Tag Archives: travel list

Honk Honk Hong Kong: Day 5 – Lantau

With the exception of some chronic sneezing and my back aching to the point that over the counter pills aren’t touching it tonight, today has been my first full day on vacation where my body hasn’t tried to completely shut me down. Oh how low the bar has been lowered.
Since things aren’t improving, more staying the same than improving, we swapped some things around today so that our trip out to Lantau got moved up. At least then, if things descend further before Sunday’s election, we’ve seen the main things on the list and we can skip town early with full insurance backing.

Skipping through some public transport stuff, including the pretty damaged Tung Chung station, and the fact that neither of us set an alarm so it was all hands on deck at 9:45 this morning, we started our day by riding the Ngong Ping 360 Cable Car. This appears to have been the first operational day for a while, so we lucked out there.

The trip is surprisingly long for a cable car, then again it’s taking you a distance of over 5.5 kilometres and you get to see just how green this stunning island is. Also, you get the chance to see Hong Kong International Airport from the air – which is cool and unique. Regrettably we didn’t have the carriage to ourselves, but we were all just crossing over each other to take pictures anyway.

At the end of the ride is Ngong Ping Village – a purpose built area with shops and restaurants that has been done in a traditional Chinese architectural style. It’s a bit cheesy, but I really love stuff like this – especially at the end where they piped music in. Just revs up the magic a little bit.

Breakfast (well, lunch at that point) was finally a chance to have some Chinese style roasted meats. I went for the roasted goose, as you never see that in the UK, whilst my husband went for the more traditional pork. Since we were going to be climbing up the Buddha’s steps soon, a good meal made sense unless my body tried to have me faint again.

We walked past the signs warning us of feral cattle, as well as a feral cow peacefully snoozing, to reach Po Lin Monastery – one of the three things that we wanted to do whilst at altitude. This is the kind of structure I was hoping for with the Chi Lin Nunnery, but I’m glad that I got it here.

The main altar building with the three golden statues and the beautiful ceiling paintings were beautiful, equalled by the impressive carved stone columns and reliefs on the outside.

Next door to this was the larger Grand Hall of Ten Thousand Buddhas, which was only completed a few years ago. I love these types of rooms just to see how they go about reaching the number of Buddhas in one space. Here they did something really cool by having the room tiled, where each tile was like a little ceramic statue of Buddha. It’s a far more efficient approach than the first room of this type that I saw back in Singapore, where it was individual miniature statues.

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 93/100Sight: Tian Tan Buddha
Location: Hong Kong
Position: #331

Big ticket item time. The Tian Tan Buddha, also known locally as the Big Buddha, with his 268 steps of thigh burn that I managed to do in one go because I was filled with the power of roast goose. It’s a lot of steps, but this stunning work of bronze really is something that you want to get close to. The level of detail and the serenity of the expression are something else when you get near the top. Also, this is the first time I’ve really seen one of these gigantic religious statues and that’ll always make the Tian Tin visit a special one.

A slower walk down, to try and take photos that showed off his awesomeness whilst fighting the extremely bright November sun, led us off to the final thing we wanted to do whilst up here – the Wisdom Path.

Reading online, I think we both thought this was some medium length hike with some large wooden planks with Chinese characters carved in. Well, we were half right. The walk itself is a small figure of eight path on an incline. It’s nice enough to do, but the walk there was probably more what we were looking for – especially as it gave us time with the mountain’s many butterflies.

Some slightly overpriced ice cream and a bus ride later and we got to the village of Tai O. There’s two real reasons to come here: one is see the traditional pole supported houses of the fishermen, the other is to try and see some pink dolphins. Both of these can be done for the low price of 30HKD as part of a half hour speedboat ride. We didn’t luck out with the dolphins, but the ride was really cool.

I didn’t really feel the need to buy anything fish-related, although I was close to considering some hanging little pufferfish before I quickly realised that these were real dried pufferfish with googly eyes in rather than something strictly man made. We did buy some gorgeously crispy chocolate flavoured egg waffle balls before boarding a wonderfully scenic bus down to the village of Mui Wo.

Seriously, for some of the views, this bus was worth doing just for the sake of doing it.
At Mui Wo our mission was simple, head for Silvermine Bay Beach and watch the world go by for a bit before boarding the ferry back to Central. So that’s what we did. Made a canine friend and enjoyed some peaceful time in lovely off-tourist season surroundings. Would have been nice to stay for a while longer, but it was already getting on a bit and by the time we boarded the ferry it had already gone completely dark.

Back on Hong Kong Island, I found a local restaurant on OpenRice that had good word of mouth and would give us the chance to have some Chinese cuisine in a more upmarket setting. There was so much on the menu that we ended up going with things on their ‘specialities’ section just to help narrow down the choice. As much as I enjoyed our soup, Beggar’s chicken and the lovely ribs – part of me does wonder what might have been. Excellent meal though so shan’t complain too much.

So that’s the end of another day and tomorrow will be the first of two theme park days. Have to say that, my aching back aside, I am so looking forward to some levity and some walruses. Should be a great one.

Honk Honk Hong Kong: Day 3 – The Peak and Hong Kong Island

After last night’s fever broke I woke up feeling heaps better than the night before, but still tired to the point of not wanting to get up. Still got the headache and a bit of fever, but nothing some ibuprofen couldn’t fix.

Anyway, we started with a trip on the double decker tram, which I think I love so much because of the absurdity (I mean look at them, it’s like they could tip over at any time) and the breeze you get on the top deck. Then it was time for a trip on another tram – the famous Peak Tram which is actually more of a funicular with a tram winched on. So cool to go up and then down on, especially when it hits the maximum incline of 48%, which feels a lot steeper than it sounds. Also some great views as you head up.

Since I hadn’t eaten anything since lunch yesterday I was famished. Nothing that a pre-brunch snack of a Hong Kong egg waffle with strawberry ice cream wouldn’t be able to satisfy. I know it looks absurd, but this was exactly what I needed, so brought it with me as we went to the free Lion lookout.

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 92/100Sight: The Peak
Location: Hong Kong
Position: #117

I don’t think any view in Hong Kong City can beat the views you get from up here. It is beyond spectacular, even if an American tourist next to me was less than impressed. I mean, come on this view is free (if you climbed) and it’s utterly breathtaking. Idiot.

We mooched around here for a while taking in all the free views we could. There is a 360 platform higher up the Peak Tower, but we’ve planned to return at some point in the evening to get some night views so the city looks like one of those light up Christmas villages.

For a proper brunch we went inside the tram terminus building and had something that made my dieting voice scream with despair. This is Hong Kong style French toast – which is like a fried peanut butter sandwich. To be honest, I couldn’t finish it because it was a bit much but wow if this isn’t a decadent little thing that can set you up for a day of walking I don’t know what is.

After getting some souvenirs in the cheap market area, we went back down the tram, this time on the right-hand side so I can get some pictures and enjoy the view as we went down. Going down this incline is a bit strange as its like you are falling slowly in a controlled fashion. This thing really is a mechanical marvel.

Next stop Hong Kong Park, which is free and brilliant. Started with the aviary which, sadly had maintenance works so you couldn’t walk on the ground level, just the elevated walkway. Made friends with a myna bird and so some beautiful emerald doves and a sleepy silver pheasant. My hub, who is afraid of birds, was an absolute star.

Nearby were the caged birds, which were mostly endangered – probably why in cages rather than in the main aviary where people could be dicks and potentially harm them. It’s probably reasons like this that we don’t have free aviaries in the UK. I mean, we are a country that have warning signs about feeding squirrels aspirin – so we can’t be trusted with free birds.

After climbing the lookout tower we went to the section where all the office workers appear to gather. This is where the artificial lake, fountain plaza and waterfalls can be found. I mean, if you work in Central this is a perfect place to bring you lunch and find some calm.

Then we went to the conservatory, which I learned was a fancy word for inside garden, rather than just a place the upper class in Cluedo take tea before being beaten to death with a lead pipe. It’s sweet in here with the little statues and arrangements. Reminds me of the latter ones that we came across in Taipei.

A short walk from Hong Kong Park are the, again free, Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens. Aside from the exhibits here, there were masses of butterflies. I don’t think I have ever seen such a dense population of butterflies outside of an enclosed butterfly garden. It was one of those things where you just wanted to keep watching as these little delicate insects flitted about and ate their nectar.

We didn’t spend a huge amount of time here, again improvement works, but the main things to see here are the monkeys and the monkey adjacent animals (like lemurs and tamarins). They also have orang-utans which, whilst not in as huge an enclosure as in Singapore, still had decent space. Especially for a free urban zoo. There were also some meerkats… but only two. Makes you wonder what happened to the other ones.

After exiting the park we walked around to find an entrance on the Central-Mid-Levels Escalator system. These, essentially, are a long system of escalators that connect the higher elevated mid-levels of Hong Kong Island to Central at sea level. It’s primarily a commuting route (which is why the escalators reverse direction after morning rush hour). It’s one of those things that’s weirdly fun to explore, even if we did have to walk down the stairs most of the way to get to the next stop.

That stop would be the Man Mo temple. Before coming to Hong Kong I hadn’t been to too many Taoist temples, and now I’m really wracking up the numbers. This is one of the oldest temples of any denomination within Hong Kong. It’s small but, with three rooms, it’s actually cosy and has an inclusive feeling. Like the Taoist temple yesterday, there was a thick cloud of incense smoke, which I am beginning to assume is part of the ritual.

Next was lunch in the Michelin Guide recommended restaurant Tsim Chai Kee Noodle Shop. I saw a tip for this on a TripAdvisor thread about how safe it was to be a tourist in Hong Kong considering the police violence and was not disappointed. We went for the triple toppings noodles which was wontons, beef strips and a massive fish ball. This is the best food I have had in Hong Kong so far and I really wish I’d paid for an additional bowl.

Since we were in the broad area, we then walked over to the Western Market. This is an Edwardian building which houses cloth and other stores inside. It’s one of those stops where you admire the architecture rather than to buy anything. Definitely worth just stopping by for a bit when in the area.

To avoid some possible trouble indicated on Telegraph, as there was potential issues in Central, we rode on the MTR underneath the troubles and made it to Victoria Park. Again some improvement works blocked bits off, but it was nice enough park, some topiaires and a small pool for floating model boats. I guess that, after Hong Kong Park, I was honestly expecting more from it but it was perfect to have a can of Coca Cola Plus (drink of the holiday) and just chill in the late afternoon.

A nice thing to do near here, is to cross one of the bridges over to Causeway Bay. It’s a good place to get some photos across the bay from a more easterly point of view and be near some of the docked boats that you see floating out there.

Then something happened that was super embarrassing. En route to our final stop of the day I basically fainted coming out of the subway carriage. As in I nearly fainted in a rush hour MTR train, but found enough strength to leave and fold like a deck chair. My poor husband, we’d hoped that last night was the end of me feeling ill.

I gathered myself and pressed on as we only had one more place to visit: the Hong Kong Observation Wheel. I mean, it nearly happened again in the queue, so kept sitting on the poles in order to stop myself from fainting… this was not a good hour for me. We managed to get free tickets onto the wheel as part of a promotion and, as it wasn’t too busy, we got to go around four times and enjoy the nighttime views.

After nearly fainting twice, time to listen to my body and get dinner. I needed the calories and thought the best thing would be a burger place that had been making my mouth water when we walked past it on our first night. They were not kidding with a name like Burger Joys. This double cheeseburger and garlic fries was exactly what the fake doctor ordered.

Tomorrow, it’s time for our trip across the border to Macau. I’m super excited to see how this turns out and have no real idea what to expect. A bit of an early start though, but I can always sleep on the boat if needed.

Two Weeks in South Korea: Day 14 – Final Day In South Korea

So here it is, the last full day in South Korea. As my husband packs in the background I’m hoping that he’s going to suddenly surprise me with a train ticket to Daegu or Gangneung and say that I’ve been mistaken and we have a few more days, but the hopes of that are fading fast.

As with a lot of our holidays, this final day in Seoul is a bit of a grab bag of things that we wanted to do but could not fit in on other days. It’s meant a mixture of a lot of walking and some sudden long trips on the metro, but it’s good to say that we’ve pretty much seen everything that we thought we would try to fit into our four full days. There’s more than enough left on the planning room floor if there is to be a future visit to Seoul, but for now I’m happy how we got through things.

To start the day, we went to the final place on our Korean palace ticket that we did not have time to do cross off yesterday – the Jongmyo Shrine. This is the only place on the ticket where a tour is mandatory and, for English speakers, there is one of these every two hours. The reason behind this is that Jongmyo Shrine is essentially the nation’s spiritual shrine. It’s the place where the spirits of the Joseon kings and queens are venerated and where the ancestral rituals take place, so you can’t just have hundreds of unchecked people running around.

As with the other tours we’ve had, the tour guide was excellent and was really able to get across the spiritual importance of the place with a smile. The tour itself can’t show you the insides of the two main buildings, because that’s where the spirit tablets of the monarchs are held, but a room is set up so you can get an idea.

The main building, known as the Jeongjeon, is where the spirit tablets of 19 kings and their key wives are held inside. It’s also one of those buildings that you just cannot photograph well because it is just so very long and impressive. The look is quite simple, as it is meant to be a solemn place, but there is no denying the impact.

You also have the Yeongyeongjeon, which is similar to Jeongjeon but narrower and the spirit tablets held inside are of short-reigning kings and some royal ancestors. It is still a very long, impressive and hard to photograph building. It also feels a bit savage that kings who had a short reign, possibly due to illness, are relegated to here because they don’t have recognised achievements.

Continuing the theme of calm in a major city, we wandered south from the shrine and through some streets where the only thing they sold were light fixtures and accessories (because sure) and down the stairs so we could walk along the Cheongyecheon stream. Opened in 2005, this stream cuts through downtown Seoul and is this amazing refuge of nature that adds so much green and provides a stress and traffic-free way to walk nearly 11km across town.

This stretch doesn’t just contain a stream and some trees, but there are waterfalls and art pieces as well. I really wish that there was something like this in London in the non-rich areas that also had water so clean that carp can swim in it. Still though, it was lovely to go there now and use it as a path between different areas.

So that brings me neatly onto Insadong. So many places online talked about this being the perfect place to go in order to purchase souvenirs, and that would definitely be accurate. Problem is, I’ve pretty much bought all the souvenirs that I can conceivably fit into a suitcase. Didn’t stop us from buying a couple of t-shirts and me recoiling in terror in what my size would be here in Korea. What can I say, UK sizes are far more forgiving and I am six inches taller than the average South Korean.

From here, we walked a fair bit so that we could wander through the Bukchon hanok village. This is the third hanok village (an area containing traditional hanok housing), the others being in Jeonju and Gyeonju. Being that this is just outside of downtown Seoul, the entrance to the area still feels very city like and very few buildings are actually in the hanok style (although thankfully one of them sold hotteoks, so I was able to have a snack).

Further into the walk, however, the sound begins to melt away and the percentage of houses in the hanok style begins to increase. It never quite reaches the level as Jeonju, but that’s because people still live here and the walk is taking you through a residential area. A beautiful residential area, but a residential area nonetheless. Makes for some wonderful photos though, especially when you get to the higher ground and get a good look around you.

It was back to base for some snacks and to drop off my new t-shirt before making the walk to the Namsan cable car and heading up the mountain that so dominated the Seoul skyline. Why? Well, the final Lonely Planet entry is here.

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 91/100Sight: N Seoul Tower
Location: Seoul, South Korea
Position: #342

I have yet to find a place in main Seoul where you can’t catch a glimpse of N Seoul Tower. The tower itself isn’t too tall, but it sure has one hell of a natural vantage point. The area around the base of the tower already has a great number of views and, for some reason, the most love-locks that I have ever seen. I mean, they encourage it by selling them at £10 a pop from a lovelock vending machine, but they have whole shrub-like structures of them. Still though, managed to find a gay one – hope they’re still together.

The journey up the tower takes 7 seconds and, since it was Halloween, the music at the top appeared to be ‘Thriller’ and the Ghostbusters theme on a loop. Also, continuing the Halloween theme, the pre-elevator had this long tunnel with star-like lights and tissue paper ghosts hanging from the ceiling. It might have taken all my need to suppress the giggles I wanted to unleash.

As you would expect, the view that you get from the observation deck is stunning. Like our time at the top of the Montparnasse Tower in Paris, we were constantly roaming around the observation deck to see how many places we could see that we actually visited. We could even see our hotel building from up there, which was a first. Being up here really shows just how beautiful a city Seoul is and how stunning the rivers and mountains that the city nestles in are. Since we got here earlier than expected, we’d have had to wait over an hour before the sun started to set, so we said our goodbyes to the scenery, made our way down via the cable car and headed to Yeouido.

The reason that we came to Yeouido was for the World Night Market, which is one of the Bamdokkaebi (meaning “night goblin”) night markets that are run in various parts of the city on weekend nights. Before getting there, however, I found myself bewitched by being on the riverbank in Seoul for the first time after dark and seeing the buildings all lit up. Not the first time I just drifted off from my husband without saying a word, surely won’t be the last either.

We eventually made it to the World Night Market, and they weren’t kidding about the title. There were so many great looking stalls here that it made it hard to make a decision, but I knew I wanted to leave room in case I came across a final Korean fried chicken stand later on.

So, shared between us, we ended up with some sweet and sour pork, takoyaki – cheese flavour and a pork banh mi. All delicious and, as I write this, I just realised that they were all Asian which was actually unintended. This market also had some delicious looking pizza on offer and massive seasoned turkey legs, but I choose my choice and would do so again.

Time to make our way to our final destination of the evening: Banpo bridge. This bridge, which is near some beautifully lit-up buildings on manmade islands, does
a three-times nightly show which is a simple and soothing take on dancing fountains. There’s nothing too flashy here other than the world longest bridge fountain with hundreds of water jets and LEDs that change colour. The movements are gentle and hypnotic, which really did make for a lovely ending to the day.

Oh, but what’s that across the road from the viewing area of the bridge? Why it’s another of the Bamdokkaebi night market that we came across completely by accident? I found out later that this particular one is called the Banpo Romantic Moonlight Market and, given the setting with all the riverside seating, that’s really the perfect name. It also means that I got my final pot of Korean fried chicken and ate it looking on the Han River and the lit up buildings.

And that’s that for my time in South Korea. It’s been two truly incredible weeks and I have no doubt that I am going to be making it back here, hopefully for the 2030 World Expo in Busan where so much will have changed that it’ll like being there for the first time. I also expect the number of western tourists is going to be a lot higher in a decade’s time, which will be an adjustment.

Just going to finish off with a big thanks to all the Korean people. Sure I’ve seen kids throw gravel at each other in a subway and there was that one guy who openly moved to another section of the airport seating in Jeju as U.S. foreigners sat next to him, but nearly all of my interactions have been incredibly positive. So thank you for having us and for making us feel like welcome guests in your wonderful country. It’s going to be so hard to leave tomorrow.

Two Weeks in South Korea: Day 13 – The Royal Palaces of Seoul

Well, today was very close to taking the title of most steps walked on this holiday, clocking in at over 38k. Actually, it’s only second – the most steps, unsurprisingly, occurring when we climbed Hallasan last week. I’m kinda amazed that there’s still this much left in these legs, but boy am I glad.

Today the aim was simple, to see the Royal Palaces of Seoul. There are four main ones to see and you can see all of them (plus a shrine that we’re seeing tomorrow) for less than £7. It’s amazing value for money and we are sure going to make the best use of this. Just a note before continuing, best efforts have been made to get the spellings of these long names correct.

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 90/100Sight: Changdeokgung Palace
Location: Seoul, South Korea
Position: #194

Right, so we started our day at Changdeokgung Palace. This is probably the second most popular of the four, but it’s the one on the Lonely Planet list AND it features a garden section that is usually tour-only – so we tried to ensure that we were there on time to get as early as tour as possible, which is what we did.

 

This was the main palace of the Korean royal family for nearly three centuries, which explains the large area that the palace complex encompasses. The most impressive room, as with all the palaces, is the throne room where all the history I have on-boarded in the last two weeks began to recognise elements (like the 5 mountain peaks on the backdrop), which was cool.

As we were here fairly early, there was no issue roaming around taking pictures of the buildings other than constantly bumping into the same French tour group at semi-random intervals.

Then we got to the main event of this palace, a tour of the Secret Garden given by a wonderfully sarcastic and sassy Korean tour guide. This area makes up the majority of Changdeokgung and the whole thing has been built following the natural layout of the landscape. This means that there are a fair share of ups and downs as you walk around, which turns it into a number of smaller gardens that are perfectly landscaped.

This really was a beautiful place to walk through with the ponds, streams, pavilions and other buildings working in harmony with the foliage. The tour also included a walk through a gate that was so labelled that walking through it will mean you don’t grow old. So fingers crossed guys.

Next door to Changdeokgung is the next palace, the similarly named Changgyeonggung Palace. This palace was originally built as a place for the first Joseon king to retire to after he passed on the role of king to his successor. As a palace to visit, it’s a bit of an odd one as so much of the original buildings were demolished in the early 20th century by the Japanese who turned parts of it into a zoo and removed it’s status of being a royal palace.

Like Changdeokgung next door, Changgyeonggung has a large section devoted to gardens, including a rather sizeable greenhouse. This was also the only palace where I saw wild animals, well if you can include feral cats into that label. As you wander around you’ll also find an old observatory that would have been kitted out with astronomical instruments of the time.

The main throne room, known as Myeongjeong-jeon Hall, is like a scaled down version of the throne room I saw in the previous palace, down to the decoration used on the ceiling which includes two golden flying figures and a lot of flowers.

I’m going to skip ahead a bit from here to lunch which was at the Tongin Market. They have a interesting quirk here, in that you can pay just over £3 to get a pile of 10 tokens that you use to pay for food in the market itself. Things typically cost 2 or 3 tokens, but some things did go as high as 5.

The hub and I worked together and so we shared a whole bunch of different foods including: Korean sausage (or sundae), japchae, fried chicken, rib meat and some tteokbokki. If one of these suddenly popped up near where I worked, I don’t think I would ever get my lunch anywhere else. The value for money is astonishing and I wish that we’d clubbed together to get two of those hotteoks now.

We took a bit of a detour on the way to the next palace which meant we got to see the Blue House – the official residence of the South Korean president. The setting, with that mountain in the background looks so idyllic. Then I remembered the story our tour guide told us yesterday about how North Korean assassins hid in the woods on that mountain behind the Blue House as they failed in their attempt to kill the then president. Still though, it’s pretty damned beautiful.

Not too far from the Blue House, is the main visited palace in Seoul. Gyeongbokgung was the main palace for the Joseon Dynasty back when it was built in 1395 and, like so many things, was burned down by Japanese invaders, restored and then demolished (again, by Japanese invaders) and then restored in modern times. The restoration project is still ongoing, with one building that we saw having been rebuilt but now is awaiting ornamentation. There are so many beautifully restored buildings in the Gyeongbokgung area (a lot of them having been designated as National Treasures), but there’s two buildings that were breathtaking.

The first of these that we saw was the Gyeonghoeru Pavillion. It stands just off-centre in a large pond, where it just looks like it has been tethered to the side and is ready to float out at any moment. The pictures really don’t do it justice as there are no people for scale, but it’s big. But not as big as the other beautiful building.

This is Geunjeongjeon Hall. Rebuilt as part of the late 19th century restoration work, this behemoth of a building is likely to be the largest Korean throne room that I will ever see. Also the busiest, with people swarming at the front to get a good look inside there are as others in rented traditional costume pose for photos on the steps.

We had a good look around all the buildings at Gyeongbokgung before leaving via the exit that takes you to the National Folk Museum of Korea. We didn’t look inside, but instead we came that way so I could get a good look at the tall pavilion building that I kept seeing on the horizon. Maybe next time we’re in Korea, we might go inside.

Next was a bit of a walk away, but as it worked well last time, it was time to visit one of the temples that I put on the to do list. We weren’t disappointed and, again, felt like we got very lucky.

This is Jogyesa Temple and they like to decorate their grounds with seasonal flowers. Since it is October-November time, everything has been decorated with many many different colours of chrysanthemums. In some areas, the fragrance from the flowers was really quite lovely and helped to create such a welcoming atmosphere at the temple.

There were so many flower-covered sculptures that it was easy to forget that we were to see a temple. Like many other temples, you are asked to not take pictures when standing inside, but outside from a distance seemed fine enough. Inside the temple itself are three large golden Buddha statues which looked beautiful in the warm light provided by the candles. I’d love to come back here when they are celebrating a different flower, as I’m curious what they did previous when they decorated everything with lotuses.

This then left us with our final palace – the Deoksugung Palace. This is the more unusual of the palaces for two reasons. Firstly, the grounds of the temple includes a number of modern art installations that really contrast with the older style buildings.

The other weird thing, is how modern western things were included as the penultimate king of Korea (who was also the first emperor) liked them. This means that rooms actually have electric lights and he built, as his sleeping quarters, something in a European style right down to the columns. It’s another weird contrast, especially as this is liable to be the only time I see a traditional looking Korean palace building and a western style building next door to each other, within the same palace walls.

By the time we’d finished with Deoksugung Palace, the sun was setting and it was dinner time. Since we had time before our final activity, we found a Korean barbecue place in Myeongdong and had some rather delicious barbecued pork and mushroom. I really need to find a good Korean barbecue place when I am back in London as I feel like I need to try it with beef and some more vegetables.

And that leaves me with our final stop of the day – the Nanta theatre in Myeongdong. Nanta is the longest running show currently in South Korea and is what happens when you take Stomp and set it in a kitchen. I don’t know if I’ve enjoyed myself in the theatre this much for a long time. It was a great mix of music, circus tricks and humour that meant you were never too far away from clapping. The fact that it’s mostly non-verbal made it even better and explains why a lot of people in the audience were tourists. This is definitely something I’ll be recommending.

Tomorrow is the last full day in South Korea. I really don’t want to believe it. As much as I do miss my own bed and a lazy evening just watching some television, I am feeling so sad to be going. Plans are being made for a future visit, I know, and so I am just going to try and be in the moment and enjoy a day made up of miscellaneous things that we couldn’t fit elsewhere.

Two Weeks in South Korea: Day 12 – A Day of Contrast

I think that today might go down as one of the more weirdly contrasting activities day that I have done on a holiday. I’m certainly struggling to think of another off the top of my head. It’s one of those interesting days that can only happen when you have a massive to see list and you end up playing Time Tetris and seeing what combinations work. Also helps if you’re staying in a city where such varied activities are available.

Prior to today, the same evening we found out another the Korail strike actually, we received an email from the tour company that we booked with that the DMZ was just closed because of an outbreak of African Swine Flu. We were later told that, depending on the severity, this might stay closed for up to a year. However, they had an opening on another tour to the Military Demarkation Line (MDL), so we jumped on that.

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 88/100Sight: North Korea’s DMZ
Location: South Korea
Position: #195

Right, so I know that this isn’t 100% what was meant when this was added to the Lonely Planet list, but I believe that I’ve completed it in terms of the spirit of its inclusion. So, what did we do?

After an hours trip out of Seoul, where our excellent tour guide gave an in depth recap of the situation between the two Koreas and of the developments in the last few years, we arrived at Imjingak. On the way, we managed to catch our first glimpse of North Korea from the window of the coach as we drove along the river. That alone was surreal, but to be at Imjingak and see the remains of the semi-destroyed Freedom Bridge (where prisoners of war were exchanged in the Korean War) firmly put more of a human element to the stories.

Also at Imjingak were a train and railway line, both destroyed during the Korean War and now sat there as a symbol of the severed connection between two nations that had been joined for a millennium. There was also an alter to allow Koreans separated from their family members or hometowns in the north to perform Confucian rites that they are unable to complete normally.

From here we went to Odu Mountain Unification Observatory, which allows you to see an actual North Korean village over the border. The observatory itself stands on a mountain that overlooks an are where rivers from both North and South Korea converge before heading out to sea – quite a metaphor in that. Using the binoculars there you can see the village in closer detail including a Kim Jong Il memorial and houses, some with incomplete roofs. However, it was clear enough that I saw something I didn’t quite bargain.

People. The weather was good enough that we could see actual North Koreans walking down the roads going about their lives. The whole thing really did have the threat of feeling like an exercise in anthropology, but seeing those North Koreans walking the roads of the farmland made all of this ridiculously real. Not that it didn’t since I’ve been in South Korea for nearly a fortnight, but suddenly North Korea was less an abstraction and more flesh, blood and earth. Gave me a lot to think about on the ride home.

Our final stop on the tour was at the Korea War Museum and, by extension, the War Memorial of Korea. I think that if our tour guide hadn’t been so thorough in her explanations, and that we hadn’t already learned about the previous wars in Korea thanks to visits to Gyeongju and the National Museum of Korea, we might have found this museum a lot more interesting to walk through. But, hey, it’s another example of a free South Korean museum and so we made sure to give it a proper walkthrough.

Also here, as I said earlier, are war memorials to those who lost their lives as part of the Korean War. These memorials are very affecting, especially all the tablets listing the names of the fallen from all over the world. Also, in front of the museum there is a plaza where they fly all the flags of the nations who supported South Korea in their fight after the North invaded in the 1950s. Such a diverse group including nations from all the continents. It’s very humbling and really heightens the contrast between the first and second half of the day.

First though, lunch. We hadn’t eaten anything (or really drunk anything) and it was two in the afternoon. Where the hub got a rather nice looking bulgogi rice bowl, I fancied noodles and went for something that was just translated as “Traditional Korean Noodles”. I’m sure that isn’t what was written in Hangeul, but it was delicious so I’m not complaining.

List Item: Visit 25 Amusement Parks
Progress: 15/25

And here we are at pretty much the opposite of a North Korean in a field: Lotte World. This is the largest indoor theme park in the world, but more on that in a bit. As it’s close to Halloween, the exterior section of Lotte World (called Magic Island) turns into a zombie invasion after sunset. So, since zombies freak me out, we wanted to cross this off before it got dark.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to notice that the similarities with the Magic Island having a castle in the centre much like Disney’s Magic Kingdom, but that’s the kind of blatancy that I live for. As this is the outside park, this area includes one of their major roller coasters (where I was over the maximum allowed height, much to my disappointment) and a few vertical drop rides. All this adds up to us only really wanting to try out one ride – the underground rotating roller coaster called Comet Express. We were spinning and being flung around like nobody’s business. It was so much fun.

We had a wander around the rest of the Magic Island admiring the decorations and drinking a blood bag full of some sort of strawberry-flavoured liquid before heading inside and getting to know the five floors of the indoors-park. The best way that I can describe it is like the sort of theme park I end up making in management simulation games, as in things seem piled together and somehow it works really well as a park concept.

Our plan of attack was simple, we had limited time here so we were going to start at the top and try and hit all the rides we were interested in. Beginning on the 4th floor, we got in a pretty long queue for the Pharoah’s Fury. It was here where it hit me just how much care had been put into the theming for these attractions. I mean, the queuing area for this dark rides was filled with replicas of Egyptian treasures and the walls with their own take on Egyptian carvings. It was really cool.

Next we boarded the Aeronaut’s Balloon Ride because I wanted to get some good photos from the top of the park and because the balloons looked so cute just going around the edge of the park that I just wanted to be in one, fear of heights be damned.

Being up this high really brought home just how huge this park actually was and how many things I actually wanted to try before it closed. Luckily. After these thirst three initial rides, we didn’t have to queue for anything else for much more than 5-10 minutes. Granted that’s because we decided to give the inside roller coaster a miss, but we weren’t really feeling it anyway.

We ended up riding the river rapids Jungle Adventure and the Fly Venture (which was their version of the Voletarium from Europa Park, but with a lovely fantastical setting) rides before making our way to the centre for the parade.

Following the lead of other parks, this after sunset parade was an illumination parade with lanterns controlled by drones, floats, puppets, dancers and some surprising inside fireworks coming from the castle in the centre. Although on a smaller scale than other parades, because of the restrictions of being inside and having the parade take place on a floor above visitors, this was so well done and made us look forward to what they would do as a closing performance.

We did two more rides – a shooting game called Dragons Wild Shooting and a simulator called Wild Jungle that has you driving through the jungle and having all matter of things happen to you – before grabbing a hot dog from one of the many food vendors. Trying to stay Korean somehow, I went with the dak gulbi dog, which had spicy chicken as a topping. It was really good and gave me the energy for the rest if the evening.

Time was marching on, so we bought a gift for our niece and I got a keychain for my collection as well as doing two repeat rides of our favourite indoor attractions – the extra ride on the rapids being extra cool as they gave us our own tube so we were able to go through the ride again with just the two of us.

The finale show wasn’t at all what we expected, but it was pretty marvellous to see. Rather than a more traditional light show or fireworks (the latter being near impossible because, again, we’re indoors) the show was done by projecting images onto the surface of a section of the park. It’s hard to describe or photograph, but it was very transfixing.

So ends a pretty contrasting day, all possible because of what can be done in Seoul. Tomorrow we’re boots on the ground again as we do our own tour of the many royal palaces of Seoul. Hopefully we’ll be able to hit them all up in a day, else there is always our final full day as a bit of a spillover.

Paris Je T’Aime: Day 5 – The Palace and Park of Versailles

So today is the last full day that I have in Paris and it really is time to cross off the final big ticket item from this wonderful city. It’s a bit far out from where I am staying at Les Halles, so before getting in queue it was time for breakfast.

I have eaten so much bread on this trip, and for good reason. France knows what they are doing with all things bread and, by extension, they know what to put in a great sandwich. This morning’s breakfast was a goat cheese, walnut, rocket, mustard mayonnaise and bacon baguette – I made a special note of this because I will be making this once I get home. Anyway, time to get into the insanely long queue so we can get to…

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 88/100Sight: Chateau De Versailles
Location: Paris, France
Position: #29

So many tour groups. I mean it’s to be expected as this is one of the big hints to do in Paris, but wow I cannot begin to fathom how many people I saw at Versailles today just in the line for the security check. Good thing we didn’t have a time window for our ticket, otherwise we would have been incredibly late.

Like most people we started on the main house before exploring the rest of the area. Probably meant we had to deal with more crowding that way, but it was standing right there looking so huge and impressive – how could we not go inside.

By this point I have been to a lot of royal palaces, including Herrenchiemsee which was King Ludwig II of Bavaria’s copy of Versailles, so a lot of these rooms and antechambers are really beginning to blend together. There is no doubt that the rooms at Versailles are incredibly lavish and contain some amazing pieces of furniture, but there is one main reason to go into the Palace of Versailles.

The Hall of Mirrors. Often imitated and easily one of the most famous rooms in the world. The whole thing feels like something out of a role playing game. The room is huge, and the placement of all the mirrors being opposite windows makes everything feel even larger. One thing that I didn’t expect was that the mirrors are not single sheets of glass, but a collection of smaller mirrors all put together, must have been a technology or a cost thing at the time.

We toured the rest of the palace and learned a bunch of history about the French royal family. I do wish that we could see the attached opera house as part of the tour, but I guess that would be difficult to do when there are events on and they suddenly have to divert tour groups away from there. However I really cannot complain, as the tour around the available house was really interesting.

By the time we finished with the main house it was lunch time. Rather than eat in the (probably) expensive restaurant we grabbed a hot dog from the takeaway kiosk and began our exploration of the gardens. One thing to note, as it was March during our visit they hadn’t switched on any of the water features. This obviously takes away a substantial element of what makes these gardens so grand, but it allows you to see the fountains as pieces of art without the distraction of water jets. So swings and roundabouts.

After taking way too many photos at the stairs to the palace (which I saw years ago as a panoramic painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art) we wandered along the grand canal and made a turn towards the Trainon section of the Versailles Domain. Originally Trainon was a village that bordered the palace gardens, but the land was purchased by the royal family so they could have a summer getaway from life at Versailles. I guess that would be the fancier version of spending your summers by decamping to a house two streets away.

The first place you go there is the Grand Trainon, the bigger of the two main buildings. It has been set up as how Napoleon had it kept, but after all the rooms at Versailles proper I was beginning to have a bit of palatial fatigue. Also, this doesn’t really have as much of the wow factor of what I saw earlier in the day. The same was true of the Petit Trainon, that I saw at the end of the day – although that pretty much stands bare.

In between these main buildings we came across what might be my favourite oar tif the day – the replica of a British hamlet that Marie Antoinette had built at this end of the gardens. Truly this is such a batshit crazy idea because she had a number of buildings constructed to look like an idealised version of a rustic British hamlet so she would have somewhere else to get away too.

Even more nuts is that, as part of her hamlet fantasy, this had a fully working farm which is maintained to this day. You turn a corner and, boom, there are cows, sheep, pigs and a ridiculous number of goats. It would also appear that lambing season has occurred as there were some cute fur puddles on the lawn that were hiding kids and a lamb. Not what I expected to find in the grounds at Versailles, but a lamb and a chicken with an afro are always appreciated.

We wandered a bit more around the gardens, taking in the various gazebos and the water features that were now just art pieces in their own right. However time marches on and it was time to leave to ensure we got to our next destination on time.

There was, of course, time for a quick snack of a saucisson and cornichon sandwich – especially as I have been hunting for one of these for days and this is the first time I’ve actually been able to purchase one. It was worth the wait.

Anyway, our final destination of the day was Montparnasse Tower. It’s the only high rise building in Paris (because it was so hated that they out rules in to prevent more form being built) which means it has unequaled views from its 56th and 59th floors. It’s also one of the few buildings that I’ve been in that offers actual 360 degree views from their top-most open air floor. It’s a real must visit and I don’t think many visitors to Paris even know it exists.

Looking out of these windows was like a clip show of everywhere I’ve been in the last few days. With the exception of Versailles and the catacombs, you can literally see every landmark I’ve visited – even the minaret of Grand Mosque. Despite not being as high as other observation towers, the fact they landmarks are so recognisable makes this one of the best.

We took up a place in the 59th floor so that we could watch the sun set over Paris. Sure the wind was cold, but watching the area of Paris surrounding the Eiffel Tower fall into nighttime just felt like the perfect way to end our final full day in this wonderful city. We stuck around on the 56th floor for a while to see Paris at night form up high, but it was getting late and we hadn’t had any dinner.

Luckily for us, not too far away from Montparnasse Tower is a street that seems to just be full of creperies. We ended up visiting one that was themed around Brittany and had such an amazing meal with excellent service. I ended up having a buckwheat crepe with blue cheese, ham and walnuts for my main then, for desert, a regular crepe with apples, calvados (which was flambéed in front of me) and a scoop of apple sorbet. I wish I had another one of these crepes right now I must say.

And that is the end of the final fully day. Tomorrow is a late departure, so there’s time for more Paris before I head back to the real world. Again I’ve gone on writing until well past midnight, so it’s time for me to say goodnight and get ready for the last day.

Paris Je T’Aime: Day 4 – The Louvre

Yesterday, I got a bit of a taste of what a trio to a Parisian museum was like with my trip to the Orangery. Today, it was time to tackle to big one – but not before we had a good breakfast.

Much like our visit to Montmartre, we started the day with what this particular café called the ‘Frenchy’ breakfast. So that was tartine, jam, croissant, hot chocolate and a juice. For some reason I assumed that the lemon juice would be more like a ‘lemon juice drink’ than straight lemon juice. No amount of follow-up jam could take the sourness out of my mouth for a good while.

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 87/100Sight: The Louvre
Location: Paris, France
Position: #37

At 9:30 we arrived at the iconic pyramid, right at the beginning of our allotted window. Since this is one of the biggest museums in the world with some of the most famous pieces of artwork, we wanted to ensure that we had the maximum time there. We ended up leaving at 5:30, just as they started to sweep the rooms to get visitors out. Over the course of 8 hours we were able to hit up pretty much everything that was available.

So join me, won’t you, on a whistlestop trip around The Louvre.

To start, as a general thing to encompass the whole day, there are times where it becomes unclear whether you should be focusing more on the room itself rather than the pieces that are being displayed. What I hadn’t realised before getting to Paris was that the Louvre was formally a palace, which means that so many rooms have beautiful ceiling paintings and other such ornamentation. As with the rest of Paris, the Louvre is a place where it pays to look up.

The first collection we arrived at were some of the museums more modern French paintings. As soon as you enter the room, it is impossible to not notice Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Leading the People’. It’s one of those iconic pieces that, as the first thing I really saw, helped to set the time for the rest of the day. Other interesting paintings were in this section, but none quite matched that – although Gericault’s ‘Raft of the Medusa’ is definitely noteworthy.

In order to get it out of the way, and hopefully have minimal crowds, we went a few rooms down to see the Mona Lisa in person. Despite not being open for long, the crowds had already begun to swell with many posing for selfies in front of the piece. Now that I’ve seen it in person, I can honestly spray that I don’t get the fuss. ‘Lady with an Ermine’ is so much better, at least for me, but I guess that’s why I never took art history classes,

Next to the Mona Lisa is, rather aptly the Italian paintings collection. So many of the great Italian paintings of this era are in Florence, but the Louvre really do have an exceptional collection. Raphael’s savage depiction of St Michael slaying a devil is stunning (although, really, who takes a selfie in front of this). Arcimboldo’s quartet of profiles made of seasonal produce are weird and so very cleverly done. It was also cool to see the other version of Da Vinci’s ‘Virgin of the Rocks’.

We did a tour of the Spanish paintings before seeing, what ended up being, my favourite piece in the gallery: Winged Victory of Samothrace. So much of what made this a spectacle was how well the statue had been positioned. However, that doesn’t detract from what an amazing piece of sculpture work this is. In a weird way, the missing head and arms makes it all the more remarkable. The asymmetrical folds of the cloth and the detail in the wings have such a sense of movement, that it feels like the statue was designed to have these pieces missing. I could have stared at this for so much longer if it had not been for the throngs of people.

A quick mosey through the decorative arts sections led us to the Northern European paintings. There were a few weird ones here – like the above featuring two naked sisters, one pinching the others bar nipple – but the coolest one featured an entire room containing paintings by Rubens. These had all been commissioned by Marie de’ Medici to mythologize her life and are both utterly brilliant and completely hyperbolic.

Next on the list was the vast Egyptian collection. As with most things Egyptian it’s hard to reconcile just how old a lot of these things are. Statues here, like the red man, are so much better preserved than things from less than 100 years ago… despite being 3000 years old. Stone heads and inscriptions from 4000 years ago just standing there looking amazing, which really makes me want to return to Cairo as an adult to re-visit their Egyptology museum.

No Egyptology section would be complete without some sarcophagi, and boy The Louvre has some amazing ones. There’s one almost in the basement where they must have needed a stepladder in order to deposit the smaller nested sections inside. There was also a single mummy, which I felt a bit weird photographing (a bit rich considering I was happily snapping away in the catacombs just two days earlier).

There was so much in the Egyptian sections that I love, but I realise that time is marching on – as it was in the actual museum – so after a lunch of a surprisingly good ham and cheese baguette we went off to the newly(ish) opened Islamic Arts section via some of the Greek antiquities (where I got to see more of the Cycladean statues that I so fell I love with during my visit to Athens).

I love that more museums seem to be getting collections of Islamic art together. Geographically it is so close by and yet, because I wasn’t raised seeing much of it, it always feels fresh and interesting to me. I especially loved some of the jugs and incense burners that they had on display. Similarly, some of the ceramics and tilework was so beautiful and used palates that you just don’t see in other cultures.

Sadly the Near Eastern art section was closed off, although some Roman-influenced Egyptian art was on display, which meant the next stop was the very crowded Venus De Milo (although you wouldn’t know it from the picture) and the rooms full of the remaining Greek and Roman antiquities. Honestly, I felt rather underwhelmed by the Venus De Milo. It feels like, if the arms were still in fact, it wouldn’t be as highly photographed as there would be no mystery to it.

When you consider that nearby are dynamic works like this man lacing his sandle or this gorgeous statue of Artemis in motion, it makes you winded how it is decided that certain pieces are given pride of place over others. In the end it’s all taste and the snowballing of fame, I guess, and this way I got Artemis to myself. So there’s that.

Next on the list was the Near Eastern art. It’s rooms like this that make me wish that Iran was semi-gay friendly, because I would love to see their collections of art in a proper context. Until then I shall enjoy the drinks and drabs that we have in the West, such as these amazing man-animal hybrids and this jolly looking man with the heavy eye makeup. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll see Persepolis for myself.

The final big collection of the day were the French sculptures. As we’re actually in France, the number that they have on display is huge – to the point they they take up multiple courtyards and those are mostly modern ones… although they are mostly still using classical motifs like the death of Dido and the labours of Heracles. Among the classical marble it was really interesting statues of bronze and lead mixed in as a way to provide some colour contrasts.

Then there are the older French sculptures that seemed to focus mainly on Christian symbolism or were made to adorn tombs. There was a fantastically intricate alter piece carved out of stone on display, and then two rooms over is a delightfully macabre piece containing eight mourning pall-bearers decked out in flowing black garments. I can’t quite believe how well the colours have lasted until this day.

We rounded off the visit with a visit to the recently added galley dedicated to art form Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas. The name paints some pretty broad stokes there as it contains nothing from China, Japan or Korea. I guess they were going for something along the lines of indigenous art, but it’s hard to go there without dredging up a lot of politics around colonialism. In any event, this being our end point provided some really cool contrasts to the other art we’d seen during the day, hopefully this collection will be expanded further.

Right, so that was my eight hours in the Louvre. Writing it all down really brings home just how much I actually got to see. No wonder my feet were crying by the time we reached the end and demanded a long sit down before heading out for food.

For dinner I found a place that specialised in Alsace cuisine, the which meant flammekueche. We shared a flammekueche with creme fraiche, onions, Munster cheese, cumin and sauerkraut, as well as a delicious salad containing Alscace sausage. We really could have gone for dessert here, but we had another idea.

We’ve had a number of sandwiches, but until tonight we hadn’t grabbed anything sweet from a French bakery. Tonight we rectified this by finding a bakery about 10 minutes from closing and buying two eclairs and two sables (think chunky shortbread cookies). My sable was pistachio-praline-rose and was superior to my husbands one.

This post took a lot longer to write than I expected, especially as I stayed in one place all day. Goes to show how amazing the Louvre is. I’ll be back one day to see the parts that were closed off during my visit.

Paris Je T’Aime: Day 3 – Tourist Day

So here it is, the big tourist day where we were able to cover a lot of ground without fear of the yellow vest protests. Since we’re the sort of people that enjoy walking around the city and only take metros when we really have to, we ended up walking about 19 kilometres today – which my legs are really feeling as I write this post whilst quaffing some raspberry cola.

To get things started we left the hotel in search of breakfast. Seeing that it was Sunday, we decided to make our way to the Bastille Market – one of the largest food markets in Paris. The route took us past the Victor Hugo house, where we stood outside for a bit before waltzing off again, and soon enough we were there.

The Bastille Market really has all the hallmarks of a great outdoor market. Good number of stands for breakfast, the smell of freshly roasted chicken, displays containing mammoth sized pieces of tuna and an old man on an organ grinder with his chihuahua. For breakfast we ended up sharing a butter-sugar crepe and a sausage-cheese galette. Probably could have had two of these galettes to myself, especially as I’ve never had one made of buckwheat before.

Having purchased some walnuts, to be eaten when I get back to the UK, we walked the 15-20 minutes to our first big stop of the day.

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 86/100Sight: Cimetière Du Père Lachaise
Location: Paris, France
Position: #96

Yesterday I had a bit of a glimpse of what a Parisian cemetery was like with the one at Montparnasse, but that could not prepare me for how big (and quite frankly over the top) this one would be. This isn’t just a cemetery, this is an actual city of the dead complete with houses and the occasional gazebo… although I guess these would technically be called mausoleums.

Like most tourists, we picked out a few key graves to find and used those as an excuse to take a roundabout tour of the cemetery. We ended up finding Oscar Wilde, Fredric Chopin, Edith Piaf, Balzac, Jim Morrison and Marcel Proust. However, with the exception of Chopin and Oscar Wilde, the most interesting graves belonged to other people.

Some of them had statues of weeping women, one had an accompanying West Highland terrier statue perched on top, many had their own stained glass panels – but the most ostentatious of them all belongs to the man who build a 20 metre tall chimney as part of his grave marker. That is a man who clearly has the money, big dick energy and social standing to burn, because it takes nerve to have a gave marker this big.

After being suitably graved out, we took the metro all the way across town to reach the Arc de Triomphe. No visit to Paris would be complete without seeing this huge stone monument, but I had no intention of paying the 12€ to gain admittance to stand underneath it. I see why they’ve done this, because after all it’s on a roundabout, but this feels a bit steep.

We then took the opportunity to engage in one of the most touristy activities possible – a walk down the Champs-Élysées. Compared to how it was in Breathless, the top half of this avenue has so many more tourist traps and fewer actual cafes; a bit disappointing when you hear it described as the world’s most beautiful avenue.

The lower half is so much better. There are parks on either side and the architecture is far more palatial. It felt like a more heightened version of The Mall back in London and I was definitely here for it. We were loving it so much that we grabbed a salami baguette from one of the stands and just took some time to enjoy the surroundings.

At the bottom of the Champs-Élysées is the Place de la Concorde, which is a huge and ridiculously beautiful square with fountains and ornate street lamps. At the centre is the Luxor Obelisk, which was given as a gift by the government of Egypt. Weirdly, this is one of three such gifts and I have now seen all three (the other two can be found in New York’s Central Park and the other is at Embankment in London), which feels like a bit of a mini achievement.

Since we were making good time, we decided to pop into the Musée d’Orangerie. With our Eurostar tickets we were able to get half-priced entry, which made this an absolute bargain even though this is a museum you are unlikely to spend more than two hours in.

The big ticket item in this museum are the two oval rooms featuring panoramic views of Monet’s Water Lilies. It’s impossible to take a photograph to properly show how these rooms are laid out as it is such a 360 degree experience, but these rooms are worth the price of admission alone. Sitting here and staring at his large canvas of impressionist water lilies really does help to bring a refreshing sense of calm after having spent most of the day on your feet.

On the other other floor of the building are a collection of paintings by other French artists like Cezanne, Picasso, Renoir, Rousseau and Marie Laurencin. These were all part of a previously private collection which makes for some interesting paintings, even though they may not be the most renowned by these painters.

An hour or so of the museum later and we were back outside and crossing the scenic Alexandre III bridge to make our way to Les Invalides. We had no interest, or enough time, in going in the actual museums but still wanted to have a look at some of the buildings in this museum complex. We were able to gain free entry to the Cathedral at Les Invalides, but sadly Napoleon’s tomb is ticket along with the rest of the museum and 12€ felt a bit steep for 10-15 minutes of tomb viewing.

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: N/A – A repeat visitSight: Eiffel Tower
Location: Paris, France
Position: #40

15 or so minutes of walking later and we made it to our final big sight of the day. I have photographic evidence of seeing the Eiffel Tower more than 20 years ago, but I really have no recollection of this. I actually expected to be a bit cynical about properly seeing the Eiffel Tower in person – nope I was amazed about how much taller in real life than I had expected it to be (a stark contrast to how I felt seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time).

As cool as it is to see the Eiffel Tower it’s sad just how the surrounding areas have become with all the bootleg souvenir sellers and a bunch of women who are part of the same pickpocketing scam that we came across yesterday at the Sacre Cœur (one of them literally grabbed my husband by the arm). It actually made parts of the visit feel a bit stressful, because who wants to have their wallet stolen.

Things felt better at the top of the Place de Trocadero, where you could enjoy the view of the Eiffel Tower that you tend to see in publications. The sun was also getting low in the sky, so it really was getting the benefit of the golden hour light.

Seeing how we hadn’t had much to eat, we figured it would be worth staying in the area to have an early dinner. Tonight it was steak-frites (where the steak came with smouldering thyme stalks, which helped to give a smokey taste) with a shared cheese plate for desert. It definitely scratched the food itch and I’m interested to see what I end up eating tomorrow… as I will be tacking the mammoth of the Louvre.

Taipei Time!: Day 5 – Exploring Taipei

Despite this being my fifth post about my time in Taipei, I think this is the first time that I had a proper time exploring different parts of the city. Probably should have had this a bit earlier in the itinerary, but that’s just how it happens sometimes.

Breakfast was a quick grab on the way to the MRT station. For them past few days I’ve seen someone selling some great selling fried meat buns and, finally, got the courage to go and buy a beef one for breakfast. Nice, hot and peppery – exactly what I needed to start off the day.

We headed north on the red line to Yuanshan Station to get some proper temple time in. There are two big ones in the area that area handily next to each other. Since one of them opened at 10, the choice was made for us to first go for the Baoan Temple. Before that, however, was a visit to the temple’s gardens with its dragon fountain and other sweet models mixed in with the well maintained plants.

After a turn about the garden, we entered the Baoan Temple itself. There was clearly something going on today as there were a lot of food offerings being prepared, but I have to hold my hands up about my ignorance of Taiwanese folk religions. In terms of look, this has to be the first time that I have seen an East Asian temple featuring so many paintings. This was in addition to the dragons and other wonderful carvings that I have come to expect from these kinds of temples.

From here it was a quick walk down the road to the Confucius Temple complex, which is part temple and part museum explaining Confucianism (something I appreciated as I only really about it from my games of Civilisation. Since this had more of a museum feel to it, there was more freedom to have a proper wander around, point things out to each other and take a few photographs of the Pan Pond, gates and the central Dacheng Hall. We also learned a bit about the changes in form of Chinese characters, which was interesting.

It isn’t just the temple where Confucianism is found in this area. Outside of the complex there are a lot of cute bear statues. There’s a set with the classical see/hear/speak no evil post, but my favourites were the six depicting the six main tenets of Confucianism. I kinda wish a smaller version of these were sold in the gift shop as some of them would have been perfect for my desk at work.

We then ventured back to the station and, on the other side, entered the Taipei Expo Park – set up in 2010 when Taipei held an international gardening and horticulture exhibition. Now, when we entered from the Yuanshan Station side we had no idea just how huge is park was.

By the time we left the first part, which we thought was the whole park, it was a little disappointing – not least because the flower landscapes were either out of season or no longer in operation. Although it is worth mentioning the number and variety of bird species that live in these parks. I swear I haven’t heard such a cacophony of bird calls in any city that I’ve visited before.

However, before we had a explore of the coolest section of the park (sadly not the pavilion on the indigenous peoples of Taiwan as that was closed), we paid a visit to the Lin An Tai Historic House. This is an actual private house and garden built based on the concept of Fung Shui – that was relocated and rebuilt in its current spot.

Keeping in mind that this faces a large road and is in the middle of the city, the sense of calm and peace you get here is otherworldly. They’ve also done this thing with there being 9 stamps around the house and gardens and, when you enter, you can collect them as you explore every nook and cranny. Made for an interesting impetus to not leave any corner of the house and gardens unexplored – oh and the whole thing was free.

We then got back to exploring Taipei Expo Park with a visit to the only open pavilion that we could find: the Future Pavilion. This, again free, area was a series off indoor gardens containing plants from different climates – which meant some much desired air conditioning.

List Item: Successfully navigate a mazeProgress: Completed

Right so this was a welcome surprise and makes for an interesting thing to cross off of the bucket list. I’ve done a hedge maze once or twice in the past, but I wouldn’t be able to tell where and when. Thus, when I saw that there was a hedge maze in this section of the park, it felt like destiny. It took less then 10 minutes to do and we both had a lot of fun completing it – the touch about having to cross set open areas with mosaics kept it interesting. As you can probably tell from the photo, I beat my husband.

Time was marching on and we were getting hungry. I’d read a lot on the web and in a few guides about a really good place next to the Taipei Fish Market called Addiction Aquatic Development and thought this would be the perfect time. It’s more than just a restaurant, but also a place where you can buy gourmet ingredients and some live seafood of your own if you felt so inclined. Me, I had my eye on the prize.

List Item: Try as many of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die as possibleFood item: Hairy Crab
Progress: 761/1001

Just to get this out of the way – this crab cost the equivalent of £50. I hadn’t been quite expecting that we’d need to buy a whole crab, but we’d reached a point of no return and this isn’t something you can really get in the UK. My poor husband didn’t know what to do with the implements we received, so I got my hands dirty with a lot of cutting and crushing – which was more than fine by me. It also gave me a first hand chance to understand the crab’s name – it actually feels like it is covered by soft hairs! Not going to lie, I stroked my dead crabs limbs for a bit too long.

As someone who has historically liked crab, I was really concerned about kissing away. £50 like this. Shouldn’t have worried, this crab tasted exquisite and there sure was a lot of meat to find. I finally get the idea of crab tasting sweet, especially in those claws. The leg meat was firm, not too stringy and had such a subtle flavour that I’m glad that we only had this with a squeeze of (green) lemon. We also enjoyed some of the tomalley, but it really was too rich to eat too much of. This might inspire me to give crab more of a go in the future, but maybe at a cheaper price tag.

It took us about 40 minutes to finish off the crab so we had to shift some stuff in the itinerary in order to beat the setting sun. We made our way south on the red line to Xiangshan to something rather ill advised for when you’ve been on your feet all day – climb a whole bunch of stairs.

The stairs themselves belonged to the Xiangshan hiking trail, which takes you up Elephant mountain so you can get a spectacular view of the iconic Taipei 101. I’m not exactly the fittest person, but I felt gratified that I was beating a lot of thinner people up these steps; even if I was absolutely dripping by the end of the climb. Keep in mind that it was humid and nearly 30 degrees.

Sadly it was hazy, as it had been all day, but it sure was gratifying to get a super view of those stacked noodle boxes. Seriously though, this might be my favourite looking building in world and is the reason that a visit to Taipei entered my mind in the first place. Time to go up it don’t you think?

 List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 84/100Sight: Taipei 101
Location: Taipei, Taiwan
Position: #448

For a few years this was the tallest building in the world and for a few years after that it had the fastest elevators – the journey up to floor 88 taking just over 30 seconds. Pat the time we got up there the sun was just finishing setting, which meant that we got to see the view at dusk and at night. Sadly the haze limited the view somewhat (just like with Tokyo Skytree) but I still got a real buzz of actually being inside and looking out over the city.

To be honest I didn’t want to leave, but all we’d really eaten today was crab and it was time for dinner. So we paid a visit to the big wind damper as we made our way down and out of Taipei 101. Even a few hours later as I write this, I can’t quite believe I’ve been inside that building.

A bus ride took us to our final destination of the day: Roahe night market. Whilst this is not as big as the night market at Shilin, this might have had the best mix of food and other stalls (although there was still a lot of stinky tofu around polluting the air space).

Upon entering we immediately got in line to have some of the famous baked pork buns. The wait was truly worth it, those were some flavourful and juicy pork and green onion buns. In a way, these made me think that these are like the Chinese cuisine version of Cornish pasties – just with less vegetables and a lot juicier.

This was followed up with some Taiwanese fried chicken steak (which was delicious) and a Chinese sausage on a stick (the hub misunderstood the vendor and tried to take his off then grill before they were ready). As the hub doesn’t eat chicken (apart from the bites I offered him) he had two of those sausages and a peanut ice cream roll. We ended the visit with some souvenir shopping and a juice before getting on the MRT back to the hotel.

A lot in a day right? This will likely be the busiest day of the holiday and, boy, are there a lot of good memories. This trip to Taipei is shaping up to be one of my big top tier holidays. Let’s see what a rainy Friday can bring.

Taipei Time!: Day 2 – National Palace Museum

Woke up this morning with the following realisation: I skipped jetlag and managed to score a normal night’s sleep! The trade off? A migraine that lasted until about lunchtime which meant I had to wear sunglasses for two hours because of light sensitivity. If this had been a regular day I would have called in sick and just closed my eyes until it went away – but I’m on the other side of the world and we kinda overslept.

 List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 83/100Sight: National Palace Museum
Location: Taipei, Taiwan
Position: #397

Now, we had planned today to spend the bulk of the morning and early afternoon in the National Palace Museum and then hike around one of the national parks. Yes, we were still going to do this despite it raining all day. This didn’t happen because we ended up spending over six hours inside the main exhibition hall – so we weren’t even able to go into the special exhibition hall or the nearby gardens (the sun had set by the time we exited).

To put it simply, the National Palace Museum is an extensive and impressive collection of Chinese culture. What they have on display is a fraction of what is within their archives and, unlike a lot of other museums, they rotate a lot of these around to the point where (if what I overheard was correct) you could visit every three months for ten years and still not see everything they have on offer. The only other museum I can think of that boasts a similar timeline for seeing everything is The Hermitage in St Petersburg.

Of course there are some particular artefacts that are never moved into storage because they are considered such national treasures. One of these is a cabbage carved out of jadeite and was the thing I was looking forward to seeing – but we missed it as it has been loaned to an event in Southern Taiwan just two days prior.

Sad cabbage times aside – this is an incredible museum. I don’t know quite how the suggested time for it on Google is 2.5 hours, unless you have very limited time and only want to see the greatest hits. However, if you have the time there is so much that can be gained from going on a proper deep dive.

The main exhibition space of the main museum is set over three nearly equally sized floors and features a seemingly comprehensive look at the different types of artefacts that an outsider would consider as quintessentially Chinese – as well as a host of other things that you would never have imagined.

By the latter statement in the previous paragraph I am referring to one of the most impressive things I saw in display – nested balls of concentric openwork free-moving spheres that had all been carved from the same piece of ivory. I know it isn’t politically correct to be wowed by a piece of ivorywork, but the work that went into this is so mindbogglingly precise that I couldn’t help but stand in awe at it (whilst nursing a throbbing migraine).

These ivory balls were part of the ‘A Garland of Treasures’ gallery which gathered some of the most impressive pieces of handicrafts within the collection. Other things including olive pit carving (like, how?), beautifully ornate curio boxes, a goose-shaped censer and a planter featuring an incredibly dynamic coral carving of a civil service deity. On average this was probably the most impressive of the galleries, and it’s one of the first you’re likely to see.

There are also multiple galleries that offer a near encyclopaedic look at the different forms of Chinese ceramics. I began to wonder if I would suffer some sort of content fatigue with there being three huge ceramic galleries one after the other, but they found new ways to engage and impress me. It really goes to show how what a westerner like myself knows about Chinese ceramics (and jade) really is the very top of the iceberg.

Before I go further into the exhibitions, just want to reap some praise onto the restaurant. We went there for lunch (where I had my first bubble tea) and the prices were incredibly reasonable. I think we paid less than 200$ (about £5) each for a hot sandwich and a bubble beverage – the latter of which I think was the cure for my migraine.

Anyway, even with the jadeite cabbage gone – three of the four big beloved attractions were still available for viewing. The most interesting (and weird) of these is the meat shaped stone – a piece of carved jasper that looks like a beautiful piece of roast pork. I knew this was here and thought the idea a bit daft, but no this is a uniquely strange piece of art that left me hungry and confused.

There other two treasures include a perfectly preserved two-tone bronze bell from the 9th century BC and a bronze cauldron that contains the worlds longest engraving in bronze. Both are very impressive pieces, but I think my memory of the meat stone will outlast both of them.

Being a museum of Chinese culture there was always going to be a bountiful supply of calligraphy, ancient books and paintings. I honestly think we spent too long in some of these rooms as the dim light (due to the perishable nature of the pieces) made me want to nod off. Also, I have no knowledge to allow me to appreciate the works of calligraphy… some of the paintings were great though, but these were some of the rare galleries that allowed no photography whatsoever.

All this and there are still the vast collections of jade and bronze work that I could go into! I hope that you can see how, upon exiting the museum, it was dark. I am aware that, when this post goes up, a number of the things I marvelled at may no longer be on display and instead be replaced by some new marvels.

So by the time we left via the gift shop it was gone six in the evening and we took the bus from the National Palace Museum to Shilin Night Market. Now, where yesterday’s night market was a bit on the small side – the night market at Shilin is vast. It’s a warren of food, clothes and tech stores where you could easily get lost or spend all your savings on the cast array of carnival games (if I had decent shooting skills I would have tried for one of the big plushies). Not to mention there is a large subterranean food court.

It was in this food court that we had the bulk of our dinner for the cheap price of 310$ (£7-8) for two. Considering that we have more night market visits to come we thought it would be worth getting the safer options out of the way first, this meant another plate of delicious steamed dumplings, pork fried rice and the quintessentially Taiwanese beef noodle soup. For the price we didn’t quite expect the large portions that we received, but boy were we happy to have our first proper meal in 2-3 days.

We roamed the streets for a while, picking up some cheese filled sweet potato puffs and sugar cane juice along the way. If we get a chance to come back here before leaving Taipei, there are a number of stores I would want to hit up for souvenirs. Not just the ones with all the Studio Ghibli and anime merchandise – but I wouldn’t be opposed to buying a bunch of things from there

List Item: Try as many of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die as possibleFood item: Conch
Progress: 758/1001

Now here’s something I did not expect to find on this holiday, and there were two stands selling this within spitting distance of each other. Grilled conch meat on a skewer with your choice of sauce – I went with the one with Taiwanese in its name because the others looked like they might blow my head off. The taste was somewhere between scallops and squid with quite a rubbery texture. It was also a bit gritty, but I’m guessing that more down to the conches not being thoroughly cleaned out before being slapped on the grill.

So here I am now. Two hours after starting this write up and, thankfully, migraine free. Tomorrow shouldn’t be a rainy day so we’ll be actually venturing outside. Time for sleep, Lord knows I need it.