Istanbul – What to see

Hagia Sophia, originally built as a Christian Church by the Emporer Constantine, it was later rededicated as a mosque.
Grand Bazaar – this place has everything, the only problem will be carrying it all home.
Grand Bazaar – a historic setting selling everything from traditional rugs to electronics

A little bit of history

Istanbul wasn’t super high on my list of places to visit. But, I was lucky enough to meet and have dinner a few months ago, with the super lovely Angie Ibarra, an experienced travel blogger, https://travelmoments.net During a great night with maybe too much wine I asked her, up to that point where was the favourite place she had visited.  Her immediate answer was Istanbul.  Since then, loads of people have told me the same thing, you have to go.

I’m a total history nerd, (I’m not even sorry) and Istanbul has oodles of it.  Dating back nearly 3000 years, the city has been seat to the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires.   Istanbul is unique in that it is split between two continents (half the city sits in Asia, the other in Europe, and the two halves are separated by the river Bosphorus).  Being in such a sweet spot, Istanbul has been a meeting point of countless cultures.  The city has trading links with Egypt and China going back two millennia and is still a major trading hub.    Sites such as the Topkapi Palace, Grand Bazaar, Hagia Sophia, and Blue Mosque are within walking distance of each other.  The first two could easily take a day each, if you wanted to take your time.

A city split across two continents

This prime location has also meant it has changed hands various times.  The Roman emperor Constantine when he converted to Christianity set up the city as his “new Rome”, and you can still see examples of Roman architecture and engineering throughout the city.  Istanbul then became centre of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and seat of the new Byzantine empire.

Galata Tower, take the funicular railroad to visit the bohemian Galata district.

The 15th century saw the rise of the Ottoman empire.  Ahead of it’s time in relation to architecture, medicine and the arts, Istanbul continued to be a thriving multicultural metropolis.

The Blue Mosque, decorated with thousands of beautiful hand painted tiles.

Modern times

I was really impressed by the modern Istanbul, but given political tensions in the area there was a heavy security presence in popular areas.   When out shopping in one of the modern shopping areas near Taksim Square (think Oxford Street in London), I was a bit alarmed when I saw police unloading riot shields (being from Belfast, this usually doesn’t bode well).   However I was pleasantly surprised, when the demonstration that started was a large, pretty energetic and good natured Feminist rally.   Turkey is a secular state, but the country is still mainly Muslim and quite traditional.

Lots of bars serve hookah pipes, you can share between friends with flavoured tabacco.

Depending on how much time you have, try to visit different neighbourhoods like Galata, or take the ferry across the Bosphorus to Kadikoy. Each has a different personality and great places to shop and eat.

The Sultanahmet District has great seafood restaurants

Istanbul  is still a cultural melting pot and draws in people from outside. I met people from Azerbaijan, Morocco and Armenia who for various reasons  have decided to live there.   By my second day I kept seeing guys with hairbands and surgical dressings taped to the back of their heads.  Totally perplexed as to the reason, the penny finally dropped.  Apparently Istanbul is the place to go for guys wanting hair transplants at a fraction of the price they’d pay in Europe.

Waiters are usually good fun and are keen to get you stay, this one set off fireworks for my birthday!

The city has a good cheap public transport network, and it’s worth investing in the IstanbulKart (a multi use card that can be topped up in various location).  You’ll see astonishing places, and meet great people.    In the interests of good travel karma if you have credit left, and aren’t planning on returning very soon, be nice and pass it on to a local or fellow traveller, same goes for your museum card.  Give Istanbul a try, you’ll love it.

Supper Club – Menu, and how to book

Come and join us for great food, a good night’s craic, and every likelyhood of a slight hangover in the morning.

At the Supper Club you’ll eat at a communal table, and everyone enjoys the same 3 course set menu (we’re happy to cater for vegetarians). The cost is £25 per person, but you can bring your own wine or beer (should save you a fortune compared to restaurants). We’ll have the fire lit and will welcome you with a drink, and a few extra treats on the night.

Seaneen’s Sunnyside Supper Club

Supper Club, 19 October 2019

£25.00

Menu for the night will be as follows

Starter – Pear, Cashel Blue Cheese (we’ll have other cheese available if blue cheese isn’t your thing), and Walnut Salad.

Main Course – Braised Beef cooked in Belfast Stout with Cheddar Cheese Scone Dumplings (vegetarian option available) , Potatoes Dauphinoise, Buttered Greens.

Dessert – Apple and Blackberry Galette, and Custard.

Tea/coffee

The Supper Club will take place in Sunnyside Street, close to the Ormeau Road. We’ll kick things off about 7.30 for 8pm. You’ll be provided with the address when we have your booking.

Ts & Cs

No refund on cancellations made within 48 hours before the event.

Allergies, we cannot guarantee food will be free from nuts, or prepared in a nut free environment.

Hong Kong

Throwback from last year’s visit. This time of year makes me wish I was back there.

When a friend heard I was going to Hong Kong, she said “you’ll love it, it’s like New York on crack”. She wasn’t wrong. We arrived after a 12 hour flight in sweltering heat and humidity, to be told that our hotel room wouldn’t be ready for another 7 hours! Exhausted and unable to cope with the heat we trawled around Kowloon for a couple of hours before we decided go back and embarrass the hotel clerk into giving us a room by hanging about a tiny lobby sweating profusely and looking like a pair of extras from night of the living dead. Hey Presto, we got a room within 10 minutes, (sometimes looking like a sweaty mess just pays off).

Night Market in Hong Kong

After a much needed power nap and shower we left to explore Hong Kong properly. If you’ve ever watched Blade Runner this is what night time Hong Kong will remind you of. Lots of neon and hustle and bustle.

Luxury shopping is a big thing and its seems there is Patek Phillipe or Rolex shop on every street. Hong Kong is what’s referred to as an Alpha+ city, due to it’s financial influence and has more ultra high net worth individuals living there than any city in the world. Unfortunately I’m not among these ranks, but the city has something for every budget. The Temple Street night market and ladies market are good choices, but be prepared to haggle.

I was obsessed with puffer fish as a kid, but how are you meant to get this home?

Hong Kong has some of the most expensive real estate in the world, and outstrips even Manhattan. The average family apartment is smaller than a domestic garage. For this reason a lot of residents choose to eat out in the mind boggling array of cheap restaurants and street food outlets. I’m pretty adventurous in my eating but there were a few thing I said no to. Tripe (the spongy lining of a cow’s stomach) is a big thing that I had to pass on. However among the best food I ate was at a dicey looking whole in the wall near my hotel. After a long day sight seeing I just wanted something quick and sitting on little stools that look they came from a kindergarten I got huge bowl of soup with wantons for about £2. The woman who brought it gestured at me to try the condiments with it (chilli sauce and another sauce that smelt awful but worked when it was in the soup), my napkin was a roll of toilet paper! it was fabulous.

View from the Peak

Hong Kong, Part 2- Nan Lain Gardens and Chi Lin Nunnery

Another throw back from last year.

Hong Kong is diverse and densely populated, to get everyone one where they need to go, the city has one of the best public transport systems I’ve ever seen. As soon as you arrive, invest in an Octopus Card. These can be used to pay for everything from ferries, some taxis, trains, buses, and paying for purchases in convenience stores at metro stations, and you can top them up at any metro station. I know it sounds like I’m geeking out, but the public transport was amazing, cheap, fast and clean.

Exciting as the city is fantastic, but sometimes the heat and the crowds can be exhausting. When you need to recharge you batteries seek out a little oasis of calm like the Nan Lian Garden and Chi Lin Nunnery.

The gardens are in the Diamond Hill district and covers 3.5 hectares, in a city with so many people this place provided some much needed chill out space away from the frenetic energy of the rest of central Hong Kong. The gardens are landscaped in line specif rules and methods, and no tree, rock, or plant is there by accident.

View of the tea room in Nan Lian Gardens

The Chi Lin Nunnery located within the gardens, is a series of elegant wooden structures made up of temples, and prayer halls lining courtyards with expertly pruned bonsai gardens and calming pools. Despite being slap bang in one of the world’s hubs of cut throat capitalism, it has a really gentle vibe, and is beyond beautiful.

If you can spare the time I’d recommend spending a day vising the garden and nunnery. If you do there are a couple of different options if want to eat or drink. The tea house is beautiful but is expensive even by Hong Kong standards. The staff are lovely and will take time to explain the different teas, and show you how to brew it correctly. We spent much more than expected here, but in fairness it was our mistake for not reading the tea menu correctly (be careful). A much better option is to go for the set lunch at the garden’s restaurant. Like with the Po Lin monastery, it’s a set vegan lunch made up of several dishes. One of which was monkey head fungus, I know what your thinking (doesn’t sound too appetizing), but it turned out to be delicious. The best food I had in Hong Kong was at these temple restaurants. Go visit these places and try the food, or just enjoy a little bit of chill before going back out into the world.

The water mill

Dubrovnik – Practically perfect in every way

When I mentioned to some people I was going to Dubrovnik, their faces lit up. Anyone who has visited the the place will testify to how beautiful it is. I had never been to Croatia before and to be honest didn’t know a lot about it.

The old town which is pretty sizable is a UNESCO heritage site, and was a pretty important port for trade in the Adriatic. It has been a Republic and occupied by various other nations, more recently it was damaged and rebuilt in the 1990’s after the break up of the former Yugoslavia.

Understandably the locals prefer not to focus on this (coming from a place that has had it’s own troubles I’m glad that they prefer to look ahead, instead of dwelling on a difficult past). More recently, the city has been one of the most recognisable locations from Game of Thrones.

Rector’s Palace

The architecture is beautiful and I don’t think I have ever been to such a clean city (I mean it seriously looks like the whole place has been freshly scrubbed just for you coming). The old town has steered away allowing the eponymous chains seen in most cities. You won’t find a Star Bucks or McDonald’s to save your life.

It is however not a cheap place to eat or drink. Eating out was at times eye-wateringly expensive. Food in the old city tended towards Italian, with pizza being a popular choice. During the day, the bakeries sell savoury pastries and sandwiches, and this is probably the most affordable way to eat. I didn’t really see much in the way of local food promoted, so I can’t really tell what Croatian food is like.

Dubrovnik is ideally located if you want to visit other cities/countries. You can take day drips to Montenegro, or do as we did and visit Mostar in Bosnia.

Bali calling…

I use Google photos, which decided to try and depress me by sending me reminders of being in Bali.

Bali may possibly be the happiest place on earth. If sandy beaches with crystal clear waters and busy nightlife are your thing then resorts like Kuta are for you.

Personally, I prefer to go and chill out and soak up some culture.

The Balinese people are amazing, and I found them to be kind, polite and gentle. The local tradition of every home and business making small offerings each morning to give thanks is a beautiful sight, that we could all learn from. It’s like they invented mindfulness before it was co-opted by some Westerner who now makes a fortune tells us about we need to regularly show gratitude for what we have.

I prefer to travel inland to towns like Ubud. This town has a much more chilled out vibe, and is a good base travel round to visit sites like the 3 volcanoes shown above, or the breathtakingly beautiful temples.

Balinese food is fresh, delicious, and healthy. There are also plenty of Western options available if you prefer something familiar. One day cookery classes offer a great option to learn more about local ingredients, food culture, and offers the chance to meet other people (especially if you’re a solo traveler and feel like some company). You learn how to make an impressive range of dishes that you can enjoy afterwards. The local beer Bintang, is similar to Heineken and hits the spot on a hot afternoon. But a lychee Martini looking out over luscious jungle is hard to beat.

Yoga, wellbeing and spas are very popular across Bali. Prices are good, but remember that the local’s take home pay is significantly lower than in the West, so be a good guest and tip well. You will always receive good service regardless, because the Balinese are unfailingly gracious and polite, so enjoy your pampering, feeling good that you’ve recognised how hard the person pampering you works.

Spectacular St Petersburg

When an old friend suggests going to Russia, sometimes you just have to say yes.

So with newly acquired visas, a rudimentary knowledge of Russian and the Cyrillic alphabet and a couple of clean pairs of under crackers we set off. (Do your research on getting a visa, depending on the type of passport you hold it can be really straightforward, or a total faff)

St Petersburg is a riot of multi-coloured buildings

St Petersburg is like no other European city you’ve seen before.  It’s sometimes called the Venice of the North because of its canals and grand architecture.  It has buildings in every style from Rococco, Art Nouveau, traditional Russian churches and palaces, through to vast soviet monolithic mega structures. The scale of the place and buildings will take your breath away.

How it all started

Around 1703 Peter the Great decided he wanted to create a European style capital city and navy. Not one to be wait about, he hired, European, architects, scientists and engineers, and enlisted 40,000 serfs to make this happen. The results are pretty impressive.

Onion domed churches hide in little side streets

Catherine the Great and the Hermitage

Catherine the Great deposed her husband (and heir to the throne) in a military coup in 1762. She then declared herself empress and set about fancying up the existing Winter Palace which is now the state Hermitage museum.

Catherine also started a world class art collection, modernised Russia and introduced education for girls, so in fairness there was a bit more to her than being just a power hungry little minx with a penchant for interior design.

One of the entrances to the Hermitage, tradition says that it’s good luck for couples to rub the toes of these statues on their wedding day.

If your taste in art is more 20th century, then you should allow plenty of time for the galleries in the General Staff Building (across the mains square from the Hermitage Palace, but part of the same complex).  The art collection has more Picassos’, Matisses’, and Kandinskys’ than you can throw a stick at.  Honestly, it could eat and sh*t any gallery in Paris, London or New York.

Catherine the Great’s private chapel in the Hermitage

You can buy tickets online to visit the Hermitage, and I would recommend this to avoid queues at busy times. Foreigners are charged more to visit the Hermitage. In fairness most Western visitors earn more than the average Russian, so I don’t have a problem with it.

Church of the Saviour of the Spilled Blood

An other fabulous building is the Church of the Saviour of the Spilled Blood.  This might be most beautiful church I’ve ever seen. Surprisingly small inside, it’s covered in intricate mosaics that glitter in the candle light.  It’s probably what heaven is like, if it didn’t have 40 tourists invading your personal space.

Coffee and dessert at the Kupetz Eliseevs Food Hall

Honestly, the food was simple, cheap and basic with very little that jumped out, apart from one place.  On a wet evening on Nevsky Prospect, mainly to get out of the rain we stumbled into Kupetz Eliseevs Food Hall.  Think of a Russian Fortnum and Mason, but in one of the prettiest art nouveau interiors you’ll ever see.  Not especially cheap, but if you’re a foodie, you’ll love the selection they have on offer.  I could have spent hours in this place.