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A One Day Hanoi Itinerary

The northern city of Hanoi is an essential place to visit on a trip to Vietnam. It’s a city we would describe as ‘shabby chic’ compared with the ‘bling’ of Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) in the south. Hanoi has a long and interesting history and lots of fascinating sights. Many are located within a reasonable distance of each other, close to the old part of the city. Here are our suggestions for a one day Hanoi itinerary.

One day Hanoi itinerary

A Brief History of Hanoi

The location where the city now stands has been populated for around 5000 years, and was the capital of the Au Lac, the Vietnamese nation during the 3rd century BCE, but the area was conquered by the Han Dynasty and ruled by China for hundreds of years. In 939 the Vietnamese Ngo dynasty was founded when Ngo Quyen conquered the Chinese in the Battle of Bach Dang River. The last king of this dynasty, the sadistic Le Long Dinh died in 1009.

Power transferred to a palace guard chief called Ly Cong Uan who became Emperor Ly Thau To, founding emperor of Ly dynasty. He established a political centre in the north of the country, naming it Thang Long which means ‘ascending dragon’. Highly revered, he was the emperor who established an era of prosperity for the city. Thang Long was the capital of Vietnam until 1802 when the Nguyen dynasty moved the administration to Hue. In 1831 Thang Long was renamed Hanoi, which means ‘inside the rivers.’ Vietnam was colonised by the French in 1873 and they designated Hanoi to be the capital of the whole of French Indochina. The French abandoned Vietnam during World War 2.

Ho Chi Minh, leader of the communist revolutionary party the Viet Minh, declared Vietnamese independence on the 2nd September 1945 and established Hanoi as the capital of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, an independent country. The city endured turbulent times during the last half of the twentieth century – the French returned in 1946 so Ho Chi Minh led a guerilla war and defeated them in 1954 in the First Indochina War.

The Second Indochina War, better known as the Vietnam War (although in Vietnam, local people refer to it as the American War) followed immediately and was fought from 1955 to 1975, eventually leading to the reunification of Vietnam. Since 1976 Hanoi has been the capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Getting Around Hanoi

There are plenty of options for getting to Hanoi’s attractions. We stayed very close to the Old Quarter which was perfect for exploring the area. Most of the attractions mentioned here are within walking distance. Although beware, the very first thing that will strike you about Vietnam is the sheer number of scooters and motorcycles. They are everywhere!

One day Hanoi itinerary

The next thing that will strike you is – how do you cross the road? We have a helpful video guide in this post. Wandering around Hanoi is a pleasure in itself – an undeniable assault on the senses perhaps, but walking in this city is a great way to discover its marvellous nooks and crannies.

Alternatively, there are buses and taxis available for transportation.

One Day Hanoi Itinerary – Morning in The Ba Dinh District

Ho Chi Minh – The Father of the People

The morning started with a visit to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum on Ba Dinh Square, the final resting place of the highly revered Vietnam revolutionary leader. Inspired by Lenin’s tomb and other communist leaders, the body of Ho Chi Minh has been embalmed and lies in state, guarded at all times. It is possible to visit the grand marble construction and file past the body.

one day Hanoi itinerary

You will most likely need to queue to enter the mausoleum. Respectful dress is required (sleeveless shirts and shorts are not allowed) and you may need to leave your backpack in a locker. You are also expected to pass by the body in silence as a mark of respect. If you are visiting the mausoleum between the 4th of September and the 4th of November, the body will not be available for viewing because it goes to Russia for maintenance at this time.

Interestingly, Ho Chi Minh himself wanted to be cremated and have his ashes distributed through different regions of Vietnam. But the communist party wanted to celebrate and commemorate him, so the mausoleum was constructed in his honour. His wish seemed, to us, to be a much more humble approach.

Our next stop was the presidential palace and former residence of Ho Chi Minh.

one day Hanoi itinerary

Although Ho could have used the opulent presidential palace as a residence he chose to live somewhere much less ostentatious. The two room stilt house, set amidst a pretty garden with a carp pond, was his ostensible home from 1958 to 1969. A simple traditional building with minimal facilities. It’s possible to look through the windows to see how Ho lived.

It was fascinating to learn about Ho and quite easy to understand how he was – and still is – revered by the Vietnamese people in Hanoi.  

One Pillar Pagoda

Just to the south of the complex is the One Pillar Pagoda (note this is open every morning but closed on Monday and Friday afternoons). It is a wooden pagoda built on a single stone pillar that sits in the middle of a serene lotus pond that is designed to give the appearance of a lotus flower emerging from the water. It is a Buddhist pagoda and was constructed in 1049 by Emperor Ly Thai To apparently to celebrate the birth of a male heir.

one day Hanoi itinerary one pillar pagoda

The Temple of Literature

Moving south again, the morning concludes with a visit to the remarkable Temple of Literature. It was constructed in 1070 to honour philosopher Confucious and went on to become Hanoi’s first university in 1076, a prestigious seat of learning. It is another legacy of the Ly dynasty. Students learned mathematics, literature and calligraphy. Although it is no longer a university (and hasn’t been since 1779) it is a monument to education. Even today, Vietnamese students often visit the temple to receive blessings for their own studies.

A beautiful site to visit it has five courtyards.

One day in Hanoi

In the centre is a pool, the well of heavenly clarity. It can be seen on the 100,000 dong note.

One day in Hanoi

You will see many tortoises throughout the temple – these represent wisdom. There are multiple stelae onto which the names and birthplaces of graduates of the university (renowned for its incredibly difficult exams) are carved. The crane standing on top of a tortoise is a symbol of longevity.

one day Hanoi itinerary

Again, this is a site that is considered hugely culturally important so it is important to behave respectfully. There are even rules about not stroking the tortoises’ heads (quite right too!).

one day Hanoi itinerary

The street on the eastern road adjacent to the Temple of Literature has a large number of restaurants. There’s a great variety of local food here, perfect for stopping for lunch.

One Day Hanoi Itinerary – Afternoon In The Old Quarter

Just up the road from the Temple of Literature is the Vietnam Museum of Fine Arts. If you like art, especially discovering local art, this is definitely a must-see attraction. It’s perfect for a leisurely after-lunch visit.

Hoan Kiem Lake

Visiting Hanoi’s old quarter, which lies around a kilometre to the east of the museum. Follow Trang Ti to reach Hoan Kiem Lake (also known as the Lake of the Restored Sword) and the Ngoc Son Temple.

Again, this is a hugely important historic area with a legend that dates back to the founding of Hanoi (as Thăng Long) by Emperor Ly Thai To. A giant golden turtle lived in this lake and gave the Emperor a magical sword which he used to defeat the Chinese occupiers. As soon as he had won the battle, Ly Thai To respectfully returned the sword to the turtle, who dived back into the lake in order to give it back to the gods. It’s very pleasant to walk around the lake.

One day in Hanoi

The lake has an island where the Ngoc Son Temple, also known as the Temple of the Jade Mountain, is situated. It is accessible via a vermillion bridge.

One day Hanoi itinerary

It celebrates Van Xuong who was a revered scholar, La To, and General Tran Hung Dao who defeated the Mongol invaders in the 13th century, a glorious victory.

A Cyclo Tour

An enjoyable way to explore the old town is via a cyclo tour. An hour’s tour takes in the atmosphere of Hanoi’s old quarter and is a relaxing way to end this busy day of sightseeing. You also get to experience the thrill of being on the road amidst all those scooters – an experience in itself.

one day Hanoi itinerary

The old quarter is comprised of 36 streets located within a square kilometre just north and west of the lake. The streets have been named for the artisans and craftspeople who traded specific merchandise in that street: bamboo street, silver street, decoration street and silk street to name a few.

One day in Hanoi

Part of the tour can include a visit an ancient Vietnamese ‘long house’. One of the characteristics of the architecture in Hanoi is that the houses are very thin and tall. The width can be as short as just 2.5m, sometimes up to 5m. However, when you go inside the houses seem to stretch forever. This is because properties used to be taxed according to the amount of façade on the street, so they were constructed this way to minimise costs. This house had a lovely open feel to it thanks to its open balconies, despite the narrow width.

one day Hanoi itinerary

Evening in Hanoi

There are lots of places to eat in Hanoi, ranging from posh dining to street food. The old quarter is a perfect place to hang out in the evening. There is a night market right in the heart of the area. Another popular place is the Bia Hoy Corner which is frequented by both tourists and locals. Be prepared for plastic seats, street snacks, cheap beer and a chance to get chatting with new friends.

The Water Puppet Theatre is a popular attraction, and it’s worth making a booking. It’s located by the north side of Hoan Kiem Lake.

While this is a pretty intense itinerary, it is possible to make the most of a single day in Hanoi.

Vietnamese Food

Just as there are differences between the culture of north and south Vietnam, the cuisine reflects this as well. Food from northern Vietnam is subtle with a balance of flavours, whereas southern dishes are often more spicy. And even though regional variations exist, pho can be found all over Vietnam and is the country’s national dish.

There’s No Business Like Pho Business

Pho is a noodle soup – soft rice noodles served in a warm, very slightly spicy, bone broth with thin slices of meat such as beef (pho bo) and chicken (pho ga). These are the traditional varieties of pho in Hanoi.

Pho is a staple of Vietnamese cuisine. Its pronunciation is like the French word, feu (fire), which is appropriate because it’s thought that the name derives from the term ‘pot au feu’, or French beef stew. It’s so good that you can have it for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Or indeed breakfast, lunch and dinner if you feel so inclined. Yes, we did. In Vietnam it is primarily a breakfast dish – healthy and hearty – it truly sets you up for the day ahead.

The soup is meant to be drunk. Like Japanese ramen, the broth is absolutely key to the flavour. The best broths will have been simmered for hours. A beef stock will use the bones, a chicken stock often uses an entire chicken. Spices such as cinnamon, ginger, cardamom and cloves may add a subtle heat in addition to flavour. The soup should be clear.

The noodles are soft but with a bit of bite. They are cooked separately inside a wire basket that is plunged into boiling water for a few minutes. These are then added to the serving bowl before the broth and meat are added.

One of the best things about pho is that you can flavour it to your own taste. Alongside each nourishing bowl of pho a plate containing all sorts of potential flavours and textures will be served. Want heat? Add chilli (the smaller the chilli, the hotter the spice). Like sour flavours? Squeeze in some lime juice.

Texture and crunch? Add beansprouts or green onion. More flavour? You’ll be offered a variety of aromatic herbs, commonly coriander, holy basil and mint which can be added in whichever ratio you desire.

Viet pho

But the key is making sure that you taste the broth before you start wading in with additional garnishes. And, while Vietnamese pho restaurants in other countries often offer sauces such as hoisin or chilli to add to the soup, it is unlikely that you would ever see this in Vietnam. It would be a shame to add sauce which detracts from the delicate flavour of the broth.

You eat pho using chopsticks to pick up the meat and noodles. There is usually a spoon available to sip the broth. Actually, it’s okay to bring the bowl to your lips and drink directly from it. Slurping is fine. For British people who were brought up to believe that it’s rude to slurp your soup, it’s actually quite difficult to do this without spilling the broth or accidentally spluttering! A very positive side effect of consuming so much pho was that we were kept well hydrated in the warm, humid climate.

Bun Cha Ha Noi

Another typical dish from the northern region is Bun (noodles) Cha (grilled pork). It is a delicious combination of grilled pork slices and/or meatballs accompanied by rice noodles and herbs, in a spicy and flavoursome sauce. It is thought to have originated in Hanoi.

Bo La Lot

Another delicious dish is Bo La Lot – grilled beef balls wrapped in betel leaves. Served with a sweet and fragrant dipping sauce, these are juicy, full of flavour and make for a brilliant starter or snack.

One of the best garnishes is Vietnamese pickled garlic, a zingy condiment. We have a recipe for this – it’s great for accompanying Vietnamese food but really versatile for other dishes as well.

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Afternoon Tea in Coventry

Everything Stops for Tea

Afternoon tea is a very British tradition. The British are, of course, well known for their love of tea.

Tea to the English is really a picnic indoors.
-Alice Walker

Afternoon tea originated in the early 19th Century. It was a time when tea drinking was becoming extremely popular amongst all classes but this was also a time when people tended only to have two meals a day: breakfast and supper. Supper was usually taken around 8pm in the evening which meant that there was an awfully long gap between meals.

Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford and friend of Queen Victoria, invented the afternoon tea. She had decided that the gap between breakfast and supper was just too long (who can help but agree?) and she would start feeling peckish mid-afternoon. She solved this problem in around 1840 by indulging in a cup of tea and a snack at around 4pm. The tea was generally accompanied by bread and butter and some cake. She invited her friends to join her and soon enough afternoon tea became highly popular amongst high society.

The elements comprising afternoon tea evolved over the years. Fortunately sandwiches had already been invented by the Earl of Sandwich, who had discovered the joys of putting something delicious between two slices of bread in 1762, so afternoon tea could accommodate this as a menu item as well.

Scone? Or Scone?

Scones are also considered to be an essential element of afternoon tea these days. These are traditionally sweet scones, eaten with jam and clotted cream. The scones are presented whole: they should be cut in half and the jam/cream or cream/jam combination applied copiously. Never reveal whether you put the jam or the cream onto the scone first to anyone from the West Country. Devon and Cornish folk have very different ideas about the order in which the scone should be adorned. We politely suggest that they taste wonderful either way.

Afternoon tea in Coventry

As well as disputes about how to eat scones the English also disagree on how to pronounce the word – is it scone to rhyme with ‘gone’ or scone to rhyme with ‘stone’? We’re originally from the south of England so both use the former but have regular arguments with friends about the true pronunciation.

How To Enjoy Traditional Afternoon Tea

The quintessential afternoon tea comprises a selection of sandwiches, a couple of scones served with clotted cream and jam and a variety of miniature pastries, cakes or sweet treats. Served with a cup of tea. This might simply be an ordinary cuppa but it is more likely that you would be offered some speciality teas or herbal infusions. Coffee and hot chocolate are usually available for non-tea-drinkers. The more indulgent modern afternoon teas may also offer a tall glass of fizz; Champagne (preferably) or Prosecco to accompany the treats.

Etiquette suggests that you start with the savouries on the bottom tier. Scones should be eaten next, then finish with the sweet treats on the top tier.

This particular tea had four pastries each, including a fruity pannacotta and layered cake.

Almost a meal in itself, afternoon tea is refined and decadent.

Afternoon Tea in Coventry – Coombe Abbey Country Park

Coombe Abbey and Country Park is located a few kilometres outside Coventry city centre and is a delightful place to not only enjoy afternoon tea but also to spend time in the extensive 500 acre park, woodlands and gardens.

It’s possible to drive to Coombe Abbey. It takes around 15 minutes from Coventry city centre and parking fees are payable. It is a very popular place to visit at weekends and bank holidays, so sometimes the car park can be full. Alternatively you can catch the bus from Coventry’s central Pool Meadow bus station. The No 53 bus will get you there in about 40 minutes.

Coombe Abbey was originally a 12th-century Cistercian abbey that has now been converted into a hotel.

Afternoon tea in Coventry

Afternoon tea is held in a lovely garden room, a light and airy space.

There are a variety of options available from traditional afternoon tea to savoury offerings. There is a wide variety of teas on offer – from great quality black tea to some more unusual options such as gin and tonic tea. If you’re feeling decadent, a glass of bubbly is also available.

Afternoon tea in Coventry

The petit fours are beautifully made.

Afternoon tea in Coventry

Prices range from £20 to £47 (July 2023) depending on the decadence of your choice of tea and whether you wish to indulge in fizz. The prices also vary depending on whether you are visiting during the week or at the weekend (weekend prices are higher). Afternoon teas at Coombe Abbey are very popular so booking is essential.

Other Things to Do In The Area

The grounds of the country park are delightful for walking in. There are several lakes and an extensive woodland to explore.

If you are feeling adventurous there is also a Go Ape facility where you can exercise your inner child and go climbing in the treetops and enjoy the exhilaration of zip wires and a tarzan swing! (Probably best to enjoy before taking afternoon tea!)

And if you’re still feeling hungry, Coombe Abbey offers mediaeval banquets in the evenings – great food and entertainment guaranteed.

Afternoon Tea in Coventry – Tales of Tea at St Mary’s Guildhall

Recently refurbished, St Mary’s Guildhall is one of the most important surviving guildhalls in the country, dating back to the 1340s.

St Mary's Guildhall Coventry

Afternoon tea at Tales of Tea is served daily in St Mary’s undercroft, a delightful and historic setting.

Afternoon tea in Coventry

On this occasion we enjoyed a savoury tea. Although afternoon tea is delightful we do sometimes find that by the time you have eaten the scones and the first of the petit fours there is a bit of a sugar overload.

Afternoon tea in Coventry

The menu does vary regularly but we enjoyed sausage rolls, pork pies, haddock croquettes, mini quiches and cheese scones amongst other savoury delights

And just a little sweetness with an edible flowerpot filled with mousse and dark chocolate ‘soil’.

Afternoon tea in Coventry

Tales of Tea is very popular so we recommend making a booking. Prices range from £25-£30 depending on whether you want a sweet or savoury tea. (July 2023) The undercroft becomes a fine dining restaurant in the evening.

Other Things to Do In The Area

St Mary’s Guildhall itself is definitely worth visiting so make sure you pop across the atrium from the undercroft.

St Mary's guildhall

It boasts the England’s oldest mediaeval tapestry, a remarkable work that was woven in its original place – it is over 500 years old.

A recent refurbishment has revealed a mediaeval kitchen now restored to its former glory.

The Guildhall is located next to the ruins of Coventry’s cathedral which itself has a fascinating history. St Michael’s cathedral was constructed in the 15th Century but destroyed in 1941 during the Coventry Blitz in World War 2.

Coventry cathedral

A new cathedral was built alongside the ruins of the old. Both are very much living spaces – both for worship as well as art, music and cultural events that are held throughout the year.

Things to do in Coventry

The Herbert Museum and Art Gallery is a 2 minute walk away. It hosts multiple free art exhibitions several times a year and has a permanent exhibition space on the ground floor showcasing Coventry’s history.

Things to do in Coventry

Afternoon Tea in Coventry – Telegraph Hotel

Founded in 1891 as The Midland Daily Telegraph, but with a name change in 1941, The Coventry Evening Telegraph was the city’s first daily newspaper. In times gone by it was a tabloid paper located in a large building in the city centre which housed enormous printing presses. But times have changed and the printing presses are no longer needed, so staff have relocated to the Canal Basin in Coventry. The site was opened up to the public in 2017 and temporarily hosted local art exhibitions.

The building has now been converted into a hotel but the decor very much reflects its heritage. Afternoon tea is available. Currently on offer, afternoon tea for two people, with a glass of fizz costs £39.50 (July 2023).

Afternoon tea in Coventry

The afternoon tea is more traditional but generous and delicious. The sweet treats included pistachio macarons, chocolate delice with yuzu gel, passion fruit tarts and a strawberry and elderflower cheesecake. The tea was so filling we had to ask for a box to take some scones home with us.

Other Things To Do In The Area

Coventry Transport Museum is around a two minute walk away. It’s a great museum to visit, even if you’re not particularly interested in cars. Coventry was once the city of motor manufacturing and the museum houses a huge number of vehicles from some of the earliest vehicles to land-speed-record breakers.

Things to do in Coventry

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Where To Go In Lebanon – A Visitor’s Guide

Lebanon is a really compact country. It’s easy to get pretty much anywhere from its capital, Beirut, within a couple of hours. Lebanon is about half the size of Wales (the standard international unit for country size), has the most fantastic Mediterranean coastline and, moving inland, also boasts wonderful mountain ranges and beautiful valleys. It has a long and fascinating history and some spectacular sites to visit. Here are some ideas for where to go in Lebanon.

The great thing about Lebanon is that it’s possible to visit most of the attractions from Beirut within a day so it is possible to stay there as a base. Another option would be to tour the country and stay in some of the locations that you visit. We would recommend the latter as some of the attractions are a couple of hours’ drive away which would leave less time to explore the sites.

There are good accommodation and restaurant options close to the popular attractions. And you can be assured of a very friendly welcome.

For full disclosure, it has been some years since we visited Lebanon. However, this post aims to show you some of the many places that visitors can enjoy.

Coastline

Many of Lebanon’s major towns and cities are located along its coastline. It has settlements dotted along it every 50km or so from north to south, or indeed from south to north; this distance apparently being about a day’s journey for sea traders in ancient times.

Beirut

Lebanon’s capital is the obvious place to start exploring this fascinating country. Beirut has a long and troubled history and is a city that is changing all the time. It was a prosperous trading city since the time of the Phoenicians and was the site of a famous law school in Roman times. Its location has ensured its position as a centre of commerce. Once dubbed the “Paris of the Middle East” in the middle of the 20th century, it gained a reputation as a place of glamour and decadence.

However, it suffered greatly during the Lebanese Civil War that took place between 1975 and 1990.

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

The National Museum is definitely worth setting time aside for. It is located on what was the Green Line during the Lebanese civil war and was significantly damaged as a result. However, it was renovated and restored to its former glory – a grand and imposing building. These days it hosts fascinating displays that exhibit Lebanon’s long and rich history.

National Museum Beirut lebanon

The Beirut Art Centre hosts regular exhibitions of Lebanese and international art.

Beirut has changed dramatically in the days since the war. The scarred buildings have been replaced with modern constructions. Sadly, a huge explosion at the Port of Beirut in 2020 damaged a significant part of the city. The Lebanese economy was in crisis at the time, and the blast has exacerbated this. But we have no doubt that this resilient city will rebuild once again one day.

Tyre

One of the oldest continuously inhabited cites in the world  Tyre was founded in about 2750 BCE. The centre of the Phoenician civilisation, it was later conquered by the Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Muslims, Christian Crusaders and Mamluk civilisations. It is located around 85km south of Beirut, around 20km from the Lebanese border with Israel.

Many cities have thrived on their ability to produce a highly desired commodity and Tyre became famous for the Tyrian purple dye, derived from a type of mollusc, that was so expensive and exclusive that only royalty could use it. (Our own city of Coventry became famous for its blue dye – known as Coventry Blue which held fast and coined the phrase, ‘true blue’.)

There are extensive Roman ruins to explore in Tyre – the UNESCO heritage sites of Al Mina and Al Bass.

At Al Bass the hippodrome is enormous in its scale, and considered to be one of the largest and best preserved in the world. It was primarily used for chariot races – you can imagine the excitement of the crowds cheering the horse and carriages thundering round the track.

Al Bass also boasts a triumphal arch and necropolis.

Al Mina is located close to the sea and you can walk along the colonnaded street.

Where to go in Lebanon

It is interesting to see the ruins continue into the Mediterranean, a legacy from when sea levels were lower.

Sidon

Another city with a long history, Sidon is located around half-way between Tyre and Beirut. It is thought to have been inhabited as early as 4000 BCE.

Its main attraction is the sea castle, built in 1228 by Christian crusaders, on a small island which is connected to the mainland via a bridge. It is thought that it was built upon a Phoenician temple – there is evidence of a Phonecian settlement under the sea nearby. It has been partially destroyed and renovated over the years. There is a small domed mosque, built during the Ottoman era, that sits atop the castle.

Where to go in Lebanon

The medina is another essential place to visit – a labyrinth of alleyways in the old stone city, it’s perfect for exploring and getting lost in. There is a soap museum which was originally a factory. You can see the ingredients and understand the techniques used to make soap. And, of course, buy a bar or two.

Beiteddine

Beiteddine is located south-east of Beirut and is easy to visit as a side trip when seeing Sidon. It is an Ottoman palace built between 1788 and 1818 and set in a lovely valley close to Deir el Qamar. The palace itself is a place of very great beauty – with gorgeous architecture throughout it is adorned with mosaics and has serene courtyards and fountains.

Where to go in Lebanon

Many of the interiors are carved with cedar wood. It is also the location of the Beiteddine Art Festival which is held every year and showcases the work of local and international artists.

Byblos

North of Beirut, Byblos also has a claim to being the world’s oldest continuously inhabited town. The Phoenicians developed their alphabet there and it is thought that the word ‘bible’ is derived from Byblos. It is a fascinating town to explore with its castle and museums.

The Crusaders arrived in 1103. They called the town Gibelet, after the Lords of Gibelet, members of the Embriaco family from Genoa. They built a castle which was sacked when Saladin attacked the town in 1188 and parts of the walls were taken down.

Where to go in Lebanon

The town was then recaptured in 1197 by the Crusaders and the castle’s fortifications reinforced. They remained in power until the 13th century.

Byblos boasts an excellent beach and also has number of bars and restaurants by the harbour area where you can enjoy a drink or mezze watching the sun set over the sea.

Tripoli

Further north up the coast Tripoli was a town where we particularly enjoyed exploring the souks. Everywhere we went we were welcomed warmly. One of Tripoli’s main attractions is the Citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles, a crusader fortress originally constructed in 1103 which has been rebuilt over the centuries.

It’s a great place to explore and you can climb onto the walls to get spectacular views of the city.

Where to go in Lebanon

Going Inland

Qadisha Valley and Bcharre

The Qadisha valley is a beautiful area at the foot of Mount al-Makmal and is home to a number of Christian monasteries. Qadisha means ‘holy’ in Aramaic and the river, Nahr Qadisha, flows through the valley. There are some lovely walks in the area.

It was here that we discovered Kahlil Ghibran, a Lebanese poet, artist and philosopher, who was born in Bcharre.  There is a fascinating museum dedicated to his life and works in the former monastery of Mar Sarkis. His book, The Prophet, a series of 26 fables in the form of poems, is one of the most translated books in history and has never been out of print since its publication in 1923.

The source of the Nahr Qadisha lies in a cave and is located very close to the Cedars of Lebanon. These are known as the Cedars of God and comprise hundreds of trees, some of which are thought to be over 1000 years old.

Where to go in Lebanon

These trees are so important to the country’s heritage and culture, Lebanon’s flag features the cedar at its emblem.

Where to go in Lebanon

Crossing the Lebanon mountain range into the Beqaa Valley we arrived at Baalbek.

Baalbek

There are many spectacular ruins throughout the Middle East, including in Lebanon and also the Roman city of Jerash in Jordan. But the ruins at Baalbek, a UNESCO site, are astonishing in their scale.

Baalbek was known by the Greeks as Heliopolis, which means ‘Sun City’, and was the place where the Phoenicians worshipped the sun god Baal.  

The Temple of Jupiter is the largest complex and, even though it has suffered extensive damage over the years, is still hugely impressive. It is thought that construction started in around 16 BCE.

The temple comprises a main plaza set upon a large base comprising foundation walls and a podium. It holds many archaeological mysteries, notably the enormous monoliths from which the walls were constructed – they weigh between 300 and 1200 tonnes. The stones came from a nearby quarry but it is not fully understood how they were placed as it is believed that known Roman construction equipment of the time would not have had the capacity to move them. It’s possible that a bespoke crane was constructed for the purpose or the stones may have been rolled downhill from the quarry.

Originally the temple was encircled by 54 columns, but only 6 remain intact.

Where to go in Lebanon

The Temple of Bacchus is the best preserved of all the temples as it had been partially buried and hence was protected from multiple earthquakes over the centuries. It was thought to have been completed in 190 CE by Septimius Severus.

Where to go in Lebanon

It’s a splendid structure with remarkable details in the stonework showing vines, poppies and wheat, symbols of Bacchus and highly appropriate for the god of wine and festivities. Sometimes you can get lucky and have the whole place to yourself!

Where to go in Lebanon

The final temple is the Temple of Venus, also known as Nymphaeum.

A special mention has to go to the Palmyra Hotel in Baalbek, a glorious, decadent building that was built in 1874 and has remained open ever since. Filled with original Jean Cocteau paintings it has hosted artists, musicians, writers, celebrities and even royalty over the decades. It has most definitely seen better days but was a fabulous place to stay.

Anjar

Anjar is a fortified town that is completely different to other sites in the country. It was a city developed during the early 8th century CE and is the best example of an inland centre of commerce in the region. The Umayyads, the first hereditary dynasty of Islam, created an empire from around 660 to 750 CE. They were highly skilled in planning and development and the empire prospered until they were defeated by the Abbasids.

It’s a fascinating site to explore. Umayyad Caliph Walid I commenced construction in 714. Based on a Roman layout , Anjar had over multiple shops, a Grand Palace, a mosque and thermal baths. However, the site was later abandoned.

Where to go in Lebanon

The Grand Palace is one of the best preserved ruins. It has an impressive courtyard that is heralded by magnificent arches.

Where to go in Lebanon

Lebanese Food and Drink

A trip to the Middle East wouldn’t be complete without a mezze. Mezze is often described as middle-eastern tapas – a selection of small dishes shared by everyone at the table. It’s a lovely, sociable way of eating and you can get to try a variety of dishes.

Amongst the many dishes on offer we had creamy hummus heavily laced with tahini and drizzled with olive oil, smoky baba ganoush (aubergine dip), crispy falafel (deep fried chickpea fritters), foul (bean stew, pronounced ‘full’, not ‘fowl’!), spicy, herby kibbe (small meatballs of lamb mince and cracked wheat), cauliflower tarata (a sauce of tahini sesame paste, lemon juice, garlic, and parsley), multiple salads, including fattoush, which has lots of bread to soak up the lemony olive oil dressing. All enjoyed with delicious flatbreads and sometimes chips.

Grilled meats are popular for main courses – they are delicately spiced and very juicy. Lamb and chicken are likely to be the meats on offer.

And you can’t go to Lebanon and not try the street food. Shawarma is a flat bread filled with grilled meats and chips!

Alcohol is freely available in Lebanon. The spirit of choice is Arak – a distilled aniseed flavoured drink. It’s a bit of a love-hate thing, Colin loves the flavour and could easily drink it all day, Mitch really can’t bear aniseed and shivers at the thought of it.

It’s a little known fact that Lebanese wine is absolutely awesome. Lebanon is one of the oldest wine-producing countries in the world (along with Georgia and the Caucasus region in general). Vineyards are mainly located in the southern part of the Beqaa Valley and they produce delicious and very quaffable fruity reds. Chateau Musar is one of the most famous wine producers.

Chateau Ksara is Lebanon’s oldest and largest winery and it is possible to visit the vineyards and winery. Dating from 1857, Jesuit monks planted French vines and stored their wine in local caves. Their wine is absolutely delicious. They do export it so try to get hold of a bottle or three if you can.

More Tasty Recipes on VTW
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Planning a Trip to Japan

Regular readers of this blog will know that we are absolutely in love with Japan. The land of the rising sun is beguiling, fascinating and loads of fun. It is a country where bright, vibrant, blaring neon cities contrast with the elegance of traditional castles, temples, pagodas and exquisite gardens. We first visited Japan over twenty years ago and have returned many, many times. Here’s our guide to planning a trip to Japan.

Planning a trip to Japan
Planning a trip to Japan

Getting There

Most people will fly into Japan either to Tokyo or Kansai (Osaka). Both airports are located a fair distance from the cities they serve but it’s easy to pick up public transport options to reach the metropolis. There are train services that run regularly and also limousine buses, which can get you to the city centres very easily.

Getting Around

Japan’s public transportation system is fully integrated and highly efficient. If you are travelling for any length of time and especially travelling between cities, we recommend the Japan Rail Pass.(It’s not recommended if you are only staying in one city as it wouldn’t be cost-effective.) The JR Pass is valid on all Japan Rail services, including the shinkansen bullet train, with the exception of the super-fast Nozomi service. Don’t worry, the other bullet trains are still pretty damned fast! And they are the most amazing way to travel.

You can buy a pass that is valid for 7, 14, or 21 days. Also, the JR Pass allows you to book seats on the shinkansen for free. Just book your seats at any JR office at any station.

shinkansen luggage

You need to order the pass before you travel. You will receive a voucher. This is then exchanged at a JR station for your pass. It is time-stamped and valid from the first day of use on the stamp. There is a ticket office at Narita airport where you can get your pass – just follow the signs for the trains. Be aware that there may be a queue as lots of other tourists will be wanting to do the same as soon as they get off the plane. If you don’t want to activate it straight away, that’s fine.

When using the pass you don’t need to go through the usual entry/exit barriers. Just show your pass to the station staff in the office located at one side of the barriers and they will wave you through.

If travelling by train you can plan your journey using the excellent hyperdia website. Note that there are some private railways in Japan, notably in more rural areas, and the JR Pass is not valid on these.

Bus services in Japan are reliable and reasonably comfortable. They are especially useful when travelling through the countryside.

Taxis are available in most cities but they are expensive. They all have automatic doors.

Car hire is also easy to arrange if you want to visit rural areas. There is really no need to hire a car if you are visiting cities.

Accommodation

There are a variety of options depending on your budget. You can book standard hotels via the usual booking sites.

We tend to stay in business hotels, especially in the cities, as they offer cheap accommodation, albeit in tiny rooms. You can see our post about business hotels. They are very small but they contain all the facilities you might need. And you’re in Japan – you don’t want to spend all your time in a hotel room!

Japanese bsines hotel

However, it is also worth splurging for a night or two to stay in a ryokan – a traditional Japanese inn. These often comprise several rooms, all laid out with tatami (reed) mat flooring. Your bedding will be a futon laid out on the floor.

Visit Yakushima ryokan

You may well be served your dinner in your room. At other establishments you will eat dinner in the restaurant and your futon will be laid out by the maid while you are dining.

Planning a trip to Japan. Futon in ryokan

Ryokan may be ensuite although sometimes these establishments will have shared facilities. Some have lovely baths and you may be offered a time slot for bathing.

Money

Japan is still a largely cash-based society and, although ATMs have become more common over the years, are still not as widespread as you might think. We tend to take Japanese yen with us. And, while no destination is 100% safe, we have always felt comfortable carrying cash and have never had any problems while doing so.

Most hotels and increasing numbers of shops and restaurants accept credit cards these days.

You can also get IC cards – Passmo and Suica are popular ones in Tokyo – that you can all over the metropolitan area you are visiting. You can tap them to use public transport, such as the metro, and use them to buy some products as well. It is possible to charge them up by adding more cash at convenience stores (known as konbini), such as Family Mart, Lawson and 7-11, which can be found all over Japan.

Just be careful that they are valid within the area you are travelling. For example a card used in Tokyo and the surrounding area may not be accepted in the Kansai region.

Eating and Drinking

Dining when you can’t understand the writing on the menu can be a bit daunting. When we first visited Japan English menus didn’t exist but these days increasing numbers of restaurants offer menus in English, Chinese and Korean.

And many restaurants have picture menus or plastic models of the food in the window. They will also show the prices, sometimes in ordinary numerals but sometimes in Kanji (the Japanese writing system). If you get really stuck, take your server outside and point at what you want!

Osaka restaurants Japan

Food is eaten with chopsticks and occasionally a spoon. It is rare to find knives and forks, and restaurants are usually unable to supply them. Bring your own if needed, but, better, learn to use chopsticks – it isn’t that difficult!

Most people will know the Japanese foods sushi, sashimi and ramen noodles but the cuisine has so much for offer.

Osaka restaurants Japan
tonkotsu ramen

There are prices to suit all budgets, from noodles at a railway station stand, where you eat standing up, to the full-on kaiseki ryori, Japanese haute cuisine.

And, if you are travelling on the train, it’s essential to enjoy a bento box meal – a lunch box full of goodies. There are even regional variations of bento sold at railway stations, known as eki-ben.

Travelling in Japan tips shinkansen bento

Izakaya are Japanese style pubs where you can enjoy drinks as well as order a variety of dishes.They are a great way to spend an evening.

Beware the cover charge, known as otoshi or tsukidashi, which is basically a table charge. Some establishments will have a fixed charge for drinking and eating there. It’s usually a few hundred yen per person and its aim is to encourage you to stay at that establishment. If you get a small starter or plate of snacks just after you sit at your table, it’s not a freebie, you are likely to be charged for it. Some bars in Tokyo will indicate whether a cover charge applies but it’s not always clear.

Tipping is not expected nor required in Japanese restaurants or bars – which makes life very easy. Just pay the bill. We have had some instances where restaurant proprietors have run after us with 5 yen change!

Customs and Etiquette

When we first visited Japan we were worried that we would fail to follow etiquette and make terrible faux pas all the way around the country. In fact Japanese people are incredibly friendly and welcoming and would not ostracise a visitor. But if you get the etiquette correct, your efforts are really appreciated.

As with travelling anywhere, it goes without saying that you should be polite and respectful. ‘Arigato’ means ‘thank you’ and ‘sumimasen’ means ‘excuse me’.

Absolute no-nos are wearing outdoor shoes inside. Always remove them before entering a home. Some restaurants may also request shoe removal and provide a locker for your shoes and some slippers that you can wear inside.

If you are using a shared bathroom at your accommodation bear in mind that your room slippers need to be changed for bathroom slippers. (Don’t forget to change them back when leaving the bathroom!)

If using a shared bath, for example at an onsen (hot spring resort), you should wash before getting into the bath so that you are clean before you start bathing. The bath is all about having a lovely, relaxing soak at the end of a day’s sightseeing.

If you are wearing a yukata (a cotton kimono) make sure that the left side of the material overlaps the right side- right over left is for dressing the dead.

Tattoos are still taboo in Japan because they are associated with yakuza (gangsters). If you plan to spend time in an onsen it is worth covering small tattoos with a sticking plaster. Be aware of tattoo polices, some accept people with tattoos, others may turn you away.

As mentioned above, you don’t tip in Japan. Unless you are staying at a high-end ryokan, where it is polite to leave a few hundred yen for the maid who will have laid out your bedding, although this isn’t compulsory. It is considered rude to hand people cash, so leave any tip in an envelope.

Handy Travelling Tips

If you are travelling on public transport and have a lot of luggage, it’s not the most comfortable way to travel, especially if you are lugging unwieldy cases. Instead you could use the Takkyubin service – a courier delivery service that will transfer your luggage to your next location (or beyond, hotels are usually happy to store your bags for a few days). Just ask for ‘Takkyubin’ at a hotel. The staff will be able to arrange it for you and take payment on your behalf. It’s a pretty cheap service and is extremely efficient. Our bags have travelled from one end of the country to the other overnight and we’ve just swanned up at the hotel with a daysack the following day and our luggage arrived ahear of us.

Useful hint: it’s helpful to have the address of your destination hotel written in Japanese – hotel staff will be happy to fill in the form for you. If you are using a booking service such as Booking.com, you can obtain a printout or use the app to find the address in the original language.

Another thing that you will notice about Japan is the sheer number of vending machines. It feels as though there is one on every corner. You can buy pretty much anything. Most are snacks and drinks machines, some will be able to sell hot beverages as well, and you can even buy beer. (We couldn’t imagine a full and working vending machine selling beer in the UK – it would get trashed in seconds!)

Planning atrip to Japan

And you can drink the tap water in Japan, so make sure to bring a reusable water bottle with you.

Planning A Trip To Japan -Things to Do

Of course Japan offers all the usual attractions for tourists, such as museums, galleries, entertainment and shopping opportunities galore. But here are some quintessentially Japanese activities.

Kabuki

Kabuki is a form of Japanese highly stylised drama and it’s possible to visit the theatre in Ginza, Tokyo to see a play. When we visited we were given a leaflet which explained the plot for the play we were watching. The word kabuki is a combination of three characters which mean song (ka), dance (bu) and acting (ki) so you can expect all of these elements. All performers are male, even those playing female roles.

Planning a trip to Japan

Another thing that surprised us is that there is an element of audience participation where viewers shout words of encouragement to their favourite actors. You can get tickets for a single act or a whole play.

Arcades

If you’re a big kid and enjoy playing video games you’ll love the arcades in Japan. They can be found in any city. We can’t resist them – you can play all sorts of games from musical (drumming or dancing) to driving to betting on horse races. There are some where you can stand alongside a mannequin comedian and attempt to perform as a manzai (straight man, funny man comedy).

Planning a trip to Japan

One of the oddest games we played was a sushi chopping game (photo on the right).

Just make sure you have a stash of 100 Yen coins.

Karaoke

Karaoke was invented in Japan and is now popular all over the world. The word derives from ‘kara’, meaning empty and ‘oke’ which is an abbreviation of ōkesutora (orchestra). In Japan you can visit karaoke establishments and hire a room for a set time period – just for you and your mates or travelling companions – thumb through the extensive book of songs (there will be loads in English) and sing your socks off. It’s great fun and there’s no need to worry about singing in front of strangers.

Planning a trip to Japan

Big Echo is one of the most famous karaoke venues. You can also get a nomihodai – all you can drink – deal. There’s a phone where you can order drinks – although it would be helpful to be able to speak a bit of Japanese. The phone will also ring to let you know when you have 10 minutes before the room hire expires – the perfect time make Bohemian Rhapsody your final number!

Manga, Anime and Electronics

Japanese culture, particularly manga and anime, has become hugely popular all over the world and there are lots of opportunities to visit museums, such as the wonderful Studio Ghibli museum, and even museums located by some of the animation studios. There are some areas within certain cities which have hubs where you can go shopping for all the latest hi-tech gear or discover pop culture galore. Akihabara in Tokyo and DenDen town in Osaka offer loads of exciting places to explore for tech and culture fans alike.

Sumo

Sumo is Japan’s national sport and is fascinating to watch. There are tournaments six times a year (three in Tokyo, alternating with ones in Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka) You can spend a day at the sumo if your trip coincides with a basho.

Watch sumo in Tokyo

The rules of sumo are very simple: Two wrestlers face each other in a ring and, at the signal of mutual consent to begin, the bout commences. A wrestler loses when he is either forced out of the ring or touches the floor with any part of his body other than his feet. 

Watch sumo in Tokyo

You can read about our day at the sumo in this post. And if you can’t attend, you can often watch sumo wrestlers training at their stables.

Pachinko

Pachinko is definitely the loudest and possibly the most impenetrable activity we have ever done in Japan. It’s kind of like a vertical pinball machine where you pay for a bucket of silver balls, put them in the machine and turn the nob. Sometimes you might win a whole bunch of silver balls. You exchange these for a prize (which can be a bit bizarre, such as a box of razor blades!) which can then be swapped for cash in the booth outside the pachinko parlour.

This is gambling, which isn’t strictly legal in Japan, which is why you win a ‘prize’ rather than directly winning cash. The most we have ever spent is 1000 Yen (a few pounds) and, of course, we lost. We didn’t have a clue what we were doing but it was lots of fun anyway. Although our ears were ringing after leaving the room.

Onsen

Because Japan is located in the Pacific Ring of Fire it is geothermally very active and has a lot of hot springs. And a country that has a lot of hot springs has a lot of hot spring resorts. Onsen are delightful places to relax and unwind, soaking in natural spring water. Some ryokan have their own onsen. A rotemburo is an outdoor onsen where you can relax and enjoy the natural surroundings. It’s worth knowing that some onsen are sex-segregated. We like bathing together, so tend to seek out private baths where we can relax together. Some of the ryokan we have stayed have a rotemburo which can be booked for a set time each evening.

Planning a trip to Japan

The bath etiquette is that you undress in the changing area then have a shower/wash before you get into the bath. Make sure you have thoroughly rinsed off all soapy water. This means that you are clean before bathing and can just enjoy a lovely relaxing time in the warm water.

Castles

There are thousands of castles all over Japan. These impressive fortresses, constructed from stone and wood, were often strategically located along trade routes and were designed to provide strong defences. Many become the residences of feudal lords, known as daimyo,

Many Japanese castles are reconstructions, having been destroyed by fire and rebuilt over the centuries.

Some of the best castles are to be found at Matsumoto – the black crow castle…

Planning a trip to Japan

…and Himeji.

Planning a trip to Japan

Gardens

Japanese gardens feature traditional designs that have their roots, if you will, in the country’s indigenous Shinto religion which recognises gods and spirits that are found in all things. Gardens often reflect the nature of the landscape and Japan’s distinctive seasons and use natural materials such as rocks, stones and water. Some gardens are very specialist, such as the zen gardens which comprise a minimalist landscape of rocks and stones.

Planning a trip to Japan

Planning a Trip To Japan – Top Places to Visit

Here are a few suggestions for places to visit which will hopefully give you a flavour of what Japan has to offer as well whet your appetite for some local regional dishes.

Honshu – the main island

Tokyo

Japan’s capital city is a sprawling metropolis. There are so many places to explore and things to do you could spend your entire holiday here. Popular districts are Shinjuku, Shibuya (the place where young people hang out), Asakusa (a laid-back area with old-world feel which is home to the Senso-ji temple), Akihabara (the cool hi-tech area which has a lot of manga and anime stores as well as the Tokyo Anime Center) and Roppongi (the area where a lot of overseas residents and visitors reside or hang out).

We tend to stay in Shinjuku as it’s very central. There are all sorts of things to do, including foodie tours.

The Meiji shrine, dedicated to the deity of the Emperor Meiji is set in a lovely extensive park. It has a dramatic torii gate at its entrance.

Japanese new year food and traditions

Shibuya is the location of the famous road crossing – known as ‘The Scramble’ – and seen in many films and TV series where over 2000 people can cross in a single cycle of the pedestrian lights.

Shibuya Crossing Tokyo

If you like the animations of Studio Ghibli, The Ghibli Museum in Mitaka is a must-see but you do have to book in advance.

Visiting the Studio Ghibli Museum

Odaiba is an entertainment hub on an artificial island set in Tokyo Bay. Cross the rainbow bridge to find all sorts of activities and shopping. And a monument that somehow seems familiar…

Odaiba - planning a trip to Japan

There are also plenty of day trips from Tokyo. Nikko is a historic city  and the home of the Toshogu Shinto shrine.

Planning a trip to Japan

A tour of the Fuji Five Lakes area is a possibility from Tokyo. You might get a glimpse of Japan’s iconic mountain (if the weather is clear!) and sail on a pirate ship across Lake Ashinoko.

Travelling in Japan

Osaka

A few hours from Tokyo on the bullet train Kansai’s commercial capital is a neon paradise and a fantastic place for foodies. Head out to the dotonbori area for a range of amazing restaurants and a vibrant nightlife.

Dotonburi Osaka

Typical Osaka dishes include okonomiyaki (kind of a cross between an pancake and a pizza) and takoyaki – octopus balls in batter.

Osaka restaurants Japan
Cooking takoyaki

Nara

A tour of this ancient city offers lots of historic buildings, temples and pagodas to explore all set within a park. The highlight is Tōdai-ji which houses Daibutsu, a 15m-high bronze Buddha.

Planning a trip to Japan

Planning a trip to Japan

A fascinating and beautiful place, just watch out for the local deer who roam across the park – they are usually hungry!

Nara deer trip to Japan

Kyoto

Japan’s former capital doesn’t look the part initially but has some beautiful and important historic places to visit. Just look closely and you will find a temple almost everywhere. A hop-on, hop-off bus tour is a great way to explore the city. Amongst the many treasures, there are some must-see highlights:

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

Planning a trip to Japan

The Ryoanji zen garden is a place for contemplation

Planning a trip to Japan

And the Fushimi Inari shrine, a short train ride outside the main city, with its plethora of vermillion torii (temple gates) to wander through.

Planning a trip to Japan

Hiroshima

A city with an horrific history, Hiroshima has recovered to become a modern, cosmopolitan city. The Peace Park and museum give a balanced history of the atomic bombing and, while it is a difficult place to visit, is also a peaceful and contemplative place.

Planning a trip to Japan

The Peace Park has a non-eternal flame which will be extinguished when the last nuclear weapon on earth has been decommissioned.

Planning a trip to Japan

Don’t forget to visit the island of Miyajima which is a short journey away. Tours are available from Hiroshima. You can see the iconic Torii gate in the sea, one of the top three iconic views of Japan.

Miyajima torii

Japan Alps

If you enjoy hiking in splendid countryside, the Japan Alps are ideal. Kamikochi and Norikura Kogen are delightful places to visit.

Planning a trip to Japan
Kamikochi
Norikura Kogen

And the gassho houses of rural Honshu offer a fascinating glimpse into traditional rural life. You can stay in a farmhouse in Ainokura.

rural Japan Ainokura

Staying in a gassho you are likely to try the local produce – fresh river fish and mountain vegetables.

rural Japan dinner

There are a number of tours available to visit these delightful villages.

Hokkaido – The Northern Island

Sapporo

The capital of Hokkaido is a laid back city. It has a snow festival every winter and you can view amazing snow sculptures in the extensive city park.

Sapporor park tower

You can visit the Sapporo beer museum to learn about – and taste – some of Japan’s most famous beers.

Sapporo beer hall

A day trip from Sapporo to Yoichi is a great opportunity to try Japanese whiskey at the Nikka distillery – the area has a similar soil type and climate conditions to Scotland. There are freebie samples in the tasting hall too!

Nikka whiskey

Hakodate

If you like seafood, particularly crab, head to Hakodate where you can enjoy crab for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Rice bowls are available for good prices at the market.

Hokkaido also has some wonderful countryside to explore – the Akan lake district is beautiful and the island is home to many red-crowned cranes.

Hokkaido Red crowned cranes

Kyushu – The Southern Island

Nagasaki

Another city famous for its history Nagasaki was the port city through which Japan traded with the outside world during the Tokugawa shogunate between 1639 and 1859 period, when the rest of the country was effectively isolated.

A major shipbuilding centre, it was the target for the second atomic bomb that was dropped on Japan. Like Hiroshima, the city has recovered and also has a museum about the bombing, with a significant emphasis on the call to ban nuclear weapons.

Nagasaki is famous for its champon noodle dish, inspired by Chinese cuisine. The noodles are boiled in the soup and hence acquire some its rich flavour.

Kagoshima

This is a lively city in the shadow of the very active Sakurajima volcano.

Planning a trip to Japan

Sakurajima is still very active.

Planning a trip to Japan

Kagoshima is famous for its kuro buta – black pork, from a specific breed of pig. The tonkotsu ramen, with its creamy umami broth and topped with pork slices, is sublime.

Beppu

Sometimes described as the Las Vegas of Japan (it isn’t really), Beppu is a resort town well known for its onsen hot springs.

A place to relax and unwind, as well as to visit the “Hells” – thermal hot springs each of which has a specific theme.

Planning a trip to Japan

Yakushima

A ferry ride away from Kagoshima this small island is a wonderful place to explore. It was the inspiration for the setting of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke anime.

Visit Yakushima Shiratani Unsuikyo

The cuisine on Yakushima is fresh, local seafood and vegetables and is delicious.

Yakushima sashimi

Shikoku

The fourth largest of Japan’s major islands Shikoku offers an opportunity to experience a more rural Japan. It has a pilgrimage route, dedicated to the 9th-century monk Kukai, which comprises 88 Buddhist temples over a 1200km route.

Okinawa

Okinawa is an archipelago south of the main islands and offers a very different view of Japan. It’s sometimes known as the ‘Hawaii of Japan’ and is off the beaten track. It has broad, sandy beaches and crystal clear water as well as a great natural beauty. It also has its own cuisine which offers a variety of dishes that are a contrast to mainland Japanese food.

Japan has so many other amazing places to visit, this post could have gone on for several more pages. Hopefully this has offered a taste of the many wonderful things Japan can offer. We can’t recommend a visit highly enough. We’re already planning our next trip…

Amanohashidate
The three best views of Japan
rural Japan
The gassho farmhouses of rural Japan

Osaka restaurant japan
Osaka restaurants in the Dotonbori area
Visit Yakushima Shiratani Unsuikyo
Visit Yakushima island
Japanese New Year Tradition
Japanese new year traditions
setsubun food
Setsubun – bean throwing day
More posts from Japan

 

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Tourist Attractions In Ethiopia

Ethiopia is a country we had long wanted to visit. When we visited Armenia in the late 1990s a number of people we met were travelling there because they seemed – to us youngsters – to have visited everywhere else. On a trip to the beautiful Armenian rock-hewn Geghard Monastery a couple told us about the underground churches of Lalibela and in that moment Ethiopia was added to the To-Visit list. It would be many years before we could make the journey but we found a local company who were able to offer us a tour.

Lalibela Ethopia Churches

Although it was Lalibela that piqued our interest, we discovered that this wonderful country has so much more to offer than its star attraction. With a rich history, stunning landscapes and amazing wildlife, here is our guide to the tourist attractions in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia Simien Mountains

A Northern Ethiopia Itinerary

Ethiopia is huge. Our itinerary covered some of the best historical sites and spectacular landscapes in the northern part of the country. Although the route involved a lot of driving, we also needed to fly between key locations. This itinerary took 13 days to complete. This post is intended to provide an overview of the tourist attractions. We have some other posts on the blog that provide more detail about some of the places we visited.

Addis Ababa

We started off in Addis, Ethiopia’s sprawling capital city. Emperor Menelik’s third wife Empress Taytu Betul settled in the region in 1886. Eventually the emperor established himself there in 1887 and the city started developing. Addis became the capital in 1889 after It has continued to expand to this day. Its name means ‘new flower’. It is a lively, bustling city and a centre of commerce. The Merkato district is home to the largest open market in Africa. There are plenty of interesting places to visit .

National History Museum

This museum houses a collection of artefacts, set out in chronological order, depicting Ethiopia’s long and fascinating history.

One of the most interesting exhibits is that of ‘Lucy’ – a 3.2 million year old skeleton, who was discovered in the mid-1970s and became enormously famous as the oldest human. Lucy is no longer the oldest since ‘Ardi’ was discovered – she predated Lucy by about 1.2 million years, but she was a local lass as well, suggesting that Ethiopia could well have been the place where humans evolved to stand upright.

Ethnographic Museum

This museum, located at Addis university, exhibits all sorts of cultural artefacts, including tools, clothing and cooking implements.

A coffee ceremony set – something that is hugely important in Ethiopian culture.

Ethiopia Tourist Attractions

The entrance is interesting – it has a staircase to nowhere constructed by the Italians who occupied Ethiopia from 1935/6 until 1941. Each step represents a year of Mussolini’s power. But at the top of the staircase is the Lion of Judah, which represents the Ethiopian monarchy. It was placed there as an insult to the occupation.

Ethiopia tourist attractions

Day trip to Bishoftu

A visit to the resort town of Bishoftu (formerly known as Debrezeit) which is located around 50km southeast of Addis, is a popular day trip. There are five crater lakes to visit. These formed following a number of volcanic eruptions which created the craters that then filled with water over the years.

Ethiopia tourist attractions

It’s a very pleasant area to go walking and there are plenty of places to enjoy a nice meal with some drinks while observing the plethora of birds that can be found in the area. These cormorants were enjoying drying their wings in the sunshine.

Ethiopia tourist attractions

Fly to Bahirdar

Lake Tana

We flew from Addis to the town of Bahirdar. Its main attraction is Lake Tana which is the source of the Blue Nile. It’s a lovely place to visit where you can see a variety of wildlife and, of course, the amazing Blue Nile waterfall.

Lake Tana

A boat trip across the lake took us to the the Zege peninsualar where we visited the Ura Kidanne Mehret convent. This is a living church where services still take place.

Ethiopia Tourist Attractions Ura Kidanne Mehret

The structure is circular and the inside is decorated with beautiful centuries-old murals, many painted by Alaga Engida. We would see these distinctive designs through out this region.

Ura Kidanne Mehret murals
Ethiopia tourist attractions Ura Kidanne Mehret

Ethiopia tourist attractions

We saw lots of wildlife on the boat trip on the way back.

Ethiopia tourist attractions hippo
Hippo

Ethiopia tourist attractions
Juvenile fish eagle

Lake Tana is the source of the Blue Nile and is located around 30 km from the lake itself is the Blue Nile waterfall. The 42m high falls are known as Tis Abay, meaning ‘great smoke’ in Amharic, which is a far more romantic name than Blue Nile Waterfall. The moniker is highly appropriate- they are spectacular. But it’s worth noting that they are spectacular in the rainy season. There is a hydro-electric power station which regulates much of the water flow these days, so it’s worth checking whether you are likely to see a cascade or a dribble.

Ethiopia tourist attractions Blue Nile Falls

Drive to Gondar

The City of Gondar

Gondar sounds like a city from Lord of the Rings and also looks like a city from Lord of the Rings. It has a grand history. It was the central location of the Ethiopian government and home of the Ethiopian emperors for several centuries and is a UNESCO heritage site.

Established by Emperor Fasilides in the 17th century, the city of Gondar boasts a number of castles and palaces that were residences to successive Ethiopian leaders. The buildings are particularly interesting because they resemble European mediaeval castles.

Tourist Attractions In Ethiopia Blue Nile falls

The history of the emperors is fascinating. There are all sorts of tales of skullduggery – poisonings, murders and mysterious deaths. It is possible to explore the ruins of the castles, palaces and royal baths.

Fasilides was emperor of Ethiopia from 1632 until 1667 and decided to establish Gondar as the capital of Ethiopia. He built the Royal Enclosure which was further developed by his successors. A little way out of town he also constructed a remarkable bath complex, compete with bathing pool, tower and bridge. It is considered a sacred site to this day.

Ethiopia Gondar Fasilides Baths

Simien Mountains

On leaving Gondar we got into a van and had a bumpy ride to the spectacular Simien mountains national park. This is another UNESCO world heritage site. There are plenty of opportunities to go hiking amidst spectacular scenery and have a drink at the highest bar in Africa.

In the Simien mountains you can walk among wild gelada monkeys in fields scented of wild thyme, a magical experience.

Ethiopia gelada monkeys

You can read more about the fascinating history of Gondar and see the beauty of the Simien mountains.

Fly to Lalibela

We caught a flight from Gondar to Lalibela where we spent a couple of days exploring the astonishing rock-hewn churches. They were as spectacular as we had been promised many years before.

Another UNESCO world heritage site the churches date from the 7th to the 13th centuries. They are remarkable because rather than being constructed from the ground up, they have been hewn from within the rock, using basic tools such as chisels and hammers, and were built from the top down. This meant that they couldn’t be seen from a distance.

Fly to Tigray

More history beckoned when we flew to the far north of the country to the region of Tigray. Tigray has had a difficult history in recent times. It was the location of the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s, which prompted the Band Aid and Live Aid appeals. And recently it has been engaged in a civil war between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the Ethiopian government. A peace treaty was signed in November 2022 and we very much hope that tourism will be able to be revived in the area once more.

Axum

First stop was Axum, which has a history dating back to 400 BCE. It was the capital of the Aksumite empire which ruled the region until the 10th century. It is famous for its towering stelae, obelisks that are around 1700 years old. They were designed as impressive grave markers for royal burial chambers. They are huge – the tallest is 33m. Some of them have fallen and others were taken, notably King Ezana’s obelisk which was transported to Rome after Italy’s occupation of Ethiopia ended. 

Tourist Attractions In Ethiopia  Axum Stelae

Ethiopia tourist attractions Axum

The Aksumite Empire ended in the 10th century and the emperors of Ethiopia moved southwards, eventually settling in Gondar some centuries later, when Fasilides established his government there.

Churches of Our Lady Mary of Zion

Axum is also home to two important churches. The church of Our Lady Mary of Zion was built by Fasilides in 1665. It is rumoured to have housed the Ark of the Covenant.

Tourist Attractions In Ethiopia

Emperor Haile Selassie built a new cathedral of St Mary of Zion next to the old church. It is possible to enter this church and to watch the services.

 Tourist Attractions In Ethiopia  new cathedral of St Mary of Zion Axum

Tombs of the Kings

A few kilometres out of the town of Axum are the Tombs of the Kings which date from the 3rd century.

Tourist Attractions In Ethiopia

King Kaleb’s tomb is located here. Kaleb was king of Axum between 514–542 CE.

Nearby is the Ezana Stone, a stelae, which shows an inscription in three different languages: Ethiopian Ge’ez, South Arabian Sabaean, and Greek. It’s similar to the Rosetta Stone.

Ethiopia Ezana Stone

Beware though, the stone is cursed and anyone who touches it is likely to meet an untimely end. (No, we didn’t dare!)

Gheralta

The final stage of our journey through the Tigray region involved a drive across the countryside to Gheralta where we could view the rock churches of Tigray.

Tourist Attractions In Ethiopia

There are over 100 churches in the regions, largely dating from the 6th to the 14th centuries and they are mainly carved into cliff sides or rocky outcrops.

Tourist Attractions In Ethiopia

Tourist Attractions In Ethiopia  Gheralta rock church

Tourist Attractions In Ethiopia

And that concluded our Ethiopian itinerary. We drove to Mekele, the major city in the region, and caught a flight back to Addis before our return home.

Ethiopian Food

Something that intrigued us before we arrived was Ethiopian food: we had absolutely no idea about what to expect. A quick internet search revealed ‘injera’: Ethiopian traditional bread.

We still had no idea what to expect.

Injera is a flatbread that looks like a cross between a dirty dishcloth and a sponge.

Ethiopian Traditional Bread Injera
Ethiopian Traditional Bread Injera

It really doesn’t look enticing at all. This was about as attractive as it got.

Actually, it tastes really good. It has soft texture and a slightly sour flavour. Injera is made from teff, apparently the world’s latest superfood – a grain that is highly nutritious. Injera is made using a fermenting process rather like sourdough or dosas. A combination of teff flour and water are combined to make a batter which takes a few days to ferment. When the mixture is bubbly and smells sour it is ready. It can be fried on a skillet (on one side only) until the characteristic bubbles appear in the surface.

It is often served laid out flat with stew (wat) or with meat and vegetables placed on top – you can pull off chunks of the injera to scoop up the stew. So it serves as plate, cutlery and delicious food.

Ethiopian food

The local people we met were quite surprised that we were willing to eat injera and that we enjoyed spicy food.

Ethiopian doro wat stew

In the UK the county of Yorkshire is renowned for providing large portions of food. Ethiopian portions are so enormous that we quickly discovered that one meal between the two of us was more than enough to fill us up. We generally only needed to eat brekkie, then we shared all other meals.

Ethiopian Coffee

Ethiopia can claim to be the country where the coffea arabica originates. Coffee has been grown in Ethiopia for centuries and it forms an important part of the culture.

Tourist Attractions In Ethiopia

Coffee ceremony is highly social activity and the ceremony is usually performed by the female members of a household. The process starts with green coffee beans which are roasted in a pan over a flame and then ground using a mortar and pestle. Then the ground coffee is placed into a pot which has a spherical base and long neck and water added. It then boils on the flame so that the coffee can infuse and is then filtered using a sieve. The finished drink is poured from height into small cups. The grounds may be brewed a couple more times.

Tourist Attractions In Ethiopia

It is also possible to drink home-made beer in Ethiopia. Bars aren’t common in rural areas so you need to know someone local because the beer is only available in private homes. These are called tella places. We were lucky to have a guide who invited us to a tella place to enjoy the beer. It’s a beer brewed with teff or sometimes sorghum and the variety we tried was quite light – around 3%. Drinking beer in a home was a nice way to enjoy a tipple with local people.

Some Interesting Facts About Ethiopia For Travellers

Because Ethiopia isn’t located too far from the equator daylight and nighttime are pretty much equal all through the year. The Ethiopian time system is very different to ours and uses a 12 hour clock. Sunrise, at 6am, is 12:00 dawn time. Night starts at 12:00 dusk, which is the equivalent to 6pm international time. While many tour guides will work on international time, it can get a little confusing if you are looking at a local clock, especially if you have a flight to catch.

Additionally, Ethiopia has thirteen months in its year. This means that, at the time of writing in 2023, it is still 2015.

Another interesting element to Ethiopian culture is that many people follow the Ethiopian Orthodox church and hence don’t eat meat on Wednesdays and Fridays. This is great for vegetarian/vegan visitors as there is a good selection of veggie food available. Ravenous meat-eaters don’t need to worry though, hotels and restaurants will still offer meat on those days.

Ethiopia has so much to offer – a fascinating history and culture, remarkable architecture and really beautiful landscapes and wildlife. We received a warm welcome wherever we visited and would love to return to explore the south of the country.

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Happy New Year of the Rabbit

Year of the Rabbit begins 22nd January 2023 and celebrations will ensue. 

Like many festivals all over the world, such as Diwali, Eid and Easter, Chinese New Year is derived from the lunar calendar and is celebrated with food, family reunions and festivities. 

The animals associated with the years are based upon the Chinese horoscope. All twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac have different symbols and it is thought that people’s character traits can be reflected in those born in a particular year.

So the personality traits for someone born in the Year of the Rabbit could be deemed to be quiet, elegant, kind and responsible. The characteristics of Very Tasty World’s founders could be reflected in their zodiac animals because VTW has a compassionate, generous and very diligent Pig associating with a sharp, smart, recondite cheeky Monkey.

Year of the Rabbit

Our visit to China during the latter part of the New Year celebrations, known as Spring Festival, some years ago can be found in the post Gong Xi Fa Cai or Gung Hay Fat Choy! Happy New Year! It was a joyful time.

Food For the Festivities

Like many annual celebrations and gatherings this is the time for family and food with wide celebrations. Reunions and recipes join together in sociability and culinary joy.

Some of the more popular traditional dishes associated with lunar new year in China include a whole fish cooked with ginger, garlic and spring onion. Jiaozi – dumplings- represent coins which symbolise prosperity throughout the year. Long noodles suggest longevity and happiness and spring rolls signify wealth.

We have a recipe for baked whole fish cooked with ginger, garlic and spring onions using sea bass. The fish is always served whole as the head and tail represent the start and end of the year.

Year of the Rabbit

And it’s not all savoury. Sweet glutinous rice cakes suggest the possibility of moving up in the world and sweet rice balls which represent family harmony. Happy New Year!

More Tasty Recipes on VTW
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The Gassho Farmhouses of Rural Japan

It’s not often that we use the word ‘unique’ because very often things described as such usually aren’t. Unique, that is. But there are some villages in rural Japan that are the only examples of their kind and they offer a fantastic glimpse into traditional life in the Japanese countryside.

rural Japan Ainokura

The historic mountain villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama have been designated as UNESCO heritage sites and were historically quite isolated from the rest of the world. The villages Ogimachi in Shirakawa-go, and Ainokura and Suganuma in the Gokayama region are located in central Honshu, on the Shogawa river valley, across the borders of the Gifu and Toyama Prefectures.

Ogimachi is probably the most famous of the villages and is known for its light-up events, where the whole village turns their lights on in winter-time and visitors come from far and wide to marvel at the beauty of a snowy wonderland.   These are scheduled events and hugely popular. Reservation is essential, not only for staying in the village but also for attending the viewing and some transportation options.

Initially when planning our winter trip we thought that Ogimachi would be the obvious place to visit but unfortunately everybody else thinks that too. It was impossible to find accommodation in this lovely village, even when trying to book several months in advance. But we had a Plan B which worked very well indeed. Ainokura is smaller and quieter but similarly delightful.

Getting to Ainokura in Rural Japan

We had been staying in a business hotel in the lovely city of Kanazawa on the western coast of Japan and, as we planned to return there, left our main luggage at the hotel and just took an overnight bag with us. We then caught the shinkansen (bullet train) from Kanazawa to Shin-Takoaka. It is possible to catch a bus to Ainokura from Shin-Takoaka – the journey takes just over an hour or so – but we caught possibly the cutest train ever to Johana and caught our bus from there.

Japan cute train

Japan cute train

Ainokura can also be reached from Toyama. The shinkansen goes to Toyama and it’s possible to catch a bus from there. It is feasible to visit the village as a day trip from both Takoaka and Toyama but we recommend staying overnight.

Our bus to Ainokura left from Johana station and we embarked on a pleasant journey through the Japanese countryside. A short walk from the main road took us into the village.

rural Japan

A word of warning: If you are visiting during the winter the area can experience a lot of snowfall –  2-3 metres on occasion. This may mean that occasionally buses can’t get through and are delayed until the roads can be cleared. It’s worth bearing this in mind when planning your onward journey.

Staying in a Gassho Farmhouse

The farmhouses are called ‘gassho’ which means ‘joining hands in prayer’ due to their very steeply pitched thatched roofs. Because the area experiences such heavy snow in winter, the roof design ensures that snow falls off the building quickly and this helps prevent the structure being crushed by its weight.

The houses have three or four levels – the top levels are not living areas but used for various industrial or farming purposes, such as making washi paper or rearing silkworms.

The front and back have a large gable with windows to let the light in.

We booked a room at Yomoshiro ryokan, a delightful family run house.

rural Japan gassho

On arrival we took off our shoes and were offered an array of indoor slippers to wear. This is very common in all Japanese households, it’s considered very rude to wear outdoor shoes inside a house.

Our hosts were lovely and very welcoming. We were offered a cup of warm tea and a biscuit in the living area.

The living area has a sunken fire with a kettle suspended above the embers. The room was warm and toasty.

Gassho living area

Our room was in traditional style with tatami (reed) mat and futon bedding on the flooring. Usually the bed is laid out while you are enjoying dinner.

rural Japan gassho bedroom

The bathroom and toilet were shared with other guests and one thing that you need to remember in Japan is to change your indoor slippers for bathroom slippers when you use the bathroom or toilet.  And change them back – it is really easy to forget to change the slippers back and walking on the tatami in your bathroom slippers is like walking inside in your outdoor shoes.

Exploring the Village

We visited the day that our hosts reopened their accommodation after the new year holiday so unfortunately some of the attractions in the area weren’t yet open. There is a museum of traditional industries which demonstrates the paper making and silk activities of the region.

The village also has a folk museum that showcases traditional utensils, tools and musical instruments from the region.

There are a number of walks in the area. One of these is essential – a viewing area close to the village entrance where you can climb up the hillside to take that perfect shot of the village, nestled amidst the mountains.

rural Japan Ainokura

Back to the Gassho for Dinner

The costs of our stay included dinner and breakfast and this was a highlight of the visit as the food on offer was locally sourced, some even grown by our hosts. We dined with the other guests in the living area.

Our home-cooked dinner was utterly delicious. Char, a fish a bit like a trout, was salted and roasted on a spit in the fire.

Char fish cooking in fire

We were also served koi sashimi, vegetable tempura and a home-grown spaghetti squash, mountain greens, and simmered bamboo shoots, mushrooms and sweet potato.

rural Japan dinner

Rice accompanied the meal and we also enjoyed some local sake.

After dinner we were entertained with a documentary about the villages and then our hosts played some music using traditional instruments.

A lot of these are percussion, notably the sasara which comprises many wooden clappers which are strung together.

A Cosy Night’s Sleep

At bedtime we were provided with hot stones to put into our futons.

These stones had been heated in the fire and were placed inside ceramic boxes then wrapped in a thick cloth.

These were better than any hot water bottle we’d ever used, they retained the heat so well – they actually felt as though they were getting warmer through the night.

Breakfast the following morning was a traditional Japanese meal and also delicious. There were lots of fresh vegetable dishes, rice and miso soup.

Japanese breakfast

We were given the choice of a raw or boiled egg. We always choose raw egg. You mix it into the rice, which partially cooks the egg, add a bit of soy sauce to your taste and then scoop up the flavourful mixture with a piece of nori seaweed. You usually get a sour and salty umeboshi plum – a real wake-up call!

Staying in a gassho is a delightful way to spend time in rural Japan and is highly recommended. But… make sure you plan your trip and book early!

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The Food of The Azores

The Azores are a tiny archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and an autonomous region of Portugal. Their location means that they are an absolute magnet for marine life viewing because they have resident whales and dolphins, as well as many migratory species, such as the blue whale, which pass close by to the islands each year. We spent a week on Sao Miguel, the largest island, enjoying whale/dolphin watching excursions as well as some activities on the island, such as mountain biking and kayaking. But we didn’t realise what a great foodie destination the islands are. In between the activities we enjoyed some fantastic food of the Azores.

We stayed in the main town of Ponta Delgada. It’s a pretty place and has all amenities within walking distance.

Cheese – Food of the Gods!

One of the things we noticed when travelling through the beautiful green countryside was the number of cows and also fields of ripening corn. The corn is actually more likely to be grown to feed cows than people.

With mild winters and lots of rain the vegetation is lush and that’s perfect for the cows who produce rich milk that is turned into cheese. We were surprised to learn that around 50% of Portugal’s cheese is produced in the Azores.

Another striking feature of the landscape is the plethora of hydrangeas that line the roads. The cows tend to ignore them so they become natural fences that look glorious in the height of summer. We visited just after they were at their best but they still looked very pretty.

There are various cheese shops in Ponta Delgada – King of Cheese and Prince of Cheese – they aren’t modest about the quality of the product!

Foodie Azores cheese
Foodie Azores cheese

It’s fun visiting the shops – you can let them know about your cheesy preferences and they will recommend particular flavours and offer you a sample. We were keen to bring some cheese home and they were able to vacuum pack some very large slices for us so that we could store them in our hotel fridge and get them on the flight home. They survived very well and made sure that we weren’t going to run out of cheese for several weeks.

Foodie azores

Sao Michel has a black rind and is the premier cheese of the island we were staying on. It’s a hard, very mature cheese with a lovely sharp flavour.

Sao Jorge cheese is produced on the Azorean island of the same name. It is a semi-hard cheese made from unpasteurised milk. It is milder than the other cheeses, with a nutty flavour

Vaquinha is from the island of Terceira. This one has a surprising initial creaminess for a hard cheese but this eventually flakes slightly. It is very mature, is almost spicy and has a real kick to the flavour!

Cheese is often provided as an appetiser at restaurants but this isn’t matured cheese, it is queijo fresco. It doesn’t have the fullest of flavour, in fact it’s pretty bland, so it is served with pimenta da terra (red pepper paste) which gives it a real pzazz, and it’s eaten with fresh bread. We were able to bring back a bottle of pimento de terra home with us.

What Goes Well with Cheese? Pineapple of Course!

There is a pineapple plantation, located just outside Ponta Delgada, easily within walking distance of the city centre. You can visit the greenhouses and see the pineapples growing.

Foodie Azores pineapple

There are also some displays and videos which show the process for growing these fruit. It’s interesting that they use a smoking process to trigger the flowering of the plant.

And there’s a café on site which offers a complimentary shot of pineapple liqueur and a teeny piece of toast with pineapple jam.

Foodie Azores

And, as we hadn’t had elevenses or lunch, we thought it would be rude not to enjoy a pineapple gelato, washed down with a caipirinha, a delicious cocktail made with crushed pineapple, lime and rum.

Foodie Azores
Foodie azores caipirinha

Everything Stops For Tea

The Azores also have a tea plantation, located on the north coast of Sao Miguel. The Gorreana Tea Factory was established in 1883 and is one of only two tea plantations in Europe. It’s possible to visit the factory and do a self guided tour.

Foodie Azores tea plantation
Foodie Azores tea plantation

There are infographics showing how the tea is processed and you can enjoy a cup of their tea as well as visit the inevitable shop and café. They produce both green and black tea. Both taste good.

Tea processing process

It’s lovely to be able to see the original machinery in action.

Tea roller
Azores Foodies tea
Green tea steamer
Tea left separator
Tea leaf separator

Volcanic Cozido das Furnas

The Azores are volcanic islands and some areas are still very geologically active. We enjoyed a day trip to Furnas towards the eastern end of the island.

Furnas lake view

The local town has fumeroles which regularly steam, squirt and belch hot water. The area has a distinct whiff of rotten eggs due to the sulphur. Some of the water has a yellow colour (see the photo below on the right). This is not geological but local people put in bags of corn on the cob to cook.

Furnas fumerole

Taro plants, known as elephant ears, grow in the warm water.  These have bulbous corms (like a tuber) which are edible and similar to sweet potatoes.

Foodie Azores

There are also some drinking fountains where you can taste the local water – it tastes very minerally and is an acquired taste for some. It’s also odd drinking warm water. These fountains are located just metres apart but the flavour of the water is surprisingly different!

Most trips take you to a viewing point to see Furnas lake, and then you descend to the lake itself. You’re not allowed to swim in the lake but it’s possible to go boating on it. And walking around the area reveals some more of the steaming landscape.

There are a number of fenced off areas containing mounds of soil with name tags. On closer inspection these tags bear the names of various restaurants. Lunch!

Foodie azores

Every morning the restaurants prepare meat and vegetables and place them in a large pot. At 5am these pots are buried in the volcanic soil. Around six hours later a parade of vans arrive (and that’s the cue to grab a place by the fence if you want to take photos) and each restaurant owner will dig out their pots (or invite a hapless tourist to help) from the perfect slow cooker which has been cooking the food using free energy from the ground. It’s a brilliant system. And the site isn’t restricted to restaurants. Local people can hire a hole and bring their own food for a picnic/meal later in the day.

Back in town, the food is then served in the respective restaurants. A platter of meats and a platter of vegetables. (Vegetarians/vegans – the meat and veg will have been cooked together so if you want a veggie cozido, ask in advance and an unadulterated pot of pure veg can be supplied.)

The meats comprised pork, sausage, chicken, beef and blood sausage (Morcela) – all so soft and tender it could be cut with a spoon. It melted in the mouth.

The vegetables were potatoes, carrots, cabbage (which was served in large chunks so that it didn’t disintegrate during the cooking process) and the elephant ear yams.

Foodie Azores Cozida de Furnas
Foodie Azores Cozida de Furnas

Cozido doesn’t have any additional flavours added – the food is served just as it comes out of the pot. But while it doesn’t offer complexity, the juices of the meat provide lots of flavour and you really get to enjoy the taste of the meat and vegetables. And it really is a feast!

Foodie Azores honey cake
Foodie Azores pineapple

All washed down with local wine and a nice honey cake (if still hungry) or a slice of delicious local pineapple (if that’s all you can manage) for dessert, it filled us up for the rest of the day.

A Little Bit of Foraging

While the hydrangeas add glorious hues to the countryside and are very much welcomed, Sao Miguel has a more invasive plant – the yellow wild ginger – which is far less popular. It spreads quickly and does take over the landscape very quickly.

The local university is looking into uses for the plant and it’s looking hopeful that the fibrous leaves may be a useful material to replace use of some plastics in future. It is a good pollinator and inside the long yellow flowers is a drop of nectar. You can pick the flower, bite off the end – by a couple of centimetres – and spit that out. Then suck on the flower and you can taste the sweetness.

Dining on San Miguel – Ponta Delgada

First of all, if you want to dine at a particular restaurant, book! We visited at the end of the busy season and struggled to get a table at the best restaurants for an evening meal. At one of the restaurants we pretty much bagged the last table. We arrived five minutes before opening and people were already queuing for a walk-in but were politely turned away. Another option is to visit the restaurants at lunchtime when it should be easier to get a table.

Our favourites were Gastronomo and Michel. Both are deservedly popular and offered foods of the Azores that were local specialities. We received a very warm welcome in each place.

Gastronomo, R. da Boa Nova

Their queijo fresco and pimenta da terra were freshly made (some restaurants provide you with the cheese on a plate and a bottle of sauce) and served on a ginger plant leaf (one of the uses for the invasive plant) accompanied by home-made bread, including a sweet bread (a bit like a brioche) which was a wonderful contrast to the cheese and chilli.

food of the azores
food of the azores

We shared a starter of black pudding and local pineapple which was an absolutely delicious combination of sweet and savoury flavours. The black pudding – a blood sausage – was one of the best we have eaten.

The Azoreans have a particular way of cooking steak. Bife steak with garlic and pimento and a fried egg.

Food of the Azores

Bacalhau is not specifically Azorean but is a hugely well known Portuguese dish. It comprises salt cod, cooked with eggs and olives and served on fries.

Food of the Azores bacalhau

Michel, Rua Engº José Cordeiro Antiga da Calheta

We tried Azorean limpets and local shrimp to start with. Limpets are shellfish that are incredibly common all over Europe and, although we knew they were edible, had never seen them on a menu before. They have a tougher texture than a lot of shellfish but they were tasty.

Food of the Azores limpets

Pork and mashed yam (the elephant ears) and vegetables was utterly delicious.

As was the oven roast lamb.

food of the azores

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A Tasty Puebla Food Tour

Puebla is just a couple of hours away from Mexico City and is a complete contrast to that glorious, sprawling metropolis. It is a delightful city to visit and the historic centre is a UNESCO world heritage site. It is also a city of great deliciousness – the Puebla food scene is astonishingly diverse and exciting. After all, this is the city that claims to have invented mole poblano!

Puebla food tour

Getting to Puebla

We were travelling through Mexico on buses, which was a lovely way to see the countryside. The buses are largely comfortable and on time but journey times can be long. The bus stations are usually located on the edge of town, so we tended to use taxis to get to and from our hotels. Most of the taxi drivers were excellent and, even though the journeys were unmetered, the costs were pretty cheap – usually lower than $10. There was only one place where we got shafted by a taxi driver and that was in Merida (which is a lot more touristy) who overcharged us for a very short journey so it’s advisable to agree on a price in advance – and to be able to count in Spanish! When we arrived in Puebla we discovered a taxi rank where we could pre-pay our fare which made everything much easier.

The journey from Mexico City to Puebla took two hours. If travelling from Oaxaca, the travelling time is around five hours.

We were staying at the Colonial Hotel in Puebla, just a block away from the Zocalo main square. It’s a former Jesuit monastery, dating from the 17th century. We had an enormous room with the highest ceiling we had ever seen. Also, they provided a ginormous water dispenser in the room (you can’t drink the tap water in Mexico) and this was very useful.

 

Places to Visit in Puebla

On arrival we went straight to the zocalo, which is a lovely space filled with trees, sculptures and benches. We always find it useful to head for the tourist information office when we arrive at a new city, and Puebla’s is located on the northeast corner of this square, on the side opposite the cathedral. It was great chatting with the friendly staff who offered us a map of the area and list of attractions to visit, as well as some foodie recommendations.

Puebla was founded by the Spanish who had set up a trade route between Veracruz on the coast and Mexico City. The area was originally forested and hadn’t been populated by indigenous peoples, it was located between the settlements of Tlaxcala and Cholula. The soil is volcanic and as a result, the land is fertile and ideal for growing crops. The Spanish brought crops such as wheat with them and the food is therefore a fusion of local ingredients with European.

Puebla is a city filled with churches. It feels as though there is one on every street. It’s perfectly okay to wander inside although it’s advisable not to look around if a service is ongoing. There are two churches that are absolute must-sees.

Puebla Cathedral

Located on the south side of the zocalo, the Basilica Cathedral of Puebla, also known as the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, was one of the first cathedrals to be built in Mexico. It was consecrated in 1649. It is a huge cathedral.

Puebla cathedral

Like many large churches in Mexico, it has multiple domes and altars. The high altar is particularly ornate.

Puebla cathedral
Puebla cathedral

Church of Santo Domingo

The Church of Santo Domingo is remarkable for its chapel dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary. It is a classic example of new Spanish baroque architecture and in its time was considered to be the 8th wonder of the world. It was conceived in 1650 and completed in 1690.

Santo Domingo chapel
Puebla Santo Domingo chapel

The chapel is decorated with gilded plasterwork, the highly decorative and intricate designs are coated in 24-carat gold leaf.

Biblioteca Palafoxiana

The Biblioteca Palafoxiana is the first and oldest library in the Americas and is another UNESCO site. Chock full of some 45,000 books dating from the 15th century onwards and categorised according to the subject, you can wander through the library and view the shelves as well as some books on display in glass cabinets. It has a wonderful smell – just breathe in deeply to inhale the scent of centuries-old literature!

Biblioteca Palafoxiana Puebla
Biblioteca Palafoxiana
Biblioteca Palafoxiana book

Museo Amparo

This free museum and art gallery is a joy to visit and highly recommended. Set in two colonial-era buildings across multiple levels it has several permanent and temporary exhibitions.

Amparo Museum Puebla

The ground floor is dedicated to the pre-Hispanic history of the region and sets it in the context of world history. It has a huge number of fascinating artefacts with pieces dating from as early as 2500 BCE.

Museo Amparo Puebla
Museo Amparo
Museo Amparo
Museo Amparo

The building was the home of the Espinoza from 1871 to the 1980s, and this is reflected in the upstairs exhibits which are set out as rooms showing objects from the colonial period, including drawing rooms and a kitchen.

The Amparo has a terrific modern art gallery. There are also temporary exhibitions – we were able to enjoy an exhibition on 1970s feminism when we visited. It’s possible to spend several hours here so definitely set some time aside to explore this wonderful place.

Don’t do what we did and forget to go to the cafeteria on the second floor. Even if you don’t want a coffee or tea, there’s apparently a fabulous view of the city. We only learned about this after our visit. We’ll have to return.

Museo de la Revolución- Museum of the Mexican Revolution

This house in Calle Santa Clara was the home of the Serdán family and was the location of the first conflict of the Mexican Revolution which took place in 1910. President Porfirio Díaz had been in power for decades and was becoming increasingly unpopular. Aquiles Serdán was a supporter of revolutionary leader Francisco Madero and started planning an insurgence against the president.

However, the rebellion was foiled when members of Díaz’s government learned of their plans, and Aquiles, Máximo, Carmen, and Natalia Serdán, along with others, defended themselves inside the house from hundreds of soldiers who were shooting at them. Aquiles survived the gunfight and hid inside a hole under the floorboards where the revolutionaries had stockpiled their weapons. Unfortunately, he coughed when the authorities raided the house, so was discovered and later killed.

Museo de la Revolución

The house has been converted into a museum. It displays the living arrangements of the families.

It also gives lots of information about the background of the revolution and its outcome. There is also a room dedicated to the women of the family.

Museo de la Revolución

While the bullet holes on the exterior of the house look dramatic, they are actually fake. The building was renovated a few years ago and the workmen unwittingly rendered over the plaster, covering the original holes! After this mistake had been discovered the ‘bullet’ holes were drilled back in. If you look closely it’s quite clear that they could never have been made by bullets fired from guns manufactured in 1910.

Museo de la Revolución

Museo de la Revolución

There are some genuine bullet holes in the stone doorframe at the museum’s entrance.

Other Attractions

There are lots of other places to see in Puebla. These are some of the highlights:

Señor de las Maravillas is a 17th century carving located in the Temple of Santa Monica. It is said that the image of Christ was carved from a tree that had been struck by lightning.

Municipal City Hall, located on the north side of the zocalo, houses a museum and art gallery.

International Museum of the Baroque is housed in a very cool building designed by Toyo Ito and exhibits a large collection of baroque art.

Lucha Libre – if you like Mexican wrestling (and who doesn’t?) there is a lucha libre arena which runs fun filled events, where masked wrestlers battle it out in the ring every Monday.

Barrio las Artistas is a great place to hang out and view local artists at work. There are bars and restaurants in the area and there is often live music in the evenings.

A Puebla Food Tour

We had organised a foodie tour which was perfect as an introduction to the sheer unadulterated joy that is Mexican, and specifically Puebla, cuisine. We spent an afternoon wandering through the streets stuffing our faces with the most amazing food.

Street Food

In the little alley Pasaje Zaragoza, just off the northern end of the zocalo, is a street food stall which always has customers queueing for its delights – Tacos El Pasaje. This is a family business and, while this type of outdoor street food is not strictly legal, this stall has been around for such a long time it is looked over. There is even a sign above the stall. All the products are made in the morning and stored in a covered basket. The food remains warm most of the day.

Puebla food tour

The menu is handwritten – when a particular filling sells out, a line is struck through the menu and you miss out. Until tomorrow, of course. This was where we enjoyed a taco with deep-fried chipotle chilli stuffed with cheese and accompanied with creamy avocado. It was unctuous and not too spicy as the cheese calms the heat of the chilli pepper.

Puebla food tour taco

Our next stop was another family business, La Poblanita, a street stall located on Av5 Pte, just around the corner from the Zocalo.

La Poblanita Puebla

This was where we discovered molotes – a filled tortilla made from corn masa and deep fried. The filling was huitlachoche – corn mushroom – a fungus that grows on the kernel of maize. We had never come across these before and were blown away – the umami flavour was so intense. Our molotes were served with sour cream and salsa.

huitlachoche molotes Puebla food tour

At this stall, we also enjoyed carne (although carne means meat, in this case it was beef) pelonas, wheat bread sandwiches filled with delicious beef and refried beans, and served with with two bright and colourful salsas.

carne pelonas Puebla

History of Tacos

Tacos could well be considered to be quintessential Mexican food. What we didn’t know was that they are actually a fusion food, imported from the Lebanese community who emigrated to Mexico in the late 19th century. We were quite surprised to see kebab shop-style spits slowly revolving in shop fronts cooking luscious cuts of meat. Tacos became really popular but they evolved in order to adapt to Mexican tastes. Pork, a meat rarely seen in the Middle East, replaced lamb and then the dish incorporated the local inclination to embellish the tacos with all sorts of salsas, condiments, and additional flavours. In Mexico, more is definitely more.

Puebla food tour meat grilling

Taco Arabe are chargrilled pork tacos on a wheat bread tortilla. It’s a flatbread, a bit like a pitta but without the pocket – instead it is folded. We ate this with a sweet chipotle sauce and a squeeze of lime.

Taco Arabe Puebla

Al Pastor tacos have spiced pork inside a corn tortilla. We ate these with teeny chunks of pineapple, lime juice, coriander, finely diced raw onion, and a creamy avocado sauce.

Al Pastor tacos Puebla food

Most of the taco restaurants that we visited offered a number of salsas and multiple wedges of lime for the table. The etiquette for tacos is that they will arrive at your table either folded or open. If they are folded, open them up, add whatever salsa and additional flavours you want, roll or fold them up again, and scoff.

Our next stop offered some sweet surprises. The nuns at the convent on Santa Clara make cakes and sweets and these are sold in the lovely shop across the road.

Santa Clara sweet shop Puebla

Camotes de Santa Clara are a sweet potato cylindrical-shaped paste flavoured with fruit and honey. There are several fruit flavours available – we chose strawberry.

Camotes de Santa Clara

Tortitas de Santa Clara (torte from cake in Spanish) is a delicious fusion of Spanish biscuit base with a filling made from indigenous ground pumpkin seed and honey. A sprinkling of some of the local volcanic salt adds another dimension. This is a nice crumbly biscuit that has a lovely sweetness and smooth peanut butteriness of the pumpkin seeds.

Tortitas de Santa Clara Puebla food

A Magical Market

A short walk out of town, across the road (which used to be the river), took us to Mercado Municipal La Acocota. It was lovely exploring this market, which had so many stalls selling fabulous-looking wares.

Mercado Municipal La Acocota Puebla
Mercado Municipal La Acocota Puebla food

We also discovered the corn mushroom for sale.

huitlachoche Puebla food

We’ve never seen so many different varieties of chilli pepper!

But we weren’t there to shop. We also had plans to eat. You can’t say you’ve been to Puebla unless you have tried a cemita – a massive sandwich of very great deliciousness.

Samita is another family-run business with three generations all working together at the market. They have a fantastic reputation. You sit on stools around the stall and can chat with other customers. Everyone was delightful. The bread is very important in the cemita – it is a wheat-based roll – substantial and fluffy. We enjoyed a Milanese escalope with stringy cheese, jalapeno and avocado. 

Puebla food tour market cemita

The mega cemita has four fillings including escalope, boiled pork skin, ham, or sliced cheese.

Puebla’s most famous dish is mole (pronounced molay) poblano. It’s another essential dish to try when visiting the area. Over twenty ingredients are used in the most simple mole, including multiple types of chilli, a variety of nuts, and chocolate. The mole at this market is considered to be much more authentic than moles that you will eat at hotels, which are generally more sweet and less spicy. This is where the market stall holders come to eat their lunch – there is always a variety of moles on offer.

mole poblano stall at Puebla food market

The market’s mole was far more complex and sophisticated. It has a slow burn from the chilli and a mild, but important, bitter element. You get hit by heat in first mouthful but then your mouth gets used to it and can start to savour the other flavours which also include sweetness. This was a rolled tortilla, with no filling, topped with mole sauce, sesame, raw onion and strips of boiled chicken. Simple. Classic.

mole poblano puebla food tour

And finally, almost full to bursting point, we stopped off at a local cantina, actually inside an antique shop, where we indulged in a shot of pasita, a liqueur digestif made from raisins.

puebla pasita

It’s sweet and boozy and rounded off an amazing tour.

Fine Dining

The street food tour of Puebla was a fantastic introduction to this city’s delectable, diverse and delicious cuisine. We also have a restaurant recommendation for local food in a fine dining context (which we visited on a different day to the foodie tour). El Mural de los Poblanos is on Calle 16 de Septiembre and offers typical Puebla food. Again, this mole was more authentic than some of the more touristy establishments.

It’s very popular so it’s definitely worth making a booking. Also, we made the mistake of ordering cemitas as our starters (before we knew what they were) which turned out to be so enormous that we knew we wouldn’t be able to eat our mains if we ate them all, so the staff were very kind and boxed up the extra food for later snacking.

There is also a craft beer emporium, the Bilderberg taproom on Av 5 Ote, which we felt was important to investigate. They offered pints of local draft beer as well as tasting flights. They had a stout which was extremely good indeed, although it was only after we’d quaffed a couple of pints and tried to stand up that we realised that it was 12%! Those leftover cemitas came in handy soaking up the booze later that night to try to mitigate the hangover.

We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Puebla – there was so much to see and do and taste. We’d consider it an essential stop on any Mexico tour. We can’t wait to return!

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Costa Rica Wildlife Sanctuary – Caño Negro

Beautiful Costa Rica is well known for its amazing wildlife. This relatively small country in Central America has twenty-three national parks, three of which are UNESCO sites. We took a trip from the east coast to the west, visiting many wildlife parks. The tourism infrastructure is really well developed with easy transportation between locations and many tour operators that can offer trips to various attractions. Having enjoyed Tortuguero, where we had been lucky to see a greenback turtle nesting, we moved onto La Fortuna de San Carlos, close the Arenal volcano, in the middle of the country. It is an ideal location to use as a base to explore this region and there are loads of exciting activities to undertake in the area, from caving to wildlife viewing.

Arenal area

One of the trips we enjoyed was to the Caño Negro wildlife sanctuary. As with most tours in Costa Rica, there are companies in La Fortuna that can arrange the trip and will pick you up from your hotel or guest house. It’ll take a couple of hours to get there from La Fortuna. Our guide was a naturalist who was not only knowledgeable about the local wildlife but was also really keen to tell us all about the fruit that grows in the region as well.

The Caño Negro, close to the Nicaraguan border, is a Costa Rica wildlife sanctuary which has the status of a national park, a Ramsar wetland of international importance, and one of the most biologically diverse areas in the country.

Costa Rica wildlife sanctuary Cano Negro

Boat Trip on the Río Frío

Once at the Caño Negro you can board a boat and enjoy a fascinating cruise up and down the Río Frío.

Costa Rica wildlife sanctuary Cano Negro

Wildlife viewings are pretty much guaranteed. Good guides will be able to spot plenty of birds, reptiles and mammals and, importantly, be able to point them out so that you can take pictures. Of course, you may not get to see the more elusive residents: the cougars, jaguars and ocelots, but there were plenty of monkeys, iguana, caiman, beautiful birds and, of course, sloths to see.

Howler monkeys are the loudest monkeys in the area. Their calls can travel 5km! They use the vocalisation to communicate with each other and establish territory.

Costa Rica wildlife

White faced monkeys, also known as capuchin monkeys, look adorable but are very naughty. They are regarded as the most intelligent of the monkeys in the region but can be quite vicious, fighting over the fruit in the trees and stealing from each other.

White faced monkey Costa Rica
White faced monkey
White faced monkey

This beautiful kingfisher got lucky catching a fishy snack.

Costa Rica wildlife sanctuary Cano Negro

And this egret was having a good wade searching for food.

egret cano negro costa rica wildlife sanctuary

And there were plentiful iguana hanging around in trees and on the surrounding fields.

iguana in tree cano negro
Costa Rica iguana in tree

The anhinga is also known as the snake bird because when it swims in the water you can only see its elongated neck, which has the appearance of a snake gliding through the river.

Costa Rica wildlife sanctuary Cano Negro
Snake bird cano negro

The Jesus lizard, or to give it its correct name, basilisk lizard, derives its moniker from being able to run across the water on its rear legs. It is possible for the species to do this because they have little scales on their back toes which form webs that trap water and air bubbles underneath them. If they run quickly enough the bubbles underneath these webs prevent them from sinking into the water. The lizards are able to swim if they go too slow.  

Jesus lizard Cano Negro

We sailed past a nonchalant caiman.

caiman on cano negro

Sloths are probably the creature that most visitors to Costa Rica definitely want to see. On this excursion we saw a Two-Toed sloth, hanging around in the tree, which is what sloths do best.

Costa Rica Two Toed Sloth

There are two species of sloth in Costa Rica: Two-Toed and Three-Toed. (We did see the Three-Toed Sloth, but on the Pacific coast, not on this river trip.) They are absolutely fascinating creatures – they appear to be incredibly lazy but this is largely because they have a very slow metabolism and most of their time is spent in the tree canopies. They have a multi-chambered stomach that is capable of digesting tough leaves but the digestion process takes a very long time. Once they are up a tree they will stay there for several days, only coming down for a poo, which happens once week. Pretty much everything else happens in the trees – eating, sleeping, mating, even giving birth.

Costa Rica Two Toed Sloth

They are often covered in green algae, with which they have a symbiotic relationship, the algae providing them with some nutrition. In turn, the sloth’s fur, which retains water well, is an idea environment for the algae to thrive. It also helps provide camouflage – the sloth’s natural predators include ocelot and jaguar.

The species have been around for 65 million years, so there’s probably something to be said for taking things easy in life!

A Downpour

The river trip was hugely enjoyable but as we were travelling in the mid-season in June/July (it is rainy but not hurricane weather) we did experience something of a downpour. When it rains in Costa Rica, it rains! (Some areas we visited receive around 5000mm annually.) The showers at this time of year are extremely heavy but usually short-lived, lasting no more than twenty minutes to half an hour. The boat had a roof and our captain kindly rescued some kayakers who were enjoying their gentle paddle on the river until they got a complete soaking! They were hugely relieved when we picked them up and they stepped aboard looking somewhat bedraggled. We always recommend bringing wet weather gear if travelling at this time of year.

Cano negro downpour

Feeling Fruity

After the boat trip through the wildlife sanctuary, lunch was provided. It was quite common at the end of most excursions we enjoyed in the country. We were treated to a fruit feast.

Costa rica fruit platter

One of the wonderful things about Costa Rica is the utter deliciousness of the fruit. Around the Arenal Volcano area the soil is incredibly fertile and on our way to Caño Negro we saw vast plantations growing all sorts of fruit. In fact, the tour guide stopped the minibus a couple of times to buy some fruit from local sellers, so that he could offer us a taste. He also provided a running commentary throughout the journey telling us about the fruit industry in Costa Rica.

The pineapples were a revelation. Even the freshest pineapples we’ve ever eaten in the UK (often from Costa Rica!) were nothing compared to the organic local fruit. Most pineapples that are grown for export are treated chemically where they are stored (they can last up to a year) and ripened after they have arrived at their destination. It is such a shame that so many pineapples are grown this way – it isn’t good for the environment and the fruit’s flavour isn’t as good as it could be. Compare that to an organic pineapple and the taste is completely different. The local fruit had a really rich vibrant flavour, both sweet and tart.

The pineapple is actually a flowering plant. Only one flower grows each year per plant and it is only possible to gain a pineapple in three successive years. The first year’s is the biggest and these are the ones that are usually exported overseas. The second year’s pineapple is smaller and would generally be used for the local market or taken to a processing factory where it would likely end up in a tin. The third year’s fruit will be very small and will become juice.

Costa rica fruit pineapple

There’s a perception in many western countries that oranges should actually be orange. But many oranges aren’t as luridly orange as those classic fruit from Seville. The oranges in Costa Rica might not look the part but taste just fine. Bananas are another fruity staple of Costa Rica and plantations can be seen all over the country.

Many of the fruits grown in the country are familiar as they are exported around the world. However, there are some more unusual offerings which we were delighted to discover. Rambutan, also known as Mamon Chino, which apparently translates to Chinese Sucker, is a bizarre looking tropical fruit. You have to peel the pretty and colourful soft spikes to reveal the clear coloured flesh. They look similar to grapes or lychees and have a comparable texture although the flavour is very different, sweet and slightly sour, and nowhere near as perfumed as a lychee. There’s a seed inside that you need to be aware of – don’t bite too hard!

Costa rica fruit rambutan
Costa rica fruit rambutan

Noni is smelly and tastes bitter but apparently has health benefits. It’s not a fruit you would eat for pleasure. Some people mix it with other fruits in smoothies to disguise its flavour.

Costa rica fruit noni

In Costa Rica you are guaranteed to enjoy at least ten of your ‘five a day’.

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