a classy restaurant, the fare on offer comprises signature dishes from their very own recipes and these are described in a highly distinctive manner: perhaps Oula’s sautéed reindeer, The Cackle of Kaivopiha, The weather may change but the vendace stays the same or Karelian glory, which they claim is ‘close to deserving a place on UNESCO’s heritage list.’

It’s worth noting that Crazy reindeer from Levi, Lapland, Mummy’s boy’s meatballs and Grilled liver all contain alcohol. The essential on offer is the drool-worthy Tractor Man’s steak: ‘Tender sirloin of beef, bacon baked on the bonnet of a Zetor tractor with honest garlic butter as fuel. As well as country potatoes with smoked garlic mayonnaise, mousse of smoked reindeer and vegetables as eye candy. That smoked reindeer is welcome as more than eye candy.’

Don’t forget the drinks, which include a wide variety of strong Finnish berry wines: Lingonberry 21 %, Cranberry 21 %, Blueberry 21 %, Blackcurrant 21 %, Sea Buckthorn 21 %, Cloudberry 15 %.

Something to take a shot at. Or two.

Wild and Desolate: Namibia’s Skeleton Coast

Namibia is a perfect country for a fly-drive holiday. The roads are wide and, outside the towns and cities, virtually empty, which makes for remarkably easy driving. You can drive for thousands of kilometres across spectacular scenery, encounter amazing wildlife and even take yourself on safari. You don’t even need a 4WD, we hired a saloon car which was just perfect. Many of the roads are constructed of gravel so it’s advisable to pack a spare tyre (or two) just in case you get a puncture. If you do get a puncture you can be sure that any passers-by will stop to help you fix it but you can’t guarantee that you will encounter a passer-by. We visited Namibia before SatNavs were widely used so we navigated with old-fashioned map. When we got hold of our map of the entire country it seemed surprisingly basic – just showing the main roads. But we soon discovered that the map was definitely detailed enough for travelling vast distances as there are very few roads. The map also helpfully pinpointed the location of petrol stations. We made a point of topping up the tank at every opportunity – our car had good fuel economy but distances are long and you really don’t want to run out of petrol.

One region that we particularly wanted to explore was the Skeleton Coast, the western coastline where the Namib desert meets the South Atlantic. It is a place that is truly wild and lives up to its name – where the skeletons of animals and shipwrecks are scattered across the sandy beaches. The coastline is incredibly long and large parts of it totally inaccessible. From Swakopmund we drove north as far as it was possible to drive.

And at either end we ate our most and least decadent meals, two nights apart.

We had driven to Swakopmund from Windhoek via the amazing red sand dunes of Sossusvlei and spent a couple of days there, having a great time taking part in all sorts of adventuresome activities – you can parasail, go hot-air ballooning, ride the dunes on quad bikes or even go along the coastline to Walvis Bay and kayak with seals. There are loads of tour operators in town that offer activities and you can make bookings with them directly. Some activities, such as the hot-air ballooning need some notice, for others you can just roll up on the day.

Swakopmund is the largest town on the coast, it’s small and friendly and bears an influence of German colonial architecture. We had our most decadent meal in this town. The Tug restaurant is located on a jetty right on the coastline and, as its name suggests, was constructed around a tug -boat – a Danie Hugo to be precise. Being right on the coast, naturally the restaurant specialises in seafood. And you can look out to the Atlantic as you dine.

We ordered a sharing dish – the seafood extravaganza: rock lobsters, kabeljou and kingklip fillets, juicy prawns cooked in their shells and the softest melt-in-the-mouth calamari we had ever eaten. All washed down with a crisp white wine. We visited some years ago and a quick glance at the most recent menu online reveals a slightly different offering to the one we dined on but it’s lovely that an indulgent seafood feast is still available.

We left Swakopmund early the next morning as we had a long drive ahead of us. It was going to be a full day’s journey along an isolated gravel road through the Skeleton Coast national park. We passed by the smelly Cape Cross seal colony and onto the park.

The gates were ominous. You need a permit to enter the park and we had to register our arrival. There are different types of permit – if you plan to stay on the coast you need to obtain an overnight permit.

Once we had entered the park we saw just one other car in the  entire day. We didn’t suffer a puncture but were glad that we had spare tyres in the trunk of the car in case we had needed them. We were driving a two-wheel drive car so kept to the road but stopped off at various points along the way to explore the wild, windswept beaches, observing shipwrecks and other skeletons. The area is quite often misty as the heat of the desert hits the cold air above the ocean and it adds to the enigmatic nature of the stark landscape.

Our final destination was the Terrace Bay resort, near the Uniab River Delta. It’s very remote and popular with anglers but there are things to do if you’re not into fishing. We enjoyed walking along the beach and across the dunes. The accommodation in chalets wasn’t luxurious but was perfectly fine. The car was filthy.

Food was taken in a communal dining hall. Because the area is so remote, we weren’t expecting a brilliant meal. It may have been a far cry from the seafood extravaganza but our dinner was good old fish and chips and they were absolutely great. The dessert in the desert was that 1970s classic, Angel Delight. I have no idea what Angel Delight actually is. It feels like it basically comprises a powder to which you add milk and stir to get a soft, creamy dessert. It was our first Angel Delight in decades and – don’t tell anyone – it was surprisingly good.

It is possible to explore further along the coast but not by car – you would have to fly. After leaving the Skeleton Coast we headed inland towards Damaraland, stopping to admire the famous Welwitschia plant some of which can live to be over a thousand years old, and eventually the Etosha National Park.

Ramblings and Restaurants Around the River in Kratie, Cambodia

Kratie (pronounced Kra-cheh) is a laid back town in Northern Cambodia, right on the mighty Mekong river. It’s a small town that you can easily walk around and has some sights to enjoy.

The most notable are the very rare freshwater irawaddy dolphins, a small group of which live in the river close to the town. They are not close enough that you can easily walk to the viewing , you need to arrange a trip, usually via tuk tuk. Most hotels/guest houses will be able to arrange this on the day, just decide a pickup time and location. The dolphins are most active in the morning or late afternoon/early evening, so it’s worth planning a trip when you are more likely to see them. Of course, everybody else will be visiting at that time too! As with all wildlife viewings, luck plays a big part in whether you see the dolphins.

The boat launch area is about 11km north of Kratie, you arrive, register and are then taken to a boat. The dolphins are a joy to watch  but very tricky to photograph – you only see them pop out of the water to catch a breath so by the time you have located them and focused the camera they have vanished back into the river. Better just to enjoy viewing them.

Our delightful driver waited for us while we were out on the river then brought us back to the town centre.

Another enjoyable morning in Kratie can be spent exploring the Mekong island of Koh Trong. You catch a ferry from boat port and it’s a short journey across the river. Once you have landed you can hire a scooter or a bicycle and circumnavigate the island, stopping off for a swim or a drink at some of the resorts (relatively expensive) or cafe.

Cambodian cuisine is delicious and there are plenty of restaurants catering to all tastes and budgets.

We enjoyed the cool and friendly Balcony Guest House and Restaurant, which offered Cambodia beer by the pitcher as you sit on the eponymous balcony enjoying a view of the river. If you happen to face bar-wards you can also learn a few words of Cambodian.

A restaurant that was rather special was Le Tonle. It’s a tourism restaurant aimed at training young people who plan to work in the hospitality sector. Tourism is a significant part of Cambodia’s economy and the idea is that young people are able to learn on the job, serving real customers.

On arrival we were greeted by not one but two front of house staff – the trainer and the trainee. This approach continued through the meal as the waiting staff took our order, served our drinks and then our dinner, guided gently by their supervisor. Both trainers and trainees were utterly delightful. Although we didn’t stay there, Le Tonle also has a guest house so that the training can extend to the hotel side of the hospitality business.

The food, also made by trainee chefs, was absolutely delicious. Using fresh ingredients the menu offers Cambodian, western and fusion dishes. Obviously we recommend the local options. A particular highlight was diced raw river fish and vegetables, marinated in a coconut and lime juice sauce and served inside a coconut shell, accompanied by steamed rice.

Le Tonle is a great initiative. We would love to see more social enterprise restaurants like this – especially those where young people get a chance to learn and hopefully use the opportunity to develop a career. Even if our young hosts were occasionally a little shy or they needed a bit of guidance while serving food or drinks, their warmth and enthusiasm was charming, and we wished them all well for the future.

Sunset Mezze in Byblos, Lebanon

(Incorporating the easiest recipe in the world…)

Lebanon is a really compact country. It’s so easy to get pretty much anywhere from its capital Beirut within a couple of hours. Lebanon is about half the size of Wales (the standard international unit for country size), has the most fantastic Mediterranean coastline and, moving inland, also boasts wonderful mountain ranges within just a couple of hours’ drive of the sea. Apparently during the winter it is possible to go skiing in the morning and swim in the Mediterranean in the afternoon.

The coastline has settlements dotted along it every 50km or so from north to south or indeed from south to north; this distance apparently being about a day’s journey for local sea traders in ancient times.

From Tyre in the south, close to the Israel border, where you can explore ancient ruins on land and gaze as they disappear into the sea; they are from a time when sea levels were much lower.  

Sidon, with its crusader castle (with a mosque added later in the Ottoman era).

Beirut is a fascinating city with a turbulent history. Again, located on the coast, it has a waterfront promenade called the Corniche, with two remarkable rock formations rising from the sea. They are called Pigeons’ Rock, which seems wildly inappropriate given their splendour. Rock of Raouché, for the neighbourhood they are located near, feels like a more suitable moniker.

A day trip to the north of Beirut will take you to the cities of Byblos and Tripoli. The latter has the most amazing citadel – Citadel of Raymond de St Gilles which was built in the early 12th century. We were able to explore it, climbing over the extensive site and admiring the view from the ramparts.

The city itself was fun to explore and we have happy memories of wandering through the nearby souk (marketplace) where stallholders would come out of their shops to say hello (with absolutely no pressure to buy).

We spent a night in Byblos. It is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, it is thought that it has been occupied since 8800BC. It is thought that the word ‘bible’ is derived from Byblos. It is a fascinating town to explore and has a castle and a number of museums.

There are a number of bars and restaurants by the harbour area.

A local restaurant right by the harbour offered mezze, which we had long wanted to try. The location was perfect.

Mezze is often described as middle-eastern tapas – a selection of small dishes shared by everyone at the table. Amongst the many dishes on offer we had creamy hummus heavily laced with tahini and drizzled with olive oil, smoky baba ganoush (aubergine dip), crispy falafel (deep fried chickpea fritters), foul (bean stew, pronounced full, not fowl!), spicy, herby kibbe (small meatballs of lamb mince and cracked wheat) with multiple salads. All of these dishes were accompanied by salad, olives, flat breads and a very big bowl of chips. Of course there was too much to finish. We needed to take some back to the hotel for snacking on the next morning.

As the sun set over the glittering Mediterranean, we ordered a couple of beers in advance of the main mezze attraction. After all, it was going to take a little while to prepare our feast. Our friendly host offered us a pre-mezze snack as he prepared the food.

It’s the easiest recipe in the world: Cut carrots into sticks, squeeze lemon juice over them and sprinkle with salt.

It’s a perfect – and really delicious – accompaniment to a nice cold drink. And probably the healthiest bar snack in the world. It’s something we eat regularly with or without beer.

Roman Streets and Sweet Treats in Jordan

Jerash is within easy 50-ish km drive of Jordan’s capital Amman and its Roman ruins are some of the best preserved in the world. The site makes for a fascinating day trip; covering a very large area it is possible to wander all over the city. It is definitely worth finding a guide who can point out all the features and explain the history and the architecture, especially as there aren’t many signs or information points, although beware as they may encourage you to buy stuff you don’t really want to buy from various vendors who can be found waiting for tourists.

The arch of Hadrian (who had already started construction of the wall in the north of England) was erected around 129-130 AD , when the Emperor visited Jerash.

The hippodrome was an enormous arena which was used for chariot races and gladiator fights. Sometimes chariot races are re-enacted in the space. Sadly, not when we visited.

The colonnaded forum, an area designed as a marketplace but used for social gatherings, including important political meetings, is stunning. Its oval shape is very unusual.

The nymphanium, a monument to the nymphs, was fed by an aqueduct.

It’s possible to walk down the roman street, also known as a cardo and as straight as Roman roads are reputed to be, again lined with columns. The road’s surface is original.

There’s an amphitheatre where you can stand on the stage and let your inner thespian out. Even if you don’t feel up to a full performance of your favourite speech, it’s worth standing on the stage and just speaking – the acoustic design of the theatre ensures that your voice can be heard with remarkable clarity, even normal speech levels.

And at the end of a day’s exploration, you are likely to be peckish. We were. Amman has some really excellent restaurants so on our return to the capital we went to Habibah to eat Kanafeh.

Just Desserts – Kanafeh in Jordan

Middle eastern desserts are not only delicious they are also quite addictive. One of the defining elements of the desserts we tried in Jordan was the sweet, sweet syrup that soaks into and pervades the pastry or dough that forms the base. The sweetness is probably a good thing as it does limit your ability to scoff vast quantities of these scrumptious desserts.

The magic ingredient in Kanafeh is cheese. Kanafeh comprises pastry or dough, saturated in syrup and layered with a very slightly salty cheese, traditionally nabulsi or akkawi, which adds a comforting and savoury contrast to counterbalance the sweetness. Kanafeh can take a variety of forms – some use vermicelli type noodles as the base, others a pastry type dough. The syrup can be flavoured with rose or orange water to give a light fragrance to the dessert.

Habibah in Amman have been in business for several decades. It’s easy to see why. Their kanafeh is superb.

The kanafeh we tried was based on a pastry dough with layers of cheese. Topped off with pistachios for crunch and a nice green colour, and served warm, it is an absolutely delicious way to round off any meal. Or you could just order a really large portion and eat that instead of a meal – it’s worth it.

Ruin Bars in Budapest

Budapest is a cosmopolitan city with a fascinating history. The centre is relatively small and it’s great for walking around. There are loads of free walking tours that you can undertake – local guides will take you around the city and, if you enjoy the walk, tip them at the end. They often have a theme, from a standard city tour showing the main sights, through to Communism and street art. The walks take between two-three hours and are a very enjoyable way of seeing the main attractions of the city. The guides are really knowledgeable and helpful and are willing to recommend things to do, restaurants to eat in and places to drink.

St.Stephen’s Basilica

 

Chain Bridge, which spans the river Danube between Buda and Pest.

Buda castle and district.

The beautiful Mattias Church

After all that walking you may well be in need of a beverage to quash your thirst. And if you want a drink you can do a lot worse than to visit a ruin bar. 

These are grungy bars that were originally set up in abandoned buildings in the city’s VII district in the early 2000s, providing cheap drinks and a lively sociable atmosphere. They are characterised by quirky décor and random, mismatched furniture that fills every nook and cranny within the building. Some have been established for years, others pop up for just one summer, then vanish into obscurity. Some have projections of films, others play music.

We were a bit random in our ruin bar choice. If you want the lowdown, there’s a website that will offer a guide to the best.

Ruin bars are perfectly convivial places to enjoy a cool beer or a shot (or more) of the local brew palinka, a fruit brandy, which is sweet and strong.