Empire State of Mind

View from Top of the Rock

Planning a holiday is not always easy. It can be, if you get lucky, but attempting to piece together a fairly ambitious agenda can create complications. I resent travel agents as I find that they simply do a lazier version than what you can do yourself if you screen all of the options on the internet. In addition to this, they tend to charge a fortune purely for the convenience of having somebody else scroll through the options for you. As soon as you attempt to plan anything slightly unusual they draw a blank. Don’t get me wrong, they work fantastically to make a large number of people’s lives ever so slightly easier, but if you’re on a budget of any description or trying something a little off the beaten track then look elsewhere. Anyway, I’ll touch back onto the planning stage a little later. Although the jabs, visas and organising can be stressful, the best feeling is having all of your documents sorted and setting off like a snail with all that you could need packed onto your back.

First stop: Norwegian airways. They have a very unusual new take on long haul flights: pay for everything separately. If you want food, drinks, a blanket or headphones you have to splash out but in return you get a, relatively reasonably priced, direct flight to the states. Fair enough. Certainly better than Ryanair or Flybe! Arrival into JFK New York was not quite so pleasant. After the brain-numbing wait in customs and border protection, I proceeded to get completely blown away by the lack of clarity surrounding the subway system. Without the help of an obliging local I would have seriously struggled: the maps are few and far between in addition to being out of scale and unclear. Around two hours after my flight had landed, 5am UK time, I managed to clamber my way over to Katherine (sister) in the West-side Airbnb flat.

The pond central park

With a jet-lagged early start on our first day we headed out into the big city. They don’t seem to have any equivalent to supermarkets or ‘grocery stores’ and what’s more nobody seems to understand us when we ask about them! Katherine eventually found some cereal – labelled ‘whole foods’/’healthy option’ the second ingredient was sugar. No wonder there’s an obesity epidemic. We were very excited, however, to get our first glimpse of the incredible Central Park: the buildings loom over it around the edges like stilts – all much taller yet much thinner than the skyscrapers we’re used to in the UK.

Saks 5th Avenue

The walk down 5th Avenue was suitably glamorous with the luxury brands dotted down the extensive ‘side-walk’. The wide streets are a novelty: they create a sense of space to counteract the vertical streaks of building so the sun can shine down onto the pavements. It felt like walking around on a film set.  We poked our noses into a couple of the big shops such as Saks 5th Avenue but fairly quickly retreated with $$$ branded into our eyes. Grand central station intensified the feeling that we were stumbling into a film. We packed a lot of sites into the first day: The Chrysler building, United Nations building (relatively dull, I must admit), Times Square, Bryant park and the public library. Struggling with the heat we popped into the delightfully named ‘Café grumpy’ for an iced beverage of some description before heading to a classic deli.

Rockefeller Centre Grand Central Station

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Deli sandwich with a ratio of mozzarella to bread of around 1:1!!

Deli sandwich with a ratio of mozzarella to bread of around 1:1!!

The queue at the Museum of Modern art for ‘free Fridays’ looped around the entire block so we instead headed to the ‘top of the rock’ observation deck. We used this as the first of three options on the ‘Explorer pass’ we bought to save us a couple of dollars on entrance fees. The timing was perfect as we soaked up the stunning view in full day light then waited for sunset then through to the magical moment when the lights gradually began to flicker on.

Empire State Building

Central Park view

Central Park view

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At this point, fully exhausted, we crawled back via a pizza joint and settled down back at the flat. Busy day!

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More Than A Memory

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Finally, I’ve caught up to the present day. Yesterday morning at the bright and early time of 8.30 I arrived back into London after a weekend in Athens. What a fantastic time to visit Greece! The weather was warm and sunny, yet not too hot, and there was barely a tourist in sight (with the slight exception of the acropolis, but you can’t ask for the impossible). The perks of travelling in Europe at this time of year include incredibly reasonable prices. The entirety of this trip, including accommodation and flights, cost less than £100. Incidentally, ‘airbnb‘ is a fantastic site to use when looking places to stay in any of 190+ countries across the world. It basically consists of a variety of houses/flats/studios that the owners are letting out on a temporary basis to tourists. There’s no minimum time period, you can stay for as little as one night. Our flat was an idyllic two bedroomed apartment within 4 minutes walking distance from the Acropolis and with a stunning view across Athens from the balcony window. Use the following link www.airbnb.co.uk/c/sffrenchconstant?s=8 or my personal referral code sffrenchconstant to get a further £17 off your accommodation.

Panorama from the balcony of our airbnb apartment.

Panorama from the balcony of our airbnb apartment.

As the major sights of the city are fairly close together we found it easily manageable to to everything that we’d hoped to achieve at a leisurely pace within two full days. The Acropolis, of course, the temple of Zeus and the national gardens were well worth a visit. Lycabettus hill, the highest point in the city, and Philopappos hill boast spectacular views of the Acropolis and the city as a whole. Don’t shy away from the steep walks up to these points as the walks themselves are a beautiful exploration into the olive groves and natural ‘wilderness’ hidden in the city. Wandering through the city itself, you stumble across one monument and ruin after another. A fascinating city to visit and, in my opinion, a far more pleasant experience than its rival, Rome. Well worth researching the history to whet your appetite before you go.

View from Lycabettus

View from Lycabettus

19th century chapel of St.George atop Lycabettus.

19th century chapel of St.George atop Lycabettus.

Hadiran's library

Hadiran’s library

Classic greek salad in a little balcony overlooking the cobbled street.

Classic greek salad in a little balcony overlooking the cobbled street.

Orange trees are scattered generously across the city. Here's one in the national garden

Orange trees are scattered generously across the city. Here’s one in the national garden

Temple of Zeus

Temple of Zeus

What a great place to stay!! Some ingenious homeless group have tapped into the caves in Lycabettus hill. Fantastic views all day and night!

What a great place to stay!! Some ingenious homeless group have tapped into the caves in Lycabettus hill. Fantastic views all day and night!

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Such a shame that the front of the Parthenon was covered in scaffolding! Ah well, can't have everything!

Such a shame that the front of the Parthenon was covered in scaffolding! Ah well, can’t have everything!

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Temple in the ancient grecian Agora

Temple in the ancient grecian Agora

Temple of Athena looking out over athens from the corner of the Acropolis

Temple of Athena looking out over athens from the corner of the Acropolis

Odeum of Herodes Atticus

Odeum of Herodes Atticus

Walking up Philopappus hill

Walking up Philopappus hill

Little wet sparrow

Little wet sparrow

Lycabettus Hill from below

Lycabettus Hill from below

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Theatre of Dionysus

Theatre of Dionysus

Erectheum on the Acropolis

Erectheum on the Acropolis

Long Way Down

Lake Kawaguchi Mount Fuji
“Aspire to be like Mt. Fuji, with such a broad and solid foundation that the strongest earthquake cannot move you, and so tall that the greatest enterprises of common men seem insignificant from your lofty perspective. With your mind as high as Mt Fuji you can see all things clearly. And you can see all the forces that shape events; not just the things happening near to you.”
– Miyamoto Musashi (Japanese Martial Arts master, one of the world’s greatest swordsmen, 1584-1645)

I had my last dip in the Osaka Onsen yesterday morning before we headed out on a long and complicated train journey, with 6 stages, to Lake Kawaguchi in the shadow of the majestic, snow-capped Mount-fuji.

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Tried my second bento box en route – a bit of a mixed bucket as some compartments have delicious little rice dishes or Japanese sweets or omlette. Others had some less appealing surprises, for example a whole tiny little octopus…

Fuji-san, Japan’s national emblem, suddenly appeared as if out of nowhere out of the train windows, much larger than I’d anticipated. We’re staying in a traditional inn or ‘Ryokan’ next to Lake Kawaguchi. It is a fairly rural tourist-based town which, to my frustration, hasn’t been hit by the wave of blossom yet.

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Onsenji Ryokan

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Breakfast was served in our room by a lovely traditionally dressed Japanese woman. It was a spread of various, fish, rice miso soup, lots of bizarre things that I just couldn't place, these 'fish cake' omlette things and of course copious amounts of green tea.

Breakfast was served in our room by a lovely traditionally dressed Japanese woman. It was a spread of various fish, rice, miso soup, lots of bizarre things that I just couldn’t place, these ‘fish cake’ omlette things and of course copious amounts of green tea.

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We were very fortunate to arrive to a fantastically clear sky for the sunset. Today we haven’t had such luck. We decided to head out to Fuji-Q Highland, famous for it’s spectacular views of the mountain. Fuji-Q is home to some fairly jaw-dropping roller coasters: Fujiyama, once the tallest in the world – still in the top 10 tallest and longest roller coasters; Dodonpa – once the world’s fastest, now the 4th fastest but still will the highest acceleration at launch time – from 0-172Km/h in 1.8 seconds after starting (just incredible!); Eejanaika 4D with 14 inversions; and Takabisha, officially the steepest roller coaster in the world with a 121 degrees vertical freefall. I fairly fairly dizzy after all that, to say the least, but it was just mind-blowing!

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Jesus Walks

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“Everything being a constant carnival, there is no carnival left.” 
 – Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo, however much I love him, clearly had never visited Rio. The official carnival holiday does not even begin until tomorrow and already the streets are swarming with hilarious costumes and roaring music.
Today I’ve been pretty busy, firstly heading out to successfully get my costume (yay!), then heading off on a small tour. The tour was great, just a local  man driving a small group of us around the main sights. First came the statue of ‘Christ the redeemer’ which was, as you can imagine, utterly beautiful. Though, I soon realised where the tourist industry had been hiding! We then headed over to the old ‘San Theresa’ district before stopping at the ‘Lapa steps’ (a.k.a. Escadaria Selarón) designed by Jorge Selarón and apparently made famous by Snoop Dogg in one of his music videos. The steps consisted of a mosaic of tiles, with larger tiles sent in from 160 countries across the globe to be part of the spectacle. What really made it a great experience for me, however, was the flock of ascending locals in fancy dress climbing up to a ‘block party’ at the top of the steps. Unfortunately they arrived after this photo was taken so you will just have to imagine the fairies, cavemen, clowns and transvestites.

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The last stop was the sugar loaf mountain, with, rather foggy, but nevertheless stunning views of the city. Our guide told us a couple of stories of eccentric activities which had taken place there: One American man apparently rode a motor bike up the cables to the mountain…a little sceptical about that one…and Falko Traber, a German tightrope artists walked to the mountain! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NKxHyGClRMc

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I was interested the view of the ‘Christ’ by night so Sebastian, my roommate, and I headed out to Botofago beach this evening to check it out. The metro was hilarious – overflowing with excited Brazilians in assorted ridiculous costumes. The statue seemed disappointingly far away following this morning’s trip but was still worth seeing! I’m not planning on heading out to join the marauding gangs tonight. My main excuse is that last night we had an addition to our room: an overweight Brazilian with token handle-bar moustache who, more relevantly, snored, as Sebastian puts it: “as if he were in pain”. So I’m looking forward to catching up on some sleep!