Saturday, May 27, 2006

Thursday, May 25: London

The plan on Thursday was simply to walk the streets of a few neighbourhoods that seemed interesting, and we began by taking the Tube further east to Aldgate. Here there is a large Bangladeshi and Muslim community, and consequently many tempting curry shops. Unfortunately we turned up about an hour too early and no-one was particularly interested in selling us said curry, so we continued walking north with rumbling stomachs.

We were walking towards Shoreditch and Hoxton, reputed to be trendy/alternative areas. Things looked promising when we encountered a couple of vintage clothing shops and a café advertising vegan-friendly lunches. We stopped at the café for a roast vege sandwich, muesli with yoghurt, and a couple of great fruit juices (it was all packaged take-to-the-office food, so we didn’t bother with pics). However, the rest of the scene either hadn’t rolled out of bed yet or had moved to the next London hotspot, as we didn’t see much more of interest until we encountered the African neighbourhood. Strangely this was where we stumbled on a cute organic grocery with heaps of things that I’d love to fill the home pantry with. Given our luggage constraints, Michael settled for a meatless mini-salami and fruit juice while I grabbed some cherry and coconut bars for the long flight home.

The mini-salami had reasonable flavour and texture, a very convincing smell, but wouldn’t fool a butcher by a long shot.

We made a brief visit to the Covent Garden markets via the tube. It was all really touristy and we didn’t stay long because what I was really after was at Camden Town:

This is the original Doc Martens shoe shop. I’ve been wearing my green Docs for 7 years: they’re the most expensive pair of shoes I’ve ever bought, but probably the best value on a cost per hours worn basis. After finally dragging them through the snow, ice and slush at Grimsö, I thought I’d treat myself to a new pair right from the source. Check ‘em out:

With my major London purchase successfully completed, we retired to a nearby pub for a pint and a snack:

Next was yet another tube ride, further west to Hammersmith. Here is a fancy vegetarian restaurant called The Gate:

It was a light and airy space, modern and classy but still reasonably casual. The prices were fancy, and so was the food. We shared an entrée of pakora and each had a pear and raspberry juice:

"Portobello & oyster mushrooms, spinach & julienne vegetables deep-fried in a chickpea batter, with an apple & green chili salsa & tamarind sauce."

For the main course, Michael selected a aubergine teriyaki:

"Char-grilled aubergine layered with wasabi, shitake duxelle, roasted red peppers & spinach, coated with crispy breadcrumbs & served with stir-fried purple sprouting broccoli, wakami & noodles."

I had a chipotle-glazed aritchoke:

"Globe artichoke poached in a chilli & lime leaf stock, stuffed with avocado and feta cheese, served with spiced polenta & sweet corn salsa."

This was the best high-end meal we have ever eaten. I was particularly impressed that the menu didn’t rely heavily on tofu or other soy meat substitutes, or on cheese. Instead each dish listed was a celebration of fresh vegetables, herbs and spices.

The waiter handed us the dessert menu and although I had actually considered skipping the sweetest course that night, there was one item I couldn’t leave without sampling. The waiter returned and asked, “So have you decided to order the cheesecake?” Of course I had. He brought out dessert cutlery for two, initially presenting me with an oversized soup ladle instead of a spoon. Although he had clearly spotted my weakness, he had it the wrong way round: I’d much prefer the tiniest teaspoon, the better to stretch out and savour every mouthful.

I present to you the white chocolate and Bailey’s cheesecake, served with dark chocolate sauce:

What can I say? It was exquisite.

We encountered this cute fella on the way out and gave him a gentle pat:

As the sky darkened we strolled along the Thames, then returned to our hostel thoroughly satisfied. At the day’s end I had a new pair of shoes temporarily charged to someone else’s credit card and the lingering taste of chocolate cheesecake in my mouth: what more could a girl ask for?

The answer is black snot. On the first afternoon in London, I overheard another pedestrian and (seemingly) new London resident discussing how the air pollution caused all her nasal secretions to be tainted sooty black. I fell victim on this, my third evening in the city. Ergh.

Wednesday 24/5: London

Our first morning in London dawned grey and miserable. The forecast for the week was showers, clearing by Sunday (we leave on Saturday night).

We soldiered on regardless and headed off to Buckingham Palace to begin our touristy sightseeing. Of course, by the time we got there, the weather had already cleared - this became a theme of the day, with the weather cycling from sunny to cloudy to rainy approximately every 15 minutes.

The palace held our attention for all of five minutes and we quickly decided to wander off through the park towards Westminster and the parliament buildings. Along the way we got glimpses of Big Ben and some sort of practice parade by the Royal Guard.

The trip towards the river took us via Trafalgar Square, where Nelson’s Column was regrettably covered in scaffolding.

We eventually reached Parliament, but unfortunately things all turned rather gloomy and most of our pictures didn’t turn out very well.

We crossed the bridge towards the south bank of the river and wandered past The London Eye. Even if it wasn’t expensive and busy, there was no way Cindy was going up in it, so we just strolled by.

The weather, having briefly turned pleasant again, started to look pretty threatening, so we hurriedly found ourselves somewhere to shelter and eat lunch. Pizza was the order of the day and we enjoyed a mushroom pizza, salad and garlic bread as the rain and wind really picked up outside.

The next stop was the Tate Modern , a short walk along the river from our lunch spot. The museum is housed in an old industrial building (a power station of some description) and is spread across five floors. We started with the free collection on level three and thoroughly enjoyed almost everything. The floor was split into three sections: photography, surrealism and abstract expressionism – each of the sections included works that typified the style of art in a main room and a series of smaller rooms containing various related movements or artists. The layout made it easy to see the connections between artists. Some of my favourites were Andreas Gursky's '99 cent', Mark Rothko's 'Four Seasons Murals', Jackson Pollock's 'Summertime: Number 9A', Cindy Sherman's 'Untitled Film Stills' and Juan Muñoz's 'Towards the Corner'. By the time we’d made it through the third floor (which represented only half of the main collection) it was after five and we were tuckered out, so we promised that we’d return later in the week and headed out.

From the south side of the river there are some pretty impressive views of St. Paul’s Cathedral

Of course, as we got closer, we realised that the entire bottom half of the building was covered with scaffolding, with a tricky drop cloth to fool unsuspecting tourists.

A short tube ride later, we were back in Marylebone for dinner. The venue for the evening was Eat and Two Veg, which tagged itself ‘the world’s first meat-free diner’.

We started with cocktails and nuts as it was only just after six, probably a little early to dive straight into dinner. I opted for a mojito and Cindy had an appletini.

It was nice to find a vegetarian place with a few different options on the menu and, after knocking back our drinks, Cindy went for a ‘chycken’ BLT, while I chose a proper British meal – Lancashire hotpot with mash. The hotpot was great – just like the real thing, but missing the gristle and fat, and the mash was creamy and delicious. Cindy’s BLT was tasty as well – the chycken patty was moist without being soggy and the mayo was liberally applied. The fake bacon was adequate, but there’s really no substitute for the real thing. And of course there were chips. Lots of chips.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Tuesday, May 23: Zürich to London

Melissa departed for her train commute to Basel at about the same time as we needed to head to the airport: 6:30am. We had just enough time to grab some breakfast between checking in and getting to our boarding gate, and just enough leftover Swiss francs to buy another sampler of Sprüngli chocolate. (The Sprüngli stand was directly opposite our gate, REALLY.) Almost before we knew it we were in London negotiating the tube. We had a friendly and distinctly Aussie reception at our hostel, where we stored our bags, and then ventured back out to explore the area, at least until our room was available.

Our hostel was located just north of Kensington Gardens, and so we walked eastwards along the northern edge, resting at the fountains and then continuing along Hyde Park to Oxford St.

The grey weather we first saw from the train had transformed to a blue sky and warm sun, but the wind was still as cold as any we’d encounter during a Brissy winter.

Oxford St is a long and busy strip of shops, particularly department stores. The highlight for me was seeing the imaginative window displays at Selfridges. Myer and DJs should really lift their game!

We had lunch at a trendy new burger café along a side street. We were pretty shocked at the prices (£7 ~ $17 for a burger, then extra for chips and sauce) but soon worked out that all food in London would be expensive and if we didn’t want to heat up baked beans on toast in the hostel for every meal, we’d have to put up with it. This café had three different tempting vege burgers on the menu and crisp, non-greasy chips:

Michael ordered the standard. The patty was the most reasonable meatless replacement for a beef burger that I’ve ever encountered, and it was topped with tomato relish and fresh salad. I ordered ‘the Goatee’: roast veges, goat’s cheese, pesto and mayo on a light but nutty bun. It was quite a mouthful:

The waiter commented afterwards that it was the biggest goatee he’d ever seen. A burger and chips could probably never justify that price tag, but the home-made condiments and fresh ingredients were top-notch.

In the afternoon we checked into the hostel and rested for a few hours, then went out for more exploration before dinner. We bypassed our previous path via the tube, emerging at Oxford Circus and taking a walk along Regent St and the edges of Soho. Lots of very exclusive and expensive clothing stores. We tired of that quite quickly, returned north along New Bond St back to Oxford St and beyond to Marylebone High St (it’s all very Monopoly, isn’t it?). This area was also quite affluent, but had more pubs, restaurants and small businesses.

Just as the now-grey sky began to rain, we ducked into our restaurant of choice, Rasa. The small chain of Rasa restaurants around London have a reputation for excellent vegetarian Indian food, and we were pleased to see a few unfamiliar dishes on the menu.

To start, we shared Mysore Bonda :

"The tea time snack in Kerala, but delicious at any time. Potato balls laced with fresh ginger, curry leaves, coriander and black mustard seeds, dipped and fried in chickpea flour batter and crisply fried. Served with a moist, creamy coconut chutney. " They were indeed crisply fried, but not greasy, and surprisingly spicy.

For the main meal, I couldn’t resist a dosa! This is a huge pancake with a hidden spiced vege filling and a variety of sides for extra flavour.

"Nair Dosa: A speciality dosa from Kerala, usually eaten during festivals and celebrations. A rice and black gram flour pancake filled with a mixture of potatoes, beetroot, carrot, onions and ginger. Served with sambar and fresh coconut chutney. " I probably got through about half of it, with Michael eating another quarter. He ordered Beet Cheera Pachadi with paratha:

"An amazingly vibrant dish, traditionally only served at wedding feasts. Fresh beetroot and spinach are blended together in a yoghurt sauce with roasted coconut, mustard seeds and curry leaves - a must for the adventurous." It looked and tasted much better than that picture suggests. We’ll be hunting down a recipe in the hope of reproducing it at home. We also sampled the mango lassi, which had a delicate flavour that probably came from fresh green cardamom pods. It satisfied my dessert urges!

Monday 22/5: Zürich

Monday brought an early start – the plan for the day was a daytrip to Lugano (which was one of the places Cindy and I had admired from the train) three hours away and to ensure we arrived at a decent time, we were all up and about by 7. The trip on the train provided a chance to eat breakfast and catch up on sleep and we were all shown the meteorological power of The Alps when we emerged from a tunnel to find that the sunny weather on the Zurich side had been replaced by squally rain. Thankfully by the time the train pulled into Lugano, the weather had settled into a pleasant cloudiness.

We started off with a wander through town and coffees to get our energy levels up.

(Note: The last photo is about 4 separate photos stitched together – because we couldn’t force passers by to stand stock still for us, there are some weird effects going on)

Energised, we bravely tackled a few giant flights of stairs on our slightly random explorations.

After deciding that the ferry tickets were too expensive, we attempted a bus trip to Gandria (a small town around the lake from Lugano), but ran into the bus siesta – no buses in that direction from 12 to 3pm. So we set off on a walk around the lake, hoping to eventually find Gandria and some lunch.

On the way we stumbled across a swan on her nest (and one standing guard in the water).

Gandria is (as Dylan noted), the kind of town M. C. Escher would design – all narrow alleys and steep stairways. After hunting in vain for a restaurant that sold pizza, we settled on an Italian place with a balcony over the lake.

I opted for polenta with porcini mushrooms and Cindy had a mushroom risotto and lemonade.

The polenta was mushy and garlicky and the mushrooms added some texture and flavour. I polished it off in about 10 minutes – delicious. Cindy’s risotto had a similar flavour, which I thoroughly enjoyed as I finished off the last third of her meal.

Despite being unable to eat her main, Cindy was quick to agree to an order of tiramisu for dessert (as was I). Dylan opted for something called Nonna’s Cake.

Having lunched for a couple of hours (and been entertained by swallows and hawks over the lake), we eventually dragged ourselves down to the ferry stop to return to Lugano and then to Zurich.

Since Melissa had skipped dessert at lunch, it was decided that we should all have some gelati before boarding the train home.

We arrived home (via a Sprüngli shop) and after some leftovers for those of us still eating, spent the night packing our things and preparing for an early flight the next day.