Category Archives: Food & Drink

Blue Saturday

I had a  bit if a rubbish weekend last weekend, and I found myself scouring the low cost airlines for convenient getaways. Dubrovnik perhaps? Or Berlin? NO. All too expensive in the summer, none fly over  a weekend without having to book half the following week off work too. Which is a no-no at the moment. But what the hell did I used to do before I “discovered” Solo Travel?  I went for a a little UK city break , courtesy of my old and rattly bright green Peugeot, bombing up and down the M1 in the days before all my friends settled down and/or moved away, and I started doing other stuff, and life generally got in the way.

Great! Time to pounce on some friends. I picked up the phone. “Adam? What are you doing on Saturday? I need an urgent day of prancing round the Northern Quarter pretending we’re hip and cool!”. Fortunately, if Adam isn’t busy he’ll always come to my aid, so I found myself on the train to Manchester Victoria yesterday morning, poking around craft shops, vintage shops, and several cocktail and beverage shops. The highlight had to be when Adam also introduced me to Keko Moku, where  THESE are what we had, mine chosen for its triumphant description on the menu as m*therf*cking BLUE!:

Blue Hawaii, complete with Glowstick and massive flower

Blue Hawaii, complete with Glowstick and massive flower

TNT Mojito

TNT Mojito

 

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Filed under Food & Drink, Inspiration, Nice Things

The Joy of Tracks

Trakai Castle

Trakai Castle

On Saturday I took a train trip to Trakai, which is about half an hour west of Vilnius. It is in the middle of the Trakai Historical National Park and was once home to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The town of Trakai is built between large natural lakes and has a fairytale island castle in the middle of one  of them!

Frozen lake Bernardinai

Frozen lake Bernardinai

The lakes were completely frozen when I visited, making for some picturesque vistas, milling tourists, a traditional kibinai van (kibinai are a bit like small Cornish pasties), and assorted small children skating on the ice.

Proper Ice Skating

Proper Ice Skating

It wasn’t so much the lakes and castle that excited me, pretty though they were, but the journey there. You can get both the bus and the train from Vilnius to Trakai, but I was urged to get the bus as it goes more frequently. But it’s been nearly two years since I first took a train in another country and I was desperate for some foreign rail travel. Plus it meant I got a lie-in, so it was off to Vilnius Railway Station, another grand, high-ceiling-ed affair, the towering facade evoking anticipation of adventure.

Vilnius Railway Station

Vilnius Railway Station

Getting on a train is so straightforward, but has so many possibilities. Not so much in the UK, where train travel is cramped & expensive and distances short, but international stations are so atmospheric. From having separate local and international ticket offices to having distant destinations on the departure board, to the detail and grandiosity of the buildings – Vilnius station has a wolf (which legend says inspired Gediminas to build the city) proudly howling from one of its stuccoed buildings.

Vilnius Wolf

Vilnius Wolf

And then you step onto the platform and see the expanse of tracks and carriages, any one of them waiting to take you through obscure little towns to foreign cities. The platforms aren’t even raised, so there’s no barrier to getting to the platform you need – you can just walk across the tracks. Then you see carriages heave into view. Has that huge, unhurried train at the other side of the station come from Russia? Where is it going? Where will it stop on its way? How long have its passengers been on it? Who are they going to see? Who are they travelling with? As you watch them get off one of the longer sleeper trains, it’s clear there are a huge variety of travellers – families with kids on a Christmas visit to the city, perhaps for the Christmas festival or perhaps to see grandparents. Young men waiting  nervously on the platform with roses for their girlfriends, people with huge suitcases coming home after some time away. Smokers who’ve been in the carriage so long between stops they first thing they do is smoke a cigarette of relief, standing with their luggage while they take in the comfort of a journey finished.

Trakai Train

Trakai Train

And then I get to set off on my short trip, through countryside unfamiliar enough to me that I could pretend for half an  hour I was off on a much longer journey. My old Soviet train creaked into the station the insides of the carriage, clean, wide, comfortable, but riveted together in the most sturdy fashion.

Joan Aiken Woods

Joan Aiken Woods

We creaked out of the station,  leaving the industrial and revolution-worn suburbs, then quickly we were creaking through the bleak forests I’d seen from the plane, dotted with ramshackle wooden houses – their bright colours faded with soot, with frozen lakes adjacent holding the remnants of their inhabitants’ summers:

Frozen Countryside Lakes

Frozen Countryside Lakes

Through snow covered tracks, we passed into tiny local stations,

Voke Station

Voke Station

and just as quickly we were back in industrial suburbs, driving past Cyrillic printed freight containers, concrete cooling towers – but all of it so refreshingly different to my eyes that it I had half an hour happily imagining a half day’s worth of escape to somewhere new.

Concrete Industry

Concrete Industry

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Filed under Europe, Food & Drink, Lithuania, Railways, Travel

Night Vision

Snowy Vilnius

Snowy Vilnius

Well I’ve been here 36 hours and I still haven’t seen Vilnius in the daylight. Oops. I’ve spent most of today snoozing – it feels like I’ve not had a proper nights sleep for a week but I feel nice and refreshed now. To make up for my day of laziness I went for a walk to a viewpoint that Lina, our hostel host, recommended especially at night, on top of the old town walls.

Vilnius Old Walls

Vilnius Old Walls

Now I don’t like to whip my map out too much in public as I hate looking like a tourist and thus a potential target. So I had a good look before I left and did the route by memory up until I came across what I thought was my turning, which was quite a narrow road, not as well lit as the main ones. Most of the other pedestrians were turning left instead of right down this side street, so I opted to follow them, and my nose and see if I could manage to take the scenic route to the town walls. They do say that the first thing you should do to explore a new city is get lost in it..

Republic of Uzupio

Republic of Uzupio

So for my next sight, I came across a large floodlit church (St Bartholomew’s), beyond which was a (snow-covered) green, a river and some pretty houses with twinkly Christmas lights. As I was surreptitiously trying to take photos of said twinkly lights without looking like a tourist, I realised I’d found the suburb of Užupis, and it had taken me hardly any time to get to, despite it looking quite a trek on the map. Vilnius, I am discovering, has quite a compact old town, so it’s nice and easy to explore.

Uzupio's Emblem (as far as I could work out)

Uzupio’s Emblem (as far as I could work out)

On my wander round, I passed several cosy-looking  bohemian eateries and a rather impressive statue called (I later found) the angel of Užupis, a depiction of the archangel Gabriel blowing his trumpet heralding the rebirth of artistic freedom in Eastern Europe. Or so the legend goes. It certainly engenders that kind of portentous feeling in the observer, at least with the atmospheric uplighting!

Republic of Uzupio

Republic of Uzupio

Užupis is interesting because it’s not actually part of Vilnius or indeed Lithuania, or so its residents would like everyone to think. This is the Independent Republic of Užupis! It was in fact the old Jewish quarter and since the second world war has been home to a variety of the displaced, which in turn attracted bohemians and artists as a haven from the Soviets, and in 1997 they declared themselves independent, complete with their own constitution (which I’ll put in my next post), currency, flag and president, although no-one is quite sure how serious all of that is. It seems to be more a statement of personal freedom and cultural harmony, and perhaps a reminder we shouldn’t take life so seriously anyway.

Marriage Love Locks

Marriage Love Locks over Vilnele

I crossed back over the river Vilnelė (the river which gives Vilnius its name no less) and noticed that the ironwork on the bridge was crammed with padlocks and the occasional ribbon. Puzzled I thought this must  be some bohemian statement, but Lina explained it was more universal than that and that it is a tradition at Lithuanian weddings for couples to “lock their love” with a padlock (inscribed with their names) to a bridge near their home, often as the groom carries his bride across (the Lithuanian threshold perhaps!). Which I thought was really lovely, even the rusty ones that had weathered the ravages of time.

I then made it up the snowy hill to the town walls, although I’m not sure if I found the right bit as the lovely views were a bit obscured by the walls themselves:

Night Time Lights

Night Time Lights

But to finish off the day, Lina took me to her favourite traditional cafe bar, as she’d been craving some sauerkraut soup all day (an excellent hangover cure apparently). I was keen to try the famous Zeppelin potato dumplings and Lina kindly ordered 2 for me without me realising! Man they were good, but there’s no way I could eat two – I was struggling with one. Not only are they basically massive sausages of minced pork wrapped in massive thick wads of potato dumpling, they come (at least at this place) doused in a creamy bacon sauce and a portion of herbs and seasoning. Absolutely delicious, perfect comfort food, and Lina has promised to give me her mother’s recipe for them to take home!

Zeppelin & Gira!

Zeppelin & Gira!

The bar also did some really good beers, some of which were from the local micro brewery. Now I’m not a big fan of beer, or ale, or anything related, but Lina suggested I try “Gira”, which she described as “bread beer”. It’s non alcoholic and quite sweet, with a hint of burnt caramel or honey. She wasn’t sure what went into making it but we both agreed it hit the spot! And after all that stodge, I think I’m ready for bed again and some more well-earned sleeping!

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Filed under Art, Culture, Europe, Food & Drink, Lithuania, Travel

No Sleep for the Wicked

Party Time

This last post has nothing to do with bands (apart from Mammút – hooray for Mammút!), and everything to do with a ridiculous last night in Reykjavik. Well we’d already checked out of our hostel at 10am, and weren’t leaving till 4am, it’d have been rude to stay indoors. After Björk, there were still 6 hours to kill before our bus to the airport, so I headed to Bakkus (shabbily cool bar with cheapest happy hour in Reykjavik) to find Jamie, Kate, Fabian, Rebecca, Veerle and the remnants of said happy hour. And Rebecca from the Grapevine, who I’d met 18 months previously, in Bakkus, and she remembered me – ace surprise!

Gaukur à Stöng

After a very quick stop for G&T at the hostel we legged it to Mammút at Gaukur à Stöng (what used to be Sódóma, and I’m sure many other scuzzy venues before it. It’s still just as scuzzy inside. Excellent). Mammút are punky and attention-grabbing, and it’s not hard to draw comparisons between singer Kata and Gwen Stefani’s breathy feist or even Björk’s colourful vocal range. One of my stand-out bands from last year and 20 times better than that this time round.

Jamie’s shot of Mammut on DrownedinSound (click click)

With 3 more hours to go till our airport bus, we managed to sneak back into Bakkus which was just about to close have a lock in. Result! Cue lots of dancing with the Reykjavik hipsters (I love that I can go out in my walking boots (I’d packed my good shoes already, woops!) and woolly dress in Reykjavik and not get funny looks in the bar. But maybe that’s just me and I’m just used to dressing down when I go out. I also love the way Icelandic women (and men come to think of it) all seem to look confident and classily quirky – maybe it’s the absence of chain clothes stores and abundance of well-stocked charity shops that helps, but more likely the Icelandic sense of individuality. I’ve never seen an orange faced, bad extensioned overweight slapper falling out of her lycra in Reykjavik. Which is refreshing.

Further Entry for #BeardClub

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, dancing in Bakkus. Always fun, the DJs always seem to know how to get people on their feet. We were enjoying it so much we didn’t notice that the reason the music finally stopped was because the cops had clocked the lock-in and came in to ask them to close. Nor did I spot Jónsi, who’d been chatting with his mates 3 tables from us all evening, till we were all gathered outside deciding where to go next. He then very quickly and probably very sensibly disappeared. But at least I didn’t feel like the only Airwaves-er not to have bumped into him over the festival.

i8CD

Now Bob was saying there was a party at i8, and we should go. Did somebody say party?! i8 is a flat above a shop inhabited by two cool Icelandic dudes Steinþór and Atli, and they’ve been having off-venue concerts there the whole of Airwaves. JUST LOOK AT HOW MANY CDs THEY HAVE!!

Stefson/Recipe Cross Continental Supergroup win Edible Oscar at i8

The flat was super busy, full of Airwaves-ers we knew and Airwaves-ers we didn’t, locals and oddments of bands (the two I remember were Random Recipe and Retro Stefson – one of whom had a spirit level with him to measure the level of drunkenness. An Icelandic thing apparently).

Bruce does some measuring of spirits

The tunes & dancing just kept coming, the new people to talk to just kept coming, and we had a right good dance and a right good chatter to most people there. And in the best delivered “oops the neighbours have complained” announcement I’ve ever heard, Steinþór let us think the party was over but then  invited the neighbours too – this was Reykjavik, this is party town! He even charmed the cops who’d “popped in to make sure everything was ok”.

Veerle, me and an actor chap we met called Árni

There were many awesome things about this party (the bottle of Brennivín I was conspiratorially handed from the freezer, with a wink to share it round, was one),

Sharing the Brennvin Love

but the nicest thing I think was that everyone was genuinely welcome. If this had been in the UK, we might have got some self-important sneer of derision from the host, assuming we could have found them, and probably would have felt a bit awkward in a corner somewhere until we left after 20 minutes. But Steinþór and Atli were there all night making sure all their guests were having a good time, and instead of looking at me strangely when I waved and shrieked at him that I’d recognised him from the Inspired by Iceland website, Steinþór stopped and grinned, took the time to teach me how to pronounce his name, and was absolutely insistent that we should enjoy ourselves as much as possible. What a lovely man! Although me saying that has probably done his street cred no good at all.

Steinþór

Then I spotted Atli and he was equally nice to us even when I demanded a photo with him. This was a party you leave because you have to, not because you’re not having fun.

Partying with Atli is fun

But rather reluctantly, leave we had to, with several people’s business cards and flickr and facebook contact details about our persons (later to be peered at in bewilderment). 4.30am came, and we had to say goodbye to Reykjavik and Iceland, and catch our bus to the Airport. And to maybe think about getting some sleep.

Byeeeeee

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Filed under Europe, Festivals, Food & Drink, Iceland, Music, Travel

Saturday Night’s Alright (for fighting)

GusGus at Reykjavik Art Museum

Well I’m back home now and still in need of substantial amounts of sleep after Airwaves. But why exactly am I so sleep-deprived I hear you ask? Well I shall endeavour to remember… Our Airwaves Saturday started with us stumbling to Hresso to see Elephant Stone, a Canadian band that rocks the sitar, which Katie had seen the day before and insisted we check out (they were rather good when we finally did see them).

Random Recipe

But! The timings had gone to cock and we wandered into a stunning set by Random Recipe, wholly more ballsy energetic live than the mediocre youtube clip I’d seen of them pre-festy. Rapper & Beatboxer Fab bounced, jumped, yelled and grinned her way through each song joined in no less equal measure by Frannie on guitar who sang with such passion I thought she’d fall off her seat more than once. Definitely a must-see live and I think possibly my pick of the day for sheer unexpected intensity, freshness and fervour. After the gig we bumped into Haukur from Reykjavik!, and editor of the Reykjavik Grapevine, who tipped us off he’d be playing with Ben Frost at Kaffibarrinn in his performance of Music for 6 Guitars. Kaffibarrin was totally packed, very overheated with toasty bodies of fans, and the best view I could get of the 6 guitarists was this steamed up little snippet:

 Kaffibarrinn Fuzz

Ben Frost does with sinister industrial noise-scapes what you’d expect from someone who has moved from the sunny climes of Australia to the dark winters of Iceland  – intense and twisted, yet strangely warm and soothing, his 6 guitars mesmerised and enveloped us all.

After a bit of a treat involving Icelandic lamb, Arctic Char, and 2 glasses of house red at Sjávargrillið (yum), we found ourselves in Faktory for Ghostigital whose intense and near-maniacal performance was as magnetic as I remember from last year, and kinda set the tone for the rest of the night as it was spent dashing between various venues in 101 and dancing about like a lunatic –

The Beardy Boys’ Queue

probably missing as much as we saw but we had electro in our feet and people to meet at Gus Gus which I’d love to be able to tell you more about but I’d had quite a lot of gin by this point and all I can say is that, as long as you avoided the main street of Laugavegur (whose atmosphere in the early hours of Sunday morning suddenly turned decidedly spiky and aggressive), it was an awful lot of fun. And I managed to collar 2 more Icelandic musicians for A Negative Narrative, plus one look-alike who was very nice about me thinking he was Someone Else Entirely.

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Filed under Europe, Festivals, Food & Drink, Iceland, Music, Travel

Thingy.. what?

AlÞingi at Þingvellir

Yesterday was our last day with our hire car, so we drove back to Reykjavik through Þingvellir (Thingvellir) national park and in effect from Europe to America, and this is where you can see where the Eurasian and American tectonic plates slowly slowly pull apart. Again I’d seen this before on a grey December day but it was glorious to see the natural amphitheatre where modern democracy in Europe was founded in the bright sunshine.

Europe, America & Arctic Char

The lake was a stunning blue and the river that runs through the tectonic rift was clear and full of Arctic Char, the rocks covered in greens and reds of moss and heather. Jamie’s still getting his head round the letter Þ so we settled on “Thingy place” until next time!

Reflections in Þingvellirvatn

Jamie was pretty gutted to be leaving the peace of the countryside and wasn’t all too sure about hitting a big city just yet. But the nice thing about Reykjavik, I think, is that it doesn’t feel like a big city, it feels cosy, relaxed and friendly. Jamie was impressed – it’s not often that you can hear the autumn leaves crunch under your feet in the middle of a capital city. So we went for a little wander, picked up our festival wristbands, took some panoramic shots of the city from the tower at Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral and then I took Jamie for the best hot chocolate in Reykjavik at Hemmi og Valdi on the main street. Let the fun commence!

Skólavörðustígur from Hallgrimskirkja

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Filed under Europe, Festivals, Food & Drink, Iceland, Travel

Cool Kenyan stuff (even though it’s quite warm)

A travel blog wouldn’t be complete without amusingly double-entendrified everyday products, and some photos of ace local stuff. Here is my contribution to the cause:

Doing my laundry by hand was Toss

Here I am with my very own bucket of Toss laundry detergent (available in blue or white varieties, I’m not sure why).

Want to know why Kenyans are so good at running? They run marathons for breakfast. Every day. Here are some of the guys that regularly ran past us on our way to the school:

Faster! Faster!

There are giraffes in our backyard. Well, in the next door field. I shall say no more.

No explanation needed

Awesome views. Especially sunsets. And especially sunsets from Savannah’s bar, set high up on the hillside overlooking the Maasai plains. And of course no electricity means no light pollution, so once the sun has set, the night skies are super clear – you can see galaxies! Unfortunately I’ve not managed as yet to capture this on camera, but bear with me and please believe me for now.

The Savannah Sunset resort. Sadly usually closes at sunset unless invaded by Western volunteers wanting to spend money

The Maasai are one of the more colourful Kenyan peoples. Their gorgeously coloured clothes and handmade beadwork brighten up the dingiest rainy day

Pottering along

OH AND I ALMOST FORGOT! Food is not only amazingly fresh and tasty, it is pretty cheap here. I got ALL THIS for 87p!

Yum.

Yum.

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Filed under Africa, Food & Drink, Kenya, Photography, Travel