Em, Azim and I visited Jogjakarta in Central Java for the first time early last 2006.
We were smitten by the place. Its history, courtly culture, epic natural scenery and by the warmth and graciousness of the Javanese people themselves.
We visited airy palaces in Solo, rode mischievous Java ponies, examined the ancient monument of Borobodur, trekked, ate and generally enjoyed the scenery.
On the ride to the airport at the end of what felt like far too a short trip, I eyed Gunung Merapi, the smoking volcano that stands guard over Jogjakarta and said to Em, “next time we come here, I’ve got to climb that!” Em eyed me back, a little torn between wanting to return to Jogja and wanting to put a dangerously deranged husband straight.
Well, within a year we had returned. We had taken the opportunity to have a few days off, a chance to travel before the bun is done, and to try, as always, to just get a little change in perspective. This time we came with my parents.
After the marathon in December, I had taken to climbing Bukit Shahbandar, two rounds in each weekly session, and taking the boys out for long mountain bike rides in the hills between Rimba and Jerudong. I was fairly fit, but had been enjoying my food a bit much, so had a little trepidation in thinking about the climb and my expanding waist.
On the first day we toured Jogjakarta. We started with a trip to the Kraton, or palace, of the Sultan of Jogjakarta. It was quite pleasant, a string of wide-open pendopo’s or pavilions, built around groomed lava sand squares.
We watched expertly conducted Javanese dances and inspected quiet halls displaying gifts to the palace. A pity the artifacts of state were not on show, having been damaged in last year’s earthquake. It was never the less a fascinating first look at Javanese court culture.
The Kraton is located on a straight line between the summit of Merapi and the coastal site of Parangitis, all of these locations important to one another and the region of Central Java.
Legend has it that the founding (pre-Islamic) King of the Region, Senopati entered into a pact with the “Queen of the South Seas”, Ratu Kidul. In return for his devotions, she would provide protection and guidance. The story goes that Senopati was taught warfare and statecraft by the Queen in her underwater lair off the southern coast.
Successive Mataram Kings have continued in their devotion. Every year on the anniversary of the Kings coronation offerings and prayers are given, at the Kraton, on the south coast and on the slopes of Merapi.
People are quite fascinated by Ratu Kidul. At beach resorts on the south coast, bathers are reminded not to wear green. It is the colour of the Queen and wearing it will encourage her to take you as her subject in her underwater kingdom.
The previous Sultan of Jogjakarta is quoted as saying that she ages with the moon being young and beautiful when the moon is at the start of its phase.
Some may cluck with disapproval at such goings on, but I am not one to judge. It also makes for a colourful history.
We visit the Water Palace, man-made pools built by 17th Century Kings. One place that I wanted to visit, but which was closed by reason of earthquake damage, was the “coiled well”. This is an underground chamber, built to mirror Ratu Kiduls underwater palace, designed for monarchial assignations with the Kingdoms spiritual protector.
Apart from the history and culture, Jogjakarta is a lively low-rise city, home to a number of universities. I appreciate the quiet dignity and gentle manners of the Javanese, which gives way great exuberance and love of life. The Javanese do love their art, dancing and music, not to mention their food.
We lunched at “Sriyati Fried Chicken”, recommended by the hotel. Real local style. We had a whole fried chicken- beak, feet and all. A whole deep fried ikan gurami. Lontong, nasi goreng, soto ayam and the batter from the chicken.
After lunch, we visited the Affandi Mueseum. I think that Affandi is one of the 20th Centuries great artists. His impressionist work is captivating. His former house, now the museum, contains some paintings that can genuinely be said to contain the heart and soul of the artist. A tortured sensitive soul, who expresses on canvas life as he sees it, directly, without filtration.
My dear Pater, on Javanese painters, prefers Basoeki Abdullah and thinks that Affandi is overrated, and much too fond of his misery. Each to his own I guess.
We finished off a fine day with a Rijstafel, back at our hotel, Amanjiwo.
The following day was the day of my climb. The idea is that you set off at 11 at night from the hotel to drive to Selo, the highest village on the slope of Merapi. You climb from midnight to reach the summit by dawn, when the skies are clearest. At any other time, there is a risk of the summit being obscured by cloud.
We planned a restful day. A picnic breakfast and a pony cart ride around the desas surrounding Borobodur. Em and I ate lunch and napped by the pool, all the while glancing with a little trepidation at the smoking volcano in the distance.
The hotel provided one guide and two porters. This may seem like a lot for just one climber, but someone was needed to carry breakfast. To paraphrase a favorite saying from my footballing days, “it doesn’t matter if you climb the mountain or not, so long as it is done in style.”
I was counseled to remember to always memberi salam, to seek permission to take a path, and to pass through without disturbing people, or things. Thus appropriately prepared, my little expedition set off for our mid-night climb.
It was a quite pleasant climb, in a cool clear night. As we climbed higher, the lights of Central Java spread out and sparkled below us like a blanket of stars. The huge shadow of the next volcano, Merbabu seemed to loom over us at first but not as we climbed higher.
We climbed quickly, stopping only twice. Our experienced guide seemed to lose the track at one point. Being quite an active volcano, landslides and eruptions change the topography of the slope, so tracks further up come and go.
Closer to the top, the winds picked up and clouds threatened to move in. The guide said that if it rained, we would not be able to make the summit because of the threat of landslides. It seems however that we were smiled upon. As we reached the plateau on the last leg to the summit, the winds died and the clouds cleared.
We reached the plateau of Pasar Bubra in a good time of 3 hours. We rested in a little nook of rocks till 4 am for the final push to the crater rim, having a bit of tea and cake.
We clambered up the final leg along quite a difficult, almost vertical wall. Loose stones and rocks also made it a little hairy at times, as you had to make sure that the rocks you are holding did not come away. Near the summit cracks in the rock vented hot sulphurous gasses, and some parts were hot to touch.
The very top, Garuda peak, was reached by 5 am, where we spent an hour to sunrise. I do hate to be corny, but it was otherworldly. Hot gasses swirled around the summit, but it was completely silent. The sulphur smelt like a match being struck. I looked into the crater, dropping away deep into the mountain so the bottom could not be seen, steaming gas.
I was reminded of the joke of the American who looks down into the crater of the volcano in the Philippines and drawls, “Gee, it sure looks like hell down there’, whereupon the Philipino guide retorts, “these Americans get everywhere.”
We came off the summit before the cloud moved in, back to Pasar Bubrah. The descent was actually a lot more terrifying than the ascent, because in the daylight you can actually see how far you will fall if you get it wrong.
It would not have been an Aman outing without a meal with stunning views. At Pasar Bubrah, we had a picnic on a precipice, of tea, brownies and smoked salmon foccacia.
I returned to the hotel by 10, to a rather happy Em, and my parents who had returned, by elephant, from a tour of Borobodur. We shared adventure stories over breakfast and finally slept. That night we ate nasi goreng at a roadside warung, rounding off a memorable trip to Java.
I just want to let you know that I am back. I returned last Monday, having left Rome on Sunday. The weather in Italy was very pleasant with lots of sunshine. In fact, it did not seem to be like autumn at all.
We spent a total of three nights in Rome and the rest in Capri. From Rome, we travelled to Naples by rail (100 minutes approximately) and from Naples to Capri by catamaran. We used Capri as a base, which has regular catamaran services to Naples and other towns along the southern coast. In fact, there are people who live in Capri and work in Naples by commuting via catamaran. The service is apparently free to Capri residents. Everyone else has to pay Euro 14 one-way. Anyway one just walks to the ferry dock, buys a ticket and hops on the next available catamaran.
Whilst at Capri, we visited Naples and the Amalfi coast (Sorrento and Positano), the latter of which is one of the 1,000 places to visit before one passes on. We also visited Herculaneum (Ercolano), which was buried by lava when Vesuvius erupted in AD 79. The town is still being excavated today though progress is impeded by the fact that most of the town is buried under a working-class suburb. The buildings are almost intact except for the upper stories. In fact, corpses have been recovered where people have died in their beds where the town was engulfed first by the ash and then buried. Sadly, these have been removed to spare visitors' sensibilities. We did view a bed with the impression still there. Did you know that the ancients used human urine to dry-clean clothes!
Naples is a beautiful city with Spanish and French influences, given its rule by the Hapsburg and Bourbons before reunification with the rest of Italy. The city is long, clinging along the coast of the Bay of Naples, and Mt Vesuvius, an active volcano, looms in the background. People in Naples are more helpful, friendlier and relaxed than in Rome.
Capri is, well, Capri, the resort for the rich and famous during summer. Everything is expensive there with prices at least 30-50% higher compared to Naples, which is 40 minutes by catamaran away, and Rome for that matter. Still, it is a pleasant little town with hordes of American and German tourists marching through the cobblestone streets during the day. These tourists are mainly day-trippers where the cruise liner docks in either Naples or off Capri for the day and passengers disembark to visit the sights before returning to the ship at dusk.
We ate well, mostly seafood, in Capri. In fact, we did not eat either meat or poultry until our last night there and in Rome. I have to admit I was a little sick of seafood by the time we left Capri. Nonetheless, people in Capri do seafood well where one can taste the sea in the food. Food portions in Italy are large, though we were told that Americans thought they were half to what they were used to. Moreover, the Americans have a habit of dousing their food in either Tabasco or chili sauces. One thing we have learnt in Capri is that one should not dine in an establishment where there are many photographs displayed outside, especially of celebrities dining in the said establishment. The food is generally average and expensive. In fact, two of these establishments were recommended in Frommer's.
In Rome, we dined at one of my favourite restaurants (which I decided so last year when we dined there. In fact Giuseppina used to dine there regularly when she was living in Rome), a little trattoria (the equivalent of bistro) specialising in cuisine from the region of Emiliana-Romagnola (a little above Rome). We also dined at another trattoria that specialised in Roman cuisine, mainly meats, that used to be cater to truck drivers but now to the middle and upper- classes (the area where the trattoria is located has gone up market and the truck drivers have moved further afield). Still, you drink wine by the litre priced at Euro 6.00 while dining on a very substantial meal. I have added this establishment as the place to visit when I am next in Rome. I always prefer trattorias compared to ristorantes: heartier food and larger portions.
Anyway, my tale ends here.
Late yesterday evening, after a day of difficult meetings, Farhad our Azeri friend thought that it would be nice change for my traveling mates and I to listen to some Azeri Jazz to help chase away the blues.
Farhad brought us to the appropriately named Jazz Club, which is known to be the first jazz club in Baku, and is located at the end of the Fountain Square on Aziz Aliyev Street. This underground club, with its smoky sultry ambience, offers live jazz music which starts after 8pm. The band at the club was made up of gnarly, extremely talented, old men who obviously love what they do. There were hardly anyone at the club, save for a couple romancing in one corner, three patrons from Brunei and their Azeri friend, and waiters who are jazz lovers, but still the musicians played with such obvious passion that I had goosebumps.
I don't have much in the way of recording equipment so the ol' Sony Cybershot movie clip feature will have to do. My apologies for the image and sound quality and the length of the clip, but I thought the band deserves a spot.
Perhaps there are newer, trendier and fancier Jazz clubs in Baku, complete with diva singers, but these jazzy old musicians needed no fancy digs, nor divas, to help me find the beat in Baku. And find the beat I did.
During the summer days in Baku, everyday is like casual Friday for the guys. A majority of the men dress-down to the point that they attend business meetings with suit pants and undershirts. Most women on the other hand, dress to the nines, complete with blings and garish make-up. Even at the work place. We went into a Bank to change some currency and the female teller wore a halter dress and jewelry suited for a nightclub. I asked an Azeri friend why women in Baku dress for work like they are going to a party. He explained that women in Baku do not like being told what to wear. Their dress code of choice are no suits, no work shirts, just clothes to party in, and the bosses leave them to wear what they wish. I suspect Azeri men quite like their female colleagues to wear skimpy clothes at the workplace. It would be a welcome distraction from the men in undershirts. When my traveling mates and I went to Pizza Inn at the Fountain Square yesterday I took pictures of women walking down the street. I am under the impression that the richer an Azeri woman is, the more sophisticated she is in terms of what she wears. But rich or not so rich, they seem to like clothes that shows off curves and/or show a lot of skin. I wish that I am fearless and have taken pictures of the women who dress like Russian hookers as it would have made for a more interesting post. But I am a scaredy-cat because they look like they could beat me up with one breast. Whilst there are many local boutiques that sells OTT (Over-The-Top) fashion, the city also has Mango, Zara, Morgan, Gucci, Sisley, Benetton, MaxMara, Mexxx, Next, Etam and Accessorize.
The road to Baku has been a long, and somewhat arduous, one. But I am finally here. After a 3-hour flight from Dubai to the capital city of Azerbaijan, my travelling mates and I arrived at the Heydar Aliyev Airport prepared to deal with the immigration who are notoriously difficult. We were prepped beforehand by our Azeri counterparts and applied for our visas-on-arrival by getting ready 2 passport-sized pictures and USD40 for the visa fees. It helped that we had a letter of invitation as Azerbaijan is not terribly welcoming of tourists.
Baku bound on Azerbaijan Airlines.
Finally, the Heydar Aliyev Airport.
Enroute to the city I noticed that almost, if not all, the trees in Baku are "painted" white at the bottom.
Welcome to Baku Have A Nice Day! We were booked to stay at the Park Inn Azerbaijan, a newly opened business hotel. The Park Inn is right in front of the Caspian Sea Boulevard and some rooms, like mine, offer a great view of the lake. The hotel lives up to its business-hotel reputation, nicely designed (reminiscent of hotels in Europe, stylish Ikea stylo-mylo), usual business facilities, with helpful and friendly staff. At USD190++ for a club room with free broadband internet access, the Park Inn, whilst considered expensive in my part of the world, is definitely good value for money in Baku.
Stylo-mylo room at the Park Inn Azerbaijan.
The view of the Caspian Sea and the Town Center. The weather in Baku at this time is hot and muggy at 35 degrees. With the notable exception of the Park Inn and a few other hotels and buildings, like the SAS Radisson, most of the architecture in Baku is archaic russian style. I felt like reading Anna Karenina again. Whilst the population of Azerbaijan is predominantly muslim but from what I have seen, most are not conservative.
Azeris too, call books kitabs.
The streets of Baku.
Driving in Baku must be pretty hairy as most drivers do not bother stopping for traffic lights. Pedestrians fear for their lives too. I did.
There are street vendors selling antiques, paintings, souvenirs and knick-knacks just off the Fountain Square.
On the left, the Fountain Square with its dry fountain, and on the right, Pizza Inn, which serves the best pizza in town.
The main entrance to the Caspian Sea Boulevard.
Baku is an booming oil town and smells like one, especially so near to the Caspian Sea.
Baku at night is twinkly, sparkly. And coming soon: Azeri Street Fashion - Trendy? Or Not?
Restaurant Magazine’s top five places to eat in the world for 2006 are: El-Bulli in Spain, The Fat Duck in dear old England, Pierre Gagnaiare in Paris, The French Laundry in California and Testsuya’s in Sydney.
Of these restaurants, only Pierre Gagnaire and Tetsuyas are located in large cities. El-Bulli is in the middle of no where on the Spanish Costa Brava, The Fat Duck is in Bray on Thames (where? you say, exactly! I answer). The French Laundry is in the Napa Valley.
If you want to eat at any of these places, I figure you need commitment, and a willingness to travel for your tummy. This therefore was my sad justification for wanting to go to Sydney in August, for my Birthday, to eat at Tetsuya’s.
So, back in May I booked a table at Tetsuya’s for the Saturday night after my birthday. Apparently this is the length of time you need for a Saturday night booking. Table secured, we organized flights and accommodation.
Our flight was on a Thursday evening, arriving at dawn on Friday. Our return was scheduled for Monday at lunchtime.
Lest you think we are excessive, we did cash in our free annual tickets that seem to be the only advantage for Em working where she does.
Neither of us have been to Sydney before, but Em, bless her, allowed me the window seat for the flight down.
Happiness is a window seat on a dawn arrival in Sydney, (and a wife who will give you the window seat in the first place).
The thing about Sydney is its natural harbor, with an entrance of only 1 km wide; it backs into a huge area of 100’s of square kilometers of deep sheltered water. All buildings seem to be oriented either into the harbor, or straight at the sea.
As you fly over Sydney at dawn it stretches out before you nestled amongst its bays, harbors and coves. Every where you look ordered rows of houses run down to the deep blue pacific, or into sheltered coves or inlets. It is even possible to glimpse the solid mass of the harbor bridge and the scallop shells of the opera house.
We fly over the whole of Sydney proper, and over the airport, and watch the planes stacked up to land on Botany Bay, the site of Cooks first landing in Australia.
We breezed through customs, grabbed our ride and checked in for a nap.
Our accommodation was in an area called the Rocks, right on the Harbor. This is the oldest part of town, some 230 years ago this is where they established the first penal colony. We were backed by the Sydney Harbor Bridge, and had views of the opera house.
After a quick nap, we headed out to lunch. Footsteps from our hotel was Doyles, a Sydney institution for its fish and chips, a fact sadly only learnt after lunch. We had superb oysters, chilly fresh and sweet.
We had a little cruise round the harbor, and a trot to the shops for winter wear. Though the weather was sunny the whole time, at times when the wind whipped up it was a little chilly.
Dinner on the first night at a place called the Boathouse on Blackwhattle Bay. It was a bit difficult to find and unprepossessing at first, being located in the upper floor of the Sydney University Woman’s Rowing Club Boathouse.
We had oysters to start; they had a selection of different types from various little farms. They were excellent, small and sweet with uncomplicated flavors that did not linger at all. They went down very nicely with a malty dark local beer. Looking back these were the best oysters we sampled down under.
Em had wagyu bresola to start and the red snapper pie; I had whiting and bay bugs and a nice piece of Trevalla.
The red snapper pie was almost worth the trip, it is finished with truffles, which do much to infuse the white flesh of the fish with a magical aroma. A very pleasant bottle of Tasmanian Brut accompanied.
An early start the next morning for the bridge walk up and down the girders of the Harbor Bridge. It was a great deal of fun and much recommended.
We went down to china town for dimsum (yum cha) at this place called East Ocean. The thing about Sydney is its access to wonderful fresh seafood. So scallop and seafood dumplings are filled with the zestiest crunchiest stuff ever to grace a dumpling. Also, they kept the pastry nice and light. We had big ass Tasmanian king crab, steamed oysters and scallops, chicken feet and barbequed duck all off the trolley. All good stuff, Sydney was living up to its good reputation for food.
We had a bit of a stroll about town, to walk off lunch and prepare for Tetsuya’s.
I have always been told that if you go out to dinner, you dress. It is a sign of respect to the host. So we did.
I have a nice pair of tailored grey worsted wool trousers that fall just right half way over the loafer. A white shirt with faint pink and aqua checks followed this. A tie from Gucci purchased in the Tom Ford days. I topped it with a black blazer, with velvet texture. A hand-down from me pater, much as I would have loved to keep the nautical theme, I had to change the brass buttons for plain black, lest I be mistaken for admiral.
Em wore a lovely burgundy Thai silk shift dress and her white jade earrings and a ring that jingles about like an ice waterfall. She covered up with a peacock wrap, both in the motif and in the blue.
I thought we cut an elegant if somewhat eccentric dash.
Unfortunately, even at Tetsu’s the Aussies cannot bring themselves to dress. Oh how we mourn the advent of casual wear.
I liked Tetsuya’s very much. There is no ordering, every one eats the same 10-course meal, with a variations to account for particular diet. So once you step into the foyer, you pretty much give up all decision-making and have to simply give in to the tender mercies and whims of Tetsuya and his staff.
They bring you a pre-prandial at the table, and then explain the menu, 4 starters 2 main courses and 3 desserts. We also had them choose the wine pairings so had 6 different glasses to match the food.
The first lady to attend to us explained the menu. She had the attitude and demeanor of Professor McGonagall. Almost, “this is what you will eat and you will like it, you are eating at Tetsuya and you better feel privileged.” I know, I’ve read Kitchen Confidential, Saturday night is people from the boondocks night. Well damn right we are from the boonies, but we were happy to be there.
Aside from this initial starchiness, they did loosen up over the course of the evening. Towards the end even, Em was taking pictures of the food, and the waiter asked if it was for her blog. She said yes of course, and he said yes, every one does it nowadays.
The service was pretty seamless and most professional. Different waiters dance in and out of the room bearing plates of perfection. There is no fuss and different people appear at different parts of the meal. Each time explaining the food and suggesting the best way to eat it. At one point Em was in the loo and they brought the next course. When they found her not seated, they sent the food back to the kitchen and probably redid the whole thing for when Em eventually got back.
A little amuse bouche of warm sweet potato soup with feta and rocket. We were told to down in one.
We opted for the extra starter of Tasmanian pacific oysters. This came with a creamy vinaigrette. The oysters were large and plump, but lingered a little too long on the palate.
The next course was tartare of tuna on sushi rice with avocado soup. This was one of my favorites. You are instructed to smush all the ingredients onto each forkful. Deconstructed sushi roll, very good.
Then came three little sushi sized appetizers, tuna marinated in soy and mirin; soft smoked ocean trout with asparagus; marinated scampi. This was accompanied by a grilled scallop, covered in its own broth. We were very fond of the scallop.
The next starter was one of the signature dishes, confit of petuna Tasmanian ocean trout with konbu, daikon and fennel. This looks like a kind of sushi dish. The ocean trout is raw, and encrusted with finely chopped konbu, which is dried brown Japanese seaweed. Konbu actually contains large amounts of naturally occurring monosodium glutamate, so the dish gave our tongues a little numbness and a blank feeling in the back of the throat. We were a little worried that we would suffer elevated heartbeat and anxiety attacks. I think this is supposed to be a bit of an amusement on the part of the chef, getting all these people travel all this way to get a helping of Aji No Moto in the fish course. I thought it was quite good, Em was disconcerted.
Then came ravioli of Queensland spanner crab with tomato and basil vinaigrette. Not bad this one.
The first main course was deboned twice-cooked spatchcock in bread sauce. Chicken goodness.
The other main course was seared wagyu beef. They get paper-thin slices of really nice cow, roll them up into a tight tube, and cook them on a very hot plate for the shortest time. The meat in the middle has only the slightest brush of heat, and is silky smooth and musky. Another favorite.
We had three desserts, beetroot and blood orange sorbet with strawberry shortcake; vanilla bean ice cream with white beans and dates; floating island with praline and vanilla bean anglaise. I liked the first and the last best. The desserts were all in a way very Japanese, like the ice cream with beans and the floating island.
On the whole, we liked it a great deal. The whole experience from the minute you come in is aimed to sweep you off your feet, whirl you away on this wonderful sensory experience, then by the time you get to coffee, gently lay you down and with a gentle nudge, push you off into the night.
Well worth the hike.
Tetsu's is located in the middle of town, so after dinner, we had a wander about. Down the street the Lonely Planet describes a victorian marble bar fully restored and residing in the basement of the Hilton on main street.
It is as the LP says, a lovely restoration work. The people inside could only be described as saturday night in the big city lout. Jokers from weddings, corporate functions and arabs on the prowl. Em got hit on by some woman. Unfortunately more Missy Elliot than Beyonce Knowles. We were out of there.
A little further down the street was the Observatory Bar. This was nicer, less drunken and a little better looking. We stayed till late and meandered home.
Breakfast the next morning at the Harbour Kitchen and Bar. Pretty good, We had oysters, smoked salmon bagels and fish and chips. Very nice views of circular quay.
Rode out to Bondi Beach. Had a trawl round the Sunday market, purchased a hat then walked along the beach a couple of miles to a place called Bronte. It was a very pleasant Sunday stroll, watching the surfers out on the waves, appreciating the views out to sea and the fellow wallkers.
At the end of the day, a little bit sunburnt and happy to have walked off some of the oysters we headed back to the Rocks for a bit of dinner and our last night in Sydney.
Okay no, so it wasn't a mountain, but for someone as unfit as yours truly, it sure as hell could be. The Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb is neither for the faint-hearted, nor for those afraid of heights. As I correctly anticipated, the jumpsuits did nothing for me. The husband on the other hand thought that it took pounds off him.
We came to the offices of Bridge Climb early Saturday morning for a climb scheduled at 9.15am. The hotel concierge had advised against scheduling a climb on Saturday for the weather forecasted the previous day had said "Cloudy". We took the chance anyway, and thankfully, the sun was shining and the sky was blue. After registration at the counter, we began our briefing on the safety procedures of the climb. The folks at the BC did a really good job of making us climbers feel safe and gave a thorough briefing on safety. We were not allowed any loose items on our bodies, and this included (though not exhaustive), chewing gum or sweets in mouth, camera and mobile phone, as it would be dangerous for the drivers down below on the bridge if say, a chewing gum falls out of your mouth and onto the windscreen of the car.
All throughout the climb we would be attached to the bridge railings by this contraption that was then strapped to our waist. We were given practice runs on a replica of the footbridge and railing of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and all the climbers were given a radio and headset so as to enable the guides to give a running commentary on the sights, stories and history of Sydney. Our guide's name was Doug Snider and our climb group comprised of a father and son from New Zealand, two petite young Taiwanese women and the husband and I. Our guide went first and I followed closely because really, I'm chicken shit.
But the absolutely panoramic view of Sydney and the harbour that you get when you're way up there, with the wind blowing and the sun shining, is breathtaking. If you are able, the Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb is a definite must-do.
Doug was also the designated photographer. They give you one free photograph, the one of you and your climbing mates doing a kind of taa-daa! style pose with the Syndey Opera House at the background. We looked dorky and just a little bit terrified in that photograph. He took other pictures of us singly or as a couple, but these we had to buy at the daylight robbery price of approximately AUD$15 per photo.
But we came, we climbed, we conquered and we had a great adventure. And apparently so did these folks:
And to wit:
Sydney in late August has a spring flavoured vibe. The weather is sunny and cool (don't mind the couple from Brunei wearing jumpers during the day and even winter outerwear at night), Sydneysiders spend most of the weekend we were there in various states of undress - Summery dresses, skimpy shorts, tank tops, at Bondi - swimwear & surfwear, and notably everywhere, jogging attire.
Food in Sydney, especially its seafood, is super fresh, fun, and tasty. The husband and I had freshly shucked oysters everyday. Often 3 times a day. Moist, soft, plump oyster flesh dipped in a lemony thai-style chilli sauce and a vinegary sauce, I was in debauchery heaven.
On Friday evening we had more seafood, including the famous Snapper Pie, at The Boathouse on Blackwattle Bay. For Saturday lunch we had oysters yum cha or dim sum at the East Ocean Restaurant, a huge chinese restaurant, in Chinatown.
Tetsuya's was not a let down, and I will let the husband do the write-up on the food. I knew from the moment we stepped inside, dressed-up to the nines, we were not fine-dining in Singapore. Whilst Tetsuya's has similar aspirations to the fine-dining restaurants in Singapore, being in Sydney made it feel perhaps less chic but more alive and vibrant. Its patrons - a mixture of locals, expats, foodies, created a cafeteria-like sound to its dining experience. A young australian couple gave the husband and I a little taste of young "hollywood" (She - Paris Hilton Wannabe; He - the boyfriend who waits on her hand and foot). And no one believed in a formal dress code.
The Sydney Opera House is not the only memorable sight around Sydney Harbour. Take a cruise boat from Circular Quay and take in the sights of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the lovely homes and apartments, historical landmarks, celeb homes, emerald blue clean water and dolphins, nudist beach, and yachts/boats/ships/ferries in all shapes and sizes. Whales have been known to stray into the Harbour and on the day that they do, the Harbour is left for the whales and the water-traffic comes to an absolute, and respectful, still.
Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Zoom-out and zoom-in the bare-ass at the nudist beach.
Yachts, Boats, Ships and Ferries Oh My!
No whales but we saw dolphins!
Boudoir, flirty, quirky and befitting a BeneFit packaging, Alannah Hill I adored. You can find her swell boutique at the Strand Arcade. Bondi Market shows off the cool creative talent of Sydneysiders. And the husband and I quickly learnt that mostly, its casual in Sydney.
The husband brought me to Bondi Beach after we trawled around its market (every Saturday and Sunday from 10am to 4pm) held at the Public School grounds just a stone throw away from the beach.
Bondi lived up to my expectation. And then some. It was expansive, with caffe-latte coloured sand teaming with happy people, its waters booming and blue and surfers abound. The sidewalk that starts from Bondi Beach links to the beaches of Mckenzies, Tamaramma and Bronte. The walk was bracing and its views breathtaking.
Fearing frostbite on my toes, I chose to have the most overdressed feet on Bondi.
Bondi and McKenzies Beach.
There is a strange fondness for swimming very close to the sea.
A quaint deli called Jenny's just off Bronte Beach.
Favourite anecdote on Sydney:
At the very top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, our enthusiastic guide for the Bridge Climb - Doug Snider, pointed out to us folks holding onto the railings for our dear lives, Russell Crow's glorious looking apartment block on Finger Wharf on Woolloomooloo Bay. He tells us that there is a famous Sydney cafe called Harry's Cafe De Wheels, which serves the famous Harry's Pies that Sydneysiders come to eat during the early hours of the morning. They sit and eat the pies and watch the big rats scuttle along the Wharf. Russell buys an apartment on Finger Wharf for the ludicrous sum of AUD$14 million. 5 months down the road, Mr. Crow starts complaining about the rats. Sydneysiders find this story extremely amusing, as do the husband and I.
Royal Brunei Airlines flies to Sydney 3 times weekly every Thursday, Monday and Wednesday. I miss the oysters already...and to the husband, thank you for Sydney.
I hope that you are well. As you know we visited Bangkok a couple of weekends ago.
Not that you asked for this, but as I promised to write this for my wife, who insists on baring our lives for public consumption, I thought that I would burden you with my trip report whether you like it or not.
Fresh out of work on Friday night, we caught the 1950 to BKK. An uneventful but crowded flight, long queues at immigration.
The agent from the Oriental clocked us as we emerged from Customs. The legendary Oriental Hotel 6th sense seemingly at work, as we have never stayed there before. Though I would say that he probably has an eye for the kind of fart who takes up the limo service.
A pleasant, soothing 45-minute trundle into town.
We took a stateroom in the river wing of the Oriental. It is a corner room facing the river, a little bit larger than the normal rooms but smaller than a suite. It is called a stateroom because of the nautical theme of the décor. Nicely done you know, with classical furniture, Thai silk drapery and bed covers. I think the rooms in the garden wing are newer, as well as fewer but we were happy with our choice, especially with the balcony over-looking the river.
As you know I have always wanted to stay there, such a storied establishment. The other day I was watching one of these James Bond films from the 70's, and it featured a dinner scene with a ditzy blond on the riverside terrace.
The rooms at the Peninsula are larger and snazzier but I felt that the Oriental was a little bit warmer, though this may be because we stayed for a little bit longer.
Bellied up to the Bamboo Bar at about 11pm. Listened to some superb jazz, fronted by an American woman aptly named "Battle", apt because she had the stage presence of a battleship…She was supported by a group of engagingly glum looking Russians, who have been exiled to those hardly desolate banks of the Chao Phraya for the past 8 years. Beneath Ms Battles iron clad vocals was a musical combination of Stalinist order and discipline, and deep deep soul. Never been one much for Jazz, but I must say I really liked it.
On Saturday morning sky trained it to the end of the line and Jim Thompson's house, for some reason, the wife and I are tickled by the story of the life of Mr. Thompson. You know ex-CIA, built a house from recycled teak, jumpstarted the local silk industry, went for a morning walk in the Cameron Highland and disappeared.
After that dropped off at Siam Paragon, one station down. Now that is a hell of a Mall. Enormous, all the usual suspects were present, Gucci, Pucci, Todds, Versace, Zegna to name a few, Armani in all his guises. There is an enormous food hall in the basement and luxury car dealers round the corner. To no avail tried to get the wife to invest in some Pucci and got out of the Bottega Venetta store by the skin of my visa card.
I had the scallops and prawns in pastry to start, the wife had snails. As a second starter she had the pan-fried foie gras with fruit and I had the foie gras terrine. I liked both my starters, as did the wife, but her foie gras was a little bit flabby on the plate. I know its supposed to be fatty, but I think that it should sort of stand up on the plate all sprightly, and pristine and not sag, which this one did a bit. We had pressed duck for 2 as a main. A bit of a novelty, they do this big show of squeezing the life out of a duck with a big silver press. They then make the sauce from the duck juice right in the dining room. Thankfully, they didn't do it table side, but across the room next to some other couple.
This was kind of them; I hate the attention when they do all that table side cooking. The other couple I guess is one that is quite common in Thailand. They were both younger than us, the guy farang, looking kind of Mediterranean, the girl, local, pretty, wearing daisy dukes and 4 inch heels. They sat down and ordered, then the guy left the girl to have a smoke in the bar with one of the owners, then happily stayed there until the poor thing had to go fetch her man to eat. Nice one.
The duck was ok I guess, a bit like the foie, not quite as sparkling and as pristine as you would like. The food is sturdy French rustic, pretty robust but not as well judged as the meal that we had at Auberge Dab last year.
On the whole, it was a reasonable slice of Bangkok life, with a warm enough welcome and a pretty white house and garden. The place is run by a couple of grizzled French gentlemen who seem to have been around a bit. The end result is a nice example of what you could call cuisine expatriate.
We skipped the go-go bars, and meandered back to the hotel for more jazz.
On Sunday we visited Ayutthaya, again one of those place that I have always wanted to visit. The capital of Thailand from about the 14th century to about the 17th, it was established around the time that the Siamese invaded and sacked Angkor, carting back to Siam the whole Khmer court, with their religious books and art. It ended its time as a Royal capital with the invasion and subsequent sacking by the Burmese.
The ruins are not as impressive or old as the Khmer ruins, in Cambodia, and are set within a fairly built-up area. There are one or two impressive mages, and the old royal compound is fairly atmospheric in some places. Our guide tried to get us to ride an elephant round a part of the ruins, but as it was mid day we decided against this.
Lunch was pleasant enough on a riverside restaurant. It was crowded with locals, the best thing there were the grilled fresh water prawns.
The place had a dock in the front from which you can board one of those long tailed boats for a boat ride towards Bangkok. We took up the offer from our guide of an hours boat ride after lunch down to a spot on the river where our car would collect us and get us back to Bangkok in time for a massage at the spa.
Well, feeling a little bit smug, a little bit sorted, we kind of swept onto our boat with as much regal bearing as we could muster. A curt nod to the restaurant manager, and the boatman revved the engine, shaking the very timbers of the restaurant.
Well you know what happens next, the boatman attempts a three-point turn in the middle of the river, and the engine dies. We narrowly avoid being run down by this huge riverboat and floating restaurant blaring Thai pop music, which has to almost stop dead in the water to avoid casualties.
The boatman then gets out his spanner and starts to tinker with the engine, while the boat floats lazily across the river, finally brushing up against the reeds at the opposite bank to the crowded restaurant. On doing so, we hear a cheer rise from our former dining companions in the restaurant.
Dinner at C'yan at the Metropolitan.
I am sure that you have heard of this place, an oasis of polished black marble and clean minimalist lines next to the Banyan Tree. It's terribly chic with yoga mats in every room and a spa called Shambhala.
The wife is not fond of the style, but I am a bit of a masochist, so take a perverse pleasure in having it constantly beaten onto my head that I'm not very cool and could do with a couple of weeks of detox and yoga.
We had the tasting menu that paired each course with a different wine by the glass. The quality of both food and wine was excellent and at 4185 Baht per head, I felt represented better value than Le Banyan.
Oysters to start, two of them, one covered in flavoured ice, the other hot with harissa. Nice touch, the cool (temperature) and sweet contrasting well with the hot (heat) and sour.
Yabbies came with a nice Marlborough Sauvignon Blac.
Duck foie gras, nicely pristine and looking like they were carved from a mallard not averse to using that yoga mat. It came with a glass of sauternes.
A seared hiramasa was unfortunately the low point; the fish might have been hanging about too long in the kitchen, though the hiramasa sashimi served as an amuse bouche was quite alright.
For the main, and the highlight, slow charcoal grilled wagyu with a glass of Halkin Estate Shiraz 1998.
C'yan is just off the lobby were you usually find the hotel coffee shop. So you wonder what exactly you will get. It overlooks the stark modern pool, which doubles as a water feature.
For most of our meal we were the only people there, and were well looked after. The place is clearly well funded, being able to churn out such a well-judged meal, made with superb ingredients, in a restaurant with no turn over or covers.
We managed to get into the Met bar, again empty save for a couple of forlorn looking giraffe women.
Returned for our last night at the Bamboo Bar and an early night for a Monday morning run to the airport.