Taking It Easy in the Big Easy

New Orleans had been on my bucket list for ages, so it was, on reflection, a relief that we even made it there after various complications in the days leading up to it. Finally arriving in an impressive downpour just hours before we were due to set off on a cruise from there, and feeling generally unwell and exhausted, the city wasn’t immediately as inviting as all the books and blogs had promised. Even the taxi driver who picked us up at the airport launched, within minutes of our getting into the car, into a well-rehearsed series of warnings as to where we shouldn’t walk at night, where we shouldn’t go at all, and what might happen to us if we did.

IMG_7457 (2)

Founded in 1718 by French colonialists, New Orleans, on the banks of the Mississippi, is one of the older of the USA’s major cities, and unique in its make-up, a chaotic and glorious mix of cultures, from Creole to French, known for being the birthplace of Louis Armstrong and the home of Mardi Gras, famous for beignets, jazz and amazing food. On the other hand, until as recently as 2013 it also had the dubious distinction of being known as the USA’s Murder Capital, and I was struck, on our drive to the port, that I had never seen so many obviously homeless people in any US city, despite visiting a number of larger towns than this one.

IMG_5130

I disappointed an American friend recently, when asked excitedly upon my return if I thought NOLA looked like France – she looked almost hurt when I said no, it didn’t (unlike her, I have been to France.) In truth, many of the famous parts of it look like Blackpool, and not in a good way – run down, seedy, making a quick buck out of tourists who don’t necessarily have a lot of cash to spend. Its bright lights often signal life’s less salubrious pleasures, and in the rain especially one could see the city had seen better days. But other parts of it were as good – even better – than expected. The architecture may not be as quintessentially French as its visitors think, but it is unmistakably New Orleans, and that, surely, is better? I could have spent days walking contentedly around its Warehouse District (controversially – in my opinion – far more appealing than its thronging, over-hyped French quarter). As for things to do, its National World War Two Museum vied with the Smithsonian’s vast, free institutes for the title of the best museum in the country – 2 hours into our visit there we felt we had barely scratched the surface.

7FC80115-A712-49D5-BD02-6D41B7ACA773
Incredible breakfast at Willa Jean

The food is famous for a reason, and there is a LOT to choose from. With limited time (a two-day visit at the end of a cruise, and a mere few hours at the start) we had to be almost mercenary in where we chose to eat, though I have a feeling a bad restaurant wouldn’t survive very long here. We chose, I think, wisely, sampling an amazing brunch at Willa Jean (recommended by a friend, this exceeded our expectations) at the sweaty, chaotic and almost achingly hip Sylvain, and the obligatory beignets at Cafe du Monde (beignets are undeniably incredible, the location is probably better in the summer when it isn’t raining.)

IMG_7625 (2)
Hipster-chic at Sylvain

Accommodation-wise, the choice is as eclectic and plentiful as you would expect, but the prices seem fairly consistently steep, particularly in season. We felt we had landed on our feet with the Renaissance Arts Hotel which, while inexplicably not scoring as brilliantly as it could have on TripAdvisor, was nonetheless conveniently located with imaginative and beautiful decor and lovely, friendly staff and a great adjoining cafe.

Before leaving we just had time to nip to Louis Armstrong Park to pay homage to a man whose work I have admired for many years – we even chose What A Wonderful World for our first dance at our wedding ten years ago. Had I not feared looking like an eccentric idiot I would have hugged the statue of this kind-looking and charismatic musical genius whose work I hope will never be forgotten.

IMG_7615 (2)
The man himself

So that’s New Orleans – a slightly gingerly, brief, off-season visit, but one I’m glad we made nonetheless.

IMG_7607 (2)

A French Christmas on the Danube

I have something of a love/hate relationship with Christmas, for a host of complex personal reasons too dull to put into a blog. For this reason, every few years my husband and I decide to dispense with the whole shebang and spend it Somewhere Else – this year we will spend 25th December somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico between Progresso and New Orleans.

The first time we chose to extricate ourselves from the enforced jollity of a “family” Christmas (that is to say, a Christmas spent with other people’s kids as an ever-present reminder we will never have any of our own) we chose an altogether more traditionally “Christmassy” destination – the capitals of the Danube, decked out with festive markets and obligingly covered in snow and ice. We found ourselves on the fabulous Vivaldi, part of Croiseurope’s fleet of river cruisers, accompanied by a cast of fellow travellers and crew to which any self-respecting travel writer would have been grateful.

IMG_0260
The Vivaldi in a snowy Budapest

Croiseurope is a French company with a mixture of French and local staff. The French staff included a superb and illustrious Maitre D who remained remarkably calm in the face of some of his more demanding guests (of which more later), and two delightful “les Animatrices” – hosts charged with keeping us all entertained during the evenings and travel days, which they did expertly with an eclectic and always-enthusiastic mix of line dancing, shuffleboard and quizzes. Other staff included those in the kitchen, bar and restaurant, who seemed to change daily – at each stop, staff would disembark to go home for part of the festive period, our lovely Slovakian waitress leaving us in Bratislava to spend a late Christmas with her young child. One fixture of the journey – and I do hope he’s still there – was Laslo, our ever-present entertainer, glued to a Casio keyboard and sporting a haircut (or possibly toupee) straight out of a 70s gameshow. One of his favourite songs was White Christmas, but it seemed he only knew a small and apparently random selection of the lyrics, so it went something like “I’m dreamum ba-dap-dap da….  CHRISTMAS! Ja…dum.mm.ONES….ba-dap da KNOW.” (A man of great versatility, he later handed out presents dressed as Father Christmas, albeit one with unlikely dark hair.)

IMG_0187
Laslo performs to an adoring crowd

The issue on a smaller cruise, though, is always going to be the other passengers. On large cruise ships it’s usually possible to eventually gravitate towards Your People, the likelihood of there being someone with similar hobbies and tastes being almost inevitable. On a small river cruise, however, this is far from inevitable, and the chances of being able to avoid those with whom you don’t necessarily click are pretty much zero. The problem we had on this particular trip came in the form of the other English passengers.

We had booked the cruise directly and at the last minute, along with two other people, who came to be known simply as Les Japonaises – they were a young Japanese couple who had been temporarily living in Oxford while the husband studied for a Master’s in Business. All the rest of the passengers were French, save for a group of 12 English over-50s who had paid (they later discovered, causing some disharmony) a much-inflated rate to be accompanied – and corralled – throughout their trip by an English “guide” whose main role seemed to be berating the French crew of a French boat for having the audacity to persistently address their overwhelmingly French guests in French.

The other English people proved a cause of discomfort for us throughout the trip. For a start, they openly pitied us. They saw us as this hapless English couple surrounded by French people and encumbered by two inexplicable Japanese youth, without the funds to pay for a superior trip such as their group was enjoying, complete with guided tours of each location and interminable classical music concerts complete with wigs and period dress. Our protestations and the fact we were happily attending the French excursions (where I would burrow into my brain to extract my schoolgirl French to translate into English, and Hisato would translate to Japanese for Yuka, so frankly it was anybody’s guess what information she took away from those tours) were met with a mixture of horror and sadness, and at our last stop, Bratislava, they selflessly invited us (after a vote, apparently) to tag along with them. Whether anyone had suggested Les Japonaises also go along remains unknown, but they were allowed to scurry off to the castle and enjoy themselves, whereas we found ourselves on one of the most excruciating guided tours we’d ever attended.

The main reason the tour was so excruciating was that the other people had zero interest in listening to anything the tourguide, a Slovakian with a degree in the history of her region, had to say, as they were more intent on educating HER on everything that was wrong about the country. An hour or so into the walk, after a (in my opinion) very interesting explanation of the peaceful break-up of Czechoslovakia into Slovakia and the Czech Republic, a brief interlude on the benefits of EU membership and a diversion into local Bratislavan street art, as she paused for breath, one of our group said loudly “but it just seems so STUPID to me. I mean, you HAVE TO be in the EU because you’re such an insignificant country. Wouldn’t it make sense to just join with one of the countries nearby, like Hungary?”

IMG_0406
Street art, Bratislava-style

At dinner later, we heard this same woman’s husband declaring to all around him – context unknown – “yes, jolly resourceful, you know, the Africans, but I suppose they have to be.”

It was with great relief when they left the evening’s entertainment in protest because it was – horror of horrors – in French. They went off into town amidst much sighing and outrage, and we settled down to listen to the story of Le Petit Sapin (in my case), and of goodness knows what in Yuka’s case.

IMG_0451
Enjoying organised entertainment

Embarrassment at any association with our compatriots aside, this remains one of the best trips we ever did. We visited a snowy Budapest on Christmas Day, walking around the castle grounds and feeling more like we were in Narnia than central Europe; we started and ended in a regal and elegant Vienna, dazzling and confident in its Christmas robes; and we discovered with pleasurable surprise the tiny yet picture-book Slovakian capital, to which we plan to return.

 

 

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

After almost a full year working for a university based in the United States, this month I finally got to go there. Based in a suburb of Philadelphia, its environs are quintessentially American: houses which, to the British eye, seem almost eccentrically large, with the stars and stripes hanging proudly over door and neat little verandas overhung by a mix of red and yellow leaves straight out of a holiday brochure waxing lyrical about Fall on the east coast. The town center, such as it is, sports an underwhelming diner, a generic and characterless bar, a 7eleven, two gas stations and a notable lack of anywhere selling decent coffee, unless you count the inevitable Dunkin’ Donuts. Transport links are sporadic and bear no resemblance to the timetables, and everyone is disconcertingly friendly.

It surprised my colleagues that I would want to stay anywhere in the vicinity beyond the allotted period, and they enthused about the ease with which you can get to Washington DC or New York from there. But I’d already been to Washington DC and New York and had never been to Philadelphia, a name which conjured up any and all of eclectic memories of history lessons about American independence, Tuesday evenings after school joining in with the opening theme to Will Smith’s Fresh Prince, overpriced cream cheese that probably has nothing to do with the city, and the image of a resolute Sylvester Stallone punching the air at the top of a big flight of steps. The City of Brotherly Love that lovingly decapitated a hitchhiking robot last year then dumped him in a ditch, Philly is famous, for all the right reasons and a lot of the wrongs ones too. Why would you pass up on the opportunity to go there?

IMG_7241

I had all of a day and a half in Philly. The half day, at the start of the trip, clouded by jetlag, the remnants of travel sickness and general disorientation, was a good opportunity to get a feel for the city, to get vaguely oriented (though after 18 years I still get lost in London, so it’s all relative) and get an idea of the scale. I was very lucky to be accompanied by two ex-students who showed me some of the main sites (and indulged me in running up those steps – of which more later), so that, after a week of meetings, I could unleash my over-excited little English self on a city that promised much and gave even more. So, if you want to see Philly and have 24 hours, here are my tips, opinions and general ramblings:

1. Stay centrally. Philly is expensive and a lot of the chain hotels are overpriced, but I found an amazing new place called Pod Philly. It’s one of those trendy places whose style could be most politely described as “warehouse chic” and would not have looked out of place in Shoreditch, but the staff were great, the minuscule rooms cleverly designed providing you don’t value privacy in the bathroom, and the location brilliant. It even had a gym.

IMG_7248
Want to lie in bed and watch someone use the loo through a screen door? Then this is the very place.

2. Don’t miss the nightlife. If you’re in Philly for at least one night, GO OUT! The aforementioned hotel is in an area called Rittenhouse. The square and area around it is jam packed with fashionable restaurants and bars. I was lucky to have a local with me who a) knew the area and b) was in desperate need of a night on the tiles. Her choice of venue was Village Whiskey, somehow cosy and swanky all at the same time, with an impressive choice of drinks and unnecessarily large portions (note to self: in the US, don’t order a salad because you want something light.)

3. If you manage to wake up the next morning (I recommend a brutally early phone call from someone in the UK who doesn’t know there’s a time difference to shake you out of bed) you’re ambling distance from the most incredible selection of hangover-curing breakfast choices at Reading Terminal Market. I chose Dutch Eating Place, surrounded by a mass of what looked like reliable locals waiting for their orders and shouting incomprehensibly at one another in that unmistakable accent which is 90% jovial with a hint of “cross me and I’ll kill you” thrown in, and it was brilliant.

IMG_7256
Reading Terminal Market: not a good place for the indecisive

4. By the time you’ve reached Reading Terminal Market you’re then half way to the historic district where you can – and should – visit the historical sites that fall both loosely and loftily under the heading “The Birthplace of America” (or perhaps more accurately “the birthplace of the modern United States”, but that isn’t quite as catchy.) One of the huge benefit of the sites and museums in this area is that, unlike many attractions in the US, they’re free to visit. For the Liberty Bell, you can just wander in (or if, like me, you’re trying to warm up with a coffee and are reluctant to throw it out just to be allowed to join a long line of people, nip around the side and take a photo through the big glass window without having to queue). Independence Hall requires a ticket, which you can get (for free) from inside the Visitor Center, which will get you into a timed tour. (If you’re British, you may want to be quiet for this bit, lest someone hears your accent and decides to make this a Thing.) The tour was actually fascinating (I know shamefully little about this particular period in history, apart from the fact we were the bad guys, it sort of kicked off with folks wasting good tea by chucking it into the harbour, and Lin Manuel Miranda has since made a not unsuccessful musical out of the life of a certain Mr Hamilton) though at one point he stressed that we MUST NOT lean on the walls as the building was extremely old – 280 years! At this point the Americans gasped, and the European visitors gave themselves away by raising their eyebrows.

IMG_7266

5. Elfreth’s Alley claims to be one of the oldest continually inhabited streets in the US, and however accurate this may or may not be, it’s well worth the diversion to have a look. Cobbled, unspoiled, and almost devoid of tourists on the cold Fall day when I visited, it’s really very beautiful.

IMG_7269

6. At the other extreme from Elfreth’s Alley and a brisk walk across town, the One Liberty Observation Deck is the inevitable Very High Thing That Charges A Lot For A View. It does it well, though, and on a clear day this is worth a visit to get an idea of the sheer scale and variety of a city whose views extend to three states.

IMG_7279

7. Admittedly a little left-field, and also not the easiest place to find, I visited the Mutter Museum on a detour on the way to lunch after it came highly recommended by a friend who described it as “bits of humans in jars. You know, stuff like that”(?!) and as I didn’t know, I went to explore. Technically a museum of medical science, it’s apparently hired out by goth couples for weddings and other events, which I find strangely pleasing.

8.Talking of lunch, you could probably eat out somewhere different every single day in Philadelphia and still have places left to explore. Controversially, I found myself underwhelmed by the famous cheesesteak (anything called “cheese whizz” should be given a wide berth – I’m by no means a gastronomic expert, but cheese that comes in a jar and has the same name as British slang meaning to urinate is, well, offputting.) It should be tried once, though, and there are a myriad of places with modest names like “King of Steaks”. But once you’ve had one, I’d recommend the Italian District, which has some incredible pizza restaurants. Oh, and, um, Rocky stuff.

9. If you come to Philadelphia, you’d be forgiven for thinking one Rocky Balboa is actually held in higher regard than the Founding Fathers. Made all the way back in 1976, it has inexplicably spawned seven sequels, and I’d guess that easily as many if not more people visit the city to pay their respects to this indomitable fictional character as they do to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and their mates. And the city has done very well out of it – apparently more people run up the eponymous “Rocky steps” as visit the (incredible) museum that they lead to. At the bottom, people queue patiently to pose for photos next to the statue of Rocky (which has apparently moved around over the years, not least because it pissed off the museum so much.) Even the Independence Visitor Center was selling Rocky keyrings and Rocky bottle openers and Rocky hoodies alongside the Liberty Bell fridge magnets and Birthplace of America t-shirts. There is a thriving trade in Rocky guided tours of the city (beware – the pilgrims who go in these tours take things very seriously: if you don’t have any quotes beyond the second film and aren’t prepared for your fellow tourists to turn up in grey tracksuits hopeful that at some point they’ll get to neck a tumbler of raw eggs and punch the crap out of some meat, this tour isn’t for you.)

Oh, in case you’re wondering, yes, I did run up the steps, and yes, it was, genuinely, the highlight of my week. I have never pretended to be an intellectual.

IMG_7242
Sorry-not-sorry

10. Refreshingly for a US city, Philadelphia has a pretty good transport system, so you can set out for the airport, which is only a half hour or so from the center by a cheap and comfortable train, a sensible amount of time before your flight without the fear of being stranded in some faceless railway station. In fact, the main stations themselves in Philadelphia are worth a look, as the city is full of grand, confident art deco buildings, of which 30th Street is one of the grandest.

IMG_7239

So, if you’re looking for an east coast destination, Philly has far more to offer than I’ve been able to see, or indeed fit into a blog post. And Rocky.

Japan: Part One

I’ll let you into a secret: Japan has never been all that high on my bucket list. This are for a number of reasons: it’s expensive, it’s a very long way away, and, while there is much to see there, it arguably lacks those “must-see” wonders like Niagara Falls (done) or the Pyramids (still on the list.)

IMG_4815
The sun prepares to set over Mount Fuji

I had a couple of chances to visit a few years ago when one, then a second, cousin moved there temporarily, but incompatible schedules and lack of funds, and the fact that at the time I was travelling all over the place for work, meant it never came to anything. Finally, this year, I made it over there. And it’s, well, weird.

I know I shouldn’t say another culture is “weird”, as that’s a relative and subjective term. Those from other countries probably find it decidedly weird that the British say sorry all the time, even when someone else bumps into them, and that we take passive aggression to such heights that if it was an Olympic sport we’d wipe the floor with everyone else. But, as my husband pointed out grimly as he sat on the floor in a pair of borrowed slippers, “they have a toilet that can wash your bum in 4 different ways, but they don’t have chairs.”

IMG_E5913
I quite liked sitting on the floor, but the Husband was less impressed

Japan is wonderful in many ways – organised and slick. Everything works, and a huge effort has gone into making the environment as peaceful as possible, with amplified bird noises guiding you to exits in tube stations, and gentle tunes to let you know the train doors are about to close. Tokyo has more Michelin starred restaurants than any other city in the world; the architecture is varied and beautiful; and the country is blessed with a multitude of different landscapes and scenery, much of which we visited – in two weeks we managed beaches, mountains, cities and everything in between. But before I go into the nitty gritty of the actual places we visited, here are some things you really must know about Japan:

IMG_4756
Cherry blossom in Kamakura

Toilets

OK, let’s get this one out of the way: the famous toilets. It is indeed true that Japanese toilets are electronically operated and possess a wider range of possible options than the Enigma machine. Every toilet in Japan seems to be like this – we stayed in a traditional Japanese house in Kyoto which had no beds or chairs – we slept on futon mattresses and knelt on cushions around a low table. The toilet was in a separate little hut outside, but was every bit as technologically advanced as those in the shopping centres. Every possible need has been considered. On sitting down the seat is disconcertingly warm, but that’s not because someone has spent a relaxing half hour reading a book on there, but because it has been programmed to heat to optimum temperature. Next to you will be a dazzling array of buttons with most of the instructions in Japanese, which is fairly dangerous for everyone’s inner child which is screaming “what happens if I pressed THIS one?” I inadvertently found out what almost all of them did when I popped into a public lavatory. I was sitting down minding my own business and taking my time when the toilet suddenly decided, apparently of its own fruition, that I needed my bottom to be washed. A jet of warm water suddenly shot up, apparently from nowhere, giving me mild colonic irrigation and a not insignificant shock (my shriek must have been heard by all the other people in the bathroom.) When I had recovered, remembered what I’d gone in for in the first place and finished I noted the one sign in the cubicle translated into English: “now you must flush toilet”. I looked around, but there was nothing that looked even remotely like a flush – no chain, no handle, just a series of mysterious looking buttons with Japanese writing next to them. I passed the first one only for another jet of water to be forcefully propelled towards my anus. More tentatively I tried the second one, and this time a gentle stream of water began to wash me from the other side. The next button, it turned out, made some attempts to cover up my yelps, as sounds of birdsong and running water filled the cubicle. Starting to feel as though I was playing Russian Roulette with the toilet I continued tenaciously down the row of buttons, and by the time I reached the last one I had been washed and blow-dried from every possible angle. The last button, of course, was the flush.

toilet
At least this one tells you where the flush is

It’s the most electronically advanced society on earth…right?

As the toilet demonstrates, Japan is full of wonderful inventions. The bullet train was introduced here as long ago as the 60s, and now races through the countryside at a speed of 200mph, connecting cities such as Tokyo and Kyoto – which are as far apart as London and Edinburgh – in just over two hours. Yet, despite this technological innovation, Japan has a mainly cash economy. Hardly anywhere accepted credit cards. This does mean that there are a lot of ATMs, as people are constantly having to withdraw cash, but most don’t accept non-Japanese cards. Towards the end of our stay we visited a theme park. As this was a) a visitor attraction and b) fairly expensive we assumed that they would take cards. They didn’t, but the very nice lady directed us to the convenience store opposite to get some cash…which of course didn’t accept our cards. We had already discovered that the one place that would accept UK cards was the 7eleven, so we headed out to find one. In London it’s said you’re never more than three feet away from a rat. In Japan, it feels as though you’re never more than three feel from a 7eleven…except, apparently, here. A 20-kilometre roundtrip later we returned to the bemused and by now slightly worried cashier and got into the park.

0208c6bb-dba2-488c-af9a-b1d8f572fac9.jpg
The country that brought you the shinkansen, but not the card processing machine

Temples

Temples are shrines are everywhere in Japan, and they are glorious. You can be in the middle of Tokyo, turn a corner, and find yourself standing in front of the most beautiful, intricate sanctuary. Apparently only 40% of Japanese people identify as “religious”, yet it’s very common for people to pop to a shrine to pray or make an offering, for example before exams or before a baby is born. It actually reminded me a little of the way Catholics petition certain saints (Anthony being my favourite, because, as a dyspraxic, I lose everything all of the time). I have heard the Japanese described as “spiritual rather than religious” and actually found the pick ‘n’ mix nature of different traditions very appealing.

IMG_4833

Etiquette

Japan is known for its etiquette, ranging from general politeness to complex cultural and social rules. People think the British are polite and fond of queuing, but the Japanese make us look like amateurs, forming tidy lines as they wait patiently for the subway. I learned the word for “excuse me” (sumimasen), which proved to be extremely useful. Other etiquette rules are more confusing to the unaccustomed westerner and seem to revolve largely around slippers. In all Japanese homes and even in some areas of public buildings you are expected to take off your shoes upon entering, or even before you enter. You will then be provided with slippers, but you can’t wear the same pair of slippers from then on – that would be unthinkable. You have downstairs slippers which (I assume) can be worn everywhere downstairs, except in the lavatory, where you find a separate (communal) pair of special slippers for use in that room only. Then of course there are Upstairs Slippers, because heaven forbid you walk any downstairs dirt upstairs, or vice versa. I’m ashamed to say I never got the hang of the slippers, and if I try to return to Japan will probably find I’m banned for shoe violations.

IMG_5779
Waiting for a train in Tokyo

Green tea

My husband has vowed never to eat fish or drink green tea ever again, because as far as he’s concerned, absolutely everything we ate while we were there tasted of one or the other. On occasions where we deliberately ordered the most un-fishy thing on the menu we would find it invariably came with a side dish of miso soup with some form of shellfish in the bottom. As for matcha (green tea) you can buy almost anything flavoured with it, including ice cream, oreos and (I kid you not) kit kats (though this is marginally more appealing than the soy sauce flavour, which is actually a thing.)

IMG_5777

Perhaps our weirdest experience, though, was finding out you could bathe in it, because, let’s admit it, the one thing that’s missing from British leisure centres is the ability to have a communal bath with complete strangers. At the spa in Hakone you can actually bathe in green tea, sake, red wine or coffee (though there are signs everywhere telling you that you shouldn’t drink from the baths – what would possess you to drink chlorinated coffee from a giant tub you’re sharing with 18 or so other people is beyond me, but there you go.) At the coffee bath a ceremony is performed twice a day, where a member of staff (who admittedly wore an expression that said something along the lines of “where did my life go so wrong?”) rang a large gong and loudly shouted something incomprehensible (to us) in Japanese which the crowd in the bath parroted back enthusiastically. He then filled several large buckets with warm coffee, then threw the content one by one over the assembled, before plodding off to presumably do the same with sake, red wine and matcha.

We recounted this strange tale to a Japanese friend at dinner a few days later. He frowned, thought for a while and said “hmm, sake bath. That’s very unusual.”

They really, really like muzak

Wherever we went in Japan it felt as though we were being stalked by a hotel lift in the 1980s. It turns out the Japanese love muzak – incidental, synthetic music is played everywhere, from shops to subway stations to hotel lobbies to zebra crossings. (Yes, really.) Every station on the vast Toyko metro has a slightly different little tune, ranging from a couple of notes to several bars. (I’d play you an example, but wordpress won’t let me unless I give them more money.)

They really do get “l” and “r” mixed up.

But then, even after two weeks, the only Japanese I can read is the two symbols that make up the word for “exit”, so who am I to judge?

 

Layover Guide: Beijing. Part 2: Beijing on Speed

We once went to Toronto for the weekend. Our friends teased us mercilessly for this, and now every Friday when my husband leaves work one of his colleagues will inevitably pipe up “what you up to this weekend? Off to Buenos Aires?” (Ahh, office banter…)

So we upped our game a bit on the way back from Japan and popped to Beijing for 24 hours. Like you do.

If you’re flying somewhere via China you can usually do this these days without having to go through an arduous and expensive visa process. But how on earth do you make the most of such a short stay in such a major city? You’ll need to accept it’s going to be a snapshot at best – a whistlestop tour or taster for a future visit. How you do it also depends on when you’re arriving and how long the layover is – if you’re arriving early in the morning there are lots of pre-organised day trips and tours ranging from as little as four hours in length which you could go on, which are probably the easiest and least stressful way of seeing a bit of China, and will take you as far as the Great Wall. We arrived in the early evening and left the following day in the late afternoon, so, feeling intrepid, we did the following.

IMG_6157

We booked a hotel very close to the areas we wanted to see (a ten-minute walk from the Forbidden City) – there are loads of hotels around here, and we opted for the mid-range Hotel Kapok, which turned out to be a delight, with very obliging front desk staff  with good English skills (a plaque above the desk proclaims that they have an award for “Managing of Foreigner”) and beautiful rooms on a relatively quiet street (this is impressive for Beijing.) We got out of the airport relatively quickly and negotiated the subway, which turned out to be a breeze because everything is bilingual – at the airport you can buy a smartcard and pre-load it with money, take the Airport Express and get off at the last station, then make your way from there. Unlike London, where the lines have incomprehensible names (the only logical one is the Circle Line, and even that has ceased to be a circle following redevelopment a few years back) the lines in Beijing are called 1, 2, 3 etc. We got off at Wangfujing, in the centre, where you can choose from a dazzling array of eateries (we went to McDonald’s, but don’t tell anyone.) Most restaurants will have some degree of English menu (though interestingly McDonald’s did not), though the accuracy is questionable – I’m still not sure what chiclcen feet are!)

IMG_6156

If you’re short on time, a tip would be to buy something for breakfast the night before or on the way the next day – there’s no shortage of amazing pastries in and around Wangfujing – so you’re not spending time eating an overpriced, dubious attempt at breakfast when you could be sightseeing. The major sites in Beijing get ridiculously crowded, so getting up early to explore has the additional benefit that you’re slightly less likely to get run over by Chinese tour groups, whose response to having someone in their way seems to just be to plough on determinedly until you move or are physically removed as an obstacle (after 2 weeks in Japan, arguably the politest nation on earth, being doggedly shoved and elbowed because you were where someone else wanted to be came as a bit of a shock.)

We walked to the Forbidden City first. If you want to go inside you should book tickets in advance (and can do so easily through Viator, Tripadvisor and a huge number of other go-betweens) to allow you to jump the chaotic queues. Aware we only had about two thirds of a single day we opted not to go inside (this has nothing to do with us having booked tickets for the wrong day and only realising this fact as our flight took off… nothing at all…) as the guide books advise that a visit can take all day. We walked alongside what was, basically, a tranquil inner-city pond to the imposing and ornate gates of the Forbidden City. We then walked all the way up to the entrance to Tiananmen Square only to discover that a completely unsigned one-way system meant that it was now the exit FROM Tiananmen Square, so we walked back around the pond, down a couple of streets and into it the other way. The authorities in Beijing have a frustrating habit of fencing off vast areas, so if you find yourself on the wrong side of a road huge iron rails down the middle could mean a 200m detour to get over to the correct side.

IMG_6168

Tiananmen Square is impressive, almost menacing, smouldering with the events of 1989 which the Chinese don’t talk about, but which must inevitably push themselves to the front of every tourist’s mind as they walk through the vast square, peppered with sombre-faced soldiers at every interval, standing so still that we thought one was a particularly life-like statue until he blinked. On the other side from the gate back into the Forbidden City, iconic largely for the enormous image of Mao’s face which adorns it, is Mao’s Mausoleum, looming, austere, grandiose, and at 8am already surrounded by an enormous queue stretching probably 3-400metres around it – thousands of Chinese citizens waiting patiently to view the embalmed body of the founder of modern China, whose Great Leap Forward led to the starvation of millions, but whose supporters credit with unifying and rapidly industrialising China.

IMG_6164

Out of Tiananmen Square (my advice is to make use of subway tunnels and avoid trying to cross roads as much as possible) it’s about a half-hour walk down to the Temple of Heaven Park. After the frenetic pandemonium of Tiananmen Square this is both a haven of tranquility but also a window onto more normal Chinese life, away from the rampaging tour groups and the pilgrimage-like reverie down the road. The park is vast, with the famous Temple itself in the centre (you need to pay to enter the park, and pay extra to enter the temple – you can do both at the West Gate). I could have spent hours here. Upon entering we had only walked a little way when we found what looked like a ballroom dancing session for pensioners, serenely waltzing their way between the trees as people walked their dogs and pushed their children in buggies around then. Further into the park an enormous group of elderly people were engaged in unison tai chi, a mesmerizing mass of elegant, deliberate and precise movements, like slow-motion ballet. Almost directly opposite them a group of teenagers were break dancing, and a few feet away a couple of women of working age were playing a sort of free-form game of ping pong without the table.

So absorbed was I in this glorious display of Beijing life that I almost didn’t notice the gentleman trying to earnestly attract my attention. “American?” he was saying, with a sense of urgency.” “English,” I replied. He beamed at me and pointed to an immaculately groomed, miniature creature at his ankles and announced, carefully and slowly, yet with some pride, “This is my dog!” I wasn’t sure what the response to this should be, so I bent down and said “Ni Hao” (hello) to the little dog, who looked back at me with a sort of apologetic resignation that seemed to say “don’t bring me into this”. “It’s a lovely dog,” I said, and he nodded vigorously and repeated enthusiastically “thank you. It is a lovely dog. Yes. Thank you. It is my dog,” then went on his way.

IMG_6187
A snapshot of Beijing life

Exiting from the East Gate it was an easy subway journey back to the hotel, and from there a longer journey back to the airport. It may have been a flying visit, but I felt we’d been able to create at least part of a picture of what makes this city so great – its people, its culture, its astounding historic architecture combined with its modern feats of engineering that make it more efficient than many cities I’ve visited. While the overt and persistent presence of so many military and police made it feel a little sinister at times, it was nonetheless friendly, accessible and varied, with its mix of local stores and international brands. I would go back again, but definitely for more than 24 hours.

 

Layover guide: Beijing. Part One: How it works

Modest to the last, I like to consider myself something of a queen – or at the very least minor royal – of layovers, and after this week I feel I have truly earned that title. After a gradual build-up via more commonly-frequented layover destinations such as Dubai and KL we went for the ultimate Asian layover – Beijing.

IMG_6161

China is a notoriously bureaucratic and authoritative nation. It has (amongst other sobering statistics) the highest use of the death penalty in the world, executing more people per year than all other countries combined. It’s not a country into whose bad books you’d wish to fall. It’s also the fourth largest country in the world by surface area and the largest by population. It does not, then, immediately spring to mind as somewhere you could pop into for a mini-break, and yet that is exactly what we did.

In an attempt to encourage more tourists to come to China, it’s now possible to enter the country without a visa for a set period of time, (known as Travel Without Visa – TWOV), but this is not as simple as it sounds. Some cities allow a period of up to 144 hours, but the maximum you can apply for depends on which country you’re from; some require that you stay within a very limited region, others allow you to travel farther afield. Rules are subject to change, and the exact way that this entry permit can be obtained seems shrouded in unnecessary mystery. Anyway, we navigated it successfully so that, subject to arbitrary changes, of course, you can do the same.

We were transiting through Beijing en route to Tokyo, and planned a layover on the way back. Our experience at Beijing Capital Airport on the way there did not fill us with confidence, and anxiety about having to spend our planned layover trapped in an underwhelming airport was at the back of our minds throughout the holiday. On the way there we had two hours for a connection that was reduced to one hour due to an Air China delay (this seems common – on the way back my husband and I were inexplicably seated one place apart from one another, with an exhausted and sweaty Northerner sat between us – he was supposed to be on a flight that left 18 hours before, but missed this due to his flight from Bangkok being delayed. On asking when the next flight was, he was apparently told that Air China didn’t fly to London and that he would need to go home via Dusseldorf, before being handed a ticket and directed to our flight to Heathrow). Beijing Capital is illogical to navigate at best – it’s a beautiful airport, with its newest terminal opened in time for the 2008 Olympics, but unfortunately it feels a bit as though someone has sent them a lovely flat-packed airport but forgotten to enclose the instructions. Nothing quite works, and many of the processes haven’t been thought through. To transfer flights we had to go all the way out along with all the people who were leaving the airport, then back around and through the world’s slowest security queue, where the staff were seemingly obsessed with whether or not you had any lighters in your hand luggage. It’s also the first place I’ve visited where you had to take batteries (including portable chargers) out of your bag and put the into the tray separately. You are then patted down with rather too much familiarity and a lot of inexplicable shouting. There are signs that say that if you have a short connection time, but when we urgently told them we had just 45 minutes to make our flight we were sent to the back of the queue with a smirk and told “you will miss flight.” We made flight with just 5 minutes to spare, and only then because it was delayed. Again.

So, coming back, we were not filled with confidence. But we were wrong. The TWOV system was actually easy, but could have done with a bit of explanation. So, here it is:

  1. When you arrive the first thing you will need to do is give your fingerprints. There are lots of little and very efficient machines to do this, and they will give instructions in English if you choose that option. You’ll get a tiny little receipt confirming you did it – hang onto this!
  2. Next you’ll see some yellow immigration forms. We diligently filled these out, only to find that, in this form-loving country, there is actually a different, blue form that you need to complete if you want to apply for the TWOV. These are nowhere to be seen. We went to the TWOV desk but it was empty. Don’t worry – there is another one, but it involves doubling back on yourself once you are into the immigration part of the hall and going what feels like the wrong way through some desks whose purpose remains unclear. Tucked away in a corner is another TWOV desk, complete with the elusive blue forms and a lot of staff fulfilling the role of Standing Around Looking Important.
  3. Complete the blue form and join the queue of confused foreigners trying to obtain a TWOV from the one person behind the desk whose job is to Not Look Very Important At All But To Do The Actual Work. You should have with you evidence of a hotel booking (they are very suspicious if you say you’re staying with friends or family) and, most importantly, your onward ticket (i.e. a flight out of Beijing to somewhere else.)
  4. A few words of Chinese are helpful, especially Xièxiè (thank you).
  5. When you come back, make sure you have with you the other half of your blue form. Once again, there will be yellow forms for exiting the country and people will tell you that you must fill one of these out. You don’t need to – the blue form is your equivalent of this.
IMG_6192
Beijing Capital Airport – vast yet uninspiring

Beijing Capital looks nice, but it’s something of a facade. Unfortunately, it probably is worth coming back earlier than you think you’ll need to due to the chaos and general unpredictability of the security arrangements (the immigration, to our surprise, was the easy bit). We found the international departures area to be fairly calming, as it was vast and almost entirely devoid of people. Unfortunately it was also devoid of anything to do, with rows or vacant shops with optimistic signs assuring you that a new store would be there soon. We were doubtful if this was true. It’s good if you want to buy international luxury brands or, bizarrely, go to Pizza Hut, but if you want to buy tacky souvenirs (usually the highlight of my airport experience) it’s best to do it in the city. But, in summary, the TWOV process, as long as it stays in place, is impressive, and, hopefully, the more people who use it the less likely we are to lose it.

 

Pisa

While many cities draw in tourists with just one or two world-famous sites, Pisa is perhaps unique in that its continuing success as a must-see destination is based solely on fortuitously bad architectural engineering. Thanks to a combination of inappropriately soft ground and a poor grasp of physics, the economy of this small and otherwise unremarkable Tuscan city can rely almost exclusively on a steady flow of tourists from around the world, who flock enthusiastically to its famous square where they stand grinning inanely with their arms at an angle, while the relative holding the camera says “left a bit…now down a bit…” in a quest for the perfect picture where they hilariously look as though they’re propping up the tower.

IMG_4379
Left a bit…now up a bit…

Of course, if anyone had ever succeeded in propping up the tower it would probably having damaged Pisa’s economy instantly and irreparably. There are lots of beautiful cities in Italy, and most who currently come on day-trips are staying in bigger and arguably more romantic Florence nearby. Would this university city of less than 500,000 people be worth the trip without it?

IMG_3673 (2)
The sun sets over the Baptistery

Well, we liked Pisa. We visited for an obscure conference, giving us (as I’ve often found) evenings and a single morning to snatch a glance at our host destination, and Pisa didn’t disappoint. The Cathedral square, as you’d expect, was a relentless, hot tangle of tourist groups so focused on their cameras and their tour guides holding aloft brightly-coloured umbrellas that they didn’t look where they were going. And the square, of course, is worth not only a visit, but a good couple of hours. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and aside from the tower itself the Duomo and baptistery are astounding examples of Romanesque architecture both inside and out, with their dazzling, wedding-cake facades and elaborate, intricate mosaics. You can go up the tower (for a fee) if you want, but there’s something more than a little disconcerting about standing at an angle and looking down, even though it isn’t really all that high.

IMG_3624 (2)
One of Pisa’s many belltowers

But I’d recommend doing what many tourists do not: stay in Pisa. We watched as hot, sweaty crowds scrambled back onto their buses for onward/return trips to Florence, and where that city is undeniably worth a visit too, it’s a shame not to stick around in Pisa a little while longer. Like any city in Tuscany, Pisa is beautiful, with endless streets and alleyways of pink and orange buildings and crumbling belltowers. And once you’re a hundred yards or so from the square, it’s practically deserted. It’s one of those cities where you could eat in a new restaurant every night and never have a bad meal, where you can stumble upon an ancient church on almost any street corner, enjoy gelato in almost any flavour imaginable, and watch the sun set from a rooftop terrace (I recommend the bar at the Hotel Grand Duomo, though I wouldn’t recommend staying there unless you have a fetish for 1970s decor and amenities).

IMG_3657 (2)
View from the roof terrace of the Hotel Duomo

With budget flights taking just over two hours from a range of UK airports, compact, friendly Pisa is the perfect city for a weekend break, where you can feel you’ve seen everything and still had time to relax.