Tag Archives: Written by Simon

Zurich: a great city, rain or shine

Thursday 17th – Sunday 20th September
Zurich, Switzerland

We have a theory that it’s sometimes just good or bad fortune whether you fall in love with a city. Beautiful sunshine or a fantastic meal and your memories are positive. Too much wind and rain and you perhaps miss your chance to see a city at its best. 

Zurich was grey and rainy when we arrived on Thursday, after a 45 minute train ride from Lucerne. But there was nothing the weather could do to dampen our love for this city. And by our final day on Saturday the sun was shining, so we could see Zurich at its best. 

It’s easy to walk for miles in the centre of the city, with each turn offering another great view, interesting narrow street, or fascinating-looking shop. And our achy legs are confirmation that we covered a lot of ground in our three days there!

[Views of the city, below: view from Lindenhof; view of St Peter’s Church; Zurich Opera House; view of Zurichsee from Burliplatz; us enjoying the view from Lindenhof]

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Macau Orchestra, Tonhalle Zurich
We decided to enjoy some of Zurich’s culture on Friday night. There seems to be a lot on offer, and the city is currently getting ready to host the Zurich Film Festival, which starts in a couple of days’ time. We got tickets for a concert at the Tonhalle Zurich. The Tonhalle is widely considered to have excellent acoustics, and was inaugurated in 1895 by Johannes Brahms. 

The performance was by the Macao Orchestra (on a European tour from China) with a Swiss soloist called Lionel Cottet on the cello. We heard ‘Dance of the Yao Tribe’, by Mao Yuan and Liu Tieshan (see below), Saint-Saens’ Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6 in A major. It was great to experience a full orchestra in such a beautiful concert hall. We topped the evening off with cocktails at a great bar close to our hotel.

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Kreis 5, Zurich
On Saturday we decided to explore a different side of the city. Kreis 5, a short distance from the city centre, used to be the industrial area, but in the past few years has reinvented itself as a neighbourhood of funky shops and creative businesses. We particularly liked Viaducktstrasse, with great shops and a fantastic food market hidden under a railway viaduct.

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Music of the day
This is a recording of ‘Dance of the Yao Tribe’, by Mao Yuan and Liu Tieshan, which opened the concert we attended at the Tonhalle.

Lugano: Switzerland, Italian-style

Thursday 10th – Monday 14th September
Lugano, Switzerland

Just an hour’s train ride north of Milan and we found ourselves in Switzerland. The beautiful city of Lugano sits on Lake Lugano, which is partly in Italy and partly in Switzerland. And despite being on the Swiss side of the border, the feel in Lugano is still very much Italian, from the language to the food.

Lugano is an enjoyable mix of business and pleasure. The lakefront is absolutely beautiful. On arrival we soon found ourselves looking out at the view that tourists have loved for decades. The Civic Park, just a short walk from the city centre, is a particularly great spot to enjoy everything the lake has to offer.

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At the same time, Lugano is Switzerland’s third biggest banking centre. The designer shops and incredible array of expensive cars on the streets suggest a very wealthy, working city. And the age of some of the bank buildings we saw suggests this is nothing new.

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Friday 11th September – birthday celebrations
For us, the main event in Lugano was 11th September – my 40th! Thanks to my sister Claire and her family, I even had a special T-shirt to mark the day!

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We decided to spend some of the day taking two funicular railways to the summit of Monte Bre, which gives stunning views across the lake.

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In the evening, we found a great restaurant for some excellent pizzas and a very nice glass of Swiss wine.

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We had a restful few days in Lugano, and the fantastic food and drink made it a great place to celebrate my birthday. We have also been enjoying learning about the history of this fascinating country. The country has four official languages (Italian, German, French and Romansch) and is clearly influenced by its neighbours. But it has existed as an independent nation since 1291.

Its politics are also unique. Its neutrality has been in place for hundreds of years, and formally recognised since 1815. This has led to the country being an important international base for a range of organisations from the World Health Organisation to the UN. We can’t wait to see some of the other dimensions of the country.

Car of the day
At first glance, I thought this car in the car park of our hotel was a Smart Car. It was certainly about the right size and shape. Then I noticed the Aston Martin badge! The leather interior wasn’t too shabby either. Not sure it’ll be the next Bond car though!

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Highlights of Milan

Tuesday 8th – Thursday 10th September
Milan, Italy

It’s a cliche, sure, but Milan is the best-dressed city we’ve ever been to. We only had a couple of days to explore, but that was long enough to notice that the inhabitants of Milan love their clothes. By the morning of our last day I found myself staring into my suitcase in distress because I had nothing suitably smart to wear.

We started our visit with an early evening walk from our hotel to the Duomo (the largest Gothic cathedral in the world) and the huge piazza in front of it. During our visit we also explored other bits of the city, from the medieval streets of Brera, to the glamourous ‘Quadrilatero d’Oro’ shopping district.

[Photos, from the top: The Duomo, with its bustling piazza, is the heart of the city; Castello Sforzesco; Via Fiori Chiari, Brera; window of designer shop; Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II; Prada window in Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II]

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Shop window of the day
The shop window displays in Milan were, at times, works of art in themselves. This display, advertising made to measure suits, was one of my favourites.

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Striking out in Europe

It’s just over a year since we set off on our round-the-world trip. Our blog has been a fantastic memento of our travels, and we’ve had plenty of positive comments from friends and family. So when we were planning our holiday this year, we couldn’t resist bringing it back for a short reprise!

For this year’s trip we decided to explore a bit of Europe. We don’t have the luxury of three months – but two weeks is still plenty of time to see a few places.

So, here’s our plan…

Our trip started with our only flight, from Edinburgh to Milan (after a quick stop to see family in South Queensferry). We are now working our way back from Italy by train.

We will spend most of our time in Switzerland, somewhere neither of us has been before. Our first stop from Milan will be Lugano, just over the border and nestled on the Italian Lakes. We then go on to Lucerne, followed by Zurich.

Our last stop will be Paris, for a short stay with family in the lovely suburb of Malakoff. We will then take the Eurostar to London and on home to the North East of England.

There is also the small matter of my 40th birthday, which we will be celebrating while we are in Lugano – not long until my 30s are over!

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Monday 7th – Tuesday 8th September
Newcastle to South Queensferry
The first leg of our journey took us in completely the wrong direction, heading north for our flight from Edinburgh Airport.

But there’s never a bad time to do the train journey from Newcastle to Edinburgh (well, it’s a bit nicer when it’s not raining!). The East Coast Main Line takes you out of Newcastle with fantastic views of River Tyne and the Tyne Bridge. It then hugs the Northumberland coast, offering views of Alnmouth, Holy Island and Berwick upon Tweed.

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South Queensferry is a short train ride from the centre of Edinburgh, on the southern bank of the Firth of Forth, and close to Edinburgh Airport. My sister, Claire, and her family have lived there for a few years now and this was a great opportunity to see them.

We spent a lovely afternoon there. It began with picking up our niece Holly from school (which she started just a couple of weeks ago). We also had a birthday meal, and I got a great present of a T-shirt and a delicious home-made birthday cake. Our nephew Ethan (who is two) enjoyed blowing out the birthday candles, too!

On Tuesday morning we were taken to the airport by Claire and Ethan. Ethan is a big fan of aeroplanes, so I think he was more excited than us!

Sports results of the day
When walking through Edinburgh station on Monday we noticed a few people wearing Scotland football tops and kilts, followed by people in lederhosen. It could mean only one thing: Scotland against Germany in the Euro qualifiers! It sounds like Scotland put up a good fight, but eventually lost 3-2…not a bad result against the world champions, but they needed more to revive their hopes of qualification.

On the same evening, Andy Murray crashed out of the US Open, against South African Kevin Anderson. We can’t believe it is a year since we saw Murray’s quarter final against Djokovic at last year’s tournament!

Around the bases and headed for home

Thursday 27th November – Sunday 30th November
Tokyo, Japan to Gateshead, UK

Tsukiji Fish Market, Ginza
Thursday was our last day in Tokyo and, fortunately, the weather was much better.

We got up early to go and explore the Tsukiji Market, where huge amounts of fish are bought and sold every day. Although it’s in all the guidebooks as somewhere to visit, its main purpose is definitely not as a tourist attraction. It’s still very much a working fish market, used by everyone from wholesalers to Tokyo’s chefs, to the general public.

The walk from the subway station took us past a few food stalls and cafes. The cafes were tiny, most consisting of a kitchen that could barely contain one person, and a counter facing onto the street for their customers to sit at.

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Once you get past this you reach the market proper, with more traffic and people than the space can comfortably contain.

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All in all, it was a fascinating place to visit, and a unique Tokyo experience, though not one we’d necessarily recommend to vegetarians!

Tokyo Sky Tree and Senso-ji, Asakusa
After visiting the fish market, we headed over to the Asakusa area to see the Tokyo Sky Tree, which, on its completion in 2012, became the tallest broadcasting tower in the world (and the second tallest structure in the world) at 634m (2,080 feet). It may not look that much taller than the surrounding buildings in this shot, but that is just a matter of perspective – it is *much* taller than the other buildings!

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Senso-ji, Tokyo’s oldest temple, was also nearby – a juxtaposition of new and old that is very typical of Japan.

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Last night in Tokyo
We celebrated our final night in Tokyo (and the final overseas night of our trip) with a drink in the bar on the 36th floor of our hotel, where the napkins did double-duty as a guide to the view! (The square building in the centre of the picture below is the National Diet Building, the home of Japan’s national legislature).

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The journey home
We flew from Tokyo to London Heathrow the following day, enabling us to spend Friday evening and Saturday morning with our lovely friends, Ed and Dave, who kindly let us sleep off our jet lag in their spare bedroom before our train back up to Newcastle on Saturday afternoon.

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Back in Gateshead
Once home, we took advantage on Sunday of the admittedly-short daylight hours to pay a visit to our beloved local icon, the Angel of the North. It’s one of our favourite spots in the North East – we even visited it for a photo shoot on our wedding day.

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It’s good to be home, and incredible to think that we’ve actually been all the way around the world in the last three months.

Sounds of the day
One of our biggest memories of Japan will definitely be the background music and other sounds you hear everywhere you go.

Overall, Japanese people seem keen not to disturb each other with too much noise – putting their mobile phones on silent (or off completely) on the subway and train for example.

But there’s still plenty of noise. Almost all restaurants and cafes we visited had background music, with a preference for classical string music or light saxophone jazz (imagine Kenny G playing wherever you go!). In the main shopping streets in Kyoto it was even being piped into the streets.

Subway stations in Tokyo seemed to each have a jingle that played as the train doors opened. Bus stops in Kyoto had a little tune for when buses arrived (or that seemed to be what was going on!). Some subway stations even had birdsong sounds – we never quite worked out what this was about, but it seemed to  be something to do with helping blind people navigate their way around the stations!

Back to the Future in Tokyo

Tuesday 25th November – Wednesday 26th November
Tokyo, Japan

Tuesday and Wednesday were wet days in Tokyo, so we were on the lookout for things to do that kept us indoors.

Akihabara Electric Town
Akihabara is geek-town, where electronics stores meet manga comics. We spent a bit of time on Tuesday exploring the area.

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The Mandarake store specialises in manga – a style of comic created in Japan. Manga is incredibly popular here and not just with kids – we’ve spotted a few businessmen on the trains and subways reading manga comics, and there are versions for men and women of all ages. Mandarake was definitely geared up for the manga aficionado, from action figures to comics.

The electrical store we took a look round was huge and included everything from the very latest gadgets to toys and household electronics.

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Edo-Tokyo Museum, Ryogoku
We started the day on Wednesday with a trip to the Edo-Tokyo museum, a fascinating place that really put the history of the city in context.

The story of the city started as early as 10,000 BC, when the first settlers arrived. The museum tells the story of life in the early days and as it developed. Until the 1860s, social structures were perhaps best described as feudal. (The eagle-eyed among you might notice that the walls in the illustration below are from the now-ruined former Imperial Palace – see the picture of me from our last post. There is a new Imperial Palace these days.)

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Initially called Edo, the city was renamed Tokyo in 1868, as previous social structures were swept away and replaced with one country and centralised (imperial) rule. This was due , at least in part, to increased links with the West and the desire to become more westernised.

Suburbanisation in the 1920s and 1930s saw more people commuting into the city for work. Consequently railway stations like Shibuya – of “Shibuya crossing” fame – and Shinjuku started to become increasingly important.

In 1932, a number of suburban towns and villages were subsumed into Greater Tokyo, which at that time had a population of 5.3 million. In 2013, roughly the same area was inhabited by about 9 million people.

However, the wider metropolitan area of Tokyo today is home to almost 35 million people, making it the most populous metropolitan area in the world, with more people than the combined populations of the last two countries we visited (Australia and New Zealand)!

The exhibition finished with plans for the future, and Tokyo’s plans for hosting the 2020 Olympic Games.

Shopping in Shinjuku
After finishing at the museum, we went for a change of pace, and took the subway to Shinjuku for some shopping! Shinjuku is the world’s busiest railway station, with some 2 million people passing through every day. It’s an incredible place, with shops, restaurants and department stores all intertwined with the station itself. We managed to find a sushi restaurant in the depths of the station for some lunch, then headed into one or two shops.

Joanna found a beautiful yukata, which is a simpler, cotton version of a kimono, traditionally worn in summer, particularly in the spa towns that the Japanese love to visit. Meanwhile, I was excited to find out that Tower Records still exists in Japan (it went out of business years ago back in the UK!) and to discover some only-in-Japan music to take home.

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Okonomiyaki, Minato
We finished the day with a fantastic dinner at a place close to our hotel that specialises in okonomiyaki (meaning, roughly, “grilled as you like it”). This is an informal style of dining in Japan, apparently often accompanied by a post-work beer or two, which we first learned about on “The Hairy Bikers’ Asian Adventure”, a UK cookery programme.

Okonomiyaki consists of an egg-based batter with cabbage in it, to which meats, seafood, vegetables and even noodles can be added. It’s then cooked on a hot plate and different toppings added: something a bit like HP sauce is brushed onto the top and green nori flakes, though other variations seemed to have things like spring onions and mayonnaise. We have heard it variously compared to pizza or pancakes, but we thought that it most closely resembled an omelette.

Each table has a hot plate in the middle of it and in some okonomiyaki restaurants you actually cook the ingredients yourself. In the place we chose they had chefs to do the cooking, though we sat up looking into the kitchen, so we could see how it was done. It was absolutely delicious, and the Japanese are quite right – it is even better washed down with beer!

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Toilet of the day
When we came up with the ‘…of the day’ feature, we didn’t expect it would include toilets, but I’m afraid it has to be done!

The majority of toilets in Japan have electronic panels providing a range of different options while you…erm…wait. The most basic ones offer jets of water for cleaning. The more complex ones we’ve seen offer seat heaters and the option to elect for continuous flushing sounds (to cover up any unpleasant sounds – volume buttons usually provided). There also seem to be additional buttons beyond this, labelled only in Japanese – I think some have dryers, but not sure what else they could be for! Sometimes it’s tricky finding the flush!

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Faster than a speeding bullet (train)

Saturday 22nd November
Kyoto to Tokyo, Japan

Shinkansen journey, Kyoto to Tokyo
We’ve been on quite a few train journeys, both during this trip and on previous ones. Not that we’re particularly train geeks. We just think it’s an easy, enjoyable way to get around. However, in many countries (including the USA and New Zealand) the experience might politely be described as…’leisurely’.

But the shinkansen, otherwise known as the bullet train, is a very different matter. These trains reach speeds of up to 320 kilometres (nearly 200 miles) per hour. They are also very frequent – around every ten minutes between Kyoto and Tokyo when we were travelling (on a Saturday lunchtime). This was definitely the way we wanted to travel between Japan’s old and new capitals.

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When we returned to Kyoto station to catch the train, we found ourselves in a completely different part of the station that we hadn’t seen when we arrived. It was already the biggest station we’d ever seen and it turned out we’d only experienced part of it! The main corridor is filled with restaurants and shops, some selling very tasty looking treats. The versions in this photo are actually plastic models, showing what the shop sells. This is very common in Japan – the majority of restaurants have fake food on display outside, presumably because Japan is very much a country where presentation of meals is taken seriously. In fact, plastic food is one of the major souvenirs that tourists like to take home from Japan!

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You then go through the ticket gates to find yourself in….another huge corridor filled with shops! This time the focus is on food to take on your journey with you, so we took the opportunity to grab a couple of bento boxes to take with us, before heading to the platform.

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The 2 1/4 hour journey itself was great. The ride is smooth but definitely quick, and the scenery races by: we saw a couple of cities and plenty of urbanised areas, but also the Japanese countryside, including fantastic views of Mount Fuji.

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On arrival at Tokyo station, our first challenge was navigating the Tokyo subway system….

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However, despite it looking immensely complicated, the system is actually fairly easy to navigate, thanks to fantastic signage and a free smartphone app for tourists. It’s also cheap, clean and incredibly pleasant to travel on (apparently talking on your phone is considered very rude, particularly close to the ‘courtesy seats’ reserved for the elderly, so it’s very quiet!).

Shibuya
Having checked into our hotel (definitely the biggest we’ve ever stayed in – 844 rooms, a mini shopping mall, several restaurants and bars, all spread over 37 floors), we agreed there was only one place to start our visit to Tokyo.

Shibuya is probably what you think of when you think of Tokyo, with neon and people everywhere you look. Music is being played in many of the streets (One Direction’s ‘Steal My Girl’ on a loop, when we were there). Shibuya scramble crossing is the point where Shibuya station intersects with the area’s shops, restaurants and neon. At peak times they reckon that over 1,000 people cross here every time the pedestrian light turns to green. Quite an introduction to this huge city.

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Shaky Isle of the day
Japan, like New Zealand, has its fair share of earthquakes (in fact, it apparently accounts for around 20% of the world’s ‘quakes!). This is something we got first-hand experience of on Saturday evening, when the walls of our hotel room started creaking and the blinds swaying from side to side.

It turns out that what we had felt was actually a magnitude-6.7 earthquake centred in Nagano, about 200 km away. It’s a very strange experience to feel the floor moving, especially when you’re on the 23rd storey! However, we’re told that the building we are in, like all buildings in the city, is designed to withstand a magnitude-7 earthquake here in Tokyo, so they’re definitely prepared. Some of those closer to the epicentre on this occasion were less lucky.

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