I visited Riga for an Erasmus conference last November, just a few months after the Brexit vote and therefore with a certain amount of not unfounded trepidation. As expected, my attendance at an event aimed at participating European countries was met with a mixture of sympathy from some and outright hostility from others. Fortunately, on the third day of the conference Donald Trump was elected, and thus my own misdemeanour of belonging to a country whose citizens had, by a narrow margin, voted to leave the EU were quickly forgotten in the grim light of a self-proclaimed womanising megalomaniac occupying the most powerful position in the free world.
Riga is very pretty. Like nearby Tallinn it positively sparkles in the icy grip of the Baltic winter, its turrets and tiled rooftops willingly lending themselves, as the snow falls and the icicles form, to a fairytale exquisiteness that doesn’t seem quite real. Like Tallinn it is still – relatively speaking – cheap, with a plethora of cosy restaurants and a thriving café culture. Like Tallinn, the centre is relatively compact, and it’s possible – if you don’t mind braving the cold – to walk to most places. More soberingly, like Tallinn, it has a dark history, very well documented in several excellent museums. Finding myself with a free day after the conference ended, I went exploring with a colleague, an Austrian Jew. “There are no synagogues in Riga,” she said. “They are not hidden away, they just do not exist. The SS did a very thorough job here.”
One thing that delighted me about Riga was its abundance of art nouveau buildings – by far my favourite architectural period. In contrast to the older, more typically eastern European Medieval churches and swaggering Gothic buildings in the centre, you don’t need to venture very far out to find the neighbourhood of Alberta Iela, crammed with its delicately ornate doorframes and elaborately decorated windows, oozing sophistication with their sensuous curves and confident colours.
On that final day Riga genuinely jostled with Tallinn for the honour of becoming my favourite winter city, though Tallinn, with its original watchtowers still intact and its altogether more laid-back feel, its many pedestrianised areas and its truly sensational restaurants, still holds that spot. Riga, though beautiful, did have that capital city feel about it that chipped away at some of its charm. That said, a mere two hours from the UK on a number of cheap airlines makes it an ideal quick getaway, and one I would definitely recommend.
Just over a week into September, anyone who works in education like myself is already thinking “when’s my next break”? and is in desperate need for something to look forward to. So, to help your planning, here is the first in a series of short winter break ideas.
Canada? I hear you cry. For a short break? You’re having a laugh. Well, I blogged before about a weekend in Toronto, and though it’s a bit of a stretch the explosion in budget of airlines in the last couple of years means you can get a return to many Canadian cities on Westjet or AirTransat for under £400. A weekend is pushing it, but 4 days is eminently doable, and Montreal is an amazing city for a winter break, with lots of seasonal festivals and activities that are just a little different from the Christmas markets you might already have experienced if you’re in Europe.
I’ll admit that the cold of Montréal came as a bit of a shock to me the first time I visited. Go for the winter semester, they said. It’ll be great, they said. With snowdrifts higher than me and temperatures so far below freezing you could feel the ice forming around your nasal hairs, it took a bit of getting used to, and my London coat and non-grip shoes did not cut it. But I was living with a family out in Angrignon, a suburb with a bus/metro combo into the centre – stay in the old town and you will find yourself in a cosseted fairytale of Canadian loveliness.
Perhaps because it is so bone-chillingly cold, it’s possible to walk a considerable distance in Montréal entirely underground, where seasons and temperature are irrelevant – the Underground City was a revelation, with plenty to do and see and the ability to pop up right next to the various tourist attractions without having to brave the snow and ice at street level.
A few tips:
Just under a 3-hour drive away, Québec City looks like a little piece of Brittany dropped into an ice age, the beautiful building draped in filmset winter weather, and is well worth a visit, with boutique shops and fabulous restaurants.
Niagara Falls is too far from Montréal (over 6 hours) but Montmorency Falls are very close to Québec City and considerably less touristy. The cable car is a must.
Montreal is a Foodie’s dream. With US-size portions, cosmopolitan population and a considerable French influence and accompanying culinary pride, this city produced genuine “fusion” food to a level I haven’t seen beyond Singapore (arguably the birth of “fusion food” as we know it.) It was in Montréal that I discovered brunch long before it became trendy here – amazing pancakes piled high and drizzled liberally with maple syrup and creme fraiche and blueberries.
That said, a lot of Quebecois delicacies are an acquired taste. The smoked meat had too great an emphasis on the “smoked” element from me, but the at first unpromising-sounding Poutine (chips, gravy and cheese curds) is amazing. (One tip – if you mispronounce its name you will find you accidentally be saying the most offensive word in the French language, which I once did when trying to show off my lingual prowess to one of my Canadian students. It’s called hubris, that.)
Speaking of which, I’ve heard it said that Québec is more French than France. This almost felt true in the smaller towns, but Montreal itself is an entirely bilingual city, with signs, metro announcements etc. all in both English and French, so you don’t need to worry about getting by if you don’t speak French.
There are endless things to do and see – if you like museums, there are many, with the Museum of Fine Arts being the grandest, and entirely free apart from special expeditions! If culture is your thing then there is a seemingly endless selection of free events going on all the time, from jazz to comedy.
Winter sports: you have to do at least one wintery activity while you’re there, and make the most of the natural cloth of snow and ice. Skating is one of the cheapest and easiest options, with many parks becoming semi-natural skating spots during the coldest months.
Habitat 67 Something different and unique to look at, I’ve always been a fan of quirky architecture. Some people loathe this unusual apartment block, but I love it.
My husband and I have almost mutually exclusive tastes when it comes to holidays. He acts as though he is going to drip towards an inevitable death if the temperature rises above about 20 Celsius, whereas I happily went for a run during my first humid night in Singapore; he likes to keep himself to himself, whereas I will go out of my way to talk to anyone I meet. When recently booking flights to the US the website asked if we wanted to pay extra to choose our seats in advance. He declined. “What if we don’t get to sit together?” I asked. “Then I can go to sleep and you can spend nine hours talking to whatever poor bugger sits next to you.”
Bangkok was my turn, and my victory. After years of exploring what I considered to be more interesting destinations alone, I dragged him with me with vain promises of historical sites and food that wouldn’t kill him. And this was a little mean of me.
Bangkok is everything I love about Asia, and everything that convinces him that next year we should just go to Lyme Regis – disorganised, loud, busy, full of cheerful people and so, so hot – the kind of hot that makes your glasses and your camera lens steam up. It’s a powder keg of chaotic joy with something for everyone – from the Gap Yah students stumbling down the Khao San Road to the aging hippies, with their reluctant teens in tow, reliving their youth, albeit in upmarket comfort off the back of their city salary.
Things got off to a bad start – our taxi driver took us to the wrong hotel, and was quite insistent that we should stay there anyway, even after the staff of said hotel almost physically pushed us back into the car and gestured wildly in the opposite direction. We finally arrived hot and bothered only to be told the swimming pool was closed for renovation and the café wouldn’t open until dinner time.
Tip 1 – In the same way that, in London, you are said to never be more than 10 feet from a rat, in Bangkok you are rarely more than 10 feet from a shopping centre, and they are invariably open 24 hours a day and, crucially, are air-conditioned. Our hotel turned out to be opposite the fabulous if bafflingly British-themed Terminal 21, and an hour later, refreshed and over-fed at very little expense, we happily made our way to the centre.
Tip 2: Bangkok is very big (it appears as one of the 20 largest cities in the world on most lists) and has the traffic jams befitting of an oversized capital, but not necessarily the public transport to match. We were staying in Sukhumvit, which is amazingly well-connected if you’re there on business, but less so if you’re a tourist and want to do touristy things. I’m aware that public transport has probably improved a lot since we were last there, but plan your route wisely. Although my husband wasn’t keen, I’m a big fan of tuk-tuks – they’re small enough to weave through the choking traffic, and if you find you’re being taken in the wrong direction you can always just leap out (warning: not actually recommended.)
Tip 3: Avoid temple fatigue. There are a LOT of temples in Bangkok, and an awful lot of people visiting them. We went to the Grand Palace (by convoluted route involving Sky Train, MRT, tuk-tuk and boat) and, though it is invariably one of those “must sees”, it’s also rammed with tour groups and every kind of hawker under the (intensely hot) sun. I would recommend a longer visit to Wat Pho, deservingly famous for its incredible reclining Buddha.
Tip 4: Actually, do go for the tourist boats, or, if you’re staying in one of the plush hotels on the banks of the Chao Phraya, make use of their private crafts, of which we were quite jealous. I fear our marriage almost ended as I cajoled my husband onto a rickety riverbus full of schoolchildren and monks, worryingly low in the water with a disconcertingly spluttering engine. “It’s an experience,” I told him. “Yes.” He agreed curtly. “So is dysentery. It doesn’t mean I want it.”
Which brings me on to…
Tip 5: the Sky Bar at the State Tower (dress code applies) is a gorgeous place to wind down, though the owners know it and charge for drinks accordingly – a meal will set you back even further, so we went elsewhere, but it looked wonderful and probably worth it for an anniversary. Go there for sunset, as we did, and, tourist trap or not, you can’t help but be impressed.
But if the city does become too much…
Tip 6: there are many daytrips just an hour or two out of Bangkok where you can experience the more sedate side of Thailand, along with its beautiful scenery (more on this another time). The brave can go it alone as trains in particular are excellent, or there is a plentiful supply of tour companies willing to charge you for the full service so you don’t have to think about anything.
Tip 7: RELAX! Bangkok may be frenetic and loud and, with its bright lights and spicy foods, an attack on all the sense at once, but it’s also home to many luxury hotels, great restaurants and spas, as well as those vast shopping centres. Largely due to the presence of air conditioning we found ourselves in a bowling alley at the other-worldly Siam Paragon, which also turned out to be the home of the most extravagant ice cream parlour. And why not?
My adopted city is known the world over – a sprawling capital of over 9million people, once the centre of a vast empire that covered a third of the earth’s land surface, it is the seat of the British Royal Family and home to an array of national museums and galleries, from the Natural History Museum to the Tate. “When a man is tired of London,” according to Dr Johnson, “he is tired of life.
In contrast, my home city of Bradford gets a bad rap. Once a wealthy city at the centre of a thriving textiles industry, today it is more often associated with race riots and poverty than with culture and innovation – Wikipedia points out that some areas of the Bradford district “suffer from the highest levels of deprivation in the country… Infant mortality is double the national average.” Where Bradford appears in popular culture – and it does, often – it is generally as the setting for Rita, Sue and Bob, Too, or, in more recent years, the unrelentingly depressing films The Arbor and The Selfish Giant.
I got a wonderful taste of this contrast recently running two 10k races in two months, one in Bradford and the other through the centre of London, where I can vicariously claim to live (in that my address is just inside a London postcode, out on the edge by the M1 that takes me back home again in 4 hours). Before the London run we were sent a fabulously glossy guide of the route with elaborate descriptions of what we would see along the way: “as you round the corner you will see on your left St Paul’s Cathedral, built by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London. On your right, on the other side of the River, you will be able to see the Shard – Europe’s tallest building – rising majestically above the skyline.” The final 500 metres took us along the Mall, finishing directly in front of Buckingham Palace.
The Bradford 10k was not accompanied by such a guide, perhaps because it took us past boarded up Pound Shops, scrapyards and finished in front of a branch of Nando’s.
In summary, Bradford is probably not on the top of anyone’s travel list. And yet it should be. Its short-lived and ultimately unsuccessful bid to become Capital of Culture in 2003 apparently off the back of Gareth Gates and Bombay Mix made me laugh and cry in equal measure, because, actually, there is easily enough to do in Bradford for a long weekend, for a tiny fraction of what you’d pay for an equivalent break in London. So in the hope of tempting you, here are a few things you can do
The National Science and Media Museum. This is utterly, fantastically brilliant, and was probably my favourite place as a child, in part because it had a little booth where you could read the “news”, and buy the video afterwards. (Yes. Video. That’s how old I am.) I went back recently and found to my delight that this feature is still there, though they’ve updated the news stories. (For years budding teenage Hugh Edwards got to relate the horror of the Ethiopian famine as part of a fun day out.) Still completely free, the museum still features an array of interactive exhibits, with endless buttons to press and levers to pull. 30 years on it’s still one of my favourite places in the world
Saltaire. I want to retire here. This glorious “village” was built by industrialist and philanthropist Titus Salt at the height of the Victorian era when Bradford was a manufacturing powerhouse, arguably because he didn’t want his workers to die off as quickly as they did elsewhere in the City, but either way it’s an astounding feat of social planning and now a World Heritage Site. The Mill at the centre of it all is also home to the largest collection of David Hockney paintings in the world – while Andrea Dunbar was introducing the world to the general goings-on of Buttershaw, fellow Bradfordian Hockney had hotfooted it to California and was busy painting young men leaping into swimming pools.
Everything Bronte. The Bronte sisters were actually born in Bradford, though sadly their birthplace is once again a café rather than the museum you might expect. The more famous Parsonage, however, is just a short drive out from the city, and well worth a visit, with all the rooms eerily restored to their original décor from c1840.
The Peace Museum. One of the lesser-known but glorious pieces of trivia about my alma mater, King’s College London, is that every year its War Studies Department plays a football match against Bradford’s Peace Studies department for the Tolstoy Cup. (It should be noted that Bradford usually wins.) Bradford University is also home of the Peace Museum, which is small and quirky but just so uniquely positive and so very Bradford in its idiosyncrasy that it’s worth a visit.
Finally, a trip to Bradford just wouldn’t be complete without a curry. Much as Bradford’s famed cuisine might be the butt of jokes, there is a very good reason why the city was crowned Britain’s curry capital for six years in a row. There is, of course, a mouth-watering plethora of places to choose from, but my favourite are Omar’s Balti House, where the naans are as big as the table, and The Three Singhs, because, well, you have to respect a pun of such quality, and actually the curries are pretty good too.
So, from restaurants to hotels. I have stayed in a fair few over the years, ranging from the grand to the grimy, sumptuous to sleazy. The wildly varying budgets of myself and my employers mean I’ve experienced the full range, from the fabulously luxurious Four Seasons in Mumbai, to a small guesthouse in Margate where we were sent for a “teambuilding” weekend one November, and bonded not over Belbin Team Role assessments and building skyscrapers out of newspaper and Plasticine, but over set mealtimes with over-boiled vegetables from the freezer, and an interesting packeted dessert that tasted like toilet duck.
Putting this together, I stumbled over these reviews and figured that, in the grand scheme of things, I’d actually got away fairly lightly. But nonetheless there are a few things that, older and wiser, I would bear in mind now (money-permitting) when booking a hotel.
Location, location, location: Being in the centre of town isn’t everything. I’ve stayed in some lovely hotels just outside the centre and as long as there’s reliable public transport this isn’t necessarily a problem. I have stayed in far nicer hotels in expensive cities such as Zurich by picking something a few tram stops away, where the equivalent in a touristy area would have cost double. Conversely, and feeling rich, a few years ago we popped over to Copenhagen for a romantic weekend and treated ourselves to a hotel right next to Tivoli Gardens. Our hotel turned out to be a hostel, and our “double room” looked more like something you’d find in a bail hostel or army barracks, with two small, single metal beds positioned as far apart as possible (which in a tiny room admittedly wasn’t far) and which creaked disconcertingly when you moved. We tried to move them together, but unfortunately the only way to do that meant blocking the door. So it turned out to be not quite as romantic a weekend as we had hoped. In Prague we stayed in a hotel that billed itself as being “close to the action”, but we had foolishly not done our research as to what action that was. In this context “action” meant “Irish bars and stripper joints”, and it was populated entirely by loud British stag groups. One night we came back to find them having what can only be described as a “Widdle Off” outside the entrance, each with his flies undone seeing who could go on the longest. For the rest of the weekend I pretended to be French.
“Quirky” hotels: if a hotel, in its write-up, claims to be “quirky”, you might want to find out exactly what that means. Generally I don’t like my hotels quirky. I like them to be clean, with soft beds, a good lock on the door, a decent shower and somewhere to get a drink. “Quirky” in my experience often translates as “disconcerting” or “expect mild peril”. By far the oddest hotel I ever stayed in was a James Bond themed hotel in Milan called the Admiral. It was a little way outside the city (see 1) and housed in a 1970s building that possibly looked mildly more inviting in the 1970s. Everything – and I mean everything – was Bond-themed, for no discernible reason – there was Bond soap and shower gel in the bathroom, and in the entrance hall there were display cases full of collectible cars and dolls and replica guns. The bar sold vodka martinis (shaken, not stirred) and the barman (the only staff member we saw the whole week, who also checked us in and out) looked like he could kill you with a neat flick of his hand. I presume it was just owned by a particularly eccentric man with a Bond fetish – even the rooms were named after the films and painstakingly yet not altogether accurately decorated. At the same time, we appeared to be the only guests and it was, at the very least, a little bit weird to the point of creepy.
The gimmick: in the last couple of decades a whole range of hotels has sprung up across in the worlds in places you wouldn’t immediately think of as being conducive to a comfortable night’s sleep. Not content with a simple bed in a nice, grounded building with four walls, you can now dangle from the treetops or bed down in a cave, ex jumbo jet or sleep in what is effectively a human gym locker in one of Japan’s Capsule Hotels. While some of the hotels on this list look truly amazing (the one in the library is calling to me as I type), do nonetheless beware of the gimmick. Gimmicky hotels tend to be charging extortionate sums for you to do something which (they proudly proclaim) “you can’t do anywhere else”, but there’s a reason you can’t do it anywhere else: nobody in their right mind would want to do it. Take the Ice Hotel in Sweden. it has spawned a couple of poorer imitations in similarly offputtingly cold places, some just for show and others which welcome in paying guests. We went to the one in Quebec, though this one was called Hotel de Glace, because calling it something French makes it sound somehow more sophisticated and less bollock-tinglingly cold. They market their stays not as “nights”, but “experiences”, because you could sue a hotel for a truly terrible night, but nobody could deny that hypothermia is one heck of an experience. Yes, they are beautiful and breathtaking pieces of art;; yes, sipping warming spirits from glasses made of actual ice is indeed quite cool for a while; and yes, going to sleep with a massive Doctor Who-esque snow angel etched above your bed is certainly something new. But when you’re given an industrial sleeping bag and told proudly that in it you could survive at -40, doesn’t a normal person think “perhaps, but why would I want to?”
Soundproofing: insist upon it. I stayed in a rather grand hotel (the Fairmont Royal York – it’s been in numerous films) whose glamorous era-gone-by opulence is worth every penny BUT I was unluckily put into a room with a (locked) connecting door to the adjacent room’s bathroom. This would have been fine, except that the occupant of said room had evidently had a rather heavy night, and/or a bad curry, and was experiencing a not inconsiderable level of discomfort at five o’clock the next morning. We involuntarily lived through every painful second of the next hour with him as he groaned, squeezed, gasped and sighed and (I’m pretty certain) at one point wept, accompanied by other, bodily noises which, having thus set the scene, I will leave to your imagination.
Local Wildlife: this could be anything. A friend of mine went to Bali and, having left the terrace door open overnight, woke up to find a monkey looking quizzically at her from the dresser (to be fair, she was staying on Monkey Forest Road, so that was a bit of a clue); in Greece, elaborately-decorated little green lizards somehow found their way into our apartment; in South Carolina, passive-aggressive signs warned you not to leave your towels drying on the balcony, or passing pelicans would pinch them. Usually, though, it just means cockroaches. I’ve had two major cockroach experiences that really stand out over the years. In Sydney, innocently getting up to go to the loo in the middle of the night, one scuttled across my bathroom floor that was so large that in my sleepy state I momentarily concluded to myself that it was a crayfish that had somehow mysteriously found its way into my apartment block. But worse than this were those I encountered in Hong Kong, which in addition to being generally other-wordly and capable of surviving an apocalypse were apparently suicidal and could fly. All night long I was kept awake by that horror film sound effect palpitation of their wings as they persistently hurled themselves at the elderly wall fan in the corner of my room, flutter-flutter-flutter-flutter-SMACK-SMACK…. The following morning after no sleep I found halves of cockroach all over my room. Turns out they’re not invincible after all.
Read between the lines: what YOU think something means isn’t necessarily what the owner of the hotel thinks it means, so do more than a little cursory research before booking. In Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria – not necessarily an obvious tourist spot for the travelling Englishman at the end of March – we patted ourselves on the back at the marvellous deal we netted booking a “luxury suite” which, the hotel website claimed while describing said room next to a picture of some champagne chilling in a bucket, was “suitable for 4 people”. It cost us £27, and it turned out there was a reason for this: what we thought was a plush VIP suite turned out to be the kind of room which you used to get in a Travelodge in the 1980s: a standard double bed and a clunky pull-out sofa bed intended for your child. We were a married couple travelling with our best friend, which made for an awkward couple of nights during which we lay rigidly still in our double bed, and he tossed and turned uncomfortably in the kid’s bed about a foot away. (And to top it all, the bar was shut while we were there.)
I’ve recently been binge-watching Supersizers Go…, not because it has anything remotely to do with travel or indeed my regular job, but because I’m a little bit in love with Giles Coren. (OK, I am really a lot in love with Giles Coren.) The format is basically: Giles Coren and Sue Perkins spend a week “living” and eating the food of another era, invariably washed down with copious quantities of alcohol, and hilarity ensues. It’s actually rather marvelous. I wish they’d do a travel version.
One of the most fabulous things about travel is the opportunity to try different foods in their far more authentic forms than the often poor imitations we’re served at home. In Mumbai I was dazzled and delighted not by chicken tikka masala (invented, I think, in Glasgow?) but by spiced basa fillets and smoked hilsa (it’s a bit like a big, angry-looking herring), and in Hong Kong by various bits of animal I couldn’t identify, and was probably grateful not to. In Bethlehem I had one of the best meals I have ever experienced – mouth-watering hummus and falafel and lamb in a restaurant called Afteem.
But eating abroad also has its downsides. Imagine coming to the UK and eating what you thought were traditional British dishes – you’d have permanent indigestion, and mushy peas would be enough to give someone who hadn’t grown up with them some form of mild PTSD. I’ve had a number of similar experiences abroad, and am not informed enough to know if I was unlucky or having the sort of “experience” which will allow me at parties to pretend I was posh enough to have a gap year and get away with it. Here’s a rundown.
Delhi Belly: you’re actually not allowed to go to India and not get ill. I think you sign something that says as much when you get your visa, and if you manage to stay well for your whole trip they don’t let you leave again. Nobody can put their finger on what it is – street food and ice cubes and generally delicate western constitutions all get the blame. The woman with whom I was working confidently blamed watermelon juice, and went into a slightly-too-graphic description of how bugs can get into it via tapwater, which every traveler knows will BRING INSTANT DEATH. Convinced I was nearing the end one night I texted my husband the words “I love you” from my hotel bathroom floor, and when pleasantly surprised to wake up again the next morning still relatively intact and very much alive. Surreptitiously warning my supervisor that I was a little unwell and may need to nip out occasionally, she lavishly presented me with my own toilet (“On the western-style toilet there is now a sign that says Out of Order, but IT IS NOT OUT OF ORDER! IT IS FOR YOU!) and every time I came back 20 people asked if I was OK
Moving swiftly on, we come to offal. Pretty much every local specialty seems to involve parts of an animal you wouldn’t willingly/knowingly eat, and I’ve come to the conclusion it’s a ruse of the rest of the world against us. In Hong Kong I was given what I was told (this must have been lost in translation, as I have looked it up since and am assured nobody eats such a thing) “chicken bladders”. I went towards these tiny little things with my chopsticks to be told “don’t pierce them! The juice will escape”! Since you ask, it was like chewing a condom full of chicken gravy.
Trying to please the tourists: one of the funniest and least inviting “meals” I encountered was the “English Breakfast” in a Spanish hotel, which was apparently provided “in response to customer demand”. It looked as though the chef had had an English breakfast painstakingly described to him but had never actually seen one, and the result was previously-beautiful Serrano ham fried to within an inch of its life and sitting in a centimeter of fat, dry scrambled eggs and baked beans made from scratch by mixing haricot beans with an improvised tomato sauce. We stuck to the pastries.
Durian fruit. There must be someone somewhere who likes it. It must be something peculiar to particular cultures, like marmite, which you might possibly like by default if you are brought up with it. I tried durian once, and it was like eating vomit, only with an even more disconcerting texture. And what on earth possessed the first person to ever discover it was (in the loosest sense of the word) “edible” to take something that looks like a mutated porcupine and smells like a sewer, and think “I’ll see what that tastes like”. It’s banned on aeroplanes for a reason.
National delicacies: snails, etc. I actually like chicken feet, one of those rites of passage you’re supposed to try in China; obligingly I have also tried snails in France. They taste of nothing. Rubber, at a push. This is why they’re served swimming in garlic and butter – so that there is something to taste. In this category fall countless other things, usually insects (scorpions, I’m told, are lovely and crispy, but I’ve never had the chance to try them) or snakes. So much still to try, so much disappointment still to come.
Local booze: this really depends on where you are. In South Africa the Pinotage was, of course, fabulous, and in Canada the white wines of the Niagara region came as a pleasant surprise. In Europe, however, every country seems to have an obligatory “local” spirit that you could either clean your teeth or strip the paintwork from your walls with. Here’s a tip: if the guidebook tells you it was previously used for “medicinal purposes”, avoid it, as this translates as “will kill everything it touches”.
Last year, in Lisbon, I did something very rare: I visited a Michelin starred restaurant. I love good food, but restaurants of such quality, and the inevitable accompanying pageantry, not to mention strain on my wallet, take me so far out of my comfort zone that I can’t even see my comfort zone any more. As a child, “going out for dinner” meant you stayed IN the restaurant for your fish and chips, rather than taking them away wrapped up in paper. This usually only occurred in the event of a birthday or a wake. Frankly, the mere presence of cutlery that wasn’t plastic made us feel we were getting a bit above ourselves. Nowadays I’ve just about got over seeing Pizza Express as decadent, but nonetheless this was still a rare treat.
So, how do you know you’re having a world-class dining experience rather than a standard Friday night at your bog-standard tandoori or local Wetherspoon? Here are some indicators:
– The “tasting menu”. This is where you’re charged a set (usually large) amount of money for what is ultimately a series of canapes presented as mini courses which you need a magnifying glass to see.
– The dishes feature mysterious ingredients or are so incomprehensibly titled that you can’t work out what they are, but are too afraid to ask. What, for example, is a Mahogany Clam? And how does he differ from a Standard Clam? Suddenly you find your tiny portion of meat comes with “jus” (as my dad calls it, “crap gravy”) and pea puree (substandard mushy peas). Other parts of your meal sound decidedly unappetising, but to admit this would be to show your lack of culture, so you keep quiet and eat your smoked salmon with “a smear of liquorice gel”, even though this sounds like something you’d rub on a mouth ulcer, and your “shaved fennel with birch syrup” (I promise I’m not making this up) even though, as far as you know, fennel isn’t particularly hairy and birch syrup sounds like a hippy remedy for a hangover.
– Each staff member has a designated job, and is apparently forbidden stray onto a colleague’s territory. You must not ask the person who puts the napkin on your knees (posh diners evidently being above doing this for themselves) if you can order wine, the wine waiter (sorry, sommelier) if you can order your food, expect the person from whom you order your food to actually be the person who then brings you your food, or ask the person who brings you your food for the bill. At the restaurant we visited, there was one waiter whose sole job seemed to be to replace pieces of cutlery, and he looked positively excited when the woman next to us dropped her knife, swiftly replacing it with more aplomb than was strictly necessary.
– You are not allowed to eat or drink until the content of each course has been explained in extravagant detail. With each course, the sommelier appeared at our table and we were treated to a very informed description of the wine and why it was the best wine for what we were about to eat, and we had to nod sagely as we learned about the different types of grapes that grow along the Chilean/Argentinian border, feigning interest. We then had to go through the same charade with the food, with the waiter whose job it was to describe the food giving us an elaborate overview of what, owing to the tiny portions, would take us less time to eat than it took him to describe: “Here you have gently grilled, fresh shrimps which were caught just this morning off the Sussex coast. Their names were Barry and Derek, and they are served on a bed of fluffed quinoa with a light drizzle of menstrual jelly.” (OK, I made that last bit up.) When the Ballad of Barry and Derek was complete the first waiter whipped off the lid to reveal with a flourish their remains in all their small, overly-decorated glory.
– Once you have the wine, great care is taken that you do not pour this yourself. Instead, it is placed just out of reach, thus ensuring that the Head Wine Pourer stays in secure employment until retirement and you remain thirsty and increasingly concerned that the staff are passive-aggressively judging the speed of your alcohol consumption in their insistence that you wait a while being allowed more.
– At the end of the meal, it is obligatory that you try the recommended “digestif”. This invariably tastes a bit like cough mixture.
– The evening ends with a phone call from your bank querying if your card has been stolen or if you really did just voluntarily spend over £200 on coffin-roasted Trafalgar Square Pigeon with deadly nightshade compote and goat-sick glaze followed by organic blackcurrant soufflé sprinkled with locally-sourced vanilla-infused orphan tears.