A trip down memory lane

18 01 2011

I’ve just got back from an interesting trip down memory lane – or, more specifically, a visit to the famous Chatsworth estate in Derbyshire.

I’ve blogged before about how separate visits to the same place can leave you with completely different impressions (see my posts on Madrid), but Derbyshire is different: it’s where I grew up and, despite numerous return trips to see my family since moving away 10 years ago, even to this day I tend to associate it with teenage boredom (it may be a county full of dramatic landscapes and picture-perfect villages, but when you’re 15 it’s difficult to see past the fact that it takes two buses and a long walk to get to the cinema).

So, when my parents suggested a walk around Chatsworth over the Christmas break, my first instinct was to say no – after all, I had been dragged around its seemingly endless maze of stately rooms and formal gardens enough times on school trips. But, having eaten one too many mince pies, I knew I needed a bit of exercise and begrudgingly tagged along.

I’m glad I did. Wandering along the banks of the meandering river, past grazing deer and crumbling water mills, with the monolithic Chatsworth House rising eerily out of the mist on the opposite bank, I began to appreciate the beauty which I had so often ignored. And I rediscovered some forgotten childhood memories – the fun I had hurtling down slides, swaying on ropes and clambering up trees in the estate’s adventure playground, the farmyard where my lifelong obsession with creatures great and small may have taken root, and the cascading water fountain where I used to play pirates (and where I once fell over and slashed my knee).

But it wasn’t just Chatsworth that changed my impression of my former home county. We also paid a visit to Bakewell’s farmers market, reputedly the second largest such market in the UK, with stalls crammed full of juicy pickles, fragrant cheeses and rich chocolate cake. And we spent time in Derby, whose charmingly quirky cobbled lanes and curious history (it’s reputedly the most haunted city in England, though I hear York is vying for the title) had faded from my memory.

I can’t pretend I’ll ever want to live in such a rural area again – I’ve always been a city girl at heart – but from now on whenever I go back to Derbyshire I’m going to make an effort to remove the blinkers and explore places which my teenage self had dismissed.

Of course, the adventure playground was still the highlight of my week – after all, we never really grow up do we?

A taste (and a whiff) of travel

23 11 2010

I’ve heard it said several times that smell evokes the strongest memories out of all the five senses. It certainly makes sense: many places I’ve visited are now in my mind strongly associated with a particular odour. When I think of Paris, for example, I immediately remember the slight whiff of burnt rubber that pervades the metro system. It’s a bizarre memory, but it’s a smell that featured heavily in my daily life in the city, where I spent at least an hour every morning commuting.

It’s perhaps no surprise then that food also plays a prominent role in most of my travel memories – after all, taste is closely linked to smell (and, what’s more, I love to eat!). When I think of Barcelona, the rich flavours of the chorizo al horno and the lemon-soaked prawns I used to gorge on in my favourite tapas restaurant (Ciutat Comtal on Rambla de Catalunya, if you’re interested) immediately spring to mind. Conversely, whenever my boyfriend remembers our recent trip to Japan he can’t help thinking about the taste of what he refers to as ‘the tentacles’ (deep-fried, battered octopus legs which are a speciality of the island of Miyajima) – unfortunately not a pleasant memory for him. But he does have some fond food-related memories of our travels together too: the delicate sword fish carpaccio we enjoyed at a an ivy-clad courtyard restaurant in Certaldo Alto, Tuscany; and the steak he tucked into in South Africa’s Cape Winelands, which he maintains to this day is the best slab of meat he’s ever tasted, and the meaty gyoza dumplings which warmed us up after a day spent searching for snow monkeys in the freezing Japanese Alps.

My recent trip to Madrid is a perfect example of the importance of exploring a place through food. As you might know, I haven’t always got on well with Madrid, thanks to a series of minor disaster which have marred my previous stays in the Spanish capital. But I now have many happy memories of the city and, at the risk of sounding greedy, they’re mostly linked to eating. The weird but wonderful apple and blue cheese-filled pasta I sampled at vegetarian restaurant Isla del Tesoro (trust me, it will convert even the most hardened carnivores); the enormous plate of chorizo I worked my through at a tiny and rather shabby pavement café in the Retiro, accompanied by a glass of cheap red wine and a dose of sunshine; the crisp, sugar-sprinkled skin and soft, doughy inside of the churros I enjoyed at a street stall hidden among the crooked alleyways of the old city… I could go on, but it’s making my stomach rumble so I’ll stop there.

So what about your food memories? What tastes and smells remind you of certain places? And what are you culinary must-eats around the globe?

Third time lucky in Madrid?

6 10 2010

As regular followers will know, my mum and I have recently returned from our annual cocktail-guzzling, shop-till-you drop, leave-the-men-behind break in Spain. I normally look forward to these annual mother and daughter jaunts to the Iberian peninsula, but this year was different. Why? Our destination was Madrid – a city with which I share a bad history.

My previous trips to the Spanish capital have coincided with strikes, flight cancellations, torrential downpours, bouts of food poisoning and a Spanish royal wedding (meaning most of the sights were closed for security sweeps). As a result, I’ve tended to falsely think of Madrid as an austere, grey-tinged city. I was determined that this time would be different.

Things didn’t get off to a good start: within an hour of landing on Spanish soil, somewhere between Barajas airport and our hotel, my mum lost her passport. After retracing our steps (and even searching bins – not a pleasant experience), we resigned ourselves to spending our first day filling in police reports and going to the British Embassy for a replacement – rather than wandering the narrow streets in the old town and stopping for a cerveza or two as we’d planned.

After breakfast the next morning, we duly headed off on the metro, my mum trying all the while to make light of the situation while I sat on the train sulking (I admit) like a grumpy teenager. My glum mood continued as we queued for the security screening at the Torre Espacio (‘Space Tower’) where the embassy is located – about the same time that my mum decided (in hindsight quite fairly) to stop talking to me.

But then things began to brighten up: passing through the x-ray gates and stepping out of the lift on the 35th floor, we were greeted by sweeping views of the city and the Sierra de Guadarrama beyond. While my mum went through the necessary formalities, I sat by the glass wall of windows, gazing at the bands of shadow and sun rolling across the dark green hills in the distance while suited-and-booted workers scurried around in the streets far below (I don’t suggest you lose your passport in order to get a chance to see this fantastic vista, but if you do happen to then never fear – you’re in for a treat).

It was at that point that I decided to grow up, apologise to my poor mum and get on with the business of enjoying our holiday. The next few days passed in an increasingly happy blur of shopping, museums, food and wine (more on the latter to follow in a separate post), with a big dollop of good luck. We unexpectedly came across the Museo del Traje (Costume Museum), which charts the history of Spain through fashion, from the flamboyant frippery of the French-influenced Bourbon years to the austerity of the civil war period. We also happened upon a fascinating – though at times rather haunting – open-air photography exhibition amid the colourful plants of the botanic gardens, made up of pictures of 100 key moments in 20th-century Spain.

And, unlike my past trips, the sun shone throughout. We enjoyed slow ambles under solid blue skies through the vast Retiro park, dined al fresco on lantern-lit patios and sunned our faces over coffee on the Plaza Mayor, laughing as a busker dressed as a chubby version of Spiderman tried to entice passers-by to pay for photos with him. The evenings were particularly enjoyable, filled with balmy strolls through the happy throngs on the Gran Via, with Madrid’s monumental baroque architecture lit up against the dark sky around us.

As we sat on the Plaza del Oriente on our last day, slowly sipping on glasses of wine while watching tourists swarm around the grounds of the nearby Palacio Real, I decided to forgive Madrid. It turns out I actually quite like. Perhaps I’ll even brave a fourth visit one day…

Japan’s (relatively) undiscovered icon

16 09 2010

Miyajima – a small island in the Inland Sea and the last stop on my tour of Japan – is not a name that many people know, but you’ve probably seen several images of it without realising. Along with Tokyo’s neon lights, Mt Fuji’s majestic peak and Kyoto’s geisha, the huge vermillion shrine gate which rises out of the water just off its shore (Miyajima translates directly as ‘Shrine Island’, though its formal name is Itsukushima-jinja) is one of the most photographed sites in Japan, adorning the covers of hundreds of brochures and guidebooks. Yet few foreigners bother to visit, despite the fact that it’s only a short journey from the mainland.

That’s not to say the island is undiscovered by the hoards – the ferry which runs every hour or so from nearby Hiroshima is packed with Japanese day-trippers: groups of uniformed school students chattering on mobile phones, elderly couples wrapped in coats sharing bento boxes on the blustery deck and young families laden with rucksacks and picnic bags. But free from cars and city noise, it’s still a tranquil and serene place.

The shrine is in fact the first sight that greets you as the boat inches into the dock. At high tide its towering form is reflected in the water and the bright hue stands out starkly against the sky, no matter whether it’s cloudless and blue or dark and stormy. Waves lap around its base and wash towards the shore, flowing under the arched bridges of the nearby temple, whose red colonnaded walkways and lantern-lit halls jut out over the water. The sheer beauty of it all makes this a popular marriage spot; when I visited a wedding party was posing for pictures on one of the verandas, the men sporting formal kimono and the bride clad in a voluminous Japanese wedding hood.

The shrine and temple are not the only reasons to venture out to the island; it’s also home to a herd of tame deer, who amble silently around the wooden pagoda-d buildings and wander through the pine trees. Many visitors also come to sample the island’s three delicacies – fresh oysters, anago (an eel-like fish which is fried and battered) and fried donuts in the shape of maple leaves. The latter come with a variety of sweet and savoury fillings, but few of the labels are translated so it’s hit or miss as to what you end up with – I was hoping for chocolate, strawberry or perhaps even cream cheese, but ended up with fish eggs.

There’s plenty to occupy you for a day, but if you have the time to hang around after most of the tourists have departed you’ll be rewarded with views of the shrine at dusk, when the orange sun seems to set it alight against the darkening sky.

Chances are you’ll see pictures of it many more times in the future, but nothing beats experiencing this magical sight in the flesh. It was a fitting end to a fascinating trip.

Walking among the ghosts of Hiroshima

10 08 2010

I had mixed feelings about visiting Hiroshima – the fifth stop on my tour of Japan and a city which has become synonymous with humankind’s power of destruction. I knew it would be fascinating, harrowing and – given the continued proliferation of nuclear arms – utterly terrifying.

Hiroshima today is a vibrant, modern metropolis, but reminders of the obliteration caused by world’s first atomic bomb are ever-present. Stepping off the tram from the station, I was met by the stark sight of the former Industrial Promotion Hall, now known as the A-bomb Dome. Located at the blast’s epicentre, it was one of the few structures to survive and has been maintained in its shell-like state as a powerful symbol of what happened at 8.15am on 6th August 1945. It was smaller than I expected, but this did nothing to lessen the impact of its blackened bricks and tangled, twisted metal.

Then there’s the nearby Peace Park, perched on the banks of the river beneath weeping willows, where the flame of the Memorial Cenotaph flickers continuously (it will only be extinguished if all nuclear weapons are destroyed) and brightly clothed peace protesters offer free hugs to passers-by. And there are other, more understated but equally moving reminders – a blackened tree stump, statues in memory of the many Korean and child victims of the blast and the T-shaped Aioi Bridge, which helped to seal Hiroshima’s fate by providing a clear target for the bomber crew.

I also visited the Peace Memorial Museum, which provides a balanced account of the bomb and the events leading up to it. The building houses some particularly harrowing exhibits: the shredded, blood-stained uniforms of conscripted school students who perished, photographs depicting the appalling injuries suffered by survivors and a watch frozen at the exact moment of the explosion. For me the most poignant was a vast wall of letters written by successive mayors of Hiroshima to express their sorrow after every nuclear arms test carried out across the globe. The most recent was dated only weeks before my visit; a sobering reminder that humans continue to develop such weapons despite having witnessed their horrific effects.

Ultimately, though, my visit to Hiroshima was an uplifting one. The city’s determination to rebuild itself (within days of the explosion the tramway was running again) and the dignified resolve of its residents to push for peace can’t fail to inspire. Although haunting memories of 1945 and its aftermath linger, the city today is about much more than the bomb (more on that to follow in a future post). As the Rough Guide to Japan puts it, it’s ‘an eloquent testimony to the power of life over destruction’.

The art of geisha-spotting

15 07 2010

I quickly discovered a new hobby in Kyoto: geisha-spotting. And I certainly wasn’t alone – stand on any street corner in the Gion district and you’ll see crowds of tourists lurking with their cameras poised, hoping for a glimpse of their painted faces and elaborate kimono.

There are actually five geisha districts in the city, but thanks to a certain novel and film Gion is by far the best known, and also the biggest. Its cobbled streets and willow-shaded canals are lined with lantern-lit wooden okiya (geisha boarding houses) and ochaya (tea houses where they entertain). Although their numbers have dropped significantly over the last century, there are still around 200 geisha (or geiko – ‘people of art’ – as they are known in Kyoto) working in the area and plenty of patrons willing to pay upwards of £300 per hour for their time.

Despite the number of geiko in the city, I soon encountered two problems with my new pastime: how to spot true geisha among the many tourists who pay to play dress up for the night, and how to take snaps without getting in their way as they rush from one engagement to another. After one fruitless evening, I decided to turn to long-time Kyoto resident Peter MacIntosh for help.

Peter, a Canadian who has lived in Japan for almost 20 years and is married to a former geiko, runs regular walking lectures of Gion. In a city where visitors to many restaurants and tea houses must be introduced by a regular customer, his tours are one of the few ways to gain an insight into geiko culture. A maiko in Gion

Over the course of two hours, Peter delivered a fascinating overview of geisha history, arts and customs and, as we wandered around the district, he was able to offer useful hints on how to take photographs without causing annoyance. He also cleared up the myths which surround their role, explaining how geisha are not prostitutes but artists, although many do end up having relationships with clients (“they’re not nuns”).

For most of the tour the all-important sighting remained elusive but, as we rounded a corner, we saw a bright green kimono and orange obi belt approaching. Peter confirmed that this was a real geiko rather than a costumed tourist and I quickly ducked into a doorway ready to capture a discreet photo as she passed. The speed at which she shuffled by on her towering wooden geta sandals made it impossible to get all but a snap of her costume retreating into the distance, but the fleeting glimpse was living proof that this graceful, refined and beguiling world survives.

I returned to my hotel feeling like a safari-goer who had finally seen the big five.

How many ways can you cook tofu?

24 06 2010

Our time in Kyoto provided the opportunity to sample a different side of Japanese cuisine than we had encountered elsewhere on our journey. 

Kyoto’s food is much like the city itself: refined, elegantly-presented and understated. Unlike Tokyo, which has a multitude of experimental restaurants and now boasts more Michelin stars than Paris, the city takes a traditional stance when it comes to eating and menus tend to focus on subtle flavours which have been perfected over several generations.

The city has developed a particular reputation for tofu and we were keen to try one of the many yudofu (tofu hotpot) restaurants which cling to the hillside around Nanzen-ji temple. Such establishments rarely have a menu and tend to serve whatever the chef feels like cooking, so after choosing somewhere which seemed suitably popular with the locals we sat down and awaited our mystery meal with some trepidation.

Traditional Kyoto grub is served as a series of small portions, much like a Japanese version of tapas, and within a few minutes our kimono-clad waitress appeared balancing a tray stacked with more than twenty dishes.

I had never before realised just quite how many ways there are to prepare tofu; we had boiled tofu cut into flower shapes and painted with pink food dye, deep-fried tofu dipped in soy sauce, small chunks of tasty smoked tofu on skewers and slices of silky chilled tofu sprinkled with crunchy sesame seeds and tangy spring onions. We also tried the Kyoto delicacy yuba – thin sheets made from soybeans that have been ground and boiled into a milk-like liquid. It produces an unusual flavour and consistency which reminded me of fondue. With the exception of the fish-egg jelly (perhaps more of an acquired taste) and the white miso soup (sweeter and more sickly than its brown counterpart), the entire spread was delicious. 

For dessert we were treated to a seasonal speciality – kushidango. Sold throughout Japan during cherry blossom season, these sweet rice dumplings are served on bamboo sticks and often coated with chocolate, cherry-flavoured icing or green tea paste. They’re mouth-wateringly good but can be very sugary; I’d caution against eating too many at once.

Despite its conservative culinary outlook, it is possible to experience a more contemporary take on Kyoto cuisine and one of our favourite finds was the stylish Iyemon Salon – a tea house for the Starbucks generation. Having experienced a traditional tea ceremony in Tokyo, it was fun to explore a menu encompassing unusual options such as matcha-flavoured ice cream and green tea cupcakes.

Finally, I can’t finish a post on Kyoto food and drink without mentioning Chez Quasimodo, a tiny bar opened by former greengrocer Sawaguchi in his garage. It’s well-hidden along a quiet residential street in the Gosho district but worth tracking down for its welcoming host and log fire-lit interior – though the European wine list and French jazz soundtrack may make you forget you’re Japan.