Sinikka's snippets

Finland and travelling, a woman's life, cultures, languages, photography plus family recipes


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Trendy breakfast in London

During my April visit in London, I decided to skip the traditional fry-up breakfast included in my hotel deal, and head for a different experience instead on a Sunday morning. For a small-town girl from Finland, who knows more of less every café, eatery and restaurant in her hometown, the endless choice in London is quite overwhelming. That’s why I’d done my homework online before leaving, and found just the place for me. For a long time, I’d wanted to try an acai bowl for breakfast. Acai, you know, the hailed “super berry” from Brazil, which surprisingly grows in palm trees and not in bushes or on the ground as other berries. The Huffington Post even called these bowls “The World’s Best Healthy Breakfast” a couple of years back. As these berries are not easily available in Finland, I decided London would introduce me to this wonder food.

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THE GOOD LIFE EATERY, 59 Sloane Ave, London SW3 3DH

I chose this café for the location – I love the area around Sloane Square! – and for the good online reviews, but, most of all, for having acai bowls on their breakfast menu. On a sunny Sunday morning, I took the tube from Pimlico to Sloane Square, and then walked leisurely along the very quiet streets, admiring the blooming spring trees along the way.

A rare sight for us Finns - gorgeous magnolia trees!

A rare sight for us Finns – gorgeous magnolia trees!

In a side street from the Kings Road, I found The Good Life Eatery, small and cosy, with a welcoming smell of freshly baked scones and rolls wafting to the pavement through the open door. Mmmm, spelt croissants! I knew I’d chosen the right place.

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Inside, the café was furnished in the typical, rather minimalist, modern style. The brick walls, old-looking wooden tables, lines of hanging metal light fitments and colourful, patinated metal stools pleased my eye. Service was efficient and very friendly and all in all, I can warmly recommend this eatery to anyone who is after a slightly different breakfast experience. The clientele seemed to be mainly young women in their 20s-30s, having breakfast in twosomes. Most of them seemed to go for bread topped with lots of pureed avocado and either salmon or a poached egg. Interestingly for a Finn, the bread seemed to be dark rye, just like at home! Even though all this looked really tempting and delicious, I had made up my mind, and ordered a cappuccino with an acai bowl, as planned.

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Being an English teacher, I can’t help eavesdropping on people’s conversations whenever in an English-speaking environment, to pick up all the latest catch phrases and popular sayings. Sipping my coffee, waiting for my breakfast, I quickly noticed that the male waiters’ favourite seemed to be ‘cool’, which can apparently apply to anything positive, and also mean the same as ‘OK’. The young ladies, on the other hand, gossiping about their Saturday night events, kept repeating “… and then he was like…”, “… and then I was like…”(I gather meaning ‘he said’/’then I said’), with a fashionable, Ozzie-like upwards tilt in their accent. Aren’t languages just so intriguing!

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And then my long-awaited treat arrived. A big bowl full of cold, velvety, thick smoothie-like, purple acai puree, decorated with strawberries, chopped banana, whole acai berries and some bee pollen. It was heavenly, and definitely lived up to my expectations! The taste reminded me of a mix of blueberries and maybe blackcurrants (mind you, I think the colour affected my tastebuds a little bit, too) but I didn’t get the hint of dark chocolate often associated with these berries. After slowly savouring every last bit, I felt well nourished, energised and ready for a day of London sight-seeing. I probably looked a bit younger, too, as, apart from many other health benefits, acai berries are also claimed to have an anti-aging effect. I wish I could find frozen acai in Finland to prepare this at home!

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Ferries across the Baltic Sea

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We are lucky to live on the south-western coast of Finland, in the ex-capital city of Turku, with bi-daily ferry connections across the Baltic Sea to Stockholm, Sweden. Indeed, a popular get-away for many Finns is just to go on a cruise to Stockholm and back on one of the huge ferries. And when I say ferry, I’m not talking about anything like, for example, the ones crossing the English Channel. These are more like floating hotels, with many restaurants, bars, nightclubs, shops, even whole spas these days! And, of course, they don’t only take passengers across but also their cars, and huge transport lorries, too.

There are two competing ferry companies: the red Viking Line boats, and the originally white Silja Line boats, although latterly Silja Line has started painting all kinds of patterns of different colours on theirs. Traditionally, Silja Line used to be the slightly dearer, more sophisticated folks’, if you like, option while the ordinary folk travelled on Viking. At some point, though, Viking considerably revamped their restaurant menus, and has recently added new, ultra-modern ships on some routes, making the old distinction gradually disappear.

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For me, the absolutely best part of this voyage is looking at the views. Flying is fast but you’d only get a short, distant glimpse of this unique archipelago. It’s amazing how these giant ships can meander their way along the narrow passageways between all the thousands of islands. Naturally, the scenery really dazzles you on beautiful, sunny summer days but sometimes a cruise in arctic winter weather, with a frozen sea, can be quite dramatic, too.

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Sunrise and sunset from the ferry deck in January 2016

Sunrise and sunset from the ferry deck in January 2016

You can either take the morning or evening ferry, the one-way voyage taking around 12 hours. Both ways the ferry stops half way at Mariehamn, on the Åland islands, to let passengers and cars in and out. If you only have limited time in Finland, you could try a one-day “picnic cruise”, meaning you leave Turku in the morning, change ferries in Mariehamn, and return back to Turku by the evening. If you are on a full cruise, you travel all the way to Stockholm but don’t get out at all , just wait for the ferry to start the return in just over an hour. Then you’ll get to experience both night and day at sea. Another option is to spend a day in Stockholm, arrive in the morning and leave on another ferry at 8pm in the evening. This will leave you a nice 13 hours to explore the charming Swedish capital. Viking Line docks close enough to city Centre in Södermalm for you to walk to town. The Silja Line terminal is further away, and you’ll need a bus or the underground to get downtown.

Stockholm's Old Town in the early morning light

Stockholm’s Old Town in the early morning light

When it comes to cabin choice, I would definitely recommend one with a window. Since the Estonia catastrophe in the 90s, I’ve been too scared to sleep in the windowless cabins below the car decks even though they would be much cheaper! The cabins are small but practical, accommodate a maximum of 4 people in bunk beds, have their own bathroom, some also a TV. They are for sleeping in, and storing your luggage during the crossing. You wouldn’t want to spend much time in them, unless you had bad luck with the weather, and chose to just relax in peace and quiet with a good book or the view through the cabin window.

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Otherwise you ‘d probably be showing your moves on one of the dance floors, belting it out at the karaoke bar, having a sumptuous buffet meal or a special à la carte creation, checking the best bargains in the shops, or just admiring the views while sipping an exotic cocktail.

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I know many Finns who wouldn’t be seen dead on one of these ferries as they think they are totally untrendy and not classy enough. I wouldn’t snub them, though. How else would you get to enjoy the constantly changing panoramas, one more beautiful than the other, and decent food, for less than 200 euros for two people? An easy weekend mini-break, right at our doorstep!

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Hong Kong dim sum

Last summer (2015) we had the chance to visit Hong Kong for the first time on our way to Taiwan to visit our daughter and her boyfriend, who also flew over to HK for the weekend to join us. As we only had 3 days to look around, I tried to do some online research on must places to see and things to join advance. One find on an online Time magazine article was a tea house serving traditional dim sum breakfast. Even though dim sum, as such, was not new to us, having tried it before in Malaysia, China and Singapore, and the youngsters, of course, in Taiwan, we wanted to try the HK flavour as we’d always liked it so much before. Another reason for choosing this place was that it was at a walking distance from our hotel. So off we went early on a sunny Saturday morning, after arriving the afternoon before. We loved the walk along the narrow streets and lanes of SoHo, up and down hills and stairs, and past colourful markets and stalls. Unable to read or understand any of the Cantonese signs around, I was brimming with excitement. It finally sank in that we were really far away from home.

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Lin Heung Tea House, 160-164 Wellington street, Central, Hong Kong

Described, rather unflatteringly, as the “Dim Sum Warzone” by a Singaporean food blogger, we found the Lin Heung delightfully eccentric. Most of the waiters seemed to be ancient, and a little bit grumpy – made me wonder how long people kept working in Hong Kong. Service worked quite efficiently, though, although it took us some time to find a free table in the totally packed place, even that early in the morning. In fact, as we entered there was such a hullabaloo going on that we had our doubts first whether we’d manage to get any breakfast at all. We’d been warned about this by several web sources, but in the end, we were quite comfortable even having to share the table with total strangers. It just came with the territory and added to the novel experience.

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No sooner had we managed to sit down than a pot of really dark brown, steaming pu erh tea appeared in front of us. Later on, we got bolder and went to order a few other teas among the several choices on offer. But what to do to get our food? Just had to look around and observe for a while, to get the hang of it. The waiters kept coming round with their trolleys stacked with bamboo containers and plates, howling loudly in Cantonese – possibly the names of all the dishes on offer. All you had to do was to go to them and get the ones you wanted. Mind you, not so easy for us poor foreigners who didn’t understand a word, and had to try and get the waiters to open the containers to see what was inside. They weren’t too happy about this, rushing around the slightly too narrow aisles between the tables. Another piece of advice: don’t be polite and wait for your turn, like any descent Finn would. You’ll never manage to get a bite! You’ll have to be fast, or all the dishes you’d like will be snatched by somebody else right in front of your eyes! Once we learned the ropes, we got to try all sorts, the savoury seafood and meat dumplings, as well as the sweet buns and more familiar spring rolls.  All very good, I must say.

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The noise around got louder and louder while more water was constantly poured into the cute, round-bellied tea pots, and ever more exciting dim sum choices kept appearing on the trolleys. Soon enough, our eyes started being bigger than our belly, and we realised that we were already too full. But what a great experience on our first morning in Hong Kong! A bit chaotic perhaps but in a positive, intriguing way. Certainly a welcome change to quiet and organised Finland. Happy and well nourished, we were ready to hit the streets and explore the new city for the day.

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One interesting observation: as the clientele seemed to be mostly middle-aged or above, hardly any smart gizmos were in sight, but instead, like in the good old days, people read real newspapers! How quaint! As far as we could gather, most of the customers seemed local rather than tourists, which is always preferable to us. Whenever we can, we try to get small glimpses into the everyday lives and culture of the local people in the foreign places we visit, to see and try something that we would never come across at home.

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I would definitely recommend a visit to this tea house to Hong Kong visitors. An extra bonus: in an otherwise fairly pricey metropolis, at least by Asian standards, this was easily affordable. No Michelin star quality, and very old-fashioned for sure, but good value. I would have been prepared to pay extra for the entertainingly fascinating ambience alone!


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Chasing high mountain Oolong tea in Taiwan

There is something in the nature of tea that leads us into a world of quiet contemplation of life. – Lin Yutang

Coffee really is “my cup of tea”. But, being married to a Brit has taught me to appreciate tea, too. In fact, in our home, the kettle is put on dozens of times a day, and cups of tea are constantly on offer. Bad day at work, dear – never mind, have a cuppa, the universal remedy. In recent years, we have moved more and more into Chinese green teas, and latterly Taiwanese Oolong since our daughter moved there two years ago. No mugs of sweet, milky Indian black teas in our household!

Last summer we had the wonderful chance of visiting our daughter in Taiwan for two weeks. One of the musts was a visit to a tea plantation on the mountains as I’d always dreamed of seeing how tea grows. Taiwan is renowned for its teas – black, Oolong and green. Apparently, the conditions in Taiwan are ideal (temperature, humidity, altitude), which makes Taiwanese teas highly sought after by real tea connoisseurs.

THE JOURNEY TO THE MOUNTAIN

Quite the journey it was. Starting off from the southern city of Kaohsiung, we (that is four of us: I, hubby, daughter and boyfriend) first took the train to Chiayi city, from where we continued by bus up the Alishan mountain (literally Ali mountain – ‘shan’ meaning mountain in Chinese). Little did we expect how high the mountain really was, and we didn’t even reach the highest point of it! Our destination was only at an elevation of some 1,400 m, while the highest peak would have been over 2,000 m. Once we started the ascent, it felt almost like being on an aeroplane taking off. With totally blocked ears, we oohed and aahed the scenery and, higher up, spotted the first small tea plantations on the slopes. How delightful! At times I had to close my eyes out of fear, though, when the steep mountain sides seemed far too close on the twisty and turny roads. More and more mist appeared, the higher we got, and the air got cooler and cooler, which was actually quite nice, after struggling with the humid heat of June on lower ground.

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We had booked our B&B accommodation through booking.com, and the owners kindly offered to pick us up at a certain bus stop. Waiting for our ride, in the middle of the late afternoon mist, we were lucky to have a pick-up truck stop by, with tea picking ladies with their signature bamboo hats and special bamboo baskets, happily travelling on the open back. I’d read about the physically hard and meticulous job of these ladies, carefully hand picking each tea leaf, to ensure premium quality. It was a pity that the best picking season wasn’t until a month after our visit, so I didn’t manage to see any of these ladies in action.

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Soon enough, the son of our B&B owner arrived to get us, but wanted to take us to Fenchichu Old Street for dinner first because he said they didn’t have any provisions for evening meals at their place. At first we felt a little disappointed as we were quite ready to settle in for the night but the evening turned out quite good in the end. Lovely little village style setting on the slopes of the mountain, but also quite crowded and touristy.

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Strolling around the little streets and alleys, we found a nice-looking little tea shop that also offered tasting. In we went, of course! Our first taste of the genuine Alishan high mountain Oolong. Surprisingly mild, beautifully yellow in colour, and somehow curiously reminding me of the taste and faint smell of raw peas. Very smooth, with no hint of the slight bitterness of many green teas. In the traditional fashion, it was served from teeny, tiny cups, and the lady serving had quite an arsenal of little implements in front of her, to prepare the brew. The atmosphere was relaxed and informal, nothing like the rigid and ritualistic tea ceremonies in Japan, for example. The hostess kept filling the kettle again and again, and pouring us more and more of the tea. It really was good, and we left with a few packets of it in our bags.

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For dinner, we tried the local speciality, ‘lunchbox’.  In the old days, when Fenchichu was an important half-way refuel stop along the Alishan Forest Railway, somebody came up with the idea of selling train travellers a quick lunch in a box (made of wood, bamboo or iron) that was considerably lighter and easier to carry to the train platform than the previous noodle bowls. The lunchbox tradition is still kept alive in some restaurants. The food itself was not exactly to our liking – rice with some vegetables, a piece of chicken leg and chewy pork – but it was very cheap. To wash down the rather greasy taste of the dinner, I just had to buy a selection of Taiwanese mochi. They are sticky rice paste balls with different fillings, such as peanut butter, black bean paste, or various fruit pastes. I adore the consistency and taste – one of my all-time favourite Asian desserts!

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It was a nice surprise for us that Fenchichu is actually one of the stops of the famous Alishan Forest Railway. We were really happy to get return tickets on it for the next day – something we had wanted to do anyway! Finally, at the end of the day, we were driven to our B&B in complete darkness through almost impenetrable fog. We had no idea where we’d arrived as visibility was almost zero. Luckily we weren’t the drivers on the tiny mountain roads!

B&B ALISHAN YUN MIN GI                                                                                                                          No.4 Shizhuo, Zhonghe Village, Zhuqi Town, Chiayi County 604, Taiwan

We had chosen our inn based on the fact that it had its own tea plantation. As we only had very limited time, staying on Alishan only for one night, we had to make sure that we’d at least see one plantation. After all, that was the main reason of our visit in the area.

We all stayed in one huge room, which was lovely, and tastefully furnished, with big windows in two directions, a spacious bathroom and a balcony, too. Everything in the inn was perfectly tidy and clean. Late at night, with the fog and darkness, we couldn’t see a thing outside. We were hoping to catch the rising sun early in the morning, though, and set our alarms, keeping our fingers crossed for the fog to disappear by then. Most Alishan visitors travel to a special spot, either by car or the Forest Railway to admire the sun rising from behind the peaks but, as we were unsure about the weather, we opted to stay at the inn and hope for the best. After a quick tasting of the inn-keepers’ own Oolong tea downstairs, on a magnificent wooden table, special the the mountain area, (and buying some more packets of tea!) finally, tired and with excited anticipation, we fell asleep in our comfortable beds.

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Between 4 and 5 am, we were woken up by excited cries from our daughter: “Come and see, the sun is rising!” The night before, none of us could have anticipated the spectacle that unfolded in front of our eyes. Gradually, the mountain peaks around, and the valley below started to take shape and get in focus. The colourscape kept changing until the fabulous, sharp panorama revealed itself in all its glory, in brilliant sunshine. In addition to all the visual splendour, the silence was almost deafening, especially after the bustle of busy Taiwanese cities. And all this, from the best possible vantage point, right there on our own balcony – how awesome is that!

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We took a short walk around the inn before breakfast, to finally get an idea we were had come to. For me, the new modern wing of the inn, where we stayed, looked a little bit out of place in that natural setting but, I must say, it served its purpose well. Tea grew all around, and the rounded rows of it could be seen through all the windows inside as well. In fact, the windows were like landscape paintings, depicting the surrounding beauty of the area. After a nice breakfast, it was time to go for walks in and around the many tea plantations.

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WHERE OOLONG GROWS

At last I had the chance to walk in between the rows of tea, touch the waxy leaves and try to get the very faint scent. It was easy to walk up and down the nice wooden stairs, provided on the slopes. You could even go for a hike in a bamboo forest nearby. And wherever you turned, there was yet another spectacular view. We were in heaven! One word of warning, though, for anyone going on Alishan: the cool mountain air is very deceptive – I ended up totally burning my arms (through the silly holes of my sleeves!), not feeling the heat of the sun in the mountain breeze. I should have seen it coming!

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While our youngsters preferred to do several hikes, we found another tea plantation down the hill, went to have a look, and ended up having one more Oolong tasting session around a wonderfully carved wooden table. More and more people kept coming in, and eventually it looked like we had the whole family tasting tea with us. It transpired that these people were actually related to our inn owners if we understood it correctly through the few broken English words our Taiwanese hosts tried to say. No common language but still we shared a fun time together. Just the sort of impromptu meeting that we so enjoy during our travels. And off we went, with more packets of tea to take back home.

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THE ALISHAN FOREST RAILWAY

Once the only way to get up and down the mountain, the cute red engines still chug along the steep mountain sides. Unfortunately, according to Focus Taiwan, after serious typhoon damage in 2009 and more just last autumn, the whole 70 odd km stretch has still not been repaired to this day. Opened in the early 20th century for timber transportation, the railway was turned mostly touristic in the 1960s. Twenty years later, in the 1980s, with the completion of the Alishan Highway, cheaper and faster buses started to take customers away from the trains. Today, it’s mostly diesel engines instead of the old steam ones but, nonetheless, it’s definitely an experience not to miss. The technology required to run a train on those steep slopes is amazing! Waiting for departure on the platform, there was an elated ambience of setting off on a grand adventure – and that’s what it truly was.

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The two-hour return journey down the mountain took us through bamboo forests, and more tea plantations on the slopes, dramatic mountain scenery and unbelievably lush greenery. The tiny carriages were cosy, and I noticed that the regular clickety clack of the train made several passengers nod off at some point. What a way to end our brief, but unforgettable, glimpse of mighty Alishan.

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And now, a year on, I still vividly recall all these memories and sentiments, the views, the sounds and the smells, every time I’m enjoying a cup of fragrant Oolong from Alishan.


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Painted faces

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I haven’t been very much into portraits or people photography in general. I’m more at home roaming the woods, snapping pictures of nature. That’s why, this week’s photo challenge – Face – has been slightly troublesome for me.

In the end, I chose this photo from an annual Hanami festival, organised in a park full of cherry trees in Helsinki last weekend. As last year, I tried to capture some of the Japan-inspired costumes and characters around the park. Surprisingly many young Finns are great fans of Japanese anime, and enjoy dressing up as their favourite characters. This ‘geisha’ caught my eye from afar, but on closer look, turned out to be possibly a ‘taikomochi’, a male geisha. Some online searching revealed that the original ‘geisha’-style entertainers, back in the 13th century, were, in fact, all male. The ‘taikomochi’ have since become rarer and rarer, and today, there are only very few left in Japan, the field having become almost exclusively female.

I have always been fascinated by the Japanese culture, finding it inscrutably irresistible. For example, Japanese facial expressions are impossible for me to interpret as their real feelings seem to be hidden underneath a mask, dictated by cultural norms and unspoken rules. Even more mysterious, are the striking, white-painted faces of the geishas. Here is another picture, taken during our family trip to Japan in 2004 – a geisha spotted in a Kyoto night, white face shining in the darkness.

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BLOC hotels – the UK mini hotel

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For my recent leisure and conference trip to Britain, I was happy to find a new hotel chain to check out. The BLOC hotel concept reminded me of the Hong Kong mini hotel we stayed at last summer. According to the hotel brochure, the founder of Bloc hotels was inspired by the so-called capsule hotels in Japan. This did worry me a bit before seeing the rooms but luckily, they were a decent size, and not at all claustrophobic as I had feared.

At the moment, there are only two hotels in the chain – one in Birmingham, and the other one at Gatwick airport – but more may be in the pipeline.  And as it happens, I stayed in both during my UK trip. The rooms turned out to be almost exactly identical, and I read that they are actually constructed elsewhere, and then stacked together with the exterior built around the ready-made “room boxes”. Basically, each room is a simple cube, with a “wet room” (i.e. joint toilet and shower) built in one corner. No wardrobes, no frills, which is just fine for me when I only stay for a few days. I’m quite comfortable with “living out of the suitcase” as it also saves the time and effort of constant packing. The hotel brochure describes their style as “pared-down chic”.  I must admit that the modern and minimalistic decor was quite pleasing to my Scandinavian eye and soul. However, maybe they’d taken the ‘bloc’ idea a bit too far, with everything in a square shape, from the lights and stools, to shower knobs and even minuscule soaps in the bathroom! Made me smile, though.

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The king-size beds were luxurious for a solo traveller, and very comfy indeed. What’s more, I enjoyed catching up with British TV programmes on the HD LED screen integrated in the wall at the foot of the bed, and even the free wi-fi worked like a dream. No breakfast facilities but vending machines for small snacks at the reception. BLOC hotels hadn’t quite gone to all the lengths of the Hong Kong one with a spacious and interesting lobby area but the reception was quite fine, and efficient, nothing to complain about. And as icing on the cake, quite affordable prices, too!

The only downside I could mention was the wet room arrangement, fascinatingly described as “a monsoon-drench shower wet room”. No separate shower cabinet, just the shower on the wall, which meant that afterwards, the whole toilet area (floor, walls, seats, the lot) was soaking wet. Took some planning not to keep getting your feet, socks and clothes wet!

BIRMINGHAM BLOC – Caroline street

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Very nicely located in the old Jewellery quarter, and only a 15-20-minute walk to the centre of town. There are enough cafés, restaurants and pubs in the vicinity to cater for all your needs. I actually found a wonderful breakfast place, advertised on the traveller’s map provided by the hotel. As a bonus, showing the Bloc hotel key card gave you a 10 % discount, too. I liked to so much that I ended up having breakfast at Saint Kitchen every morning during my stay in Birmingham!

The Jewellery quarter still showcases beautiful Georgian houses, and the streets are nice and quiet.

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At the end of the street, lovely St. Paul’s square with the church.

Some of the restaurant nearby were quite popular in the evenings!

Some of the restaurants nearby were quite popular in the evenings!

I opted for the slightly dearer room with a window, and was really happy about that choice. I loved seeing the view, and the sunrise in the mornings when it wasn’t grey and cloudy.

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View from my window in the evening

View from my window in the evening

And sunrise in the morning

And sunrise in the morning

All in all, a very pleasant stay. Good, friendly service, and everything worked. Would definitely stay again!

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GATWICK AIRPORT BLOC – South terminal

Very easy to find, with clear sign-posting, soon after the exit from the Gatwick Express trains from London. The same familiar square light fitments at the reception, which was, however, much smaller as all the airport facilities are at your disposal, just behind these walls. In fact, I felt a bit like Tom Hanks in ‘The Terminal’, going for my evening meal, snack shopping and breakfast around the airport.

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A windowless room this time, which did make it feel slightly boxier, but luckily not too disturbing!

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For once, I could sleep properly before a flight, and feel relaxed and rested in the morning. I totally enjoyed the ease of having breakfast and checking-in just a few steps from the hotel. Quite interesting, too, watching the planes take off outside the window at the end of the room corridor. I can warmly recommend this reasonably priced hotel for anyone travelling to and from Gatwick airport.

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My oyster

“The world is my oyster”, as the saying goes. Maybe that’s where London transport authorities got the name for their versatile ‘Oyster card’? I was going to write an ultra-positive post praising the usefulness of this card. However, I had to add a warning at the end of this post, having learned the hard way how important it is to be fully aware of all the conditions of use.

But, let’s start with the positive. Compared to the old system for tourists and visitors of 1-day or 2-day travel cards, now having access to the “top up as needed” Oyster card was a really welcome change during my recent visit to London.

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Arriving at Gatwick airport, I simply went to the train tickets counter, and bought my card: £5 deposit on the card itself, and £30  credit, which I reckoned should be enough for my four-day stay. And it was enough although no problem if you spend more, you can top the credit up at any tube station. The card is good on the tube, and London buses, too. Very handy.

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I especially appreciate having a card in my pocket to use on the buses. I never know exactly where I will be getting off, which is why having to buy individual tickets from a driver is always a bit complicated. Not to mention, having the right change as well. I love just getting my card out, flashing it to the reader, and I’m ready to hop on, and off, wherever I want!

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Unfortunately, my “thumbs up for the Oyster card” spiel has to come with a serious warning! Buying my ticket, I was told that if I didn’t want to keep it, I could hand the card back, when leaving the country, and get the £5 deposit back. Brilliant, I thought at the time. Yet, trying to do this, at exactly the same counter at Gatwick airport, I was told that there was still 90 pence worth of credit on the card, which meant that I couldn’t get my money back. WHAT? “This is why we put this warning on the card”, said the irritatingly know-it-all assistant at the counter. And blow me, there was the sticker on the card, printed in tiny letters as usual, reading:

REFUNDS for unused credit MUST BE completed at a London underground station before travelling back to Gatwick Airport. NO REFUNDS for unused credit can be given at the airport.

So there, quite clear, no point in protesting even though, of course, I tried. Quite honestly, how many of you always read all the small print on everything? Why on earth wasn’t I warned about this, when purchasing the card? Or is this an intentional scheme to earn £5 extra from each unsuspecting traveller? Looking at the card now, in its plastic cover, this small print is quite conveniently partly obscured by the text on the cover. I was furious for a while but then, we are not talking about a fortune, and no doubt, I will go to London again, and be able to use this same card, and all the ease it provides me with getting around Britain’s lovely capital.

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Lesson learned, though – to avoid unnecessary disappointment and frustration,  carefully read all the small print on anything you buy!