Saturday, January 24, 2015

Read the World - a lifelong challenge

For the first time in a long time I decided not to make any new year resolutions this year. However, I did put together a list of things I would like to accomplish during my thirties. Mind you, I didn't tell you because it happened during the months that I was far and away from blogging but I turned thirty last October. Now, that's quite an age and at the same time it's not an age at all. For me, turning thirty has been an inflection point in my life and it seemed like a good moment to stop and reflect on everything I have achieved during my twenties and look further to the things I still would like to achieve.

My list is not an especially ambitious one but you know how it goes with such lists. You begin with three or four things that have been on your mind for years and then, every time you go through it you come up with new things to add. It all started with finishing some economic courses I once enrolled in and writing a book from the first page to the very last and suddenly the list took a life of its own. Finally learning to speak Russian, really improving my programming skills and visiting at least one new country each year were only some of the things added later. Ten years is a long time but a lengthy, heavy-loaded list is a recipe for disaster, even for a decade. Or maybe that's just the procrastinator in me doing the talking ...

Some days ago I came across a wonderful travel blog, One trip at a time and I drew some inspiration from Stacey and decided to add yet another challenge to my list. Her blog is full of inspiring posts about her past trips and future travel plans. Obviously she likes loves to travel and also likes to learn more about the world one UNESCO heritage site at a time, to take photos of every place she visit and to read about those places and every other thing. And to bring all her passions together she decided to challenge herself to read at least one book somewhat related to each country in the world. What a great idea, I thought. And just like that, I decided to add that challenge to my list as well. Because I may not be able to travel the world but I can read it all the way around, right?!

As I wrote on the title of this post, this is not something I intend to do next year or even during the next ten years, though that should be more than enough time. This is a lifelong project and I'm not really going to put many restrictions on myself on that one. Probably, the only restriction is that travel guides do not count towards my goal (I know, I know, LP guides are a great read and provide content related to every country and territory in the world but they're out of the line). I will probably go often to Stacey's Read Around the World page for inspiration on what to read and I will welcome every suggestion you make in the comments on this post. Feel free to join!

Any book recommendations? Have you ever done a similar challenge?
I also like the Cook the World one (check Global Table Adventure) but for the time being I'm not thinking on doing that A to Z - gimme a week, I'm fickle like that ... but also a bit of a picky eater, anyway.

Have a lovely weekend!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The people of Dublin

I once met a photographer on a bus. His name was Neill. He was a happy chatter and talk all the way about his life here and there and how he was trying to grow his photography business now that he was back in Ireland. He had been to London and didn't like it there as people there didn't like them, the Irish folk, because of all the trouble they were causing up in the north. He had been to New York and loved it there because American people seemed very fond of Irishmen as so many Americans had Irish blood in their veins.

I once sat opposite an absent-minded middle aged man. He was wearing a sweatshirt with ripped jeans and a sleepless vest underneath. Every inch of his body seemed to be covered with tattoos - at least every inch of flesh on display. A tiger, some boxing gloves, celtic crosses and random designs. And there on the top of his hand was a rather sad tattoo. It read R.I.P. Clare. I wondered who Clare was. His gaze was lost and he seemed to be worlds away until he stood up to leave. He had this rough look to him, though, that many Dubliners have.

People in Dublin are probably some of the friendliest people in the world but they might appear rough at first sight. Especially on the weekends when they're at their most casual wearing tracksuits and a hoodie over their heads. And too often they're well built, as a result of playing rugby, gaelic football or any other form of contact sport. Women and girls, on the other hand, are mostly a fashionable bunch, thought they can often be seen with a hoodie on their heads too. During the six months I lived in Dublin I witnessed the most eclectic fashion trends take over the street. Chunky plastic platform sandals, cropped tops leaving abs and tummies al fresco for everyone to see, flower garlands on the hair - very popular in the summer, festival or not festival, and the trend survived through the autumn months taking a gothic turn with deeper shades of red and purple - pastel coloured coats and gold and glitter nearly everywhere. 

Sometimes men would also dress in glitter. One Saturday morning in June, buses were delayed because traffic was diverted in the city centre due to the Dublin Pride parade. When a bus finally appeared and I got in, I was surprised to hear a group of men singing 'I Will Survive' out loud. After singing and shouting cheerfully 'the gay bus' all the way to town, we all stepped out near O'Connell Street and I was even more surprised to see this group of grown-up men dressed up in purple sequins and pink fairy wings. The parade was already on and O'Connell Street had been taken on by dozens of rainbow flags. Crowds were all over looking and clapping hands to the music. Most people laughed and showed sympathy for the cause, though some of the elderly look confused, as if trying to figure out where all that fuss would fit in a traditionally catholic Ireland.

O'Connell Street was often the scenery of marching and protests. The pro-choice groups were quite regular there but during the last months the no-way-we-won't-pay people became more predominant. For many weeks the traffic was diverted from the city centre as people from all over Ireland came to Dublin to protest against the water tax that the Irish Government intended to introduce by the end of last year. 'No way, we won't pay', they would chant all over the way. But the water tax was introduced and papers then would fill pages with tricks and tips to bring your brand-new water bill down.

Anyway, people would always find to something to complain about in Dublin. When it was not the imminent water tax it would be the excessive rent prices or the ever there rain or the terrible Dublin buses. Chances are, if you ever stood more than ten minutes waiting for a bus, someone would start ranting about the horrible service given by those yellow buses which were always late.

Sometimes I would take the bus to town on Sunday mornings and overtime I would meet the same man at the bus stop. He seemed restless and would check the time constantly. He would always complain about buses being late and him being late once again because of the buses that never came. He would then light a cigarette only to see the bus coming and regretting not having begun that fag earlier, even if he was to throw it away only half-smoked. He would always complain and yet he was there every Sunday wearing his Manchester United tracksuit bottoms.

Image source: - artwork by Grainne Tynan

Have a lovely Wednesday!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Photowalk: Basel Old Town

Basel is a rather quiet city and maybe that's one of the reasons why the historical city centre blends so well with modern buildings in newer neighbourhoods. The history of Basel dates back to the days of the Roman Empire when a town began to form right where the Münster or Cathedral lies today. Through the upheavals of history the town continued to grow and bloomed during the late Middle Ages. The area between the Spalentor - one of the few surviving gates of the city walls - the Münster was and still is the heart of the city and it still retains most of its historical charm. 

Tuesday was a sunny day, strangely warm for the middle of January, and I decided it was the kind of perfect day to go out with my camera and take some photos of Basel ol' town. Starting at the Spalentor I followed one alley after another admiring the beautiful details on the old houses and fountains. Coloured windows, frescoed facades and cobbled steep streets led me to the Marktplatzt, the most centric square in Basel with a cute tiny market and the stunning town hall. The elegant vermillion building has dominated the Marktplatzt for centuries and if there were a list of the most beautiful town halls in the world, Basel's own town hall would make it in for sure. After a little detour to take some pics of the Rhein from the Mittlere Brücke, I took another picturesque alley to the Münsterplatzt. With the Rhein river to the left and a long string of well kept old houses to the right, the steep street offers some beautiful sights that probably still resemble Basel a few centuries ago, just like the spacious Münsterplatzt. Up there, the Münster crowns the city with its reddish towers that soar up to the sky.

Basel is definitely a beautiful city and one of those hidden gems in Europe. Calm and small, sometimes it feels as if time here had stood still and nothing had changed in the last 400 or 500 years. truth is, many parts of it probably have but the restoration works have been so carefully and precisely done that most buildings in the old town maintain their good ol' looks and flavour. Just take a look yourself!

Spalentor Basel

Spalentor Basel




Rathaus Basel

Rathaus Basel

Rathaus Basel



Muenster Cathedral Basel

Muenster Cathedral Basel

Muenster Cathedral Basel


Have you ever been to Basel? Or any other underrated place with a picture-perfect city centre?

Have a lovely Thursday!

Monday, January 12, 2015

A day at the coast: Howth

Overall I'm quite satisfied with my short stay in Dublin but if there's one thing I regret about having left so unexpectedly early is not having seen more of Ireland. I know six months is not that much time but looking back I always have the feeling that I could have done and seen more. Anyway, that's life and I wasn't feeling my best during the last three months I spent in Dublin, so I often preferred to take a quiet stroll around good ol' Dublin or simply to stay at home. But even then, I still ventured outside Dublin for a couple of weekends and still have a couple of stories to tell you.

Howth Ireland

One sunny Sunday morning back in September I decided to explore the north coast of Dublin a bit. Howth is probably one of the most popular coastal towns in County Dublin. Located on the peninsula of the same name, the town goes upwards steep streets that culminate in Howth Summit, a hill with superb views over the ocean and the Irish coast. Beneath, by the harbour, the pier promenade is mostly taken by tourists during the summer weekends and fish eateries and fishmonger's abound, offering the best fish in the city, according to some locals.

I took a bus on the city centre and though it wasn't too late, the bus was already crammed with tourists looking forward to a summery day by the sea. The ride was rather long but the last part was specially rewarding as the bus drove along the sea and the sand stretches of North Bull Island. Even from the distance it was easy to distinguish many birds that were on the island. The bus got to Howth and made it through the busy Harbour Road and then continued up to Howth Summit. I stepped off the bus and made my way to the summit.

Howth Ireland

Howth Ireland

Howth Ireland

Howth Ireland

Howth Summit is crisscrossed by many walking paths and on a beautiful day like that it is full of families stretching their legs while enjoying the sunshine and the views and adventurous people taking the most risky ways along the coastline (not for the faint-hearted!). I walked a bit up and then down and got as close to the edgy paths as I dared. Mind you, I was wearing ballet flats and not proper walking shoes so needless to say I didn't get far but enough to breathe in the sea breeze and take a closer look at the stunning Irish coast with the lonely Baily Lighthouse owning the sea.

I retreated my steps and walked down the hill until I got back to the village. I passed by some picturesque streets lined with traditional pubs and shops and eventually got to the crowded Harbour Road. Many people were already queueing for a fish and chips and even more people were roaming at the local Farmer's Market. Tucked in an inner yard, the Farmer's Market is rather unassuming, despite the signals advertising it. On a busy day like that, it was difficult to find the way in those narrow alleys. The market has a lovely variety of produce and also some craft goods and some of the eateries looked really appetising. But I had only one thing on my mind. Fish and chips.

Howth Summit

Howth Baily Lighthouse

Howth Ireland

Howth Lighthouse

The rest of the day was rather quite, just walking along the piers and enjoying the sunshine sitting on the grass. If you wonder why so many people boast about this little coastal town north of Dublin, here are three great reasons to take the bus or the DART and head to Howth if you have some spare time and nice-looking weather.

The views from Howth summit. As I wrote before, the views from the top of this hill on a clear day are simply stunning. Howth Summit is a gorgeous scape to the nature only 16 Km away from Dublin and it offers many hiking and biking possibilities.

Howth Baily Lighthouse

Eye of Ireland

The best fish and chips in Dublin. Beshoff Bros has several brands in Dublin but everyone agrees that the finest fish and chips is that served in Howth. I had a generous portion of hake with chips and it was indeed delicious.

Beshoff Bros Dublin
This photo was actually taken at the Beshoff Bros in O'Connell St but it was just as delicious as the one in Howth

The sea lions that hang around the harbour. During the warm summer months a colony of sea lions make the pier of Howth their home and entertain children and adults alike when they show off among the small boats and yachts.

Howth sea lions

Howth sea lions

How to get there:

Take buses 31 or 31A from Lower Abbey St or take the DART to Howth Station.

Where to eat:

Beshoff Bros - 12 Harbour Road, Howth

Aqua Restaurant - 1 West Pier, Howth  
(I ate here once during my first visit to Dublin a year ago and I can only recommend it. Dishes were very tasty and prices quite affordable. I had an open crab sandwich with a carrot soup all for €9.95 and even treated myself to a dessert and went for an Eton Mess. Delicious!)

Have a lovely week!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Finding the perfect scone in Dublin

Savouring a scone accompanied by a cup of tea was probably my most guilty pleasure in Dublin. Those little pastries, hard and soft at the same time, both savoury and sweet are just the perfect treat on any occasion. Add some jam and cream on top and it becomes a heavenly experience.

Too often when I didn't have anything to do in the weekend I would just walk around town looking for yet another cosy place serving the best scones with tea in Dublin. I just loved spending some time people watching with a warm cuppa on my hands and a gorgeous scone on my plate waiting to be devoured. So, if you're ever in Dublin and want to treat yourself to a delightful scone, here are some suggestions - all tried and taste tested by me.

Queen of Tarts - Cows Lane, Dame St and Cork Hill, Dame St

Oh, where do I start. Queen of Tarts was probably my favourite café in Dublin. I will tell you more about it in the near future but for now I'll just tell you that it had some of the very best scones in town and tea was lovely served in vintage china. It is a very popular place and scones sometimes sell out fast, thus variety is limited in the late afternoons.

Bewley's Grafton Street Café - 78/79 Grafton St

Despite my love for the Queen of Tarts, I have to say that if you only go to one place in this list make it the Bewley's in Grafton Street. Bewley's is a true institution in Dublin and Ireland. Founded in the 19th century, it has spread with many other coffee places in Dublin and their own brand of coffee and tea. My office was actually beside the Bewley's factory and some days a dense smell of chocolate inundated the air. In those days walking out of the office felt like walking into Willy Wonka's factory. Anyway, I'm digressing in here. Go to the Bewley's on Grafton Street, the authentic and original one. You may have to queue for some ten minutes but once you're sit, take you're time and enjoy yourself. Every room in the café is lovely, some of them with very decadent armchairs and most decorated with fine stained glass panels by Henry Clarke.

Clement & Pekoe - 50 South William St

Clement & Pekoe is the kind of tea room for cool people. With long communal tables and a somber atmosphere, it is always crowded and the cool people of Dublin are queueing outside. I didn't go often here but I can tell you that their scones were, well, delicious. The first time I went round happened to be a Tuesday and they had a Tuesday special offering a scone and cup of tea for only €3.75 - a real bargain for a pricey city like Dublin.

The Oval - 78 Middle Abbey St

Keeping up with the bargains, I was drawn to The Oval when I saw their advertising of scone plus tea for only €3. This is probably the best value for your money option. You get a delicious warm scone, complete with butter, jam and cream and a pot of tea all for yourself. 

The Oval is actually a pub and it gets really crowded during the gaelic sports season, so getting a scone or a sit can be tricky on any September weekend when the All Ireland finals are on. Just like many other Dublin pubs, The Oval is packed with people sporting scarves and hats with the colours of the county they support. On those days you may not get a scone but you can enjoy a beer with a cheerful group of Irish people and learn something about gaelic football or hurling.

The Traditional Craft Bakery - 34 Lower Liffey St

The Traditional Craft Bakery is a small place which bakes beautiful cakes for all sort of celebrations. But they also have bread, sweet treats and all kind of sandwiches. And very competitive prices. This is definitely the place to go if you're on a budget as you can get a cup of tea or coffee with a scone for only €1.95 - nowhere else in Dublin will you find a cheaper deal. You can order to take away or stay there for a while. While their high stools may not be the most comfortable seats in the world, the place is nice enough to take a quick break between all your sightseeing. I really like the simple graphic paintings on the walls.

I guess that if you're not an avid tea drinker like me a cup of coffee will do as well and most of the previous offers were actually applicable to a cup of tea or coffee, though I've totally skipped the caffeine bit. Now, if you excuse me, I'm off to look for some scone recipes to try a recreate the flavours of Ireland in my kitchen this weekend - let me know if you have a good recipe to share!

Have a lovely Thursday!

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