Simply showing my sheer ignorance of a majestically beautiful country, I was plenty surprised that Lisbon has gone through a major renaissance the last decade (well before their recent economic woes). The eastern board of the city has opened the continent’s longest bridge, and a commissioned area to host the World Exposition in 1998. Unlike most purposely-built areas, Lisbon has capitalised on developing the venue with residential, commercial and public spaces opening recently. The whole complex includes an aquarium, the Vasco do Gama mall, an international convention centre, and the Placa do Nacoes.
Its main centrepiece is its terminus train station, Gare do Oriente. Finally, an introduction to Santiago Calatrava! After much praise for his light, airy and modern designs all over, I finally got to see his work in the flesh, so to speak. At first, I thought that the platform canopies were inspired by spider webs, only to realise that they are patterned after the cloister ceilings west of the city (Belem).
Its space travel theme resonates across the station – from the shape of their waiting rooms, to the underground walkway connection the platforms, to the “beam me up, Scotty” elevators around the station. Furthermore impressive was the selection of materials for the building – simple glass, and brushed concrete. The photo below turned out much better than expected, it looks like an artist’s rendition of the interior, even if it is an actual photograph.
You may have noticed Portugal’s love for the blue-coloured tiles, called azulejos, and how they decorate their buildings with it. This affinity extends not just for the colour blue, as they decorate majority of the metro stations with tiles, though on a more playful note.
Finally, end the tour of the city’s modern side by dropping by Bairro Alto – a district known for its parties; between traditional pubs that feature melancholy singers belting their fado, you can find trendy spots to drink in. Here’s a photo of one we stumbled upon; apart from the standard drinks and requisite caipirinhas, it was delightful to discover a new mix: black vodka, crushed strawberries. Please let me know where to find this black vodka, it would be so interesting.
Said it before, and I’ll say it again – Asian cuisine is tops. From the intricate kaiseki ryori of Japan, to the vibrant colours of Indian curries and the flaming spices in Thailand, nothing beats the dazzling variety of cuisine available in the region. Korean cuisine is no let down in this department either – from steaming stews to sizzling barbecues to lovely mung bean pancakes, there’s something for everyone. Don’t worry, not everything in Korea is covered in that red bean paste.
First things first: Korean barbecue!!! There’s a lot of things you can roast in Korean restaurants, whether over flames or hot coals. Strips of beef, chicken, or pork, covered in salt, teriyaki sauce, or soy sauce; together with roasted garlic, leaves of lettuce and the ubiquitous kimchi. My favourite part of the Korean eating regimen is that appetisers are free. You only need order the mains and stews (and rice and drinks), they will provide you with free appetiser of various vegetables and small bites. A special shout out to ordering samgyeupsal – pork belly flavoured with sesame oil and salt, thinly sliced like bacon.
A bibimbap is regional specialty of Jeonju, but still found every across the country. It’s a bowl of up to 28 garnishings (ground beef, egg, carrots, corn, spinach, etc) on top of rice to enjoy. A special version is the dolsot bibimbap where it is served in a stone bowl, and the bottom turns out nice and crispy. This is a very colourful affair with shades of yellow, green, white, brown, and of course that red paste. According to Confucian philosophy, a full meal must contain the essential five colours to be a complete meal.
Finish it all off with a swig of soju, and excellent mix with fruity drinks and the like. For a more authentic Korean experience, toast on bowls of makgeolli, that milky-white drink that’s a fermentation of rice that tastes like and alcoholic 7-Up (careful on the drink, it normally ranges between 10-15% alcohol) . Make sure that the bottle is well shaken as sedimentation is normal for the drink.
As with most Asian cultures, eating is a communal affair, food meant to be shared, so if travelling alone, do not be surprised if the restaurant owner turns you away if you’re a solo eater. Also, it is expected to order food (anju) when drinking soju or makgeolli in a bar.
As a final dare, try the local sausages called sundae (pronounced soon-dey, not the creamy variety). It’s filled with rice noodles, and it’s coloured black…get your soju ready.
If you had only one night to spend in Xian, I would ask you to skip the fancy Chinese restaurants with their elaborate lauriats and cultural shows. Instead, I invite you to have a bowl of piping hot noodles at your neighbourhood shop, plop onto a low stool with a couple of skewers lamb, beef and chicken, and down them all with the mighty bai ju.
Take time out to say hi to your neighbouring table – they most probably won’t speak a word of English, but they’re usually friendly to visitors. There’s also this drinking game you can play – the name escapes me but it involves dice shaking followed by swills of drinking. It’s educational too, see how far you can go and say numbers in Mandarin.
And if you can do it right near the city center where the Bell and Drum Towers are in view, that would be just plain awesome. The Bell Tower rang at dawn, signalising the opening of the city walls, and the Drum Tower beat at sunset to indicate their closing. You can start the evenings with beating drums, and enjoy the night with bai ju and games while waiting for the Bell Tower to signal the start of a new day.