Seoul Good


I’ve just returned, travelling at 270 km/h, from a 4-day weekend in Seoul – Korea’s capital city and home to half its population. 25 million people live in Seoul Capital Area, making it feel worlds away from the port city of Busan I, and only 3 million others, call home. Busan is very big, of course, but differences were apparent immediately, from the moment I set foot out Seoul Station. Seoul, like many huge cities, gives off a ‘cool’ vibe.

Getting to my cute little guest house was the first challenge I faced – all 25 million people seemed to be taking taxis at the very time I wanted to ride in one. The queue at the taxi rank on both sides of the station was at least 60 people long, and wasn’t moving very fast. Frustrated, I decided it actually wasn’t a long walk to where I was staying, so I’d give it a shot. Even more frustrated, and with a heavy bag, I admitted defeat and stood on a street corner, along with those in the same boat, praying for a taxi to come past. They did indeed come past, but two turned me down before I managed to get one. One was a co-taxi, which I assume means I should have shared with others, and the other simply wouldn’t pick me up on that side of the street. Charming.

Happily, I was finally picked up, and at my guest house I was pleased to find myself in a traditional Hanok-style house, complete with under-floor heating and futon-style mattress – as people used to sleep on in days gone by. Very comfy it was too. In the morning, I ventured out to meet friends. Surrounding me were houses from a typical travel guide…exactly what you picture when you think of this area in Asia. Situated right next to the palace, the Hanok houses can feel a little like stepping back in time, and at 9am in the morning, there was virtually no-one to spoil the tiny streets by whipping out a selfie stick. The very few people I saw were dressed in Hanbok – Korean traditional costume, allowing them to get into the palace and certain areas for free, while looking beautiful doing so.

344721_14091208260022075411
Cute little Hanok houses – the area I stayed in in Seoul.

Our first stop was Namsan tower, which (clue is in the name) towers over Seoul, slap bang in the middle of it on one of the many mountains in the city. The highest point in Seoul, it is a slice of nature in a huge metropolis. We climbed to the top to find beautiful views of different parts of the city, and the famous love locks placed around the tower itself. Lovers have left padlocks on fences and metal bars surrounding the structure for years, a symbol of longevity for the relationship. We were left wondering how many of those loved-up couples were still together now.

IMG_3986
All you need is love.

Thursday was a national holiday (Children’s Day), and the government had granted us all an extra day off on Friday, so many families were making the most of it. We made our way around the famous palace buildings, and headed down to Itaewon for a spot of dinner. Itaewon is the foreigners’ district, and while it has a trendy vibe, it is, as you might imagine from the name, full of foreigners like me. Yuck. Itaewon boasts cuisine from all around the world – Spain to Singapore, Ethiopia to my little old England. Variety is not lacking there, but tables certainly were. With no space for us, we settled on a standard pub, and paid through the nose for fairly standard fodder. Itaewon would most certainly be the district I would try to avoid as much as possible if I were living in Seoul – perhaps the nightlife is its upside.

The next day, met with drizzle, I headed to Myeongdong, which I’d heard was the beauty district. Not a day goes by where I don’t read about a new cream or lotion that I now am in need of, because it will fix a problem I didn’t even know I had – so I had to go check it out. K-beauty is big business. People have beautiful skin here, and it’s easy to see why when you see the amount of lotions and potions they have available to slap on their wrinkle-free faces. Before I came to Korea, I simply cleansed and moisturised. Now, I:

  1. Cleanse (oil based cleanser).
  2. Rinse.
  3. Cleanse again (foam cleanser).
  4. Tone.
  5. Apply serum/emulsion targeting specific needs skin may have. Mine is for redness, so I slap on a liquorice-based serum that is supposed to do wonders.
  6. Use mask (twice a week).
  7. Apply eye cream/spot treatment cream.
  8. Apply sleeping mask (night-time)/apply sun cream (day-time).
  9. Use facial mist to top up moisture in face throughout the day.

I’m not even completing the ten-step skincare routine that many swear by, but I’m almost there, and I’ve got to say that my skin feels amazing. Beauty shopping is addictive, and worth it. I feel like every won I chuck in the direction of these shops is well-spent, but I’m struggling to find my limit. Strolling around Myeongdong, I could see that I wasn’t alone. The obsession must be strong enough with others too, as what other reason would there be for 7 Nature Republic stores on the same block? Nearly every shop I went in to thrusted free samples onto me. I walked away with snail treatment face masks galore. My debit card suffered, but my happiness certainly didn’t, and that’s all that matters (honest).

The rain meant we didn’t explore too much further in the day, but rather hit up Gangnam for a night on the tiles. It can be strange to go drinking in Korea – many places won’t let you order just drinks, and insist you eat there too. If you’ve already been out for dinner, this can be quite frustrating, and leads to endless walking until a suitable PLEASE LET US ONLY DRINK HERE venue can be found. It’s either that or street soju. Gangnam is pricey, as we found through going to a 30,000 won (€25) entry-fee club, where drinks were 15,000 a pop. Luckily, we were on the guest list, meaning we could enjoy the music, dancing, and irritating handsy Russian lads for free.

The final day arrived – and it was a day packed with sightseeing after the lazy rainy day we’d had the day before. First stop was Changdeokgung Palace, which boasted a secret garden tour. We strolled in the beautiful gardens, selfie-stick free for the most part, and saw stunning buildings galore, which the king once made his home. He even had a special pagoda for drinking games, so he sounded like a pretty cool guy to us. We later indulged in more culture at the Yeong Deung Hoe lotus lantern festival, where lights danced in the night sky, honouring Buddha’s birth. Parades were held through the city, with many carrying beautifully-designed lanterns in shapes such as lighthouses, lotuses, fish, and even the Korean alphabet. Lantern dragons roared through the streets, elephants trumpeted, and birds soared. Women in traditional headdresses stunned us with their beauty. The vibe was carefree, happy, and welcoming. It was certainly a great way to end our weekend in the capital.

IMG_4193

Tourism in Seoul is big – but still not as big as many cities in the rest of Asia. It is a shame in some ways, as it means many do not rate Korea as a place worth visiting, when it most certainly is. Seoul, and the rest of the country, has lots to offer. On the other hand, it means culture and everyday life are relatively untouched, and are not sold at a price, as they are in many other countries to visiting tourists. I will certainly be making the trip to Seoul again, to enjoy the hustle and bustle of the city, and bask in its cool-ness.

IMG_4291IMG_4309IMG_4308IMG_4186IMG_4126IMG_4048IMG_3994

Eating Off the Beaten Track


As I roll through the door with bulging belly, it seems only fitting that my next post should be about the culinary delights to be found in Barcelona. There was a time, long ago, when I did not think food was so important, and ate mostly to fuel myself along, but this city, along with growing to realise there is more to life than hopelessly counting calories, has changed my outlook on food – Spanish culture and their attitude to food in general is something we can all learn from.

“Paella, rice, chicken!” are the shouts that greet you as you walk down La Rambla. Now it’s not so much walking, but fighting your way through the shirtless, burned masses who populate the city centre come summer. Big, glaring pictures of seafood, blackened rice, loaded ‘bravas’, and er, traditional sangria leap out at you from the restaurant windows. It never ceases to amaze me that the outside terraces down the seaside end of La Rambla are always crammed to the hilt, full of those sporting ‘I Love Barcelona’ hats and #10 footy t-shirts. If that’s your bag, don’t let me stop you, but before you cram that ages-old frozen potato, otherwise known as ‘bravas caseras’ (home-made), into your mouth, and before you sip that ridiculously sweet, overpriced and over-fruited sangria, let me tell you something: this is not what Barcelona is. This is the same as going to Oxford Street and eating a Pizza Hut. You can do it anywhere in the world. The paella is frozen, but still costs the same as a real ‘casera’ paella, and the sangria, which isn’t even a typical drink of those who live here, is watered down so much it might as well be fruit squash.

Sure, you don’t know where to go. Sure, it’s convenient. I know I’ve eaten in Pizza Hut in London, too. But even five minutes away, you can find a treasure trove of beautifully cooked, authentic food which is well worth the wait, and you won’t pay through the nose for it. Food is a great part of daily life in Barcelona, and it is meant to be enjoyed. If you only have a day or two to enjoy the city, then try to eat as well as possible, but I understand convenience might be the best way to go. However, if you’re here for a longer spell, read on for some tips on where to eat like a local.

Vermut

Ok, so I started with drinks, you got me – but it’s impossible to live in this city and not enjoy the culture of ‘Vermut’. It doesn’t actually just mean drinking vermouth. There is an art to this. On Sundays, locals flock to bars, order a ‘vermut’ and sit with a soda siphon, topping up, and eating raciones de tapas as they go. The vibe is jovial, relaxed, and friendly – meeting and watching the world go by as the sun warms your face. I hate vermouth, but I love the idea of what is pretty much an alcoholic brunch. Order yourself a vermouth, some chips de patatas, ‘berberechos’ (cockles), ‘almejas’ (clams), and don’t forget sauce to put on it – Salsa Espinaler, famed across Catalunya for putting on your seafood tapas, is a blend of spices with works particularly well with all the aforementioned tidbits. They even have their own bar in the nearby beach town, Vilassar de Mar, if you fancy catching the train and spending a relaxing Sunday at the seaside, away from the throngs.

Some good places to ‘Vermutear’ are:

Bormuth, Plaça Comercial 1, El Born.

Espinaler, Cami Ral, Vilassar de Mar (served by Rodalies Renfe, taking the train towards Mataro)

Bodega Marin, Mila i Fontanals 72, Gracia.

Fem vermut!
Fem vermut!
Bormut
Bormuth

Pintxos

Pintxos, actually a Basque tradition, are famed all over Spain. The premise is an individual ‘tapa’, held all together with a stick – when you’ve had your fill, the waiter or waitress counts your sticks, and you pay for each one. You can try all manner of typical Spanish food this way, at the small (general) price of one euro. Head to Calle Blai, near Paral.lel metro, where ‘Pintxo Alley’ is located, to experience a wide array of treats-on-sticks (so far removed from cheese and pineapple on sticks). The entire street is full of bars and cafés offering a variety of more traditional (croquettes, Spanish omelette) to the experimental (falafel, kebab meat). Many will offer deals on a ‘caña’ (beer) and pintxo together. Tapas is also offered at most of the bars, so why not try a bit of both? Be sure to try ‘pimientos del padrón’, small fried green peppers, covered in crunchy sea salt.

Some notable pintxo bars on Calle Blai are Blai Tonight (23-25), and La Tasqueta del Blai (17).

A selection of pintxos
A selection of pintxos

Catalan fodder

Catalan food, it must be said, is not one of my favourites in world cuisine, but it is certainly worth a try – think hearty, earthy, more home-style meals, which is not at all to be sniffed at and you’re sure to leave with your stomach bulging in content. Washed down with a great wine, the rustic element of Catalan food is very enjoyable, particularly if you want to escape the typical, infamous frozen paella. Whatever you order, make sure it’s accompanied by pa amb tomàquet, the delicious bread rubbed with tomato, olive oil, and sprinkled with a dash of salt. Some notable dishes are botifarra amb mongetes (sausage with white beans), escalivada (grilled vegetables, typically aubergines and pepper, then served with what often feels like a sea of olive oil – but trust me, it’s delicious), and, if you’re here in the earlier months of the year, calçots. These thin onion/leek hybrids (taste of an onion, size of a small leek) are a Catalan staple and are absolutely not to be missed. Calçotadas, a special kind of barbecue where calçots are roasted on an open fire until blackened around the edges, dipped in romesco sauce, then eaten in the messiest way possible – you strip off the skin and then dangle the juicy inside into your mouth – followed by various grilled meats, are widely enjoyed all over Catalunya. Both a cultural and gastronomic treat, you can attend municipal Calçotadas if you’re willing to go a little out of the city.

Calçotada dates vary from year to year, but check on local websites and places like meetup.com, where they will often be advertised.

Calçots roasting away.
Calçots roasting away.
How to eat calçots - it certainly isn't pretty, but it is fun!
How to eat calçots – it certainly isn’t pretty, but it is fun!

For a taste of Catalunya, try:

Ciutat Comtal (more tapas style, and if you’re willing to wait for over 30 minutes – no reservations are taken), Rambla de Catalunya 18.

Can Culleretes (going since 1786), Career d’en Quintana 5, El Born.

El Toc de Gracia, Carrer de Bonavista 10, Gracia.

La Panxa del Bisbe, Torrent de les Flors, 158, Gracia.

And what you’ve been waiting for…fish!

So, Catalan and Spanish cuisine are different, that’s for sure. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get a mean paella here. I’m no fish eater, unfortunately – I would so like to be, as the variety on offer and freshness of the seafood here is incredible. I am, however, dragged around to many a fish restaurant as my other half could eat the majority of the fish in the Med, if he so wished – so I do know where to go. Some of the best fish to be had will obviously be found by the port, where you can find everything from tourist trap to high class eatery. Any place that has a picture of a paella outside is to be avoided – no exceptions. Before you go straight in with the rice, though – consider your options. Another popular dish here is fideuà, typical of Valencia, with the same principle as paella but made with thin, vermicelli-like noodles. Taste this with a whacking dollop of allioli (garlic sauce), and you’ll reek for days but be happy for weeks. Other notable things to try are chipirones, which are small fried squid, chocos (other squid-type friends), pescado frito (fried fish), paella negra, and most types of salted fish – salted cod is typical here, too. You’ll probably be in fish-heaven with most choices on the menus here, so if you’re a seafood diehard, the Costa Brava and Barcelona is the right place to be.

Some recommendable places:

Can Carlus, Tossa de Mar (you have to get out of the city, but if you’re on a Costa Brava holiday, it’s worth it)

Cal Pep, Plaça de les Olles 8, El Gotico.

La Taberna Gallega de Marcos, Moll de Gregal, 23, Barceloneta.

Not the most beautiful of foods, but a huge hit here.
Not the most beautiful of foods, but a huge hit here.

Some other notable places you may want to consider on your trip are:

Can Paixano (La Xampanyeria) – champagne at cheap prices, big cuts of catalan sausage and other typical tapas treats to be enjoyed – what’s not to like? Carrer de la Reina Cristina 7, Barceloneta.

En Aparté – French run bar, generous portions, cheese platters, delicious wine, desserts, and crusty, beautiful bread (oh God, I’m drooling). Carrer de Lluís el Piadós, 2, El Born.

Kiosko – burgers that everyone talks about, queues often out the door – yes, we can say that about McDonald’s too, but this is the real deal and you’ll pay more or less the same for a more enjoyable burger right down by the sea! Av. del Marquès de L’Argentera, El Born.

Mosquito – tapas, Asian style. Dumplings galore. I could eat the dumplings from here every day. If I go, I pretty much order dumplings in all shapes and sizes – who needs anything else? Wide range of beer, including gluten-free, at very good prices. Carrer Carders 46, El Born.

Xampanyeria
Xampanyeria – you’ll fight to get a place, but you’ll be glad you did

What Makes Me Love The UK


I’m currently back over in the UK, visiting family and a few friends – trying to fit as many people in as I can, which always makes things stressful. This time I decided I would come back for quite a long period of time, as I hadn’t been home in about a year, and then I could take things at my own pace. People I have been staying with have been working during the day, so that means I have been at my leisure to enjoy exploring on my own, and generally go places I’ve either never visited before, or haven’t been to in a long time.

On the one hand, it feels quite strange to be back. It was actually very odd when I first arrived and found that English didn’t roll off my tongue so easily when speaking to a stranger. This might strike you as weird – I speak English every day, teaching it, and I live with English speakers, but I’m so used to going to restaurants, supermarkets, and wherever it might be, and starting in Spanish, that I instinctively went with that, and had to remind myself I was back in England, and could be understood in every situation. On the other hand, I’m really enjoying my time relaxing here and taking my time to re-acquaint myself with my country. I think, to a certain extent, I have found myself romanticising about it during the past year (in the time I haven’t been back, but what I’m genuinely surprised with is that I have found all the things I played up and boasted about are true.

1. The large, lush green spaces.

Barcelona lacks in green park areas. Whilst it’s a beautiful city, the climate of Spain and Catalonia doesn’t allow for large green fields and trees sprouting leaves from every side. Everywhere I go here, there are parks and benches crammed to the hilt with people basking in the (very little) sun, reading a book and generally enjoying being outdoors. Sure, I can do that on the beach, and I love doing so, but lazing on the grass is one of my favourite things to do, particularly because it means I won’t find sand in my lugholes ten days later.

Who would believe this is in a city centre?
Who would believe this is in a city centre?

2. Chit-chat

I don’t know if this is just because I’m clearly foreign, but people in Barcelona don’t talk to me in shops. There is no countertop exchange of words other than the basic needed to acquire the needed product. At first I was surprised when shop assistants began to natter away to me (I have always remembered people as being surly and sneering to customers), and felt slightly awkward, but it’s nice to be nice, and talking to the boy in Tesco for five minutes about his motorbike certainly  isn’t going to hurt anyone. I particularly felt more welcome in the north, where I relished being called ‘petal’, ‘flower’, and ‘love’ in almost every shop situation.

3. People’s innate ability to stand on the right.

Yes, yes, it’s hardly something to write home about, but I really like that in London people get on with their commute and are very aware of the fact that other people have places to be. Of course, London isn’t a hugely personal place, but with an ever-expanding city of 7.5 million, it’s understandable. People have jobs to get to, and I don’t have  to shout at the person in front of me to get out the way, because they just understand.

4. Cider culture.

Why, oh why, can I not buy cider as a given in all the shops in Barcelona? A can of Kopparberg costs around 4-5 euros, which is just plain ridiculous, and I only know of a smattering of places that sell this wondrous drink. Here, I can buy a variety of flavoured ciders and variants on beer, like Crabbie’s, for a nice cheap price, and sip away to my heart’s content on a balmy evening. I genuinely don’t understand why it isn’t bigger in Spain, as it’s a culture that enjoys sitting and drinking slowly: exactly what you should do with a cider. Nursing a good strawberry and lime cider would make my day in Barcelona, particularly if I could do it for under 3 euros.

Nectar of the gods
Nectar of the gods

5. Sleep.

Our weather is a bit crap. That’s true, for sure. Although, as I look out the window now, the sun’s shining, there’s a light breeze, and all seems well with the world. The problem with UK weather is that it’s so changeable, which can be irritating as I’ve found I have to carry a jumper and jacket, and take them off, then put them on every five minutes. However, something to be said for the UK’s weather, is that it is nearly always cool in the evening, and I can’t tell you how much I have enjoyed being able to sleep with a duvet on EVERY NIGHT. No more sweating above the sheets listening to the buzz of a mosquito, the shout of drunken men, and that dog that just won’t stop barking, because it’s too sticky and horrendous to shut the window – a breeze of about 0.154890 mph is better than nothing in Barcelona. Here, window shut, duvet on, quiet – fantastic.

6. How much we have to offer.

Nobody comes to the UK for a sun holiday. But, because our weather isn’t our selling point, I think we’ve built up a wealth of activities, especially indoor, that can be done either cheaply, or, and here’s the great thing – for free. I hardly ever visit museums in Barcelona because you have to pay an arm and a leg to visit them. I think the state should fund more art galleries and museums and request donations – because they would get them, and perhaps more people would visit. Every day this week that I’ve been in London, I’ve been able to visit a fantastic museum or exhibition for free. This doesn’t just exist in London – there are so many free activities across the UK that culture and learning are something which we can take for granted. I’ve been moved, fascinated, and interested by each museum I’ve been able to visit for no more than the price of getting there on the tube.

7. The variety of food.

English and British main meals, for me, are nothing to write home about. As I eat very little meat, that makes it quite difficult for me to get into the meat and two veg culture. I’d rather have the two veg, which actually makes Spain ideal for me, as they often have plates of veg as a course on the menu. However, I do like the fact that we are very open to other cultures and buying products from foreign countries, importing them as standard. In a regular Sainsbury’s, I found a huge selection of fresh herbs, like parsley, coriander, lemon-grass, rosemary, and many others, which I could whistle for even in the biggest hypermarkets in Spain. I often find myself looking for recipes and writing off the entire thing because I won’t be able to find the key spice or ingredient, or if I do, it will cost me half my monthly rent.

8. Fashion and personal expression.

Spanish people are very beautiful and fashionable (with the exception of those mullets I see wandering around occasionally). This is, of course, nice to look at, but one thing I like about the UK is that we are more accepting of the unconventional, and you will see many people with brightly coloured hair, tattoos, piercings, and funky clothing walking about the streets, and, what’s more, serving you in shops or doing their job however they wish to look. Provided they’re presentable, people have a much better chance of working with tattoos or piercings and so on here than they do in Spain. I worked in various jobs, including a bank, where it should of course be standard to look as professional as possible, with a piercing. Now, I would never dream of having one in a place that wasn’t my ear. It’s a shame, really, as I don’t think anybody would care if I had a lip piercing, but the culture dictates it looks non-professional, so I steer clear.

9. The Boots Meal Deal

It might seem a strange one to include in a top ten, but that is how good the meal deal is. I can’t get a nice sandwich, snack and a drink for three quid anywhere in Barcelona (unless I stick to a boring old cheese or tuna, no piri-piri chicken deal there). I can’t stress how lucky British people are to have Wotsits, Monster Munch and Skips available whenever they want. Life just isn’t fair.

10. A cracking sense of humour.

Again, this is probably more of a language barrier thing for me, but one thing I love about the British is their need to take the absolute piss out of each other within five minutes of meeting. It’s a contest and  something of a national sport – who can be more sarcastic, dry and witty? Who’s got the best put-down? Who’s more insulting without actually being insulting? Whilst I’ve met a few people who take this too far and are actually offensive under the excuse of ‘It’s only banter, mate’, generally I like this sense of humour and wish it were understood fully in other parts of the world – I’m not being rude if I insult you, it means I probably like you.

JNiVDps
A Brit isn’t a friend unless they insult you.