We’ve caught taxis in most places around the world, an experience that is unique to each locale. In India the taxis are quaint old fashioned Ambassadors but you can also hire drivers with more ‘modern’ vehicles. Doesn’t really make a difference because the experience is hair-raising either way. And noisy. Indian drivers beep their horns all the time. I think its because no one really bothers to obey the road rules (if indeed there are any) so drivers are constantly making their presence known by way of their loud horn. But maybe its also a male macho thing (“my horn’s bigger/louder than yours”?). Similarly in Vietnam, but there it appears to be some logic to the madness and because people don’t drive fast, they seem to be able to cope with negotiating cross roads etc without lights and passing by. It still makes me incredibly anxious – I can’t bear to look out the windows, I have to occupy myself by reading or doing something. Either that or taking a chill pill (does help). In Malaysia its much more ‘civilised’ and organised but even so, drivers pay little attention to lanes: a 3 lane highway can easily become 5 and I’ve even seen drivers driving on the shoulder in order to bypass traffic. Still, I felt relatively safe in taxis in Malaysia. In London, one of the things I wanted to do (as well as riding on the top of a London bus) was take one of those traditional black cabs. They’re very different from our Aussie cabs: roomy in the back – enough room to put your suitcases in with you or to fit 6 people: 3 on the backseat and 3 on the pull down seat opposite. Plus they have individual settings for air con and music. Now that’s civilised. One of the things I noticed was the protocol of getting into a cab. You hail one, and then you talk to the driver about where you want to go through the front left side window, and only then do you get in. Here in Australia, you just jump in the cab and say where you want to go. I always sit in the back – I don’t think that in London people sit in the front. In Singapore we were amazed that you couldn’t just flag down a taxi. You have to wait at a designated taxi pick-up place. One time we saw a taxi stop at the lights and ran across 3 lanes of traffic and jumped in. The taxi driver was horrified. You just don’t do that there. He gabbled on and on about how we couldn’t just jump in. Finally I asked him if he didn’t want the fare and and should we get out? Eventually he clamed down and explained that it was illegal for him to pick up people in that manner and he could be fined. We found that very strange indeed. So regulated. But that’s Singapore. People queue and they never venture beyond that white line. Oh the freedom of being in Australia where you simply hail an empty cab and just hop in.
We’ve eaten rather well on our trip: from street food in Hong Kong to great London pub food and Scottish specialities. In London we would take a break from our walking and sightseeing to have a beer and a bite to eat. I’m not a beer drinker but the beers in the UK are very different to those back home. They’re full of flavour and as different in their complexity as wine. So, when in Rome…… However, one pint is my limit. Thereafter I need to revert to wine; most pubs had a good selection of wine by the glass. English pies are a British pub food specialty (as are fish and chips) and these are nothing like the pies back home, they’re hand made and sensational, particularly ones with ale and game (eg, ale and venison). And of course chips, hand made and crisp I couldn’t go past these. And because we walked so much each day I figured I could indulge.
In Scotland, haggis was the choice du jour. I love haggis. Its rich and flavousome, peppery and spicy and tastes very much like the Spanish morcia. I took every opportunity to order this. I just wish it wasn’t served with neeps and tatties (that’s turnips nad mashed potatoes) though I must admit that they do go very well together. My preference would be for haggis to be served with a rocket and tomato salad but I guess in the cold weather people want something filling and sustaining. And so to porridge. Another Scottish speciality. They cook it with salt but also serve it with whisky, brown sugar and cream. Its heavenly and a wonderful way to start your day. Especially when its only 3 degrees outside.
In Oban, home of the malt whisky of the same name, we indulged in local seafood – scallops from Mull, langoustines and huge oysters. Scottish hot and cold smoked salmon came in a variety of forms. And then there was game: pigeon, partridge, pheasant, grouse and venison. Grouse is very strong in flavour, much more so than pigeon or partridge or pheasant, due to the fact that it subsists on a diet of wild heather. Venison was similar to kangaroo – very lean so it could be cooked quite rare and a very mild gamey taste. In Oban I had a superbly cooked venison saddle with spiced red cabbage, pickled walnuts and a chive and truffle mash. It was sensational and the venison was so perfectly cooked that I wondered how this was done (it was a very thick cut). I thought it would have been seared in a pan and then finished off in the oven but turns out that it was all done in a pan because it was cooked rare. For medium rare it would be first seared then finished off in the oven. On the Isle of Skye I had a wonderful confit of duck leg served with julienned vegetables – beetroot, carrot, spring onion, coriander – with a thai style dressing. Inspired. And this from a bar menu. True, the bar food came from the same kitchen that serves the dining room which has won awards and a Michelin star. Venison shin with bone marrow jelly. Sounds weird but it was wonderful. The venison is slowly cooked until it falls apart (much like slow cooked lamb) and is then put into a mould (like a timbale) and the jelly on the outside.
Over the channel we wanted to experience good traditional French food: escargot, steak tartare, coquilles St Jacque, pot au feau, confit of duck, rabbit in mustard sauce and of course, pates and rillettes, cheese and baguettes. Generallly we just wondered until we found a bistro that appealed to us – spoilt for choice, there are bistros everywhere, mostly serving much the same. One day, walking through Montmartre we spotted a little Coriscan bistro. It was very small but they had a range of charcuteire plates and all we really wanted was a bite to eat, rather than a meal. The young woman who ran the place was friendly and welcoming and despite not speaking much English, but was very chatty. We had a fabulous white beer and then the house red wine (which was excellent) and a mixed cheese and charcuteire plate. And then we sat outside with our cofees and watched the world go by.
I’ve never eaten so much on a holiday (or at home for that matter). We generally only have breakfast and then dinner. But who could go past all these wonderful foods. We’ve come back slightly heavier but happier for the experience.
Our journey is coming to an end. We’re on our way back to London. We left Duffus (north east of Inverness on the Moray Firth) yesterday midday and drove down to Gattonside in the Scottish Borders. It was a long and slow five hour drive with the usual detour around Edinburgh (not knowing where we were going). This morning we got up early in order to get to London at a reasonable time – hopefully before dark (4pm) and the rush hour traffic. Yesterday the peaks of the mountains were covered in snow. This morning a layer of frost covered everything. It was zero degrees – freezing; even the cows were huddled together. The sheep were just barely visible, blending into the frost covered ground. Mist hung low as did the sun which was blindingly bright making it difficult to drive.
We had figured six hours would get us to London but we’ve been on the road for an hour and a half and have only just crossed the border into England. We’ve done 100 miles and still have over 300 to go. The journey is made slow due to queues of cars behind trucks and slow farmers on single lane roads. That and the visibility difficulties due to the blinding sun. But it’s a pretty journey with the road going through the centre of villages with narrow streets and lovely old buildings. The car has finally warmed up and the water in the windscreen wipers thawed. Our iPod is plugged in and we’ve resolved to simply enjoy the trip – the only pressing need is to get the car back before the hire place closes. Negotiating London traffic will be another matter but hopefully the lovely google map lady will assist. By the time we return our car we would have covered over 2000 miles. Quite a journey.
Tomorrow will be another early start – Eurostar to Paris at 7.55am. We have to be at St Pancras Station half an hour earlier which means leaving our digs in London at 6.45am. Yikes. Once upon a time I left home at 7.00am every weekday to go to work. These days I have to set an alarm to be out of bed before 9.30 in order to make it down for breakfast. I’m looking forward to being in our apartment in Paris where we can fend for ourselves and there are no schedules for breakfast. And a sleep in. Then again, there is so much to do and see that sleeping in would be a waste of holiday time. I’ll save that for when we’re back home.
From Hong Kong to London felt like an endless journey. 13 hours air time arriving a few hours later from departure time. An interesting experience. Never ones to sleep on arrival we stayed up chatting, eating, drinking. We were staying with M’s brother and sister-in-law right in the heart of London – across the road from the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and around the corner from the Eye. Walking distance to everywhere. And walk we did. There is so much to see in London, so many monuments and places of interest, museums and galleries. We had a list of places we wanted to visit but we also just took pot luck wandering about and found ourselves in some amazing places – like the Courts of Justice and Southwark Cathedral- simply because we liked the look of a street or a building and wanted to just explore.
Amongst the places that I wanted to visit/see were those that were familiar through songs, films and nursery rhymes: Picaddilly Circus, Leicester Square, Covent Garden, Harrods, and of course all the Monopoly sites. We walked from place to place, from morning till late afternoon, stopping at a pub for a fine English Ale and one of their fabulous pies. One day we walked the equivalent of 20k (which included the many steps we took around the National Gallery where so many of the art works just took my breath away).
From London we hired a car and drove to Cambridge. A straightforward journey should you have NavSat or similar. We thought our iphones would do the job with Google maps but for some reason neither of our phones were able to accesss data. Fortunately we had a paper map but this was of little use for those who aren’t familiar with the streets and traffic of a foreign city. But many fraught turns and deciphering of the signs got us out of London and on our way. It was a relatively short drive to Cambridge but again, not knowing the city and not having proper navigation meant that we spent some time driving around one way streets that ended up nowhere till we found our accommodation, a gorgeous B&B right in the centre, and conveniently located near a very friendly pub.
Cambridge is full of people on bicycles – just like in the films. They’re something of a nuisance on the raod, but given that we were the foreigners, we couldn’t complain. The buildings were stupendous. Seriously old. Seriously beautiful. And gorgeous little narrow cobble stone roads. I felt that at any moment I would turn a corner and meet Harry et al. It was charming and delightful. So many of these ancient buildings had retained their original character, though many were now big brand name shops. Such a contradiction.
From Cambridge to Ely to see the great Cathedral and climb its winding narrow stone staircase to the top of the Octagon to see the physical structure behind the beautiful decorated internal facade. Mind boggles at how so many hundreds of years ago men managed to construct this magnificent edifice; not just in terms of the carved stonework but the structure itself: there are huge beams made of single oak trees that must have weighed tons. Ely was well worth the detour.
Next stop York, home of York Minster Cathedral. Once again we got lost trying to find our way in to the town – so many one way streets and road signs that meant nothing to us until we had driven by and realised we should have turned left/right etc. Fortunately we stopped and asked a passer-by where we were and she gave us very clear directions. We were not far at all, but without her we could have been driving around all night.
Our hotel was directly opposite York Minster which is something of a jewel box or tardis. It doesn’t appear to be very big but inside it is huge, and impressive. York is another place like Cambridge – but perhaps older – where most of the buildings are original – Tudor mostly – but now house restaurants and all manner of shops. It was fantastic to walk around in the evening, marvelling at these ancient buildings and the little alley ways and all the old pubs. Again, like being in a fairy tale or film set, though the biting cold reminded us that this was, indeed, reality.
From York we headed off to Scotland. It was meant to be a short(ish) journey – some 2+ hours but we found ouselves on the motorway going in the wrong direction more than once and then ground to a stop on a section where there were roadworks. Motorways generally make for a quick but not particularly scenic journey so being stuck on one going at a mere 2mph wasn’t very rewarding. It took us over an hour to cover perhaps 10 miles. The delay did give us the opportunity for a fine photo of the Angel of the North, a huge and dramatic iron sculpture beside the motorway. It transpired that a truck had broken down and once we were clear of that it was all systems go. And go we did. Through Northumberland where we got off the motor way and traveled along small roads through beautiful countryside. It was like all of a sudden the landscape just opened up. It was so pretty, so picturesque and so so different from Australia. We passed through James Herriot country (All Creatures Great and Small) in Thirsk (North Yorkshire) to Northumberland and then crossed into the Sottish Borders. Travelling through this country has been delightful and I’m only sorry that we couldn’t have taken longer to stop and marvel at this incredible country.