Our final destination (back in September) and a great one at that. Cuba and Iceland have been topping my dream list of places to visit for years so when I realised I could get a flight back to UK going via Iceland for no extra cost by heart literally skipped a beat.
We spent just a week in Reykjavik but despite having a it’s own very unique vibe and style, it was our first time back in Europe for almost 2 years and it was an almost tangible feeling of being back, which felt kind of comforting. And the weather was a reminder of being back too. It was actually worse weather than they are used to in September and for us, having only had some chilly days in Hong Kong and Japan – it was quite a shock! It was also a great time for Mark to discover he’d lost his coat somewhere in Canada or the USA. Lord only knows where he left that, but he has a history of losing coats and sunglasses so not a real shock.
Landing on another planet
It was a very early morning flight in and our airbnb room wasn’t going to be ready for us for a while so it was actually a bit gutting how quick and efficient it was to get through customs and onto the bus transfer to Reykjavik. As soon as we left the airport we realised that we really weren’t in Kansas anymore. OK, it was New York, but you get what I mean. The landscape in Iceland is so different to anything I’ve ever seen before. The sun coming up over lava fields is un-earthly and quite stunning. It should be bleak but somehow it just isn’t.
We got dropped off by the bus at a large hotel which seemed in the middle of nowhere in terms of anywhere to sit and wait. There were houses and big wide roads and a few office buildings but at not much after 6am there was nothing going on and we were a bit stumped as to what to do to kill the few hours we had to wait, laden down with all our worldly goods. They were very nice at the hotel and said we could hang out in their foyer for a bit and in the end, after Mark had been on a little exploratory trip of the hotel, we decided to splash out and eat the breakfast there. This doesn’t seem like a big deal, but the idea of having a breakfast at a fairly pricey big hotel was out of our travel comfort zone. It just wasn’t what we did. It seemed wasteful and too luxurious, but looking back now it was actually not that expensive anyhow. It was the best decision we could have made. Not only was the food amazing but they let us ditch our luggage while we ate (already the safety and friendliness of Iceland was appealling!), so we had a long, luxurious, stress free breakfast to build us back up after a tiring few weeks in NYC and an overnight flight.
Our airbnb host rushed for us and so by about 9am we were able to trek off to our latest lodgings. I later realised that the hotel wasn’t in the middle of nowhere anyhow, but when you’re tired and it’s early and you’re carrying your life with you, things can seem such hard work.
The redemption of airbnb
After our one and only bad airbnb experience, it was a delight to get to our Reykjavik lodging and sink onto the divinely comfortable bed of our large, cosy, well equipped room. Our host, Magret, and her husband lived in the house above and there were 3 rooms in the basement with it’s own kitchen, bathroom and the laundry room. Magret was lovely and we learned she’d actually lived in Hove for a while when she was studying. The whole place was cosy and welcoming and just what we needed. I could have stayed an extra week just to read all the books from the bookcase in the hall and snuggle in the cloud like scandi bedding.
A city that throws it’s arms around you for a welcome hug
Not literally of course, they don’t grab you on the stree, but just the ease and relaxed nature meant there was no transition time needed. It was all just exploring and enjoying.
Everything just works here, but without any sterility. It’s quirky, cosy, stylish, friendly and efficient. Very scandinavian in those ways but also definitely it’s own place. That is the beauty of islands far from all – they’ve always walked to their own beat Add to that that the young Icelanders nearly all leave to work in foreign countries, but most come back – there’s an interesting and creative mix of culture and new ideas.
On our first day, we walked into town from our accommodation – a fair old walk in the cold but one we rather enjoyed. Great back drop over the sea and interesting little sculptures along the way as well as the gorgeous Harpa building.
When we made it to the centre we came across various groups of girls dressed up, playing games involving things like a carrot on a stick. One group with each of them wearing only one pink glove. Despite googling I’m none the wiser as to what this was all about. When we saw the first group we thought maybe a hen-do, but then when we came across some others we were just puzzled. A kind of fresher week thing maybe? But they were all girls. If anyone can enlighten me, that would be great.
The cold weather was getting to us and Mark in particul without a coat so getting warmer clothes was first thing we had to do. Iceland isn’t the cheapest place so I wasn’t quite sure what to do. The jumpers that I swooned over cost a bomb, but I stumbled across the very cute, tin fronted Red Cross shop. The 2nd hand jumpers in there were actually still very expensive but I did manage to pick up something nice and warm.
Mark found a coat on sale at a skater shop that did the trick for him. It seemed expensive but when we discovered you can get the tax back it didn’t seem so bad.
The cathedral is one of the main sites to see for good reason. It’s stunning and sits up high above the city.
Mark in hot water
There was a swimming pool with thermal spa just 2 minutes down the road from were we were staying. It was definitely a place for the locals and everyone goes – young and old. There’s pools of various temperatures and a slide on one of the big pools that Mark was very partial too. He convinced me to go down it telling me there was a surprise once inside. It was literally just that it went dark for a bit. The real surprise was when Mark left too soon behind me and so landed on my head just as I had entered the water, nearly drowning me. I’m not that keen on water and particularly not keen with my head being held under water. Mark, however, found this the most hilarious thing and was still laughing to himself about it days later.
We went back a couple of times and Mark went a fair few times on his own. Confessing one time, upon his return, that he’d gone on the slide on his own 10 times. Pushing the kids out of the way no doubt!
Food & Drink
Another place where everything tastes good – from restaurant food to stuff picked up in the garage, it was always good and there was definitely some interesting new things to try. I was desperate to try a Jam burger when I saw it on a menu and I wasn’t disappointed. It sounds odd but definitely works. Of course there’s lots of fish.
There’s a great little cafe up at the square overlooking the cathedral that does some lovely local dishes. Can definitely recommend as an icelandic taster.
The day we walked down from Cafe Loki, there was, of all things, a Bacon festival going on. Lots of little stall of local restaurants and caterers selling bacon related things to try. We didn’t partake as we were stuffed but it was tempting and funny to see even the local Dominos pizza got involved.
We went for a drink in Kaffibarinn, a famous bar and music venue, to find that there was a talk going on in the back room about Icelandic pigs.
The talk ended with them getting everyone in the room chanting ‘Bacon’. Typically, brilliantly Icelandic.
This was a great sign they had up in the bar which probably sums the place up nicely.
Due to the cold weather (and being the way we are) we often ended up cosying up in one of Reykjavik’s many bars. Here’s some of our faves:
Great place, great happy our. Just don’t sit near the back door – it gets cold with people coming in every 5 mins and leaving the door open. The decor had a kind of old 60s lodge/boarding school kind of feel to it.
This bar is up some stairs on a main street which housed an older, cool crowd and this little fella overseeing things.
I have never seen the Big Lebowski but I know how utterly obsessed people are with it so I know that to a fan this themed bar would be heaven.
And even without knowing the references it’s a great place to hang out.
Stylish, welcoming decor plus the best happy hour and local beers and super friendly.
Tapas Barinn restaurant
On Vesturgötu this place is a bit odd. It’s a spanish style tapas restaurant but does a whole bunch of Icelandic food taster menu. There are lots of places, particularly on the main street, that does similar but this place is just fantastic. We decided on the last night of our trip to splash out on this and it was so worth it. We had the Iceland taster menu but asked to not have the whale and replaced it with something else. There was 7 courses and a shot of the local cockle-warming liquor.
This place has style, a great atmosphere and seriously good food. The puffin was amazing. Sure, I really want to see a puffin in the living flesh, which has as yet alluded me, but their is a puffin catching season – not farmed or anything like that so I had no quarms chowing down on that. It was such a dark meat, almost purple.
When we’d gone away I assumed as many people dreaming of travelling does that I was going to spend lots of time watching dolphins frolic off the side of sunny boats and seeing whales while hiking over stunning clifftop scenery. As I don’t much like boats or hiking, that was always unlikely, but I thought it 2 years I’d have seen more than the 1 loan dolphin from the ferry between islands in New Zealand. So Iceland was my last chance really.
We ummed and aahed about the budget a bit but it had to be done. And actually even if I hadn’t seen whales and dolphins (which I did -yey!) I would have actually enjoyed that day out. It was hilarious.
It started a bit badly when we never got picked up on the bus but the hotel we were waiting outside were friendly and helpful and chased the company up. They had forgotten us somehow but came hairing over from the port in a Prius to pick us up.
It was a cold and blustery day and we wisely opted for the sea sickness tablets. Once on the boat we got kitted out in the natty whale watching outfits. They seemed a bit extreme but my crikey you needed them to keep alive.
With such rough seas I thought our chances of seeing anything were slim, but in fact we ended up seeing not only lots of dolphins but also quite a few Minke whales. So I always thought they were pronounced ‘mink’ but in fact it’s ‘Minkee’ which just sounded funny and cute every time the guide said it. It really was an amazing trip. They have pretty strict rules in place in Iceland and I also made particularly sure that we went to a place with a good reputation. They were very concerned with getting the ecological points across and asking people to make sure they didn’t go into town after and eat any!!
The wind and the rain was really giving us a battering and although the suits kept us warm and dry – you start to suffer in the extremities. My hands quickly went from painful to no feeling. The icing on the cake was the spot I was standing (holding on for dear life) was at such an angle that the water splashed on board covering me head to toe. Man that was cold. Mark (despite not getting the soakings I kept getting) whimped out in the end and went inside on the trip back. I stuck it out to the bitter (and it was very bitter) end. Not bad for someone who doesn’t like water or boats. I guess I was kind of high on the excitement of seeing the whales and also the violence of the sea and the boat. It was quite the adrenalin rush!
So, I got to see my dolphins and my whales even if it wasn’t on a calm, turquoise sea – it was still the perfect ending for our trip.
If you’ve ever seen pictures of this place, you’ll know the allure. Again, it was not great on a traveller’s budget but it just had to be done or we’d be kicking ourselves. It really is as beautiful as it looks. The water really is that beautiful aqua, pastel blue. So many famous places are amazing but not quite the colours of photos you may have seen – this really is. Blue milkshake against black lava rocks. Seriously – it’s so dazzling and enchanting, it gave me the chills. Unfortunately an icy cold rain storm descended on the day we went so it wasn’t quite the relaxing soak I’d been imagining but in some ways the extremeness of the weather and the fact that very few people dared to venture out into it, made it a bit more of an adventure. I found it quite hilarious. Mark, who hates being cold, found it a little more arduous. There’s a small indoor pool area where you first get into the thermally heated water and once in you go through the water outside. There’s an amazing cave when you first go out where we sheltered at first. Then we went out into the larger area. The place is massive and there’s various areas you can head to – I think there’s a swim up bar, but people who were partaking at first quickly abandoned it. There’s areas which have like a big bucket full of goopy clays which are like face pack which you can put on you – covering your face and hair makes you look quite the swamp monster.
I wanted to explore regardless of the pounding rain but walking across the water out in the middle with no shelter, was so painful we had to walk backwards half the time. I don’t know why I found this so funny, I guess it was some kind of bizarre exhilaration. What we did find in the end is an area with super hot water – it’s warm and lovely everywhere but you could find these little pockets with extra heat. We found it and stayed there, clinging onto the side, keeping nice and warm. An icey cold head and a nicely warm body. We met some retired couples from the USA who were there on there way over for a trip in Europe. One of the guys had been based in Iceland in the 60s when he was in the Forces. Apparently back then, this place was known, but there was no structure around – people literally just drove into the middle of nowhere and jumped in!!
This isn’t the only place with these stunning pools – you do see them scarred around the area as you drive in, so I guess in theory you could still find one out there and jump in. Certainly an alternative and would be fun to do on your own. But the Blue Lagoon does what it does well. Although there’s lots of people there it doesn’t feel hassley like tourists attraction often do. I definitely want to go back in more clement weather. I know I go on about how much I love lots of places but this really is something very special. I think it’s probably because I love the aesthetics so much.
Oh I do love a bit of architecture and Iceland doesn’t disappoint with the corrugated iron you imagine. There was some really colourful ones.
The other predominant buildings – mostly housing but also sports centres and offices, were grey buildings – most likely from the 50s, 60s and 70s. The house we were staying in and all in the surrounding areas were an old pebbledash style. You would think, lots of grey buildings in an already bleak environment would be drab and depressing but strangely I really liked them. I always find England at it’s most depressing when it’s raining, with a grey sky and you’re somewhere with concrete buildings. I can’t figure out why it just didn’t have the same effect here.
I liked the church styles as well – seemed like something out of fairytales.
The Culture museum
We went here thinking it was free but it had changed and we had to pay to go to the main exhibition which was all about the history of the Sagas. I didn’t know anything about this before coming to Iceland but had read up about it since and realise how significant to the culture it is. The exhibition probably was not worth it to us on a travellers budget. I’m definitely not into history much past Victorian times – the further back, the less interested I get. But if you’re into viking history or appreciate the cross-overs with things like Tolkien it would be worth it. I remember thinking that my brother would love it!
The stuff on the upper floors was actually more up our street. Some interesting art and a particularly alarming room with speakers sprinkled around the room with a womans voice whispering strange phrases. It was way creepy!
There’s a great antiques shop which was a proper treasure trove. I don’t know what it was called, but it was on Vesturgötu. Being on a once isolated island, it did have lots of Iceland specific, unique and interesting things. I could spend weeks in there!
There’s lots of interesting shops in Reykjavik. It’s definitely not full of bland chains. I think you can go out to out of town shopping places to get more of brands but the town is a bit more interesting. Lot’s of tourist shops of course but some interesting ones sprinkled about the place.
The Photography museum
This is a fairly small museum on the 3rd or 4th floor of the building but it’s free and definitely worth a visit if you like photography. There was a great exhibition on when we went of bikers.
There is also old photos of Icelandic people on the stairs all the way down and odd cut outs using old photos – see below.
It’s a really creative country – the amount of amazing music that comes out of such a small places proves that. Maybe it’s the long cold winters so people have nothing else to do but stay in doors and do interesting things!
It’s definitely got it’s own unique take on things and just wandering the streets you come across all kinds of street art and quirky things.
What’s not to like?
Well in our case – the weather. We were a bit unfortunate as it should have been warmer and it was mainly the shock of not being somewhere warm but my gosh the Icelanders are hardy. We’d be sat shivering in bars or restaurants as they’d have the door and windows open.
We had a one particularly wet, cold, miserable walk home.
Things like this are controversial and of course I find whaling awful, but as I’ve said previously on this blog, since travelling you find you have to step back from judging cultures. It’s difficult. Particularly when things are done for sport. When things are eaten/used, it at least doesn’t seem pointless.
Considering the atrocities that go on in agriculture in the Western world, people can be a bit hypocritical campaigning to save only the cute or magnificent. Unless you’re vegan you’re on tricky territory – battery hens and dairy cattle can have horrendous existences. Anyhow, I found something particularly strange going on in Iceland. The argument is that it’s tradition, but stats show that whale is barely eaten by the Icelanders anymore. Who’s eating it? The tourists!!! Probably 2 thirds of the restaurants on the main street offered whale – particularly on the taste of Iceland menus. It’s not available barely anywhere else in the world, so people give it a go. People from countries who don’t support whaling. It’s a crazy situation. If all the tourists stop eating it, the restaurants wouldn’t need a constant supplier and there likely wouldn’t be enough need to justify the continuation.
They have a similar situation going on in Japan, though it’s not being eaten by tourists. V few people in Japan want to eat it anymore and those that do are generally the older generation so this will continue to decrease. But the Japanese government seem to continue as a point of principal. They have warehouses full of unused whale meat and this has become a contentious issue within the country.
Anyhow, I may not be sure where I stand these days in hating/accusing someone who eats something I think of as wrong if that’s part of their culture, but I do know that whales being killed for a tourist ‘look what i did’ story is depressing, so people, if you go to Iceland, please, please don’t!
Excellent in Iceland
The buses are brilliant in iceland – efficient, cheap, regular.
There is a slight downside though, in that you need to have pre-bought tickets or have the exact cash.
You can buy bus tickets at the tourist info centre, so I suggest getting a few when you first arrive so you can jump on a bus whenever you feel the need.
No need to splash the cash
You never have to use cash, a card will always do. Admittedly we didn’t travel out into more rural areas but everything we did we could pay for by card and it was all super easy.
And Iceland’s reputation for being expensive is not so true these days. It was obviously pricey for us as we’ve spent much of the last year and a half in cheap places but I wasn’t shocked by any of the prices in Iceland. I actually noticed that a lot of the high end stuff (though we didn’t participate in) was really reasonably priced, so great if you want to treat yourself. It’s definitely cheap compared to the UK!
Safe n sound
It’s always nice being in a low crime country. I imagine a lot of Icelanders still leave there doors unlocked.
I became obsessed with the Icelandic jumpers. I so wanted one but they price made me choke. They have the design on other things like coasters but I think it’s all possibly trade-marked as all that stuff is quite pricey too. I bought a set of the worlds most expensive paper napkins as a present!
I love it – it’s a beautiful sounding and looking language.
And Fiskisupa means fish soup – brilliant!
Kilroy the kangaroo
This is (possibly) only funny for people from UK over age of 25:
The penis museum
We walked past it a fair few times but never really felt the need.
There are no polar bears of course, but it seemed fitting
I am definitely returning to Iceland in the future. I really want to get out and explore the country, whereas on this trip we were mainly based in town.
I mean who wouldn’t want a go in one of these:
And I want to come back when the puffins are about!
It was an unexpected and incredible place to finish our 22 months of travel. And on a more practical level, it cut a long plane journey into 2 short, reasonable chunks. It think it’s calm, coseting affect was just what we needed as we contemplated going back to the UK, both excited to see our loved ones after so long, sad that it’d come to an end and fear and worry about what we were going to do next. It was a very strange cocktail of feelings that morning, waiting to board the plane.
And now we’re back in England (for now). We’re both working up in London and this is the first time for me to be working full time in the city. We couldn’t, unfortunately, go back to live in our beloved Brighton as the work just isn’t there.
To better deal with the ‘real life-ness’ of it all, now after having gotten over the initial upheaval of finding work, lodgings etc, I have decided that it would be good to take the opportunity to be a tourist in my own backyard. I’ve not done the majority of sights in London despite having lived so close for so long. I’ve mainly done nights out or gone in for work. I’ve never even gone for shopping. So now that we’re a fairly short commute to the centre, I’m trying to explore a bit and try to go on little adventures. And of course it’s nice to not be on a strict budget for a change. We’re making the most of what food London has to offer and reliving our trip eating lots of things like Thai, Japanese and Vietnamese.
Makes us feel less homesick for the road!!
So, it was a while ago now since we returned to the UK but now that I have some time, I am determined to finish my trip blogs with 2 destinations to go NYC and Iceland.
If I don’t get it all down then too many of the events, sights and experiences will be forgot to me and most definitely by Mark who has a sieve like memory. It might be erratic and in an odd sequence, as I have random notes of things that happened but hopefully it will coherent.
I can’t remember the order of everything so the following is just general lists in various categories – mainly filled by restaurants and bars – sad but true!
New York, New York
So, let me start by telling you that New York is one of MY places. One of those places that I have some kind of strange affinity with. I love all the big sights and cliches but I’m also happy wandering about back streets on my own doing much of nothing.
I like going to unexplored neighbourhoods just to see what they are like. Up till now I have only stayed on Manhattan but partly because it is freakishly expensive and also because I wanted to discover Brooklyn, we stayed this time on Long island. The 3 week stay was probably the most expensive of our trip- on par with Hong Kong perhaps.
The location was good – in hipsterville itself Williamsburg, which kind of did my head in on the ‘hipsterness’ side of things but for convenience you can’t beat it and is clearly why this was the first stop of people moving out of manhattan. You can walk over the Williamsburg bridge and be on the Lower East Side in a leisurely half an hour (a gorgeous walk in the sunshine). I’m sure a brisk walk or a bike would knock it to nearer 15 minutes.
Or the subway takes you straight across, first stop my beloved East Village and onto lots of central stops like Union Square etc.
This brings me to an interesting (well to me) point. In other visits I only used the subway once. How I ever got around New York without using the subway is beyond me. Seriously – how did I? I can’t even imagine as it is so ridiculous to get a cab and I never got a bus. It’s quite easy to walk long distances but still. The subway is brilliant. The buskers in Bedford Avenue are world class. Even in hot, humid August, the trains are air conditioned beautifully. In fact sometimes I couldn’t wait to get down there to cool off. It’s great people watching and above all it’s cheap and convenient. It’s what the Tube should be and isn’t?
Plus – you certainly get some interesting characters. Doesn’t Mark look happy with his new friend?
There was one time that the people sat opposite me were like some kind of hyper Benetton add. There was a row of people of every colour, crede and style, but my fave was next to a skinny asian punky girl was an enormous Rabi. Seriously – he was huge. Not fat – just a grand stature. And best of all he kept chuckling to himself. He tried to engage in conversation with the girl but she was having none of it – it is New York for goodness sake but that’s how I learned he was from out of town. And he continued to chuckle for the whole journey. I will never forget the gigantic chuckling Rabi!
An airbnb fai
So with NYC being what it is, budget accommodation was going to be tricky. Not knowing Brooklyn properly or New Jersey, it was difficult to judge what was a good area to stay in. Although New Jersey is a great and cheaper place to stay for popping into the city, I wanted somewhere with things going on first thing in the morning, last thing at night. I wanted a neighbourhood. Williamsburg was my ideal but I was doubtful we could get anything because of the price. I was looking on AirBnb which I love, will continue to use, but all in all found for New York was a bad experience and I don’t think for going there I would use it again. First up, the search was a nightmare. Probably only 30% of the listings turned out to be proper, in that people had in the description that the dates available were for 2 weeks in May or something but didn’t put the proper dates or removed when the time had passed in so it appeared in the calendar. This made trawling through very tedious. Secondly, a huge number of people put the listing up but never respond to your inquiries. This wasn’t looking at short notice, I started looking about 6 months before. And because of how much someone in NYC can charge, the choices are not great. Tons of them are to sleep in the persons front room or behind a curtain, but you have to often look quite closely to notice that.
Anyhow, location wise the place we chose was undeniably great, everything else about it was not so great. The theory that just a room and a bed is all you need does not work out when you are staying somewhere for more than a few days (like 2 weeks!) and it is in the middle of the hottest month which no-one seems to be prepared for. I should have known when we turned up at the pre-arranged time to be told that the room wasn’t ready, that this girl, in her mid 20s who I will call just H, was not the hostest with the mostest. It was no bother for us. We dropped our bags off and went off to drop our rental car at La Guardia.
When we got back we got shown to the room in the dark basement flat (no problem with this as our flat in Brighton is a dark basement) but we soon realised that pictures can lie. The picture on Airbnb wasn’t wrong but gave the impression there was a front room. Not that we wanted to be sat around in the apartment all the time but somewhere to sit and have a drink and maybe eat when we were on our own is what we were expecting.
The kitchen had an oven, microwave and fridge but no work surface – on the few times we tried to even have take out food in there we ended up using the top of the washer.
The room had just a bed and a drawless bedside table. Being used to living out of backpacks I managed to organise things but most things had to ‘live’ on the floor which was awkward. There was no ceiling light just a lamp which gave off a dull light you could barely read by. The sheets on the bed were a bit scratch, but so be it (I’ve since seen reviews that say that people thought she’d not even washed them for their stay).
On the 2nd night the bed fell to pieces. This probably had happened before as the slats were just lain across the bed/not nailed or screwed in. She was clueless about what to do. Fair enough. She was a young girl, these things can through you. We had some gaffer tape we carried around for emergencies that we looped around as best we could. It never felt v sturdy so in addition we positioned the backpacks across the room so they pushed against the bed, helping to keep the slats in place. This is how we stayed for the rest of the 3 weeks. Never any mention of dealing with it and with the next guest turning up not long after we left, I guess they had to deal with the same.
The linen wasn’t changed the whole time which wouldn’t normally bother me but the room was often like a sauna. She had an aircon unit which she liked to leave on when she was in, the problem being it pointed into the ‘front room’, opposite direction to our bedroom with the pipe that blows out the hot air going out of the kitchen window. But our one source of air was the bedroom window which backed onto a low courtyard bit next to the kitchen window so the hot air blew into our room heating it up. It was pretty unpleasant to spend time in this dark, hot humid bedroom so we tried to be out a lot of the time but that isn’t what we wanted – it was exhausting. It wasn’t an out and out dirty place but it wasn’t clean in the way that you clean it if you have guests coming, let alone paying guests. One day we had a couple of unwelcome dark, shady visitors. Now let me tell you, having travelled in all these exotic and unusual places on our trip – New York has the largest cockroaches. Size of freakin rats!!! Even that we took in our stride. We’re not complainy, fussy people and in the end we just wanted to leave. There would have been no point creating a fuss, if we ever did bring anything up with her it was usually met with a blank stare. We barely saw her which was a good thing, but that didn’t mean it was because she wasn’t there. She kept odd hours and we realised after a few days that where she slept was in an alcovy bit behind a curtain in the front room. We clearly had her bedroom. I’m not sure what she did for a living. She didn’t seem like she was holding down any kind of proper job. So when she was in, if you were in the front room it always felt a bit uncomfortable and half the time you weren’t sure if she was in or not so still felt uncomfortable. Not that we did anything in the rest of the house other than stand in the kitchen staring at each other wondering what to do. It was such a strange experience as I still can’t work out for the life of me what was going on with her. Surely it’s human nature that if someone comes to stay in your house you make sure the basics are there. There wasn’t even enough crockery. There were 2 mugs as I recall so if she’d had a drink and left the washing up in the sink (as she did often) we had to do her washing up to get the mug and often plates. I mean you can pick up mugs and plates at ikea or a second hand store for a couple of dollars. She can’t of exactly been poor living in Williamsburg in the first place and her expensive ready made vegan food that sat around in the fridge wasn’t cheap. The fridge was fun – a huge thing but of course leaving one shelf for paying guests wouldn’t be the thing to do would it. It was full of stuff – she wasn’t sure what belonged to the previous guests she said. Some days we would come back to find her and her creepy boyfriend sat on the chez lounge watching things on the laptop. This was a tiny bit of furniture which was as much as a sofa as the flat had and was right inside the door so you’d walk straight in to find them draped over each other, him a shirtless, voiceless ape.
I mean this stuff isn’t rocket science. You clean your house, give people basic but clean things to use and make the best of what you’ve got – even a hook on the back of the bedroom door would have helped! And most of all your are courteous and considerate. Fat chance here!
I mean it was cheap – working out at probably 45 quid a night but you could stay in a hostel for less and at least they’d have some level of hospitality.
I’m sure there are great NYC hosts out there but this was a serious dud. Even if you are just doing it for the money – if you have no interest in other people’s need it’s not the thing for you. I regret not leaving her a worse airbnb review but somehow I kept giving her the benefit of the doubt. If it was a couple of nights and wasn’t in the middle of summer, the downsides would be ignorable. My feedback that goes to Airbnb rather than be published was honest though and I even sent H a direct, unpublished message talking about the issue with the heat and the air con and the cockroaches. She didn’t bother replying and didn’t leave any feedback on us. That pretty much sums her up. Oddly she was very communicative and chatty and helpful in communication before our stay. You can usually take that as a good indicator of who you are staying with but sadly not this time. Again, I think the place wouldn’t have bothered us if it was a few nights and wasn’t the height of humid summer. It was just as the days went on and you were hot and tired and uncomfortable, things start to get to you. She was a ‘nice’ person but just away with the fairies and I would say not suited to hosting.
Anyhow, you live and learn and to be honest it is difficult to judge these things and we’d been pretty lucky up till now. I’m sure there’s a few similar places in London where people are just taking the money without putting much effort in. Each to their own!
Welcome to Williamsburg
So we were very close to the Bedford Avenue subway entrance which is the heart of the Williamsburg scene. It’s a very funny place. It can get on your nerves sometimes with the amount of hipster-esque things and people but there is lots of nice things there and some bits of the old Brooklyn remain.
Mark used to walk around muttering ‘everyone’s different so they are the same’ which sums up things quite nicely. There is almost a uniform – particularly for the men, they really do look the same. And everyone has a french bulldog. Go figure!
One of the first places we went to was the Surf bar. This place doesn’t say much of anything. It’s not particularly hip or New Yorky but it’s just fun and nice to hang out in – especially in hot summer.
It was always going to appeal to me with it’s kitschy, beachy aesthetics. Lot’s of fairy lights, sand on the floor out in the large garden. Tasty seafood and good drinks. It was quite pricey but if you go to Williamsburg first time as a tourist and aren’t quite sure where to go/what to eat I think it’s a nice easy stop off.
A bar which was possibly my favourite was on Bedford Avenue but as you moved further away from the ‘heart’. It was a kind of old fashioned bar with a very 80s feel, a large area in the middle for late night dancing and as we discovered on a later trip, big old Brooklyn bouncers on the door, who weren’t there to decide if you were cool enough to come in, but were good old fashioned bouncers, looking for trouble makers.
The first time we went in the lady behind the bar had me intrigued. She had the most fabulous Brooklyn accent and was telling us that they were having problems with the ‘waaader’ (read water) so would we mind using plastic cups. Us? Of course not. She seemed to take this as a sign that we were ok! We then pretended to talk to each other while really listening to her bitch about her parking ticket which she shouldn’t have got as the funeral directors pass was clearly showing on the dashboard. There was a funeral directors across the street and I guess both that and the bar were her family business. I love this! I can’t work out what this bar is called but it’s on the corner of Bedford and 5th.
Other great things in Williamsburg, include the many Food Trucks – from vegan ice-cream to rendang. Great for cheap eats.
The local independent supermarket – I loved this place and would often pick up things to take home to eat. They had some vegan dumplings I was rather fond of.
The view from Williamsburg, a few streets back from Bedford Avenue is amazing and it is nice to just go down there and sit in the sun and look. We never got the ferry over but you could get it up to midtown and downtown somewhere as well.
On the weekend the famous vintage market is great but it’s kind of too perfect. You won’t ‘find’ cool things because everything is cool and priced as such. The food there is amazing as well. If you lived there you could kit out your place and your wardrobe quite nicely from here. It wasn’t all expensive you could get some old T-shirts reasonably priced. Cheaper than the many amazing but stupidly priced vintage shops scattered around Williamsburg itself.
Favourite things in Williamsburg
The hero of the hour. I loved this place. It sold kind of southern food but without the slop.
The Sunday brunch was barely eatable if you included the free soup or salad – huge!! And what a bargain – the lunchtime special which involved quarter of a chicken with a couple of sides (and soup or salad if you wanted) with a corn muffin was something like $10.
This was kind of the neighbourhood ish place I’d hope for in Brooklyn that didn’t cost much and have any pretentions. See the plate below – that’s just the side order!
Cribs Hot dogs
Oh My God!!! I’d heard about this place but didn’t think much of it before we went. You wouldn’t think much could be said of a hot dog joint but lordy these are good hot dogs. The BLT is my recommendation. Yum!!
Korean Mexican fusion?
That’s the kind of thing you get in Brooklyn. Sometimes it seems fun and innovative but often you really think just why?
Oh you’ve got to love lunchtimes in the city – great deals to be had – especially in Williamsburg where lots of the monied are working in the daytime over on Manhattan. We had a great ramen at a quite famous Japanese place who’s usual prices are rather high.
Another great bar on Bedford Avenue, Williamsburg
Free pizza with your beer? Yes please.
Rosamundes – a bar that sells sausages – cooked and in a butchers stylee.
The first time we went they had Alf on the tvs constantly – what’s not to love?
Another former neighbourhood bar which has hipstered up but still has a nice atmosphere.
We spent a great night there feeing the jukebox. NYC does lots of jukeboxes!
The park at the far end of Bedford Avenue is interesting. It’s a bit rough and ready and I’m not sure I’d hang out their at night but there’s definitely some interesting goings on. They apparently have free open air cinema up there in the cinema too.
On our short stroll we saw one of the most interesting cars I’ve ever seen and a great posters for a lost tree:
I heart the East Village:
The East Village is somewhere I utterly love and we found ourselves, wherever we’d been, time and again gravitating back there (it helped that it was one stop on the L train). Here is a list of some of my fave things.
This is an old fashioned bar, graffitti and bars out the front. Basic inside, run by a Russian grandmother – no idea if she is Lucy or not, but I like her. No nonsense. It’s always dark no matter what time of day and you can grab the local paper and get a good priced drink.
A diamond Vietnamese, on Mcdougal street.
The price of this place kept surprising me. Often with Vietnamese, the more kind of ‘ruff and ready’ a place looks, the better, but this one they’ve done in a kind of asian modern stylee which would make you think the prices are higher than they are. The food is just bloody amazing.
On the corner of Tomkins Square park – this place was fantastic. Massive bowls of prawn tempura udon at a great price!!
I could only looking in longingly with my budget – but this place sells vintage specs and in the past I have gotten some fantastic bits that even in my ‘sell everything to travel the world’ moments, I haven’t been able to part with.
Tompkins Square Park
I love this park. I always like to wander through and see what’s going on and we always stop to watch the dog parks – one for small dogs, one for all dogs.
In the summer they have lots of events on and they were coming to the end of that season. We stumbled upon an open air screening of ‘O brother where art thou’ and before the film they had blue mountain style singers performing. Unfortunately it had poured that day so the ground was soaking so we decided not to stick around to watch the film.
There’s something about this place though and I find wherever I am if I’m tired, or don’t know what to do with myself, or even just want to have a think – I tend to head to the park and the streets surrounding it.
Otto’s Shrunken Head
I do love a tiki bar so I headed over to find this one on the outer edges of the East Village. We didn’t go there enough in the end – I really liked it. It’s been around years and is a little bit divey and not ‘trendy’ so is full of interesting people. They have rockabilly and comedy nights and I can definitely recommend if you want an afternoon hideaway.
This is somewhere I like mainly for the kitschy decor. You can’t get enough leopardskin in your life can you?
Elsewhere in NYC…
It’s the diner underneath the New Yorker hotel. We always go here and one of the few things in this crazy, busy centre I like.
They do good food. LOTS of it. It’s often got a lot of NYPD in there too. One time we saw someone called ‘Officer Squash’ and this always amuses us to say in an over exaggerated New York accent.
Art & MOMA
I’ve been to MOMA in other places but never got further than the museum shop at the New York one. It’s not the cheapest thing in the world to do so we decided to be good backpackers and go on the free night. Wednesday night I think it was. Wow – that’s popular. We joined a queue which looped right around the block. It actually didn’t take long to get in once they opened the doors but actually I’m not sure if I’d recommend to go here as a freebie. It was so popular/so busy and it’s kind of hard to enjoy a gallery with that many people about. Part of the experience should be to have a little peace and space to look at what you like. It’s a cool place though, particularly the courtyard garden.
Obviously just walking the streets you find a lot of art. Street art, galleries and unintentional art. One of the more interesting things we came across was a building who’s front wall swung out onto the street to create the gallery.
This has gone up so quickly. I have never been to New York when the twin towers were there so I’ve never been able to imagine this site with something on it. It’s always been a massive hole/construction site to me – one tinged with horror and sadness of course. But now the freedom tower is built I get how much the towers meant to people because you can see it almost every neighbourhood and direction you go. It’s ever present, so I can only imagine how strange it must have been to live with those towers with such prominence on the street and building views from all over, to have that gone.
That said – I know there’s a spike on the top to make it tall but there’s something else – an antenna or something – which always looks messy and drove me a bit mad – felt it ruined the view that it should be – clean and standing tall. Not with some wonky wiring at the top.
TriBeCa & Meat Packing District
I’d never been properly to these area before so I wanted to have a wander about. This is all about ‘I’ you notice. Well Mark does like New York but it’s my obsession and I make the plans and drag him around. I got stuck on a crazy island for many months so he can traipse around New York with me for a couple of weeks!
Anyhow, I found the areas had some nice old character mixed in with a bit of sterility. I find Soho, though pretty, to be very sterile and it holds no interest for me and these places tinged on that. A bit too cleaned up with quite bland galleries and restaurants.
The architecture of the Meat Packing District is gorgeous though and you can think back to decades old movies or cop shows where they are interviewing someone hanging a whole pig in a freezer (it was always a pig wasn’t it?) – they’re still the same buildings – gorgeously restored. I just wished they filled it with things that were a little bit more eclectric. Sometimes I think part of New York will over stylise themself!
We got onto the highline, which is a park like walk setup on an old disused railway line which opened a few years back. I’d been dying to see it and it wasn’t wildy exciting but is definitely worth a go. Certain points your walking through not so interesting buildings but then you get a view or a sight that makes it worth it. Particularly the further north you got.
The Williamsburg bridge
Everyone raves about walking over the Brooklyn Bridge which I’m sure is great but frankly there’s nothing much when you arrive there, other than the view back over and the point you go over on the Manhattan side isn’t very interesting either. The Williamsburg bridge hooks up too more interesting places with a lot more going on. It’s not only a nice walk if you fancy it but it’s a convenient link.
It takes you to the lower east side where if you head north you find some of the best restaurants, bars and shops.
After we’d walked the bridge, we were practically on the doorstep of one of another of my faves – Schillers lounge which has interiors to die for. Not sumptuous – but it has somehow been preserved in time and you have original tiles, mirrors and especially amazing is the bathrooms downstairs.
And they do a very good bloody mary too!!
You can’t not love Central Park. This was the great advantage to going in the summer to be able to spend a long (if hot and tiring) time in the park. I wanted to go to areas I hadn’t been to before so decided to start in the top eastern corner. This meant getting the subway to the edge of Harlem. This is a very different area to the bottom easter corner. Mark was a little disconcerted when we got out of the subway and I tried to find my barings to get to the park. He was even more concerned when we had a huge guy try to hustle us for some money as he’d just got out of hospital because he’d hit his head !?! He did act like he’d had a blow to the nonce!
Anyhow – it made us realise how huge the park is. It took for ever to make our way down but it was really interesting. The difference in the type of people and what they were doing as you made your way down was a surprise. And there’s all kinds of little things to find along the way. The huge lake/pond in the middle is huge.
During this trip and another we made to spend a couple of hours here, we finally found the iconic poets walk, watched some baseball, watched some amazing roller skating which I think goes on every weekend in the summer. And people watched – a lot! Watching some of the portrait artists was funny – there was some great artists but the likeness to the person they were actuallly drawing? Way off – hilariously so!
It’s a cliche, it’s a tourist trap but it’s also a great place with great beer and great atmosphere that is not to be missed.
The oldest bar in NYC – probably. The best – it’s certainly up there. Sawdust on the floor and you can buy two beers at a time – go for a light and dark.
It is the best. It just is!!
Trailer Park Lounge
Mark gets dragged here everytime but I have to – it’s like a place of workship for kitsch lovers. Buy your beer in a can, order some mac n cheese and just lok around you… heaven!!
We were introduced to this on an east to west pub crawl we got taken on on our first visit together (thanks cousin Andrew) and I couldn’t remember it’s name but stumbled across it again in Greenwich village. It’s a perfect bar. Little bit funky, but not too much – doing it’s own thing.
Fabulously central to all things good and great people watching. There was an eccentrically dressed crazy guy who looked like he was about to beat on people but actually was chasing after people who were dropping litter and shaming them. Good for him!!
You always have to end up at Washington Square park!
West side story
We hit the Hudson on the west side for the first time. It’s funny to see Jersey sat over the other side. It always seems to much further away than Brooklyn – like it’s another world almost. A walk north, ending up by Chelsea pier, was interesting having never been there before and nice and quiet but unless I was after some peace and space I probably wouldn’t rush to go back over there again. Though I can see it’s appeal for the owners of upscale homes in the West Village – somewhere to go chill or run, with few tourists.
I’d wanted to stay in Brooklyn and explore it for the first time but actually I found it quite difficult to suss out what to do at certain times and often ended up just heading to Manhattan. I probably would have just ticked off each neighbourhood to walk around aimlessly, but I was driving Mark mad with having no real ‘end destination’ on such excursions. Here’s some of the things we did/places we discovered in Brooklyn, outside of our local Williamsburg.
I have always wanted to go to Coney Island but I’ve never been around in the summer. It’s so icon for it’s retro funfair – there’s a soundtrack in my head whenever I see pictures. It’s a bit of hike down there on a pretty slow train, but going mid week it was pretty quiet. This was good so as to avoid hoards of kids and the noise that brings, but it did mean there wasn’t a lot going on there.
I guess to compare Coney Island to somewhere in the UK it would be Blackpool or Brighton pier. Old fashioned beachside fun.
We started our trip rather badly as it was lunchtime and we’d not eaten so hastily made a stop at Applebee’s. I’ve never been to one before and it’s unlikely I will again. The first person you see as you walk in is ….. first impression officer. The food was not great and not cheap either. I think if you went with their ridiculous ‘stuff your face’ type deals it would work out cheaper. I was gutted we didn’t hold out and go to somewhere with a bit more characters.
The fair area is separated into a couple of areas, the larger rides and an area for smaller kids with cuter rides. It’s got a proper old skool style and is a visual treat for sure.
I, of course, had a go on Zoltar (as per Big), but unfortunately (or fortunately probably more likely) I have remained in my 30s.
There’s some icon structures such as the parachute, the Cyclone and big wheel. The cyclone is still shut from the storms but even without storm damage i don’t think i’d have the guts to go on it – it is proper ricketty!!
The take away food looked great – wish we hadn’t eaten in god awful Applebees first. We did partake of rather amazing ice creams before we left though.
We went down to Brighton beach (well we had to didn’t we) in the Russian area known as little odessa. It was a funny place. Quite a lot of angry russian drunks hanging about and then some interesting bars/restaurants.
We hung for a little bit in Tatianas – a large seafront restaurant with a nightclub downstairs which looked very interesting. I think it’s the kind of club were you really don’t want to mess with the management!!
The Transit Museum
This was something I fancied as I’ve always found the idea of old tube/subway stations interesting. I’d love to see some of the abandoned ones, but this is the closest I can get as the museum is set in a disused station – Court station.
I flippin loved this place. I don’t know what this says about me, but I thought it was fab. There’s tons of old carriages from the different eras – complete with posters and ads from the time which were quite fascinating.
We also got to pretend to drive things and go through turnstiles rather pointlessly.
There was a video room which was showing the full Michael Jackson ‘Bad’ video and a short doco as it was filmed at the subway station that we’d come into the area in.
Brooklyn heights isn’t really a destination in itself but it’s nice to have a wonder around. The buildings are so iconic and have a host of amazing former residents. We had a very NYC moment when we were approached by a Rabi asking for directions as we stood outside the apartment block that was home to Arthur Miller & Marilyn Monroe. Just up the road was Truman Capote’s former home and Moonstruck was filmed around there.
Mark didn’t know what Moonstruck was. WTF?
On the river side of the area it of course has great views of manhattan. It is very quite and I can imagine it’s ideal for (rich) families for convenience as well as style.
Caroll gardens/the canal ways
Caroll gardens is a really nice, pretty area. It kind of reminded me of parts of Hove. It’s quite and nice but still with plenty of things around.
The strangest thing was the canal – a very quite place to go that you can imagine only a few short years ago, before restoration, it being dodgy as!
I think if I stayed again for a while, I’d like to be based here.
This is another semi gentrified area which has some nice restaurants and bars – a good stop off if you’ve been to the Transport museum as otherwise there’s not much nice around that area. I can recommend the Thai food at HopHap.
Under the Brooklyn Bridge
There is a park under the brooklyn bridge which in the summer shows outdoor screenings of various movies.
The weather wasn’t great the day we were there. We had a wander around the area known as Dumbo but there’s not really anything there.
There’s a restaurant around there which we had a few drinks in which was full of character. The Old Fulton restaurant was once italian owned I think and is now russian owned I think. The decor is luxurious and a bit barmy and it has a fab atmosphere and mix of clientelle. Rich beautiful kids, bikers, old geezers. So if you are round there and not sure where to go, I’d give it a go.
There was less open than prob previously I think – the famous river cafe is closed due to damage from the storm.
We got to watch a latino band filming a music video which was v funny as they were dancing to no music!!
The film on that night was Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. Many people’s idea of heaven but I’m not keen and add to that the bad view and poor weather we didn’t make it the whole way though and left early.
It was dark by then and we did manage to get lost trying to find the nearest subway. Brooklyn isn’t really the most fun place to get lost. I didn’t admit to Mark that I was a little concerned (I never do when this kind of thing happens!).
But we found our way in the end thanks to some helpful students!
It’s a great view day and night over to manhattan and looking at the bridge so worth going over there but the lack of nearby subway means needing a little planning.
NYC Budget Traveler Tips:
Ferry cross the Hudson
It’s a classic tip on any budget NYC itinerary but it’s a good one. The Staten Island Ferry is free and you get great views not only of the Status of Liberty but also of Manhattan, Brooklyn and the newly resurgent Staten Island. I also found the journey itself was interesting in terms of people watching. This is people’s commute. It’s a funny old, oddly relaxing experience.
NYC is amazing for the best, most expensive food in the world but also for cheap eats. You just need to be careful and think about where you are/what you are having but it’s all there. I thought we’d eat mainly street food and eat at home but eating out was quite easy if you plan – just keep your eye on resturants/cafes as you pass them so u can come back if they are a bargain.
You can go looking for things in New York but more often than not the most interesting things you will stumble upon.
Just walk the streets – try out different neighbourhoods – it’s amazing the things you find. Impromptu hug givers, tree huggers (yes I have seen both), street parties, exhibitions and hidden treasures.
You also often stumble on tv or movie sets. I don’t thik I’ve ever been to NYC without coming across some tv/movie trailers. This time around they were filming in 2 places I like – Mc Sorleys – famously the oldest pub in NYC and a tourist trap to an extent but such a great place non-the-less. I’ll talk about it more later on.
They were completely closed for filming which we were rather miffed about as we were headed there. The other place was the Borgeous Pig which is a great, atmospheric fondue restaurant which was out of our budget this time around. Who knows what they were filming in there – a cozy couple restaurant scene I would imagine – it’s deep reds and twinkling lights would work well for that.
You always come across the most interesting things by accident – it is the NYC law!
My mini Law and Order tour
I love the series Law and Order – be it original, SVU, Criminal Intent, LA, UK – all of them. And there’s barely an episode I haven’t watched because if it’s on I’ll put it on. I like it as background and I find it oddly relaxing. What I found on the trip that apart from poss Cuba -every country seems to shows Law & Order. I guess because there’s so many of them and they sell them cheaply – but I’ve never been far away when we’ve had TVs. Anyhow, I wanted to go to a few places related to it – the famous court steps, police plaza and the street named after Jerry Orbach from the original (RIP!). So I dragged Mark around some more but didn’t go too far afield in my quest. Both the court (easter lower manhattan) and the road (on the upper west side) took me to areas I’ve never been to before.
The subway between Williamsburg and East Village is a cool ride.
You get the most amazing buskers on this route (we met an incredible english guy who told us he made a good amount of money there).
You also get the kids who do kind of break-ish dancing involving hanging of the train poles and doing various acrobatics who then just politely hand the hat around.
This is a very peaceful park on the upper west side which goes on forever and mainly has locals so a different kind of people watching.
For people who like cheesy movies – the bit at the end of ‘You’ve got mail’ was filmed here.
On the subway in Brooklyn, you’d get the drivers talking to you about the journey and the stops. Mark and I were gleefully on our journey one time to have the most fabulously shouty female train driver with the epitomy of Brooklyn accents. It really is the little things.
See the (grim) sites
You probably can’t spend a lot of time in NYC without seeing some gross things.
There was the guy on a kind of wheelchair who was also an alcoholic or druggy and his ‘lovely’ mates clearly couldn’t be bothered to help him pull his pants back on after he last went to the toilet. That arse was on show for all to see and they were all oblivious.
There was another delightful lady we encountered, who we smelled before we saw. A very hot, humid day on the subway and the smell hit us and as we turned to see what it was we saw an opened shopping bag laid on the floor with large chunks of faeces falling out onto the platform. She was particularly special. Obviously she has a hideous life but it was puzzling that someone who lives in the subway could be so huge. I guess the excess in NYC allows even the homeless to be obese. Sad stories all round.
Alice’s empty tea cup
Alice’s tea cup on the upper west side. It should have worked but apart form a bit of interesting decco and chirpy ‘boy’ staff, it was over priced and underwhelming. Everything that NY can get wrong sometimes. Go full on or don’t bother!
Where not to go
Brooklyn can definitely change block by block and after getting off at one subway station we went in the wrong direction and not so much ended up in a rough location, more one were you offered a bit of a shocking insight. This area had a bunch of buildings grouped near each other which meant there were some interesting characters hanging around. The US equivalent of the job centre and social services (whatever they are called over there). And just up the road was a tower block detention centre. Bit of an eye opener, just from going a couple of blocks in the wrong direction.
Say what now?
Why does everyone have to shout their conversations? Why? Why!?!?
The Ugly but inevitable
Everything changes and you’ve got to wait
First time into the East Village and I was looking forward to brunch, bloody mary and all at Life, on the corner at Tompkins Square Park.
This is the cafe that features in the musical/movie Rent as is was frequented by the writer back in the 80s when the East Village was a grim, yet arty haunt. We had ended up going here not because of it’s association but because it was a couple of blocks from where we had stayed in New York on a previous trip (now there’s a place I can highly recommend the New York Bed and Coffee (http://www.bedandcoffee.com/) has arty room and shares bathrooms with a few other people on each floor. It’s fantastic! Anyhow, the brunch at this place was amazing and we were gutted to have found it had gone. Asking in the uber trendy coffee house next door, apparently one day it just shut unexpectedly and that was that. It is the nature of New York, ever changing, but it is a bit gutting. You don’t want the less fancy places to go but nowhere is safe. The great bar Nice Guy Eddy (or something like that) which used to be opposite Katz Deli on the lower east side is now literally a trendy wine bar. New York does character well but it also does bland well and I noticed walking around that a lot of some of my favourite areas have gotten quite boring.
My biggest annoyance – bars or restaurants that had no sign with their name on the front as they are too cool for school and if you want to know you will find out. Their interiors are taken back to brick with the dippest lighting they can manage so you can’t even see in to try to work out who they are and what they do.
As for the queuing thing that is so loved in New York. Forget it. I don’t care how good your food is, I’m not queuing and especially not if there’s a chance I can’t get in and if I do it’s over crowded. The queuing itself is half the being seen and I really can’t think of any bigger waste of your life.
I might have really, really wanted to try a Cronut (a fancy bakery in Greenwich Village have created this which is a cross breed of a croissant and a donut), but I’m not going to go there at 8am and queue for an hour. I went in at 3pm and they’d sold out 6 hours previously.
There’s tons of good food to be had in the world. It shouldn’t involve hype.
I tend to tick Time Square off once per trip but it’s not somewhere I really like to go. I’m not into shows so other than that it holds no interest to me. Mark does love a bit of Ripleys but we’ve done that one before. There’s a two headed cow from Wiveliscombe, Devon in the entrance and I remember on a previous trip, the guy outside trying to get people in told me it was from ‘Wivel-scom’ until I corrected him about the pronunciation. Obnoxious? Moi?
Falling into a festival
We turned down a street on 5th Avenue and saw there was a little Brazilian festival going on, so we walked through it only to find at the far end it was actually a full on celebration with people like sardines trying to watch something on stage. The crowd was huge and intense and we literally got trapped and struggled to make it out together. I can handle crowds but I think when you’re not expecting it, it can be a tad full on.
But then falling upon things randomly occurring is what makes NYC so exciting.
Alcohol and a jukebox brings people together
We had a very odd but definitely fun night in the East Village one day when we decide to partake of the jukebox as is our like and due to our choices got chatting to a couple who were on their first date. They were really nice but I think they weren’t into each other in a romantic way so we had a more fun the 4 of us putting on some ‘interesting’ tunes. Lot’s of guilty pleasures – oh yes – even Celine Dion. Then another guy who was with his friends, cottoned on to this and applauding are good bad taste, joined in by putting on Jennifer Rush ‘I am your lady’. Epic!!
Too cool for skool
Williamsburg was v funny as the staff in half the places were away with the fairies. Obviously none of them were waiters – they would all be artists, in a band, directors, photographers or whatever. But in a city that prides itself on service, it could be hilariously bad here. We didn’t care as we were in a rush and had been in countries where service isn’t a big deal ever! I think bad burger was a prime example. Food was fine but the guy working there was a total space cadet. But I kind of liked it. It added to the vibe. Reminded me of the film Clerks.
So that’s it really. Not a blog that makes much sense but I had to get all those memories and moments down and as it’s one of the most photographable places in the world, we got some great shots.
The journey from Canada
We took the train from Montreal to the US and it was a pretty straightforeward, if slow, trip. The train was well over an hour late and no message of apology ever came. This seems to be a given. This, I would imagine, is why people don’t take the train in the US.
A couple of tips for anyone taking the train from Canada to the US (this train was the New York city train):
– When you arrive at Montreal there are some porters hanging about who for a tiny amount (I can’t remember exactly what it was but as backpackers we didn’t bat an eyelid) will look after your luggage when you arrive at Montreal station so you can wander about and then take it down to load on the train so you get on first (seat aren’t allocated). This is apparently due to the recent rules since the Boston bombings – people have to get on with their luggage so if your luggage is looked after and put on – you have to go with it. It was all kind of odd and a bit unofficial seeming but it all worked perfectly and we got great seats nice and early.
– Your ESTA form is not valid for travelling overland into the US. We had to cough up some more money to pay for our VISA entry into the USA. We were a bit p’d off at this as it had not been mentioned anywhere when we’d looked up travelling in by train. The reason seemingly is because the passport check seemed to use no technology whatsoever. Our passports were manually checked over by someone who came to each passenger. If they though you’d have to pay of there was anything that needed talking about – you went and sat in the buffet carriage and waited for someone else to come around to chat to you. This process took forever – we must have been there a good hour and a half. It just seemed bizarrely disorganised and as is too often the case, some of the passport control guys had attitude problems. Our’s seemed very annoyed that he had to look through our very full and disorganised passports and even more grumpy at the concept we’d been travelling. But we didn’t get it bad at all compared to anyone who was hispanic or asian. Jeez. I guess you don’t often witness the questioning of people so close at hand but downright rude seemed to be the order of the day and if they didn’t speak English well, then just loudly, aggressively, impatient repeating seemed to be the order of the day. This wasn’t all the staff to be fair but the bad ones are the ones you remember aren’t they? This experience definitely put me off getting into the country this way again. It was undeniably good value but turning up with a bad taste in your mouth and super late, is never a fun start.
Experiencing the real US of A
So, my main reason for visiting upper New York state was to visit family so I won’t go into the personal details of my utterly delightful stay but will just talk about some of the things we did/places we went, because as well as loving being with my family and getting huge crushes on my gorgeous nieces and nephew – we also got a bit of a crush on this lovely area.
We were staying at my sister Patty’s, in a place just outside of Maine, Broome County with the largest big city being Binghamton and the postal code being Johnson City. The signs as you drove through said Johnson City Village – all this was rather confusing to say the least! My other sister, Shani, lives in Harpursville – a 45ish minute car ride away which in these parts is considered close by. Being such a vast country, it’s such a long journey to get anywhere, however, the roads and quick, the traffic, quiet by UK standards (VERY quiet by south east england standards), so the journeys tend to be smooth so not a big deal. Patty and my niece Kim picked us up from Schenectady (we never worked out how to pronounce this) which was a couple of hours drive each way for her (not to mention the wait for our delayed train) but she was cool about it as she is so used to such distances. When drives to relatives and dentists and such like are that kind of distance, it’s not such a big deal. We definitely found that the journeys weren’t remotely arduous – as compared to travelling the relatively short distance from say London to Devon – the whole thing a blood pressure inducing crawl, these smooth, big roads, in big comfy cars were a doddle. On the way back from the station we got to stop at a proper diner too which was cool.
We were staying properly out in the country but you could be in the centre of Binghamton super quickly – everything was super convenient but of course you have to drive! We were fine of course as we were ferried about by long suffering relatives but you definitely see how much of the US gets missed out by anyone travelling/back-packing as it’s not so easy to get about and explore unless you have a car. I definitely want to do a huge road trip at some point. The landscape around here was lush, green and pretty epic. There’s lots of wildlife – large deer are particularly common and we saw some hanging about out front of the house one time. You can also tempt them in with apple cores apparently.
Deciding to get a bit of exercise and explore one day we walked to the end of the road and back. My niece Kim does this walk regularly so we thought this would be a lovely idea. Wow that was a hike – especially the large uphill bit on the way back – Kim is clearly way, way fitter than us two layabouts. Despite knackering ourselves out – it was a lovely walk – nice to check out the local properties – huge houses – mansion like to people from England – manicures lawns, out-buildings and barns the size of a Brighton apartment block!
Much of our stay was spent hanging around with family and I was lucky enough to go out and about to do a bit of girl shopping without a moaning Mark in the background.I had my first real ‘shopping mall’ experience. I’ve obviously been to them in cities, but never a kind of everyday out of town one. Could have knocked me down with a feather at the price I paid for some jeans and a top – you’d be lucky to pay that in a charity shop at home. I was also quite bewildered by all the sch-peal from the shop assistants – your rounded up change going to charity and doing surveys online and yada yada. It quite bewildered me. I cottoned on soon enough and by the time I hit NYC I was no longer a rabbit in the headlight at cut them off pretty sharpish.
I was also sadly excited by the supermarkets. Wegmans is a great store. I was impressed that they had special attention on things that were in season – peaches were big time while we were there. And not only that the produce tasted so good. This being an area with lots of farms, they clearly aren’t going to accept fruit and veg that tastes of nothing that we get so used to in the UK from supermarkets. And also – in the kids sweets section, they had an overhead model train – how can you not love that????
We also sourced some yorkshire tea here and lots of cheese. I was being proper spoiled!
The local farm shop was obviously a delight. Corn from their cornfields growing right next door (with dried corn cobs decorating the wooden building that holds the shop). Freshly baked pies. The hugest, juiciest peaches and lot’s of other interesting bits and pieces.
My brother in law, Steve, runs a construction company and has a bunch of trucks, diggers and the like. Mark and I were like little kids climbing into the driving seats of things and pretending to drive. Yep, we made broom, broom noises and everything. It was ace!!
Check out the big shed that houses a load of stuff which uses old lorry bodies as walls:
I noticed in this picture also, that you can see the kind of landscape of the area too.
Our biggest thrill (who needs theme parks when you live round here!) was getting to have a go on the big excavator type thing – we went out with my nephew, Ryan, and the three of had a bit of a go at excavating rubble. I went first and was a little gun-ho and swirled the cab round at quite a speed that gave Mark a bit of a heart attack. It hadn’t occurred to me to check that the digger arm was hanging higher than the rubble. Luckily I was clear by a few inches – may have rocked the cradle somewhat if it hadn’t been. I think my brother in law had given me a little more credit for having common sense, than I deserved!! Once you get the hang of the controls it’s actually a super enjoyable, almost meditational thing – picking up the rubble on one side and swing round and position it on the other. Sounds odd but I could do it all day. Apparently it’s not quite so enjoyable in smaller vehicles that are a lot less sturdy and therefore produce a bumpy ride.
Riding high (and low and in a ditch)
Other countryside toys included the atvs (quad bikes). They owned a couple of fields a little way up the road which were perfect for bombing about in.
Mark was keen to have a go and my teenage niece Jenna basically gave me no choice. We were sensibly helmet-ted up (don’t let the photos/vids of Mark fool you – he took the helmet off to look cool (which is the least cool thing ever, right?).
I went out on the back with Jenna (trying not to cling on too hard to the poor girl) and she was, I believe, quite enjoying herself as we went over big dips and she charged a group of cows, only to turn at the last minute while I screamed. “You’re such a baby” I seem to recall her shouting, gleefully!!! But I have to confess it was great fun and I did, just about, trust her not to kill me. Mark was in his element and thought he was Evil Knievel or some such hero.
I did have a go in ‘the easy field’. It was quite fun but I think I enjoyed being the passenger as I don’t trust myself. I was hurtling at quite a speed (read very slowly and tentatively) when I heard “mind the fence” – there was a low wire fence which I hadn’t noticed at all. After realising I couldn’t trust my senses at all I went off the idea a bit. Plus my hands had seized up where I’d been clinging onto the handles so hard!!
My second fail was trying to climb Jenna’s favourite tree. It had a few helping notches but I couldn’t pull my weight up onto the leg that was sprawled out into the air. And when my hip nearly seized up, I realised I was also the least cool person around – along with Mark. Though he did manage to get up the tree – where they both sat, looking down laughing at me!!!
Mark had a second atv experience with my nephew Ryan. They live much more out in the sticks, surrounded by woodland and so that was a bit more of an adventurous, rough, ready and wet ride, as of course, 16 year olds have no fear.
And his third go was going out one evening with Steve. This was apparently quite a hard core experience – going right into the woods through terrain he didn’t think a bike could go. He was quite pale when he came back. “I thought I was going to die” he whispered to me. Though he was also exhilarated and you bet, given the chance, he would have gone out again the next day. I was ok with it – he’s quite well insured after all!!
Woodland, waterfalls and wine
We went out on day out with my sister Shani and brother-in-law Bill where we headed up to Ithaca, home of Cornell university and the finger lakes.
On the way we went to an open bird sanctuary area connected to a college, I can’t remember which. This was a gorgeous hideaway – though not many birds about, wrong time of year, maybe, it was a magical little place. Lush and green, ponds covered with lilly pads – a really peaceful ambiance.
I got quite excited by seeing a bit of word that had been gnawed by a beaver.
Sounds sad I know, but when you see it and you haven’t seen it before, it’s kind of cool because it looks just like you’d imagine or how you’d see beaver gnawed wood appear in cartoons. We also, while looking over the huge pond area, saw 2 large red deer with white tails having a drink by the waters edge.
This is where Mark had his first bout of camera envy. Bill’s had amazing lenses and he was getting great shots of things we could barely see if we took on our SLR.
We headed further south up to Ithaca itself which had lots of big, interesting houses and seemed an interesting, vibrant place.
We went to Walmart which I was chuffed about as I’ve never been to the infamous Walmart. We got ourselves a lovely little picnic and went to go eat by the massive, gorgeous lake at the Allan H. Treman State Marine Park. This is kind of the beach for people living round here, it being so far from the coast. People have their leisure boats moored up here, some simple, some very grand and swish. The water is clear and the scenery is breath taking.
After our picnic and walk around the edge of the lake (and Mark becoming dr doolittle trying to befriend some ducks) – we headed north to go to Taughannock Falls. I was super happy as with all our travelling we’d not really seen a proper scale waterfall anywhere. We’d not seen one at all since Fiji, getting on for 2 years ago. And this waterfall is definitely impressive. There was what seemed to be a wedding that had gone on there which was must have made for some great wedding shots. Mark and I both actually had an intake of breath when we rounded the corner of the viewing steps and saw the waterfall for the first time. Wow! Impressive to say the least. This is where Mark almost gave up trying to take photos when he could see the great ones Bill was setting up.
Next stop was for a wine tasting. Not too shabby for Katie Believe it or not, wine lover that I am, I have never done a wine tasting and it’s something I’d really wanted to do on this trip. After not doing it in Oz I thought I wouldn’t get the chance after Napa got knocked off our list of places to visit so this was a great bonus for me. A waterfall and wine tasting in one day Yey!!! And the place was a gorgeous. A vineyard looking out over the lake and the mountains beyond. Talk about giving any view in Tuscany a run for it’s money.
We did a panoramic photo of the view but it really does no justice.
So, we did a tasting of 4 wines. It said which each one was and the price and it was interesting to find your preference and how the preference changed slightly as time went on. I was surprised just how much wine you got. Shani was designated driver that day and for sure, you couldn’t get away with driving and having one tasting – it’s a lot, not just a sip. Beautiful wines. Would have loved to have gotten one but wouldn’t have been able to carry such fragile cargo – all the room is taken up carrying Mark’s fragile ego – boom boom!
It was quite a drive back but a great chance for a girlie gossip as the boys in the back both fell asleep. Luckily we only did the one tasting – tempting as it was to go on, because if we had we’d have been in no state to enjoy the evenings festivities.
A little bit of country baby
This Tim McGraw gig had come up before we went so we knew my sister had gotten the tickets which I was proper excited about.
I don’t know a lot of artists but have experienced a few road trips in the US and more surprisingly, Australia, where the only music radio stations we could get were country and predominantly I always think of country as fun. The words to the songs are amazing and quite often tongue-in-cheek. One of the songs that popped on the radio when we were on the way to the concert was legendary – it was all about getting his red neck on. I LOVE this and decided then and there that was what I was going to do that evening – get MY redneck on.
The concert was put on by Dick’s Sporting Good – how all american does that sound for a star – and was setup in the grounds of a golf course. It drew a pretty impressive crowd and we traipsed through armed with our foldup chairs. How prepared is that – I am terribly unprepared for such things normally and it was so worth it to have a nice seat while we waited for proceedings to begin. They weren’t going to pussy foot about with a support act (super pleased about that – it so drags out an evening) and pretty much bang on time Tim came on. For those of you who doesn’t know who he is (I did know of him but not really any of his music), he is famous for wearing a black cowboy hat and is married to Faith Hill, who is a little more famous in the UK. We’d lined up our chairs in 2 rows and during the wait, my nieces Heather and Jenna amused themselves taking photos. I shouldn’t have pulled those funny faces as those photos have come back to haunt me on facebook, let me tell you!!!
There was a bit of a problem with the sound, so people sitting on one side of the stage – us for instance – weren’t able to hear the words very well. This actually ended up being a blessing as lots of picky, not used to things being spot on, type people didn’t like it and left. So – we had loads more room around us – result!! I didn’t need to hear the words from Tim because either the crowd were singing them loudly or my sister Patty (who is a fun drunk without the drinking!). There was some real hum-dinging tunes I can tell you (see I have my redneck on).
There’s Something like that with the lines “I had a BBQ stain on my white T-shirt, She was killing me in that mini-skirt”. Then there was Truck Yeah – with the song title being the heavily chanted chorus, Mark decided to change the words to other vehicles in honour of our fun trip “atv, yeah” “digger, yeah”, “excavator, yeah” and so on. Mark also knew all the words to one of the songs, as he’d recorded in his music studio, unknowing it as a Tim McGraw song. Shani said she was surprised when all of a sudden she heard someone belting out the song from behind her, to turn and see it was Mark I think the fact that for some reason, I guess as people had driven and it was quite a family event, the line to the beer and wine stand was pretty much always non-existent, aided his newly found enthusiasm. Yes people of Britain – you didn’t have to queue to get a drink at a gig – utopia?!?! I was personally rather partial to ‘Live like you were dying’. I can’t remember the others – I must get my family to write me up a playlist.
We’d been lucky enough to get to park nearby in a friend of Shani’s yard. This says it all about the size of houses etc round here – this was a town house but he’d fitted 80-90 cars in the back garden. We hung about on the street for a while waiting for the traffic to clear but once we got out it was 15 minutes home. Patty thought this was terrible traffic – I’ve had worse on a work commute! Really seeing the appeal of living up round here.
Especially after being entertained on the way home by my super talented niece Jenna.
Come on baby light my fire
Now I love a good fire. Burning things is so satisfying no? It’s not something you get to do much these days. In fact, you don’t even get many bonfires on Guy Fawkes night – it’s all about the fireworks, which I love, but fires have become few and far between in our over packed with people, health and safety conscious britain. Well probably not in the country, but I didn’t hang out there much these days. Anyway, one night we had a massive fire. It was huge and Mark and I’s eye boggled. This was just burning general waste from the woods and construction sites etc. And we only burnt about a quarter of it. And by all accounts this was an incy fire compared to the one they had at my niece Kim’s graduation. I’d totally forgotten how relaxing and lovely it is to sit around a fire. Well, sit for a while – then realise your face is melting so back up a bit, only to 10 minutes later realise your eyelashes are singing so move back further, until 20 mins later as the fire calms, you shuffle forward again. Add to the lovely ambiance of a fire and family – what’s that we hear in the difference – only bloomin kayotes, that’s what??? How cool is that? Howlingly cool! I was feeling a bit Dances with Wolves. Of course if anyone had left me out there in the dark, on my own with the howling, I would have been howling myself, like a baby, in about 30 seconds.
We also got to try Smores. This is, if I can remember it correctly, Graham crackers (remember Brit’s it’s not pronounced as we would (*coughs* properly) but as ‘Gram’, with chocolate and marshmallows sandwiched in the middle and then put on a stick and stuck in the fire. Yum! The dark choc one was definitely the way to go.
Our first big family meal with all my nieces and nephews would have been great regardless of the food but let’s say that the mac n cheese cooked by my nephews own fair hands – for the first time – was pretty darned good. The second batch he did a few days later was even better (Heather was right – it did need a little bit more cheese!). I could eat that all day everyday – best comfort food in the world.
Patty doesn’t much like cooking but she dropped herself in it by rusling up a peach and blueberry cobbler which was so bloddy tastey that we badgered her until she agreed to do another one before we left.
This is a locally loved thing which is essentially marinated chicken pieces. The key is in the marinade. I first got a whiff of it at the concert and then having had it a couple of time on the bbq, I see what the fuss it about.
I’d never had an american pie so was keen to try one. It was yummy but was surprisingly sweet. I think it’s when I have had pie as desert in the UK – probably back a few decades – it as usually quite tart – rhubarb, apple etc.
We went out for breakfast at a nearby farm. It had a few animals including a friendly (and hungry goat) who wondered freely about the place and who Mark was quite taken with until the goat ditched him with no bye or leave, for someone else with a handful of food.
As part of the breakfast I had a side of sloppy, cheesy potato heaven-ness. I had small pancakes which were pretty big in my eyes and it was proper lovely. Luckily we had my nephew, with hollow legs, with us to finish up what we couldn’t manage.
This was a big treat for me, brought over my some of my sister’s relatives, also from the UK – very much to my delight. The american contingent hadn’t heard of them/tried them before and I can confirm they went down VERY well indeed! I of course instructed that you need to bite the head of first.
There’s lot of interesting wildlife in them there woods – most of which we never got to see. Mark was dying to see a woodchuck but it just never happened. At Shani’s house which is in a lovely location – even more out in the sticks and surrounded by woodland – they have some even wilder animals – bob cats and fisher cats – no I hadn’t heard of them either – check them out on google- they are rather weird looking – kind of like a large weasel. Unfortunately the downside to all this wildlife is there’s a lot to watch out for on the roads. A few days after I left a day trip was ruined for Shani & Bill after they hit a deer. Those big deer do a lot of damage!
Things that made me smile
– I learned that referring to the Boondocks is similar to saying ‘the back of beyond’ and love to use this now!
– The announcement of the lost girl at the Tim McGraw gig described her as a young girl wearing tight blue jeans – she was 11, so this sounded kind of creepy, bless him!!
– The snow mobile that Steve has tucked away in the garage awaiting action – I sooo want to go on this one day!
– There is a very old lady who lives down the road who is a bit of a character. She’s pretty deaf and pretty blind but is certainly an independent old chicken. She collects her mail from her mail box by driving down her drive way, parking her large car straight across the road – covering it so no-one can get by. Then slowly (for she is elderly) getting out and getting her mail. Which she goes through. Slowly. Then gets back into her car and either drives back up to the house or goes off into town . It’s best to go the other direction as, as I say her eye sight ain’t too great.
We’d heard about her as folk lore and then we got to see if for ourselves. While we were waiting (quite a while) for her to finish up, we got the opportunity to take a snap.
Trip down to NYC
I had decided to break our journey to New York City down by stopping at Lazy Meadow motel, in the catskills on the way. The stopped proved to be pretty un-necessary as the drive was really easy and quick – great American highways again. But it did give us the chance to explore the area a little.
On the way we went through some cute touristy towns where we picked up some food for the evening in our cabin.
I had always wanted to go to the Lazy Meadow – which is a motel that was brought by Kate from the band the B52s. She had then set about decorating it in a kitschy retro stylee – hence my desire to visit. There’s a few suite rooms, a couple of cabins and even an airstream. It wasn’t quite out in the sticks as I’d thought and was in fact set back off a main road but it did back onto a rather amazing creek.
The room was very cool, but I’m not sure they’d made the most of the site. It felt a bit like the enthusiasm for looking after the place had waned over the years which was a shame – especially as the prices are pretty high!!
The suite rooms had vcrs (how retro is that!) and a range of cult movies to choose from. They had great furniture and each one had it’s own themed. I’d opted for the one that had gnomes white water rafting. There was a kitchenette so we’d decided to enjoy having our own place for the night before we went to an airbnb apartment in NYC.
There was a cute chipmunk who pottered around outside our suite. He looked just like chip and dale!!
Down by the creek, for whatever reason, there were little piles of rocks – so we added our own. I’d gone exploring with a glass of wine in hand – hence the red glass.
Woodstock is a funny old place. It definitely has the feel of what it is – a nice, rural liberal town full of ex New York City folk. Incredibly right on with expensive tastes!!
Check out Janis who was interestingly juxtaposed behind the virgin mary!!
They had these big blue signs all over the town – standing up against the unjust!
We finished off our mini roadtrip the next morning with the quintisential diner experience. A nice old fashioned one – not in the chrome 50s diner style – but in a brown, 70s, seen better days style with characterful people – an old lady waitress, a grumpy chef and some crazy russian locals moaning about their health issues.
We were in Toronto for just a few days but it was a great chance to relax and refresh after months in Central America and having been not too well.
Things run smoothly in Toronto. People are friendly, helpful and laid back. Quite the culture shop.
First a bus ride then a tube ride from the airport which I thought would be hellish but turned out to be smooth and cheap as chips. We hadn’t had to carry our bags that far for a long time and tired and under the blazing sun that wasn’t the most fun but as we arrived at our cute little apartment in an up and coming, quiet Toronto neighbourhood of Ossington, I knew we were in the place we needed to be. The airbnb apartment was cute and the room we were staying in was totally at the opposite end to the owners so was great for privacy.
We were still suffering from some illness we’d picked up in Cuba but luckily we’d been to Toronto before so seen the major sites, so were happy to potter around and enjoy the magnificent sunshine that was blessing the Canadian capital.
We visited a local park, wandered around the streets, enjoying the peace and quiet. We had Vietnamese food, we went to the local vegan bar, Discograceland (see what they did there), which was a cool place.
There was a little street festival in Ossington while we were there, which bored the pants of Mark but I rather liked as there was a fair few vintage stalls going on and it was just somewhere to potter about.
We also met up with a friend Mark used to work with, Peter and his lovely wife Joy, who’d moved to Toronto a few years back. Always good to get the gen from a local and they didn’t have much bad to say about the lifestyle compared to England (Joy is actually from Canada but had lived in London for 15 years, so had done the time!). We had a lovely relaxed meal at the George a downtown restaurant with the friendliest service ever and just had a lovely evening chin-wagging (nice to meet a girl you can talk about M&S and Dotty P with).
It was a very low key few days but was much needed and also a good introduction back into western life after so long and also modern city life after a while in the Caribbean. My time in Toronto taught me a strategy to not find the lack of choice too overwhelming. Just pick a category/page on a menu and choose from there – don’t look at the whole thing – too much choice for my brain!
We were catching the train from Toronto to Montreal which was an interesting experience. Finding your way around Toronto station can be a challenge (and not much fun to be heading there during rush hour). Then the system for boarding the train was most odd. They have a little post up in the middle of the concourse and people queue behind it – no allocated seats and so people start queuing ages before the train is due to leave. Then they move the post nearer the entrance of the platform and everyone trundles along (especially fun with heavy bags). They check your ticket and then check it again just before you’re about to board the train which is rather awkward. Then we had to board the train in the old fashioned sense – it was up some high steps to the carriage and no-one was around helping anyone. They then send you onto a carriage, which us being at the back of the queue had become full and while they barked at you to take every spare seat, we went up to the next carriage along which was empty!!!! I can’t work out for the life of me why they can’t allocate seats. Later on in the journey they had people who were sat on their own moving so they could seat families together. Not the end of the world, but just seemed a bit pointless, when even in less developed countries seats are easily allocated. Anyhow, apart from the fiasco of getting on the train it’s a really nice, comfy experience. Lovely countryside rolling by. It wasn’t the dramatic Canadian scape I was hoping for – I think maybe you need to go further north or inland for that, but it was pleasant and very Anne of Green Gables I thought. You had sockets to charge your phones, large comfy seats and lots of space – plus wifi! I was actually rather gutted when we arrived in Montreal 6 hours later – I could have sat happily for a few hours still.
Montreal station turned out to be smaller and simpler to work out. We had to get the metro and then a bus but it was all pretty straight forward. Annoyingly when you added together 4 lots of fares, we probably could have just gotten a taxi as actually, distance wise, it isn’t very far.
Our studio apartment had a fair bit of space – a nice big table which has been nice and is really light. The kitchen wasn’t quite as equipped as
I had been hoping for – our sink/hob combo was particularly interesting. It was actually quite difficult to cook if you wanted to use more than one hob without burning yourself, especially with no worktop space on either side. So, lots of cooking came off the cards pretty quickly. The other rubbish thing about the apartment was the teeensy sofa bed. It is so small and has a kind of step in the middle – the silly thing is that there’s actually plenty of space for a double-bed in there. I’d seen people mention it on the airbnb reviews but I thought they were being fussy and we were much hardier travellers so it wouldn’t bother us. I was wrong. After one night we were dreading 3 weeks of aches and pains and that is pretty much what we got. I often used to sleep half way down the bed with my legs, knees downwards, hanging off!
But the location of the apartment made up for it – having since wandered all over Montreal, this is still my favourite area. Lovely houses, parks, people, shops, food – with a really relaxed vibe. We’re really close the university here so that helps with the laid backness and also helps have places with good prices. I know the street by us can get quite loud and busy at weekend nights but we’re usually home hours before the raucousness begins.
Just up the road is a large park with a massive hill in the middle of it known as mont-royale – which is a great reference point as you’re walking about. A few streets down from us is a massive hill which you cannot avoid if you’re coming up to the plateau from anywhere near the river. It’s a steep hill old hill and it is Mark’s nemesis. Some of the the slopes on the side streets are like an amusement park ride. Good exercise to work off all the cheese!
First night big city
We had so much nearby and a nice, friendly bar where Mark could play pool (on his own, or with some poor sucker he stalked in the bar) is Bar Boeufstek. Decent prices and nice hangout but their wine was often on the near side of off.
Another place just round the corner from us was the Go Go Lounge – an amazingly dec’d out bar with glam girls in silver, glittery catsuits (in other cities you could easily expect them to have been stand offish but they were sweethearts). The music was 90s and so I was in my element while Mark was scornful.
Afterwards (we needed a few drinks to pluck up the courage), we went for our first poutine. Poutine is a Canadian creation and favourite. It is basically chips (or fries for non brits) with cheese curd and gravy. It sounds horrid but actually it’s really nice and the perfect post drink feed.
The guy in the shop was lovely and let us photograph our first pouring of poutine gravy for posterity (we had a slice of pizza as a backup in case we thought it was foul!).
Walking down our main street (Boulevard Saint Laurent) into town offered up a mixed bunch of places. We’d start with the nearby trendy vicinity, lot of of street art, cool shops, restaurants etc.
Then you’d get into a interesting bit in the middle which had a tyre shop, some odd shops selling novelties and souvenirs, a fabulous second hand shop.
Then you’d get to the huge country and western clothing shop and the army surplus stores, then onto the corner of st catherines, one of the main streets – which will take you to the gay village if you go left, with arts and shopping to the right.
Then past the sex shows, the national theatre school (within yards of each other – this is why I love Montreal!) and onto China town.
Our absolute favourite restaurant is here – we ended up going once a week and would have gone more if it hadn’t been a bit of a trek. There’s lots of so called vietnamese in Montreal but when you looked at the menus these so often just mixed up Vietname, Chinese and Thai which was a bit odd. This place was bang on and a bargain to boot. Not fancy, but cosy and quick. The news is always on the TV and I think Celione Dion was on the new everytime we went in for whatever reason. The first time they also were playing the Howard’s Way theme tune in the background. Love this place!
Past chinatown and off to the right a bit, you’ve got the Palais des Congres. A big 60s building which they’ve done a nice job of prettying up with some amazing coloured windows. They also have some fuschia tree trunks in there for some reason. Worth a quick detour for.
Then heading towards the river and you get to Old Montreal – the biggest tourist destination. Old buildings and cobbled streets. It’s nice but we didn’t spend much time there – I found the streets up where we were staying way more interesting. After a quick wander around, unless you wanted to shop or eat at an expensive restaurant, there wasn’t much to do. There was a lot of champagne about though, I just closed my eyes and walked by! It is very lovely, but as Mark said, it’s a bit like walking around Covent Garden – it doesn’t really have it’s own soul, it’s for visitors is over busy and over-priced. Though neither business or prices were anywhere close to London.
I think Mark fitted in well though….
Just for Laughs
By pure chance we were there during the worlds most famous comedy festival just for laughs. We couldn’t miss the opportunity to book a show and we also found a lot of free things were on wondering around the streets.
They had a great art competition with some weird and wonderful works.
We’d left it late in the day to book and didn’t want to spend a packet, so although I would have liked a show with a mixture of comedians from all nations, we were a bit wary that if we went to a mainly American/Canadian show it would go too much over our heads – particularly as we’d been a bit out of the loop for a while. So, we booked to see a Best of British show which had some comedians we knew (and some we’d even seen at the Brighton comedy festival) and was hosted by the very not British but very much loved and honorarily British Rich Hall. The place it was in had no specified seating but was setup around a small stage with tables and chairs. A really cosy feel and really reminded me of Brighton. The show was utterly brilliant and with an early start of 7pm (oh and they start things right on time there) – we were out plenty early for a bite to eat.
When we left there was tons of stuff going on around the main place d’es arts where they have stages etc setup. Particularly brilliant was a huge inflatable bottle setup with people kind of half dancing/half acting inside. Really reminded me of the kind of thing you’d see in Amsterdam or Copenhagen – very European.
One of the simplest and silliest thing we saw over the last few days of the festival that we were around for, was a guy with an open parachute on his back with world war 2 flying hat, just wandering around the streets looking confusedly at a map. So stupid but was funny everytime.
The gay village (gai village – it’s properly called that!), like many things was walking distance from us (or walking distance for people that like a bit of a walk – Mark moaned much of the way). You know you’re getting close as you start to see retro furniture stores popping up and then you really know you’ve arrived when you look up to see strings of pink baubles covering the long area of St Catherine street that consists of the gay village. It’s bloody fabulous quite frankly. Puts the rather bland San Francisco Castro to shame I think. It’s a great people watching area and great for eating and drinking. The prices are better than in the centre of town too. We grew particularly fond of a place with umpteen floors but still a cosy feel which seemed to be decked out with too themes – a pharmacy and a circus. It had all kinds of grand things about the place – quite an eclectic mix.
Even the metro station is cool:
The first time we went we planned to go to the fireworks competition afterwards. This is something that goes on in summer and on something like 6/7 nights mostly Wednesdays and Thursdays in June/July, different groups compete with their themed fireworks displays. You can pay a fortune to go into the La Ronde amusement park to watch in a seated area where they place the accompanying music, or you can go to somewhere in Montreal to get a good view – particularly on or around the big Jacque-Cartier bridge is popular. It doesn’t start until about 9pm and on our first attempt out we couldn’t find the enthusiasm to hang around all afternoon/evening but we went back again and although we couldn’t work out how to get up onto the bridge, enjoyed the show from just underneath it.
It was, without doubt, the best fireworks display I have ever seen. Really amazing. I ADORE fireworks and I was completely buzzing with the amazingness. There was music which accompanied the show and some people had radios so they could listen along. We could here these faintly in the background and were pretty pleased that we couldn’t here them any louder. Bit cheesey – some Beatles and even ending on the Final Countdown. Was an amazing night though and the amount of people sat/stood around the streets for the free show, gave the whole thing a real festival/shared experience feel.
Food is a big thing in Montreal and is definitely one of my favourite things about the place. I was fancying to get a good brunch somewhere. There were some ok places round by us, but after a bit of research I decided a nice walk would do us good so we had a nice, sunny half hour walk (no of COURSE Mark wasn’t moaning) at which in the end was rewarded by the best brunch ever. The place is a low key restaurant called Le Toasteur. Mainly french speaking, I’m not sure if they had english menus, but if there’s one thing I know in French, it’s my food. Though I did have to later look up petoncles which I saw on their lunch menus – scallops apparently! Anyhow, we both had the Spécial Toasteur. This was a little bit of everything – eggs as you like, sausage, potatoes chunks, crepe, french toast, fruit and beans and toast too. The portions weren’t insane but there was a lot of elements and each of them was sublime quality. The french toast nearly made me faint and I normally never order it as find it too sickly sweet. I didn’t eat the home-made baked beans which I think saved me as they took Mark just over the edge of full The biggest revelation was the amazing maple syrup. I now see that there is maple syrup and there is MAPLE SYRUP. My god, it was gorgeous.
We followed up our big feed with another long walk, designed to walk it off, further north in the city to the famous Jean Talon market. This is a produce market famous for it’s fruit and veg. The idea was to pick up some veg for tea but by the time we got there we were still so full we couldn’t bare the thought of ever eating again. It was an incredible market though. I’ve never known such strong smells and colours from fruit and vegetables that I’m not even close to. And the the heavens opened and we declared our venture north a bit of a disaster and we got the slow and clunky metro back home.
Jean Drapeau parc
This park is on 2 islands which were basically created for the Expo 1967 World Fair. What is fantastic about it for a retro geek like me, is it still has things from the expo on site and more important, well looked after. The Biosphere is probably my favourite and a delight on the blue-sky day on which we visited the park.
There are various sculptures sprinkled about the place but it was a bit confused when we were there as the weekend before they’d had a 3 day music festival – Osheaga (which we were a bit gutted we couldn’t get tickets for) and there was still fences and tents sprinkled around they were still clearing up.
The other amazing site is now the casino, on the second island. The casino, as casinos often are, is a little sad and depressing inside (a beacon for odd folk), but the building is stunning and thanks to the casino is beautifully maintained.
After enjoying the park and a bit of a sunbathe, Mark… wait for it… came up with the idea of walking back over the mammoth Jacque-Cartier bridge which took you back over the mainland. It was quite a hike but definitely worth it. The most amazing views.
It was very peculiar though because you can’t get off it until the very end and it goes way over much of the city so we found ourselves far from where we’d intended to go next.
At one point I was trying to suss out whereabouts we were by trying to match my map with the street I could see below to find the gay village as a landmark, when Mark pointed out that it was rather obvious where the gay village was. The sea of pink baubles looks simply spectacular from the bridge!
Another day another brunch
Well you have to, don’t you. Another excuse to explore the neighbourhood a little further afield and north of Mont Royale park, was Eggspectation.
Great name and a great menu. It’s actually a chain and has a few places across Canada and the US but it really delivers.
I had their Russian Rhapsody which was – poached eggs with a pancetta, vodka and pepper sauce over english muffins with lyonaise potatoes on the side. It was actually a fair bit lighter than the heavier one Mark went for with salmon, asparagus, spinach etc, still, we had at this point found we could only have one proper meal a day as it was all rather filling.
Something I’d heard is great for backpackers in cities is that they often have times where they let people in for free. The Contemporary art museum
in Montreal does on a Wednesday between 5 and 9pm and it was well worth the visit. There was, as with most art galleries and especially contemporary art, a whole lot of stuff that didn’t interest, but then there was a lot that did. They had a great screening room downstairs showing music videos by the likes of Arcade Fire and Grimes – around the theme of movement.
There was also some great sculptures and interesting ideas, including a replica room of the office of Uri Gegarin, reproduced from a photograph and then photographed itself, a tap with running water that was on fire and a skip with an inside like a swimming pool.
Some nights in the neighbourhood
After abandoning our first stop at a nice bar on Rue Duluth which had on an interesting, yet slightly wailey female modern jazz singer we decided to just grab some food, go home and watch a bit of downloaded Miss Marple. But something stopped us. We walked past a place round the corner from us that we’d walked past a ton of times before, but never noticed and saw they were doing karaoke. I don’t know why this was a draw – neither of us do karaoke (apart from an ill fated night many years ago in Blackpool which involved singing Love Shack and resulted in us both getting bad tattoos in the parlour next door). It was probably the disco ball. There’s disco balls all over Montreal and I’m like a moth to a flame. This place just had a couple of groups of friends going up and having a laugh – a really friendly atmosphere. Not the kind of karaoke where the wannabees come every night to try to be noticed – just people being un-afraid to be bad. Mark for some reason got brave and did a song. Oh and then the showbiz bug must have bitten because then he went up again, and again. Bare footed – what was that about??!! He thought he was Sandi Shaw or some indie rocker – who knows. He wasn’t the worst it has to be said. We’d both forgotten until the morning after that he’d done a Chas n Dave number – that must have gone way over the heads of the 20 something quebecian crowd! It was an unexpectedly fun night though. I didn’t go up of course. No amount of red wine was gonna get me up there, but I had a good old sing song at the table (it was a big place, there was plenty of space around me, not to alarm people!) There was a lot of Cliff Richard in the karaoke book rather worryingly.
The day after the karaoke and Mark in particular was feeling rather delicate, but after a day stuck in the apartment working, I felt we may as well bite the bullet and continue with my original plan to hit a few bars up on Monte Royale road. We took a convoluted route to get there which wasn’t ideal and the first pub suggested wasn’t worth the extra walk – La Verre Bouteille has pictures of the bar that has been around there for years but on the inside they’d ripped it all out and apart from some brickwork was pretty bland and dull.
So we then headed to the Candi Bar – which is a sister to the GoGo bar with the amazing deco, down the road from us.
As the name suggests this is a candy themed bar and the deco was definitely up to scratch. I had a slushie cocktail which was super sweet and icy (I had major brain freeze), chosen from a big lollipop menu and had gummy worms hanging in it. The place was empty when we first go there which meant we cold unashamedly play with the ‘legs’ bar stools and take pictures in the cool bathrooms. I knew we’d just have the one drink to check it out, but it was worth the trip for that amazing decor. The mens toilets have lips urinals – which actually they have in a bar in Kemptown in Brighton but they’d added the little faces tiling here which was cute. Oddest thing about the ladies bathroom was the cubicle with two toilets facing each other. I guess for girls who want to chat!?
After dropping in on a couple of bars along St Denis we headed for the famous La Banquise – known for it’s incredible selection of poutine.
This time we were going to take it to the next level with a topping. Mark went for Le Elvis, involving ground beef and I had a topping with hot dogs, onion, mushroom. Despite having had poutine the week before and liked it, I still struggled with the idea of it but this was bloody lovely. The place is really good too. They’ve got their act together. You’re in, you order, you get water, you pay, you get your food, you’re out. But it doesn’t feel rushed and the places has a quirky and homely feel.
Montreal doesn’t let you down in the street art department. There are works everywhere and it creates such a colourful, cheerful environment. Generally very different to the types of work you’d see in Melbourne, which is more graffiti style, which is more my cup of tea – but the works here are on a grand scale and work really well with the much older architecture.
We took the days fairly easy, doing lots of work in between walking around various areas of Montreal. I liked to go different routes whenever we went anywhere as I could never get sick of the architecture which is kind of distinctly Montrealen yet also often very different from street to street and even house to house. Mark got beyond bored of me stopping and taking photos of what he thought were not nondescript buildings but I found the place fascinating and almost wanted to catalog the differences to a certain extent.
The iconic spiral stairs
The last part of Expo 67 I wanted to see was Habitat 67. This is out on another man made island and I was going to take a trip over there but then I heard you can’t really walk around it anyway so I made do with the view of it from the Old Port area. This places is a design marvel. A housing estate design which is still going strong and is lived in. Mark thinks it’s an ugly mess but I could look at it forever and would love to live in it.
Smoked meat sandwiches are big here. I had a sandwich in a diner up the road and it was lovely – just in rye bread, a little mustard and pickles on the side – but the thickness of the meat is really just crazy.
There is a place up the road from us which I kept wanting to go to as it’s supposed to be amazing but no matter the time or day the queues were always large.
What they did on a few places near by us, what asian restaurants, when it came to the evening, put up a table in there doorway and sold cheap basic sets – like chow mein, gyoza/spring rolls, tempura etc. Bargain prices and good food. We found ourselves partaking of this a little too often, as we realised when the couple from the Japanese round the corner and the chinese down the road started greeting us enthusiastically whenever we went by.
Frite Alors – there’s a couple of these about town, based on the simple concept of chips (fries) with sauce, normally mayonnaise based, as is big in Belgium and lots of Europe. I liked this place it was simple food wise – they didn’t try to do lots of crazy thing. Though Mark did get the picalilli dip which the waitress had warned him didn’t really work as a dip. I had a burger with brie and apple – you wouldn’t think that would work but it does. And of course, the name is just cute.
Burmese – Ruby Burma. Despite being not all that far from the Burmese border when we were in Chiang Mai and the city having Burmese food available, we never got around to partaking. So, we decided to try the Burmese restaurant near us which always smelt so lovely.
It was really interesting and kind of what I’d expect. I had a pad thai like dish but then it had extra flavours on top – kind of more dry, smokey flavours. It really was kind of what you’d expect of a nation sat between Thailand, China and India.
Vietnamese – I was so excited to get vietnamese for the first time since Thailand and we found the most amazing place in China Town – Pho Cali. It was a bit of a trek for us to walk down here, but we did it a fair few times during our stay as it was amazing and a bargain too. Too many of the places advertising Vietnamese had weird mixtures of Vietnamese/Thai/Japanese/Chinese – but this was the real deal and their Pho Ga (chicken noodle soup) was to die for.
I generally liked all the food in Montreal – but teenager in a bun didn’t sound tempting:
For a bargain go to Casablanca on boulevard st laurence, somewhere near Duluth. Pool table, juke box. Think it’s russian runs, but you couldn’t get cheaper and it’s quite cool and kitschy with lai’s hanging about the place. It also has good people watching if you sit out by the street.
Wine same price as beer
Unusual with amazing beer = Billy Kun
This is a big, trendy but friendly bar which has mounted ostrich heads up all over the walls. Their home beer is amazing. Prices aren’t bad for the style of place and are good at happy hour.
Style – as mentioned above, Candi bar and GoGo are amazingly decorated. You don’t want to hang around all night but they’re fun for a couple of drinks and they are friendlier than you might think.
I’ve heard people talk about offishness in Montreal but we haven’t experienced this at all. The only time we had this which was really odd was at the blues bar on St Denis. We literally stood at the bar being ignored. So we walked out in the end. Most odd.
For a retro and oddity lover there are some greeeeat shops in Montreal. Vintage and kitsch shops aplenty on Boulevard St Laurence – between Monte Royale and Avenue de Pins.
My favourite was actually kind of a junk shop, but an organised one. Brimmed full of strange things, but had grouped things together so it wasn’t a complete mess to try to sort through. I think it described itself as a shop for collectors. You could spend hours and many dollars in this place. They had quite a bit of nazi memorabilia which you don’t see often and is quite interesting. God knows where he got it from. Hair irons, ancient photos. Not being able to really buy anything due to not being able to carry much, I settled on some old postcards from the Expo 67. I would have loved to have lived nearby to a shop like this – a real treasure trove.
There was also a big, weird and wonderful second hand shop on St Laurent, just down the hill from Sherbrooke. If I had the room in my luggage and a home to go back to, I could have picked up some great bits. The clothes are great too, but knowing we needed warm clothes for returning home, we couldn’t face buying jumpers when it was so hot.
There are so many parks in Montreal of all shapes and sizes. You can’t walk for 10 minutes in any direction without coming across one. They are used for relaxation, fitness, get togethers – real little hubs and it really helps makes the city what it is.
I’d wanted to go look for the white squirrels in Toronto but we’d never had the chance so was delighted to come across this little fella, though not a white squirrel, but kind of a beige one – in La Fountaine park.
Montreal Notes and tips:
Montreal is cheaper than Toronto by far – food, drink. It can actually be very cheap if you find the right places to go.
I’ve no idea why but we had a real nightmare with getting money out of ATMs. We ended up having to go all over the place to get money and could never count on ATMs working, which is annoying as a lot of places are cash only and so have ATMs inside. We did find in one shop that it only accepted our debit card if we said it was a credit card, although other shops accepted it as debit. But then we tried that in certain ATMs and it still didn’t work. It was a right pain and so we always tried to make sure we carried plenty of cash from the machines we knew that worked for us.
It’s a bit odd here – you can buy some booze in the supermarket which you couldn’t in Toronto, but not much.
They have big fancy bottle shops, SAQs I think they are called, but they don’t open that late and aren’t great for beer. Fantastic for wine though – everything you could imagine, reasonable prices and some good deals. On every other street corner then, they have little shops which open later which sell predominantly beer and wine. The wine is rubbish and is Argentinian/Chilean – why not french is strange.
Bring your own bottle is absolutely massive here and I think adds to keeping the cost of living down and the enjoyment of life up. It’s really strange seeing people walking about the streets with bottles of wine in their hands all the time. If that was at home they’d probably be heading down a park to neck it back with some alco pops. You get a lot of drinking on the streets and especially the parks too – in a nice, chilled out way.
This is one of the roads that runs down through Montreal. If all else fails when you’re looking to eat head here – wherever you are on this road you’ll find something. It’s also got some nice shopping, up past Avenue des Pins and the food gets better the higher you go up towards Mont Royale.
This perplexed me. I get that Quebec is french speaking but it is in Canada which is partly english speaking and pretty much everyone in Montreal does speak english and more importantly – it’s a tourist city – so why do they have no signs/notifications in english. It seems a bit like they are doing it to make a point. It didn’t matter for us – we’re from the UK so have good basics in French (which I think most English get whether they mean to or not having such close proximity to France). We can read menus, signs, and get the gist of most bits of writing, but lots of people can’t and it’s a bit odd to have no signs on the streets and in particular in places like the train station in another language. It doesn’t even have to be english – but it seems a bit obstinate to only have things in French. They don’t in France. They don’t in most other countries not add at least one other language to the national one.
Saying that – Montreal isn’t great with signs in general. You can walk around in the vicinity of the Central station without even so much of a sniff that one’s about or where it may be. The signs in the metro are pretty limited as well. It’s just puzzling – you have lots of tourists – help them! I personally loved all the French – was happy when it was a french only menu and so on as I’m so rusty it got my little grey cells working as Hercule Poirot (in Belgian of course) would say. If you try your french out on anyone, the second they realise it’s not your first language they speak ot you in english anyhow, so it’s not like anyone is trying to get people to even try to speak french bizarrely. Très bizarre!
We will remember it as the city of sirens. There were forever sirens blaring out – so often in a fairly quiet, uneventful city, we were a bit perplexed. They are un-necessarily loud, especially at night with little traffic. Some of them sound like a 1920s siren and others simply as if they are notifying us of world war 3.
More than once we watched cars parking and bumping into the one behind. Not unusual for a city, but these were in places that had decent size spaces and this was with both cars being quite fancy – not old bangers where a dent won’t matter. We watched one guy, from our window, reversing into a car behind – slowly but nudging it so it bounced around – but there was no cars at all in front of him- what the ?!??!
Culture and art
This is taken seriously in Montreal and it’s really impressive. They have a whole area called the Quartier Spectacles that is setup to host events all the time. Two large open spaces have permanent huge white light systems setup. The centre of the area is the place’ des arts and around is various museums, theatres. So whenever something is going on, it takes over the whole environment.
We never got around to giving these ago, mainly because I liked to walk everywhere, but they had stations everywhere and it would save time if you didn’t want to savour the journey as much as a walk, but still be in the fresh air. I know they have them in London – but I’d never dice with death and try them there, but this is a very cylist friendly city. It’s not heavy with traffic and especially you can cycle/walk around the side streets and barely see a car, so it would be a safe and pleasant way to get about.
For some reason, the sides of buildings which were being prepped or whatever for constructions had this amazing mustard colour – not sure if it was painted that colour for some reason or it was some kind of treatment that happened to be that colour – but it’s now synonymous with Montreal for me.
There are pianos dotted about the Plateau/Monte-Royale area for whoever fancies it to have a play. They move locations from time to time – god knows how – I like to think the piano fairies come around at night. There are some great players and some not great players – but it’s a nice idea and nice for anyone who needs to practice and doesn’t have their own too! Some of them are interesting decor – a bit of gilt and pink.
We watched one young guy who was doing a 10 hour playing marathon – he was on his 8th hour and was super talented, even with tired hands.
I can’t even speak English, as I’m sure bi-lingualness isn’t a word, but anyhow it was so surprising that people would slip from French to speaking English with no trace of an accent. It was kind of weird – you couldn’t often tell who was french-canadian because of this – everyone – in cafes, checkouts and even the homeless, switch seemlessly. I’ve even heard people having conversations mixing the 2.
A fantastic lifestyle city – there’s a lot of creativity and people seem to take their down time seriously. I obviously have only seen the milder weather but by the looks of it, then have things sussed for winter, with an entire underground network so workers, shoppers and students can get about if it’s freezing/slippery up top.
I think this bar sign sums up Montreal – all you’d need to add on the end is ‘la nourriture’.
I’ve always wanted to go to Cuba and although it’s was a a bit of an extra big cost, I couldn’t resist when I realised how easily you could fly from Grand Cayman where we were to change at from Honduras anyhow.
As soon as you land in Cuba, it’s like no where else I’ve ever been. The passport control is really plain and you just go up to these little, almost hidden cubicles, quickly get stamped in, then head to the arrivals area with just the 2 luggage carousels. So small and basic for the capital of a fairly large island (about half the size of the UK). You’re in and out pretty quickly as there isn’t tons of flights coming in. We had someone meeting us from our accommodation as because, like so many countries, you get lots of taxi drivers taking you to their friends accommodation rather than the one you’re booked in and so we thought it’d be easier to get picked up. If in doubt, in any country, I find it’s good to get a pickup as it’s when you’re at your most vulnerable – often tired, confused, not knowing how things work and what’s what. He also took us, on the way, to an ATM so we could get out some local currency which was great as we were concerned we’d only be able to change up the US dollars we had at a huge charge (see money matters below). Despite what was said during my research – we never found finding ATMS or getting money from them a problem.
We weren’t picked up in an old classic car in the true sense but we picked up in a pretty beaten up old car, because that’s what most people drive. You see photos and footage of Havana and you see the old cars but I’ve always kind of thought that there were lots about alongside ‘normal’ cars. Not so – the average car on the street really is many decades home. This, along with the lushness of a Caribbean island, tumbledown buildings and the odd revolutionary paintings on said buildings, makes for a pretty powerful first impression on your drive into town. It’s not often I get such an overwhelming buzz about somewhere so soon after arriving. Probably Vietnam and Japan, which were 2 of my favourite places, but also because they have such a strong visual identity. Anyhow, by the time we turned up at our accommodation I was already in love with Havana. Mark, as he usually is, was feeling a bit reticent and I think his first impressions were clouded by the crumbling buildings – this gives the place a look of real poverty that doesn’t really balance out with the reality of the place. I knew to expect this so I didn’t find it off putting. I think if you see buildings looking like this in any other country it would be a sign of huge deprivation. Sure – Cuba has it’s issues and people aren’t exactly flush but in terms of most countries in Central America and the Caribbean the standard of living is high. Not by western standards maybe, but there’s much worse in South East Asia and even places you wouldn’t expect so much like Fiji. The buildings are tumble down because most are state owned and the state and the people don’t have the extra money to do them up. This is changing little by little. There’s a ton of work going on in central Havana to restore the glorious old buildings – by state and by allowing foreign investment. For the first time since the revolution, selling of homes has been allowed recently. This is a huge thing. People could previously only swap homes. If people aren’t taking on and improving homes, the situation will never improve and I think the government has recognised this.
A lot of people staying in Casa Particulars in Cuba and I cannot recommend this more highly. It’s just like a b&b really, where someone opens up a few rooms of their home. I cannot imagine we would have had the same experience if we’d staying in a hotel. We turned up to a Havana back street to the hugest door I’d ever seen and entered our home for the next week – Casa Miriam (booked through hostelbookers).
The guy who runs doesn’t speak great English and check-in takes a while, but he is lovely and tries to help best he can. He gave us a reassuring talk (I think) about how in Havana no-one will shoot you but they will get you with their talking. He pointed out that no matter what anyone said to us out on the street, he has no brother or uncle or relatives living in the street. I had heard that was probably our biggest threat (for want of a better word) – people with the matter feeding you a line – the kind of scam where you’re not even sure if you’ve been scammed or not after. These are purportedly common in Thailand and especially Vietnam too, but we’d never had a problem and never did in Cuba. I think we have, after all this time, lost our fresh, bewildered, nervous traveller faces and so there’s much easier marks than us.
Anyway, along with a lovely owner, I was blown away by the accommodation itself. On the second floor of a grand old building – it was slightly crumbly on the outside but well looked after but full of character on the inside. I have never seen such high ceilings and being from the UK, they are not that uncommon in old houses. There was a huge window at the front and a balcony out onto the street. This big front room was the communal room and where meals were eaten. It was decorated with old but quality furniture with an interesting mix of art and family photos. There were 3 guest rooms off the side and the back opened out to look down on a courtyard below, with the family living at the back of the property. I recognised the building layout as being similar to the shophouses in Georgetown, Malaysia – with the courtyard area in the middle included to help with the air flow and that along with the high ceilings keepin the place cool. We did have a fan and aircon, but actually the place was kept generally pretty cool anyway.
Our bedroom and bathroom ceilings were also stunningly high. We had a window slot directly above us which they’d close off somehow at times – I think maybe some pulley system with a piece of wood. Sometimes they’d forget to pull it back open to let in light but being such a large room it would never feel dark and gloomy in the day.
We had a super comfy bed and everything was of a kind of family quality – we’d gotten a bit used to scratch sheet and threadbare towells, so although not luxurious, was lovely for us. Proper cotton sheets! Everything is built to such a high standard as well. They don’t do things by halves in Havana I found.
Our street was a mixture of building styles, but all high and grandiose. The lady across the road would send a piece of rope and a bucket down to bring her milk up to her. There was a line just down the road full of dangling shoes. Due to the lack of number of cars, kids played football on the street. Full of character and charm.
Everywhere you go in Cuba people are hanging off big balconies – talking to someone or watching the world go by.
We were about a 10 minute walk into the centre of town, with the Parque Central and we could also in about 2 minutes, be up by the Malecon, the seafront where in the evenings/nights people congregate just to hang out. Every time we walked up there we’d see the guy playing his trombone and everytime someone walked by and he made a comedy slide it was childishly funny!
On our first day we walked along the Malecon and then down into the centre of town via Paseo Del Prado. We accidentally stumbled on something we’d been recommended to go see. On Sundays, in the pedestrain walkway in the middle, I think it’s called the Vedado – there are people selling art and more enjoyably, people from the local dance schools come out to do demonstrations. It was funny to see a couple – she in a dress and killer heels and him in his jeans and trainers, dancing an impeccable Tango.
There are huge and grand buildings everywhere and I could never tire of just walking the streets. In the centre of town you have the Capital building which is a great landmark for working out where you are.
There’s amazing huge buildings, fabulous cars, horse drawn carriages – colourful, friendly people – music coming from everywhere – it’s sunny but not to hot – you can only be in Havana and it’s an incredible feeling.
We started our first day quite tenatively by going to some tourist classics – La Floridita is a Hemingway haunt where he’d go for a cocktail. It’s gorgeous inside, if on the icey side, with the air con. It’s pricey but classy and has to be done once. We then had a bit of a wander about before heading to Sloppy Joe’s – another touristy place but it’s cool and welcoming and the drinks are half the price of La Floridita!
Over the week, I traipsed Mark all over Havana, exploring little areas and I was just happy walking about anywhere in the city – no where is bland that is for sure. TheMuseum of the Revolution is a must. It’s not always that explanatory, but there’s lot’s in English and lots of interesting artifacts. Mark was fairly clueless about the whole thing but was excited to see Fidel Castro’s boots and glasses.
The museum is set in a building which was actually attacked during the revolution and there is bullet holes in the entrance way and even in the cafe floor.
The building was then, for a long time, where the new government was based. It was kind of weird to be in the room where huge decisions were undertaken and in Fidel Castro’s office – imagining him looking out over the city. It was a bit like the untouched offices in Ho Chi Minh – places where time has been a little frozen are always fascinating. It’s also interesting, of course, to see the revolution from the Cuban perspective.
They are renovating large areas of the building, which in itself is a work of art. I love the juxtaposition of these painted ceilings and some new modern works of art (including one showing Fidel and Chavez) they had about the place.
This doll was used to smuggle something and was a tad sinister but interesting.
There was a small section dedicated to Che which was great as it covered a few bits that I’d gotten confused about. I knew he’d died in Bolivia and wasn’t Cuban (Argentinian), so I’d been surprised by the Cuban adoration. He’s such an icon figure and continues to be. One of those things about dying early I guess but also he was strangely good looking.
There is a very different place we popped into (free but a donation is welcome) – the Museum de Reuinion, which is essentially part museum and part still functioning drugstore. Large pots and quirky jars – is quite an unusual and visually stunning place to take a look at.
One place that is very touristy but actually also very fun is Bodeguita Del Medio – another Hemingway hangout. There is a restaurant out the back and the bar at the front which is tiny but they fit in a band playing there at all times. This is allegedly the birth place of the mojito and it’s definitely not the best one I had, but you have to, don’t you? It had lot’s of groups coming in that were on day trips into the city from the resorts. They’d literally come in, have a mojito, buy some souviners and leave. This was kind of our plan, but we settled into our stools at the bar and it turned out to have a great atmosphere and during our time there, two great bands.
There’s a curious little attraction just on the edge of the Plaza Vieja – Camera Obscura. Based on some design by Leonardo de Vinci, they have a little contraption which makes you able to zoom in on scenes from all over the city. The view from the top of the building, even without going into the little camera session is fantastic.
We went on the Havana bus – which I think couldn’t really be described as a sight-seeing bus but really it’s a good bit of hop on hop off transport to take you about the city – particularly for those staying in bigger out of town hotels. But I think for most tourists, including Mark, it’s quite a dull experience. I loved it myself as it took you all over town to wear people live and work and you saw all kinds of styles of building and shops and was a fascinating overview. Something interesting for instance is the road systems are large and modern but there is so little traffic on them.
The monument area is probably the most impressive and notable stop.
We went out to the Coppelia ice-cream parlour, which is allegedly the biggest ice-cream parlour in the world. It’s essentially a whole little parc complex and is a huge draw. Like with much of Cuba there is 2 prices – one for locals one for tourists and you had to go to separate areas. Security would guide you to the tourist place which had no queue really and the locals could join the massive, long line of people queueing to get local price. The ice-cream is allegedly good but we weren’t really in the mood by the time we got there so never sampled it. I was more interested in the 60s designed space aged style building. The Coppelia site is on La Rambas – a street well worth a wonder down, which will take you back to the seafront.
All about Autos
I love old cars. I’m not majorly knowledgeable but I do love an automobile museum and particularly in different countries as I love seeing cars I don’t recognise. So, I was utterly in heaven in Havana. It wasn’t so much the classic cars, it was all the weird and wonderful ones – funny little trucks,
You hire many of the old cars to take you about town. It’s not expensive – it’s how the locals get around. We went out one day with that in mind – I thought it was more interesting to get in one of the older, less pristine cars for a ride, but as we wondered about at the front of the capitol building, a guy with the most beautiful car offered us a ride for a fair price that we couldn’t refuse. This car was a 1952 Buick. Shiny and blue. He was a suave guy too – which his hat and crisp white shirt. (If anyone visits and want to hire the car and driver, I still have his business card so his details are – Ricardo Mejias Garcia – Phone: 260-0365 Mob: 05-282-4386)
There are a few ways of getting about town. The old cars are cheap and easy and you can get them anywhere. They’re also not expensive as you might think. We got a ride home from town for much the same price as we’d been paying the rick-shaw cycle taxis. It was a beautiful mauve car with the most incredible sound system and lighting inside. It was a cool ride home!
Usually, as I said above, if we’d walked enough we’d get about by nabbing a rick-shaw taxi. You’ve really got to haggle, which we never did well as we paid a huge variety of prices and we realised a few days in this is where lots of our money was going. But then you do always feel sorry for some poor bugger lugging us too fat arses around.
The other type of taxi, which sadly we never got around to using (you don’t actually need taxis that much if you’re in central Havana as it’s very walkable), is the bubble taxi. I love these. Great idea and always delighted in seeing them.
Then there’s the normal taxis. I guess if you’re going along way, but with all those other choices – why would you?
You see side-cars about a lot, but no-one is ever in them. In fact, if there are 2 people on a bike with a side-car you can guarantee the second person is holding onto the driver. I think they just use them to scoot stuff around.
The police in Cuba are a good looking bunch. There’s something very glamorous about them. Maybe it’s the uniform. I’ve seen a lady officer, in her kind of jump suit uniform, stood by her bike – she wasn’t a young chick – was likely late 40s even, but she was hot and cool at the same time.
The bikes are generally really cool too.
The same can’t be said of the vans. I thought this was just someone using an old police van the first time I saw it. Then I saw another, and another and realised these were active police vans.
I have never known such amazing live musicians as I have come across in Havana. It’s such a part of the experience to sit in a bar or restaurant listening to an incredible band sweep you up with the distinctly cuban vibe.
The places I thought were best for music were the aforementioned small, Bodeguita Del Medio.
Then a great, fun place to go is a restaurant/bar on Obispo called Bar Lluvia de Oro this is a large, friendly space where they had quite a big band. It’s family friendly too – the guy who runs it has clearly been at it for year, it has an amazing old built in bar and prices are really reasonable. The musician guys would swap between instruments, singing and dancing and were fantastic. They’d tried to get you up to dance with them (imagine my horror – I’m English for goodness sake!), but lots of other tourists (always of the latin american variety I note) would get up and dance so brilliantly – it must be an extra gene.
At a different end of the scale was a small, friendly bar, again on Obispo called El Escabeche. They had just two guys playing, a slightly gentler set. They would swap instruments at the drop of a hat, playing each beautifully. Mark was fascinated and had a go on one of their guitars – trying to play along. He’s no slack on the guitar but he was terrible because rather than do the chords the guy was telling him to do, he was doing what he saw the guy doing – which wouldn’t work because of something musical and technical that I forget. Lesson learned Mark – do as I say not as I do!
Our favourite ever was not in a bar, but a band of three old guys who’d walk around the streets and play at bars restaurants that didn’t have their own band. They were characterful, soulful and super talented in a way that time has aged perfectly.
We went to Cuba’s china town that first night. It wasn’t bad but it was the kind of food a student could probably cook for themselves if they were being a bit adventurous with out much ingredients. The downside of Cuba really is the food. The lack of ingredients available means there’s not much variety and interesting food to be had but it’s not bad. Most restaurants you get a chicken or fish and rice dish. They try to jazz it up in a variety of ways. There’s also a few Italians. I liked the Neptune restaurant on the corner of Neptuno opposite Parque Central. It’s kind of 80s deco and it’s italian with sparse ingredients but it’s friendly and comforting food. I had a four cheese pasta which was so simple, we could make at home but it was tasty and filling. One of the ways you can see the lack of ingredients is the tiny portions of butter they’ll give you with the bread they bring you as a starter. They fluff it out with a sprinkling of herbs, but you really do see austerity in action.
Another place I liked, which again had a rather 80s aesthetic, was a couple of doors away from La Floridita at the entrance to Obispo street. I thought this place would be pricey due it’s location but actually turned out to be really reasonable. It had pizzas and pastas but for some reason they weren’t available the evening we were there (maybe had run out). I had chicken, rice and veg in gravy basically. Simple but actually was quite tastey – kind of like decent home cooking. Decent and well priced red wine too. I can’t remember what it’s called (and unlike most places in the world, can’t look it up on the internet) but it’s on the corner of Obispo and Bernaza. They also have a good toilet with seats (rarer than you think).
One of the more surprising things I had was at a restaurant which was nearer the sea/the cathedral and was quite pricey for the money. We had starters – one of which was chunks of cheese, I kid you not – the other was a ceviche – which is essentially raw fish which has been cooked by soaking in lime juice. This was definitely a clever way of working with what you’ve got. Seafood is something they have access to, as are limes – you’d see lime carts all over the city. It was simple and delicious.
We actually got ill during our time in Cuba, which I don’t think was anything to do with the food as we’d had different things, but was likely a parasite or something, but it was pretty tricky when the last thing you’d eaten was “something and rice” so you really didn’t want to have that again but yet, there wasn’t much else you could have.
We went into a shop at one point to buy water. It’s not like going to a 7’11 – these shops have limited stocks and the locals have rations so you don’t go in and gorge yourself on snacks or bits and pieces. We weren’t even sure if they’d take the tourist currency, but they did (essentially the water costing about 4 times as much as if we’d bought in local currency). But going into the shop and seeing the sparse and simple ingredients that people have available to them – it’s hats off all the way what they come up with.
Of course, I believe it’s a different experience if you’re staying out in the resorts or are in the fancy hotels – I think this one rule for them issue, which goes against the grain of the revolution, which is helping lead to more relaxations in what people can and can’t do. They need tourism but they need cash flow moving through the country. For the first time, recently, they have allowed people to become self employed in a number of areas and you can see little enterprises popping up all over the place. I only learned this after leaving Havana, and it made sense – as I’d been a bit confused how there were these little businesses when in theory everything was supposed to be state run. It’s definitely an island on the change and I’m sure they can do it in the right way without losing the essence. People are apparently now able to own pieces of land and work the land so hopefully this will shake things up and bring about the growing of a lot more produce and perhaps more livestock too. I have to say I was puzzled why so much was imported into Cuba when it’s a fair sized country with potential for growing lots of things.
You can get more wine that I had suspected and it’s well priced. Buying rum is the cheapest way to go, but after a nasty rum encounter in Utila I couldn’t face it, and Mark couldn’t touch it, but you’d often see people walking the streets drinking rum. In another country this would possibly look dodgy, but here this is what you did when you were chilling out. Grab the family or your friends, grab a bottle of rum and head out to the seafront to hang out.
The local beer we drank most is called Cristal and we never got tired of the joke about drinking Cristal all day (as in the stupidly priced champagne).
Mojitos – They are synonymous with Cuba and I did partake of a few but they are a little too sweet for my taste so I got sick of them pretty quickly. But my goodness they make them strong there!!
Never had a cigar in my life and haven’t smoked for over 10 years now, but there was something intriguing about the whole cigar thing and so I did have a few puffs on some cheap cigars we bought on the street from some lovely ladies.
I pretty much couldn’t inhale anyhow as it took too much of a draw to bother without screwing your face inside out. On the day we bought the cigarettes we settled outside in a bar to watch the world go by and have a few drinks. Once we actually started smoking, or should I say, playing with the cigars, we basically spent a good couple of hours doing terrible impressions of people we thought of who’d smoked cigars. Mainly New York style show business people or business. Things along the lines of “I’m gonna take you all the way kid – we’re gonna shoot for the stars” or “Bonds I tell you, that’s the way you gotta go kid – now get yourself down to 7th and 3rd and buy me a pastraaaami sandwich”. This entertained us greatly, sad, sad folk that we are.
Cuban buildings are incredible. They just don’t knock down a perfectly decent building and I love that. Through lack of progress or whatever you want to call it, they have retained stunning, if slightly crumbling buildings. Buildings that are hundreds of years up to great examples of 60s and 70s architecture that was built to celebrate the revolution.
In many cases, with the re-construction, everything behind the facade has been removed – an understandably cheaper and easier way to deal realistically with the saving of these buildings.
Even the bus stops had a strong and unique design.
These are sprinkled all around the city and it reminded me certain parts of Paris. There were usually sculptures and art in these areas.
The lack of stuff, meant that store front displays would be rather pathetic. You would have just a few things spread out in a window display. Not so much in the tourist areas, as I guessed they got the tourist money so could source a little more but definitely in the normal streets where everyone lived and shopped. We didn’t get many photos because it seemed a bit rude and patronising, frankly, to take a photo of the place where everyone shopped – a bit like pointing and going ‘ooh look, is that all you’ve got’. But it was such a fascinating thing. Something I’ve never seen before. Shops that just had a couple of plastic buckets and colourful items, maybe pegs out the front window because they couldn’t spare the goods to put out there. It’s not like stuff isn’t available – there’s TV and hifi shops, but just not on the huge scale we are used to.
It’s the first place I’ve been to that’s properly not capitalist. It’s actually quite pleasant to be somewhere that doesn’t have adverts screaming at you everywhere and shop after shop of the same thing and just stuff – lots of stuff. I felt such an overkill of stuff before we went on the trip – it was something I wanted to get away from but actually, a lot of the time in somewhere like Bangkok for instance, there’s even more stuff and it’s out on the streets jumping at you. So, I found it interesting and it certainly gave you a feeling of times of old. When I was little we lived in a place so small it was barely a village. There was the one and only village shop. You got pretty much everything from there – there wasn’t massive supermarkets you went to to get your food and clothes and electronics. You didn’t buy as much stuff. There wasn’t as much stuff about. I’m sounding very old now, but I just remember the less stuff about, the more you coveted what you did have. You didn’t get a toy every other week so the toys you got on your birthday or christmas you cherished. There was a sense about that in Cuba. Recycling is not a thing there, as it isn’t in many non western countries – but in reality they do it more than anywhere I’ve known. If something stops working, you fix it – there aren’t hundreds of cheap replacements. They fix everything in Cuba – electronics, cars, shoes – everything. They keep stuff going and it really is the opposite of our disposable society. You see carrier bags hung out to dry, which was something actually we saw in Vietnam a lot.
Something else which is most unusual is the lack of mobile phones. I’m guessing (again) that this is a bit of a tricky thing to introduce into a country – to build an infrastructure but particularly if you’re trying to control information. People do have them but it’s not like everywhere else where every other person is either talking on them or looking at something on them. And I don’t mean just wealthy countries – it’s something I’ve found interesting in various places where people are living in essentially huts, with no electricity – perhaps south africa, fiji, cambodia – but they mobiles.
So not only did the lack of mobiles show but the fact that there were payphones everywhere with people on them.
So, this was a fascinating and charming side for me, but of course it’s probably not for the Cubans and wouldn’t be for me if I lived there. Do I want to be able to buy whatever I want, whenever I want. Yes, I do. I get rather narked in places where the shops shut on a sunday. I hate that there’s too many products and too much advertising but if I want something, I want it. But then that is what I’m used to. Less choice definitely makes life simpler.
One day as we passed a building which was being pulled down, that we’d passed many times, Mark noticed the sign was for the old RCA records. A store that would have been shut down after the revolution but still had this little bit of history, barely still standing.
If you want tourist bits and pieces or just to window shop, I’d head for Obispo – this is a lane that goes from the centre of town to the sea and it’s always an interesting place to be.
The other place which has a place you can get art and other bits and pieces, is La Rampa.
Literacy rates are high in Cuba, something the revolution tried to make available was education for all. There’s a lot of book shops about, though there is a heck of a lot of books about the revolution and I imagine that there isn’t a freedom for any/all books to be available in the country – though dont’ quote me on that.
There’s a fabulous, touristy book market towards the end of Obispo which has lots of revolution literature, Hemingway etc.
It also had for sale old magazines – american magazines from before the revolution that people had held onto which is interesitng.
Looks & style
The Cubans are a stylish bunch. I always felt a complete tramp (hobo for my US friends) there around everybody in their pristine white and vibrant colours.
I’m not sure how to put this tactfully, but there are outfits that they wear here that anywhere else they could be mistaken for extras in a 70s porn film. But here – it’s Cuban glamorous and it works. Big time! Even the older folk and the stranger folk – still have this certain something. Maybe it’s the way they carry themselves.
There if of course the odd exception, but she’s still got a certain punk-eque androgenous flair to her and the Che look is always worth a try isn’t it?
Shaved heads with tufty tops, reminiscent of the late 80s/early 90s – they were all over Havana. But again – they rocked that look well!
All in White
One thing that I got a little obsessed with, was their propensity to wear all white outfits. How bling is that? Call this a poor, sad country? You don’t get bright whites in poverty – they’re proud and pristine! Male and female, old and young, it’s alright to wear white!
Cuba is big on art. It encourages people to work in the arts. As you have the same wage if you are a painter or a doctor – if you are artistically minded, you are not held back. Ballet in fact is a big thing in Cuba and you would get your training paid for if you excelled in this area. Something quite elitist in other countries, but here Cubans can pay very little to go to the ballet and it’s common entertainment.
There is a lot of art galleries.
We were surprised to find free galleries, like this Cermaic arts gallery. Normally what I’d find to be quite a dull medium, they had some incredible examples of unusual work here.
Not my favourite piece but definitely a shock factor when the lady leaned over and quietly told us that the fetus inside this sculpture was real.
I don’t know how to classify the guy who took his dog and rat for a walk, literally together.
Getting Around/Maps & Guides and Tourist Info:
I would definitely bring a guidebook with you. We had no way of getting one and it didn’t feel worth the money for such a short period but it would have been very helpful. We learned on arrival that google maps is wrong for a start – it had the streets around our accommodation completely wrong. I’d printed that map off so I could always have an aide to get home, so luckily our host put us straight on that one straight away. Because of the way Cuba is, without a lot of money and extra things – there isn’t a plethora of leaflets and maps everywhere, like you get in most tourist destinations. I’d thought I’d pick up a map there, but it wasn’t until about halfway through the trip I found one and then I had to buy it (cheap though of course). But there’s not really info out there about things to do and places to go so you really need a reference point (unless you’re staying in a fancy hotel and paying a fortune for it, you don’t get any internet). I had a simple guide I’d gotten on my kindle, but that’s no good for walking around the streets. I actually found an app that I had used a few times in other countries – Triposo – incredibly useful for Havana (particularly because it works offline). The offline map alone was a life saver and it had some interesting suggestions of places to go and eat and drink.
There is, I noticed late into our trip, a large tourist information place at the town end of Obispo Street, so if you’re after some info or a map – head there. There is also a smaller info kiosk, further down Obispo street, when you’re getting nearer to the sea – I think it’s on the opposite corner to Cafe de Paris.
I was, as an arrogant English girl, quite surprised to find how little English was spoken. I guess you just get used to it being spoken widely wherever you go. On our entire trip I’d certainly found it to be spoken way more than I expected when I left. It’s not really a problem, but a spanish language guide could be a good idea. We got by with a little spanish and just the usual pointing and non verbal communication. In the more touristic areas it is more widely spoken. I guess it’s because although they have a lot of English speaking visitors – Candadians, British, Australian etc – they often go straight to resorts and venture into town/other areas on trips. The majority of tourists in Havana were definitely from Spanish speaking countries.
It actually was a bit of a benefit to not speak Spanish. There’s not a lot of hassle at all in Cuba, but if someone did come up and start a patter with you – often when they realised that you didn’t speak Spanish they’d just give up!
You can only change up certain currencies so it’s not a bad idea to get a load of these before you go – GBP, Euro, Canadian Dollar and Mexican Peso, among others. You can change US dollars but on top of the already high exchange costs, you get an extra 10%.
We were in a bit of a tricky situation coming from Honduras were we could only get lempiras with no where to change up currencies, we then travelled to Grand Cayman but over the weekend and Butterfield bank, the only bank which was open on a saturday morning, had run low on foreign currency so was only offering to their customers. We could get dollars out in Grand Cayman so we just did that and thought if we could not get money out using a card we’d change that up and take the hit of the extra cost. In the end we found getting money from ATMs not to be a problem at all. Our airport pickup took us to ATMs on the way from the airport initially and then when we found our money wasn’t going to last we got some out from central Havana.
I’m glad we didn’t have to go and change money because there was always massive queues at the exchange places. I’d heard you could jump the queue if you had foreign currency – but who wanted to do that person. If we had decided in the end to get local currency, we would have had to lump the waiting.
The ATM we used in Havana is very easy to find. If you are in the Parc Central you just head up the main promenade towards the sea and a couple of minutes up on the right is an ATM. The bank is the metropolitan I think. You’ll likely see big queues outside there but they are to go in the bank, it’s unlikely you’ll have to wait long to get to the ATM. You can do the whole process in English as well.
Cuba is not a cheap place to visit as a tourist. Your money could stretch further if you got some local currency and bought some of the uber cheap street food but on the whole, even with bargaining things somehow work out quite pricey. I’m not talking London prices here, but you can often pay for a very simple meal, the same as you could pay for something bigger and better in New York that’s for sure.
Take tissues with you at all times – it’s very common for no toilet paper to be available and if it is, it’s often outside the cubicle so you take it before you go in. There is a big lack of toilet seats in many restaurants and bars too – the toilets are ok, but that may put a lot of people off.
If you are in central havana my top tip for a breather is Sloppy Joe’s. It has icey air con and toilet seats and paper!!! The other restaurant I talk about which is just down from La Floridita also has good toilets.
It’s probably not a bad idea to pack some toilet roll too if you’re staying in a casa particular – they’re not tight with it or anything but with things being sparse they don’t put out 2 at a time or anything.
I loved it. Mark loved it. It’s unique. It has incredible ambiance. It has incredible music. It’s friendly. It’s safe. It’s grand. It’s interesting. The food gets boring quick.