Sinikka's snippets

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


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Do the math

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A factory chimney with random numbers, glowing in the dark. Or maybe they are not random at all. Connect the dots, and you will be amazed. Unless you already know this sequence, you may be able to start working the sequence – 1+1=2, 1+2=3, 2+3=5 and so on. Each number is the sum of the two previous numbers in the sequence. Logical, and could be continued infinitely.

These illuminated numbers, however, are a neon light art piece by Italian artist Mario Merzi, which he placed on the chimney of Turku Energy, the energy company of my hometown in Finland in 1994. Since then, these red numbers have been a landmark along the riverside.

The work of art is called: Fibonacci Sequence 1-55. Mr Merzi was fascinated by mathematics all through his career, so it’s no wonder that he chose his fellow Italian mathematician’s sequence for this piece.

Fibonacci, in turn, was a genius 13th-century mathematician. The Fibonacci numbers are not in the least random but form the basis of many natural phenomena, such as the spirals of shells or the way sunflower seeds grow. This sequence has also been called the western definition of beauty, since the “golden ratio”, widely used in art for centuries, comes straight from the ratio of these numbers. Fascinating how math is not just numbers and calculating mechanical equations but relates to everything around us! I wonder how much this “other stuff” is touched on in today’s math lessons? I’ve only learned all this long after leaving school.

Weekly photo challenge – NUMBERS.

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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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A night in a lighthouse

The sun came up over the sea and shadows and colours began to appear. The island began to take shape and draw in its claws. Everything began to shine, and the chalk-white gulls circled over the point. … But right across the island lay the shadow of the lighthouse like a broad dark ribbon stretching down to the beach where the boat was.

That was an extract from the Finnish children’s book Moominpappa at sea by our beloved author Tove Jansson. It’s a wonderfully emotional story of the Moomin family starting a new life in a lighthouse on a remote island.

In recent years, visiting lighthouses around our coastline has become widely popular. We are lucky to have quite a few that are open to the public, some even with accommodation facilities. It is already three years since I and hubby spent one night at Kylmäpihlaja lighthouse on the western coast of Finland, off the lovely little town of Rauma.

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The lighthouse is easy to reach from the Poroholma camping site in Rauma from where comfortable water buses transport visitors to some of the islands and islets off the coast daily in the summer months. A return ticket only costs around €30 per person for the 1-hour-long crossing. In good weather, the best place to sit is on the sunny upper deck, enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of the sea, and watching the lighthouse getting closer and closer in the horizon.

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Kylmäpihlaja lighthouse was constructed in 1952, and in its time had as many as 12 pilots working on the islet. Coast guard operations have since been discontinued, and today the whole islet is only for tourism. There are 13 rooms in the actual tower, a restaurant downstairs, a summer café and a souvenir shop, as well as sauna facilities, so no need to bring your own provisions unless you want to. One night in a double room costs around €130.

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In the good Finnish way, it is all perfunctory – simple and rustic but with nice little marine touches in the decor. For example, our room was called ‘Sarastus‘ (meaning ‘first light of dawn‘ in English). The restaurant serves an archipelago style menu, with various fish dishes, of course. I’d recommend sleeping with the room window open, to be soothingly lulled to sleep by the sound of the waves and the sea wind. Another thing worth experiencing is getting up at night to look at the lighthouse light go round in the darkness. Well, this depends on which part of summer you visit. In June, with the almost “nightless night”, it would probably be less spectacular. We went in August when the nights are already getting dark, and thoroughly enjoyed the strangely eerie sight of the rotating light.

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What’s there to do then? Not that much. It’s a quiet place for appreciating the natural environment on one of the outermost islets before the open sea towards Sweden. It’s very sparse, with not a lot growing there. I must say I couldn’t imagine living in a place like this for long. Hats off to the tough, persistent folk who still do! Winters especially must be an ordeal, let alone getting through storms. There must be regular strong winds, judging by the small conifers all bent in one direction – good reminder of the forces of nature.

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There is one plant, however, that seems to thrive in the archipelago: the sea-buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides). During our visit, the thorny shrubs were heavy with their orange berries, which have many health benefits. They are used to make juice or jam, rich in vitamin C, in particular. The oil extracted from the seeds is also said to efficiently lower cholesterol levels. Quite a super berry, in fact!

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Once you get tired of soaking in the surrounding views, or admiring the wider panorama from your high-up room window, you can hike around the whole islet. It is quite a challenge on slippery rocks and boulders, without any proper paths, but well worth the effort in the end. During birds’ nesting times you need to be extra careful, though, as the future bird parents tend to defend their eggs and young rather aggressively. We saw quite a lot of seagulls and Canada geese, and even managed catch a brief glimpse of a sea eagle in the evening sky (no luck with a picture of it, unfortunately!). If you are adventurous enough, you can, of course, go swimming. Hubby ventured for a dip between the rocks, I chickened out. Bracing and exhilarating, according to him. I wouldn’t be so sure!

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What surprised me, however, was how quickly the restless, urban mind starts to calm down, and you get the idea of the whole experience: spending some down time in the lap of Mother Nature, in absolute, respectful awe. Your senses wake up, and you start noticing the tiny, miraculous details around you – how centuries, after centuries of waves, winds and all kinds of weather have shaped the environment. It’s as though suddenly time stands still, and there you are, an insignificantly small human being in the midst of natural history.

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During this lighthouse visit, I realised what great inspiration artists can find in such an environment, and why, for example, author Tove Jansson must have loved spending long periods of time in the Finnish archipelago. Sit or stand on the rocks to watch the day become night, the changing light transform all the colours and the scenery around you, eternity and infinity right there in front of your eyes! Breathtakingly beautiful! And then, in the morning, it all starts over again.

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He came to the edge of the water and stood watching the breakers. There was the sea – his sea – going past, wave after wave, foaming recklessly, raging furiously, but, somehow, tranquil at the same time. All Moominpappa’s thoughts and speculations vanished. He felt completely alive from the tips of his ears to the tip of his tail. This was a moment to live to the full.

When he turned to look at the island – his island –  he saw a beam of light shining on the sea, moving out towards the horizon and then coming back towards the shore in long, even waves.

The lighthouse was working.

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For those interested but unable to visit, why not check their live webcam.


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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!


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Family dinner

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I learned it in my childhood home that as a family, you gather together for dinner around the kitchen table, every single day. I carried this tradition on in my small family. Around 5-6pm, we used to have home-made dinner together all through the years our only daughter was growing up. A time for exchanging the daily news, and bonding with your nearest and dearest.

It’s been hard to let go of this special daily moment since our daughter moved out of the family home. Of course, I and hubby still eat together, most days, but it just isn’t quite the same any more. I think for me, dinnertime will forever evoke the presence of your family. The food can be simple or fancy, but it’s your family you’re sharing it with that really counts!

For this reason, I chose a family dinner picture for this week’s Photo Challenge. It’s a picture of the last family dinner we had together. Not at home but across the world in Taiwan, where our daughter has been teaching with her boyfriend for the last two years. We visited them last summer, and as our trip coincided with my husband’s birthday, we went for a special seafood dinner to celebrate, on Quijin island, next to their home town of Kaohsiung, on the south-western coast of Taiwan.

In the picture you can see the three of them enjoying the fresh, local delicacies from the Taiwan Strait waters. And by fresh, I mean REALLY fresh! On the island, it is customary to have the restaurant at the back of the fish shop that’s outside on the pavement. You either buy the daily catch to take home, or you choose what you want to be cooked for you on the premises. In the pictures below, you can see us making our picks outside the restaurant, and some of the produce on offer. My hubby absolutely loved this – the stranger and and more unusual the food, the happier he is. A perfect birthday dinner with family!

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