Tuesday, 12 May 2015

My favourite foodie finds in San Sebastian

I know it's wrong to generalise, but some of these utterances just can't be avoided.

Spain's San Sebastian is a perfect example of this. If someone mentions San Sebastian to me, my first thought - invariably - turns straight to food.

Although the totality of Spain is wonderful for food, San Sebastian, especially its Old Town, has long been considered to be the very best spot to experience pintxos.


La Concha, San Sebastian
The view over San Sebastian and the iconic La Concha beach.

Now, when it comes to the distinction between pintxos, pinchos and tapas, a clear-cut answer becomes a bit shaky. It's thought that pintxos takes its name from the Spanish verb meaning 'to pierce'. Accordingly, all pintxos would be held together with a cocktail stick. But, since pintxos have evolved over the years, the sticks aren't always present, yet these small dishes are still called pintxos.

There are other factors to consider - whether you're paying for the pintxos/tapas or not - but the following is the only rule I've come across that's gathered the most agreement. If you're ordering a small plate of food from a bar in the Basque Country, you're eating pintxos.

Phew.

With that out of the way, I'll shortly be presenting my absolute favourite foodie finds from my time in San Sebastian. In truth, I visited the city a year ago, but my good friend (and fellow blogger) Emily is off to San Sebastian for her mini-moon soon, so I reckoned it was time to put this guide together.

The best thing about San Sebastian's Old Town is that it's compact, meaning that you can cover a lot of ground (and visit A LOT of pintxos bars) within a short space of time. All of my favourites can be found in this part of San Sebastian.

From the traditional to the inventive to the sweet, here are my favourite culinary discoveries in San Sebastian.


Borda Berri


Borda Berri, San Sebastian

Where: Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 12

What you should order: The risotto

Oh boy, if one dish could have set the standard for the rest of my San Sebastian trip, this was it. At the time of my visit, there were two types of risotto pintxos you could try at Borda Berri - goat's cheese and mushroom - and I tried them both. Made with orzo rather than arborio rice, this risotto is garlicky and moreish.


Borda Berri, San Sebastian
The mushroom risotto - heaven on a plate!

Borda Berri, San Sebastian

Unlike other pintxos bars, you'll need to order your pintxos at the counter, as opposed to simply picking up a plate from the bar.

If you're feeling braver than I was, order the other Borda Berri specialty; pigs' ear is a major hit here. The veal cheeks are apparently delicious too.


La Mejillonera

Mejillonera, San Sebastian

Monday, 11 May 2015

The ultimate guide to a weekend on the Isle of Wight

I had wanted to go to the Isle of Wight ever since I'd first heard of it.

When I told my British boyfriend of my intentions to go, I can't really blame him for his completely calm response. After all, this is where London-based children go on their family holidays or where teenagers head to for their first big music festivals.

As a South African expat, this tiny island holds much more intrigue. This is a place where you can find Roman ruins, a royal holiday home and a thriving population of red squirrels. I went into research overdrive trying to ensure that our weekend there would involve as much exploring as possible.

While on the island, my love affair with this destination began slowly - and grew into a full-blown infatuation, so much so that I didn't want to leave at all.

If you, like me, find the idea of a UK island staycation appealing, you'll be happy to know that you can get to the Isle of Wight relatively quickly. A train from central London takes just over two hours, while driving will get you there in 2.5 hours. 

A quick ferry ride later, and you'll be somewhere that vaguely feels like the UK - but simultaneously resembles somewhere else entirely.

From castles to seaside towns to the island's quirkier finds, here is my ultimate guide to a weekend on the Isle of Wight.


Carisbrooke Castle


I'm a big believer in the idea of getting acquainted with a new destination by finding its highest vantage point. Luckily, I found one very close to our base in Newport.

Carisbrooke Castle is one of the island's most popular attractions, and it's not difficult to see why. Its formidable gateway alone hints at what it must have looked like in its heyday.


A slightly daunting first impression.

Fragments of the buildings that once stood within the castle complex.

The castle was built in the 12th Century, standing on the ruins of what was once a Roman fort. The property is now managed by English Heritage, and there's plenty to see once you get inside.

Many of the original buildings within the castle complex have not survived, with only fragments remaining, but I'm happy to report that you can walk almost the entirety of the castle walls - and you'll be rewarded with views over the Isle of Wight in every direction. If you can drag yourself up the steep steps, the very best view can be attained at the top of the Norman keep.



These earthworks, which encircle Carisbrooke Castle, date from 1100.


Fields unfold away into the distance no matter which way you look and, if you glance closer towards the castle itself, you can still spot the ridges of the earthworks begun in 1100.

There's a museum on-site, as well as a pretty little garden and chapel. While the castle may have a long history, its most famous inhabitant was a temporary one. Before his trial and subsequent beheading, King Charles I was imprisoned in the castle for 14 months. 



With visual clues as to what awaits you on the rest of the island, Carisbrooke Castle is the perfect way to start off your Isle of Wight explorations.

Admission to Carisbrooke Castle costs £9.20 per adult; English Heritage members can visit for free.


An afternoon at Osborne

I've dedicated an entire post to the property of Osborne, as it completely won me over when I visited.

This was once the holiday home of none other than Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children. You'll need to set aside enough time to fully experience the 143-hectare grounds of Osborne. Apart from the grand house in which the royal family lived, visitors can see elaborate gardens, a life-sized doll house in the form of a Swiss Cottage and the family's private beach.



What a view! The glorious grounds of Osborne.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Fried chicken heaven at Belfast's Le Coop

With our spontaneous trip to Belfast booked, I had very little time to do research on what to see and - just as importantly - what to eat while in the city. Luckily for me, one name kept popping up in search results and on travel blogs alike.

Made in Belfast.

This is the name of the company behind several of Belfast's most-loved restaurants. The original Made in Belfast restaurant was opened up in 2008, and several other pop-ups, as well as permanent ventures, followed in its wake.

The brainchild of Kent-born Emma Bricknell, the focus of Made in Belfast is to create high-quality yet affordable food. I was immediately drawn to this brand, as Emma happens to be a fellow traveller. In 2005, she dropped the names of a number of destinations into a hat, deciding that whichever one she pulled out would be her next city of residence. As you've probably guessed, the winning draw went to Belfast.

Thoroughly intrigued, Chris and I decided to pay a visit to Made in Belfast's newest addition. Le Coop is located on Hill Street in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter - one of the city's best areas for hipster bars and restaurants. You'll want to linger in this neighbourhood; we almost got distracted from our foodie mission when we spotted this pretty little side street (the welcoming bars didn't help either).

A photogenic side street in Belfast's hip Cathedral Quarter.

And then we spotted Le Coop!

When it comes to food trends, a hipster take on the chicken shack has become all the rage. In London alone, I can rattle off a number of restaurants that are putting KFC's chicken to shame. 

Le Coop is Belfast's answer to this trend, and the exterior artwork promised that we would soon be consuming the 'best le coqs in Belfast'. [Giggles encouraged]

Stepping inside, the interior of Le Coop is undoubtedly hip with a touch of the eccentric. Wooden panelling, graffiti, mismatched chairs and a large, bright pink bird are all features. If you look up, you may see some random hands, with gestures from the friendly to the, well, not so amiable.



Local beer and cider - both were very tasty.

It's a relaxed environment and, after perusing the menu, we ordered our drinks. I had an Irish craft cider called Tempted?, while Chris went for a local McGrath's stout. Both were delicious.

If this was an indication of the quality of the food to come, then we were off to a good start.

And speaking of starts, we chose to share an appetiser of prawn popcorn. Wipe away any traces of doubt - this was one of the very best starters I've had anywhere.

The best starter I've had in ages: prawn popcorn.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Kyoto Garden, a tranquil spot in central London

This weekend, I came across my new favourite spot in London.

Since I love so much of London, it takes a truly special place to steal away this top title. But, once you see the place in question in the photos below, you may begin to understand why.

I've made a point of exploring this city's parks, but it's taken me nearly three years to visit Holland Park. Set within the borough of Kensington and Chelsea and within walking distance of Notting Hill and the famous Portobello Market, this park spans a total of 22 hectares.

There are many things to see within this vast space, but, if you have to see just one, it'll have to be the Kyoto Garden.

Thanks to images I'd seen, I had an idea of what to expect in this ornamental garden before I got there, but even photos cannot fully do it justice.

Our first sighting of Kyoto Garden.


As we made our way past one of the bamboo gateways into the garden, a colourful landscape appeared before us. A path circles the main pond, which is filled with slow-moving Koi fish. This water feature acts as a mirror image of the sky above, complete with paper fish-shaped banners blowing in the breeze.

I'm not a plant expert by any means, but I couldn't stop counting the many different colours of the trees around us. Leaves of green are punctuated by exotic reds, pinks and purples. At the base of the trees, the bluebells had just started to make their appearance. If you need to assure yourself of the fact that spring has truly arrived in London, you won't need to look further than this garden.


The bluebells in bloom.


Kyoto Garden was opened in 1991 as a donation by Kyoto's Chamber of Commerce. Unlike other parts of Holland Park, there are some stricter rules to follow on a visit here; no dogs, no sitting on the grass and no children left to their own devices. Instead, Kyoto Garden is intended to be a site of contemplation and tranquility - right in the heart of central London.

We took our time wandering the small garden. The upkeep is meticulous, where not even a blade of grass seems out of place. Along the path, we came across a mini waterfall and, a little further away, some peacocks, which roam the garden freely.

Colourful Kyoto Garden.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Unique Urdaibai: Your 4 must-visits

I don't know about you, but I have found that all of my past travels have offered something quite unexpected.

This element of the unexpected can take many forms: a surprisingly hip food scene, a quirky historical tale, a hidden gem in the most obvious place... 

Some of my all-time favourite trips have included the unexpected, and this certainly applies to my time spent in the Basque Country region of Urdaibai. During my days there, I caught a glimpse of what makes this part of the world so unique. 

The unexpected element of Urdaibai? The fact that so few people seem to have heard of it at all.

I've already written about this region's towns of Guernica and Bermeo, but there is so much more to experience in Urdaibai. We discovered numerous places while we travelled there, but there were four particular stops that, to me, showed just how varied and fascinating this part of Spain truly is.

If you're planning a trip to Urdaibai, these places deserve the top spots on your itinerary.


***


Basondo Wildlife Park



The entrance to Basondo Wildlife Park.

Urdaibai not only happens to be a natural estuary; officially, it is also a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The main aim of a Biosphere Reserve is to ensure that the balance between nature and man is maintained; there is a focus on conservation yet the aim is to still achieve a positive growth in the region's economic development. 

We visited a number of organisations that epitomised this mentality, including the first venue on this list.

Basondo Wildlife Park is a refuge for threatened or endangered animals. Moving firmly away from the 'zoo' title, Basondo primarily supports the welfare of these species whilst simultaneously educating visitors about conservation.

We visited at the tail-end of winter, when the ground was encased in snow and ice, but this didn't diminish our excitement at the opportunity to see the animals that day. 


Strolling through a wintry Basondo.



Basondo covers 60,000 square metres and the park's inhabitants include deer, wolves, lynxes, wild boar and foxes. It was incredible to see all of these animals but the most gratifying sight was that each had a sizeable, spacious enclosure in which to roam.

This is a popular venue for school outings, but the park also gets plenty of visitors during the summer. Despite the fact that I was almost constantly shivering during my time at Basondo, I relished the fact that we almost had the place to ourselves.


Up close with one of the beautiful resident lynxes.

So, Basondo has an impressive array of wild animals but there are some inhabitants that are significantly less so. At the park, you'll find some of the friendliest cats you've ever encountered and, yes, you'll be very tempted to take one (ahem, all) of them home with you. 

Maider gets a feline welcome.


The look of temptation; note: I did not actually steal this cat (but definitely almost did). Image by This Girl Loves.

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