Why London is awesome

On my first visit to London I was totally unimpressed.  This may be due to the fact that I was 11, it was the middle of winter, it didn’t snow, I was thoroughly sick of being dragged around to churches and medieval villages through the whole of France by my mother and just wanted to have a real holiday already, there wasn’t really that much to appeal to kids or my parents were completely ignorant of whatever was available and there is only a certain amount of sustained excitement you can experience from seeing squirrels for the first time without them becoming a little mundane.  In fact the highlight of my London trip was getting lost in Harrods the day before we were due to go home.  I was taken to the security department where all lost children and shop-lifters go and there was my brother, playing on a computer – he had noticed I was gone and got lost himself looking for me.  Mum arrived shortly after while we were enjoying hot chocolate and feeling rather proud of ourselves (and by the way the security guards are lovely, I get the feeling this might happen on a regular basis).

This time I was completely blown away by just how awesome London really is.  It may be because I was on a high from the most amazing holiday ever, it may be because I was meeting my little brother for a few days before he jetted off to parts undetermined, it may be because I had tickets to see Mumford and Sons and Arcade Fire, it may be because I was incredibly excited about all the shopping opportunities on offer and it may be because I was looking forward to catching up with a friend who has been studying at Oxford for a couple of years – who knows!  All I know is, I had the time of my life!

Lets start with the Eurostar trip – a completely awful experience.  Not because the train was bad, no the train was fine actually.  But because I missed my train due to the incredibly insane Paris traffic.  My taxi driver actually got out of the cab at one stage to verbally abuse another driver who had cut in front of him (coming from the left side of the intersection) at a completely full intersection which I am convinced only happens developing countries with few road rules and Paris.  The other driver then proceeded to attempt to reverse through another car so he could get out of the way.  Can’t believe I didn’t have my camera on me!
Anyway, so I missed my train.  Problem was it was Paris fashion week and Wimbledon so I had to grab the only ticket that was on offer – 250 Euros!!!  I nearly cried as I handed over my shoe shopping allowance.  After paying 50 for my original ticket I was completely unimpressed and even the fact that they had Haagen Dasz at the station was not enough to placate me.  Then I got on the train and someone was in my seat.

After that was all sorted out I ended up with 2 seats to myself as the couple in them had been on the wrong carriage and the guy who was travelling with the American’s in the seats over the aisle had decided to stay in Paris to be with the love of his life (whom he had met a week earlier).  I was chatting to his friends about London; what to do, where to go and how on earth I was going to find my hostel when a voice piped up from the seat behind me – ‘you’re going to Shepherd’s Bush? I know where that is, in fact that’s where I’m going’.  Turns out Angels are real and I found one on the Eurostar.  Ok I know what you’re thinking, stranger danger and tourist scams and all that so I was a little wary at first but it turned out he was just a genuinely nice guy who wanted to help out just because he could AND he even showed me how to get a transport card, helped carry my ridiculously large suitcase through the London tube which is not exactly designed for suitcases and showed me where the hostel was.  Ladies it turns out chivalry is not dead at all but unfortunately he already has a fiancee (lucky girl).

Apparently St Christopher’s hostel in Shepherd’s Bush is where all the Aussies end up and apart from the stifling heat inside due to unusually hot weather and the lack of air conditioning I really can’t complain.  They even have 2 pound bundy and coke every day and they stock Australian beer that is kept in a real fridge – not the usual English beer fridge which is warmer than it really should be!  So the next day I was able to start crossing off things from my ‘to do in London’ list

  1. Go on a walking tour;  I joined the Sandemans royal tour which was recommended at the hostel.  The tour was free and the guides are volunteers who do it for the joy of educating tourists and the occasional tip.  Our guide was fantastic.  They also have many other paid tours including a pub crawl and grim reaper tour which I wanted to do but didn’t have the time.
  2. Go to a concert in Hyde Park;  My little bro arrived on the morning of the Arcade Fire concert which was very exciting and he nearly lasted the whole concert.  The biggest event I have been to is the Big Day Out at the Melbourne Showgrounds but this concert managed to have nearly the same amount of people for one stage only.  It was massive!  I went more for Mumford and Sons than Arcade Fire who I hadn’t been overly impressed with but I was very impressed with their show, they do put on a fantastic show (even if I had to take a partly delirious jet-lagged brother back to the hostel before it was over).  And by the way, Mumford and Sons were incredible!
  3. Find some pubs;  Well this is actually quite easy, around every corner is a cute little pub with a gorgeous imaginative name.  The pubs are generally quite small so the industry has overcome this by allowing people to take their drinks outside and drink in the street near the pubs – a novel idea and definitely not going to be allowed in Australia!  But when you own an establishment that only 30 people or so can fit in comfortably there is really no alternative if you want any business!
  4. Catch a show;  I hadn’t realised how much I wanted to do this until I saw all the posters everywhere on the tube.  And as it happens, London is the home of Les Miserables, it has been playing for 25 years and is still spectacular.  This is my brother’s and my favourite show and it did not disappoint.  I am so glad we got to see it and for 25 pounds it was considerably cheaper than going to a show in Melbourne.  There are cheap ticket booths set up everywhere in Picadilly Square and some of them keep tickets for each show on hold until the day so it is possible to see a show that is sold out everywhere else (including the theatre box office), how awesome is that?!
  5. Try some truly fantastic Mexican food; Ok so this wasn’t exactly on my original ‘to do’ list but we did it anyway and it has now made my ‘memorable places’ list.  Lupita is a small but very popular mexican restaurant near Charring Cross station that has the most amazing Mexican food I have ever had – Taco Bill eat your heart out!  So we may not have a huge selection of Mexican food in Australia but I know what I like and I loved it.  If you get there try the Chicharron de Queso y Guacamole – it will blow your mind!
  6. Go Shopping;  And I did!  Check out my last post on the 10 best places I found to shop in Europe and the UK.
  7. Find and shop Portobello road and Camden market;  Being a ‘bedknobs and broomsticks’ fan I could not get the ‘Portobello road’ song out of my head every time I thought of the place and to be honest it wasn’t at all what I expected.  Ok I know the movie was made a VERY long time ago in movie years but the place really didn’t look anything like it did on the movie.  Still, it was pretty cool but I much preferred what I saw of Camden Market.
  8. Pride march;  It just so happened that our visit coincided with the London Gay Pride festival and the march.  My brother and I jumped on the tube in the morning to find a pair of girls scantily clad in sequins and feathers.  It took our hung-over brains a moment to put two and two together – that group of overtly camp guys who chatted to us in the street last night looking for Haven night club in Soho and excitedly announced they were here for pride festival and these girls must be here for the same reason AND (unless the girls were late for a newer, flashier version of the Lion King) there must be a parade/march like there is for Mardi Gras in Sydney.  So I checked it out and it was great!  Everyone from the Police to the Older gay generation, the Muslim community (who win the award for the best chant – we’re here, we’re queer, we don’t drink beer!) and London Rollergirls had a group marching, riding a float or skating.  I have never seen so many rainbow ribbons, it brought a tear to my eye.
  9. Go to Harrods;  This time, I am proud to say, neither my brother nor I got lost.  Harrods was just as I remembered it, a maze of fabulousness with the best gift shop on the planet.  My brother made friends with a life-size police bear and my brain nearly exploded trying to decide which cute cuddly harrods bear to take home with me.  The decision was too difficult so I got an umbrella and some magnets, a rubber duck with a union jack flag on it and some other trinkets.
  10. Survive the London Tube;  I am proud to say that I did not catch a cab once!  I had the handy London Tube map on my phone and my oyster card in my pocket and I conquered the London transport system.  Yes it was tough at times, yes it is dirty and crowded and hot but it is rather awesome, reasonably efficient and far more reliable than Paris transport.  And while it is true that at the end of the day you look at your hands and wonder how you got so much grime under your fingernails, particularly if you didn’t touch anything and that it is not the best place if you suffer from claustrophobia particularly at peak hour (thankfully I don’t) it is a masterpiece and a London icon.

Here is my brother with his new friend from Harrods, I think he was still suffering from a bit of Jet-lag…

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Top 10 destinations for affordable fashion in Europe and the UK

Like many other girls (and boys) in the world I love to shop, particularly when you find something so amazingly perfect and cute you just HAVE to have it and also when there’s a chance that nobody at home will have what you find.  But it would be rather ungenerous of me not to share what is now my list of top 10 favourite shops in Paris, Spain and London – believe me, I will be visiting all these again and found some wonderful things in all of them.  Another awesome thing about shopping there is the price, but that is a recurring theme once you leave Australia – everything seems so much less expensive in Europe and the UK (apart from accommodation).  Maybe because we need to get things shipped in, I don’t know, but it’s a terrible crime how expensive fashion is over here.  And another fantastic things about many of these stores is; if you can’t get there they can get it here!

  1. Amichi – Spain.  At the top of my list for a very good reason.  Amichi is Spain’s first fashion franchise; since its opening in 1985 it has gone international (not far but still international) and can also apparently be found all over Spain.  If you love scarves (which is something the Spanish and I most definitely have in common) you will be in heaven.  Also, if you love cute bathers, gorgeous (not simpering) floral prints, sassy knits, up to date European fashion that anyone can wear, shoes and bags then this is certainly the place for you.  Unfortunately I was limited in the amount I could purchase by my hiking pack size – although I also found a handy carry-on bag in the store which I quickly filled.
  2. Primark – UK and Europe.  Hold on to your handbags girls because this store is like nothing we have in Aus.  Actually if you take Target, K-mart, Myer and Best and less you might sort of get the right idea but you’d still be missing out.  They have everything you could possibly dream of fashion-wise from the incredibly trashy and tacky to clothes that could be found on the international catwalk and for very little.  Think end of season sales prices only all year and slightly better.  For example, printed T-shirts for 2 Pounds, Full size umbrella’s with cute prints for 3 pounds etc.  Yes, this is a shop to go nuts in and with sizes ranging from 6 to 20 they fit more people than the average store at home.  With several floors in one huge building at the Oxford St Store all this is very easily accomplished – with a store this large and so much on offer anyone can find something fabulous.
  3. Topshop – UK and USA.  More upmarket than Primark (well, that’s a little bit of an understatement) Topshop is sort of like a department store for more well known and expensive designers.  It is similar to Myer and David Jones only far more funky and tailored to the younger end of the shopping spectrum – and they offer student discounts!  They are also one of the London stockists of handbags by my favourite UK designer NICA.  It was a tough decision but I only went home with 2 new handbags.  NICA are also available at David Jones but there are only a few designs available and their online store does not ship to Australia – Topshop does!
  4. Etam – France.  Every time I go to Paris I come home with at least one thing from Etam.  They have normal women’s clothing stores and a separate lingerie and bathers store.  Yes girls and boys, French Lingerie and bathers and for a rather reasonable cost.  I bought a gorgeous turquoise bikini for 28 Euros, usually a pair of bathers in Australia can cost upwards of $80 (don’t be surprised to pay over $100) so naturally I was rather excited.
  5. Sephora – Apparently most places other than Australia.  Sephora is THE place to go for inexpensive and reasonably decent quality make-up, perfume and body care products.  They stock everything from classic essentials to whatever is in vogue and a lot of it (apart from the perfume) is exclusive to the store – check out Tokidoki, so incredibly cute I could have bought every eyeshadow set.  They also offer workshops, classes and makeovers.
  6. Claire’s – Europe, USA, Canada and UK.  If you love your accessories this is the place for you.  They have things that suit pretty much any taste from the prissy princess to the goth or punk rocker in us all.  If I hadn’t bought so many scarves already I would have come home with a lot more pairs of earrings, necklaces and all sorts of other things than I did.  And if I hadn’t done most of my present shopping previously I would have been able to find something for everyone in this store.
  7. Zara – most places (including Europe, UK, USA, Australia).  While not exactly expensive there are things out there that are similar and cheaper BUT you have to look for them.  Zara makes European fashion more affordable for the masses.  The only problem is that due to the differences in fashion dictated by the powers that be you can’t find the exact same things in each Zara between countries.  So if you see something you like in one, grab it, because chances are you wont see it again.
  8. Marks and Spencer – UK.  Marks and Spencer is far more upmarket than the likes of Primark.  It is similar to David Jones in Australia, so slightly more posh than Myer but by no means exclusive.  Like Primark and most stores in the UK there is much more range in normally available sizes than we have in Australia – ranging from size 6-20 (or above if you’re lucky).  I bought the most gorgeous watermelon coloured trench at M&S which is very exciting as winter in Melbourne tends to bring out the black, charcoal grey, grey and (on a really rare and crazy day) beige in everyone’s wardrobes.  I hate blending in with the crowd in Winter, why make yourself feel drab and cold and boring along with everyone else when you can bring a little sunshine in with a bright coat.  But like all good department stores M&S have everything, not just coats, and they stock it all year round as I found when I turned a corner near the coats and found myself in amongst the bathers.
  9. C&A – Europe and UK.  C&A’s mass produced fashion is more suited to the more sophisticated taste.  That is if you can find anything.  It’s pretty hit and miss in here although at first glance it appears that there is more than enough variety.  It is as if the clothing department from Target was removed from a store (minus the incredibly trendy younger section) and given its own store.  Don’t get me wrong, I found some beautiful coats in the store but not much else.  The size range is still broad here but there was little in the way of classic pieces and what I could see that was on offer trended more towards style en masse.  But hey, it might have just been the store I was in and there were still some good things to find amongst the dross and the prices were very reasonable.
  10. H&M – Europe, UK, USA and the Middle East.  H&M is like the younger, funkier sibling of C&A.  If I could compare it to anything we have in Australia it would be a mixture of Supre and the funkier section of Target.  It’s cheap and if you’re not careful it can trend towards the slightly tacky but there are gems to be found if you can be bothered looking hard enough through the masses of similarly styled and coloured clothes that wouldn’t really suit anyone over the age of 18, over a size 10 or if you aren’t overly choosy.
  11. I know I said 10 but Harrods really does deserve a mention even if it’s only for their gift department that have everything Harrods and London themed that you could possibly imagine.  The Knightsbridge store is HUGE and tres posh.  They have bathroom attendants and special bathrooms exclusively for the use of people who have spent over a certain amount.  Their sales are rather spectacular and the perfume and makeup departments are a thing of beauty (if you can get through the clouds of scent and sales attendants politely trying to spray you with so-and-so’s latest).  If you only visit one store in London and have no intention of doing any actual shopping (which kinda defeats the purpose of my post) it should be this one just to visit the gift department and say hello to the incredibly gorgeous life-sized bears

10 things to love about Spain

There are probably about a billion reasons to love Spain but here are the top 10 things that left a lasting impression in my heart on my recent trip.

  1. The people.  I’ve said it before (and posted this picture before) but Spain runs on a different wavelength and at a different pace to the rest of the world.  It is quiet, relaxing, beautiful and quaint whilst being at the same time loud, hectic, frustrating and full of life.  This is not a place for the obsessive compulsive among us, who have to have every minute of their day planned to the second because Spain has an uncanny ability to change plans at the drop of a hat.  The people are loud, everything they do is loud and their soap operas are ridiculously melodramatic.  They are also incredibly helpful and friendly and will help you understand (through excessive repetition, hand gestures and occasionally call over a friend or five to do the same thing) what they are trying to say even if you don’t speak a word of Spanish.
  2. The scenery.  For such a small country (when compared to Australia most countries are) it boasts a bit of everything and all of it is beautiful in its own way.  From old stone town centres to quaint fishing villages and the vast stretches of land in between it is a land that stirs the imagination.  As the younger generations move in to the cities leaving behind the traditional family homes that lacked what we think of as the basics like plumbing and electricity or build new houses on the property the old ones are left to fall down over the years adding their own kind of beauty.  Old stone fences that have seen better days and now guard nothing track through the countryside and make you wonder what they once held, sometimes they contain the remnants of a garden that now grows wild.
  3. Food.  It had to come in somewhere!  Tapas, tapas, pinchos, more tapas, chorizo, croquettes, calamares, tapas, everything!! And everything comes with bread whether you want it or not – the Spanish love their bread, it’s not a real meal unless there is bread and they get concerned if you don’t eat it and the serving sizes for meals are huge – you can’t leave your appetite behind when you go to Spain.  Every region in Spain has is speciality and Galicia is no exception.  Galician restaurants and bars are well known for their seafood, particularly Pulpo (octopus) and Paella.  But I found the cheese to be particularly delightful – I’m not a huge seafood fan though I could appreciate the variety available.  If I could have taken 5 wheels of Galician cheese home with me I would have but our customs restrictions are too tough – oh well it just meant that one wheel had to be consumed within 4 days.
  4. Wine.  Normally I’m not a huge red wine drinker but it’s different in Europe.  The red wine there is a joy to drink, so smooth and well-rounded and cheap!  Even a 5 Euro bottle is highly drinkable which is lucky when you’re carrying all your possessions on your back each day and don’t have much in the way of funds to spare.  And one of the best things about bars in Spain is that most drinks no matter what or where you are are accompanied by tapas (or pinchos depending on where you are) that range from peanuts to olives, slices of chorizo, bread and more adventurous things like pigs ear.
  5. Fashion.  The Spanish love scarves and so do I.  Ok, there are also lots of other things to buy and many, many wonderful shops to buy them in but come on – scarves!!  They’re everywhere!  Everyone wears them, it is very Spanish and because there is such a great variety it is the perfect place to buy them.  Not even Paris (famous for its fashion) comes close to Spain when it comes to scarves.  Did I mention I love scarves?!
  6. Architecture.  Chances are that when you go into a larger town in Spain it will have an old part.  That is where the magic is.  That is where you will find your old stone cathedrals with spectacular stained glass windows and enough angels and cherubs inside to make you never want to see another pair of wings in your life.  You will also find all manner of charming old buildings often with stone carvings and magnificent doors that just ooze history.  The streets are paved with huge stone blocks that take a lot of maintenance and get a bit slippery when it rains but hey, if you were several hundred years old and had several million people walking over you in that time I’m sure you would be too.  It is hard not to appreciate such beauty and history particularly coming from Australia where 100 years is considered old.
  7. Culture and History.  Every region of Spain has its own culture and I was lucky enough to experience some of the Galician culture and history.  There is a fantastic little museum in Melide along the Camino de Santiago that can trace the history of the region back to the time when people lived in dwellings in the ground with a stone slab for a roof.  It was one of the best collections I’ve seen – maybe because the museum was smaller and it only focused on the lives of people so everything was carefully selected because of limited space (ie no overkill).  Galicia is the area of Spain most like Ireland in its culture and climate.  It has an Irish heritage and much of its culture is similar to that of Ireland, right down to the traditional Galician bagpipes.
  8. Music.  Spanish music is like Spain; loud and full of life.  It provokes toe tapping and hip wiggling in even the most uncoordinated, so even if you can’t salsa I challenge you to hold back!  Just a warning, most Spanish people appear to be quite good dancers, thankfully they don’t hold it agains those of us who aren’t so fortunate!
  9. Festivals.  Spain throws some ripper festivals and I was lucky enough to be there at the right time for the medieval festival at Hospitale de Orbigio.  The bridge  into town has been rebuilt/fixed several times but it is supposedly the site where the story that inspired Don Quixote unfolded.  A knight spurned by his lover vowed to prevent anyone from crossing the bridge until he had broken 300 lances (jousting) in his way of getting over her.  Knights came from far and wide to take up the challenge and when he had finished he completed the pilgrimage to Santiago.  In honour of that story that makes the small town famous they hold a festival on the first weekend of June every year and it is a sight to see.  Everyone dresses up in medieval garb and there are all sorts of entertainers and activities for people of all ages to participate in.
  10. The Camino de Santiago.  This has to have a mention as it was my reason for going to Spain.  You don’t have to be religious to want to walk a pilgrimage, I’m not and I met many along the way who shared my views.  There are countless reasons to attempt this walk through history and the Spanish countryside that countless thousands have walked before you.  It is an experience the like of which you will not find anywhere else on earth and completely worth it if you are so inclined.  But I would do it sooner rather than later if you are able – it is getting more and more popular by the day (for good reason).  As they say; Santiago will always be there (but now there are more people trying to get there).

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