A caper to Cardiff

Cardiff

I spent a very lovely 24 hours in Cardiff with my mum this weekend! Honestly, I didn’t really know what to expect from Wales’ capital city but I was pleasantly surprised, and not just by the weather – check that perfect blue sky…

Cardiff

One thing I didn’t know is that Cardiff is filled with these charming Victorian shopping arcades. They run like little mazes through the city, connecting the usual chain-filled high street and shopping centres with little independent delis, boutiques and cafes.

Cardiff

The Foursquare app did me proud with some great recommendations for food and coffee. We had a gorgeous wholesome lunch at the Plan Cafe in Morgan Arcade. Anywhere that gives me a spicy veggie chilli with piles of cheese and avocado is A-OK by me.

Cardiff
Cardiff

Superb tapas and cheese at Bar Fortyfour. The kindly waiter firstly coerced us into having dessert which turned out to be the best sour cherry cheesecake ever, and also pointed us in the direction of Waterloo Tea where we headed soon after…

Cardiff

.. and I had this gem of an iced coffee. The lunch sandwiches looked pretty epic, too.

Cardiff
Cardiff

We didn’t pay to go into the castle grounds, but took a very nice pre-dinner walk through the adjoining Bute Park.

Cardiff
Cardiff

The richly-planted herbaceous border running alongside the river was a particular highlight.

Cardiff

We stayed at the Park Plaza hotel, who kindly offered me a chance to review their Sunday spa break. Yes, that meant that along with a delicious dinner and superb breakfast (gosh, but I love a hotel breakfast), we got a beautifully relaxing massage and use of the pool and gym during our stay. Excellently located right by the park and castle and just north of the main shopping street, Queen Street, it was a perfect base for exploring the city.

Cardiff
Cardiff

On Monday morning we hit the streets again, visiting the central indoor market. I was especially taken with Clancy’s stall crammed with exciting jars of spices and chillies – brought back a few treats for Josh.

Cardiff

Even found a brilliant fabric shop, Butterfly Fabrics – huge and a super range of prints, patterns and snuggly knits.

Cardiff

A final stop for a coffee and homemade Welshcakes at Uncommon Ground in Royal Arcade before catching the train home. It’s always a treat to get out of London and explore a new bit of the UK, and now I’m pleased to have ticked our nearest capital off the list.

Thank you to the Park Plaza for putting me and my mum up for the night!

Brooklyn Diary

Brooklyn June '15

We were back in New York City for a little holiday last week. We had such a good time on our last trip that we basically booked almost the exact same trip to do it all again. We got an Airbnb a few streets down, re-hit some favourite spots, did the same old walk-eat-shop daily schedule. I didn’t take many photos (lots of Instagrams though) but here are a few snippets.

Brooklyn June '15

We went to not one but two wholly egg-themed restaurants: Egg in Brooklyn and Egg Shop in NYC. Both were good, but late night dinner at Egg Shop involved a pretty comprehensive list of my favourite foods (truffle, toast, tomatoes, chickpeas and an egg yolk stuffed inside a whole burrata cheese – YUP) so it was the definite winner.

Brooklyn June '15

A walk in Little Italy

Brooklyn June '15

Lunch back at an old favourite, Butcher’s Daughter. THIS is how you get people round to veganism: by somehow creating meat-free twists on reubens and merquez sausage sandwiches without making people feel like they’re eating a poor substitute. Come to London please?

Brooklyn June '15

Flea-hunting at The Williamsburg flea (over the road from our Airbnb) and in Cobble Hill

Brooklyn June '15

Fun night of cocktails at Extra Fancy

Brooklyn June '15

Strolling the tree-lined streets of brownstones in Cobble Hill – lovely neighbourhood

Brooklyn June '15

Cat art exhibition at the Japan Society! Um, bit special

Brooklyn June '15

Street food with a view (and even a sort-of beach) at the Williamsburg Smorsasburg.

Brooklyn June '15

Top two meals of the trip: Frankies Spuntino, where I had a perfect lunch of olives, caponata crostini and beautiful pangrattato pasta.

Brooklyn June '15

And we booked Estela on a whim after seeing it listed in the new World’s 50 Best Restaurants list (though it’s on the longer list at no.90) and noticing they still had reservations to spare. It was pure eating joy – each dish surprising, inventive and packing a real flavour whallop. The endive, walnut and ubriaco rosso (‘drunken’ red wine marinated cheese) is still dancing around my brain.

Brooklyn June '15

A pleasure as always NYC, see you again soon.

The Life and Death of Paul Marrane

A door in a wall

On the rather soggy bank holiday Monday I was invited to take a trip into the world of A Door in a Wall, who put on immersive, interactive games set in real-world locations. Their latest production, The Life and Death of Paul Marrane, has just opened so I assembled a crack adventure team (um, my boyfriend and sister) and headed down to Poplar to check it out.

A door in a wall

Now I’ve got to be honest: I’m a bit of an ~experiential theatre~ skeptic. I think I’m the only person in the world who doesn’t enjoy Punchdrunk productions and others I’ve been to have run the entire gamut from boring to embarrassing. But I’m happy to report that this was completely different and way, WAY more fun than I was expecting. The action all took place around East London’s Chrisp Street Market, where first we headed to lawyer’s firm Alder & Alder to collect our assignment and be organised into a faction.

A door in a wall

Then the game was afoot! You’re led around the streets via a map, clues, character interactions, and these handy stickers which let us know when a location was part of the game.

A door in a wall

I won’t say too much about the adventure itself, but there were so many fun tasks to complete and the attention to detail was wondrous – the meticulous planning that must have gone into making it is seriously impressive. We scampered up and down clock towers, did star jumps for a sergeant major, peered into shop windows, mixed chemical potions and loads more in the pursuit of the mystery of Mr Marrane.

A door in a wall

The thrill of catching onto a clue and running (often literally, as the clock counted down) with it until it was completed was heart-poundingly exciting. Not even the rather damp evening could ruin the fun!

A door in a wall

Then it was back to Alder & Alder to hand in our investigative report and find out who got closest to the truth. The game is four hours long and it’s a push to see everything and hence solve the mystery in the time given, but you’ll definitely have fun trying. I want to play again to see the bits I missed, even though I now know ‘whodunit’!

The Life and Death of Paul Marrane is running for all of May – you can find out more here and buy tickets here.

I got a free press ticket to review the experience.

Back in Barbados

Barbados

Avert your eyes now if a bit of tropical sun is too painful to comprehend at this point of winter! Last week we scooted back out to Barbados for a little escape from January blues. (In case you’re wondering, the villa is in my mum’s side of the family so we’re lucky enough to get free use of it every so often.) I posted a lot about Barbados two years ago when we last went, so I’ll keep it short this time! Mainly because we actually did do less as well – having visited before it was good to not feel pressured into dashing around seeing all there was to offer on the island. We hit a couple of favourite places from last time and a few new things, but also had a lot of down-time just relaxing at the beach or pool.

Barbados
Barbados

We spent a bit of time at a few beaches on the south coast, where the Atlantic meets the Caribbean. It’s noticeably rougher than the west coat (where our villa was) due to stronger winds and tides, so not so good for swimming but you can still go catamaran sailing, try surfing, or go turtle-spotting. Or you know, just sit around eating chips and drinking rum punch.

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48 hours in Paris

Paris

We took a quick little hop over to Paris at the weekend, my main 30th birthday present to Josh. Unfortunately it coincided with us both being cripplingly ill with bad colds, so we kind of took it easy and spent most of the time near to our Airbnb in the Marais district. Luckily with St Pancras only half an hour from our door and our apartment the same distance the other side, the Eurostar trip itself was super easy so the travelling wasn’t too much of a backbreaker.

Paris

That was no bad thing really as the Marais is a totally charming area, stuffed with beautiful boutiques, cool restaurants and cosy cafes. I haven’t really scratched the surface of Paris before, but I’d definitely stay in this area again. It’s a little out of the way of the tourist sites like Monmartre and the Eiffel Tower/big museums, but we weren’t really interested in those so it worked out great for the quieter pace of our weekend.

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Beyond Oaxaca

Cooking class

The city of Oaxaca is nestled in a valley in the middle of Oaxaca state, an area not far off the size of England. In fairly close radius around the city are lots more towns and villages as well as some spectacular scenery and ruins, so we were able to take lots of day trips to see more of the state.

Cooking class

One day we took a cooking class in the weaving town of Teotitlan with Maria Reynes of El Sabor Zapoteca.

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Market day at Tlacolula

Oaxaca

Tlacolula is a city about a 20 minute drive from Oaxaca, famous for both its 16th century church and its huge Sunday market, to which thousands of people from the neighbouring towns and countryside flock. We took a cab out there the day after arriving in Oaxaca on Saturday night to check it out.

Oaxaca
Oaxaca
Oaxaca

The market really is absolutely ginormous – up to 1,000 individual traders – and quite disorienting, although it’s hard to get completely lost as it’s all on gridded streets. The main things on sale are vegetables and fruit, toys, clothing, kitchenalia, and street food. There’s a pleasing lack of souvenirs or tourist things because at heart it’s a market for locals, who come from all the nearby towns and villages to shop and socialise. So for us it was really a chance to soak in the culture and atmosphere (and to eat) rather than to shop.

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Around Oaxaca

Oaxaca

After a week of scampering around the vastness of Mexico City, it was great to have a week in the much smaller and more relaxed city of Oaxaca to decompress a bit. Nearly 300 miles south of DF, Oaxaca is the calm, low-slung, cultural and historical yin to the capital’s busy, built-up, somewhat personality-less yang.

Oaxaca

We caught the ADO GL bus from Mexico City to Oaxaca, costing about $650/£30 each. We pre-booked the bus a few days before our departure day by visiting the ADO bus terminal near the San Lazaro metro stop in DF, though the bus was barely a quarter full in the end so we probably could have bought on the day. The bus was comfortable and spacious, but the 7 hour journey did feel very long and tiring. I think a flight, like we did on the last day to catch our connecting flight home, might be a better option.

Oaxaca

You do get rewarded with some striking views about three-quarters of the way through the journey, as you rise into the mountains that frame the Oaxacan valley.

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Coyoacán and Casa Azul

Coyoacán

One of my favourite days in Mexico City was the day we spent in Coyoacán, a district to the south of our base in Condesa. It was quickly and easily accessed via the metro but offers a welcome wind-down from the dense city centre. I’d definitely recommend a trip there if you’re visiting D.F to soak in the relaxed pace, little cobbled streets and pretty open plazas.

Casa Azul

Casa Azul
Casa Azul

My main reason for wanting to visit was to go to Casa Azul, the home of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Josh was somewhat reluctant beforehand but ended up really liking it too. You enter into a very pretty planted courtyard.

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Mexico City: eats, drinks and markets

Obviously, one of our main reasons for visiting Mexico was for the food. London has some good Mexican places but I was really interested to see how the real stuff compares – and what actually constitutes a real Mexican dish and which are fake exports. I’m looking at you, burritos. In general we ate really well, almost always going for Mexican food (not that there is that much foreign food around anyway – mostly Italian, Argentinian or American places) and we tried the whole gamut from 50p streetside tacos to a high-end tasting menu at supposedly the best restaurant in Mexico City. I was pleased to find that it wasn’t hard at all to find vegetarian options nearly everywhere – and honestly, they looked a heck of a lot more appealing than a lot of the meat!

Mexico City

Breakfast is a fun meal. You can go for pastries and coffee at one of the many bakeries around (Mexicans seem to love pastries and sweet breads – pan dulce) or go bigger and local with some huevos smothered in salsa, rancheros or chilaquiles style. We had a great coffee shop called Chiquitito around the corner from our Airbnb in Condesa, where we stopped for cortados, yogurt and croissants on a couple of days. We had a good Mexican style breakfast up the road at El Pendula, a cosy bookshop come cafe.

Mexico City

Mexico City
Mexico City

Lunch is generally the main meal of the day in Mexico and they take it late – around 3pm. One of my favourite lunches was at Cate de mi Corazon, an entirely vegetarian taco place right by our Airbnb in Condesa. Some of the flavours were a bit odd to our palate (such as a sweet jamaica – hibiscus flower – filling) but my enchiladas – stuffed tortillas smothered in red salsa – were really tasty.

Mexico City
Mexico City

Probably the best meal we had of the entire trip was a decadent late lunch at Limosneros, a really beautiful restaurant just south of the Zocalo in Centro. The building dates from the 16th century and the restaurant was started 100 years ago by the current chef’s grandfather. There wasn’t much veggie choice admittedly, but my hibiscus flautas and charred chile and pineapple salad with soft goats’ cheese were absolutely stunning. Josh’s cochinita pibil looked brilliant too. And dessert was peanut butter and jam ice cream! It was a pretty fancy place but the bill was a very reasonable $750/£40.

Mexico City
Mexico City

Before we left the UK we booked dinner at Pujol after reading this New York Times article with Rene Redzepi of Noma. Supposedly the best – and definitely the most expensive – meal in the city, we could only get a booking for early on Tuesday night, the day after we flew in. Unfortunately I was quite disappointed by it overall. It’s undeniably elegant (in a friendly and laid-back kind of way) and they do put on a whole veggie tasting menu and some dishes were great, such as baby corn smoked over wood and served in a hollow pumpkin, but overall it was so rich I was feeling a bit queasy by halfway through and trying to hide how little I could eat. With a whopping £70 a head price tag it was a real shame.

Mexico City

A muuuuch cheaper lunch or dinner option is to grab some antojitos (snacks) from a street vendor, hole in the wall or cafe. They can also taste fantastic if you pick wisely. We had some filling tortas and cold beers in a cute old-school cafe in Centro, and great tacos for $17 a go at Tacos Hola/El Guerro, a tiny place with a few bar stools and pavement tables near our Airbnb on Avenida Amsterdam. He cooks up several different fillings a night, including quite a few veg options, and you can just keep ordering til you’re full.

Mexico City

For drinkin’, the national drink of mezcal is clearly the way to go. We did a mezcal tasting tour in Oaxaca which I’ll write about later (I’m quite the mezcal fact file now) but the local Alipus artisanal mezcal bar was a good place to start. Plus there’s local beer: El Deposito has a great range of local and world craft beers in its few bars dotted over the city. You can buy to take away or drink in.

Mexico City
Mexico City

On a classier note, we had a great night at Licorería Limantour in Roma, one of the world’s 50 best cocktail bars, drinking mezcal cocktails and chatting to the lovely bartender. He sent us on our way with mezcal shots for the road and some recipe cards to take home.

Mexico City
Mexico City

Mexico City
Mexico City

When we weren’t actually eating, one of our favourite things to do was to trawl around the many food markets. One of the best and largest is San Juan, which is right in the kitchen wholesale district just south of the Zocalo and apparently where chefs go to shop. Those morels! Knobbly little squashes! And SO MUCH hot sauce…

Mexico City
Mexico City

There’s good craft and souvenir market at La Ciudadela; we bought some thick blown glass drinking tumblers, $130/£6.50 for six. Oaxaca was the real place to buy crafts though, as I’ll tell you about later.

Mexico sewing stuff

I hunted down some fabric shops, a must-do for me on any trip these days. I wrote more about them on my sewing blog. There seems to be one big fabric shop chain called Parisina are mostly grouped in the streets around Uruguay just south of the Zocalo (there’s a couple in Oaxaca too). Most of the fabrics are pretty gaudy synthetic polys – especially novelty printed fleece and, I suppose especially at this time of year, Day of the Dead and Hallowe’en themed stuff – but there were also some wools, poplins and pretty plaids. It was all dead cheap, mostly ranging from $15/80p to $60/£3 a metre, so a little bit came home with me…

Mexico City

Mexico City
Mexico City

We were woefully under-researched on our other favourite pastime, flea markets, but luckily snuck a great one in on our very last Saturday morning before catching the bus to Oaxaca. It snaked right around the Jardin Pushkin near the eastern end of Avenida Alvaro Obregon and contained a great range of goodies from vintage videogame cartridges to dead-stock stationery. It was pretty expensive, making me think it’s more of a collectors market than bargain flea. I only came home with a little tin for 100 pesos.

Mexico City

We actually did pop to another flea in between our flight back from Oaxaca and the connecting flight to London the following Saturday, at Plaza del Angel. This is a little indoor mall full of antiques shops, which on the weekend spill their wares onto the walkways for a flea-style experience. There was a lot of fun stuff, from vintage film posters to tiny toy sewing machines (how did I resist?) and prices were reasonable. I bought a little ceramic owl for the collection and some paper ephemera.

Mexico City

In terms of non-market shopping, Avenida Amsterdam in Condesa has a bunch of nice boutiques (as well as restaurants and bars) and is a lovely leafy area to wander around. Avenida Alvaro Obregon and Calle Comida in Roma are good to check out foody delis and little vintage shops. We even found a hipster yard sale in full swing on Saturday, and now I’m wondering why London boot sales don’t come complete with artisanal g&t and bagel stands.

Mexico City

My favourite find was a tiny boutique off Av Alvaro Obregon called Ursa Minor, which the owner has beautifully curated with homewares and crafted items from local designers. We bought a mini skull artwork handpainted on wood, some pretty ceramics, and some other little gifts.

All these places – plus a bunch more places we didn’t get the chance to make it to – are on my Google map and Foursquare list.