Friday, December 14, 2007

A belated Turkey for Christmas

I've always found one of the best ways of beating the post-holiday blues is to ensure I have another holiday booked....and Turkey has been somewhere I've wanted to go for a long time!

So...this is the next big trip on the list after Morocco...a two-week birthday present to myself :-).

* This picture is courtesy of Explore UK.

Apparently I should be living in Tokyo

A funky little application in facebook called WhatCity suggests I should be living in Tokyo.

You plug in answers to a series of questions - sort of like a little personality test - and WhatCity returns the city that think most resembles your personality traits.

Here's what it says about why I should be living in Tokyo:
"Admit it - you love the taste of teriyaki bowls, sushi, tempura, and a side of wasabi. Salivating yet? Living in Tokyo lets you treat your tongue to new and exciting experiences. Have fun with all the new tools and gadgets, making your life easier in this technologically-advanced city."
Given my love of all things Japanese, this was hardly a revelation!

Show me the Souk!

I'm SO excited! Only a few sleeps to go before I head off on a two-week tour through Morocco.

I've previously spent one day in the Moroccan port town of Tangier, but two weeks of roaming round the imperial cities and out the Sahara desert will be something altogether unique.

I'm travelling once again with the good people at Explore. I liked the length of their tour, and that it covered all the imperial cities as well as the desert. Bring on the souks and the mint tea! The optional night's camping in a Bedouin tent in the Merzouga Sand Sea and the camel ride should be unforgettable.

The travel dossier warns me that it can get rather chilly out in them thar hills....freezing in fact...snowing in fact! Should be interesting.

I look forward to many blogs posts with amazing desert pics, and am most curious about what Christmas Day in Rabat will be like.

Whoohoo...not long to go!

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Day 4: Meandering through German wine-country

We woke up to dark clouds and another hearty German breaky. I think I was consuming more bread, rolls and crackers than I do in an entire year, but the bread was fresh and seemed to be the thing to do. I was also getting into the cold meats and cheeses, ala continental breakfast.

Throughout the day, we climbed slowly in altitude and it was starting to get chilly.

We were driving through yet more green hills, and saw what looked to be a concorde perched on a building. Despite Betsy’s nagging and flashing, we detoured into a town called Sinsheim, and into the carpark of a huge open air aeronautical museum. There was indeed a concorde perched aloft the building, and all sorts of other planes held by huge metal struts in really interesting positions. Talk about a random place to build a plane museum!

We carried onwards to the town of Tubingen. By this stage it was pizzing down – our first real unpleasant weather of the trip. We finally found a parking spot and headed into the Old Town.

More quaintness, this time with a little river flowing underneath the front doors of a row of houses. They all had little bridges from the footpath to their front doors. Wouldn’t want to take a wrong step after a big night out…We eventually found the main piazza and the huge Rathouse (townhall). It was ornately decorated and like most places in Germany, sprouted little planter boxes of geraniums and other coloured flowers. Other buildings in the piazza had that characteristic Old Town lean about them. I loved the decorative signs and murals on the buildings. It’s just so much nicer than drab grey concrete.

The rain continued to fall, so we headed back out of town to find a hotel. That was only because we couldn’t find one hotel near the centre of town. The “hotel route” signs seemed to take us round the town in loops, and Betsy was madly beeping and flashing. The Greek-family owned Meteora Hotel became our bed for the evening. They even ran a very large Greek-restaurant, which for some reason made me chuckle. The area – reasonably high in the German alps - did not have a particularly Mediterranean feel about it. Surprisingly, we saw a lot of Greek restaurants during the rest of our travels through Germany, Switzerland Italy.

For dinner, we passed on Greek food and set out to find something a bit more German. We came across what looked like a great restaurant – warm and cosy, full of people and a good atmosphere. They said they were full, but we were welcome to try their downstairs restaurant. So off we trotted – down what looked to be the first and only flight of stairs. There were bathrooms, and two other doors, one of which I gave a mighty push and barged into the kitchen. The other door didn’t seem to lead to anything substantial, so we poked around outside in case we had misunderstood. Again, there was another door right round the other side of the building, but with no markings.

We were slightly exasperated at this stage, and went back in to get clear on the instructions. The waitress ushered us out to the loos and insisted that the next door did in fact lead to steps, and to take them all the way to the bottom floor. Right. So…down we ventured…and down some more, and then the dining space appeared. It was completely underground, dimly lit, full of chairs and tables and a couple of patrons, and a huge collection of homely junk. There were old sewing machines, palm trees, barrows of mock fruit, paintings, kitchenware and quite randomly, a big plastic flying duck attached the ceiling. It was very bizarre – hilarious in fact!

The menu looked great – it featured Swabian food, which we discovered was the region we were in. They had the ever-desirable schweinhuxe, which Dad and I decided to have – again. The Swabian version of pork knuckle was different. They called it suckling pig, and instead of roasting the pork to make the fat crackly, they left it soft. While I probably didn’t need any more lard for the day, it was slightly disappointing that there was no crackle, but the pork was delicious and tender. There was sauerkraut galore – also a slightly different version to what we had been eating in the north of Germany. This version was more pureed. And of course, there was spetzle – German noodles that are sort of like long flat pasta, but more randomly shaped cos they’re homemade. All that was covered in rich gravy and washed down with some fine Swabian beer.

The guts and butts were growing by the day, but we were indeed enjoying the food!

Day 3: Here comes Heidelberg

A big hearty German breaky helped the inescapable hangover, although the bendy little roads did not. By about 11am and a few coffees though, we were starting to feel less shoddy. Ten points to Dad who had the unenviable pleasure of driving for the day – and negotiating with Betsy - with a pounding head.

Heidelberg was our destination, and we meandered through green rolling hills laden with vineyards and orchards. They looked to be mainly apples and stone fruits, and the squat trees were absolutely bulging with fruit. European drivers flew past us. We were doing a respectable 90-100kms/hour on secondary roads, but these guys had to be overtaking at speeds of 120-140kms. They do like to go fast!

Heidelberg finally came into view. The Neckar River runs straight down the middle of this predominantly student town, although the side which houses the Old Town and the huge old Schloss was definitely the side to see first. Parking was once again a nightmare, and we had to do a couple of laps of the town before we could find a space. It was interesting to hear a news report that morning that estimated that by next year, more of the world’s population would live in cities than in rural areas. God knows where we’re all going to park in the future.

Anyway…we eventually found a small gasthoff right in the old town – next to a sex shop I might add. The sex shop looked out of place amongst such grand old buildings. A big hot lunch helped to take the final edge off our Rudesheim heads, and we were then ready to tackle the 320-ish stairs to the top of the Schloss. Our guide book noted that this was one of the oldest castles in Germany.

The main castle was being restored, so unfortunately had scaffolding round some of the turrets. Nevertheless, it was immense and stunning. The grounds were lush green and very well kept, and the huge trees looked like they’d been there as long as the castle. The view over the city from the top of the hill was great – I love looking over Old Towns, with their uneven and colourful rooflines. A charming arched bridge crossed the river and Heidelberg’s cathedral seemed to stand out as the centre of town.

The castle had sustained some fairly major damage in the war, and they had left the remains of a huge chunk of turret where it h ad fallen. Amazingly, huge amounts of the castle remained intact, and while we didn’t go inside, people wandered round the turrets and walls. It would have been a historian’s paradise. I just like very old chunks of rock!

We admired yet more view, then made our way down the 320-ish stairs, headed straight for a café to rest the knees and ankles and pigged out on yet another strudel. We were on holidays after all!

We then walked across the pedestrian bridge to the other side of the Neckar, to get some pics of the town and castle from a different perspective. It was quant and quintessentially German.

By dinner time, we were (surprisingly) up for a beer again, and tried more local lager – or pils as they say. We found a quaint little German restaurant full of old musical instruments used as decorations – violin and tuba light shades abounded!

The food, as it had all been, was hearty and yummy. I had a game-stuffed ravioli, although it looked more like a green lasagne. In any case, it was great.

We called in an early night after a final wander back over the bridge, and a peek of the backlit castle. Wunderbah!

Day 2: Get your motor running – driving down the Rhine

The Rhine beckoned and we were up and out early. Mum and Dad had previously been to a small town called Rudesheim, about 30kms north in the wrong direction, but said it was worth seeing. Lonely Planet chose to differ and said Rudesheim was kitsch, overpriced and a tourist drag. So..I was interested to see what it was like.

The satellite navigation system in the car, which had been nick-named “Betsy”, took us off the freeways and onto the little winding roads through small towns and villages. We weren’t in any screaming hurry, with a week to wind our way down to Stresa.

A little car-ferry punted us over the Rhine, straight into Rudesheim, which I loved straight away. Give me kitsch and quaint any day!

Rudesheim fronted the river, and yes, to be sure, a whole bunch of very touristy shops lined the streets. But the buildings were gorgeous and the cobbled little paths screamed to be explored. We had beaten the tourist buses, so got a good look at the place before it really started to heave.

The stunning Boosenburg Castle, which still touted its 12th Century tower, dominated the foreshore, while cruise boats and a train ferried tourists up and down the river. Old castles perched high on the green hills and vineyards – it was fairytale-esque.

Keen to sample the local fare, we decided an apple strudel was in order, and pottered back up the hill into the old town. With cream and icecream, the warm apple strudel was fab. It seemed a fitting early lunch in this gorgeous little town.

We decided at that stage that we liked it so much we’d stay the night, and found a quaint little guest-house right in the centre of town. They were also able to garage the car for the rest of the day and evening, which got it out of the way. We were noticing that parking in these joints was a complete nightmare!

So…free of car and with a bed for the evening, we set about sampling some of the local lager. After a gruelling search for the best pub, we lurched into a little open air biergarten where a band was just setting up.

There were table-loads of oldies boozing away, and then the band started its oom-pa-pa music. They really would have passed as a German band, but we later discovered they were Czech.

Anyway, one drink turned into a round after round, and our drinking buddies at neighbouring tables started to lean over and chat in broken Germanglish, Frenglish and Italinglish. Eventually we all resorted to the universal language of Slur and understood each other perfectly. Many hilarious things happened in that drinking session – much of it captured on blurry video. History will show a bunch of very drunk people singing very loudly for a long time, but for us it was one of those classic afternoons that you simply can’t plan or manufacture. Our fabulous (and cute) Czech oom-pa-pa band finished their 4-hour set and a “woman” (read, mutton dressed as Suzi-Quatro style lamb) and her two band buddies took the stage for the evening session.

How we managed to eat dinner that evening is beyond me. I do recall that it was great food, but I don’t recall how we managed to find our way home. People partied way into the early hours of the next morning, and sang the whole way home. Together with bells that chimed all evening, and raging hangovers, I can safely say that we had been well and truly Rudesheimed!

Day 1: My Big Fat German and Italian Road Trip

My parents are over, and we’ve just started a driving holiday through Western Europe. I shall declare it my Big Fat German and Italian Road Trip.

I arrived in Frankfurt on Thursday evening and met up with some colleagues in the Dow Jones Frankfurt office for lunch. Thanks to Matthias, Frank and Connie for giving me an introductory German lesson, and introducing me to hanuta – yummy chocolate wafer snacks. For Australians, they’re kinda like inside-out Tim Tams.

I caught the train back to Mainz, a sizeable town about 30kms south of central Frankfurt, and reunited with the folks after their 3-day drive through Frrance. We met at the Mainz Hauptbahnhoff, dumped our bags and set off for an afternoon stroll around the Aldstadt (Old Town).

German architecture is quite distinctive – I have no real clue about which period of architectural history it comes from, but it’s colourful and ornate, and really nice to look at.

We made a bee-line for the Rhine – I didn’t realise it was such a wide river – and then mosied our way through narrow cobbled streets into the Aldstadt.

The Domstrasse (cathedral) dominates the square and there are heaps of little pubs and cafés around. The weather was good and heaps of people were out, having a quiet Friday afternoon drink. As we did too.

We were desperate to find somewhere to have schweinhuxe – roast pork knuckle with sauerkraut – which has long since been a favourite pig-out food in our family. Our recollection of pork knuckle from a little Bavarian restaurant in Sydney’s Beverly Hills brings back memories of hugely lardy, crackly pork, lots of gravy and cholesterol overload. But god it’s good!

A few beers into it, we set off in search of schweinhuxe, and our search ended successfully all of five minutes later, when we found a lovely traditional looking restaurant. We confirmed that they served this pork with attitude, and had ordered three before we’d even sat down. Our collective mouths watered.

Our three big shanks of pork arrived pretty quickly, complete with the symphony-inducing sauerkraut and a creamy horseradish dip, which I’d never seen or tasted. It was like white wasabi, and went fantastically well with the meal, although it had that wasabi-like tendency to nearly blow your head off.

This pork knuckle seemed to be a healthier option – not so much dripping with lardy crackle, but there was a good slab of it, and the pork itself was very tasty. More beers, and we toasted many times to the first of what we knew would be a bunch of spectacular German meals.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

A little Japanese Cocoon in London

Following the yummy Taste Festival in June and a sampling of its delicious wagyu beef over hot stones, a visit to Asian-fusion restaurant Cocoon moved rapidly onto the to-do list. We crossed off the task last Saturday night.

It's really centrally located, just off Regent Street near Piccadilly Circus.
When you walk into the bar and restaurant section on the 2nd floor, you walk into a sea of mute green and orange - it has a modern, casual, somewhat retro oriental feel to it. And then you're seated at low tables with rose petals sealed into a laminate table top. The cocoon shape is everywhere - round edges, smooth lines, circles.
Two veteran sushi chefs were in full view of our seats, preparing bits and pieces. I shall remember to try to get a seat at the sushi bar next time - I love watching sushi chefs do their thang.
We munched away on some steamed edamame beans, which somehow now seems the thing to do before a Japanese meal. While I was very tempted to order the wagyu beef on hot stones, I really could not stomach the £65 price tag. So...instead, I ordered yellowfin tuna sashimi and beef gulgogi for the main, with a side order of sesame spinach. Ant ordered the wild mushroom spring rolls and BBQ chicken. And sake to wash it all down.
The meal was really well presented and delicious. The servings of the mains were huge - much bigger than you would usually expect in a place like this. We couldn't actually finish everything on our plates, which is pretty rare for me.
The one thing I didn't really like about the service was that the waitress cleared our plates too quickly...she practically grabbed them as soon as the last mouthful went down. Although the place was crowded and we had to be out before the second setting, there was really no need for them to be as er....efficient as they were. The sake really complemented the food as well.
Cocoon is renown for its sashimi and sushi and the yellowfin tuna was spectacular. I would love to go back again and try a more fishy meal.
This one is definitely worth a visit!

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Trip Advisor's travel map in facebook

Ah, facebook...the distraction of it. TripAdvisor has created an addictive little application that you can install into your facebook profile, and lets you plot down to a city level, where you've been.

I like this version better than some of the earlier attempts, that would shade the entire country of Russia if you had only been to Moscow. This version lets you mark specific cities or states.

It tells me I'm up to 265 cities in 41 countries - I still reckon Scotland and Wales count as seperate countries, but this version does not. you can see, there's some vast empty areas on my map, which are yet to be explored, but are definitely on the list.

I think I'm turning Japanese, I really think so

Inspired by the brief visit to Japan earlier this year, we decided we'd do a Japanese themed dinner party last weekend. Japanese ingredients are really easy to find in London, particularly in the Japan Centre in Piccadilly (which even offers a home delivery service), or most of the shops in China Town. Most large supermarkets even stock sushi rice and seaweed sheets these days.

Anyway, Ant and I decided that sushi and sashimi would be the order of the evening. I made a brief detour en route to work a couple of days before the big event, and spoke with the very helpful fishmongers at Applebee's Fish near the delectible Borough Markets. They said they would have sashimi-grade salmon and tuna in stock on Saturday. Apparently it's best to check in advance that they'll have the very freshest of fish the day you need it.

I decided on the Friday afternoon that I wanted to expand the meal to include a few side dishes, and surprised Ant with the er...amended meal plan. Let me just clarify that neither of us had individually or collectively prepared a meal like this. Nothing like a meal with high risk and a high degree of complexity to be served to unsuspecting friends:

- Tuna and salmon sushi, sashimi
- Inside out California rolls and maki rolls
- layered sushi
- shiitake mushrooms simmered in soy
- beans with sesame miso dressing
- edamame beans
- spinach with sesame dressing
- bite-sized pepper steaks
- pickled ginger
- black sesame icecream served wth Pocky sticks
- sake. of course!

On the Friday night, I began early, and started to prepare the black sesame icecream, because it was one of the few things we could do in advance. The smell of toasted sesame seeds filled the kitchen. It sort of smelt like a nutty, coffee smell. I'd never really toasted them before. The recipe I was using (not the link above, but similar), required the mixture to be stirred a couple of times after it had started to freeze so it all remained creamy. It sort of resembled the colour of Cookies & Cream icecream without the really chunky bits. Even in liquid form, it tasted pretty good. I was happy to have one dish on the way!

We set off early on Saturday morning to collect the fresh goodies. Borough Markets was comparatively empty at that time of the day. By 11am, the place is teeming - so it was good to be in and out before the hoards arrived. Applebee's had brought in a huge batch of wild Scottish salmon, smaller and less fatty than farmed salmon, but deliciously fresh and lean. I bought a whole fish, which the fishmonger then gutted and filleted for me - thank god. They know exactly what they're doing, and it looks extremely messy. I'm a wuss when it comes to fish blood and guts. I also bought two chunky tuna steaks. I found a nice chunk of something that looked like rib eye steak for the bite sized pepper steaks, and we bought a heap of vegies for the various salads and side dishes.

We were home by 11am, and literally did not stop cutting, cooking, rolling and arranging food until 7pm.

Japanese food is not at all difficult to make - it's just fiddly and each recipe usually requires a couple of stages of preparation. Sushi rice took the longest time to prepare, because it needs to be washed several times, allowed to sit before it cooks, cooked and then cooled before you can work with it. See my previous post on the joys of sushi rice!

And that really needed to be done first, so that we could use it in the various dishes.

The shiitake mushrooms simmered in soy was an interesting dish. It used dried shiitake mushrooms, dashi (a fishy kinda stock which I'd made from dried seaweed and katsuobushi, which are dried bonito flakes), mirin (a stock, distilled alcohol flavoured seasoning), sake, soy sauce and dark brown sugar. After I'd reconstituted the dried mushrooms in warm water, I pretty much just chucked them into the rest of the mixed ingredients and let them simmer for an hour. It was a shame I only used one packet - they were yummy!

The layered sushi was also an interesting spin on the traditional rolled sushi and/or nigiri sushi pieces. It used a sheet of seaweed on the bottom layer, piled with a layer of rice - flattened, topped with a sheet of smoked salmon, then repeated with another layer of seaweed, rice and smoked salmon and topped with yet another seaweed sheet, to create a 3-coloured, layered sushi. It was also chopped into squares, which breaks with the traditional shape. Each piece was topped with wasabi mayonnaise - a simple mixture of wasabi and Japanese mayonnaise that created a tangy, less vicious version of the infamous nose-rattling wasabi.

The rest of the preparation went pretty much without hitch (well, er, there may have been one or two tense moments, and a couple of sharp intakes of breath...), although it took much longer than we'd anticipated to roll all the rolls and arrange the sushi. We tried to be as pedantic about presentation and layout as the Japanese are.

In anticipation of the party, I had been accumulating a range of little Japanese bowls and plates. Having had the full monty Japanese meal in March, I wanted to attempt to create a Japanese table with pretty little bowls and platters. The Japan Centre has a reasonable selection of crockery, and also useful stuff like disposable chopsticks - yes, unenvironmentally friendly I know, but the pile of washing up was already mountainous....

Funnily enough, when it was all laid out, it didn't look like enough food or effort to have sustained 2 people each working continuously for about 7 hours. We also had miles of fish left over beyond what we actually laid out, and enough sushi rolls to make a substantial lunch and dinner the next day, but hey...better to have too much than not enough.

Our guests eventually arrived, and we got stuck into the food pretty soon after. I was keen for the fish not to sit around for too long! We cracked the sake and began to eat. The fish was delicious - definitely good quality, really fresh, and easy to eat raw. The boys had wasabi ironman championships and we all picked our way through the various tastes, textures and flavours. By all accounts, it was pretty good.

A couple of guests were slightly dubious about the sesame icecream - until they tasted it. Not a drop was left in their bowls, and we did a round of seconds. I had made a double batch of icecream on the basis that it was such a hassle, and on the remote chance it was good, I wanted to be able to serve everyone reasonable amounts of it.

Anyway, the party continued and we ate Japanese for a few meals afterwards. It was a fun night, and definitely worth the effort. Thanks to Ant (for his ever-present patience), Anne, Andrew, Kinga, Darren and Clare for being brave enough to try my untested Japanese experiment.

Here's how it looked before we demolished it.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The green, green grass of Wales

When Tom Jones sings about the green green grass of home, he's pretty bloody accurate about his beloved home country of Wales.

The Welsh countryside is indeed very very green. Which can mean only one gets very very wet there, very very often. Sobering thoughts as we embarked on a camping/socialising weekend in mid-Wales following the wettest June on record.

Heading out, cross-country from Oxford, our trip to the county of Powys and the mid-northern town of Rhayader (or a rural property just outside this village) took us through the rolling (green) English countryside and towns like Worcester and Hereford.

After a three-hour drive, we reached the property, a huge estate on which friends Nick and Rhian were based. Their cottage was nestled amongst vast green fields, some with sheep grazing, some with hilly forestland, and all by the River Wye. It was an idyllic setting.

Living in London, you get used to not seeing much wildlife, so after a few minutes in "the bush", it seemed that every sort of bird known to man called this place home. Ditto the sheep, who were to become the alarm clocks in the morning.

We spent a leisurely evening sitting around the fire (as you mid-Welsh summer), eating yummy vegetarian curries. Were it not for the copious amounts of alcohol we consumed, I'd have felt like I was at a health retreat.

Next morning, Rhian offered us some of her home-made elderflower champagne, which had been merrily bubbling away in the kitchen.

As Nick loosened the cork, the bottle practically exploded and elderflower champgne sprayed throughout the loungeroom. It was even fizzier than what appears to be the current craze of dipping mentos mints in coke bottles...

Most items in proximity copped an elderflower shower, including Nick, who dashed outside with the spewing bottle. It was pretty amusing.

Later, we set out for a drive through the (green) rolling hills in the heart of Wales, and into the Elan Valley. Sheep roam the roads in these parts, and we had to stop a number of times to let a little sheep family amble past. They don't seem to dock the sheep's tails here like they do in Australia, and it was really funny to see sheep with big woolly tails dangling behind them.

Out there, it's peaceful and the air is crisp and fresh. It was an unusually sunny day and it was so good to be able to look out to the horizon and not see people or buildings. We meandered round the little country roads, checked out a few quaint pubs and heard all about sacred geometry, which I intend to investigate in much more detail.

The weekend continued much in the same way, although I was feeling much less like I was at a health retreat when I awoke on Sunday morning to the sound of sweet little birds crapping sweetly on the side of the tent, and the all-the-more rather disturbing sound of my head about to explode. Pesky least I didn't have to resort to dunking my head in the River Wye, unlike one of us.

It was a very relaxing weekend - great company, food and scenery, and tainted only by the usual horror show drive back down the A40 to London.

Get me to Antarctica. Quick!

Oh, how do I love thee, facebook. Let me count the ways.

What I love about facebook is that you can find people with what mind seem like the most niche of interests. Like going to Antarctica for example, which is a huge mission of mine.

I got chatting with Kevin though one of the travel groups, who has recently been to Antarctica and more than happy to discuss the experience. He pointed me to his blog, fliesbynight, which displays some of the most stunning photos. He said he took over 3,000 photos in the 2-week trip. What a stellar effort!

Check out his photos of Antarctica. This is just one example of what you'll see. Fwaww. Stunning huh!

This photo is © 2007 Kevin Tangney. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Giant guitars line the river

As I walked to work today through the More London area just near City Hall, I saw a bunch of huge painted guitars, each signed by a rock legend.

Apparently, the exhibition opened last week and there are 30 of these mega guitars. I'll have a closer look on my to work tomorrow.
This pic from the SE1 website shows Paul Weller signing a guitar at the launch.
Very cool!

Monday, July 02, 2007

Wembley ROCKED for Diana

Yesterday’s Concert for Diana was awesome. We knew it was going to be one of those amazing events to see live, but the whole 6.5 hour experience was unforgettable.

Walking into the new Wembley stadium is significant – it’s new and sparkly and absolutely vast! It was three quarters full by the time we took our seats, and the noise coming out the stadium was deafening.

The crowd roared when Elton John came out to the stage and sang Your Song. Huge black and white images of Diana flashed in the background, reminding us all why we were there. Kim, Carol, Anne Marie and I compared the goosebumps that instantly appeared on our arms, and the first droplets of emotion rolled down our faces. As opposed to the second and third droplets that strangely resembled beer.

Princes William and Harry came out onto the stage, booming: “Hello Wembley”. The crowd erupted once again, as they explained what they wanted the concert to achieve – that we all come together to celebrate their mother’s life, with many of the things she enjoyed: music, dance, charities and good friends.

The line up of star performers and celebs was great. The highlight for me was definitely Rod Stewart singing Maggie and Sailing. They’re just classic songs that everyone knows and loves. P Diddy’s tailored version of I’ll be Missing You was haunting – the crowd really seemed to get into it, and that bloke surely knows how to get a crowd moving.

The ever-stylish Bryan Ferry played classics like Slave to Love and Let’s Stick Together, and Roger Hodgson bashed out a few iconic Supertramp tracks.

More contemporary artists like Joss Stone, Lily Allen, Nelly Furtado, Fergie, Natasha Bedingfield, Orson and The Feeling did a number or two each, with the English National Ballet performing a scene from Swan Lake. The best shots of that performance were the aerial shots – you just never really get to look down onto a ballet performance.

The Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical medley was fab, with the highlight being Any Dream Will Do by past and present Josephs. Kim and I had been threatening to sing this all afternoon, and were able to let loose when the time came. I reckon we were pretty good! Or maybe that was the beer ears kicking in….

The crowd practically wet itself with excitement when a newly blond and crew-cutted David Beckham mosied out on stage to introduce Take That. The boys were in top form as they belted out Shine, Patience and Want You Back for Good.

There was much speculation as to whether Elton John would finish with Candle in the Wind – either the version he sang at Diana’s funeral, or the original. Unfortunately, it was not to be…I reckon it would have been the perfect way to end, but the never-before seen home movie footage of a young Diana, overlaid with Queen’s These Are The Days of Our Lives, made for a pretty poignant ending to an unforgettable evening.

Getting out of Wembley and onto the trains was a bit of a nightmare, but all the way home I saw people clutching their Official Concert for Diana program.

The night proved that Diana, Princess of Wales, truly was the people’s princess, and always will be.

PS - Huge thanks to Kim, Carol and Ann-Marie for a GREAT day!

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Hoorah! The smoking ban kicks in today

July 1, and the smoking ban kicks in today throughout the UK. Hoo-bloody-ray! Of most interest to me is that the ban now applies at train stations and railway concourses.

Each morning when I walk down the concourse at my local station, I'm blasted with the stale smoke of commuters who are banging down fag after fag before the eternal (15 minute) journey. From today, that will be a thing of the past.

I'm also loving that the ban will apply in shops, pubs, bars and restaurants. It's about time!

I don't care if people smoke - that's their own choice. But this new law enforces them to have consideration for the non-smokers who have had to endure smoky pubs and train stations for way too long.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Contiki takes advantage of facebook

I've still got my nose in facebook, which is proving to be way too addictive. Interestingly, I found Contiki in a related group (though listed as sponsored) on the Explore the World group.

Does advertising belong in social networking applications? I reckon yes, if it's relevant. Contiki as a tour company is clearly offering tours that are of relevance to this particular group. so it makes perfect sense for them to be there. From a marketing perspective, they also using the site to create conversations amongst their potential and existing customers, in the very place where those users are spending a lot of time.

There's also a group for Kumuka travellers, called Kumuka Overland, although this doesn't appear to have been set up by the company - it doesn't confirm this one way or the other. Great for Kumuka if their customers are starting such groups.

The rules of marketing are definititely changing. I reckon travel companies like Contiki, Kumuka and Explore are doing a good job of using new forms of media to get to their customers. Will be interesting to see how things evolve in this space.

Life goes on in London, bombs and all

It's always weird after major security threats, like yesterday's foiled car bomb plot in central London. I'm watching the news, and they're discussing how "normal life" seems to have resumed right in the very streets where one of the loaded cars was found. Yet there appears to be some question that it has.

Of course life must go on as usual - it's the only thing we can do!

I found it particularly amusing that two of the three quotes in this Guardian piece about how bomb alerts and travel chaos failed to deter West End revellers last night, quoted Australians. Ah, she'll be right mate.

I've discovered facebook - the travel addiction continues

As if I needed another distraction...but anyway. Everyone's been talking about the social networking site, facebook.

I decided to take a peak and it's thrown me into very, VERY large networks of travellers and people with similar interests.

I'm finding it a useful place to store travel pics, cos it let's me arrange them easily in directories, that I can also let non-facebook friends and family see. I've been uploading pics by country - so far there are directories for Australia, Croatia, Slovenia and Iceland. I'll slowly build out the others - I wonder if I can create a directory for every letter of the alphabet...although not sure if there is a country starting with the letter X?

facebook also lets you join groups, and there are seemingly bwzillions about travel. I've joined the Explore the World and Addicted to Travelling groups (am loving the Explore the World logo over to the left).

In these groups, people share stuff like where they've been and where they want to go, and others use it as test-ground for travel related applications they've built, such as mapping features. There's lots of travel pics and recommendations, and a bunch of friendly people.

If you're addicted to travel, this is yet one more way to feed your addiction while you're not out there doing it!

Friday, June 29, 2007

Car bomb found in central London

Nearly two years after the 7/7 bombings, London is waking up to the news that a fairly large bomb was found in a suspect car this morning, around the Piccadilly/Haymarket area of central London.

The whole area is cordonned off, and by the looks of it, will be all day.

I'm very happy to be working from home today, as I do on Fridays. It's times like this that I truly value working for an organisation like Dow Jones, that has a work-from-home program.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

A smattering of travel blogs

Time to do a quick scan of some of the funky travel blogs to see who's talking about what?

The Sydney Morning Herald's globe-trotting backpacker Ben Groundwater is discussing the backpacker's guide to being ripped off. His experiences remind me of having baby (dolls) chucked at me in Spain, as gypsies attempted to grab my bag, and a sneaky old english photographer in London who "volunteered" to take make photo outside Big Ben.

Mark Hayes over at the TimesOnline travel blog is discussing The Top 5 Cornish Pastries. Despite having spent last Christmas in Cornwall, and indeed, at the Lizard, where Mark is writing from, I am still yet to try an authentic Cornish pastry. It's on my to-do list!

The Guardian Unlimited's Katie Marsh is discussing her hilarious experience of Finland's Wife-Carrying World Championships. I also enjoyed Giulio Sica's post about Marrakech overtaking New York in Time Out's best selling city guide. I'm planning to be in Morocco this Christmas, so I might check it out.

And there's, which, with 371 updated blogs, 99 new bloggers, 3668 new photos and 38 forum posts in the past 24 hours....there's no shortage of new things to read.

Sydney Opera House makes World Heritage List

I was really pleased to read this morning, that Sydney's Opera House has been declared a World Heritage site. This is not the best picture of the Opera House, but I took it one morning a few years ago when I was walking to work.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Lonely Planet launches new city guide series

Lonely Planet recently launched a new range of city guides, called the Encounter Series.

The pocket-sized versions of their country guide counterparts aim to give an overview of 8 cities - Barcelona , Hong Kong , Istanbul , Las Vegas , London , New York , Paris and San Francisco.

They have organised the guides by neighbourhood, helping visitors to get to the "heart of the city".

Yahoo Travel is running a promotion where first prize is two Eurostar tickets from London to Paris, Lille or Brussels, and 10 runners up receive sets of the new Encounter Series.

I'm planning to visit Turkey next year, so I shall check out the Encounter Guide to Istanbul.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

WIWT: Myrdalsjokull Glacier, Iceland

I took these pics at the Myrdalsjokull Glacier in Iceland's Thorsmork valley. It was one of the most stunning natural sights I've ever seen.

Pondering the point of travel

I came across a couple of quotes about travelling that reminded me why I love it so much:

"The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page." - Saint Augustine

"We must go beyond textbooks, go out into the bypaths and untrodden depths of the wilderness and travel and explore and tell the world the glories of our journey."- John Hope Franklin

"I have wandered all my life, and I have also traveled; the difference between the two being this, that we wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfillment." - Hilaire Belloc

Let the gormandising begin!

This weekend saw the 4th annual Taste of London food and drink festival in Regent's Park. Even though it was scheduled to rain, thousands of people turned out for the 12-4pm time slot, on what ended up being a fantastic sunny day.

At the gates we were given a convenient menu, which listed each of the 40 restaurant's three dishes on offer. Oh god...the drooling started about then, and didn't really stop all afternoon.

Cold, fizzy whisky-based drinks were thrust into our hands as we walked past the first tent, and we stumbled into the Alessi Cookery School. A cooking lesson was starting, and we managed to get a couple of spaces.

Minutes later, a loud, bossy but very charming Italian chef was booming at us to switch on the stoves, and said that we'd be cooking a simple creamy pasta in the new Alessi Pasta Pot.

We prepped some peas, garlic, pancetta and threw it all into the pot to cook for a couple of minutes. We were then instructed to throw in the dry pasta and enough water to cover it...all in the same pot. This seemed counter-intuitive, but we were assured the pasta would cook properly.

Sure enough, the water eventually disappeared and we tipped in some cream, salt and pepper. Due to ridiculous health and safety regulations, we weren't allowed to actually eat what we'd made, but it looked pretty impressive for novices!

Having been whiffing pasta for 20 minutes, we were starving and set off in search of Asian-influenced Cocoon, who had Wagyu beef on Hot Rocks on offer. Stupidly, I didn't take a photo of the dish - or any of them for that matter. I was so engrossed in the taste that the idea of taking photos seemed a million miles away. The good people at Cocoon have included their recipe for Wagyu beef though. My obsession with the delicious marbled fatty Australian meat continues.

People mosied round, stuffing their faces with goumet delights and whatever free booze was on offer. Music floated through the air, and it was all very civilised. A foodie's paradise!

Next on my radar was the stall for Knightsbridge-based Brazilian restaurant, Mocoto. Their Moqueca - monkfish and shellfish coconut stew and rice, had caught my eye. It too was fabulous - a creamy, spicy seafood curry, that definitely tasted different from my usual preferred Thai curries. I definitely need to investigate South American cuisine, and have no good reason why I have not done so before. Shame on me.

A coupla dishes down, and we were thirsty. Threshers were sponsoring the Wine Experience, so lurched in to grab two seats, just in time for the Roses from Around the World session. We sampled wines from Germany, Argentina, Chile, Spain and California, with the Chilean Vina Carmen rose my pick of the bunch. At just under £6 a bottle from Waitrose, it was a great full-bodied rose.

At this stage, we may have been slightly tipsy, with a couple of the whisky-based fizzy drinks mixing with the roses and various gourmet meals. Surprisingly no one seemed massively pizzed, although the potential was certainly there.

Being an avid oyster fan, the oyster dish at One o One really took my fancy. Oh, I wish I'd taken a photo of the Cancale Tsarkaya oyster with Ozen quail egg, apple salsa and wasabi flying-fish caviar. It was a little piece of edible artwork. The chef suggested I down the quail egg first, and follow it with the oyster. The flavours were truly amazing...the melt-in-mouth quail egg, with the tang of apple, the creamy oyster, the ping of the flying fish caviar and the firey whiff of the wasabi. Oh my was quite possibly the best oyster I've ever had. And I've had a few in my time.

I just love dishes where the flavours and textures have been skillful combined.

By chance, we stumbled past yet another wine tasting class at the Sud de France Wine Theatre. Perhaps it was because I'd already consumed a bit, but none of the wines that I sampled in that session did it for me. Oh well...each to their own. Some people were raving about the wine.

With a few Crowns (the currency of the festival) left, we decided to try a pudding. Kensington Places' Lime and Basil pannacotta was delicious. I've had a few pannacotta's recently, and I really like it as a dessert. I'm not particularly into cakes and big gooey puddings, but pannacotta seems like a nice way to finish a meal.

Our four hour gorge-fest seemed to fly by and soon we were being ushered out, as a dude from a stall that sold sea-salt scrubs from the Dead Sea snagged us and flogged us a tub of salt that made our hands feel really smooth. How this related to the food festival was beyond both Ant and I, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.

The Taste of London was a fantastic day out, and was a great way to experience some of London's top restaurants. All the stalls at which I didn't get to try something, will go onto my Wish List of Restaurants, as will all of those that did!

We finished the day with a tasty meal in China Town before heading home - stuffed but happy.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Off to the Concert for Diana - whoohooo!

So excited!! A very generous friend, who scored tickets to the Concert for Diana, offered me one. So we're trouping off to the new Wembley Stadium next Sunday afternoon for what I know will be a truly unforgetable experience.

I remember hearing about the famous Wembley Stadium as a kid in Oz - how artists would say they had played to a packed-out Wembley. It seemed larger than life, an iconic part of England.

And I remember Diana, a real life princess, the People's Princess - as a kid viewing her life from the other side of the world.

I remember watching her wedding, and her baptism into a globally public life. I saw the images of her marriage disintegrating as she raised her two sons...and I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing the day I heard the shocking news of her death.

It seems significant that her sons chose Wembley as the place to host a concert that marks the 10th anniversary of her death - and a celebration of her life.

And I feel extremely privileged to be going - thanks K :-). Stay tuned for pics and an update next week!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Explore's travel blog

Ok, so I'm a bit slow on the update, but I'm liking Explore's blog. They seem to be in touch with their customers - highlighting their blogs, and participating in all conversations travel.

The folks there seem to like raising funds for charity, with the blog highlighting some of their employees most recent endeavours.

And I like that they've introduced podcasts. I think it's such a brilliant idea to be able to download travel podcasts and listen to them as you're wandering through the place being discussed.

I'm eagerly awaiting the release of the 2008/2009 Explore brochure so I can ponder the next big adventure....South America!

And the winner is...?

I was really interested to read this survey in the Times Online about the world's most expensive (and cheapest) cities.

It's primarily based on the cost of a luxury unfurnished two-bedroom apartment in the city. I'd certainly agree on London being high up the list - was curious to see Singapore beating Sydney though. I guess it's a matter of supply and demand, and there simply not being the space in Singapore as there is in Australia.

Much to catch up on this blog! Stay tuned.

Monday, May 28, 2007

A beginner's guide to making sushi rolls

Just to prove we made our own rolls, here's the step-by-step evidence.

1) Gather ingredients:
- Nori sheets (dried seaweed)
- sliced avocado
- sliced peppers
- sliced cucumber
- crab sticks
- prepared sushi rice
- black and white sesame seeds
- Japanese mayonnaise
- latex gloves and a sushi rolling mat

2) Lay the seaweed on the mat, spread the rice evenly across most of the seaweed, leaving an empty edge - this is the part that will stick onto itself and close the whole package up shortly. Sprinkle with sesame seeds.

3) Place other ingredients down the middle of the rice, squirt some mayonnaise down the centre, and begin to roll, holding the underneath side of the mat, and folder the rice over enough for it meet itself. Move the mat back and keep rolling the package until the seaweed overlaps itself. Seal by lightly dampening the seaweed and sticking it to itself.

4) And voila! Perfect rolls. Slice into 1.5cm wide rolls, arrange and serve with wasabi and soy sauce.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

If I have to get older, I'd rather do it like this...

It was one of those birthdays that in some cases, sent me into the next worrying age bracket. For others, it poised me right on the edge.

Ok ok, I turned 35 this year, but Ant ensured I celebrated in style, with a day full of fun and yummy surprises. The instructions required that we be in town - early. Or early for a Saturday morning, anyway.

We arrived at Yoi Sushi headquarters, just behind the London Eye, for a 10am start. About 20 of us lined up around a conveyor belt, for a 3-hour sushi-making workshop.

Our host was a Japanese sushi chef, who had been making sushi for years. He took nearly an hour to explain the importance of perfecting sushi rice - a process that involved much washing of the Japanese short grain rice, and a specific method for cooking it over a pan - or in a rice cooker if you prefer.

He explained that you could substitute italian arborio rice if you could not find the pure (Australian or Californian produced) rice most frequently used in the UK for sushi rice. That said, Japanese sushi rice is available at the Japan Centre in Piccadilly, and many other shops in China Town.

He demonstrated how to blend rice wine vinegar into the sushi rice, and how to store and handle it during the sushi-making process.

He then went on to demonstrate how to fillet a whopping big fillet of salmon. I was impressed when he said that his shop alone consumes over a tonne of fresh salmon each year. That's a hell of a lot of filleting.

At this point, I was pondering whether I needed to adorn my kitchen with a dedicated sashimi-fillettng knife, but continued to watch the dude's dexterity in fish-slicing, in the mean time.

He did amazing things with the very fresh orangey fish. We got to sample it straight of the fish's back, so to speak. He showed us to to fillet the pieces to create sashmi or nigiri sushi.

We then progressed to learn how to roll sushi-rolls and california rolls. It's not as hard as you may think, once you gets the tips from a pro. Latex gloves and japanese mayonaise certainly make life easier.

Our host did a finale, where we each got to pick an ingredient for him to include as part of mega sushi roll. It looked fantastic, although I don't know if the combination of teriyaki chicken, avocado, salmon, peppers and god knows what else, would all combine to create the perfect and-rolled sushi. The salmon on the side was fab however.

We were then let loose on our own mini-setup, to practice rolling our own magical creations.

It really wasn't as hard as we'd anticipdated, and with a bit of practice, we were rolling cylinders that actually resembled those that you might buy in shops.

Lunch followed, and we got to take our magical creations home.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The best lookin' meal ever. Oishikatta desu ne!

Dinner was included in the accommodation cost, and our our hostess had it all lined up on a trolley outside the room.

We were ushered into the main room with the large low table, and asked to sit crosslegged as she laid out in perfect mirror image, two whopping meals.

I love the Japanese obsession with presentation and layout. What I really would have liked at the time was someone who could explain in detail, what each dish was and what it meant. I have read about the Japanese philosophy of fives - that is, five flavours and colours. The meal laid out before us certainly seemed to meet that criteria.

There was the obligatory rice, and a large range of unidentifiable pickled root vegetables, fish, miso soup, sushi and sashimi, candied bits and pieces, jellied stuff, steam boats and carefully styled fruit pieces.

Tea and beer accompanied the meal (beer was our choice!), and we sat wide-mouthed through most of the meal, contemplating the tastes and the meaning of it all.

Everything tasted extremely fresh, and it had obviously been prepared with love and dedication - soppy, but you know what I mean.

Then came the absolute best part of the meal - the phone call to reception to clear up the remnants of dinner.

The clearing was quick and efficient, and within a few minutes our clean-up lady was out of the room, leaving nothing but chocolates.

Another knock followed, and the futon-making man appeared, ready to make our beds for the evening.

Two layers of foam on the floor formed the bed, then the thickest duvet/doona ever was placed over the top. It's somehow comforting being low to the ground when you sleep...something about not having too far to fall out of bed :-).

In any case, it was the most inspiring meal. And breakfast was pretty much the same thing all over.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Inside a traditional Japanese guesthouse

The ryokan was simple but intensely Japanese. Tatami matting lined the floor, and a series of sliding doors sectioned off the two main rooms from the long narrow hallway.

I was pleasantly surprised to see a full bathroom with a deep bath. The loo had a heated toilet seat - a really popular contraption in Japan.

The main room was sparse in terms of furniture and lounges for that matter. The only seats that existed in this ryokan were the two arm chairs in the little indoor balcony that overlooked the temple, and two ground-level chairs that we gathered formed part of the dinner ritual.

We knocked back a few beers and pondered life in Japan, when a knock at the door signalled dinner.

It was indeed a spectacle that deserves a post of its own.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

O'genki desu ka? Two nights in Tokyo

The Oz trip flew, and in what seemed like no time, we were saying another difficult goodbye to my folks, and heading off for a two-night stopover in Tokyo.

I love Tokyo. I'm a huge fan of Japan, having studied Japanese at highschool, and visiting the country a couple of times in the early 90's with Mum.

I wanted to experience as much of Japanese culture as we could in two days, and booked us into a ryokan near Narita.

I found Wakamatsuhonten on Google, and it looked fine. I had the feeling that it would be a bit out of town, which was fine.

When we arrived by cab from the airport, I was pleasantly delighted to find that our ryokan overlooked Narita was literally across the road, and in the most fab little street in what I gathered was Narita's "Old Town".

We weren't able to check in until mid-afternoon, so spent the day pottering around the shops from the top of the hill at the Keisei Narita Train Station back down to Narita Temple.

I am SUCH a fan of Japanese crockery - the little tea sets...the matching saki sets with saki warmer and matching cups...the beautiful packaging of everything, the weird gelatinous sweets....

Although I could only understand about 0.0001% of what was being said, my attempts at retrieving highscool Japanese from the depths of my sozzled brain seemed to be appreciated. The Japanese seem to be surprised and curious when Westerners start speaking their language.

Unlike Australia, the weather in Japan in mid-April was chilly, and the rain wasn't helping matters.

At about 2.30pm, we decided to head back to the ryokan, and ask to check in an hour early. Thank god they were ready to let us in!

Dad turns 60 - but not without a gear box failure...

I can't believe my luck. Or my bad luck, as the case seems to be.

Everything fell into place timewise for me to be able to be in Queensland for Dad's 60th birthday.

I planned for a Harley Trike to pick Mum adn Dad up, take them on a one hour drive throught the bendy hills of Mt Tambourine, and up to what looked to be a fab restaurant in a rainforest. In the spirit of the Big 60th Surprise Birthday Stuff Up, I wouldn't have thought universal forces would have conspired once again to stuff up a perfectly good surprise!

The big day arrived, and we all sat round the kitchen table, waiting - on my instruction - to leave at 11.30am. This was when a big biker bloke was to come humming through the gates of my parent's complex, install them in the Harley Trike, and whisk them up the mountain. I was planning to take their car and meet them there.

11.20am rolled by....11.30 rolled by...I sms'd the driver to let him know the pass code for the front gate....

Nothing. from driver. "Hi Melanie...bad news".

My heart sank. "Yes...where are you Paul?"

"Er...we just blew the gear box in the trike. We're stuck in the middle of the road and won't be moving till the tow truck picks us up. In three hours."

"I see."

"I'm really, REALLY sorry. But this bike is going nowhere. We can send two motorbikes...they could be there in an hour or so."

" thanks. I don't think that will work. Not quite the same effect."

"Can we arrange alternate transport? A limousine perhaps?"

"Er, thanks but, we not quite what I had in mind, and we need to be at the restaurant in 45 mins. Can we please postpone the trikes for another time...we need to leave now to make our booking."


Anyway...Plan B moved into action, and we drove up the long and scenic hill to Songbird's Retreat - a fabulous restaurant and accommodation provider tucked away in the Gold Coast Hinterland.

Everything about Songbird's is perfect - the setting, the staff, the service, the food, and the resident ducks who run around the entrance to the outdoor loos.

It was one of the best meals I've ever had, in one of the most beautiful settings imaginable.

For a starter I had the Tempura Coated Soft Shell Crab, and for the main, I had a MOUTH-WATERING Pan-Seared Sirloin of Wagyu Beef. I wanted to see if it was as good as the square inch I had at 41. It was. Oh GOD it was yummy.

Dad seemed to enjoy himself and the meal too, and the plate of desserts was equally stunning.

It was a lunch to remember! Happy 60th birthday Dad!