Category Archives: Travel

Jam First

Day 1: Polzeath & Port Issac

After a 6 hour drive from south London, we arrived in Cornwall and – knowing we couldn’t check into our accommodation for a little while – headed to Polzeath beach. A couple of hours chilling on the sand, watching the surfers, searching rock pools for crabs, reading, and eating Cornish ice-cream was just what the doctor ordered. 

We’d started…

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Surfer’s Paradise

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End of a Hard Day’s Work

Our first two nights were spent in the tiny fishing village of Port Isaac, with a delicious meal on the first evening at Nathan Outlaw’s Fish Kitchen. Highlights from the seven-course tasting menu included: raw scallop with ginger, cured monkfish with coconut, and whole Dover Sole. Delicious. It was a chilly walk uphill to our flat afterwards, past the harbour and precariously-perched cottages, but probably necessary to work off the baked cheesecake.

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Pretty in Pink

Day 2: Tintagel & Padstow

We were gifted a gloriously sunny day for exploring Tintagel Castle and its picturesque cove. Crossing the natural chasm between clifftops on the newly-built Castle Bridge, you can’t help but gawp in awe at the stunning coastline. The bridge itself is an impressive structure – two cantilevers that stretch towards, but don’t quite meet, each other, leaving a four centimetre gap in the centre (representing, we were told, the transition from present to past). Paved with Cornish slate, to sympathetically blend with the landscape, it unites the two halves of the castle complex for the first time in over 500 years. But would, I imagine, be bloody scary in high winds!

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Gull Poised

Medieval ruins and Arthurian tales await on the far side. And it’s an enjoyable amble across the island, taking the clearly-marked (and now strictly one-way – thanks Covid!) clifftop paths, weaving through the remains of the 13th century fortress. A couple of factoids for you: the tourist site is part of the Prince of Wales’ estate; and is understood to be where Uther Pendragon and Igraine (the Duchess of Cornwall) conceived the boy who would one day pull Excalibur from the stone and acquire himself a Round Table.

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But back to those views…turquoise waters, rugged shorelines, and cliffs stretching into the distance in both directions; seagulls screeching, waves crashing, and the odd seal to be spotted frolicking in the surf. Wow. And worth the ticket price alone to descend to Tintagel Haven (the aforementioned golden-sanded cove) where at low tide you can walk through ‘Merlin’s Cave’, a 300 meter tunnel beneath the island, and wonder at the slender waterfall cascading onto the beach.

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North Cornwall Coast

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Bridge to the Past

After an obligatory Cornish pasty (I went off-piste with a delicious lamb and mint combo), we headed down the coast to Padstow. The little town has been a foodie destination for decades, but apart from seeking out a good-quality cream tea, we didn’t have time to fit in a Stein or Ainsworth on this trip. A pause here to settle a long-standing dispute about scones: jam first, always. Glad that’s sorted.

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We had a quick mosey around the shops and art galleries, before walking to St George’s Cove, just over half a mile from the harbour. And from there, taking advantage of the low tide, sauntered all the way from St Saviour’s Point to Harbour Cove and neighbouring Hawker’s Cove at the mouth of the Camel Estuary. It is here where the sand forms the infamous Doom Bar, the curse of ships for many a century (and from which the local ale gets its name). I am just full of useful information!

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Robinson Crusoe

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Dog Walker’s Dream

Day 3: Camel Valley

The second of our three homestays for the week was close to Porthscatho on the beautiful Roseland Peninsula. Amazing destination, but the least said about this bridging day the better. After an ill-advised attempt to visit the beach at Trebarwith (it was raining and the tide was in, covering every inch of sand), it took us over an hour to get back into Port Isaac for an oyster lunch (the tourist traffic having inexplicably quadrupled). I can’t even eat oysters, so the journey was even more painful.

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Finally en route to the south coast, we made a stop mid-way at Camel Valley vineyard, intending for the non-drivers to enjoy a tasting and the drivers to take in the view and purchase some bottles from the shop. All good in theory. Expect the handbrake on bro-in-law’s car failed and the vehicle ended up amongst the vines, having rolled down a steep incline and smashed through a fence on its way. Oops. 

After a local farmer pulled it out with his Landover, we dusted off the grapes and waved goodbye as it was towed off to a Cornish car graveyard. Not a great day.

Day 4: Minack Theatre and Porthcurno

Whilst our holiday mates dealt with their insurance company, Paul and I drove to the far tip of the county (just 4 miles from Land’s End) to meet up with friends Rob and Laura. The Minack Theatre had been strongly recommended by a few people before the trip, so we were eager to see what the fuss was about. Another fantastically hot and sunny day greeted us, and – since we’d arrived a little early – we had a stroll along the cliffs to Porthchapel Beach. The sea was a vibrant aquamarine, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and it was such a peaceful spot that I could have happily have stayed there forever.

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The Perfect Cove

But then I’d have missed Minack, which was as great as everyone had claimed. An open-air amphitheatre, built completely by hand by Rowena Cade – a rich eccentric – and her gardener Billy in the 1930s, the theatre is quite the spectacle. Perched on a granite outcrop, the seats and stage where chiselled by hand, the sand for cement having been hauled up a man-made stone staircase from the beach below. Dotted with sub-tropical plants, the ocean-view terraces are surely the best seats in any theatre.

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Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Nearby Porthcurno Beach is always found on lists of Cornwall’s best beaches. Often somewhat disingenuously labelled a “hidden gem”, when in reality everyone is quite clear where to find it! We had a really lovely, chilled out afternoon on the sand, eating crab sandwiches and ice-creams, reading and watching Harvey (their dog) frolic in the waves. I even donned Rob’s rash vest and braved the sea myself…absolutely bloody freezing, but fantastic once you were immersed.

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“Hidden Gem”

Fish and chips on a clifftop bench back at the Peninsula rounded off a pretty memorable day. You don’t even need to worry about gulls nicking your chips in Cornwall; they’re much more refined than their Kentish cousins!

Day 5: St Mawes and Heligan

Wednesday dawned grey and, surprisingly, a little chilly. Ditching plans for the beach, we instead drove to Kastel Lannvowsedh – one of King Henry VIII’s seaside fortresses – in nearby St Mawes. Not particularly exciting, but the village itself is worth a visit. Situated at the southern end of the Peninsula, looking across the Fal Estuary towards Fraggle Rock lighthouse (yes, the Fraggle Rock!), the small village has a charming harbour, a decent selection of boutique shops and delis, good pasties, and – on a sunny day – plenty of seafront terraces for enjoying your cream tea.

Buoyed by the promise of afternoon sun, our next destination was the much-lauded Lost Gardens of Heligan near Mevagissey. Very glad, in retrospect, to have slotted this into the schedule. A restored Victorian Pleasure Garden, the eclectic mix of alpine ravines, ancient woodland, hothouses, sub-tropical jungle, kitchen gardens and farmland pasture are a delight to explore. Having taken several dozen photos there, I decided it deserved a post of its own, so click on the link above to take a gander.

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Seafood Nirvana

And the clouds did indeed clear, providing perfect conditions for the walk and leading to a glorious harbourside sunset later that evening. Which we enjoyed from local fish restaurant The Watch House, where we tucked into grilled tiger prawns from the plancha, crispy squid and possibly the best lemon sole with caper butter I’ve ever eaten.

Day 6: Porthcurnick and St Just

Luckily, Chris and Ching’s final morning was hot and bright, with endless blue sky. And so – packing our picnic blankets, sun-cream and flip flops – we descended on Porthcurnick Beach. Another of the picture-perfect coves we’d travelled so far to discover. The beach has become famous for its café (The Hidden Hut), from which we purchased a very tasty crab and fennel chowder at lunchtime. More swimming, reading and lounging ensued, as boats bobbed on the calm waters, and I spent a long while contemplating how very fortunate I am.

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Charmed Life

Before journeying to our final stop, Paul and I called in at the very attractive Saint-Just-in-Roseland, a chapel and gardens perched beside a tidal creek ten minutes from Portscatho. Described by John Betjeman as “to many people the most beautiful churchyard on earth”, the much-visited 6th century Celtic shrine is really quite bewitching. Local legend has it that Joseph of Arimathea brought his boy nephew, Jesus, to Cornwall, landing in this spot. But you don’t have to believe that to enjoy the alluring trail around jumbled, lop-sided gravestones and ogle at the splintered rowing boats strewn across the creek.

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Bless-ed Aspect

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Waiting for the Tide

Arriving in Fowey late afternoon, we checked in to our fisherman’s cottage and quickly headed to the estuary to witness the golden rays dipping below the horizon. Heavenly! We fell in love with the town immediately. Only helped by the amazing choice of restaurants. Dinner was at the superlative Appleton’s on Fore Street, where we devoured tempura’d anchovies, sardella, octopus with n’duja and monk’s beard, squid ink linguine, beef with wild garlic, and bee pollen cake. In snatched moments over the coming days, the RightMove app was scoured for affordable properties on the esplanade.

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Gluttony

Day 7: Polruan and Fowey

A short ride on the petite “ferry” to Bodinnick the next morning saw us on a 7km National Trust walk around the tributary to Polruan, passing the small hamlet of Pont and taking in the gorgeous views across to Fowey from the opposite bank. With slightly aching legs, we congratulated ourselves with moules marinière at Lugger Inn (a must!) and an amble around the delightful streets of Polruan (another potential option for our seaside relocation project).

Back on the other side, an ice-cream at dinky Readymoney Cove was followed by a happy hour or two browsing the independent shops of Fowey: a variety of of nautical and aquatic wrapping paper getting purchased.

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Colours at Dusk

Day 8: Lerryn and Par Sands

The next morning we arrived at Golant at high tide to join our guided kayaking trip on the river. Having learned how enjoyable sculling can be on a previous trip to New Orleans, I’d pre-booked the excursion weeks before and arrived brimming with excited anticipation. Despite his world-weary demeanour, the guide was informative and helpful with suggestions for improving technique. We paddled into “Wind in the Willows” Creek (Kenneth Grahame having holidayed frequently in the area and chosen it as the setting for his story), along to the picturesque village of Lerryn (where we stopped for lunch) and then looped back past the quaint quaysides and private jetties that dot the banks.

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Pulling My Weight

The latter part of the afternoon was spent relaxing in the dunes at nearby Par Sands. A contradiction of a beach, with pretty countryside in one direction but an unattractive china clay works in the other. Positioning ourselves correctly, we stayed until the evening light began to glint on the surf, then headed to dinner at Fitzroy. Wow! My lobster was huge and juicy, and the sea buckthorn meringue a revelation. Such a shame this place closes for the winter months, otherwise I’d have booked a second trip to Fowey immediately!

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Dreaming of Returning

God’s Own County

“I won’t know for sure if Malhamdale is the finest place there is until I have died and seen heaven (assuming they let me at least have a glance), but until that day comes, it will certainly do” – Bill Bryson

On our recent road trip, visiting family in Yorkshire and Cumbria post-lockdown, we wanted to take advantage of having the car and see more of the Dales. Malhamdale was the natural choice. Our outing took in Janet’s Foss (‘foss’ being the old Norse for waterfall); Gordale Scar, a huge gorge with accompanying babbling brook; quintessential sheep farms; and finally Malham Cove, a huge natural limestone cliff that was once a spectacular prehistoric waterfall.

For over a million years, Malham has been repeatedly covered by giant sheets of ice, and the glaciers ground away the rock and carried away large chunks of the landscape. Each time the glaciers melted, floods of water then further eroded the face of the Cove, leaving us with the stunning natural beauty spot of today. No wonder tourists flooded (see what I did there?) to the site as soon as Covid restrictions were lifted. Luckily, there were very few people to spoil the view on the Monday we visited. Perfect for practising some landscape photography.

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Paul waterfall

Final photo Credit: Paul Adnitt

Tarn and Country

GLORY on glory greets our wondering sight

As we wind down these slopes; mountain and plain

Robed in rich sunshine, and the distant main

Lacing the sky with silver; and yon height,

So lately left in clouds, distinct and bright.

Anon the mist enwraps us; then again

Burst into view lakes, pastures, fields of grain,

And rocky passes, with their torrents white.

So on the head, perchance, and highest bent

Of thine endeavor, Heaven may stint the dower

Of rich reward long hoped; but thine ascent

Was full of pleasures, and the teaching hour

Of disappointment hath a kindly voice,

That moves the spirit inly to rejoice.

– Henry Alford

My father-in-law moved to Cumbria a few years ago, which means lots of long walks around glistening lakes and over craggy fells whenever we visit. The good thing about photography is that it gives you an excuse to rest and get your breath back, as your much fitter relative strides purposefully ahead. You can pretend to be admiring the handsome Herdwick sheep, for example, or be intent on capturing the dappled sunlight on a rock…anything to slow down the pace and save face.

The Lake District is stunning. We have spent happy times inland: clambering over slate at Honister to reach the stunning views over Buttermere; slipping and sliding on damp rocks to reach Aira Force; eating fish & chips from the viewpoint above Derwentwater; slogging over miles of moorland on Askham Fell, sleet pounding our faces and wind whipping in our ears….ok, that last one was less fun. But you get the idea. And on our last visit, we made it out to the west coast for a sunny walk along the cliffs between Whitehaven and St Bees. Lighthouses, cormorants, pebble coves, and an ice-cream at the end to boot: glorious!

There are also places nearby perfect for extended stays. A few Christmases ago, in a frankly inspired move, Paul and I tagged on a night in Cartmel (of sticky toffee pudding fame), where we ate (and slept) in the amazing L’Enclume. Not something we can afford to do often, but a real treat. I’d really recommend.

And we have plenty more to do. Hoping, for instance, to re-book to see the baby alpacas at Bassenthwaite distillery (a victim of Covid); to build up the stamina to take the (easy) route up Blencathra; and to explore some of the lesser-known tarns and waters.

This is my first tandem blog post. A collaboration with the aforementioned – and very talented – FIL. Except…well, it’s kinda become a guest blog with just a few of my own photos thrown in. Dave is a much better landscape photographer than I am!

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Buttermere

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 Scafell range from Styhead (Credit: Dave Adnitt)

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Moor Divock

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Catbells (Credit: Dave Adnitt)

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Blencathra summit from Scales Fell (Credit: Dave Adnitt)

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Lone Birch (Credit: Dave Adnitt)

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Fleetwith Pike

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Tarn Hows (Credit: Dave Adnitt)

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Ashness boat landing, Derwentwater

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Ullswater

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Haweswater (Credit: Dave Adnitt)

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St Bees Head

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North western fells (Credit: Dave Adnitt)

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Whitehaven

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Lowther Estate (Credit: Dave Adnitt)

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Castlerigg Stone Circle (Credit: Dave Adnitt)

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Honister Pass

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Pooley Bridge (Credit: Dave Adnitt)

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Skiddaw (Credit: Dave Adnitt)

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Buttermere Pano

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Sunset at Derwentwater (Credit: Dave Adnitt)

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 Lonscale Fell and Skiddaw from Tewet Tarn (Credit: Dave Adnitt)

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Dock Tarn over Borrowdale (Credit: Dave Adnitt)

Down on the Bayou

Whilst in Louisiana, I’d definitely recommend taking a break from the frenetic music schedule and heading into the wetlands. We had a truly memorable morning kayaking in Shell Bank Bayou in Manchec Swamp. You can easily organise transport through various companies. Despite a mixed weather forecast (you can never trust the forecast in this State!), we were treated to stunning blue skies, which showed off the clear water, green algae, cypress and tupelo trees in all their glory. Two alligators were spotted, along with white egret, turtles and a blue heron. The number of photos will probably make you sympathetic to Paul’s claims he was doing most of the work!

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Festing In Place

After surviving fire, rain and even Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans’ Jazz Fest succumbed to the Covid-19 outbreak and was cancelled this year for the first time in its fifty-year history. A sad state of affairs. A great number of fans are, however, tuning into WWOZ (a fantastic non-profit, community-supported radio station in Louisiana), to listen to classic sets from the festival’s back catalogue in their gardens or living rooms. And some are going all out: dressing in signature garish Hawaiian shirts, barbecuing in hats and beads, baking beignets and cooking gumbo. Puts a smile back on your face!

It’s inevitably made me nostalgic for past Fests though. So I’ve dug out a few more photos (mostly my own, but with a few of the official ones thrown in). I’m listening to Trombone Shorty this morning and remembering jumping up-and-down excitedly to his closing set – after one too many frozen daiquiris – as the sun was going down over Tremé. Aaah…

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Pest and Buda

Returning to my archive to cover some trips that have been callously omitted. First off: the Hungarian capital, Budapest. Which I visited in 2012 with my dad. Remember 2012? When the world seemed bright and full of promise. London hosted the Olympics; the Mars Rover landed; the Queen celebrated her Diamond Jubilee; a human* broke the sound barrier; Obama was re-elected…. Of course, some crap things happened too, but – on balance – a pretty good year!

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Anyhoo, late August 2012 saw us checking into a lovely hotel atop Castle Hill in historic Buda, on the west bank of the Danube. Now…I’ve discovered I can’t find my notebook from this holiday. So I won’t attempt to accurately recount the order in which we did things. And – possibly to most people’s relief – I can’t remember the names of any of the restaurants we frequented either. Although I do recall a very lovely goulash served in a hollowed out bread roll on the castle green. And the cake and pâtisseries from the famous New York Café on Erzsébet. The latter is lauded as one of – if not the – most elegant cafes in the world: a cavernous, ornate Italian renaissance building with stunning chandeliers, frescoes and marbled columns. A must, especially if you’re visiting the Jewish quarter in flatter Pest, a short walk across the Chain Bridge.

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Sticking with that area, then, a visit to Dohány Synagogue is well worth it. It’s the largest in Europe, with a capacity of over 3,000. A beautiful Moorish Revival structure, it’s the centre of Neolog Judaism. Not far away, I’d also recommend the Iparművészeti Múzeum – the Museum of Applied Arts, a stunning Art Nouveau building with bright green tiled roof and an interior comprising Islamic, Mogul and Hindu design. It’s full of interesting furniture, textiles and glass-works. There were also various manuscripts on display when we visited. Hungarian is a Uralic language, one of only a few non Indo-European languages in the world, and in the same family as Finnish and Estonian. So it was interesting to learn a little more about it.

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On one of our afternoons we also visited the City Park, packing our swimwear to spend a few hours at Széchenyi Baths. This is, I believe, the largest spa bath in Europe, with three large outdoor pools and numerous indoor medicinal baths. Built in 1913, the vivid-yellow Modern Renaissance building is fed by natural hot spring waters. In a city famed for its spas, dating back to the Roman settlers and expanded by the Turks in the 16-17th centuries, this is one of the most accessible and reasonably-priced spas, promoting a range of aqua therapies. It’s certainly a great way to chill out after a morning of heavy sight-seeing!

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On another day we found ourselves on Margitsziget (Isla Margarita), a pedestrianised haven in the middle of the Danube. The 2.5km long island contains the ruins of a convent, lovely gardens, an octagonal water tower hosting temporary exhibitions and some beautiful – and refreshing – fountains. It was an incredibly hot day when we visited, and we needed frequent stops for ice-cold drinks, ice-creams and slushies. I think on the same day we’d climbed the dome at Szent István Bazilika, to take in the views across the city. So had arrived at the park already exhausted. Szent István (St. Stephen) was the first King of Hungary, and his “incorruptible” right hand can be found in the church’s reliquary. Our trip actually coincided with St. Stephen’s Day (20th August), a national holiday celebrating the foundation of the Hungarian state. The streets were decorated; we saw an aerial show over the impressive Parliament Building; there were various craft fairs; and a huge firework display in the evening.

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The final two things I remember visiting in Pest were Hősök tere (Heroes’ Square) and Vajdahunyad Castle. The former is a large crescent plaza with statues of the seven chieftains of the Magyars (the settlers of Hungary) and a tall column atop which the Archangel Gabriel sits, holding the Hungarian holy crown. The latter is found on the edge of City Park and was built in the late 19th century as part of a Millennial Exhibition celebrating a thousand years since the Hungarian Conquest of the Carpathian Basin (i.e. the founding of Hungary). There’s a very pretty boating lake around the castle, and it’s particularly attractive at golden hour, just before the sunset.

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Back over the bridge in Buda, there’s plenty more to explore. The ancient capital sits proud, looking down on the river and the modern city beyond. It’s Old Town streets are full of colourful houses, boutiques, cafés and little galleries. Uri utea (Gentleman’s Street) is a particularly nice thoroughfare, but it’s worth a longer wander around the cobblestoned area. As well as strolling the Várkerület District, home of Buda Castle.

The castle was first built in the 13th century to provide protection from the Mongols. Today’s 18th century incarnation is a Baroque Palace complex, containing the National Library, Hungarian National Galley and Budapest History Museum. The whole area is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. My favourite part of the Palace was the enormous Mátyás kútja (Matthias Fountain), outside of which we caught the end of a classical concert on an evening stroll.

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The wider Buda area also boasts Mátyás-templom, an 11th century church that’s considered one of the most unique on the continent. A mixture of Neo-Gothic architecture with a healthy dose of Romanticism and Orientalism thrown in, the building was host to the coronations of Hungarian Kings for centuries. During it’s varied history, it was used as a mosque for 150 years by the Ottoman Turks, and later owned by Jesuits, Franciscans and Catholics. Stunning both in daytime and illuminated at night.

There are a couple of important statues nearby. Holy Trinity commemorates the people of Buda who died from two outbreaks of the Black Plague, which swept Europe in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The statue itself was meant to protect the city, following the first outbreak, but when the pestilence returned they built it bigger in order to make doubly-certain next time. There’s a also a huge bronze statue of Szent István riding his horse.

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The latter is located within the absolutely glorious Halászbástya (the Fisherman’s Bastion). So named because the stretch of castle wall on which it’s built was said to be protected by the Guild of Fisherman in the middle ages. By far my favourite spot in the city: the Neo-Romanesque fairy-tale castle has multiple white turrets, arches and lookout terraces with panoramic views over the River Danube and across to the Parliament Building. It was from here that we watched the fireworks and I could have happily wiled away the hot afternoons reading on the Bastion’s walls.

Oooh, I just remember we also went on a boat trip down the river. Not sure how this fit into the schedule, but there you go. Basically, I’d heartily recommend a long weekend in this handsome city!

*I remembered (i.e. googled) that this was Felix Baumgartner. FYI.

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The Legacy of Little Boy

Day 12 of our trip to Honshu. We disembarked the bullet train late morning and made our way to the most conveniently-located of all our accommodation on the trip: Hotel Granvia, a soulless glass edifice attached to the Shinkansen Line at Hiroshima’s central station. We had (rightly, it turned out) prioritised ease and accessibility over interest, given it was only a two-night stay. It was also, I have to admit, quite nice to have the option of a “Western style” breakfast for a change. As much as I was loving rice porridge, mackerel, rose-hip jelly, onsen tamasgo and other delights, I’d started to crave a bacon butty.

Dropping our bags at reception, we made our way effortlessly to the Peace Memorial Park via the city’s efficient tram and train network. So far, so good. But there endeth our insouciance. I’m not going to sugar-coat this: it was a tough afternoon. As soon as you see the carcass of the A-Bomb Dome, a quiet, persistent forlornness descends and refuses to be shaken. Even on the sunniest of days. I walked through that park with legs of lead, taking in the dreadful certainty and enormity of man’s propensity for evil.

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The museum, though excellent, is overwhelming and too much to fully take in on one visit. And in the cavernous, subterranean Peace Hall, I allowed tears to come, given words would not. Only the crowds of children handing out small origami cranes allowed, finally, a sense of lightness to return. Although their poems and songs, recited at the Children’s Memorial at the direction of their teacher, left me choked up again. It’s a strange irony that the atomic bomb was nicknamed Little Boy, given the thousands of infants who died, either at the time or from leukaemia in the aftermath. The Memorial is a fitting dedication to the young victims of the atrocity, adorned with hundreds of brightly coloured and patterned cranes.

I was pretty ignorant of the significance of the crane before our visit. The Japanese refer to it as the “bird of happiness”; with its wings believed to carry souls to paradise. Traditionally, it was believed that if one folded a thousand origami cranes, your wish would come true. Sadako Sasaki – a young girl who died from radiation-induced cancer ten years after the bomb – famously set about making a thousand cranes from her hospital bed using medicine wrappings, the paper from other patients’ get-well presents, and anything else she could scrounge together. Accounts differ as to whether she completed the task or whether her school friends finished for her, posthumously. But the story has become a symbol of hope and healing during challenging times.

A bath and nap were needed next, before a calming drink on the 22nd floor of the hotel. It was only then that I felt able to discuss what we’d seen and how it had made me feel. I’m not naïve enough to have expected to be unaffected by the experience, but I hadn’t appreciated just how much of a gut punch it would be. Luckily, I had Paul to help me shake off the day and ground myself back in the present. Helped enormously by a fantastic barbecue fish meal and delicious range of sakes at Guttsurian near the port, later that evening.

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Our second day was spent on Miyajima Island, part of the Setonaikai National Park, just a short ferry trip from the city. This is where you find the Giant “Floating” Torii Gate, which adorns many a postcard. Arriving at low tide, we were able to walk on the beach up to, and under, the colossal structure. Mightily impressive. But much more of a sight to behold in the evening, partially submerged by the sea. More on that later!

There’s so much more to Miyajima than the Gate, however, and if you fail to go up Mount Misen then you’re really missing out. Our trip up the mountain started at Daishō-in Temple in the foothills, where you are directed to climb the pagoda and pray at the shrine for an end to nuclear armament. As well as the usual halls and statues, the beautiful temple complex includes a cave filled with 88 icons representing the temples of the Shikoku Pilgrimage (on Japan’s fourth largest island). Another unusual feature is the row of spinning metal wheels inscribed with sutra (Buddhist scriptures) that line the stairs of the temple. Guests are encouraged to turn the inscriptions as they walk up, which – it is said – has the same effect as reading them. So, without any knowledge of Japanese, you can benefit from the blessings that the reading of sutra is believed to bestow.

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Having stopped to buy an antique sake jug from a market stall, and a freshly-baked Momiji (a maple-leaf shaped sweet bean cake, popular on the island), we next continued up through Momijidani Park to the cable car station. The journey up the mountain proceeds in two stages, with the second cable ride really quite high (and not a little hairy). Disembarking at Shishi-iwa, we continued on foot to the summit. I’m struggling to recall now, but I think it was about a 20-30 minute walk. En route, we stopped at Reikado to see the “eternal flame” – disappointingly not the one made famous by The Bangles, but one supposedly ignited by Kobo Dashi over a millennia ago. It was from this original flame that the one in the Peace Park was set ablaze. For more on the legend of Kobo Dashi, see my separate blog post Monks, Spirits & Fire.

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Atop the Observation Deck at last, we marvelled at the stunning views from Misen’s peak…and took many a panoramic photo of the shewn boulders, tree canopy and surrounding islands. With the sun beating down, I distinctly remember scanning my surrounds and thinking what a lucky bugger I was!

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Rather than return by aerial tramway, we walked back via the Daisho route. There are about three or four different trails you can choose from for your descent – I can’t comment on the others, but Daisho was very pleasant. Mostly shaded woodland, the path also meanders past a lovely waterfall. About an hour into the otherwise solitary ~1.25hr stroll, we passed a succession of hardy souls making the ascent, each one asking (with hopeful anticipation) if they were nearly at the top. Struggling to hide their disappointment on learning they were far from the half-way mark, one (I would say rather sensible) woman glowered at her boyfriend and turned on her heel, heading in the direction of the cable car. On a hot day, I would definitely advise doing it our way around.

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Back at the base, we treated ourselves to a purple sweet potato ice-cream (nicer than it sounds) and a beer (or shochu cooler, in my case) from the local brewery, before visiting Itsukushima Shrine on the water’s edge. By now close to high tide, we navigated the creaking wooden walkways teetering on stilts, admiring the gorgeous views out to sea. Consisting of a main hall, prayer building and noh theatre stage (on which people gather at dusk to watch music, dance and dramatic performances), Itsukushima has been a holy site since the 12th century. Compared to many of the other temples and shrines, there’s not too much of interest to explore here. But the wow factor follows sunset.

After sating ourselves with a delicious soba okonomiyaki, we returned to see the shrine and “floating” torii illuminated and dozens of lanterns springing alight. Dangling our feet over the pier, we watched the sun slowly dip beyond the horizon and the scene gradually become more and more magical. Free-roaming sika deer meandered across the beach, stopping occasionally to steal a guidebook or nibble crackers; and I sighed deep contentment. A wonderful (near) end to our holiday.

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The Big Mikan

Landing at Haneda airport at 6am is a discombobulating experience. The airport was fairly quiet, neither of us had managed much sleep on the plane, everyone seemed to be wearing surgical face masks (and this was way before the current Covid-19 outbreak), and all the signs were confusing. Luckily, Paul was prepared. Adeptly navigating the building using a site map downloaded back in England, he sourced our pre-ordered portable wi-fi and JR passes with charm and easy. Whilst I groggily bumbled around, trying not to slow him down.

Joining early morning commuters on the monorail to Hamamatsucho, we somehow managed to change onto the Yamanote line and arrive in Shibuya without issue. So far, so good. Having expected to get hideously lost, I have to admit that the hubby’s preparation paid off. With several hours before we could check into our Air BnB, we left our luggage in lockers at the 109 Building (top tip!), posed for photos on the famous scramble crossing and picked up a pastry for breakfast.

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Feeling a little more alive, and a lot more amenable to Tokyo, we embarked on our first day of sight-seeing, heading away from the bustle of Shibuya and up to the calm serenity of Meiji Jingū Shrine. It was a really hot day and the route took us alongside and over large expanses of tarmac, but the slog was worth it. The impressive complex is dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken, and is a great introduction to the city. Walking under big, stone torii gates and past rows of kazaridaru (sake barrels) – serving as decorative displays honouring the gods – we found ourselves arriving at the shrine just as a wedding procession was passing through.

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Learning that you need to wash your hands, rinse your mouth and spit out before entering a shrine, and that bow-bow-clap-clap-bow (or ni-rei ni-hakusyu ichi-rei, in Japanese) is the appropriate order when showing gratitude to the gods, we felt duly set up for the rest of our trip! Having explored the buildings, we walked through the gardens and down to the koi pond, noting the requisite heron and turtles. See my Kyoto blog for a fuller explanation of their significance in Japanese lore.

After all that walking, we were hungry again, so walked down Omotesandō (a popular tree-lined shopping street) and tucked into grilled gyoza and miso cucumber at Harajuku Gyouzarou. And, for good measure, some kaarage chicken at Commune 2nd, a nearby street food yard (think Dinerama, if you’re a Londoner).

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Wandering the cable-strewn backstreets, we popped out at Takeshita Dōri – the teenage epicentre of Tokyo. I can’t quite describe how bonkers this street is: it’s full of candy-floss eating, selfie-posing princesses, mingling with platform-trainer-wearing punks and leather-attired goths, all of them eating bubble-gum pink ice-cream and disappearing into mysterious apartments advertising photo ops with litters of mameshiba puppies. Yeah, me neither! You can find some of my photos of the area at Nihon no seikatsu and in my food blog 29 Seasons of Tofu. It couldn’t be more different to the shrine we’d visited earlier, with it’s solemn, votive-wielding pilgrims. But that’s the beauty of Japan, and of Tokyo in particular: the ultra-modern and the ancient happily co-existing.

Needing a rest, we navigated back to the scramble crossing, picked up our luggage and attempted to find our Air BnB, which – with the aid of our protable wi-fi – we were assured was very close. Another tip for you: do not attempt to short-cut through the Mark City Building to reach…anywhere! After our fourth attempt at finding a top-floor exit and more trips up and down escalators than anyone needs in a lifetime, we finally emerged – sweaty and grouchy – vowing always to take the ‘long route’ from now on. Luckily, the flat really wasn’t far from that point, tucked away on Sakuragaokacho. Like most accommodation in Japan, it was TINY. But had a comfy bed, and that was all that mattered. We would stay in much more impressive home-stays and hotels on the rest of our trip, but had judged – correctly – that Tokyo wasn’t the place to bother. We hardly spent any time at all in the flat.

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In the evening, we explored the neighbourhood and ate amazing yakiniku (Japanese barbeque) at Han no Daidokoro Bettei. Again, I won’t repeat what’s in my food blog – so check that out for a full description and photos.

The next morning saw us in Tsukiji Market. What a fantastic place! It’s exactly what I wanted it to be: crowded, vast, smelly, colourful, rough-around-the-edges, and absolutely bursting with fantastic food stalls, offering delicacies I’d never tried before (and some I possibly won’t ever try again!). The fresh, grilled eel slathered in sticky soy was particularly good; as was the octopus and cabbage croquette, black pig dumpling, tamagoyaki (sushi omelette made in traditional tin skillets); scallops in miso; dried pond fish, nikuman (pork bun), tuna sashimi and matcha ice-cream. You need to be a little assertive, pointing clearly at what you’d like and thrusting money at the stallholders. Otherwise, you get shouted over by the hundreds of Japanese locals and tourists who are just as eager to try everything.

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It’s also worth exploring the inner market, where the tuna and other wholesale fish auctions take place each morning. You have to be there super-early to witness it in action – we didn’t make it this time – but it’s definitely worth popping into anyway, to catch the military wash-down and clean-up operation.

Close to the market are a couple of shrines worth poking your nose in and the beautiful Hama-rikyū Onshi-teien gardens. Like so many of the parks and gardens in Japan, I’d definitely like to return to see at its peak: with autumn foliage or adorned with cheery blossoms. Whilst generally green and lacking flora at this time of year, the Edo-period expanse was a welcome respite and the central pond, traditional tea-house and vantage points over nearby Ginza district were great.

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From Hama-rikyū, you can catch a waterbus to Asakusa. Cue Pitch Perfect jokes (you’ll know if you know). The trip up the river is interesting enough in itself, the boat passing by factories, high-rises and gleaming glass edifices – a bit like a trip on the Thames to Canary Wharf. But, it’s the destination that’s the killer: Sensō-ji temple in Asakusa. Completed in 645, it’s Tokyo’s oldest temple – a bright red, busy daily place of worship smack bang in the middle of a commercial district. Legend has it that two brothers “caught” a statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, whilst fishing in the Sumida River; and even though they tossed the statue back, it kept returning to them. So the temple was built in honour of Kannon.

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You enter through Kaminarimon (the Thunder Gate), proceed down Nakamise – a centuries’ old, 200 meter long shopping street – and reach the second gate, Hozomon, through which you find the main hall, shrine and five-storey pagoda. People flock here to ‘bathe’ in holy smoke from the massive incense burner (the jokoro), believed to heal wounds, and to give thanks to the goddess. I’d have liked to stay longer and see the complex illuminated at sunset, but it had already been a long day…

With aching legs, we made our way home to Shibuya, to shower and change for dinner. A very swish and tasty meal at Argile in Ginza (highlights being the crunchy red snapper with dashi and the barbary duck with shitake) was followed by digestifs at Bar Evans and Fire, and an obligatory Japanese whisky in Nonbei Yokocko (‘drinker’s alley’), at a bar so tiny only about three people could fit in at any one time.

Day three in the city, our last before heading off to Kyoto, was mainly spent taking in some modern art and culture in Roppongi. Admiring the stunning National Art Center, visiting a sensational exhibition of Japanese Architecture at the Mori Art Museum, and taking in ‘Tokyo City View’

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Later in the afternoon we visited the district of Daikanyama, often referred to as the Brooklyn of Tokyo: all cute coffee shops, micro-breweries, chocolate shops and various buildings featured in the Wallpaper guide. If I visit again, I’d choose to stay in this neighbourhood. Whilst there, we also popped into the Kyu Asakura House, a private ‘mansion’ residence built in the early 20th century, surrounded by a roji-style garden with sculpted bonsai, bright moss covered tree roots, stone lanterns, and colourful flowers and shrubs. Would certainly recommend a visit.

Our final evening was spent chasing the elusive perfect yakitori in Omoide-Yokocho (‘Memory Lane’), a maze of little alleys near Shinjuku station (officially the scariest in the world). Then drinking too much rum and whisky in JBS, a tiny bar run by a jazz, soul and blues vinyl enthusiast who doesn’t seem to speak a word of English (or chooses not to). An odd experience, since he seems to close the bar at whatever time he chooses, and admit or refuse people at whim. We were obviously deemed acceptable, but a backpacker who arrived 30 minutes later, and had clearly sought the place out, was turned away. Not complaining though: it adds to the secretive allure of the place. A great way to end our stay in the city.

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