Brussels 2018 – Day 2 + 3 – Atomium, Little Europe, Christmas Markets, Comics!

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Day 2

 

Day 2 would have us head away from the city in search of the gigantic Atomium – the Atomium is probably the only actual attraction which I had seen before and was aware of that was in Brussels, however after taking the tram over, I was still unprepared for the sheer size of this thing. Pictures make it look big but honestly when you are travelling towards it, you can really see it tower in the distance, especially as that portion of Belgium lacks many tall buildings, making it look even more surreal.
We opted not to go inside, even though you can, there are some exhibits and such inside but the entry fee seemed a little steep for what we believed to be inside, similarly I’m not convinced that Belgium has a city skyline to die for and so the observation tower at the top probably wouldn’t have been worth it either (I suppose everywhere is small beans now anyway since visiting the Burj in Dubai).

We did however take a trip next door to Little Europe, basically a small representation of all of the major landmarks in Europe – however after journeying through the choice of what was and wasn’t present seemed a bit odd, for example, for the UK they had a P&O Ferry labelled ‘Pride of Dover’, yet didn’t fancy putting in Stonehenge, London Eye, Tower of London, or even Buckingham palace? I feel like I’ve seen a lot of Europe and yet still didn’t recognise half of the buildings on show. Still, it was an easy way to kill an hour or two and gave us some food for thought on future holidays.

We’d catch the metro back into the city and end up walking around for a bit looking for lunch, eventually ending up in a coffee shop for a bagel and drink.
Our next stop was the Comic Book Museum – Belgium is (apparently) famous for it’s comics, and has a large culture around them, with muiltiple museums and street murals dedicated to comics. The comic book museum was interesting but also a little alien to us as majority of the strips were in french – we did discover a love for Boerke however – a belgian comic which doesn’t have text and so perfect for foreigners like us. Here’s an example of the kind of tone majority of the strips are – https://meng.s-ul.eu/PiIjMOWN

We’d spend the remainder of the day walking around and just taking in the sights, by chance following a string of small christmas markets and signposts, we came across the main christmas market – we were actually kind of disappoiinted in how small the christmas market seemed to be – having only seen the one at Beurs around the museum, but it turns out that was just a small one, this second Christmas market went on for ages.

Eventual dinner at Mozart, which specialises in bottomless ribs, highly recommended, for 18eur you get eat as much as you like ribs coated in a sweet bbq sauce and accompanied by veg and jacket potato

 

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Day 3

 

We didn’t really know what to do on our final day in Brussels, we had already done all of the A-list attractions, and majority of the B-List attractions we were interested in.
We had to check out by 11am which was a bit of a pain as our train was at 7pm – for anyone else who runs into a similar situation, you can store luggage at Brussels Gare du Nord for 5eur all day.

Cordelia decided to take us to the MOOF Museum, or Museum of Original Figures – basically models and figures from comic books and some stuff from graphical novels and manga, it was short but interesting, I didn’t think it was worth the money personally however.

Belgian meatballs are apparently a thing? Or one restaurant wants to make it a thing at least, we had one for lunch – literally just one huge one in a small pan of sauce and accompanied by chips, it was pretty good to be fair, the sauce made from a cherry beer (though there were other options).

I’ll be honest not much else really happened for the rest of the day, we went to Poechenkelder on recommendation of a friend, which was a small quirky bar near the Mannekin Pis – who had a wardrobe change over night it seems. Cordelia got to try Kwak Beer which was recommended to her, and it came in a really weird glass which was almost like a round bottom flask – it needed its own wooden apparatus to prevent it from falling over. We had waffles, we saw the pissing dog, and walked around the Christmas market some more before eventually heading back to the station to go home.

Belgium 2018 – Day 0 + 1 – 3 laps round the city centre

Day 0

We arrived later than expected on the monday, by the time we actually arrived in Brussels and caught the tram to our Airbnb, it was going into 7:30-8:00 in the evening, initially we were planning to drop our bags and then head back into the city for food and exploration but we were way too tired for that. Instead we ended up just chilling in the airbnb, and grabbing food from a local grill shop – to Cordelia’s surprise, she ordered a kebab sandwich thing and then shovelled a portion of chips into the roll as well, I grabbed a kebab meat platter thing with salad and chips, pretty unhealthy but tasted damn good.
The airbnb itself was well sized, though we think the host is leeching wifi from somewhere else, as the signal was atrocious, I was hardly able to connect and Cordelia couldn’t get wifi at all.

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Day 1

An early start for us, considering we went to bed at like 9pm with not much to do, we popped out to the local supermarket to stock up on drinks and get breakfast for the next few days, before heading out to the central Brussels.

The city was fully christmas’d up, with plenty of decorations and lights around the street and shopfronts, as expected all around central brussels were waffle shops, loaded waffles lining the window frame and topped with fruit, chocolate and cream. Chocolate shops were in equal abundance, we went into a few just to grab some samples – can confirm, pretty damn good chocolate.

We spent the majority of the first day doing all of the A-list Brussels attractions, hitting up Grand Place and taking in the views of the buildings lined with gold, the town hall, Notre Dame du Sablon and St Michael’s cathedral were all also equally grand and impressive though obviously only so much I can say about them.
We accidentally stumbled upon the mannekin Pis, which is (rather worryingly) Brussels main attraction? A statue of a small boy taking a piss, he was naked during our visit – for those unaware, Brussels has an unhealthy obsession with statues that piss – along with the Mannekin Pis, they have Jeanekke pis (a girl doing a squat piss) and one of a dog taking a piss on a pole as well.

We also spent a good hour or so in the Delirium Cafe, previously held a guiness record for most beer on offer in a bar, it has since lost it but still serves some 200 different drinks, including 3 types of ‘Delirium’ beer, all of which sit around the 8.5% to 9.5% range.  The Bar we went to was only one of many, they are all kind of down an alley together, and I think all the bars have the same owner so it’s literally just a dead end alley filled with bars on both sides. The decor was pretty interesting, with ceiling filled by beer trays, even all of the lighting was provided by beer lamps.

Dinner at a small place called Baogo, which served burgers but on chinese bao buns, I had a pulled pork one with coleslaw and it was pretty damn good.
On the way back towards the station and christmas market we stumbled into a light show happening in Grand Place – music playing and the entire square lit up in a variety of colours, the size of the crowd was insanity. We’d wander around one of the Christmas markets (Beurs) for a bit before heading home, exhausted from a full day of walking around the city.

 

Taiwan 2018 – Day 8+9 – Shopping, Shilin Market, Miniatures Museum and departure

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Day 8 – The designated shopping day

We had finished mostly everything on our extensive list, and so decided to dedicate the day to shopping and other smaller things we hadn’t had a chance to do yet. After a long lay-in, Ultimate Noodle (Ximen Branch) was our first major stop, we arrived just after it opened and after sitting and filling in our ballot card of ramen choices (neat little decisions like: how rich do you want the broth, how hard/soft do you like your noodles, how spicy, etc) had a lovely bowl of garlic, black sesame and squid ink ramen – the Jet Black ‘Kuroo’ bowl, it was really good, best ramen I’ve had in ages.

We didn’t even manage to get down one street before Cordelia bought a bag from a nearby shop, a Taiwanese brand ‘uma hana’ had been catching her eye all week and I guess ‘shopping day’ was all the go ahead she needed to get the purse out. I took the opportunity to drag her to a nearby arcade I saw previously though (Hyper gamer in Ximen) where I pumped a few credits into Drummania, da best game and sadly one we still don’t have access to in the UK.

We would poke through a few underground malls and such before eventually deciding to turn our efforts to the ‘Wufenpu shopping district’, known for it’s wholesale outlet shops, in my head I thought this was going to be like a wide strip of some brand outlet shops, this was not the case.
After exiting the MRT and walking around in the rain for a bit, we found the shopping district, which promptly lead into a deep web of narrow roads and alleys filled with clothes shops, some of it was covered whilst other parts had been patched with makeshift tarps overhead to make it so shoppers could go through without being affected by the rain, which was perfect for us. I lost count of how many stores we looked through, we both got headaches from flipping our heads around so much checking out all the styles. Prices ranged from dirt cheap 100 TWD (£2.5) to more normal high street prices, but we found plenty of good deals around the £5-8 per item mark which seemed to be the sweet spot between cost and quality.

After shopping, back to the apartment to nurse my headache, I think I may have had a nap in a familymart and on the train back as well, so probably a fair chance I was pretty tired as well.

In the late evening, we set out north towards Shilin, for what I believe to be the biggest night market in Taiwan – and if it isn’t, i’d hate to see one larger.
The market sprawled for entire blocks, with different intensities and niches, there was a clear food street but we also found ourselves venturing down an indoor area filled with carnival/festival games aimed at kids and adults alike, with games where you fish live prawns, and plenty of some sort of mahjong game which we didn’t understand, a bunch of airsoft places too, I was really tempted to try the bow and arrow one but decided against it.
The market was really fun, though busy and hot as usual, though that said, much more spacious than the Raohe market from the other night, Shilin market was much more relaxed by comparison. We did end up seeing some sort of japanese TV show being filmed, with a few female jap presenters, no idea who they were though.

On the food street, I found a black pepper bun stall, they were inbetween batches and so we had to wait and queue for what felt like 10-15 minutes, the bun is made by folding marinated pork into dough with a bunch of spring onions, and then they stick it to the side of a clay oven filled with burning charcoal, and then scrape them out when the buns are done. I was so hungry, I ended up buying 3 as I was scared they would sell out and I wouldn’t be able to buy another without queuing again (the queue was very long due to the slow cooking process). Totally worth the wait, crispy flaky shell, soft bread on the inside coupled with juicy meat and a surprising amount of juice.
We’d also end up pigging on torched beef cubes, sweet potato puff balls, mango smoothie, a mango jelly thing, and then on our way walking back we got enticed in by the liquid nitrogen shop – these guys were having great fun just spraying the liquid nitrogen vapour into the crowd, creating a lovely cool whiteout (which sounds rude and obnoxious on paper, but in 33^C heat? very welcome.), we bought some biscoff cookie ice cream and some of the nitrogen puff snacks, which were kind of like corn puffs (think hard wotsits) which were swimming in a small pool of liquid nitrogen, you shake off the excess and then bite into it and all the white vapour pours out of your mouth/nose, nice and cooling too (though I think Cordelia got a cold burn by not shaking it).

I think we grabbed some bubble tea and another mango shaved ice on the way back, to mark our last night in Taiwan, there was a weird japanese amateur idol group dance/rave going on in Ximen which was also pretty entertaining.

 

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Day 9 –

We had to check out of the airbnb so unfortunately rushed out to Taipei Main in the morning to try and find a luggage locker, thankfully there are plenty there, and the lockers were pretty cheap too (about £5 for 9 hours storage for 2 large suitcases).

Lunch was a bit of a disappointment, a sushi place in one of the metro malls. From there it was on to the Miniatures museum of Taipei, an underground private museum filled with miniature houses and scenes, ranging from 1:12 scale to much smaller. Some of the exhibits were really impressive in scale and detail, I completely forgot to take my camera (locked it in the locker by accident without thinking) so only phone camera, which made things less fun. Still, hopefully you can appreciate some of the stuff from even the phone pictures.

I can’t really remember if we did anything afterwards, but the next thing I remember is going to the Guanghua electronics district – I was hoping to find a hard drive or maybe a new 140mm fan for the PC, but the amount of shops was a bit overwhelming. Many of the shops also didnt have clear pricing and I was too scared to try and ask. We did get to see tons of ridiculous gaming PC’s and monitors though, decked out in their RGB and water kits. We ventured into one of the older buildings which was filled with specialist shops, as a few examples, one shop had thousands of connectors and jacks, another specialized in walkie talkies, one had a huge microscope (i presume they did mobo or phone stuff?), data recovery experts, etc, it was kind of neat to see, though they didn’t seem to be doing too well in terms of business.

The last major stop was at the Shin Kong Mistukoshi department store near taipei main, where we had a little go through of the basement food levels for snacks and souvineers for the journey home (Cordelia bought loads of mango pocky) and we also had dinner in the basement food court (Ramen followed by a traditional almond tofu dessert for me).

The trip home was a painful one, taking almost 24 hours, an 8 hour flight to dubai, followed by 6 hour layover (delay) and then another 8 hours back to the London, a bus ride, etc. Absolutely exhausting and I didn’t get much sleep through it. Still, it could have been much worse, none of the plane journeys had children behind me etc so I guess there’s that.
That pretty much wraps up this holiday, thanks for reading! Now if you’ll excuse me, i’m going to sleep as i’ve got work in the morning :(

Taiwan 2018 – Day 7 – Red line to Tamsui, with Guandu Temple

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Day 7 – The long trip to Tamsui

Once again, we struggled to find breakfast this morning, this seems to be a surprisingly common occurence, not so much because of lack of places which offer breakfast, but our inability to understand the menu on these kind of establishments, which are primarily aimed at locals and run by locals who care not for the tourists who come to butcher their language and communicate by pointing. Somewhat depressingly we just had a quick snack stop at Familymart before moving on to the 228 Peace Memorial park around central Taipei.

The park was quite grand in scale and featured a strange modern art style obelisk thing at it’s centre, along with some more traditional pagodas and such, the memorial structure was quite impressively crafted and unfortunately impossible to capture in pictures. We didn’t actually know the background of the 2/28 event which this park stands for, but it was apparently an anti-government uprising in 2/28 1947, in which the government responded by slaughtering tens of thousands of civilians, which is obviously very tragic and depressing in contrast with the park’s artistic feel.

Todays main event was the trip to Tamsui, at the very end of the red metro line some 20 stops away, a town by the coast which is now a popular tourist destination and home to a fishermans wharf along with an old street which sells plenty of street food, but along the way, we decided to stop at Guandu.
Guandu temple was an agonizing 15 minute walk or so from the station, through residential old roads with little shade, the weather was peaking at around 34 degrees or so today and as usual it was humid as F.

Guandu Temple is almost like a small town of temples of various sizes, it’s very possible that temples from across Taiwan apply to join and then move over if they pass the entrance exam. Despite that, I was really struggling to enjoy the temple when we first arrived as it was just too hot, all I could think about was tearing my skin off – we found some fans in the toilet and I ended up squatting by it for a good few minutes, only leaving because a family came in.
Thankfully one of the temples lay at the end of a long underground tunnel which was working nicely as a wind tunnel, similarly a bunch of the other temples were higher up, and apparently Guandu is pretty high already – the extra elevation made it nice and breezy and let me finally cool off a little. I’ll let the pictures do the talking for the temples, as we genuinely went into and saw about 7 or so, and temples are temples (though they were certainly intricately carved). A neat thing Guandu temple does is has a bunch of stamp pads for if you want to stamp your passport (I never even thought about stamping my passport with anything other than official stuff), unfortunately I didn’t have that with me, but I still had fun stamping my hand each time like some sort of serial night club reject. After finishing up, we were about to walk home when a taxi passed, which I promptly hailed down – $70 or £1.75 to not have to do that long walk in the sun was money well spent.

After some more stops on the train we arrived in Tamsui, the terminal stop, we set off down a random road to try and find some lunch, didn’t have much luck initially but eventually stumbled upon a chinese restaurant which served sim sum along with rice and bubble tea in gigantic 1L glasses. After lunch we walked the riverfront and took in the sights and sounds, shopped about in some of the quirky shops there before eventually deciding to keep walking north until we hit the fishermans wharf and lovers bridge – this was a mistake, as the walk turned out to be about an hour long and probably 3+ miles away. By the time we arrived, I was doing the open leg walk that men do to prevent balls sticking, the lovers bridge and fishermans wharf were certainly nice, as was the view, but if you are ever in the area, just take the bus or hire a bike at minimum. We caught another cab back to the station before finishing off Tamsui after the sun went down, with the old street and riverfront again for some street food – some cuttlefish and octopus along with some more bubble tea. To our surprise a lot of places were closing by about 8pm so we caught the train afterwards and finished up our street dinner at Ximen with a Gua bao and yakult slushie, while Cordelia sampled the Ay-chung rice noodles which I had yesterday.

Taiwan 2018 – Day 6 – Maokong, One Piece Cafe and Raohe market

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Day 6 – The 4km Cable car ride

A bizarre dream about starting a fire in my house and then being sucked into the past, followed by an angry girlfriend complaining that I ruined her sleep by rolling over and stealing the covers all night. I left her home to sleep a little more while I went out to try and shop about a bit and find some breakfast, it seems weds morning is a bit of a down day for Taiwan, with many of the usual shops opening very late or not opening at all, I wasn’t really able to do any clothes shopping like I wanted. I did manage to catch the famous ‘Ay-Chung rice noodles‘ shortly after its opening, every night we’ve passed by this place there has been a huge queue down the road, many online blogs and food lists have this place down so I thought I had to take the opportunity and ordered a large bowl, its a bowl of slippery rice noodles in a thick sauce and served with some intestines and served with a spoon (which makes eating it incredibly difficult), it was really flavourful however a bit hardcore to eat steaming hot noodles while walking around on the 30 degree streets of Ximen, which detracted from the enjoyment somewhat, I brought it back to finish off in the aircon of the apartment.

Main destination of the day was the Maokong district, high up in the mountains and filled with teahouses, we rode the metro to Taipei Zoo station and then got the Maokong Gondola up (pay by Easycard 100 TWD), we were lucky enough to get a car to ourselves and got to take plenty of pictures as the Cable car rode up and down the mountains of Taipei, the car travelled some 4000m and went up to a maximum height around 280m, enough to see the city and even Taipei 101 peaking over one of the other mountains.

Once actually in the maokong area we took the tour bus over to one of the temples for a vista, before riding it back to the cable car station and then hiking around the mountain to see the tea houses and tea centre. There really were plenty of places to drink tea, all with fantastic views of the city, the prices of course were a little higher than usual due to most of the visitors being tourists and I suppose the added difficulty of bringing anything up there. We had tea ice cream in one of the teahouses, as well as a cold milk tea made from some tea blend I can’t recall. There were a few temples up there as well, and the aforementioned tea promotion centre where we got to see some info on how tea is made, and sample some as well, There was a koi pond inside as well which we took some time to feed.
I’m unsure if I was just hungry, but theres an old woman selling Taiwan sausages near the gondola station, and they were SO good, barbequeued and coated in a slightly sweet sticky sauce and fatty and just the right amount of crisp and chewiness, 10/10 recommended.

By the time we got back to the city after taking the gondola car down and hiking about the mountain, we watched a nearby dancing fountain show and then headed off to find dinner. We ended up in the Taiwan one piece restaurant, which I’m personally not a fan of, but I do enjoy seeing the effort to theme it, to my surprise the cafe was completely empty and we had the whole place to ourselves, which made taking pictures significantly less embarrassing (I mean, probably judgement by the staff but surely they are used to it). I’ll let the pictures do the talking, but it was all pretty neat and one piece themed, I just wish I recognised more of it.

Last stop was Raohe market, surprisingly our first night market this holiday in Taiwan – a manic street filled with food and honestly not that much else, whilst there were a few shops for socks, bags and clothes, the majority of Raohe market was street food. We really made a big mistake of eating first as there was such a massive variety of stuff on offer, but I didn’t have the appetite for any of it, in particular I really wanted to try the black pepper bun but there was only one stall and it literally had a shop sized area just for queueing for it. The random wafts of stinky tofu was rampant here too, and there was really nowhere to run due to how busy it was, I wish I could read Mandarin as there were loads of foods on offer which I wasn’t familiar with.

Taiwan 2018 – Day 5 – Shifen and Jiufen

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Day 5 – A trip into the mountains

Found out that my last post didn’t upload properly, looks like the post is gone and the website has killed itself as well, hope that sorts itself out as I can’t really do much from here as our Airbnb is on some third world internet connection.

After yesterday’s relatively uneventful day, we were going for a large excursion out today, a trip to the Pingxi district far east of Taipei in the mountain region. Navigation was a nightmare, as it seems to be way underdocumented online and signage in the station is painful at best, but that’s maybe getting ahead – i’ll start with breakfast.
Also prepare for a long one.

Doing some research the past night for places to eat in Ximen, a few common stores kept popping up, alongside hot-star fried chicken, the other chicken place we ate at, and the mango shaved ice shops we already visited, a frequent contender was a small local looking place called 365 something, about as shabby as it gets for a brick and mortar, with a hot plate out on the street where they attract people in and simultaneously cheekily expand their shopfront out onto the road, we were always put off by the lack of any proper english on the menu at the front, but we thought we were feeling brave today, I wanted to try the taiwan staple Lou Rou Faan – Braised pork rice. After confusedly seating ourselves, and then realising we would have to place our own orders, I went back to the front to pick up what was essentially a self serve form, a bit like a multiple choice ballot paper where you can order food – it was all in chinese. We basically had to play ‘match the character’ with each dish we wanted to order until the form was complete and then out came the tasty food – we ordered 2 bowls of the braised pork rice, some fried turnip cake and a tasty mysterious thick noodle soup, along with some bubble tea, all of it delicious and came to a daylight robbery-esque price of only £6 or so.

As we reached the station, I realised I hadn’t yet ‘relieved’ myself of the buffet food we ate yesterday, there was probably a small childs worth of cake and sashimi waiting to come out, and it was making itself known. Unfortunately for me, the metro toilets were squat style – I’ve never had to use one before, or at least, never for number 2. I Prepared for the worst, hanging my shorts and underwear on the door (surely people dont normally just drop trou to ankles? what if you shit inside the back of your shorts?), I took up the best squat I could and braced onto the pole attached to the wall (mildly terrified of ‘what if the pole comes off from the wall’). I can tell you that squat toilets are disgusting. It was shitting on the floor or something, it stuck out at weird angles before flopping down sideways, I must have missed a bit as there was a bit stuck to the rim and it fell down afterwards, i’ve save you any more details but I was mortified and glad that at least I didn’t shit onto my sandals.

After plenty of stress work in and out of the toilet, we arrived at Shifen – a town practically in the middle of nowhere, where people walk on the train line and the shops all surround it, the train was blasting its horn to get people out of the way as it rolled into town. Shortly after arriving I got to try a peanut icecream roll – made by using a wood planer on a solid block of peanut brittle, and then putting the shavings onto a kind of crepe with some ice cream and other bits, it was delicious.
A little further down the track, masses of people were enjoying the main attraction of the Pingxi district, releasing lanterns into the sky, the huge colourful paper lanterns come in various colours (for luck in different fields) and you write your wishes onto them and then release them from the train track – there are masses of shops specializing in it, and they all get business because it really did seem to be a constant activity. We bought and painted on one from a more professional looking shop, costing only $200 TWD (£5) and releasing it into the sky.

The other thing people come to Shifen for is the waterfall, which was a painfully long and hot walk for what must have been at least 2 miles down and up staircases, across suspension bridges and all sorts, really scenic but god was it hot and humid. I hope the pictures were worth the sweat.

We arrived back in town just in time to see the train roll up, we jumped on and headed to Ruifang station, before catching the bus to our next major stop of the day Jiufen. Jiufen is an old mining town up in the mountains, like waaay up the mountain. It’s also allegedly some of the inspiration towards spirited away, though how much truth in that, i’m not sure, it certainly had it’s fair collection of ghibli themed shops around.

We went up the old street, a narrow collection of alleys surrounded by shops which went up the mountain before ending around a giant temple. The tight streets and close proximity of the shops meant business was fierce, with plenty of food, snack and tea shops offering tasters as you went up, there were also some quirkier shops along the way as well like the condom shop, a weird place filled with masks, and a shop filled with cat things. The tight streets also meant smells were intensified too, both the good and the bad, i’m not sure if I mentioned this before, but the first few days we were in Ximen, we’d get whiffs of sewage or something and would try and work out where it was coming from, turns out it was Taiwans infamous Stinky tofu – now imagine that, but strategically placed into a narrow alley, just before a long set of stairs upwards, so the smell drifts up and follows you as you climb – Why Taiwan, Why.

An alright dinner towards the top, and then a slow climb back down before catching the bus and train to go back home, we were exhausted from walking all day and the sun was coming down. We went on a bit of a food spree as we got back to Taipei, grabbing some cheap sushi, bubble tea, and ‘taiwan burger’ which is like pulled pork and crispy veg in a steamed bun, topped with some sweet and spicy sauce, it was really goddamn tasty and totally worth it for £1.25.

 

 

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Travel Tips for Shifen / Pingxi and Jiufen which would have been useful to know:
– Pingxi is both a town and a district, while you can ride the pingxi line to Pingxi itself, the lantern experience most people describe can easily be had at Shifen, which has the waterfall as well.
– Approx 40 mins to Ruifan Stn from Taipei Main Stn, and then 20ish mins to Shifen, i think
– Cost from Taipei Main to Shifen was only 61 TWD
– Lantern cost anywhere between $100 and $350, ours was $200 but they charge based on colours and include photography and paint for you
– Shifen waterfall walk is about 30-45mins maybe? There are toilets and food/drink along the way
– Bus to jiufen from Ruifang Stn is route 827 or 788, catch it from next to the police station – Exit main entrance and take a left at the Wellcome supermarket, police Stn on opposite side of road. Bus itself takes about 10-20 mins
– The train to taipei from Ruifang will be written just past the main gate, the train might be flagged as a North destination line even though it goes to Taipei.

Taiwan 2018 – Day 4 – Longshan Temple, Daan Forest Park, 101, Shin Yeh buffet

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Day 4
This was initially a lot longer, but the blog didn’t post it for some reason, and it was lost, so im having to type it up again at a later date, some details probably missing.

The sky was threatening to fall again this morning, so we got a move on for the outdoor things as soon as possible.
Initially we were going to do the gondola today but apparently it’s closed on Mondays, so good thing we found that out before departing for it.
We grabbed some small snack things from 7-Eleven, the convinience shops in this country double as snack places in most cases, selling Bao, tea eggs, sausages, oden and ramen, along with seating and a microwave for if you want to heat up and eat microwave meals in the store.

First major stop of the day was Longshan temple, a weird mix of old and new – you can’t help but look and wonder when you see the contrast between ancient classical looking chinese gate, and huge LED ticker underneath it, similarly there was a massive artificial waterfall just inside the entrance – beautiful but odd.
The weather was another scorcher, so we’d wander around the temple taking shade and stealing gusts of air-con from the staff building where possible. I suspect Monday is a day of mourning for the Taiwanese, as we saw plenty of fire buckets along the way, and inside the place was heaving with locals praying with joss sticks, we tried to stay out of their way where possible, but for a change the locals vastly outnumbered the tourists.

Not too far away, we skipped along the metro to Daan park, which we didn’t actually have on our list but thought we’d do anyway – seemed to have a wide selection of trees, with a strange one which I hadn’t really see much before, kind of growing whisker branches out and then they fall down and turn into roots, making the tree look like it’s trying to rise out of melted cheese.

We were desperate for a cool down, and so headed to Taipei 101, sure that they would have a nice shaved ice place to cool down, and they did! The bottom few floors of Taipei 101 is a mall apparently, complete with massive food court, we grabbed some tasty shaved ice with mango and tapioca, it came with a pudding too. We’d savour the aircon a little more while wondering around, opting not to bother going up the tower itself as we already did the Burj Khalifia this holiday, and another £15 each to go up.

Back to Taipei Main station to waste time before the primary event of the day, I forget if I mentioned yesterday, but before settling on Coco Curry we went to a japanese buffet place which was fully booked, we made a reservation for tonight and basically planned our entire day around it.
We had an hour to burn so we walked the Taipei metro mall, an underground mall which goes on for maybe a mile or so, got to try the new Bemani music game Nostalgia which was interesting. We also found a ton of gacha machines and spent some time looking through them, I got a little hotplate beef keychain.

We had arrived, Shin-yeh is a fairly expensive (£25 pp) japanese themed buffet with no limits except time, eat as much as you like on sushi, sashimi, roll sushi, roast meats, shabu shabu, beer, tempura, grilled fish and meat, cakes and puddings and loads more I can’t even begin to remember. Almost everything was in mandarin so for us it was also a mystery pick and mix which made things more fun – a prime example, little shot glasses of stuff near the sushi, is it sake? a dip? alcohol? vinegar? nope, just apple juice (i think!?). They give you 2 hours to eat, which seemed like loads at the time, but after eating our fill and watching the chef come out to carve the fish for the sashimi, etc, we stayed almost the whole 2 hours.

We waddled back home to Ximen afterwards to walk off the food, in the heavy rain. We took a few random turns to see where we’d end up, It turns out what we thought was Ximen was actually just a small slice of it, there were whole blocks of neon shops which we had never seen before, we got kind of lost until we eventually found our way back.

Taiwan 2018 – Day 3 – CKS Memorial and weekend markets

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Our day started with us going 6 floors up to a restaurant which wasn’t even open yet, the information we had read on the internet was wrong and so there we were all ready to eat and nowhere to go – thankfully Ximen has no shortage of places to find food – we settled on Taiwans famous fried chicken breast, which could basically be considered a gigantic chicken nugget depending on how you look at it, we coupled it with some iced tea as well for an authentic experience (Lychee black tea, mmm).

The forecast this morning said 80% chance of rain, with 100% chance of rain from 2-6pm, but venturing out to find breakfast we found clear blue skies and toasty 30 degree heat, I decided to head back and grab my sunglasses etc. before taking advantage of the skies (while they last) to go to CKS Memorial hall, a few stops away on the metro.

We weren’t really expecting the scale of the CKS area, with 2 gigantic temple structures straight outside the metro station, and a massive white and blue tower thing towards the end of the plaza, opposite an equally large traditional gate, was thankful I had a chance to grab my snuglasses as the heat and sun were really out in force today (I probably should have put some sun lotion on as well). We were in time for the changing of the guard ceremony again, or 15 minutes early, enough time for us to wait behind the barriers as they were set up, and get prime location for the ceremony – which lasted for a shocking 15+ minutes, consisting of marching, shouting, gun twirling, gun inspection, lots of stomping, and so on, honestly kind of repetitive by the end and confusing as to why it would go on for so long for a simple changing of the guard ceremony which happens every hour or so. Cordelia started feeling a bit sick by the end so we went and chilled for a bit and grabbed some drinks before continuing.

Wanting to make the most of the weekend, I found out about a flower market and we set off to go find and explore it. The market is actually a car park during the week, set under a suspended motorway and goes on for literally at least a mile, maybe more, we didn’t get to the end of it because it just kept going and going, definitely the longest market i’ve ever seen. Mist was being sprayed from pipes in the ceiling for the plants, which was cool to see but obviously made the place incredibly humid.

On the opposite side of the junction where the flower market starts was the weekend Jade Market, this one I had never actually heard of, but being that we were literally across the road, we headed in to take a look. This one was smaller but much more densely packed, with hundreds of individual vendors with small tables packed into another parking lot – this one was smaller but also air conditioned thankfully, as everyone inside would have almost certainly died by now without AC. As you would expect, the majority of the booths were selling Jade goods – bangles, earrings, carved pendants, etc. However all other gemstones and jewellery were also on sale. I don’t think many of the sellers get much business, as they seemed tired and happy to play on their phone in front of you, I do wonder how or if any of them make a profit with 200ish similar stalls around.

Another thing which wasn’t on our list but we visited anyway, was the huashan 1914 creative park – described as an old winery turned creative hub, the winery was now a strange mix of old architecture and modern trendy shops and cafes, with some amateur performers and plenty of youngsters roaming about, I imagine it’s quieter on weekdays but we had come on a Sunday and the place was very busy. Not a massive amount more to say about it, we had a good wander but didn’t stay too long as it was just so crowded.

Dinner at coco curry, a Japanese chain specializing in katsu curry and then a long walk back to Ximen from central station. We did initially plan to go to a Japanese buffet restaurant but it was booked out, so we’ve reserved it for tomorrow, the only English name on their reservation sheet. We also passed by an ‘Animate’ store on the way home, filled with super cheap manga and anime/idol goods, it’s a shame the books are all in Chinese because £2.50 per manga volume is crazy cheap and they had a massive selection.

 

Taiwan 2018 – Day 1 and 2 – Arrival and temples

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Day 1 – travel from Dubai and Arrival

Our first day in Taiwan was basically a throwaway, the plane departed Dubai at 3:40am so we already wasted a bunch of time in the airport just waiting for take-off time to roll around.
The flight thankfully didn’t feel too long, I didn’t feel like I slept for much of it, but at the same time I think I was drifting in and out of consciousness, as it only felt like I was fully awake for 1 or 2 hours of the 8 hour flight.

After arriving in Taiwan, doing immigration and waiting a long time for our luggage to appear, we set off to try and work out how to get to Taipei central by train, before going to Ximending where our Airbnb was, stepping out of the metro system to Ximen was crazy, reminding me of the time we came out into Tokyo for the first time. In particular it felt so crazy considering we just came from Dubai, whose city vibes seemed almost professional – I guess they don’t bother putting much out because nobody really walks around outdoors there as it’s too hot.

We dropped our bags off and got acquainted with our home for the next week – sporting a pretty barebones setup, super hard bed and noisy air-con unit. It’s not really the nicest place I have to admit, but it’s in a fantastic location at least and the price was pretty good.

After freshening up, we headed out to explore Ximen, and eat dinner, we thought we’d make it memorable by going to the famous ‘Modern Toilet’ restaurant, themed around toilets – you sit on toilets, eat out of toilet bowls, get drinks served in urinals, eat chocolate ice cream shaped like… you get the idea. The food was decent, though obviously the main attraction was the decor. We had a little shop around afterwards before heading back home for some much needed sleep.

~~~~

Day 2

The night was noisy, even with the earplugs I was wearing, the aircon was loud and a nearby dog wouldn’t stop howling at the moon.

After a sleepy start, we would go in search of a restaurant recmomended to us by our Airbnb host, a place a short walk away called ‘Lao Wang Ji beef Noodles’, the actual name of course was entirely in mandarin, and so pretty difficult for us to try and find, especially as that road had 3 different places all specializing in beef noodles. We found our place in the end, or rather, we found the queue for it. From experience, the best places to eat in asia are the ones with queues outside, just follow the locals. It was amazing – super soft chunks of braised beef with slippery noodles, in a flavorful fatty broth, worth trying if you are ever around Ximen in Taipei.

We’d head up north a bit to try and do some sightseeing, first major stop being the Martyr’s Temple, a huge temple ground with grand gate, we arrived just in time to watch the changing of the guard as well, a march which seemed kind of comical to watch as they freeze in time at the middle of their marching step, the result looks more like a ‘World order’ music video than a military march.

We didn’t really know how to get back to the station and so ended up just jumping on a random bus, in the hopes that it would get us back to any metro station, the buses in Taiwan aren’t particularly frequent, nor are they easy to read for the chinese impaired, it ended up dropping us outside Yuanshan station, featuring a farmers market and underpass area filled with teens practising dance routines, naturally one of them was doing a choreographed routine to All-star by smash mouth, I guess somebody once told them as well.

Was initially going to take the train to another area but on a whim decided to try and find a cafe or something where we could cool down and have a drink, we instead stumbled upon the Confucius temple and Dalongdong temple across the way, and so stopped to take pictures.
Also had my first proper bubble tea, which was delicious and also dirt cheap at only £1 for a large cup.

Still desperate to cool down, we headed for Main station and the adjoining mall for a bit of shopping and lunch, the basement 3 level of the mall was filled with food shops so we’d end up having an assortment of baked goods before doing some general shopping around – I was told that the clothing in Taiwan was pretty cheap so I only actually packed 2/3 of a suitcase, as I hope to refresh my wardrobe.

We were pretty tired by this point, and so walked back to the airbnb, I quite needed a shower after walking around in the heat, came out to see Cordelia had fallen asleep so and so we had a little while to rest before heading out for another wander around Ximen, this time however we decided to sample some of the street food instead of having a traditional dinner, and so had some fried chicken, squid, ‘onion cakes’ and then some mango shaved ice for dessert.

Dubai 2018 – Days 1 and 2 – All the touristy things

An intense smell of body odour welcomed us to our seats on the plane, which was not a fantastic welcome present to the start of our big 2018 holiday. We had planned to sleep through the 6.5 hour flight and wake up to be greeted by beautiful hot Dubai, instead we both got pretty minimal sleep and arrived in Dubai feeling like shit.

A train across the city and then a long nap in the hotel then, we’d awake around 4pm or so, and head off towards the Burj Khalifia which we had booked tickets for prior.

The Burj is attached to the gigantic Dubai Mall, so we headed there first for a good walk around and quick snack. We hadn’t planned it this way, but we had arrived during ramadan – the holy muslim month where everyone fasts from sunrise to sunset, as a result the mall was somewhat quiet and a large amount of the food and drink shops were closed or had huge blackout curtains or wooden dividers around the shopfronts, with accompanying signs saying saying non muslims and children only. it was a strange sight and environment, but I can appreciate not wanting to see a KFC when you haven’t had anything to eat since 6am, eating and drinking in public during Ramadan is basically an offense – we didn’t feel like pushing our luck to see what is and isn’t allowed.

After having a nice walk around and seeing the huge aquarium fish tank, biggest OLED screen in the world, and the comically large indoor ice rink, we headed to ajoining Burj Khalifia for our booked slot at 6:30. if you’re ever in the area, 6:30 slot is the way to go, you essentially get the sunset view and the nighttime view for the price of one, though an unexpected side effect was that we had to queue ages for the lifts to get out. The Burj really was seriously high, the skyscrapers below look so small it kind of pulls you out of how high you are because it almost doesn’t feel real, but of course, everything looks small when you’re up 125 floors. The night view was definitely worth staying for, and I think worth the price of admission £40ish per person including Aquarium.

After a lengthy queue for the lifts back down, we went out to watch the Dubai fountain show over the beautiful man-made marina, which was really nice – not quite a singapore ‘laser projection on water mist’ level of complexity but a really solid lit choreographed water jet show with some of them really shooting up high.

Burger and frozen custard at shakeshack for dinner, which was somewhat underwhelming but oh well. We would have normally gone for something more locationally specialized but we couldn’t find any arabic food restaurants (and honestly, aren’t really sure what Arabic food would even consist of).

We’d walk around the aquarium and underwater zoo for a while afterwards, there were some impressive exhibits which are less common – huge crocodiles, sea otters, and large sharks to name a few.

by the time we decided to come home, we discovered that we had just missed the last train back to the hotel – at a surprisingly early 11:30pm.
it turns out the trains run at different times depending on the day, but we at least expected them to run until midnight. We had to catch a cab home which thankfully wasn’t too expensive at around £8 – if he wasn’t doing meter and said £20, we probably would have accepted it and paid him. Speaking of less expensive than expected, I should mention that the Dubai metro is also very reasonably priced, charged on a zonal basis, the cost is 3, 5 or 7.5 UAE Dirrhams (equal to 60p, £1, £1.50 respectively).

A late shower and then bed for us, to prepare for our second and last day in Dubai.

 

~~~~~

Day 2

 

We overslept.

Granted we didn’t actually have a massive amount planned for today but waking up around half 10 was a minor concern for us.

We’d actually start the day the same as yesterday, heading to the Dubai mall to go to the IHOP we scouted out yesterday, I’m not sure i’ve ever actually been to an IHOP before, even when I was in America, so whilst I imagine quite lame to some readers, we were genuinely quite excited to have some big american fluffy pancakes with bacon.
We’d end up both ordering a combo of eggs, bacon, hash brown and then an entire plate with stack of pancakes and topping – it was way too much for brunch, or any meal of any day for that matter.

From the mall we’d head back for the metro to check out the old town, heading for the spice souk and gold souk, it would all be outdoors, and it was about 39 degrees outside.

Whilst you can kind of mentally prepare yourself for 39 degrees heat, the real deal was genuinely super draining, I have no idea how the people that live there, are able to do manual labour in that kind of weather. Even a brief walk for half an hour made us want a shower.

The spice souk was smaller and less busy than we anticipated, I kind of thought it would be a bustling hub where old women bartered for cinnamon pods but it was actually just a covered alley/street with few locals and even fewer tourists, and a whole lot of spice sellers trying to grab you to visit their shop. Personally I got a whole lot of ni hao’s and konnichiwa’s whilst Cordelia got called Shakira more times than I can count (we can only assume because her hips don’t lie), I also got called a professor, which is a new one to me.

The gold souk was honestly not that much different either, except the staff wait for you to look at the diamonds in the window before coming out and trying to entice you in with their allegedly cheap prices and (more importantly) super cool air-con. It was around this point (about 45 minutes after we left the station) that our bodies were properly sweaty, so all the small licks of air-con we got as staff came to greet us was so very lovely. I actually found a shop which had an air-con leak in the corner, just spewing out cold air, we took advantage naturally.

The next thing on the agenda was the Dubai ferry, an hour long ferry trip which goes round to the palm jumeriah and Burj al arab, unfortunately the Ferry only sails if there are at least 10 patrons – which our timeslot failed to reach, so instead it was back on the train, unsure what we were going to do next.

We ended up at the other massive mall in Dubai, the Mall of the Emirates. We got to see the arcade which had a bunch of games i’ve never seen before (a rabbids 4 player lightgun game, and a tomb raider 4p lightgun game, amongst others), and the super cool looking indoor ski area, complete with toboggan run, little hot cocoa stands and all sorts. Had a small dinner and then back to the hotel to pack and start to prep for the airport. We still have a few hours to burn, but honestly not sure what else to do with such a small amount of time left, we’ve done all of the major inner city stuff so we’ll likely just end up chilling out until it’s time to head to the airport for the next leg of our journey.

Would also like to point out that i’ve been annoyingly ‘ill’ during this holiday, with a dry cough situation and what I presume is an eyelash hair stuck somewhere in my eye which I just can’t rid of, it’s driving me crazy!

Italy 2018 – Day 6 – Vatican city and Rome

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The beginning of the end, our last full day in Italy.

The vatican was top of our priority today, we took a bus over from our Airbnb and was almost immediately stopped by a tour guide providing ‘advice’ about how long the queues are, and how they conviniently have a fast pass to skip the queues – they said we’d be waiting 4 hours around the block, which seemed absolutely ridiculous.
This was promptly followed by us walking down the road and seeing the gigantic snaking queue to get into St Peters Basilica – literally going around the entirety of the Vatican courtyard and then coming back in towards itself like some sort of pretzel made from back pain and suffering instead of flour and whatever else goes into pretzels. We’d end up waiting 2 hours in line, majority of that in the sun – thankfully the weather that day was forgiving, being in the low 20’s rather than the scorching 28 degrees only 24 hours prior. Indians would constantly roam up and down the lines to sell drinks and selfie sticks – the water actually being a surprisingly cheap 1 euro for a half frozen 500ml ,best euro I’ve ever spent, genuinely.

I had already been inside last time and so no surprises, though worth noting that it was about as big as I remembered – which is to say really goddamn big, with each wing of the basilica being the size of ‘huge’ cathedrals in other cities. We were too tired to bother to climb up the steps to the dome (again, I did it last time so when Cordelia said she didn’t want to, I certainly didn’t argue).

We spent some time hunting around for lunch afterwards, eventually eating some mediocre pasta in a small cafe, as we were waiting in line so long that most of the proper restaurants had already closed. I’m not sure if i mentioned already, but Italy is really strict with their eating times, after 2:30pm be prepared to struggle with finding a good restaurant for lunch. By chance, I stumbled upon a small takeaway pasta place which I saw on tripadvisor, I greedily ordered some pasta to go – i’m on holiday, I can have 2 lunches if I want.
The takeaway pasta was shockingly nice, considering I wasn’t even hungry. You could really tell that the pasta was legitimately fresh and cooked just right. I’ve never had paparadelle before but man it was good, like an inch wide chewy egg noodle pasta, served with a ragu meat and tomatoes sauce.

We’d return home to rest for a bit before heading back out, hoping to hit sunset at the Giardino degli Aranci – an orange grove atop a hill overlooking Rome, we were a little bit early, but it was late enough in the day for us to get that yellow glow at least. We checked out the Circus maximus as well on the way down, which looked like a massive track and field area in a small crater.

Dinner first at ‘I Monticani‘ which served an amazing bruschetta, lasagne and tiramisu (gf had the panna cotta, which I can confirm is just as good), followed by one final visit to the Trevi fountain at night, hoping it would be less busy than last time, unfortunately not really as relaxed as we were hoping, but less people than during the day at least – enough for me to set up tripod, and for us to go down and take some selfies by the fountain edge.

Italy 2018 – Day 5 – Rome

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Train journey from Florence to Rome in the morning, which took about 2 hours, followed by the meeting our Airbnb host Isabella. Our room in Rome was really impressive compared to the last 2 we had stayed in this holiday, with a 3 meter tall door, high ceilings, air conditioning, memory foam bed and bunch of other small nice touches – we were ready to finish off our holiday.

Our Airbnb was near to Lepanto, sort of close to the river, Isabella advised we should start by walking down the riverfront and visiting the outside of the castle, before going into central Rome via the bridge – we followed her advice and really enjoyed it, the sun was a toasty 28*C that day, and the riverfront was shaded by trees as we passed the supreme Court building and Castel Saint angelo.

We’d basically go on a Rome 1 day sightseeing foot tour from here, guided by a bunch of small flags on Google maps and my own top notch navigation (if i do say so myself) – we saw the Piazza navona, campo de’ Fiori and beautiful church ‘Sant Andrea della valle’ before swinging by the Pantheon to see the outside (queue went around the block so we skipped going in, I’ve seen it before anyway). This was followed by the Trevi fountain, some house with a face in, the top of the Spanish steps, altar of the fatherland, Roman forum, and collesium. We just hit them one after another with only some short breaks in between to be able to give our legs a break.

We were lucky enough to come across some sort of carnival/parade while walking outside of the roman forum, with a bunch of dancing people in bright costumes parading around in the golden Roman sun, I think it was meant to be something to do with South America? A few of the younger performers were really suffering in the heat, visibly tired from dancing and spinning around in their costumes (at 28*C, i don’t blame them).

I tried being nice to an black guy who promptly then tied a bracelet around my wrist as a gift, I tried to play it off as ‘oh thank you very much’ and then walking off and then he started saying “don’t you have a gift for my family?” – I did kind of wonder how he was going to transition into getting me to give him money, I promptly removed the bracelet and returned it – thankfully it was only rope and not some sort of one way knot. I don’t want to generalise, but unfortunately it seems nearly every black guy who approaches you in Rome is trying to sell or con you, so watch out and steer clear if you go. The Indians aren’t great either but at least they just try to sell you things, not pretend to be friendly with you.

After taking all of our photos and enjoying the full length of the parade, we stopped by the Colosseum we went for dinner at a quirky italian/American place which had literally filled their ceiling with random stuff – had a calzone there which was unfortunately pretty mediocre, Cordelia enjoyed it though, I did enjoy the tiramisu at least.

We had Gelato on the way back too, a place on the walk back from the station called ‘G Like gelato’ which I can only assume is either some sort of FGC reference (godlike?) or house of the dead reference (Enjoy like G did?). They had some really interesting flavours, I picked yogurt and a Berry mix which was so good, the containers which hold the gelato actually spin which was interesting.

Italy 2018 – Day 4 – Pisa

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We were scheduled to do Pisa today, and set off fairly early to do so, it was the only major train ride we hadn’t prebooked in advance and so we at least had an open time frame to sort out the ride over.

Which is just as well, because I managed to get us completely lost on the way from our Airbnb to the station, bare in mind this is actually a 12 minute walk or so, we instead wound up walking down the nearby (Allegedly famous – according to Google at least) market. Grabbed some cheap sunglasses to stop half of our pictures looking like we are staring at a solar eclipse, and then proceeded to take the long scenic route to Florence Station.

The ticket system was pretty strange and caused a lot of confusion for us, the tickets sold at the booths show you all of the outbound trains for your destination and then basically ignores it all and prints out a super generic ticket which can be used at any time, no mention of the train or times on the ticket itself. Pisa is not the terminal destination of any of the trains so naturally we were running around clueless for a while, unsure which train to actually take, eventually I figured going back to the ticket machine to attempt to buy another ticket – and then taking a picture of all of the train numbers and departure times.

Train journey was maybe an hour, and unfortunately sat riding backwards in front of an arguing Arab couple who would cough without covering their mouths – the joys of second class unallocated seating, though at least we got a seat, many people were standing for the long journey.

Eventually we arrived in sunny Pisa itself, our itinery for Pisa was pretty much as expected – see the leaning Tower, take ‘that’ photo and whatever else we can spot along the way before heading back to Florence. Pisa had a more relaxed vibe to it, with wider pavements and gaps between buildings, and more sunlight as a result. Had the best gelato on the way (half coconut with chocolate and oreo, and half homemade Nutella? hell yes.) The place was called Il Gelato di toto and very much recommended if you ever go to Pisa.

The walk from the station to leaning Tower was longer than expected, and honestly, the tower itself was a little underwhelming in terms of size. I thought it was going to be like the Eiffel tower where you can see it in the distance from miles away, but maybe because of the way that the streets curve and the buildings all quite high, by the time you spot it peeking above the buildings you are basically there.

We took our pictures and then spent the rest of the time watching other people take theirs, which is honestly probably the best laugh I’ve had in ages – watching clueless middle aged men and women completely not understand the concept of how to do the photo illusion is comedy gold, some examples are an old man who looked like he was preparing to do a military press with the tower of Pisa, and a woman who was making a pose I couldn’t comprehend at all.

There are a few other attractions around the tower of Pisa, but in usual unprepared fashion with hadn’t prebooked anything – the cathedral did free tickets but on a timed schedule, and the earliest time they could let us in was at 5:30pm, about 2 hours longer than we anticipated sticking around, similarly we were too tired to walk up the tower (18EUR pp), and not particularly bothered about the other attractions which were pay on entry.

We’d unfortunately end up taking a wrong turn and walking 2 miles looking for somewhere to eat, always stick to the tourist paths people! Italy has a strange thing where many of the restaurants only open for lunch at strict hours and then close at 2:30pm or 3pm, of which we found our way back to the main strip of shops a little too late. We settled for a small cafe closer towards the station for some Pasta and then more gelato.

Seasoned experts of the Italian rail system now, our journey home was easy and much less busy than expected – for those considering travelling, the trip is about 8EUR per person, each way Firenze SMN to Pisa Centrale.

Fed up of walking for miles each day, we headed back to our Airbnb to have a little rest before dinner time, before eventually heading back out to go to a Korean fried chicken place around the corner from where we were staying – it was pretty authentic and super crispy, Cordelia had never tried it before so she enjoyed it a lot. (‘Il coco – chicken and beer’). We got to sit outside and enjoy the breeze as the sun set, with some dinnertime entertainment from the owners cute dog.

We still had some life left in us, and so off for a final walk about Florence, this time at night. I wanted to try and take some night photos of the Cathedral of Santa Maria, which was a bit of a challenge to find a good spot and not have people walk in front constantly (also hard because I don’t have a wide angle, and the cathedral is so damn big you have to be really far away to get it all in one shot with a 18mm lens). Some dessert at a nearby desserts place, where I had some sort of Pistachio giant Ferrero Rocher thing filled with cream and god knows what else, nice but very rich an a little too sweet for my tastes.

Tomorrow we catch the train to Rome.

Italy 2018 – Day 3 – Florence

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27 degrees or so, what a fine day for adventure.

After catching our train over from Venice in the morning, we headed straight to our Airbnb to meet Andy and the small room we had paid to stay in – emphasis on small, but all of the essentials were there at least (some aircon would have been nice however coz jeez, I’m sitting here typing this after a shower, in underwear, and still sweating slightly).

After having a quick freshen up, we would begin our grand tour of Florence, first stop being the Galleria del Accademia, situated only a few blocks down from where we were staying, the tripadvisor reviews describe it as basically ‘Michelangelo’ s David, and some other stuff’, which is actually more or less how I would describe it as that too, there were some other very grand paintings here, and an entire room full of busts and sculptures (I think some were plaster replicas though) but the focal point of the gallery was definitely the gigantic statue of David – to the point where it almost feels like the building was built around the statue, as there’s a huge dome above it to allow it to be properly lit from every angle.

Next up was the Piazza del duomo and Cathedral of Santa Maria, the cathedral of Santa Maria was gigantic! You can spot it from miles off with the right elevation or if walking on roads with clear lines of sight, the cathedral also features a tower and baptistry building, all of which were equally huge. We wanted to go up the tower and see the cathedral, but tickets were entirely sold out for the next 5 days, imagine not even being able to buy a ticket for tomorrow, just to see the inside of a church. Gutted, but at thankfully the outside was impressive enough to not leave any aftertaste.

We’d continue our trip south, hitting the Piazza della signoria an it’s iconic buildings, though truth be told, we didn’t really do any research so no idea what was inside. There were loads of artists outside, some less convincing that others, but a few were doing oil and watercolour painting on the street and it was very cool to see.

Eventually we hit the river and followed it around to the iconic Ponte vecchio, by name alone you wouldn’t know it, but you’ll probably recognise it from pictures. Unbeknownst to me, the bridge is filled with jewelery shops with awesome old style shopfronts to complement the cobbled road. We enjoyed a slow stroll down the road, playing top 3 rings, in a badly veiled attempt to work out which style of ring I should definitely not buy should our relationship continue. Turns out she likes weird shaped rings where the material twists, and large diamonds – who would have guessed.

We’re still walking? my legs were already dead at this point, we had been walking for miles. Cordelia in her optimism or gusto decided we would go and see the gardens in the south of Florence – they were pay on entry (though thankfully half price for those 25 or under) and lead to an impressive gigantic hedge maze style garden with plenty of Statues interspersed to keep things interesting. The fountain at the bottom was pretty and surrounded by citrus though you couldn’t get up close or steal the fruit to eat unfortunately.

We’d slog it uphill for a while afterwards, Cordelia somehow powering through like some sort of trained mountain climber, while I slowly but surely plodded upwards – the pictures really don’t do the slope justice, it was very steep.

We’d find out why as we got to the top, a view of the city from the top of the hill, before a steep decline to the Palace gardens and grounds below. A slow walk back to the airbnb afterwards, followed by me passing out on the bed whilst taking a ‘quick break’.

Special mention to dinner which we had around 8pm after I woke up, a place called Fuocco matto, we were sat in a bar style area right in front of the Pizza making station, which was an unexpected treat for a foodie like me, spending dinner watching a team of 3 guys just pump out pizzas constantly from dough to stone oven to being finished off and seasoned – as we were sat in front we literally got the pizzas as fresh as possible, where the pomodoro had only just been bubbling half a minute earlier, it was goddamn delicious.

Italy 2018 – Venice day 2

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After spending yesterday effectively doing prep work, we were ready to properly take on Venice today.

Grabbed some food from the train station and then bought a travel card for the day – 20EUR to provide a days worth of access to buses and the water buses in Venice Central.

After arriving in Venice by bus, we just hopped on the water bus all the way to San Marco Square, hoping to get in early to the Basilica di San Marco, unfortunately it’s closed on Thursday mornings for prayer, which wasn’t ideal for us. We took a diversion north to basically just escape the crowds, I had previously bookmarked a spot northeast of the main square, though couldn’t really remember why.

Upon arrival to the starred spot on my map, I remembered why I had bookmarked it in the first place – a small bookshop filled from floor to ceiling with books, complete with book filled Gondola in the centre, bathtubs and canoes filled with books, even a staircase made of books just outside, leading to a view of the nearby canal.

Bit more gelato and some wandering later, we returned to the church and got in line, the queue went around the front and then out into the square, with no shade and the sun beating down on us for a half hour or so, I thought for sure my neck was going to burn, though at the time of typing, nothing yet.

The church itself was impressive in scale, adorned with a whole ceiling of gold and murals in the negative space. They didn’t allow photos inside but a snuck a few here and there anyway. The queuing continued even inside the church, with additional segments of the church requiring payment as well, we’d end up stuck in a queue inside for what felt like a small eternity, honestly we didn’t even know what we were queuing for, just following the crowd. Eventually it turns out we were queueing to see some form of golden plate adorned with jewels – nice and sparkly, though personally not worth the agonising queue to get to see it. My legs and back were aching by the time we left, it felt like I had aged 10 years while waiting to move around the inside.

Lunch followed, we found a nice place off the beaten path offering pasta and a second plate with side and drink for 20 euro, which for Venice, is pretty good value.

Time for our Gondola ride, hunted around the main tourist spots and found another couple who wanted to share with us – as the prices are 80EUR for the gondola itself, it made sense to share and split the cost, the 80EUR is meant to last approx half an hour and include some level of tour. Unfortunately we picked a bad gondolier, to anyone who visits Venice, if your gondolier asks for the money up front? peace out of there. Rather than being a romantic ride down the side streets of Venice, our guy spent half the time having a shouting conversation with other gondoliers he passed, and the trip lasted maybe 20 minutes before he started bringing us back in to dock, we felt pretty ripped off but I’m just thankful we did share with another couple, as 80EUR for 20 minutes would have been a little too painful for me to stomach.

We were kind of out of ideas from there, and proceeded to wander around for a while, passing and looking at many of the shops selling murano glass before deciding to get the most of our travel card and catching a waterbus to anywhere – we’d end up in some gardens at the east end of Venice, taking some time to chill and take in the scenery while cooling down with the ocean breeze.

We took another boat from there to Lido, a sand bar island just off Venice, not entirely sure what the purpose of it is, but it felt like a different country over there, where the sunshine seemed brighter – it had a Spanish seaside resort kind of feel to it. We walked along the beach there for a bit before having dinner (Pizza) and starting our journey back. The waterbus taking us right round the island as the sun set.

Italy 2018 – Venice day 1

posted in: holiday, Italy 2018 | 0

25th April

After a painfully early wakeup to get to Heathrow Airport for 8am, we’d touchdown in Marco Polo, Venice Airport at around midday. Caught the bus from Venice Airport to just outside the main train terminal where we were staying, and then randomly stumbled in the general direction of our Airbnb until we arrived.

The flat itself was pretty nice, modern kitchen, nice shower, unfortunately it fell a bit short in the most important department – with noisy upstairs occupants and a bed which feels like it’s been fitted with some sort of plastic cover underneath the sheets. We’d get to fully enjoy that mess later, but for now, a quick cleanup and it was back out to try and find our way towards Venice.

Some more stumbling later (we found a bus which takes us to Venice bus station) we finally made our way to the island and started marching off in a random direction to just go and see what we could find. We were pretty unprepared and didn’t have a whole lot on our proposed itinerary so we figured we would just enjoy the streets themselves whilst maybe passing by and checking off any landmarks that we’d come across. Initial impressions were patches of a very overwhelming sea smell, like being at a dirty seaside in Essex – it wasn’t always present, but every now and then you’d get a big whiff of it and remember where you are.

The streets were really small, more like a collection of alleyways really, this combination of small alley-like streets and no roads for cars (just bridges and canals) meant that all of the shops were very condensed and foot traffic was heavy, it felt almost bazaar like in it’s maze like structure, and the high buildings would generally provide shade from the sun (which was a lovely toasty 24 degrees or so). We really walked about, got some gelato, saw a bunch of interesting shops, crossed countless bridges.

Eventually we got to the main touristy area, and it was noticeable. The tourist bit of Venice is on the other side of the grand canal, and only cross-able by Water bus or 2 or 3 bridges, so naturally these bridges were mental and filled with tourists getting their selfie sticks out.

We’d finally hit the main Venice Square, to the sound of music and cheers – rounding the corner we found a stage and a small sea of orange flags, it turns out we had arrived on their independence day and they were showing some real team spirit – a lovely dash of colour to my photos.

We kind of just walked around some more for the rest of the day, went into a small art gallery, had dinner (Lasagne) and then headed back to sleep because we were shattered. It doesn’t sound like we did a whole lot on paper (maybe because technically we didn’t, but we walked a massive loop around all of main Venice over the course of 6 hours or so. I personally slept like a log that night (though aided by earplugs to drown out the noise of the mattress plastic), Cordelia unfortunately didn’t get such a good night, apparently upstairs were making noise all through the night, dragging chairs about and such. We’ll be sure to leave that on the review.

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