Saturday, 31 March 2018

The whole picture: March 2018

Catch up with my January round-up. There was no February round-up as I was busy sunning myself in Cuba. #Sorrynotsorry.

What I've done in March

My first March adventure came in the form of snorkelling in the Atlantic, just off the coast of Varadero. We took a catamaran out to a reef where many fish gather, and spent a jolly hour splashing about in top of the waves. Suffice to say I've now added 'fish-botherer' to the hobbies and skills section of my CV. Next stop: scuba diving.

The end of the holiday was doubly painful because not only was I saying goodbye to sunshine for the foreseeable future, I was coming back to face the challenge of racing up a skyscraper. Six days after I packed my bikini away, I took part in Vertical Rush in Tower 42. I've never understood the phrase "my lungs are burning" until that day, and altough I only ran up eight or so floors, I got to the top in 14 minutes and 10 seconds. There's still time to donate to my fundraising page, if you're so inclined - oh, and here's a video of me doing it.

The view over Lewes from... a hill, somewhere

After speeding up a skyscraper, a light walk up a Sussex hill seemed like a doddle, so I took on the hills that I've been eyeing up outside my nan's house for years, walking from Ringmer to Lewes via cows, wind turbines and golf courses - ending in a pub, naturally.

Where I've been in March

Cuba, obviously. I've been banging on about it for weeks. But I've been back for three weeks now, and have managed to squeeze a few other bits and pieces in.

I was desperate to see the V&A's Winnie the Pooh exhibition (which ties in with this afternoon tea), and it didn't disappoint. Seeing the process of both the writing and the illustrations explained really brings home how clever AA Milne and EH Shepard's books are - and of course, there are plenty of cute touches, including a chance to have your photo taken on a replica of the Poohsticks Bridge. Side note: if you're into Winnie the Pooh, watch the film Goodbye Christopher Robin. I watched it on the plane, and while it's cute, it also gives a lot of the backstory to the characters, some of which is darker than you might expect.

I was back in South Kensington a couple of weeks later for the press launch of the Natural History Museum's annual Sensational Butterflies exhibition. Press calls with professional photographers are always fraught to the point of violence as everyone grapples for that perfect shot, and as a twenty-something woman in an industry saturated with middle-aged men, their disdain and patronising attitude towards me is always obvious. At first it intimidated me, but now I just get my shot and get out, leaving them to their macho mind games.

Last but not least of my activities this month was a trip to the press launch of Swingers, a crazy golf course that's opened in the old BHS on Oxford Street (top tip: don't Google 'Swingers' - you won't find what you're looking for - or perhaps you will... - and it'll ruin your Google ads for life). I've racked up a few fair London crazy golf courses through my job, this one being the most sophisticated by far. You've still got your street food and your bars in there, but it feels like the more grown-up sibling of the like of Junkyard Golf. Oh, and the holes here are a lot harder...

What I've eaten in March

You didn't think I'd let a month go by without an afternoon tea, did you? Celebrating the birthday of a very good friend, we combined our two favourite things and headed for afternoon tea in a bookshop. Full review here.

I've had to go cold turkey - pun intended - on my buffalo chicken addiction for a few months since it got out of hand, but I returned for one of Meat Mission's bundles of deliciousness after completing that skyscraper challenge. It's dangerous to know that it's so close to me office, I can head over there, order a burger to take away, and be back sitting at my desk within 34 minutes. The temptation is strong every single day.

What's coming up

My plans for April so far consist of a weekend in Leeds with a uni friend, and possibly a trip to Columbia Road Flower Market. Foodwise, there's an American diner I plan to try out, and I'm reviewing a couple of restaurants and an afternoon tea or two for work - perk of the job.

You may also notice a couple of minor changes on this blog. There's now a whole section dedicated to afternoon tea, another about UK travel, and one specifically about South East England. If you've got any suggestions for what I should cover in these areas, get in touch.

Follow me on InstagramTwitter and Facebook to keep up to date with next month's antics as they happen.

See also - what I got up to in:

Saturday, 24 March 2018

Callejon de Hamel: Havana's street art hotspot

Visiting Callejon de Hamel, Havana
Looking down Callejon de Hamel, from west to east. So far, almost a normal Havana street.

Our time in Havana was pretty limited - two days - which wasn't enough time to squeeze in everything we wanted to do in the city centre, let alone head out to Fusterlandia, an arty neighbourhood in the suburbs. We still managed to get our dose of street art though, at Callejon de Hamel, a short back street that's been decked out with... well, everything the locals can get their hands on.

Visiting Callejon de Hamel, Havana
When bathtubs become art

It's not that Callejon de Hamel isn't well-known - it appears in most decent guidebooks - but it's a bit out of town, meaning that fewer tourists get to it. I guess the London equivalent would be God's Own Junkyard - plenty of people know about it, but just being there feels a bit... edgy.  We took a taxi from Parque Central (right near El Capitolio) and it only cost us 10 CUCs.

Visiting Callejon de Hamel, Havana

Our taxi driver drops us at the western end of the street, and for a while we have the place to ourselves. Like any other Havana back street, the paint on the walls is peeling, the road is riddled with potholes, and dusts blows all over the place.

Visiting Callejon de Hamel, Havana

A grandmother and grandaughter sit together on a bench, eyeing us up. On second glance, the bench is actually half of a bathtub. More bathtubs are embedded in the painted, pebbledash walls, poems written on their bases. Two young boys kick a football about, and off in the distance, a dog gives a hearty bark.

Visiting Callejon de Hamel, Havana

Think Gaudi meets Dali in a salvage yard, and you're in the right mindset. We venture further into what must once have been a bleak alleyway, now resembling an eclectic junkyard. A decorative metal cross towers 20ft above, its style reminiscent of the rooftop decorations of Casa Batllo, the metal much more sinister than Barcelona's playful stone. Naturally, the Cuban flag flutters nearby.

Visiting Callejon de Hamel, Havana

Halfway down the alleyway, a large porch covers the road, sheltering a group of men tinkering under the bonnet of a classic car. The scene is so stereotypically Cuban, it's hard to believe the whole thing isn't just one elaborate prank. But it drives home the realisation that despite its spot on the tourist map, this is a street where people live.  Metal fences and gates in the high, colourful walls separate camera-wielding tourists from people's yard and living rooms. One nondescript gate swings open to reveal a bar, dark as a cave and populated entirely by locals.

Visiting Callejon de Hamel, Havana

A bicycle - or at least something that is the sum of the parts of a bicycle, but couldn't exactly be described as a whole one - is suspended above the street, roughly halfway down. To the left, bottles of Beefeater gin have been cemented into the walls, and to the right, someone's used a toilet as a flowerpot. It's all done without explanation and without ceremony. It's just the way things are around here.

Visiting Callejon de Hamel, Havana

 There's something very Cuban about using everyday objects - bicycles, bottles, baths (and, yes, bogs) - in this way. The people here are used to recycling, not for environmental reasons, but because so many everyday objects are so hard to get hold of, that they've developed a unique ingenuity in repurposing objects in a way most people wouldn't even think of. And yet, like the rest of Havana, the street is unexpectedly green, plants squeezed in everywhere there's space.

Visiting Callejon de Hamel, Havana

As we near the end of the road, it becomes clear we've used the back entrance. Hoards of tourists, many with guides, are pouring in from the eastern end of the street. Vintage cars, now used to ferry tourists, cluster here. It turns out to be the more formal entrance, a stone arch reading 'Callejon de Hamel' bridging it. Just one look isn't enough, so we wander back down the street for a second - and later, a third - look. It really is a case of not being able to take everything in, and I certainly won't regale you with tales of everything I saw. Have a scroll through these photos instead.

Visiting Callejon de Hamel, Havana

From Callejon de Hamel, it's a 20 minute walk to the famous Hotel Nacional on the Malecon, where a cold drink and fantastic building await (plus, you'll be able to get a taxi back to wherever you're headed next, in our case, back to our hotel for a well earned rest).

Visiting Callejon de Hamel, Havana
Bathtubs have been reused for all sorts of things

Visiting Callejon de Hamel, Havana

Visiting Callejon de Hamel, Havana
Gin, glorious gin

Visiting Callejon de Hamel, Havana

Visiting Callejon de Hamel, Havana

Visiting Callejon de Hamel, Havana

Visiting Callejon de Hamel, Havana
They'll repurpose anything and everything

Visiting Callejon de Hamel, Havana
The main entrance to Callejon de Hamel, at the eastern end of the street.

Callejon de Hamel, Hamel e/ Aramburu y Hospital, Centro Habana. Entry is free.

Monday, 19 March 2018

Afternoon tea in Europe's largest bookshop

 Books, cakes, and a friend who makes you laugh so much, you accidentally blow out the candle on your table. Some days you just feel like you're winning at life, y'know? I've known Amy all my life, and in 27 years, our friendship has gone from being based on slides and swings, to bars and cocktails, to books and afternoon tea, so I knew I'd hit on something when I was looking for something to do for her birthday and came across this.

Lots of people know about 5th View, the bar-restaurant on the top floor of the deliciously gargantuan Waterstones on Piccadilly in London, but not many people know about the afternoon tea. Which is a shame really, because afternoon tea in a bookshop is a fantastically appealing idea, no?

Prebooking was a wise move - on a snowy Saturday afternoon, every table is taken. We're shown to ours (mental note: request a table next to the windows next time) and left with the menu. When our waitress returns a few minutes later to take our drinks order, briskness is the vibe, suggesting this place prioritises high turnover over customer service. It's the third time I've been to 5th View, at varying times of day and days of the week, and every time, I've found the staff to be brisk and standoffish.

The menu's bizarre combination of offerings feels like a microcosm of London itself - as we tuck into a three tier afternoon tea, the table to our left are wolfing down burgers and chips, while those to our right indulge solely in an iced bottle of champagne. Each to their own, eh? 

This jack-of-all-trades approach results in an afternoon tea that doesn't benefit from the care and attention that others do. There are only four teas to choose from, although they're happy to let us choose a hot chocolate instead.

The sandwiches are a weak start. They've come straight out of the fridge, leaving the bread dry and a little tasteless, the fridge temperature cucumber too chilly to bite into. That said, the best part of the meal sits alongside the sandwiches - a Yorkshire pudding with chorizo and cheese. Now I'm all for afternoon teas that involve Yorkshire puddings, and this one is no exception, because what could be better than meat and cheese and Yorkies in a single bite?

After those sandwiches, it's a welcome surprise o find the scones are warm. Cream and jam sit alongside the huge, fluffy blobs in individual pots (cream first, before you ask). Normally, I prefer afternoon teas which offer you two or three smaller scones of different flavours to try, but given the bargaintastic cost of this tea, these scones are more than sufficient.

Naturally, the meal finishes with a cake tier; the menu rather unhelpfully states "homemade cakes". A little detective work reveals we're facing a slice of lemon drizzle, a chunk of chocolate brownie and a macaron each. Thankfully, the first two are not as arid as their dry, crumbly appearance would have you believe, the brownie toeing the line perfectly between sweet and sickly.

At £29.95 for two (plus service added on automatically, which is a bugbear of mine), this is a good value afternoon tea, and given that we only booked a couple of days in advance, is a good option for last-minute London plans. The bookshop location adds an extra twist, and if you go on a clear day, the views over the London skyline are decent too. Don't go expecting amazing service though.

Afternoon tea at 5th View, Waterstones, 203-206 Piccadilly, W1J 9HA.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Havana: expectations vs. reality

Pink vintage car in Havana, Cuba

My desire to visit Havana came from the most unlikely of travel inspo sources; veteran news reader and TV presenter Sir Trevor McDonald. In around 2009, ITV released him from the shackles of his News at Ten desk to present a documentary series on the Secret Caribbean. One episode placed him in Havana, and teenage me was enchanted by what I saw. It was the first time anyone had explained to me the full raimfications of the US trade embargo, and why Cuba is stuck in its own little timewarp.

Given that I've wanted to go to Havana since foreverrrr then, it's no surprise that I had a few preconceptions and expectations about the Cuban capital. Here's what I anticipated - and how Havana lived up to expectations.

1. Vintage cars everywhere. Along with cigars and rum, retro wheels are part of the holy trinity of Havana. Trevor McD roamed the streets in a vintage red Chevrolet, and a 1950s American car is the cliched Havana photo.

A pink 1956 Ford Victoria vintage car tour in Havana, Cuba
Take note: from now on, my preferred travel method is a pink 1956 Ford Victoria
The truth: In reality, it's somewhere in the middle. Central Havana is chock-full of shiny, colourful Chevvies and Cadillacs, Fords and all manner of other makes that true petrolheads would be able to identify, but I just think are pretty. Cubans are very clever to use their vehicles to cash in on the tourist trade, using them as tour vehicles and taxis, and they often gather in huge numbers at various places around the city; sometimes you turn a corner and it's like walking into the drive-in movie theatre in Grease. 

 That said, there are plenty of modern cars patrolling Havana's streets too, and the further from the city centre you get, the higher the ratio of modern cars to vintage offerings. They all pootle around alongside each other with horses and carts and Coco Taxis thrown into the mix, in some sort of inter-era vehicular harmony.

A vintage car, modern car and yellow taxi in Havana, Cuba
The reality: vintage cars mix with modern cars and New York-style yellow taxis
2. No big brands: Given Cuba's socialist roots, and limited trade with countries such as America, I expected - and indeed, had been warned - that it's rare to find international brands there, be it food and drink, or clothing and goods.

The truth: The first thing we saw while waiting in the lengthy Passport Control queues at Havana Airport were adverts for Pringles - there goes that theory, then. Admittedly, there is far less advertising in Cuba than anywhere else I've been, the usual billboards replaced with street art and murals praising socialism, Che Guevara and other aspects of Cuban life. The majority of the adverts you do see tend to be for Cuban brands - Havana Club rum is everywhere.

Cuban flag street art in Havana, Cuba
You're more likely to see murals than billboards on Havana's streets
As for getting hold of international brands, it is possible. Coca Cola, for example, is available at many of the major international hotels. If you just ask for Cola, by default, you'll be served Cuba's own brand, Ciego Montero. State 'international Coca Cola' if you want the branded stuff, and expect to pay extra for it - it's imported from Mexico.

Designer clothes stores in Plaza Vieja, Havana, Cuba
Not what I expected to see in Plaza Vieja
What surprised me most was the presence of high-end international fashion stores in the tourist areas. Lacoste and Pepe Jeans make an appearance in Plaza Vieja, one of Havana's main squares, and the likes of Mango can be found in the shopping arcade attached to the Gran Hotel Manzana. These are predominantly for tourists - the majority of Cubans simply can't afford to shop in them.

3. Beautiful colonial buildings: Those cliched classic car photos often have a backdrop of
shabby chic pastel facades - stereotypical Havana architecture.

Stereotypical pastel houses in Havana, Cuba

The truth: Beautiful some of them may be, but others have been allowed to fall so far into disrepair, it's sad to see. Several houses have exposed pipes and wires and this is where you want to watch yourself - don't go leaning back to take a photo, only to electrocute yourself on a wire sticking out of a house. Yeah, I did. Bloomin' hurt too. The streets too are in a terrible state of disrepair, with uneven, cracked and bumpy pavements, and huge potholes in the roads.

Houses in Havana, Cuba
Less shabby chic, more plain shabby

Plus two things I didn't expect:

The fumes: Ok, so it's obvious when you think about it, but before I went, I hadn't; with hundreds of cars dating back to the 1950s roaming the streets, Havana's not the most environmentally-friendly city in the world. The petrol fumes are overpowering and unavoidable. When combined with the heat and humidity, the whole atmosphere feels claustrophobic to the point of being toxic. After three days in Havana, I was starting to worry that my lungs had received permanent damage, and at the end of each day, I was desperate to get into the hotel shower and scrub the layer of grime off of me.

Parque Almendares, Havana, Cuba

It's so green: Yep, completely goes against what I just said. I don't mean 'green' in the environmental sense though, I mean literally green, with plants and trees and bushes. This may be due to the time of year we visited (February) - in hotter months it may be more barren - but I was pleasantly surprised that those dusty, arid streets you see in photographs are interspersed with green parks and squares. The highlight was the Parque Almendares, which we drove through on our tour in a classic American car, and which an air of Jurassic Park to it.

Have you been to Havana? Did it live up to your expectations? Let me know in the comments.

See also:Venice: expectations vs. reality

Please, just one more day...

Beach bar at Iberostar Tainos hotel, Varadero, Cuba
Wishing this were my office for just one more day...

What I'm about to write is going to come across as very much a first-world problem, a middle-class indulgence if you will, but that's just how I feel right now. I'm sitting here in my room on a chilly Sunday in Match, a blanket wrapped around me to stave off the omnipresent chill, contemplating my impending return to civilian life.

OK, 'civilian' may be a bit strong - I've been in Cuba for two weeks, not on army manoeuvres, but that's the word that fits the feeling of getting back to normal life after a holiday.

For me, a holiday begins about a week before I actually take off, not just with packing and planning, but at work too; whenever anyone approaches you with a task, you look up with a face of joy thinly veiled with regret, that you won't be able to take on the task as you'll be on annual leave. A couple of days before you go, you just want to stick a note on your forehead: "Don't ask me - going on holiday". From that moment on, you're well and truly in the Holiday Bubble, an invisible force which, unfortunately, only you can feel. Life goes on for everyone else as normal, and yet, you feel like you should have a neon sign above your head, reminded everyone of your impending travels.

VW Camper Van in Varadero, Cuba
Wishing this was my everyday commute...
Your first day back in the office, everyone greets you, comments on your tan, asks the pre-requisite questions about your holiday. And then it's heads down and back to work as usual, as you crawl through your backlog of emails, wondering why no-one paid any attention to your Out Of Office, your tan fading before your eyes under the harsh strip-lighting. Halfway through the morning, someone asks you a question. 'Yes!', you think. 'This is my chance!'

"I don't know", you reply sweetly, "I was on holiday."

"Oh yeah, right", your colleague mumbles, and you wait. You wait for your chance to tell them again how blue the sea was, how luxurious the hotel, how strong the cocktails. You're wondering which anecdote to start with, but they've already bumbled off to ask Sue from accounts the same question they've just asked you, because Sue knows everything.

Just like that, your holiday is over. The bubble is burst. It's as if it never happened at all.

Sunset from the Iberostar Tainos hotel, Varadero, Cuba
*Insert your own pithy caption about watching the sun set on your holiday*

That's where I am right about now. Thankfully I'm still ensconced cosily in the Holiday Bubble, but I know that soon, I've got to reunite myself with the paraphernalia that oils the cogs of day-to-day life. I've got to get my Oyster Card and diary out of the drawer I eagerly cast them into a couple of weeks ago. Was it really only two weeks ago? I'll have to set my alarm for 6.30am and be back on the 8.14am train. I'll jostle my way through the City, naively hoping the suits and umbrellas of its streets will go just a little gentle on me as it's my first day back, while really knowing that it's just another day for everyone else.

But for now, my notebook, my camera and my mind are full of Cuba, so please let me wallow in my bubble a little longer.