Bright Lights, Bigger City

new york night

As our time in New York draws to a close, I thought I’d focus on two of the highlights of our trip: Central Park and the museums. I must admit, the attempted ‘renaissance style’ of many of the ‘old’ buildings did amuse me a little – purely because I’ve been spoilt by living in Europe. The architecture of the museums was still pretty impressive (if you don’t try to compare it!).

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, on the side of the park, was enormous! We particularly enjoyed the Monet, Manet and Degas collections but, arguably, the most unique installation was the 10 B.C. Egyptian Temple of Dendur – that’s right the entire temple has been installed into the museum! Up on top there’s a summer drinks bar with beautiful views of the skyline over the park, but be warned: it has very limited seating.

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Temple of Dendur

Special exhibition - China through the looking glass.

Special exhibition – China through the looking glass.

That iconic Seurat

That iconic Seurat

View from the roof

View from the roof

We accidentally snuck into the Museum of natural history round the back as couldn’t find the entrance… it certainly rivals the London equivalent. For us, the Blue Whale representation and dinosaur collection were the best parts!

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Butterfly dispay

Butterfly display

Next onto the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). This is definitely one not to be missed – the Andy Warhol collection was particularly impressive but the whole gallery was impeccable.

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We ran out of time and money for the Guggenheim but at least managed to admire it’s unusual structure as we walked down the east side of the park.

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The park, in general, was draw-dropping – not just because of its immense size but also due to the beautiful variety. We loved the huge rock structures dotted about the place between the trees.

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We loved watching the little turtles poking their noses out from the algae. Spot the two here that have ventured out to enjoy the sun.

We spent ages eagerly watching the little turtles poking their noses out from the algae. Spot the two here that have ventured out to enjoy the sun.

Belvedere 'Castle'

Belvedere ‘Castle’

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We got very excited watching the various baseball games going on throughout the lawns – it always surprises me how different American culture is to English! Speaking of which – only in America would you get a complementary cake with your meal! Brunch here is apparently a huge thing at the weekends so Katherine and I headed to ‘Friends of a Farmer’ in Greenwich Village for omelette and pancakes with free apple corn cake stuff. Having said that, the portions are not as big here as they had been on the west coast – perhaps we’ve just not been going to the right places; in general we’ve found food to be extremely expensive, particularly fruit and veg. I paid $4 for two apples the other day. FOUR dollars.

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Final stop: Empire State building. We went up at night to get a little variety from the ‘Top of the Rock’. The view was suitably incredible but I still maintain that the top of the Rockefeller is better purely because you have the iconic Empire State within the view. It’s just like the Eiffel tower in Paris – you can go up the tower but I think better views of the city can be achieved up the Arc de triumph as the iconic structure dominates the skyline, creating views that truly can’t be mistaken for another large city.

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And that’s all for now folks. Been kicked out of the Airbnb so just perched in Starbucks waiting to head to the airport for my two day flight to the South Pacific now!

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Summer in the City

Washington Park Jazz

People say you shouldn’t visit New York in the summer. At first we thought this was immaterial as the heat seemed perfectly bearable, but over time it seems to have hit us! The worst area is the subway, as waves of very hot air keep you dripping with sweat whilst waiting in the dingy, run-down stations.

New York Subway New York Subway

The best way to sight-see to avoid the heat is on a boat/ferry! We splashed out on a ‘landmark cruise’ as wanted to get the best value out of our ‘explorer pass’ but if you haven’t got a pass or want to use it on other things then the Staten Island ferry is a viable alternative. We looped around the south of Manhattan and got some great views of the iconic, but surprisingly small, Lady Liberty.

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To get a few different angles of the city we have been wandering around various districts to try and get a flavour of the variety here: Chelsea art’s district boasted the ‘high line’ park, created from an old rail line; Greenwich village was like stepping into the set of ‘Friends’ or ‘Sex in the City’ with locations from both shows available to track down for keen fans; Chinatown and Little Italy speak for themselves and Harlem was notably….how to put this kindly…’edgier’.

Flowers in 'High Line' park.

Flowers in ‘High Line’ park.

Apartment block from Friends.

Apartment block from Friends.

Harlem Street Art

Harlem Street Art

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I love pinkberry! It's a frozen yoghurt brand dotted about the place that we became familiar with in LA so it was nice to find it again!

I love pinkberry! It’s a frozen yoghurt brand dotted about the place that we became familiar with in LA so it was nice to find it again!

Heading down south we went to visit the very moving 9/11 memorial. It is incredibly well done: a series of square waterfalls lead to a middle drop where you can’t see the bottom, creating a ‘void’ where the two towers once stood.

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The old with the new. Over the memorial stands the 'One World Trading Centre' built to replace the twins. It is now the tallest building in the country.

The old with the new. Over the memorial stands the ‘One World Trading Centre’ built to replace the twins. It is now the tallest building in the country.

Brooklyn Bridge was pretty but packed! We didn’t walk the whole way across as were dead on our feet at this point. Below is the view back towards the financial district.

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I got excited by recognising the steps of the Courts of Justice from countless films, but Wall street itself was much like any other financial district. I’m not sure what I was expecting, perhaps for Leonardo DiCaprio to spring out into the street spilling cocaine trails behind him.

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Speaking of celebrities, we came down from a roof top bar south of Central Park to find a small group of paparazzi waiting outside the Directors Guild Theatre and stopped to ask what was going on. Crowds quickly gathered, nobody knowing what was happening at all, and crowd mentality led to us all hanging around for over an hour gossiping, sharing ‘speculations’ and generally swapping stories. The whole experience was actually pretty hilarious – trying to get intel out of the ‘pap’ who wouldn’t budge then asking the drivers in the flashy cars waiting outside… finally Tom Cruise emerged to much excitement and a flurry of flashes and screaming.

We cooled down with a trip to Times Square to see the mayhem at night.

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When The Sun Goes Down

Grand Bazaar Istanbul

Kitten on cushions istanbul

Istanbul was not at all as I had expected. I was taken aback by the religious fervour of the city; with mosques dotted extravagantly around the city and the ezan (call to prayer) blasting from the minarets five times a day, it is clear to see how devoted Muslims are to their faith. I will not get started here on the shock I felt at witnessing the position of women, as this is a debate which far exceeds my limited experiences. I will say, however, that we barely had the chance to speak to a woman throughout the duration of our stay!

The one exception was our visit to a traditional Hamman – there are many to choose between in the city – we opted for Cemberlitas Hamami as it seemed to be relatively reasonably priced (they’re not cheap!). Essentially, you are paying extravagantly for somebody to wash you. A lady would lather up the most enormous soapy clouds and scrub you with a mitten before dousing you with water from the taps at the edges of the heated marble room. The interior was very unusual, with the entire room made out of marble and the domed roof having holes to let the light in which gave the appearance of stars in the roof. Although it was slightly ridiculous, it would definitely be worth going for the ‘traditional bath’ over just the option to go into the heated room alone – was certainly an unusual experience!

Kittens Istanbul

Blue Mosque

Dervish dancer, spinning and spinning with that unusual 'mushroom' hat.

Dervish dancer, spinning and spinning with that unusual ‘mushroom’ hat.

Blue Mosque

The city was certainly full of character. We were taken with the exceptionally kind way in which the local, apparently stray, cats were treated. Instead of being kicked and spurned they were often fed affectionately! The blue mosque, above, lived up to it’s iconic position as the key tourist attraction. Inside, however, was not quite as I had imagined. I guess in comparison to the beautiful Buddhist and Hindu temples of the far east, I had been a little off mark with my expectations. There was an incredibly intricate Iznik tiled roof (slightly less ‘blue’ than the name would suggest, perhaps), but the mosque itself was very stark inside to provide space for salat (prayer).

Blue Mosque roof

The best places to get views of the mosque and, indeed, the city itself, are the roof top bars and restaurants. We tried out the ‘Blue House Hotel’ and ‘Panoramic’ restaurant. Both had incredible views over the city and we went up to these spots to wait around for the sunsets each night. The lengthy call to prayer at the moment that the sun falls below the horizon helped to create an all-encompassing dramatic atmosphere

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Baklava and turkish dessert selection whilst we waited for the sun on top of the Blue House Hotel

Baklava and Turkish dessert selection whilst we waited for the sun on top of the Blue House Hotel

Blue Mosque at night

The Hagia Sofia museum, neighbouring the blue mosque, is also worth a visit, although don’t expect a typical ‘museum’: it is, essentially, the interior of the building as it was when it was an imperial mosque. It didn’t take us too long to look around so this visit could easily fit into any day.

Interior of Hagia Sofia Museum

Interior of Hagia Sofia Museum

Of course, the Grand Bazaar is certainly worth a visit. Yet again though, it did not live up to my expectations. I was picturing a scene similar to the souks in Marrakech. The Grand Bazaar seemed rather more ‘up-market’. The individual stalls were shops rather than the kind of stalls you would expect in a traditional market. Unfortunately haggling was also significantly more difficult than we had expected! Due to the huge number of tourists crowded around the market it is difficult to try and push the price down significantly as there are so many alternative buyers flocking around! We did eventually find ourselves a few trinkets to take home as mementos. I personally preferred the Spice Bazaar: it was just as colourful yet much less busy and we happily wandered around the Turkish Delight stalls sampling the different flavours!

A display of Turkish Delights in the Spice Bazaar.

A display of Turkish Delights in the Spice Bazaar.

Mosque outside the spice bazaar where we were given free copies of the Quran

Mosque outside the spice bazaar where we were given free copies of the Quran

Traditional Turkish tea

Traditional Turkish tea

Spice Bazaar Istanbul

The food, in general was very interesting. To end on a funny note, we were very confused when presented with the following at a restaurant:

Turkish Bread

We’d placed our order and were swiftly given this along with the comment ‘enjoy your meal’. Anna thought they might have taken our order wrong. I thought our meal might be inside this enormous thing…like a weird pie. It turns out it was merely a dramatic air-filled flat bread and that the ‘enjoy your meal’ comment was merely a misunderstood English phrase which we were showered with after each dish was delivered.

Sugar Town

Nyhavn Copenhagen

“Everything you look at can become a fairy tale and you can get a story from everything you touch.”
― Hans Christian Andersen

It’s always intimidating to arrive at a hostel in the late evening: the large groups of ‘well-oiled’ young adults from all corners of the globe make you feel like you’ve wandered into some exclusive bar by yourself in the middle of the night.

First impressions of Copenhagen: The air coming off the plane from London seemed ridiculously fresh and clean. It appeared pretty small and manageable, with very picturesque canals and cobbled streets scattered with hundreds of bicycles.

Nyhavn Copenhagen

Nyhavn Copenhagen

Nyhavn Copenhagen

I was a little wobbly with the road system at first: I was wondering why the road was so wide before realising that half of it was a ‘bike road’ which sort of disguises itself as a very wide pavement, a misunderstanding which led to a few close shaves. On the first morning I wandered out to Nyhavn, a famous ‘heritage harbour’ canal waterfront packed with brightly coloured 17th/18th Century town houses which now act as cafés and restaurants. From here I meandered to the little mermaid statue, inspired of course by Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of the mermaid who gives up her aquatic life to gain the love of a prince and a human soul (dying tragically in the original tale, unlike the disney-tainted version which most people are now more familiar with). I’d been advised to not expect much, or even to avoid the site altogether due to the absurd number of tourists who flock to see it. As expected, it was absolutely crammed with people of all origins literally clambering all over it. However, having studied Hans Christian Anderson’s tale this year at university I couldn’t help but love it. In fact I think it depends a lot on the timing. I headed back for the evening light later in the day to see a fraction of the crowds that were there before.

The Little Mermaid Copenhagen

The Little Mermaid Copenhagen

The gardens, fountains and churches dotted about the city are beautifully maintained, seeming almost regimented and square. There are also these bizarre lines of bright orange identical buildings dotted about the place which I assume are for housing.

Rosenburg Castle

Rosenburg Castle

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I was incredibly lucky with the weather – absolutely spotless blue skies. I actually made the mistake of sunbathing in the park on the second day and managed to burn my entire body. I tried out one of the ‘soft ice’ ice creams which apparently is a local favourite, although found it far too sweet and creamy – no way near as good as the similar ones from ‘The Eskimo Hut’ in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

soft ice copenhagen

The food and, well, everything really, is incredibly expensive. Far more so than London, Paris or Tokyo even. Just as an indicator a small bottled juice cost the equivalent of around £5. I splurged on some expensive pastries though which, although undoubtedly fantastic, were again a little too sweet for my tastes.

Bakery Copenhagen

To compensate for the expense of the food (which I lowered by bringing food from home in my luggage) I stuck to free city activities, such as checking out the ‘Statens Museum for Kunst’ (national art gallery) and the national museum which had a fascinating exhibition on ancient Nordic history. The art gallery had a great selection of Matisse and Picasso, and some interesting local Danish art but didn’t take overly long to get through, say in comparison to the national gallery here in London.

Matisse self portrait

Matisse self portrait

Sculpture of Hans Christian Anderson's haunting 'Story of the Mother'. Here death is taking away the young child.

Sculpture of Hans Christian Anderson’s haunting ‘Story of the Mother’. Here death is taking away the young child.

Botanical gardens

Botanical gardens

Strøget - the centre of the shopping district.

Strøget – the centre of the shopping district.

The only site I expended a few Kroner for was the ’round tower’, with a bizarre curving brick walk way leading up to a beautiful view over the city.

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Goodnight Saigon

Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, (previously Saigon) is a fantastically vivacious city. One thing you’ve really got to watch out for, however, is the traffic! Over 2 million motorbikes saturate the roads and pedestrian crossings appear to be a completely foreign concept. You basically have to walk out into the stream of bikes and walk steadily across whilst they swerve around you. You’re advised not to stop whilst you’re walking as it can confuse them. This is much harder than it would seem as basic survival instincts would encourage you not to carry on walking into the path of a fast moving vehicle!

The period of French administration has left a firm mark on the city. Beautiful French architecture is dotted about along with an abundance of bakeries!

Here's the inside of the city post office, designed and constructed by Gustav Eiffel. The building remained untouched during the later period of turmoil.

Here’s the inside of the city post office, designed and constructed by Gustav Eiffel. The building remained untouched during the later period of turmoil.

Saigon's very own 'Notre-Dame' cathedral.

Saigon’s very own ‘Notre-Dame’ cathedral.

Of the many interesting activities available, I’d recommend the Art museum; despite being rather poorly exhibited it boasts a really interesting and unique collection of Vietnamese art. It’s also got a note-worthy collection of Vietnamese propaganda posters from the war. After having whetted your appetite you can pop across the road to the buzzing ‘Ben Thanh’ market to have a look at some of the beautiful local artwork and other bits and bobs for sale.

Inside Ho Chi Minh Art Museum

Ben Thanh Market

Here's a lady using variously different naturally coloured egg shells on lacquer to decorate her vases. This technique was prominent in the Art gallery and produces some really striking effects.

Here’s a lady using variously different naturally coloured egg shells on lacquer to decorate her vases. This technique was prominent in the Art gallery and produces some really striking effects.

Egg shell art

Another endearing quality of the city is the food selection. I’m likely to be biased as I have a bit of a thing for Vietnamese food but the fresh spring rolls with nutty hoisin sauce are just to die for.

About an hour out of the city you can find the Cu Chi tunnels – an elaborate and extensive network of underground tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War.

Cu Chi tunnels

These holes are no ‘Bag End’; they epitomised “nasty, dirty” and “wet… filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell”. It’s shocking just how small the tunnels are and how well the entrances can be concealed. Essentially, the analogy generally used is to rats tunnelling under the rice fields to avoid being caught. You pretty much have to be the size of a rat to navigate through them. It seems impossible to imagine how they were used for communication, supply routes, living quarters and shelter, at times for days on end!  Some of the tunnels have now been made wider and taller to accommodate tourists but it’s still an experience to avoid if you’re even remotely claustrophobic!

Cu Chi tunnels

Cu Chi tunnels

Cu Chi also has displays and demonstrations of the methods of the Viet Cong including some fairly gruesome traps and a chance to fire a variety of the different guns (ranging from an AK-47 to the M60 machine gun) in their firing range!

Cu Chi tunnels

Here's a lady making the traditional rice paper for spring rolls etc...

Here’s a lady making the traditional rice paper for spring rolls etc…

It was interesting to see the war from a different perspective – with the Viet Cong as the protagonists – after studying the Americans involvement in school. The man showing us around the site had actually fought with the Viet Cong himself and had bullet wounds in his arms and leg to boot!

Sol Y Sombre

 

“It is better to be alone than in bad company.”
 – George Washington

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It’s strange to think that this was only a month and a half ago. It seems as if at least half a year has past. In the absence of being able to take my camera out I’ve been sifting through my photos…

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Frustratingly the main things to see and do in this area are outside of the actual city, costing significant amounts in transport or for tours which I can’t afford at this point. Of all the places to be stuck in, that I’ve visited so far, I have the feeling that I’ve drawn the short straw.

I’m getting more than a little disgruntled by standing out like a sore thumb in this dodgy Panama city neighbourhood. I just popped down to the shop to get a couple of apples and a drunk Panamanian ran ahead of me and lay down in a puddle for me to walk over, pretending that I was the queen. Ok, granted that is a particularly amusing example. I found it very difficult to maintain a straight face as I walked on by. When he intercepted me on the walk back and repeated this episode, this time with his friend joining in, I couldn’t help but burst out laughing at how ridiculous the situation was. This did not help, however, as they then continued to crawl after me on their hands and knees until I managed to shrug them off. 

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I can’t seem to find a place to while away the time in the hotel either. I’ve been trying to soak up some last minute sun before heading back to the rain; yesterday, late afternoon, I went up for a dip in the roof top pool (more of a plunge pool really, but I can’t complain for the price I’m paying! Also it’s got a hell of a view to make up for it). There were not one, but two couples making out heatedly in the square metre of pool. That’s what your rooms are for you morons. Get out of the communal area. Anyway, standing there wrapped in a towel, I felt it would look ridiculous to turn around straight away and walk back down, so I determinedly got in the pool and awkwardly swam a couple of ‘lengths’. It didn’t take long before I couldn’t take it any more and retreated back to my cave room.

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Back in the days when I knew people here so felt comfortable taking my camera out, this poor planning error caught my eye. The elevated hands of Jesus in ‘Casco Viejo’ make the perfect perch for the local vultures. Not sure that’s the image they had in mind…

P.S. Warning to vegetarians. Panama city = not ideal. Went scouting round a series of cafés/street stalls/restaurants and could not find anything at all without meat. I thought Brazil would be bad but this is by far the worst place for it yet.

Passing Stranger

“A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.”

– Tim Cahill

It feels strange being suddenly so alone after having spent such a long time in constant company.

I have to admit that I found the popular ‘Miraflores Locks’ and the Panama canal pretty dull. There was just such an enormous crowd of people watching an incredibly slow and tedious process.

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Perhaps it’s because I’ve reached the end of my tether after travelling pretty much constantly since November, alternatively it could be the fact that I’m recovering from a nasty bug: Either way I’m not particularly interested in Panama city. The ‘Caso Viejo’ old town region was a little more picturesque that the usual mediocrity but I’m not particularly in a position to be wandering around the city by myself as the men are particularly relentless in their verbal affronts. It’s impossible to even walk a minute down the road to the supermarket without being hounded by at least 10 locals, even when reluctantly trading in my short shorts for more conservative attire. The record’s 25. Anyway, you can see that I don’t feel particularly comfortable whacking out a large camera in this rather dodgy neighbourhood so photos will be limited.

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Interesting graffiti in ‘Casco Viejo’. Love how the person trying to paint the walls has dodged around them.

IMG_2382The city does, however, have some great little spots to pass the time. You can get a taxi out to the ’causeway’, a couple of Islands in the bay with a great view of the skyline.

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