I don't think Poland (Polska) was ever on my hit-list, if I'm being honest. However, when you meet someone who is so passionate and patriotic about their country, its culture, natural beauty, food (especially meat) and vodka you can't resist the temptation to see the place through their eyes. And I'm glad I didn't.
My friend and I talked for four hours straight, from Stansted Express to the flight, to Krakow Airport, pissing off almost every unfortunate soul that had to be around us. We were picked up by a (very beautiful) young man in a fine Mercedes E-Class, which was a nice intro to the country. Although I wouldn't call a local experience, it almost felt necessary after Ryan Air. Apart from a pit-stop for a hotdog in a quiet petrol station, we got to Zakopane within an hour and a half, a small city right at the bottom of Poland.
We checked into a wooden cottage style house, although a little tricky to find in the middle of the night. The inside of the house was decorated with pretty crochet pieces used as curtains and lots of paper decorations placed strategically around the walls, with a nice warm and cosy feel to it. It felt a bit like a prelude to Christmas.
touching slovakia: tatra mountains
The following day, we went to Koscielisko Valley in the Western side of Tarta National Park. This was an 'easier' trek near streams, through forests and some waterfalls and a lovely secluded lake, until we decided to check out the caves. We thought this would involve strolling into a cave, taking a few photos and walking out. Instead, it involved close-to-vertical climbs and descents on soap-textured rocks, using nothing but a metal chain and a lot of arm strength.
This was real-life bouldering and I was close to tears. I still can't say if I enjoyed it or hated it (probably both). On one side, was the sense of achievement and on the other side putting myself through that freight that: "if my hands or feet slip I may fall and will die". A slight change from indoor bouldering in Harrow (you fall onto a mattress), or abseiling in Thailand or canyoneering (or canyoning) in Costa Rica where you have a harness and are clipped onto all sorts of things to make sure you will at least hang in the middle of nowhere, but you won't fall into the valley. It was certainly one of the highlights, though.
krakow: the oldest city in poland
Overall, my impression of Poland has been eye-opening and is certainly under rated or less spoken about as a tourist destination compared to many other European counterparts. The history, the religious influence, the art and architecture, natural landscapes and the vodka... I will be back for more.
The only thing that I wish I could change about this trip was Ryan Air and Stansted Airport. Neither should be on anyone's bucket list, unless you have a desire to torture yourself, confuse each other and generally not want to travel again (for a while). I will spare the details this time.
The first time I went to Dubai (not on transit) was almost twenty years ago and my memories from what it was to what it is now, is in total contrast to each other.
In my opinion, Old Dubai was mostly 'blank' with a lot of sand, lots of taxis and just a few shopping malls, some five star hotels, an exciting Duty Free shopping selection (back then) in DXB airport. It's statement landmark had to be the Burj Al Arab. I remember walking around in Bur Dubai, a.k.a Old Dubai with my mother, near the Spice Souk with every consecutive shop selling exactly the same spices and souvenirs, one after another. The Gold Souk was her favourite, while mine was the local 5 Dirham shop (basically Dubai's equivalent of a Dollar store or a Poundland). As a child, being told by your parent(s) that you can buy whatever you want... was a bit of a shock. In fact I think it was confusing. Anyway, I bought a lot of tat that I don't remember. The locals a.k.a. the Emiratis were incredibly helpful and eager to help us as tourists. I had very fond memories of Dubai as a child.
Ten years later, we went to Dubai again and it was an eclectic mix of Wanabe-Western culture and local Emirati culture (and a lot of South Asian culture... from plenty of workers who had moved to Dubai for work). M&S was considered 'cool' in this Dubai. We struggled to find a bar and we were eventually bored of the shopping malls selling over-priced imported brands. We had decided to escape the modern side and attempted the Desert Safari, which was actually a lot of fun.
A chauffeur-driven, hefty four-wheel drive took us to the middle of the desert and gave us quite the rollercoaster ride. My mother did not enjoy it, but the rest of us had a blast. This was followed by a (pointless) 2 minute camel ride, after queuing for over half an hour in the heat. However, the evening concluded beautifully, with talented Belly Dancers and generous portions of local food, a BBQ and Shisha a.k.a. Hookah. I can't remember everything I ate, but I do remember having Machboos which is basically like a Biriyani (and I love Biriyani).
Ten more years later, my brother and his family decided to relocate to Dubai, so we went there again. Now the scene is completely different. They have changed the face and map of Dubai completely. There isn't just one Palm Beach, there are two: Palm Jebel Ali and Palm Jumeirah, the latter being the more popular one with locals and tourists.
We hired a car and decided to drive through Old and New Dubai. We drove through the Palm Jumeirah which is all man-made, and is home to The Atlantis Hotel and Resort, a huge waterpark and plenty of other hotels and upcoming theme parks, apartments, more and more buildings. It's endless. Their Royal Bridge Suite has been occupied by our very own Kim Kardashian, Shah Rukh Khan, Michael Jordan... for around $24,000 per night. Start saving guys....
Or for now, just look at the standard room or watch this video.
THen there was gold...
We drove to The Fairmont, a beautifully decorated and fancy hotel, to eat... chicken. Not just any chicken though. It was gold-plated chicken which we paid around 40 Dollars for, at their Trophy Room. Slightly more expensive than my butterfly chicken and peri peri chips at Nando's.
Would I recommend it? No. The service was great, and ambience was peaceful, but all I really got out of eating golden chicken is a metallic aftertaste and an instagram story (yay).
living in dubai
We stayed near Dubai Marina, which is a very good location, near JBR (Jumeirah Beach Residence). We went hotel-hopping to dine out, and the food was generally very good in most places, despite generally being expensive. If you enjoy an alcoholic beverage, it's not going to be cheap for you in Dubai, but maybe it's a good thing. Consider it as a Detox holiday = Win-Win. And if you're a lady, don't forget to check out 'Ladies Night' on Tuesdays and Wednesdays where women can drink all-night for FREE. That should balance out the average costs for everyone. It's also worth keeping an eye out on Time Out Dubai for latest offers for meals, resorts, 2-4-1 theme park tickets, etc. which will save everyone some cash.
For the young (and wealthy) party animals out there, we happened to be close to Barasti Beach which could be considered as an alternative Ibiza for Dubai. Bikini-clad young ladies and Speedo-sporting young men, with arms and abs of steel (slight exaggeration), were enjoying their music, beers and cocktails and sun and sand. There are plenty of watersports available in the area, being near the resorts, but I am sure at a price worth thinking about twice.
I'm not sure whether this would be my regular hangout if I lived here, not only because of the pressure of perfection, but also because I have turned into a granny in my head and what I would rather do on an evening is have a nice glass of wine overlooking the city at one of the several rooftop bars in Dubai. Sadly, I didn't get to go to any this time round, but just so I don't miss out entirely on my little nephew's childhood, I may have to visit Dubai again in a couple of months. For now, here's a nice list of rooftop bars recommended by Time Out.
Our hotel InterContinental Dubai Marina was exactly what I would describe as a five-star hotel stay (we got a good deal via Tripadvisor.com). Modern decor, flawless and friendly staff and service all-round, all week and almost every facility to make our stay feel effortless and relaxing. Although the pool was smothered with confused families and children everywhere, the view was very special. The view from our room on the 18th floor was as stunning... some may call it a 'concrete jungle', and despite initially despising the fact that I couldn't see the beach from my room, I started to warm to waking up to buildings. So many tall buildings, so many swimming pools... so much capacity for more humans to come and visit or even live there. Dubai is making space and preparing itself for more people.
My overall impression of Dubai has changed, although it's still very much 'fake' and man-made and the advert for winter clothes in a magazine made me LOL (for those who want to go Skiing in the indoor ski resort Ski Dubai). It is very expensive and usually very hot, and it has an endless number of new projects for even more flats, more luxury resorts, more tall buildings... it's home to the tallest building in the World (Burj Khalifa), which I refused to pay $90 each just to get to the top, but the evening fountain show from the base was in fact spell-bounding enough.
Having said all that, Dubai is really trying to improve and evolve and this time round, it felt very multi-cultural, open-minded and quite similar to London. In fact, it's common to bump into people from London who have moved to Dubai for a short while or even several years. And we mustn't forget that, even though Dubai is all new and shiny, Old Dubai still exists. It's still possible to go to Bur Dubai and have a local meal, mingle with the shop-keepers, haggle for the price of Saffron and actually feel like you're in the U.A.E.
Modernisation has been defined by Dubai, so I suppose it's worth a visit at least.
Chicken has been consumed as food by humans for thousands of years. As we discover more about the breeding of chicken, whether they are free-range, organic or conventional, we can try to be as ethical as possible, especially if you're like me and have grown up eating chicken, along with other meat and fish (and some veg!). Almost 30% of chicken is protein... fat, iron, phosphorus (eyes, nails, teeth), potassium, vitamin A, B6, C, D, E and K!*
*Source: USDA, organicfacts.net
Now that I have created the 'base' of my article (I won't call it an argument... and yes, my vegetarian friends still like me... unless I offer them chicken wings for the hundredth time at a restaurant), I would like to share with you places in London that make chicken that have left a mark on my taste buds... TimeOut's mentioned two of them, but they've clearly not been to the other places yet!
1. Assenheims, farringdon
Don't go by the 'looks' of the green sauce when you search for them on Google. It is delicious. You can grab a table at the Farringdon branch.
2. tikkarito, leather lane
Annoyingly, they have deleted their website, but they have a Twitter account. Which makes sense, as they run out of all their food before 2pm, they probably don't need a website... they can focus on cooking those Chicken Tikka Naan Wraps.
3. baba g's, pop brixton
Oh my goodness... their 'Bhangra Burger' is divine.
4. NANdo's (sorry...)
They have loyalty points for regular diners... and the thigh burger is actually quite good!
5. chicken shop, holborn
Probably a nicer version of Nando's, but fresh, marinated and succulent chicken and a Tripadvisor rating of 4.5 out of 5 is a giveaway!
6. roti chai, marble arch
When you really can't be bothered with the queues of Dishoom, this may be an equally good place to check out, especially for their not-so-healthy: deep-fried chicken lollipops. Drool.
7. breakfast club, LIVERPOOL STREET
They have recently changed their 'Brinner' menu, so if you're in luck you may get to try the fried chicken and waffles. It even comes with Mac n' Cheese!
8. TGI FRIDAYS, leicester square
The only things I would order here is the 'Jack Daniel's Chicken Wings'... and maybe the Oreo Milkshake.
9. only jerkin', rupert street market
Crisp, fried jerk chicken, triple-dipped in ginger beer batter, served with fries, coleslaw and jerk gravy. Their twitter handle not only promotes their chicken, but also the latest gigs in town.
10. jamaican shack, under the bridge between waterloo and blackfriars
I'm quite sad that these lovely Jamaican men, who serve jerk chicken and plantain chips or rice under a bridge, who taught me how to say 'plantain' (plaaanteeeen), don't have any presence on the world wide web! I need to do something about this...
Watch this space!
I have to say, I do struggle to find a good cup of coffee when I’m not in London, but that’s probably because I don’t know the right places, or my taste buds have become biased by the city of coffee addicts. I remember (almost) shedding a tear of joy when we found a nice coffee made with condensed milk in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam after what felt like weeks. I think I had half a dozen terrible coffees on that trip, before I had a good one.
Note: in South East Asia stick to tea.
A health adviser from BUPA told me recently that ideally, caffeine should be avoided altogether as it's a stimulant and can tamper with your heart rate, but two to three cups of tea or coffee should be fine. Working life in London typically involves a lot of caffeine (and alcohol). When you're slaving away in your job all week, and wise people tell you not to drink 'too much' tea or coffee, you need to make sure that the few cups you do have are good ones and guilt-free.
According to BBC Health, 400mg* of caffeine is 'safe' per day. So we could have 1-4 cups of coffee as long as we don't have any other energy drinks, chocolates, tea, etc. (Hurray!)
*200mg for pregnant women
And if you care about how 'fatty' your coffees are, a small flat white, latte or cappuccino with full-fat milk is around 100 calories and 5-7g of fat. There's a quiz from The Guardian to test your coffee-calorie knowledge, which covers the high street coffee chains: Starbucks, Pret, Costa, Nero and good old Greggs.
Health aside, I'm sure many of you have your personal favourites for the quick and easy coffee, whether they get your name right or change it completely (I once got my takeaway Frappuccino with "FAN" written on it). But if you don't mind waiting a bit longer for what's usually a (much) smaller portion of coffee for what you usually pay, here are some 'artisan' coffee shops to check out in the city on your lunch break:
1. artigiano, st paul's
These guys need to thank me for at least 50 cappuccinos consumed in 2 years and now this blog. And I can thank them for all the good cappuccinos and loyalty stamps I have enjoyed. Step out of Artigiano and there's the grand beauty of St Paul's Cathedral. What more could you possibly ask for?
The staff are quirky, friendly and sometimes they may even give you an extra stamp for your loyalty and a big Cheshire smile. What's more, they serve beer, wine and cocktails (with happy hour) after 12pm. Genius.