Monday, 26 December 2016

My 2016 in Instagram posts

I won't bore you with all the details of my year -- you can scroll back through the blog for that -- but here's a quick round-up of my 2016 through the medium of Instagram (you can follow me here if you're not doing so already).

January bit of a slow starter, mainly involving hibernation, good books and hot chocolate:

By February I was sunning myself in a warm(ish) Lanzarote -- and getting friendly with 400 camels:

Later in February, I went to Paris for a long weekend with some friends. Cue eating, drinking and sightseeing.

March was a trip to India the opening of the new Gir Lion Lodge at London Zoo. The Queen was there and everything. Fancy...

April was mainly spent exploring my new local area, Peckham in south-east London. Any regular Instagram followers will have noticed my floristry obsession by now, and this little gem is a florist in Nunhead,

Dreams came true in May when I finally made it to Venice, somewhere I'd always wanted to go. I learned a trick or two while I was there.

June saw one of my best friends get married, and as one of her bridesmaids, I had the honour of sitting at the top table. You try not to spill gravy when you've got 80 people watching you eat your dinner.

July was a case of being in the right place at the right time to capture this sunset over central and west London.

Friendsfest came to London in August and I found myself hanging out in Monica's apartment:

In September I spent 10 days in the Algarve, and took the opportunity to revisit Vilamoura, a resort I visited on a family holiday when I was around 7 years old.

I rarely post photos of myself on Instagram, but in October I got to spend the day working as a
zookeeper at London Zoo. Perk of the job, and also an occasion when my worlds collided in the form of my past and present jobs. Still, I made friends with this dude:

In November I finally made it to Marrakech, somewhere I've always wanted to go. It's the most terrifying, exhilarating place I've ever been. It was fascinating being led to the Dyers' market by one of the local traders, and watching the way the skeins of wool were dyed. See more of my Marrakech photos here and here.

December peaked pretty early when I went to Winchester with a friend and ended up tucking into this beast of a hot chocolate at a deli-cafe called Josie's. Yes, that is butter toffee popcorn on top. No, no regrets at all.

What was your 2016 highlight?

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Marrakech in photos: part two

Since returning to grey, chilly London, Marrakech seems not only like another place, but also like another time. I won't say it's a calmer pace of life -- it's not, it's got a ferocity to it that makes the City of London on a Monday morning seem like a meadow of tranquility. But it's more colourful and more vibrant, and as that's something we could all use more of on these chilly November mornings.
(The first lot of photos are here - stick the kettle on and catch up before you read on).
Donkey carts used to transport goods outside the city centre. 

There is greenery in Marrakech. This was taken looking up among the trees at Jardin Majorelle, the gardens outside the city centre that were redesigned by fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent.

Jardin Majorelle is known for its bright colour scheme.

A peaceful spot in Jardin Majorelle

Spice stalls are everywhere - more often than not, shopkeepers try to reel you in by asking if you know what the spices are as you pass.

Marrakech has some really beautiful signs (if you're into that sort of thing).

A colourful stall just outside the spice market in the Jewish Quarter, to the south of  Bahia Palace

This'll give you some idea of how close the slaloming motorbikes and mopeds get to pedestrians, sometimes in alleyways no more than 5ft wide. It's unfathomable how often you feel one pass you, yet not once did we see an accident.

The calming rose petal fountain in the oasis of our riad.

Men in these costumes tend to gather in the main square - I'd love to know what they are/what they're doing. Answers in the comments please!

A typical Marrakech shop

Another donkey, this one much closer to the central souks.

Monday, 21 November 2016

The UK's best winter lights and lantern festivals 2016-2017

Lumiere London 2016. Photo: Laura Reynolds
In January 2016, London was lifted briefly out of its post-Christmas, freezing weather, no money slump by Lumiere London. Lumiere London was a light festival on a huge scale, taking over the city for a few days, closing streets to traffic and sending Instagram into a veritable frenzy. Everyone was talking about it. I can say without a doubt that it's my favourite event ever to come to London (and dealing in London events is my bread and butter), and I now get quite excited every time I hear about another light festival.

Sadly, it doesn't look like Lumiere is coming back to London this year, but there are plenty of other light and lantern festivals taking place in London and across the UK. Some are family-friendly, others lean more towards the romantic spectrum, so choose your companions carefully. Can't make it along to any of these? Follow the venues on Instagram to get the best of the pretty lights without battling the cold weather.

Magical Lantern Festival at Chiswick House

The previous Magical Lantern Festival at Chiswick House. Photo: Magical Lantern Festival
For its second outing at Chiswick House in south-west London, The Magical Lantern Festival takes on a Silk Road theme. Lanterns will represent themes from the route the Silk Road trade route took between Europe and China. The other entertainment on offer at the festival is rather eclectic, ranging from fun fair rides and a synthetic ice rink to virtual reality games to play.

Oddest of all, bearing in mind the festival takes place in January and February, is the Santa's Grotto. Makes sense that the guy in red would be less busy at this time of year, but surely that's just asking to have overexcited kids on your hands for 11 months?

The Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House. Adult tickets £16-50-£20. 19 January-26 February 2017.

The Festival of Light, Longleat Safari Park

Photo: Longleat
Beatrix Potter fans are in for a right treat as the author's animal characters are brought to life in light form, among more than 2,500 lanterns. There's also a Beatrix Potter exhibition in the Great Hall.

Longleat's famous pride of lions is also immortalised in light, as are some of its other residents, including elephants and gorillas. It's all part of the safari park's 50th anniversary celebrations.

The Festival of Light, Longleat Safari Park. Various ticket prices, 11 November 2016-2 January 2017.

Tunnel of Light, Norwich

Photo: Norwich BID
You only need to head as far north as Norwich to experience the Northern Lights this winter -- sort of.

A 45m long tunnel of light, made of more than 50,000 LEDs will be set on Hay Hill, as part of the City's Christmas celebrations, in what it's claiming is a UK first.

Tunnel of Light, Norwich, 17 November 2016-5 January 2017.

GLOW, Eastbury Manor

For two nights only, National Trust property Eastbury Manor House in Barking is taken over by local organisation Studio3arts. The house and grounds will be illuminated with events including a fire garden and fire sculptures, illuminations in patterns representing the building's Tudor heritage, sound installations and a model solar system. If ever there was a time to head for the end of the District line, this is it.

GLOW, Eastbury Manor, Barking. Adult tickets £5, 25-26 November 2016

Winter Lights Festival, Canary Wharf

Photo: Canary Wharf
Move over suits and briefcases, it's playtime in Canary Wharf. In what is probably the most interactive event on this list (and free -- yippee!), Winter Lights Festival is back.

30 light installations will be dotted among the east London skyscrapers, with work by artists from four continents. Visitors to last year's event could hook up their smartphones to control some of the lights in what appeared to be a 21st century form of witchcraft. Expect similar this year.

Winter Lights Festival, Canary Wharf. Free, 16-27 January 2017.

Dulwich Winterlights, Dulwich Picture Gallery
Photo: Dulwich Picture Gallery
The world's first purpose-built picture gallery steps elegantly into the 21st century with a pre-Christmas illumiation festival. The 19th century building and impressive grounds will be lit up and decked with lanterns by the same people behind Christmas at Kew (see below). As you follow the trail, enjoy the accompanying music, which include live roaming choirs.

Dulwich Winterlights at Dulwich Picture Gallery. Adult tickets £12, 6-18 December 2016.

Enchanted Woodland at Syon Park

Photo: Steve Newton/Enchanted Woodland
South-west London's Syon House is a sleepy place most of the year, but it comes alive for a few weekends before Christmas when it transforms into the family-friendly Enchanted Woodland.

A colourful, illuminated mile-long trail through the trees and around the lake is enough to enchant adults and kids alike -- and it's worth keeping your eyes open for little touches like fairy doors in the trees. Booking in advance is a must, but even then be prepared to queue to get in.

Enchanted Woodland at Syon House. Adult tickets £9, 18 November-4 December 2016.

Christmas at Kew, Kew Gardens

Christmas at Kew 2014. Photo: Laura Reynolds
Inevitably, gardens lose their appeal in winter, but those clever people at Kew have found a way to keep the visitor numbers up; Christmas at Kew.

The light trail winds around a corner of the sizeable garden, taking in the dancing fountains in the lake, a Five Gold Rings themed fire garden, a light tunnel and much more. There's also a Victorian funfair, food and drinks stalls and more.  In short, it's an Instagram addict's heaven.

Christmas at Kew, Kew Gardens. Adult ticket £16-£20, 23 November 2016-2 January 2017.

 Magical Lantern Festival, Leeds and Birmingham

The people behind the Magical Lantern Festival at Chiswick House (above) are also lighting up Leeds -- Roundhay Park to be precise -- and Birmingham's Botanical Garden.

Tip: while you're in Leeds, it's also worth checking out the Leeds Christmas Market.

Magical Lantern Festival Leeds. Adult ticket £12.50-£14. 25 November 2016-2 January 2017.
Magical Lantern Festival Birmingham. Adult ticket £12.50-£14. 25 November 2016-2 January 2017.

Lumiere Durham 2017

While they may not be gracing London with their much-missed presence this year, there's a rumour that Artichoke  Arts are bringing Lumiere Durham back in 2017. At time of writing, the link on the website isn't working, but it's something for light fans in the north of England to keep an eye on.

What have I missed? Add any other events to the comments below or tweet me @scribbling_lau and I'll add them to the list.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Travel tales: The Sunday surfers of Armacao de Pera

Way above our heads, the old church bells rumbled into life, demanding attention like a petulant child. The din drowned out the crashing of the waves, shaking the small town from its Sunday lie-in, and the effect it had was quite a spectacle.

Knowing that the heat of the burning Portuguese sun would render any exploration impossible by 11am, we’d headed out straight after breakfast to acquaint ourselves with the town of Armação de Pera, situated just west of Albufeira on the Algarve, and our home for the next ten days.

Strolling down the pedestrianised promenade, the glistening blue waters of the Atlantic were already tempting at this early hour, and the sandy town beach already full of sunbathers. On the other side of the promenade, an eclectic mix of tourist shops fought for the attentions of passers by, their Mickey Mouse towels, beach footballs and picture postcards hanging from every nook. Shop owners switched seamlessly into the native language of each and every passing tourist in a bid to sell their wares.

Rounding a corner as the promenade juts out into the sea, the landscape changed. The beach view was blocked by a colonial-style, raspberry pink house, different to any other building in town and almost grand enough to be called a mansion, teetering alone on the cliffs. Its foreboding perimeter walls and intriguing gated entrance distracted us so much that we barely noticed what stood behind us.

A church, petite but unapologetically beautiful. Entirely whitewashed with a tiled roof and stained glass windows, it wouldn’t have looked out of place on a small Greek island, serving a parish of five, yet here it was in a town square, slap bang in the middle of the Algarve. The tall, slim bell tower cast a shadow over the dogs sleeping in the square, but the most eye-catching part of the building was the pointed arch around the door, livened up with blue flowers which, closer inspection revealed, were each delicately handmade from crepe paper.

And then it happened. The church bells sprung into life, announcing the arrival of 10am and almost instantly people appeared from all corners of the petite square, making a beeline for the door of the church, as if they’d been lying in wait.

The intricate arch was immediately swarmed with parishioners. The cacophony as they greeted each other in Portuguese was astonishing, their conversations expertly timed to finish just as they reached the wooden church door, allowing them to enter the building in a respectful silence. Sunglasses and eccentric sunhats were removed at the entrance, giving the impression of a town on pause from sunbathing for as long as the service would take.

They poured in from the town centre, many with shopping bags from the local market, bananas and carrots peeping out of the top. Some came loaded up with umbrellas and surfboards, treating the church trip as a minor pit stop on the way down to the beach.

Behind us, they came from the beach, many still wet and with sand stuck to them as they climbed the rickety stone steps, no time to think about appearances. Mothers clucked around with towels in an attempt to make children look respectable. Some wielded picnic baskets, their culinary contents too valuable to be left unattended on the beach for this brief encounter with God. Others came completely empty handed, as if they’d dropped everything when the bells beckoned.

We were in awe. How were this many people fitting into such a small church? How were there even this many residents in Armação de Pera, a small fisherman’s town which relies heavily on the tourist industry? From our vantage point – we had been rendered immobile both from a desire to watch the spectacle, and from fear of being trampled – we could see that it was standing room only at the back of the church, and yet still they came. Finally, the wooden doors of the church were drawn shut from the inside, and the square was still again, left in the hands of tourists once more. 

See also: 

Thursday, 10 November 2016

In photos: A weekend in Marrakech

From a photography point of view, Marrakech is an incredibly frustrating place. It's colourful, vibrant, worthy of photographic excellence, and yet it's impossible to stand still for even a second to focus or align your shot.

Pedestrians, motorbikes, mopeds, carts, donkeys and more all battle relentlessly for space in the alleyways, some no more than 4ft or 5ft wide. If that's not enough to keep you moving, any slowing of the pace results in locals gathering round you to offer you (incorrect) directions, or attempting to lead you into their shop to show you their wares. You catch on pretty quick that stopping is not an option.

Nevertheless, here are some of the photos I took on my recent trip to Marrakech:
Inside the Bahia Palace

Outside a spice shop - even the containers are beautifully decorated.

Beautiful architecture + shabby chic paint + eye-catching tiles + motorbike = Marrakech
Street art in the Souks

A babouche shop in the Souks

A man making wool felt by hand in the dyers market.

The dyers market, an area that most tourists overlook entirely.

Skeins of freshly dyed wool hung out to dry.

The pigments and dyes used to colour the wool.

Wares for sale.

A closer look at some of the signs for sale.

A Moroccan Banksy?

Dentists are surprisingly common, especially considering the number of people who seem to lack teeth altogether.

Colourful street art on an otherwise dull street.

Looking down on an alleyway from the roof of our Riad gives an idea of how narrow some of the thoroughfares are.

The view towards Bahia Palace from our roof terrace.
A lantern stall in the main square, Jmaa al Fna, at night.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

London's Best Themed Restaurants

I'm a sucker for a gimmick, and if there's something London does well, it's a gimmick. Themed restaurants aren't new to London -- Planet Hollywood and the Hard Rock Cafe have been kicking around for a while, but most people have been there and literally got the t-shirt.

The Rainforest Cafe

Photo: Rainforest Cafe
Situated just around the corner from Piccadilly Circus, there's no doubt this one is a tourist trap -- but I've got a bit of a soft spot for it. Enter through the ground floor gift shop and descend the stairs to the restaurant and bar area, decked out like a rainforest, complete with tropical plants, animal displays and even themed furniture.

It's not all about the gimmicks though -- the Rainforest Cafe offers educational tours for children, where they can learn all about the rainforest, with profits going to charity.

The Rainforest Cafe, 20 Shaftesbury Avenue, W1D 7EU

Jamie's Diner(saur)

Across the road from The Rainforest Cafe, this brainchild of Jamie Oliver is another one for hungry tourists. The food doesn't come with the best recommendations, so if you've got a companion who fancies themselves as a food critic, perhaps dodge this one.  But if you're looking for American diner style food with a large dinosaur peering at you while you tuck in, this is the place for you.

Jamie Oliver's Diner, 23a Shaftesbury Avenue, W1D 7EF

The Disney Cafe at Harrods

Disney fans of all ages (and yes, I speak mainly about myself) will be enthralled by Disney's Wild West Cafe in Harrods. Situated on the fourth floor, it's a far cry from the rather more serious Georgian Restaurant next door. The food doesn't come cheap (burgers on the adult menu start at £17.50, and that'll be an extra £1 for your cheese, thanks) but you can watch Disney films including Toy Story while you eat -- and you'll be served your food by a Woody or Jessie lookalike.

Disney's Wild West Cafe, fourth floor, Harrods, Knightsbridge

Bubba Gump Shrimp Co, Leicester Square

Photo: Bubba Gump
The people who've seen the film get it. The people who haven't seen the film really, really don't. I've never been myself, but life is like a box of chocolates -- you never know what you're gonna get.
The menu focuses on food from the American South, but if you're not a fan of the humble prawn, fear not -- classic American food such as burgers features heavily too.

The walls are lined with shots, quotes and merchandise from the film (that's Forrest Gump, if you haven't seen it and don't know what I'm talking about), and of course, you can exit through the gift shop and get your hands on t-shirts, mugs and the like yourself.

Bubba Gump Shrimp Co, 13 Coventry Street, W1D 7AB

Photo: Circus London
Tuck into Asian fusion food with a side of circus and cabaret at Circus London, where cabaret restaurant meets cocktail bar.  Watch all manner of acts from contortionists to fire breathers from the comfort of your table -- or sometimes even on your table.

Circus London, 27-29 Endell Street, Covent Garden, WC2H 9BA

Photo: Cahoots
Just when you've had enough of the London transport system, your friends want you to go and sit in a tube carriage sipping cocktails all night. The difference being, this is a 1940s-style tube carriage. Cahoots in Carnaby carries off the Blitz spirit very convincingly, with plenty in the decor to keep railway and Underground enthusiasts happy too. The focus is very much on the cocktails, so foodwise it's basic sandwiches and snacks, except for Saturday afternoons, when afternoon tea takes the form of a 'squiffy picnic'. Spiffing. 

  Cahoots, 13 Kingly Court, Carnaby, W1B 5PG

The Aeronaut

Photo: The Aeronaut
**Edit January 2017: Due to a fire in the early hours of New Year's Day 2017, The Aeronaut is currently closed. Keep an eye on the website for updates.**

If you like your dinner or drinks with a side of fire-breathing, The Aeronaut is for you. The Acton pub has a Circus Room where performances take place while you eat. The pub garden is pretty impressive too, with wooden booths designed as coconut shys and other sideshow attractions -- it's enough to bring out the kid in anyone.

The Aeronaut, 264 Acton High Street, W3 9BH

Mr Fogg's Tavern

Photo: Mr Fogg's Gin Parlour

I'll be honest, this one remains a bit of a mystery to me. What I do know is that the three venues are based around adventurer Phileas Fogg, protagonist in Jules Verne's novel Around The World In 80 Days.
Mr Fogg's Residence in Mayfair is decked out as the home of adventurer, but for food, head to Mr Fogg's Tavern in Covent Garden, where you'll get sandwiches, salads, and the like. Finally, there's a gin parlour just around the corner from the Tavern. Well I'm not here to judge if you skip dinner and head straight for the good stuff...

Mr Fogg's Tavern, 58 St Martin's Lane, WC2N 4EA

The Medieval Banquet

This one's more of an experience than a restaurant, but if it's a theme you're after, it's got it. Get yourself dressed up in medieval costume for this theatrical dinner experience, and be entertained by Tudor-style knights, jesters and contortionists as you tuck into a feast that Henry VIII himself would be proud of; four courses, washed down with ale and wine.

The Medieval Banquet, St Katharine Docks, E1W 1BP

Tries any of these? Let me know what you think. Where have I missed? Let me know of other themed restaurants in the comments below.