Tuesday, 27 January 2015

January motivation: Wat Phra Singh

Different times of the year can be challenging for many reasons, but, if I could spot a trend, it's this: January is always tough.

It's a post-Christmas-spending-frenzy time, it's a life-goal-and-resolution-setting time and - if those aren't tricky enough on their own - it also happens to be the time when every possible project and deadline at work becomes a matter of utmost urgency.

With that in mind (where I was definitely dealing with pressures associated with all of the above), I couldn't help but scan my mind for something a lot more positive to lift me out of my January dreariness.

It wasn't long before I remembered a particular moment when I had found motivation in a rather unexpected place. And, like all my favourite stories, this one happened while I was travelling.

Since February is just around the corner now, I reckon that sharing this little happy tale here is the perfect way to end a challenging January!

***

I was in Chiang Mai.

After flying in from Bangkok that morning, I had quickly located my accommodation, dropped off my bulky backpack and, guidebook in hand, set off to explore my new location.

Not too many days ago, I had arrived in Thailand on my very first long-haul solo holiday. I wish that I could say that I was a natural to this from the get-go, but that would be a lie. 

Before my plane touched down in Bangkok, I was filled with a sudden bout of dread: what if I didn't meet anyone to hang out with? What if I was going to be absolutely alone for the next three weeks? WHAT WAS I DOING?

And etc.

But, having made friends within the first five minutes of arriving at my Bangkok hostel, it had, at first, appeared that my fears were unfounded. I had spent three days visiting sites with fellow solo travellers, which stretched into dinners and memorable nights out. 

Having left those friends and being in a new place on my own again, I now felt that former dread sneak up on me again.

Determined to ignore those questions forming in my mind, I decided to distract myself by making a beeline for the temple I was most looking forward to seeing. It was a hot day, easily the warmest of my trip so far, yet I dutifully wrapped myself in the scarves and sarongs that formed the basis of my templewear. 

When it comes to making a strong first impression, Wat Phra Singh is 100% sorted.

Wihan Luang, Wat Phra Singh. 

Incredible detail on the temple buildings.

As my book informed me, Wat Phra Singh is Chiang Mai's most-visited temple, and, while I was there, I found many factors that contribute to this status.

There are several buildings that make up Wat Phra Singh; once inside the largest, Wihan Luang, it took me a little while to take in the grandeur before me. Apart from the golden Buddhas before me, including one to the side that appeared to be covered in flaking gold-leaf, the room was filled with many other portraits and items that drew the eye.

I took my time to work my way around the room, trying to take it all in - in a vain attempt to not forget the finest details later.


A postcard-perfect view through the temple window.

A gold-leaf Buddha.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Finding the Noses of Soho with Best LDN Walks

Deep within the side-streets and alleyways of Soho, you'll come across one of the area's best-kept secrets...

Actually, that's a bit misleading. Since Soho is arguably London's most colourful and varied neighbourhood, there are many, many secrets within its boundaries. I've lived in London for over two years and still come across new shops/restaurants/street art and pop-ups on every single visit to Soho.

Nonetheless, the subject of this post is a particularly quirky one, and may just lead to you looking at the area in an entirely new way.

So, what's the deal?

You'll find noses in Soho.

No, not the noses of passersby, obviously; you'll find the noses in question on the walls of buildings.

I had heard about the Legend of the Seven Noses of Soho a little while back, so I was delighted to hear that Charlotte from Best LDN Walks was hosting a tour on this precise theme. 

Our tour occurred on a rather chilly morning last weekend, when we all huddled together outside Covent Garden Station. Charlotte started off by giving us some context on the infamous London noses.

The noses were first placed on London walls in 1997 by an artist called Rick Buckley. They're plaster of Paris reproductions of Buckley's own nose. It's said that the noses were a response to the introduction of CCTV cameras throughout the area (CCTV cameras mean that the authorities were being nosy, geddit?). Initially, there were about 35 of these plaster noses but now there are just five left.

So what do they look like?

Our first nose of the day!

As you can see, they're often quite high up on the walls and, due to their size, very easy to simply walk past. Thanks to Charlotte, though, we soon spotted several more of Buckley's noses in the area.

In terms of their specific locations, I'm afraid that I've been sworn to secrecy. Although these details may be easy to find on the internet, I would definitely recommend taking a walking tour instead, where you'll get to have some background information per nose.




As the legend goes, it's said that if you touch all of the noses, you're guaranteed a year of good luck. Without much insistence for proof of this fact, we all dutifully followed suit, although this was somewhat difficult for the hobbit-sized folk (yours truly) among us.

I've been on several tours with Best LDN Walks, and what I love most about Charlotte's walks is that, while there may be a subject for the tour, she'll always throw in extra facts, stops and amusing historical anecdotes as we go along.

In the same fashion, on our tour that day we also spotted a random purple ear, a couple of Space Invaders, as well as some tiny tiles sporting an egg timer. The latter, as it turns out, provide a visual reminder on the issue of extinction.

There must be an ear-related joke here somewhere.

I can't help but pick this as my favourite Space Invader to date; those shifty eyes between two CCTV cameras = brilliance.

By this point in the tour, we were feeling slightly frozen, so we stopped off for hot tea and other nourishment at Bar Italia. This was a very welcome sight.


Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Driving along Chapman's Peak, Cape Town

Today happens to be my sister's birthday (happy, happy birthday, Anna!). Apart from simply being a courageous, determined and inspiring human being, she also happens to be my best friend and favourite travel companion. 

We've had some incredible travel experiences together, and, to mark this special occasion, I'd like to share one of our most recent adventures. 

This outing took place during my trip to Cape Town last September, and it was a memorable day taking in some of the city's most breath-taking views.


***

The dark clouds were still looming overhead but the rain, which had been a constant feature of the preceding days, had finally ceased. My mum, sister and I needed a break from running wedding errands, so one of us suggested a trip to Chapman's Peak Drive.

Having grown up in Cape Town, this particular cliff-side route was more commonly referred to as 'Chappies' when speaking of it with locals. Hugging the western coast of the Cape Peninsula, Chapman's Peak Drive has to be one of the most scenic roads in the world.

This 9km-long roadway creates a link between Hout Bay and Noordhoek, and it dates all the way back to 1915. One of my earlier memories of the drive, however, is not necessarily the most pleasant.


At the start of the drive: A view over Noordhoek Beach.

In the 1990s, Chapman's Peak Drive made the news when rockfalls along the road led to injuries, as well as a death. The route was completely closed off for many years. It only re-opened in 2005, after a massive amount of engineering work had been carried out to prevent future rockfalls.

Nowadays, the drive is a toll road, where the driver of the average car will have to pay ZAR38 in order to use it. As you'll soon see, it's a small price to pay for the rewards you'll receive in return. 

Starting on the Noordhoek side, we were immediately greeted with that view pictured above. 

There are exactly 114 bends in the road, so I'd recommend being on your best driving behaviour (ie all of the driving test 'essentials' that you stopped doing once you got your licence): two hands on the steering wheel, checking all of your mirrors and keeping a stern eye out for passing cars.

Luckily, if all this zigzagging gets a bit much, there are plenty of spots where you can pull off the road to take in the views. And this is exactly what we did.

The views from Chapman's Peak are world renowned for good reason. On the one side, you have the crumbling coastline leading downwards towards the Atlantic Ocean. The waves crash below and, in the distance, you can just make out the fishing boats and white-sand beaches of Hout Bay.


Coastal views from Chapman's Peak Drive.


One of the many pathways along the drive.


Monday, 19 January 2015

The ultimate guide to a weekend in Oxford

Utter the name 'Oxford', and you're bound to be inundated with thoughts connected to academia, literary greats, boats, Harry Potter and half-remembered quotes (particularly those concerning 'dreaming spires'). 

Even when I hadn't been there personally, and even when I was living in South Africa, I already had expectations of Oxford. I hoped to visit it one day to see whether any of these rang true. When I arrived in the UK in 2012, my short day trip to Oxford was marred by constant, heavy rainfall. I was determined to return; in December, we did just that and spent an entire weekend exploring all that Oxford has to offer.

Could Oxford be the best day trip/weekend visit from London? Located just an hour away by train from Paddington Station, it certainly may be one of the most convenient options. But Oxford is an ideal destination for another simple reason - there is so much to do and see.

Coming from London, a perpetually busy city filled with endless places to visit and events to attend, I was worried that we'd run out of Oxford sightseeing ideas before the weekend was over. Now, having visited and seen how much we managed to do, I'm convinced that it's impossible to be bored while on a visit to Oxford.

I present: my guide to Oxford - for all tastes, moods and persuasions.




***

A return to academia

Do you ever look back fondly on your university days and wish - momentarily - to make a return to that time? I know I do, but then I also quickly remember the endless essays, caffeine overdoses and those horrible all-nighters before the big exams... But I digress.

The University of Oxford is the sort of place that people wish they could've studied at; made up of 38 different colleges, the university has no official founding date. The first evidence of teaching in Oxford was recorded in 1096, making it the oldest university in the English-speaking world.

Nowadays, the honey-coloured university buildings dominate central Oxford. While many of the colleges can be visited by the public (some for free too), we headed straight to one of the most famous ones: Christ Church College.


The Meadow Building of Christ Church College.


The walk leading up to the famous college.

Founded in 1525, this college has some famous former students, including Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), Albert Einstein, WH Auden and 13 British prime ministers. It is also notable for its impressive architecture.

The visitor's entrance is a little way down St Aldate's; admission costs £7, and this includes entry to the grounds, cathedral and Great Hall. A word of caution: both the cathedral and hall close regularly, so make sure to enquire about this before buying your tickets.



Christ Church cathedral, while small, features stunning stained glass windows. But, perhaps even more renowned, the college's Great Hall is what draws the crowds.

It was closed at the time of our visit, but the Great Hall and the stairs leading up to it were used for the Harry Potter films. Prepare for hordes of camera-wielding fans. especially in the summer months!

A short walk away is another impressive university building - and yet another Harry Potter connection.

The Bodleian Library is one of the biggest libraries in Europe with over 7 million items stored within its walls.

Many parts of the library are off limits to the public, but you can take a guided tour of the premises. An extended library tour includes a visit to the iconic rounded Radcliffe Camera, an 18th Century private library.

We decided to pay a visit to the library's Divinity School (£1 entry fee). Built in the 15th Century, this was Oxford University's first teaching room. It's worth a visit for the ceiling alone.


The impressive vaulted ceiling of the Divinity School.

The Radcliffe Camera.
The Harry Potter connection? Remember that awkward moment in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire when Professor McGonagall teaches the students how to dance? That scene was filmed in the Divinity School - you can almost envisage Ron Weasley squirming with embarrassment!


Take a stroll

As with any of my travels, my favourite activity has to be exploring a new destination on foot. This is the best way to not only find your chosen attractions, but also to discover things that may not have even been on the itinerary.

We loved strolling around the oldest parts of Oxford - along shop-lined Cornmarket Street, through the bustling Covered Market and via the Christmas market on Broad Street.


A medieval, and scarily lopsided, building spotted just off Cornmarket Street.


Oxford's Christmas market.

The city's Bridge of Sighs.

Our favourite place for a more peaceful walk had to be the picturesque Christ Church Meadow, which is situated by the college. There are many other popular walks in Oxford and Oxfordshire, and I'd love to come back and explore these too.  


Christ Church Meadow.

Introducing: Possibly the most photogenic squirrel on the planet.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

For the breakfast enthusiasts: Cereal Killer Cafe

When it comes to the quirkier ideas in life, there is bound to be some difference of opinion. And, let's face it, while London is not only home to some of the most incredible historic structures, palaces and renowned attractions in the world, this city really knows how to embrace its quirky side.

But who knew that something as innocent sounding as a 'cereal cafe' could prompt such an immediate - and wildly varied - response? The last few months of 2014 had numerous London publications stating their love or thinly-veiled hatred of the concept.

The brainchild of Irish twins Gary and Alan Keery, Cereal Killer Cafe officially opened its doors in December last year. And I, for one, couldn't wait to visit Cereal Killer Cafe - London's only cafe focusing solely on this breakfast staple - from the moment I first heard about it.

Where do I fall within the spectrum of the ensuing debate? I'll get to that later.

Our visit fell within the last days of December. To be fair, it was lunch time, but that didn't stop us from wanting to see what all the fuss was about.

It was a busy day on Brick Lane and, since the cafe doesn't do bookings, we were a little concerned about being able to get a table. 

Located at number 139, the black exterior of Cereal Killer Cafe doesn't give much away, with only the slightest splash of colour from the bright logos spaced above the windows. Inside, however, is a completely different matter.

Imagine that a sugary box of cereal exploded on the walls of the cafe, and you'll be close to describing it perfectly. The massive wall of cereal, with boxes upon boxes of ones that I'd never heard of before, is the first thing that got my attention.

Cereal enthusiasts - prepare to be hit by a massive bout of indecision!

The second attention-grabber would have to be the cereal-related memorabilia used as the cafe's decor. From old-school milk bottles to toys to portraits made using pieces of cereal, with a cheeky play on the cereal/serial killer wording, the cafe doubles up as a mini museum.

Cereal/serial killer?

An assortment of cereal-related memorabilia.

And even more cereal - love the cameos by the owners in the top row!

There was a queue ahead of us, but this moved surprisingly quickly. Soon, it was time for us to order. To complicate matters, not only is there a selection of over 120 types of cereal from all over the world, you can also customise your choice with flavoured milk and toppings. 

In addition, the cafe offers a number of cereal 'cocktails', which are really just blends of cereals and toppings that they'd recommend. If you're not looking for cereal, you can order toast, Pop Tarts or even cereal-inspired cakes.

Clearly interpreting our looks of panic for indecision, we were rescued by the super friendly and helpful staff behind the counter. After describing the sorts of cereals we liked, their recommendation for me was a limited-edition Halloween cereal from the States called Boo-Berry, coupled with vanilla milk. 

Chris wanted something more interesting, so he chose one of the cocktails, aptly named Unicorn Poop (you'll soon see why!).

You can choose the size of your portion, but most of these (including the rarer varieties) cost between £2.50 and £3.50.

Carrying our trays downstairs, we picked one of the empty tables, complete with a set of mismatched chairs, and got to the matter of tasting our selections.


Boo-Berry was delicious. Think blueberry and mini marshmallows, rounded off with milk subtly flavoured with vanilla. If you think that sounds overly sweet, wait until you see Chris'...

My beloved Boo-Berry in the foreground.

Is this what unicorn poop would look like? I'm thinking yes.

*Incoming*: Sugar rush.
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