Food Highlights of the Year – Part 2

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

Even though I shied away from some of the more adventurous options (guinea pig, to name just one), the food in Peru was definitely the highlight of the first part of my travel year.  Here are some of the highlights from the second part…

My main course of Momo at Restaurant Tibet in Luxembourg City.  There was more rice and sauce in separate dishes on a burner, but I couldn't fit them into the picture.
My main course of Momo at Restaurant Tibet in Luxembourg City. There was more rice and sauce in separate dishes on a burner, but I couldn’t fit them into the picture.

9.  Tibetan Momo in Luxembourg

I never expected to find Tibetan food in expensive Luxembourg City, let alone such enjoyable and tasty Tibetan food.  It wasn’t necessary to have an appetizer but how could I turn down Bhutanese Cheese Soup?  It was delicious and, with the equally unnecessary yak butter and salt tea, it set the tone for the rest of the meal.  The sauce for the dumplings was properly (but not overpoweringly) smoky and spicy and the dumplings themselves were stuffed with goodness.  This was definitely one of the best “expat” Asian meals I’ve ever had.


10.  Thai food at a Chinese Restaurant in Zuidlaren (the Netherlands)

My wife and I had a very enjoyable Thai meal with my cousin (and her significant other) in this small town just south of Groningen.  I was skeptical of how well a “Chinese” restaurant would do Thai food, but as you can see the presentation (and taste) was excellent.

Rijsttafel at De Lachende Javaan (Haarlem, the Netherlands)
Rijsttafel at De Lachende Javaan (Haarlem, the Netherlands)

11.  Rijsttafel in Haarlem (the Netherlands)

Other than my wife’s dish and rice portion (at far left in the photo), everything in this photo was part of my rijsttafel.  Lots of coconut and chili – and it looked even better in real life, as this photo suffers from the restaurant’s dim lighting.  This colonial legacy is my favourite “Dutch” food:  if you like spicy Asian food, you should definitely give rijsttafel a try!

Bigos in Krakow, Poland
Bigos in Krakow, Poland

12.  Bigos in Krakow, Poland

I had far more expensive meals in Eastern Europe (see below) but this was probably my favourite.  I bought it from the Polish equivalent of a chip truck and ate it at a picnic table from a plastic bowl with a plastic fork…but what a tasty stew! It contained all kinds of meat, sausage and cabbage in a very tangy sauce:  given the significant Polish diaspora, I don’t think it will be long before I try bigos again!

My main course at dinner:  goose breast with caramelized apple and bliny
My main course at dinner: goose breast with caramelized apple and bliny

13.  Goose breast with caramelized apple and bliny (Budapest, Hungary)

By far my most expensive meal in Eastern Europe was this “last-night-in-Hungary” splurge.  I am somewhat distrustful of haute cuisine, but I have to admit that having dessert in my main course was delicious.

Casado carne en salsa
Casado carne en salsa

14.  Casado carne en salsa at Sabor Tico in Monteverde, Costa Rica

Some people criticize the lack of variety in Costa Rican food, as rice and beans are present for every meal (yes, including breakfast).  However, when it is well done, it is extremely satisfying.  This tender meat dish reminded me of Hungarian Goulash with some Latin-American accents.

Cheese-stuffed plantains with a honey-caramel sauce (and ice cream)
Cheese-stuffed plantains with a honey-caramel sauce (and ice cream) in Monteverde

15.  Cheese-stuffed plantain with honey and caramel (Monteverde, Costa Rica)

Little did I know that this last-minute dessert at an almost-deserted hotel restaurant in Monteverde would end up being my favourite dessert of the year.  The plantain was perfect and the slightly salty cheese was a perfect counterpoint to the very sweet honey and caramel sauce.

A delicious "pollo en mole" (chicken in a chocolate/chile sauce) at El Tucan in Ottawa
A delicious “pollo en mole” (chicken in a chocolate/chile sauce) at El Tucan in Ottawa

16.  Pollo en mole at El Tucan, Ottawa

I found this humble family restaurant in the gritty Ottawa neighbourhood of Vanier…and what a find it was!  I have never thought about El Salvador as a travel destination, so I really didn’t know what to expect.  Much of the food seemed like a cross between Mexican and Costa Rican cuisine; the pollo en mole was my favourite (yes, I went more than once).   Once again, dissimilar flavours (chocolate and chili, in this case) combine in an extremely effective way.

Pastilla appetizer at Bedouin (Cambridge, England)
Pastilla appetizer at Bedouin (Cambridge, England)

17.  Moroccan Cuisine at the Bedouin in Cambridge

While my main course was a decently-prepared tajine, the highlight here was the ethereal appetizer you seen pictured above.  Ground warm chicken and all kinds of savoury spices inside, with a cinnamon-and-sugar dusted pastry on the outside, it really could have been the main course by itself.  If the stuffed plantain was the best dessert, then this was definitely the best appetizer of the year.  The atmosphere was cozy too:  the restaurant appears in the photo at the top of this post.

As you can see, there were many food highlights this year.  Stay tuned for some cultural and experiential highlights!

Most Terrifying Moments of the Year

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

I am pleased to report that I was never afraid of violence or crime during my year of travel.  However, that doesn’t mean that there weren’t terrifying moments.  I don’t just mean “scary”, as it felt when we saw the skills of our first Czech opponents on our hockey tour of Eastern Europe.  No, these are moments where I was genuinely afraid of what was going to happen.  Interestingly, they all involve transportation!  In chronological order, they are…

The White House, Washington D.C.
The White House, Washington D.C.

1.  Approach to the Reagan National Airport in Washington D.C.

There are two airports in Washington D.C.  Dulles International Airport is some distance away from the city and handles most international flights.  Reagan National Airport is much closer to the city and in fact is connected to the local subway system.  Sounds great…until your plane approaches the runway and you find yourself flying beside buildings, making sharp turns to avoid various no-fly zones (White House, Pentagon, CIA Headquarters), and making a very quick drop to terra firma.  I found out after landing that this airport makes every “Scariest Airport” list.

View of the old town, Trebinje
View of the old town, Trebinje

2.   Bus from Mostar to Trebinje (Bosnia & Herzegovina)

This route links the Federation of Bosnia & Herzergovina with the Republika Srpska.  The first part of the trip was OK.  However, as we approached the Republika Srpska frontier and passed through a few security checkpoints, the driver turned demonic and drove like a man possessed through the exceedingly twisty mountain terrain.  Crazy driving is one thing, but the driver also decided to eat, call friends, smoke, spit out the window and catch up on his paperwork at the same time.

Durmitor National Park, northern Montenegro
Durmitor National Park, northern Montenegro

3.  Drive to Northern Montenegro

Just a few days after the Trebinje bus, I found myself on an even longer and even more harrowing journey across almost the entire nation of Montenegro (and back again).  The scenery was spectacular but I was focused on surviving the high-speed mountain race in a jam-packed Volkswagen Golf.  I was beginning to think about confining my future trips to destinations with train stations, so I wouldn’t have to endure any more of this motorized madness!

Stradun, the main street of Dubrovnik's old town
Stradun, the main street of Dubrovnik’s old town

4.  Boat to Cavtat (Croatia)

Dubrovnik is a beautiful city on the stunning Adriatic coast (see photo at the top of this post), although it is quite heavily touristed.  I thought it would be a good idea to visit a nearby small town…but I also decided to go there by boat.  I should have asked more questions about the *type* of boat, as it turned out to be a rather small craft that was tossed around the waves for almost an hour before we finally arrived in Cavtat.  I managed not to be sick – a small victory, but a somewhat miraculous one given the conditions on the water.

Nightfall on the West Strand in Portrush, Northern Ireland
Nightfall on the West Strand in Portrush, Northern Ireland

5.  Midnight Taxi to Portrush (Northern Ireland)

I had a very enjoyable day touring the hidden treasures of Northern Ireland with one of my former bandmates from my undergraduate days.  Alas, midnight arrived very quickly and my only transportation option was a taxi from Limavady back to my B&B in Portrush.  The driver was a really nice guy and we talked about our respective sports interests.  The only problem was that he did this whilst covering the distance in record time on a very narrow highway in near-complete darkness.  I didn’t get to sleep for quite some time after arriving.

As you can see, my terror was more or less confined to the first half of the year.  There were some isolated incidents of aggressive driving in both Peru and Costa Rica too, but I managed to distract myself by talking to others in the tour group.  Distraction appears to be the best strategy!

There are many more lists to come – stay tuned!

Food Highlights of the Year – Part 1

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

I ate very, very well this year.   So well, in fact, that it is impossible to compile a single list of my dining highlights…even if I disregard the restaurants where I didn’t take pictures of my food!   As a result, I’ve decided to assemble two food lists and intersperse them with my other “best of” lists.  Here’s the first list of food highlights!

My lunch at Rumerlo - Insalata Carciofi (artichoke, reggiano parmigiano, walnuts, pomegranate, etc.)
My lunch at Rumerlo – Insalata Carciofi (artichoke, reggiano parmigiano, walnuts, pomegranate, etc.)

1.  On-mountain dining in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy

Who says you can’t eat well while skiing?  I’ve always enjoyed European ski food, as the mountain restaurants have a demanding clientele and also need to justify their existence outside of the ski season.  The photo at the top of this post shows one of the best on-mountain places at Rumerlo:  everybody in our group raved about their food.

In this part of Europe, they call it " Bečka šnicla" rather than Wienerschnitzel. (Durmitor Restaurant, Žabljak, Montenegro)
In this part of Europe, they call it ” Bečka šnicla” rather than Wienerschnitzel. (Durmitor Restaurant, Žabljak, Montenegro)

2.  The Schnitzels of the former Yugoslavia

I was so taken with the schnitzels in Montenegro and Bosnia & Herzegovina that I ate them almost every day.  I forgot to take pictures of most of them but the quality was generally excellent and the portions were huge.  Typically, I had already eaten a bunch of the fries before taking the above photo.

"Pierogi Max" at the Café Tachles (Vienna, Austria)
“Pierogi Max” at the Café Tachles (Vienna, Austria)

3.  Perogies in Vienna

I had plenty of Wienerschnitzel before arriving in Austria, so I was more than happy to try something else for my only dinner in Vienna.  I found an unassuming café just outside of the downtown core and was served the best perogies I’ve ever had:  the filling was not mere filler!  Expectations were low but sometimes that creates the best food experiences.

Lemon Chicken at Yung's Chinese Restaurant (Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin, Ireland)
Lemon Chicken at Yung’s Chinese Restaurant (Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin, Ireland)

4.  Lemon Chicken in Ireland

I rarely eat Chinese food in Canada but I tried it a couple of times in the British Isles.  I found the Irish take to be the best:  I ordered lemon chicken in both Cashel and Dun Laoghaire and each time it blew away any version I had in Canada.  Hardly any batter, lots of chicken and a very tart sauce…not high cuisine, perhaps, but very tasty.

Some very hot peppers/tamales at Huchuy Qosqo
Some very hot peppers/tamales at Huchuy Qosqo

5.  Andean Feast in Huchuy Qosqo (Peru)

This was my first Peruvian feast and it featured a remarkable assortment of dishes.  These peppers were an appetizer but the other courses were extremely tasty and colourful too.  As with the pachamanca meal below, I was completely stuffed but still wanted more.

The pachamanca, just before we helped ourselves (Urubamba, Peru)
The pachamanca, just before we helped ourselves (Urubamba, Peru)

6.  Pachamanca in Urubamba, Peru

This was so good that I’m posting two pictures, one of the “spread” and one of my (first) main course.

My pachamanca main course (Urubamba, Peru)
My pachamanca main course (Urubamba, Peru)

A pachamanca meal is prepared in large pots that are (ideally) cooked underground for hours and hours.  Everything is cooked together in layers:  potatoes, vegetables, chicken, plantains…it is extremely filling but it is almost impossible to stop eating because of the wonderfully intermingling flavours.

Blueberry Alpaca in Aguas Calientes, Peru
Blueberry Alpaca in Aguas Calientes, Peru

7.  Blueberry Alpaca in Aguas Calientes, Peru

I rarely eat red meat but I was convinced to try alpaca in Peru.  I always ordered it well-done and it suited me perfectly:  the taste of well-done steak but much leaner and healthier.  I also had alpaca with a spicy “criolla” sauce in Aguas Calientes and it was almost as good as the blueberry version (but didn’t have the same supersized fries).

My completed lomo saltado - I ate mine with brown rice, but French fries are often added too.
My completed lomo saltado – I ate mine with brown rice

8.  Lomo Saltado, from Cusco Culinary Tour (Peru)

I wrote a long post about my culinary tour of Cusco back in July.  After the tour, we made our own lunch and prepared our own drinks in a real restaurant kitchen.  I ate lomo saltado (an Asian-influenced stir fry) on several occasions but I’d have to say that my own version was the best.   I didn’t create the recipe, of course, but I did tone down the garlic a little bit and took a few other liberties to customize the flavour for my palate.

Peruvian food was likely the culinary highlight of the year…but there is still lots of interesting food to come in the second part of this list!

Top 5 “Wow” Moments of the Year

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

Since returning home from my last trip, I have been asked on several occasions to name my favourite trip, place or experience of the year.  My answer changes daily and, yes, I usually say “it depends”!  However, I’ve now put together a number of different lists to try and describe some of the most memorable elements of the year.

I’m starting with the Top 5 “Wow” Moments of the year.  Many of these could also fit into my “Top Experiences” category (coming soon!) but I’ve chosen to separate these 5 because they were unexpected and/or carried an intense emotional rush when they happened.  At each of these moments, I said to myself:  “Now you’re really living!”  Here they are, in chronological order…

Shocked and awed at Forcella Staunies
Shocked and awed at Forcella Staunies

1.  First descent from Forcella Staunies piste above Cortina d’Ampezzo (Italy)

For the past 15 years, my favourite ski piste has been the “Black Rock” piste located just below the famous Jungfrau near Wengen, Switzerland.  The piste parallels a massive black rock and was unlike anything else I’d ever skied.   The scenery is spectacular and the piste is challenging enough to be exhilarating without even considering the scenery.

Now that I’ve skied the piste at Forcella Staunies above Cortina d’Ampezzo, however, I think I have to change my answer.  With massive, towering rocks on both sides (chair lift shown at top of this post), you can’t help staring upwards and marveling at your own insignificance.  Add to that the complete absence of crowds, the deep snow, a sense of impending doom and a long and challenging piste…well, there really is nothing else like it.  It was so awesome, in fact, that I could only ski it a few times.  I was utterly exhausted and began to worry that I would make a bad mistake if I continued.    The picture above says it all:  there really is no other place I’d rather be!

That's 200m straight down, people...Cliffs of Moher, Co. Clare
That’s 200m straight down, people…Cliffs of Moher, Co. Clare

2.  The crazy part of the Cliffs of Moher (Ireland)

Don’t get me wrong:  all of the Cliffs of Moher are impressive.  But there is one portion north of the main entrance that many visitors never see.  It takes some effort to get there and there are several signs reminding you that you are proceeding at your own risk.  The formerly paved and “fenced” cliff-top trail is now unfenced and little more than a dirt path.

When you arrive at the highest and most treacherous part, you are overlooking the ocean from a height of more than 2 football fields.   It is straight down and it is terrifying.  Even more terrifying is how some people are actually sitting on or leaning over the edge.   I don’t think I’ve ever walked as cautiously as I did here.  At the same time, however, it is so beautiful that I didn’t want to leave.

A "classic" view of Machu Picchu...can't have too many of these!
A “classic” view of Machu Picchu…can’t have too many of these!

3.  First view of Machu Picchu (Peru)

We had to get up at an uncivilized hour and ride a packed bus up a narrow, winding and scary mountain road.  We had to wait for 45 minutes to get through the maddeningly slow line-up at the main gate.   We had to carry a lot of (heavy) water to get us through the day.   Despite all that, it was still a “Wow!” moment to see Machu Picchu for the first time.  And once you get beyond the initial “wow”, Machu Picchu will change everything you think you know about “civilization”.

The puck must be very close to me, as I look very intense here!
Barnstorming through Eastern Europe!

4.  Scoring the opening goal for “Team Canada” in Bratislava, Slovakia

This game was very meaningful for my team and there was a lot of emotion in the air.  We were also playing in a KHL (the Eastern European version of the NHL) arena with all of the luxuries and facilities you can imagine.  There were national anthems and lots of officials.  There was music pumping between whistles and we were wearing Team Canada uniforms.  The ice was fast and the pace of play was faster.

For whatever reason, I was “in the zone” for this one and playing like my life depended on it.  I felt like I could slow the game down and make moves that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to manage.  Scoring the first goal was such an adrenaline rush that I think I actually jumped up in the air when the puck went in.  I never do that – but I did here.  I guess it was a combination of representing my country, doing something I love, and having every element of the game just the way I wanted it.  It was a dream that actually happened.


5.  Meeting a howler monkey on the Monteverde rainforest canopy (Costa Rica)

It was such a rainy day that there was nobody else on any of the hanging bridges.  I was starting to get discouraged about the apparent lack of wildlife on the canopy tour.  All of a sudden, however, a very large black animal was 20 feet away from me.   I was utterly alone, suspended 40 metres above the forest floor, with an intelligent, unpredictable, non-captive and non-human primate.   We spent 10-15 minutes just hanging out; the monkey didn’t seem to feel threatened at all and I took hundreds of photos.  How cool is that?

Stay tuned for more lists!

Return to Reality

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

Waking up at 4:45 a.m. on Monday, December 1 was a somewhat cruel way to start the last day of my travel year.  It was actually kind of fun, though, to dash through the streets of pre-dawn London to the nearest Piccadilly Line tube station (see photo above – it’s Russell Square).  I had a good reason…I needed to get to Heathrow and fly back home.

Russell Square isn't very busy before 6:00 a.m.
Russell Square isn’t very busy before 6:00 a.m.

I thought I would be rather sad about ending what has been a wonderful year of adventure, especially after ending on such an unexpected high note in London.   While there was certainly a slight sense of sadness, or at least nostalgia, I also found myself craving a return to “regular” life.  I was ready to work.  I looked forward to preparing fresh meals at home rather than eating out every day.  I was excited about my upcoming curling matches and hopeful that my slowly-improving shoulder injury would permit a not-too-distant return to the hockey rink.  Most of all, though, I was looking forward to devoting more time to friends and family.

What some people will do to get a photo of the pedestrian crossing at Abbey Road in London...
What some people will do to get a photo of the pedestrian crossing at Abbey Road in London…

Even so, I couldn’t do everything at once.  There was a lot of “administrative work” that needed to be done in short order.   I had to set up a home office for my new job.  Various appointments had been accumulating.  The car needed a tune-up and the driveway needed a lot of shovelling.   The to-do list was very, very long but I was actually excited about tackling it.

Everybody has a travel threshold.  Some can only last a day or two before returning home.  Some need years on the road to “re-charge”.  After about nine months of roughly half-time travel, I had hit my threshold just as I was returning home from England with no further travel plans.  The timing was perfect.

Rather small building at one of London's famed Inns of Court
Rather small building at one of London’s famed Inns of Court

On a couple of occasions since returning home, I have found myself ready to plan some more travel…only to realize that there is nothing left to plan.  There are currently no “bucket list”  items demanding attention.   My wife and I are planning a quick big city getaway in January, and there is a chance that I will go skiing in early March… but there is really nothing that I need to (or can) act on yet.  All I have to do now is figure out what to do with all of the frequent flier points and Air Miles that I have accumulated!  I can always use them on gift cards if nothing else jumps out at me.

Big buses in Piccadilly Circus, London
Big buses in Piccadilly Circus, London

The next few posts will be retrospective.  I’m going to be looking at what I planned to do this year and what I actually did.  It’s always fun to look at lists so I’ll try to compile some highlights of the year.      I will probably also come up with some advice and guidance for anybody who is planning this sort of thing for themselves.  Maybe I’ll even begin to think about where I might travel in the years to come!

King's College Chapel in Cambridge, England
King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, England

If you’re not too interested in revisiting this year, I think you’ll still find something of interest in this blog.  As promised, I will eventually be sharing some photos and stories from pre-2014 trips.  I’ll be liberated from writing in real time and chronological order, so you’ll never know what’s coming next!  Even after all of this time, I still enjoy writing the blog and I hope that enthusiasm continues to show.

English Food

(London, England, U.K.)

After being so excited about the food possibilities at the beginning of this trip, I didn’t really write much about food on this blog.  I was a little distracted by all of the music and sights, especially in London.

Despite my initial musings about a “dhansak tour of England”, I did not have any more dhansak on the trip.  In fact, I didn’t make it into another East Indian restaurant after my first night in Cambridge. However, I still enjoyed a lot of interesting food in London.  Any lingering misconceptions about the sorry state of English dining ought to be permanently “consigned to the dustbin”, as they say.

Oddly-named establishment on Charlotte Street in Fitzrovia
Oddly-named establishment on Charlotte Street in Fitzrovia

Friday’s lunch was a delicious (and vibrant) chicken paella at a small place called Café Deco just two blocks from my hotel.   I had big plans for a Lebanese dinner that night in Putney before the Los Pacaminos concert…but the restaurant was fully booked.  With time running out, I had to settle for a take-out place called “Flavas Peri Peri” for dinner.  It was extremely cheap (and plastic) by London standards and I didn’t have a great feeling about it.  Luckily, the chicken sandwich was OK and the peri-peri sauce was better than expected.

On Saturday evening, I went to upscale Kensington for the concert at the Royal Albert Hall.  I thought that there would be a lot of restaurants between the Kensington High Street tube station and the concert hall…but I didn’t see very many at all.

Christmas shopping chaos on London's famed Carnaby Street
Christmas shopping chaos on London’s famed Carnaby Street

Once again running a little late, I decided to try a humble Chinese restaurant humbly called “Stick & Bowl”, vaguely remembering the name from an on-line review.    The restaurant thrived on low comfort and high turnover but I still enjoyed my dinner of  BBQ Pork with crispy noodles.  In fact, the turnover was so fast that I was able to explore the neighbourhood a little before the concert.

After the concert, I was feeling very nibbly and was surprised to find relatively few late-night dining options near my hotel.  Settling for a Tesco supermarket, I found a prepackaged but satisfying feta and butternut squash salad with lemon & mint dressing.  If I had been in London longer, I definitely would have tried it again.

Christmas Bazaar on the High Street in St. John's Wood
Christmas Bazaar on the High Street in St. John’s Wood

After visiting Abbey Road on Sunday, I decided to stay in the St. John’s Wood area for lunch, where I found a Japanese restaurant called “Mori” on the High Street.  I opted for the culturally-confused and visually unappealing but actually quite good “Chicken Katsu Curry”.   If Germany can come up with “Currywurst”, why not?

Chicken Katsu Curry over rice at Mori in St. John's Wood
Chicken Katsu Curry over rice at Mori in St. John’s Wood

This left me with only one more meal in England.  I had already tried fish & chips in Southend-on-Sea but it wasn’t in a traditional English pub.  I decided that I wanted a nice pint of English cider and something tasty but filling in a warm atmosphere.  It didn’t take long to make a decision:  after walking by the neighbourhood-oriented Fitzrovia Tavern (see photo at top of this post) several times during my London stay, I finally went inside.

I grabbed a table in front of a fireplace and enjoyed an excellent “Hunter’s Chicken” and draught English cider.  It was all very cozy and a great way to end my dining adventures in England…even if the pub turned out to be part of a chain and “Hunter’s Chicken” is probably not traditional pub fare.

The Fitzroy Tavern at night, just after I ate there
The Fitzrovia Tavern at night, just after I ate there

As you have no doubt noticed, I wasn’t always able to take pictures of my food in London.    Sometimes, the circumstances made it awkward to get out the camera…and sometimes I just forgot.  It was also nice to leave the camera behind once in a while and just enjoy the moment.

This is my last post from England.  I’ll be doing some year-end wrap-up posts next:  stay tuned to find out the “best” parts of my travel year!

Random Walk in London

(London, England, U.K.)

In between my tour of Parliament and the Jools Holland concert at the Royal Albert Hall, I had an entire afternoon free in London.  As I had stumbled upon so many interesting things on a random walk two days earlier, I decided to do the same thing after leaving the Houses of Parliament.

Heading westward, I passed Westminster Abbey and found myself in the sprawling St. James Park.  The crowds were immense, as the park was right between Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace.  There was a lot of almost-domesticated wildlife:  these ducks, swans and squirrels had long ago figured out that they could live well by getting relatively close to humans.

One of my new friends poses for a picture in St. James Park, London.
One of my new friends poses for a picture in St. James Park, London.

I arrived at Buckingham Palace (see photo at top of this post) just after 12:00 noon.  It is certainly a large building but I found the setting to be more impressive than the palace itself. This did not seem to deter many tourists:  the roads were kept clear by police but it was otherwise extremely crowded in front of the palace.

Another Beatles site:  the Bag o' Nails (where Paul met Linda), just west of Buckingham Palace on Lower Grosvenor Square
Another Beatles site: the Bag o’ Nails (where Paul first met Linda), just west of Buckingham Palace on Lower Grosvenor Place

Craving some space, I decided to continue west and soon found myself  in Belgravia.  Along the way, I came across the “Bag o’ Nails” pub.  I knew it was famous for something but couldn’t remember what.  It turns out that this was a famous music venue in the 1960s and was also the pub where Paul McCartney first met his wife Linda in 1967.   [As much of “A Hard Day’s Night” was filmed at the Scala Theatre on Tottenham Court Road in Fitzrovia, I probably also saw the place where George Harrison met his first wife in 1964!].

Typical streetscape in Belgravia, London
Typical streetscape in Belgravia, London

Belgravia is posh, with immaculate and imposing white buildings everywhere.  I wasn’t surprised to see many embassies here.  While it was nice to look at and there were certainly no crowds, I was beginning to get hungry and Belgravia didn’t seem to have any restaurants.  I began walking northeast and, after passing the edge of Hyde Park, found myself in Mayfair.

Typical streetscape in Mayfair, London
Typical streetscape in Mayfair, London

Mayfair is another one of those names that I had heard before but didn’t have any real meaning to me.  Now it does: Mayfair is the shopping district for those who are unconcerned about price.  It’s beautiful, with ornate buildings and an unhurried air suggesting that everything is lovingly scrubbed down and polished on a daily basis.

Typical shopfront in Mayfair, London
Typical shopfront in Mayfair, London

I was getting quite hungry but I was wearing blue jeans and a scruffy sweater.  Even if the Mayfair restaurants had appealed to me, I doubt that I would have been welcome in them.  I reluctantly looked at the map and decided to head towards Oxford Street…it would be crowded, but it would be much easier to find an appropriate place for lunch.

I must not have been too discreet when I took this picture of the Mustard Café:  the server is waving!
I must not have been too discreet when I took this picture of the Mustard Café: the server is waving!

Oxford Street was impossibly busy but I found an unassuming café on a street running parallel to and north of Oxford.  I paused to look at the menu and I was reassured by a patron that the food was good.  For just under 5 pounds, I had a surprisingly good lasagna and a fruit juice at the Mustard Café.

As I had walked about 5 miles since leaving Parliament, I didn’t push myself too hard for the rest of the afternoon. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t completely exhausted by the time I made it to the Royal Albert Hall!

Lawyers and Transit in London

(London, England, U.K.)

My last two posts (on the Royal Albert Hall concert and the Beatles pilgrimage) represented the last two musical highlights of my visit to London.  However, I still have quite a bit of non-musical stuff to report.

First, however, I want to share a strange coincidence that I noticed after posting the Royal Albert Hall report.  I had mentioned one concert in particular (the “Concert for George”) as being one of my favourites.  This concert was held in the Royal Albert Hall on November 29, 2002, being exactly one year to the day after the death of George Harrison (November 29, 2001).  Jools Holland was one of the performers at that tribute concert.  When did I see Jools Holland perform at the Royal Albert Hall?  November 29, 2014.

Gray's Inn Hall - this hosted the first public performance of Shakespeare's "A Comedy of Errors" in 1594.
Gray’s Inn Hall – this hosted the first public performance of Shakespeare’s “A Comedy of Errors” in 1594.

On the afternoon of Friday, November 28, I went on a walking tour of “Legal London”:   the purpose was to see some of the city’s legal landmarks, with a focus on the ancient “Inns of Court” that formed the basis of the legal profession for barristers.

In Canada, every lawyer is a “barrister and solicitor”, although in practice most lawyers choose to specialize in one or the other.  In England, however, there is a much stronger separation between the two.  A solicitor will rarely, if ever, appear in court.   If anything becomes contentious, a solicitor generally refers the matter to a barrister.

Suppliers of legal robes and wigs since 1689!
Suppliers of legal robes and wigs since 1689!

Each barrister is associated with one of the four Inns of Court that are located within easy walking distance of each other just west of downtown London.  Traditions die hard here:  these are the same medieval Inns of Court that Charles Dickens wrote of in the 19th century.  We saw a legal robe and wigmaker that has been in business continuously since the 17th century.

One of the buildings at Gray's Inn.  Charles Dickens worked as a clerk in the window directly above the door.
One of the buildings at Gray’s Inn. Charles Dickens worked as a clerk in the room directly above the door.

Dickens didn’t think much of lawyers (nor did he think much of my hometown of Kingston, Ontario, incidentally) but at least he was writing from personal experience.  He clerked at Gray’s Inn for a short time before exploring other career options.  The Inns are relatively quiet urban refuges from the hustle and bustle of modern London, similar in many ways to the colleges of Cambridge University.

The tour ended in the Fleet Street area at the Royal Courts of Justice.  Fleet Street has long been associated with British journalism but in reality most of the media has long since relocated to less expensive real estate.

The Royal Courts of Justice in downtown London
The Royal Courts of Justice in downtown London

After the Legal London tour, I didn’t have much time to spare before I needed to head for the distant neighbourhood of Putney for the Los Pacaminos concert.  I allowed plenty of transit time, even though I found a bus route that went from my hotel right to Putney.  The scheduled travel time was an hour, but the incredibly congested city meant that my bus (and every other) was also about an hour late.   I still arrived in time but had to settle for a rather unhealthy fast-food meal before the concert.

Transit gridlock -  a long line of London buses remains stationary...on a green light.
Transit gridlock – a long line of London buses remains stationary…on a green light.

Urban gridlock is particularly bad here.  Even a steep congestion tax, which costs you $18.00 every time you want to drive into the city, has done little to alleviate the traffic woes.  There is a comprehensive underground (“the Tube”) system, but it too is prone to severe delays:  my relatively short underground trip the following night to Kensington also took at least about half-an-hour longer than it should have.

Looking back, transportation was about the only negative experience I had in London.  The buses and trains themselves, however, were relatively well-kept and I certainly never had any safety concerns.

A Musical Pilgrimage

(London, England, U.K.)

After the overwhelming Saturday night concert at the Royal Albert Hall, there was only one day left on my musical tour.  I wanted to take advantage of every moment but I had no further concert tickets and no strong desire to see a musical matinee.  I also had to get up at 4:45 a.m. the following morning to catch my flight back to Canada.

I decided to go on a special guided tour.  Not just any tour, mind you, but a tour that would finally introduce me to the London of my first musical heroes:  The Beatles.

Millions of words have been written about the Beatles and I don’t think I need to convince anyone that their songs will one day be considered the “classical music” of the 20th century.   No matter how much they have been deified, the fact remains that they created all of that music in this very real city and lived a very real life here.  It was time to finally see it for myself.

Trident Studios - this is where "Hey Jude" was recorded in the summer of 1968
Trident Studios – this is where “Hey Jude” was recorded in the summer of 1968

After walking past Paul McCartney’s offices, we saw Trident Studios in a narrow laneway.  The Beatles rarely recorded here, but they did happen to record “Hey Jude” here…and that’s what they were doing on the day I was born.  These particular studios were beyond nondescript and yet this was where one of the most popular songs ever was recorded.

Nearby was the former site of the Indica Gallery – famous for being the place where John Lennon first met Yoko Ono.  Our guide was careful to point out that Ono didn’t break up the Beatles; rather than the “cause”, he thought she was a “symptom” and the breakup would have happened eventually anyway.

The Indica Gallery today, in a quiet London courtyard
The Indica Gallery today, in a quiet London courtyard

The second most important site for me on this tour was 3 Savile Row – the former headquarters of Apple Records and the site of their last ever public performance. This is the building you see throughout the movie “Let It Be”; the famous rooftop concert took place right here!  There was also a recording studio in the basement.  Looking at the neighbourhood today, it still is very “proper and dignified”…it’s no wonder the Beatles were not welcomed with open arms by the other businesses on the street.  Today, 3 Savile Row is the location of an “Abercrombie Kids” store.

3 Savile Row - former headquarters of the Beatles' business empire
3 Savile Row – former headquarters of the Beatles’ business empire

We saw some other minor sites but the best was saved for last.  We had to take the Tube to St. John’s Wood and walk for about 10 minutes.  Even though it was a typical semi-suburban environment, there were tourists everywhere…many of them endangering life and limb on the busy street.  This was Abbey Road.

Abbey Road is the location of EMI Studios (as it was then called), where the Beatles recorded almost all of their music.  The site is now called Abbey Road Studios and is still used as a commercial studio, so it is not open to the general public.  That doesn’t stop hundreds (thousands?) of people visiting it every day to pay their respects.   It does feel kind of magical here.

Abbey Road Studios, St. John's Wood, London
Abbey Road Studios, St. John’s Wood, London

Perhaps even more alluring is the fact that this is also the very place where the iconic Abbey Road album cover photograph was taken.  Back in 1969, the street was briefly closed and the photo of the Beatles was taken from a stepladder in the middle of the road.  That’s why fans continue to endanger their lives by trying to recreate the exact photo.  It’s also one of the few “real” places portrayed on a Beatles album cover.

I didn’t try to take a picture from the very same spot.  But I took some photos of the pedestrian crossing (it’s still there) and even had another person take a photo of me walking across just like the Beatles did all those years ago.  That’s the photo you see at the top of this post, with Abbey Road Studios in the background.

The end of the Abbey Road crossing...and the end of my musical pilgrimage!
The end of the Abbey Road crossing…and the end of my musical pilgrimage!

Along with “Revolver” and “With The Beatles“, “Abbey Road” is one of my three favourite Beatles albums.  It certainly has the best production and was the last original album they recorded together (although the very uneven “Let It Be” album was released later).  It was a fitting finale to an astonishing career.

For me, going to Abbey Road also represented a kind of closure for my year of travel.  I had come to the end of the long and winding road and there was nowhere else I needed to go.  It was time to go home.

Extended Post: Concert at the Royal Albert Hall!

(London, England, U.K.)

Today’s post is an extended one with lots of musical links:  given the event, I didn’t want to break this up into smaller blogs!

When I started planning this trip in June,  even before booking the flights, I ensured that I had great tickets to two shows.  One was the Paul Carrack concert.  The other was a concert at the Royal Albert Hall.  Within a few days, I also had a ticket for Los Pacaminos and I added “The Commitments” a couple of months later.

Why the Royal Albert Hall?  When I think of opulent concert halls, it’s the first one that comes to mind.  However, it has also been the site for a host of legendary concerts.   One of my favourite concert videos is “A Concert for George” – the all-star tribute to the late George Harrison.  In that one concert alone, there were performances by Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Jeff (ELO) Lynne, Tom Petty, Billy Preston and the entire Monty Python gang (among others).  In fact, Eric Clapton has played there almost 200 times.

The South Kensington outdoor skating rink, just a short walk from the Royal Albert Hall
The South Kensington outdoor skating rink, just a short walk from the Royal Albert Hall

Not only is it stunningly beautiful inside and out, it also manages to hold more than 5,200 people in comfort.  I was determined to be one of those people, for one night at least!

While travelling alone certainly has its drawbacks, it paid one unexpected dividend on this trip:  it is sometimes possible to snap up single tickets very close to the stage that have been left “stranded” by groups buying blocks of tickets.  That’s what happened with the Paul Carrack concert (where I was in the 9th row, in the exact centre of the hall) and that’s what happened here…where I managed to get  a lone seat in the 13th row, right in the centre, for a Saturday night concert less than a month before Christmas.  Even better, it was for a concert that I really wanted to see!

Jools Holland is known in North America as a former member of Squeeze…in fact, when he left, he was replaced by Paul Carrack.  But in the U.K., he is a legendary radio and television host (“Later…with Jools Holland”) and bandleader of the Jools Holland Rhythm and Blues Orchestra.  Simply put, they are the best known “big band” in the U.K. and in many other countries as well.   They have also recorded with just about everybody with an interest in this kind of music.  On one CD alone, the collaborators included George Harrison, Van Morrison, Sting, Paul Weller, Dr. John, Joe Strummer (The Clash), Steve Winwood, Mick Hucknall (Simply Red), Paul Carrack, Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits) and Eric Clapton.

View from my seat, looking at the area just to the right of (and behind) the Royal Albert Hall stage
View from my seat, looking at the area just to the right of (and behind) the Royal Albert Hall stage

Imagine an amped-up modern-day cross between Cab Calloway, Glenn Miller, Ray Charles and the Blues Brothers…that might come close to capturing the Jools Holland Rhythm & Blues Orchestra.  The sound is not subtle:  there are 5 saxophones, 3 trumpets and 3 trombones, in addition to the various other singers and instruments you might expect to find in a big band.   And while they do play standards like “Tuxedo Junction”, they don’t restrict themselves to traditional big band material:  here is a live version of Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish” with Melanie C(!), a former Spice Girl, while this is a video for Jerry Lee Lewis’ “It’ll Be Me” recorded with Tom Jones.

I arrived well in advance of the concert, as I wanted plenty of time to look around and experience the venue beforehand.  It is located in a posh area (Kensington) of London; as you can see from the photo at the top of this post, it is quite an imposing sight.  I had to negotiate a series of hidden stairwells and oddly-shaped corridors to get to my seat but it is even more impressive inside.  There are arches, rich colours, suites and ornate accents everywhere…as if one has just woken up in the 19th century.

Looking towards the back of the Royal Albert Hall
Looking towards the back of the Royal Albert Hall

After a forgettable opening act, Jools Holland and his R&B Orchestra arrived with a bang.  The horn section was not going to be silenced on this evening and the sell-out crowd was very happy with that.  I should also mention that Jools Holland has the best left-handed piano technique I’ve ever seen.   It would have been fine if they played instrumentals all night.

Nonetheless, the vocalists in the orchestra are exceptional.  The current roster includes Louise Marshall and Ruby Turner.  Ruby Turner is an established singer in her own right; I even picked up her 45 (7″ vinyl single) of “I’d Rather Go Blind” this summer in the Netherlands (here’s a live version of the same song).  But Marshall is a vocal powerhouse too…you should expect to see much more of her in the future (here’s a Louise Marshall/Jools Holland recording of a song that she also performed live tonight).  My wife and I saw Aretha Franklin perform a few years ago and (sacrilege alert!) her performance didn’t even come close to Marshall or Turner.

View of the Royal Albert Hall stage just before the show (from my seat, no zoom lens)
View of the Royal Albert Hall stage just before the show (from my seat, no zoom lens)

Despite having that kind of vocal talent in his orchestra, a big feature of Jools Holland concerts is having some great guest stars.  On this night, there were two special guests.  The first was Joss Stone; you may recognize her name, as her first couple of releases received quite a bit of attention.  This live performance with Melissa Etheridge is fairly typical (although Melissa Etheridge clearly wins this battle!); here are other ones with Donna Summer and Jeff Beck. Her performances on this night with Jools Holland were similar.

The next guest was bit of a surprise.   Marc Almond was the singer with Soft Cell, a synth-pop duo from the early 1980s who had a massive international hit with “Tainted Love” as well as another big hit with “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye”.  He has had a successful U.K. solo career since then.

Almond started his set with “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye”, followed by a dramatic interpretation of a Jacques Brel song.  Would he sing “Tainted Love”, even though it was also a cover version (recorded originally by Gloria Jones in the early 1960s)?   Personally, I wasn’t too keen on the original Jones vocal, but the musical backing was solid.  Conversely, the Soft Cell vocal was memorable but the synth backing sounds dated now.   Luckily for us, he chose to sing “Tainted Love”…and he did it in front of a powerful big-band arrangement!

They didn't cut corners:  this is the back side of the Royal Albert Hall
They didn’t cut corners: this is the back side of the Royal Albert Hall

This was definitely one of the highlights of the night.  The audience was “gobsmacked”, as they say, and the orchestra really delivered with staccato stabs of horns.  This was how the song was meant to be performed and everybody nailed it.

Yet there were even more highlights.  One of the best encore songs was a song called “Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think)”.  I knew a version of it by British ska legends The Specials but it turns out that it’s a very old song recorded at one point by Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians!   Again, this was a brilliantly performed song and one that perfectly suited both the moment and the evening.   Here’s a recent studio version by Jools Holland.

The Orchestra played for a little more than 2 hours…but it went by so fast.  It was also exhausting, with so much energy in the music.  While I caught a bus just outside the Royal Albert Hall, I had enough adrenaline to walk back to my hotel from Leicester Square without even noticing the distance.

Almost back at my hotel...corner  of Tottenham Court Road and Chenies Street in Fitzrovia, London
Almost back at my hotel…corner of Tottenham Court Road and Chenies Street in Fitzrovia, London

With Los Pacaminos last night and the Jools Holland R&B Orchestra tonight, I have been rather forcefully reminded of the sheer power of live music played by committed musicians.   It even makes me think back to the fun I had playing live in a band at law school, where we bludgeoned our way through grunge (hey, it was the 1990s!) covers of songs by the likes of Abba (“Knowing Me, Knowing You”) and Duran Duran (“Hungry Like The Wolf”, although we turned it into “Hungry Like Beowulf”).

To be honest, I would have been happy just going on a tour of the Royal Albert Hall.  To experience a concert like this in such a wonderful venue was icing on the cake.  It was also a great way to end my year of travel, except for one thing:  my year of travel wasn’t quite over.

I still had one more full day in London…but I knew that there was no way I could find a concert to top what I had experienced over the past couple of days.  Stay tuned to find out how I spent the final day of this musical adventure!