The Cheltenham Festival in the UK

If you are visiting the United Kingdom next March we recommend that you enjoy some British heritage by going to the Cheltenham Festival. The Festival is not a music festival but rather the second biggest horse racing event in the UK. The event takes place over four days and is a great way to experience an important part of rural British culture.

cheltenham-day-1According to the Cheltenham Festival website, racing at Cheltenham dates back over 200 years. Very quickly the race became one of the most popular sporting events in Victorian Britain. The races at Cheltenham have survived many events including two world wars and is now considered the biggest racing meet in the country after the Grand National. Crowds of over 200,000 will descend on the racecourse during the course of the four days. The best way to understand why this event holds such as special place in the UK sporting world is to visit the festival.

treadmill-1201014_960_720The Cheltenham Festival is a great chance to experience British culture and even see the Royal Family who come to the races with their own horses every year. If you feel like dressing up for the races then Ladies Day on the second day of festival is when people come in their best. Women will wear elaborate hats with elegant dresses while the men will wear their finest suits. If you need some inspiration for what to expect then The Guardian did a photo article on last year’s event.

Tickets range greatly in price depending on where you want to watch the races. They will cost between £25-£200 for the big days but no matter where you decide to view the race you won’t be able to help but get wrapped up in the excitement. Be sure to place some bets down to get the full experience.

cue-card-bf-chase-640-640x480
The town of Cheltenham turns racing mad for four days and the city will be alive with race related events. It is impossible not to get swept up in the atmosphere. The town of Cheltenham is famous for its quintessential Britishness and is one of the UK’s most famous examples of Regency architecture. Surrounding the town is also the beautiful British countryside that is perfect for walking in if you need a breather from all the excitement. Cheltenham is easy to get to as there is a direct train line from London, which takes less than 3 hours making it the perfect day excursion.

So if you are in the UK in March and want to experience some British heritage be sure to come down to the races. UK horse racing specialists Betfair who cover the event call it the “the greatest four days in jumps racing”. There is certainly no event like it and you will get to encounter a side of the British population that can’t be found in the city.

Ile de la Reunion, a colourful French island in the middle of the Indian Ocean

Its weird to fly 12 hours south from Paris, over half of Africa, into a hot and humid island  in the middle of the Indian ocean and still be in France. Ile de la Reunion is a department of France, full of way too many Renault and Peugot cars, where Metropoles shop at supermarkets, stocked with foie gras and champagne, and pay in euros. But it felt somehow familiar – Reunion is to France what Hawaii is for the USA, a slice of home out in the tropics.

one of the many natural fresh water pools you can hike to thru tropical forests

one of the many natural fresh water pools you can hike to thru tropical forests

Like Hawaii, its also a lush, green island, stretching from coasts of crystal blue waters up to black volcanic peaks. The middle of Reunion is split into 3 large craters or ‘cirques’, all inhabited somewhere remotely. Mafate is a car-less village, only visitable by hiking in and out from the top of the crater. Another cirque is still a very active volcano. The Piton de Fournaise started erupting the day after I arrived, so I didn’t miss the opportunity for a midnight hike up to see the red-hot, glowing, spewing lava eruption. I was surprised how many other people were walking the 3-4 hour return hike in the middle of the night, dressed like we were back in France, because at 2200m above sea-level, even this tropical island was freezing cold.

the road to Cilaos

the road to Cilaos

There were other natural forces in Reunion that made the island seem wild and dangerous. A recent rise in shark attacks has made half the coast unswimmable. The road to Cilaos, at the bottom of the third cirque, is a narrow, windy, cliff-hanging road full of blind turns and two tunnels only wide enough to fit a bus – there were literally only centimeters between the side mirrors and the walls. When the road turns into single-lane width, just before another u-turn bend, cars simply lay on their horns to warn any oncoming traffic of a potential head-on crash. The day I left Reunion, a cyclone warning had been announced, and I’m not sure when or how hard Cyclone Carlos was, but people had already started locking down their homes.

colonial architecture left an interesting mark in Reunion

colonial architecture left an interesting mark in Reunion

The people of Reunion are a mix of metropoles and creoles, with very friendly, civilized demeanors. People I passed in the street said Bonjour just to say hello, and after the first few hellos, I started greeting everyone that made eye contact with me with a smiley Bonjour, and didn’t feel weird about it. I traveled mostly by public bus, which is superbly organized, and the regional bus drivers were even greeted with handshakes and cheek kisses by the passengers. I didn’t try that, since I assume the probably knew eachother.

beaches of paradise, without sharks, are on the west and south coast

beaches of paradise, without sharks, are on the west and south coast

I always say Iceland would be the best country in the world if we had better weather, but maybe we just need to colonize a tropical island and export our people and culture out there. I guess I’ll have to keep my eye open for an eligible island for the rest of my Indian Ocean trip.

Paris, je t’aime

My first visit to Paris was in 2007, and I was mostly chasing a cute Parisian guy I had met in Fiji. I don’t know if it was his kiss under the Eiffel tower or just Paris in general that had me smitten, but my infatuation with this city of love had begun. Obviously it didn’t work out with the Parisian, but my love affair with Paris is still ongoing. I returned only a few months later to study the piano at a music school Chopin once taught at, which was very appropriate for me, someone only learning Chopin’s nocturnes.

The Eiffel Tower in the backround from one of the many Seine bridges

The Eiffel Tower in the backround from one of the many Seine bridges

Now, 10 years later and another 5 visits under my belt, I’m still infatuated. It changes every visit; the season, the food, and the people I meet are different every time, and I think only a lifetime in Paris would be sufficient to experience it all. I never tire of the endless parks, museums and cafes. Staring at the sparkling Eiffel tower at night or just checking out any old residential building is like glimpsing a piece of history and an architectural wonder. I crave for crepes and paninis, and more recently, I discovered the French Taco.

Hotel de Ville + bicycle + musical carousel = Paris in a nutshell

Hotel de Ville + bicycle + musical carousel = Paris in a nutshell

This trip was an exceptionally wonderful visit; it was just a short weekend trip, but 9 other Icelanders were also in town. And we had reason to celebrate. Our friend and one of the worlds top chefs had just won third place in the Bocuse d’or competition in Lyon, so after filling our stomachs with foie gras and wine in the gastronomical capital of France, we now had Paris to toast our champagne glasses, with Bocuse de bronze at our side.

Viktor Orn and Yannick Alleno with Mr. Bronze

Viktor Orn and Yannick Alleno with Mr. Bronze

Paris has over 15,000 restaurants, and more Michelin stars than any other city. We chose a 3 Star restaurant, as you do, and wined and dined at Yannick Alleno’s mansion Pavillon Ledoyen. It was the most amazing, and perhaps expensive, meal of my life, and even after 15 courses, I had to keep tasting everything they offered. After rolling out of there and swearing I’d still be full the next day, the next day came and there were mussels, oysters and escargot to be eaten.

can't get enough macaron's either, especially inside a chocolate piano

can’t get enough macaron’s either, especially inside a chocolate piano

Even when I thought I was finally satiated of French food, then I realized that Paris is full of so much more. The last meal I had was Japanese udon, a kind of casual fast food joint, but lined up out of the door and an easy 100 euros for two to dine. I also discovered an underground scene of speakeasy bars, like Candelaria – a bar you have to enter thru the back door of a taco shop. I learned that the Moulin Rouge neighbourhood is open later than most other night life, and the sex shops must be 24 hrs. How I know that isn’t the point of this story. The point is there’s always something new about Paris to love.

Iceland wins Bocuse de Bronze 2017

Iceland has been competing in the prestigious cooking competition Bocuse d’or since 1999. For chefs, this is like making it to the culinary Olympics. Iceland has always qualified in the regional Bocuse d’or Europe to compete in the worldwide Bocuse d’or, and never placed lower than the top 9 countries in each competition. In 2001, chef Hakon Mar was the first to land on the podium, with a third place Bronze, an extraordinary accomplishment for a tiny nation, often overlooked as a foody place, like Iceland.

Bocuse de Bronze winners!!

Bocuse de Bronze winners!!

Since then, a lot has changed. Scandinavian countries have become fashionable leaders in Europe’s culinary scene, and Iceland has finally become a world-renowned tourist destination, not only for nature tourism, but for also for gourmandes. The competition has also changed, becoming much bigger, better and far more complicated to win each year. The level of cooking in 2017 would have shunned the first podium winners with their abilities in 1987.

Bocuse d'or Team Iceland setting up their box

Bocuse d’or Team Iceland setting up their box

It takes one year to prepare for the regional competition (there are 3 regions: Latin America, Europe, and Asia), and another year for the top qualifiers (plus a few additional wild card countries) to compete at the biennial Bocuse d’or Concours Mondial in Lyon. Its named after Paul Bocuse, one of France’s most famous chefs and a leader in fine dining history.

The French commis looking back

The French commis looking back

This year, Iceland had over 150 supporters follow the candidat Viktor Orn to Lyon. After winning 5th place in the Bocuse Europe competition, and having 4 other previous candidates supporting and trainng him, he also had an amazing coach, Sigurdur Helgason, and a commis that would have definitely won Best Commis if they hadn’t landed on the podium.

Selfies with all the famous chefs (clockwise from top left: Bocuse d'or Gold 2015 Norwegian Orjan; Bocuse Europe 2016 winner Hungarian Tomas; 3 time Bocuse podium placer Danish Rasmus, and the USA Bocuse team coach Thomas Keller

Selfies with all the famous chefs (clockwise from top left: Bocuse d’or Gold 2015 Norwegian Orjan; Bocuse Europe 2016 winner Hungarian Tomas; 3 time Bocuse podium placer Danish Rasmus, and the USA Bocuse team coach Thomas Keller

The French team had the best commis, and European winner Hungary placed 4th just after Iceland. In second place was Norway, and for the first time ever, the USA won gold. All the winners went to Paul Bocuse’s restaurant for breakfast after the competition and met the now 91 year old legend himself. Viktor’s name has been permanently engraved in a shiny plaque, a walk of fame for all the winners of Bocuse d’or since 1987. Now with 2 Icelanders having mastered the competition, its only up from here. Despite being a nation of only 300,000 with a handful of good restaurants, its amazing to think that we could easily be shaping the next silver or gold Bocuse d’or candidate. Stay tuned til 2019!

Based in Barcelona for the Balearic Islands

I’ve been to Barcelona a handful of times before, but never in summer, and never just to visit Barcelona. This time around, I made a point to stay a few days actually visiting Barcelona, even though it was just a base for exploring the Balearics. I’ve always had a similar impression of Barcelona and Miami, but now the city has become distinct to me, for a lot of unexpected reasons.

Barcelona port

Barcelona port

I knew Barcelona was a little, um, metrosexual, but I’ve actually never seen so many transgender or genderless individuals in the streets of another city. Gay bars and sex clubs are a thing, and in a city where anything goes for physicality and physical relations, drugs and alcohol help fuel the creative limits to which you can take them. The number of ex-pats here for just that can attest to this truth, especially the thralls of English-teachers.

cute side streets in the Gothic quarter

cute side streets in the Gothic quarter

I had never noticed before how many people have dogs, and not just purse dogs. Big dogs, small dogs, pit bulls, or half a dozen dogs, people love dogs, and they’re all inside dogs. I guess that’s why there’s so much dog poop in the streets, though I wish people would clean up after their furry friends. Or move to the countryside where you actually have a garden and some outside space for your animal to live and play in.

I love Spanish pottery and the colourful decor

I love Spanish pottery and the colourful decor

Architecture in Barcelona is wonderful. It doesn’t have the ultra-tall highrises, but more manageable, older few-storey high historical buildings, often splashed in colour by some Spanish tile-work, and rarely with an elevator. The Gaudi influence here and there gives it a Tim Burton movie feel, white the Gothic and other classical European styles fill the city with beautiful balconies and window frames.

The Segrada familia cathedral, slightly shrouded by cranes and construction

The Segrada familia cathedral, slightly shrouded by cranes and construction

The number one visited attraction in Barcelona is the Sagrada Family Cathedral, the epitome of Gaudi architecture, and I only visited it for the first time today. I still haven’t taken a harbor cruise or ridden the Montjuic cable car, nor have I visited the Picasso museum or seen a football game at Camp Nou, so there’s plenty left to do to be a better tourist next time.

Ibiza for a weekend for €0.60

I spent a total of €0.60 in 3 days in Ibiza. 35 cents for a bottle of carbonated water, and 25 cents for a bottle of mineral water. I couchsurfed with a 53 year old local guy and his Peruvian wife, but could only understand 50% of what they said, which was still in a broken form of Spanglish where no tense was correctly used, ‘want’ and ‘have’ were the same word, everything happened in the first person, all verbs had Spanish endings, and he confused words like ´time´and ´weather.´ If he asked ´you have water?’ or ‘did you check the time’ I wouldn’t know if I should answer no or yes to get more water, or talk about the clock or the rain. But I was taken care of from beginning to end and everything in between, with meals, drinks, and movies offered to an endless supply. I got picked up at the ferry terminal, and for the first time in 5 days, it was walking about weather again. So we explored Ibiza town and the old city, the churches, the city beach, and picnicked on the fortress walls. On the way to his place in San Antoni de Portmany, we stopped at a stone garden, a place only imaginable on this island so commonly loved by the hippy trail.

the stone garden

the stone garden

San Antoni is a small city, but still half empty and shut down like every other village. One out of ten restaurants or cafes is open, and all bars and discos were closed for the season. Its only surprising because the season is only from May to September, so its hard to imagine how people can survive off only 5 months of business. All the hotels, sea-side buildings and boats just sit around for the other 7 months costing money and not making a penny, and the most touristic thing I did was visit about 5 or 10 free churches in the countryside villages (more than half of them were open!).

beautiful murals

beautiful murals

The street art in Ibiza was phenomenal. The line between graffiti and murals was indistinguishable, and both equally intriguing, but of course the occasional penis or ‘fuck’ was spray painted in inappropriate places. Art galleries and cemeteries were just as much information to process visually, while the rolling countryside of vineyards and almond, orange, olive and fig trees seemed endless. It was surprising how green everything was, despite the cold, but in fact the rainy wintery season makes it seem like an Icelandic summer, and in their dry summers, everything dies and greenery turns yellow and gray like an Icelandic winter.

Ibiza town

Ibiza town

If you make it to Saint Gertrudis, definitely go to Bar Costa. One of the only cafes open, it was packed, with wooden fires burning inside, and an art gallery from floor to ceiling of melancholic paintings. It was the first and only building I visited that was warm, since no one has central heating. There was no difference from leaving the house and walking outside or returning home, the temperature remained the same. I could literally see my breath when I exhaled inside my room, and the most mundane tasks became extremely uncomfortable, like having to sit on an ice cold porcelain toilet just to pee.

one of the many churches in a tiny village between beachtowns

one of the many churches in a tiny village between beachtowns

I enjoyed a roadtrip around the southwest beaches and ‘calas’ despite the storm, and finally toughed it up enough to accept the weather and dress in 3 layers of all the clothes I packed. It wasn’t that cold, maybe 10°c, but the humidity, wind and wet feet sent a chill thruout your body you could never shake since it never went away. Atleast it didnt hail or snow in Ibizia, and now that I’ve seen it all alone in off-season, I´m looking forward to returning when the island returns from hibernation and the sun shines again on the thousands of visiting (and local) faces.

Getting stuck on Menorca and Mallorca

I had been stalking the weather forecast for the Balearic islands for 2 weeks before finally arriving to Menorca. I arrived on a Saturday after 5 pm and got one lucky stroll thru Mahon city center, in pleasant weather with lots of life around. My couchsurfing hosts were two American English teachers, and we made seafood paella and salsa danced the first night away. The next 6 days were nearly all lost for exploring local life, since all was dead on Sunday, Tuesday and Friday were holidays, and the only bits of Monday, Wednesday and Thursday I saw outside of siesta time was clouded by stormy winds and pouring rain.

Cami de Cavalls

Cami de Cavalls

On Sunday, me and Joe managed to hike 22km, most of it along the Cami de Cavalls track with circles the island. We didn’t ride horses, but found lots to cuddle with, and met one crazy farmed who only keeps land to house his 5 ducks, 10 chickens, and 25 cats! By the end of the day, it had hailed once, and we had to hitchhike the last 3 km to Mahon because the wind literally wouldn’t let us walk forward anymore.

On Monday the storms really started. Ferries got cancelled, shops didn’t open, and people didn’t leave their homes. It snowed in Mallorca for the first time in decades and people told me it was the worst weather week in 35 years for the islands. By Tuesday, all the holidays events had been cancelled, but not the holiday, so everyone stayed in another day, hidden under their blankets and jackets even inside (the houses here aren’t built for cold). But since it’s a tiny island with a few thousand inhabitants, the barbeque and dances and other festivities just got moved to Saturday.

wind mills in Menorca

wind mills in Menorca

I attended one indoor barbeque, where potatoes were roasted inside the fire place, and had other visits to locals home since no one was going out. I visited a wanna-be producer and jammed out on his piano with two singers/guitarists. I sat infront of a space heater with some other Spaniards on their couch under a blanket and shared travel stories.

On Wednesday the ferries were still cancelled, so I had to fly to Mallorca. These are the kinds of moments where I love to have airmiles laying around, so instead of paying 100 euros for a 30 minute flight, I just paid 2.20 in taxes and got my ferry tickets refunded. The Mahon airport was the loneliest little terminal I’ve ever visited, although a similar sight after being on a deserted island where everything was also closed.

the only sunny day, in Palma under the cathedral

the only sunny day, in Palma under the cathedral

Palma de Mallorca was a bigger city, where winter and siesta don’t affect the local life as much, and can still keep a tourist entertained in January. The shops were open, and streets full of pedestrians. I couchsurfed there with a 67 year old woman and her 34 year old ‘friend,’ who could have been playing the role of a male mistress but maybe he was just a lost artist. A lot of people are in Spain as transitioning musicians or something similar. He had the rockstar hair any guitarist would dream of, but unfortunately also half of it ended up on my breakfast. After the 5th hair in 6 bites, he noticed and promised he tried real hard to keep it back, but I gave him the rest of my eggs and potatoes garnished with hair. We were in the heart of the city, and another festival had to be celebrated Thursday night. San Sebastian is a day where everyone flocks to the streets for public barbeques and outside concerts, and finally the little bit of wind and rain never stopped anyone.

BBQ in the street for San Sebastian festival

BBQ in the street for San Sebastian festival

My ferry to Ibiza, however, did get cancelled, but it may not have been because of weather. Its strange to be from Iceland, where the average weather is equivalent to a storm warning in the Balearics, but the weather did interfere a lot more when you’re trying to be out and about with a backpack to explore a place deserted of life. I knew January was off season, but I didn’t know I’d be so off.