Christina

ob_goodbye

So, friends – the show is soon over. No more Quality Hunting from this day. My colleague, Wolfgang, already said au revoir and counted how many miles he flew in 60 days. I wish I’d done the same, counted the miles that is, but all I can say is, that it’s A LOT. More than some people fly in a lifetime.

Warren

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Onwards and upwards They say that all good things must come to an end. Personally, I’ve…

Ella

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So, we have come to the end. After two months of travelling, blogging and eating (!)…

Wolfgang

My business card

After now 60 days on the road, 17 flights, 15 different hotels in 14 cities and…

2 Dec 2010
Warren Singh-Bartlett
I was born in Pakistan. My father is English and my mother is Indian. I was brought up between India, Taiwan, Brazil and almost every industrialised city you can think of in England.

Onwards and upwards

They say that all good things must come to an end. Personally, I’ve never really understood that. I mean if something is a good thing, shouldn’t it go on an on, for ever?

And yet here I am, in chilly Helsinki, transformed by a thick blanket of snow into a shimmering winter wonderland, getting ready to say goodbye to all of that.

It’s been quite a ride, these last two months. I’ve travelled more widely, intensively and exhaustingly than I have since I backpacked my way across Europe and the Middle East to India back when I was 17.

I’ve been to places I’ve wanted to see for ages, Shanghai’s Bund, Mr. Lloyd-Wright’s Imperial Hotel, Granada’s Alhambra. I’ve met old friends in Hong Kong, Tokyo, New York, Madrid and Carmona and made new ones in Stockholm, Copenhagen and St. Petersburg and Osaka.

I’ve lost my heart on a daily basis to more beautiful people and places than I can remember. I’ve eaten and drunk my fill; okonomiyake, bao buns and reindeer steak, white tea, green tea and red, sparkling wines and languorous red wines. I’ve shivered in howling winds in St. Petersburg, crunched through the snow in Helsinki, basked in the sticky, sub-tropical heat of Hong Kong and floated serenely under starry night skies in hot spring water in Hakone.

It’s been amazing, overwhelming and more than a little surreal. Blasting through time zones and temperature changes at 800 kilometres an hour, 12,000 metres above the earth. I have felt, at times, like an immortal, at others, a 1000 years old. But it is beautiful, and fascinating our world and travelling it is always a privilege.

I hope you have enjoyed my journey and trust that you will forgive me, in retrospect, if I have occasionally (perhaps more than occasionally) rambled on for too long, or indulged in passions that weren’t your own.

My thanks to you all for reading and for commenting. It is always better not to write in a vacuum and your thoughts and insights have often triggered ideas of my own.

My thanks to Finnair for choosing four people they didn’t know from Adam and then putting their global network at their disposal. That was a braver act than any of us, even now, can fully appreciate.

Finally, my thanks to the dedicated, welcoming and yes, slightly crazy crew at Myltton, who dreamed up this magnificent adventure and then sold the idea to Finland’s national carrier.

My hat is off to all of you.

*Here’s to you, Douglas Adams

2 Dec 2010
Warren Singh-Bartlett
I was born in Pakistan. My father is English and my mother is Indian. I was brought up between India, Taiwan, Brazil and almost every industrialised city you can think of in England.

Let me be very clear, I’m not an apologist for Imperialism.

I understand that at some time or another, everyone’s done it – although these days, a large swathe of the world conveniently forgets that long before the Europeans, the Arabs and the Asians were busy conquering chunks of the world for themselves.

I also understand that however ‘natural’ the progression to empire, it’s a bad habit, a bit like war, that may be part of our collective history but which ought to have absolutely no place in our (more enlightened) future.

I’ll say one thing about them, those Imperials of old did have a habit of leaving some lovely reminders behind.

Part of one especially lovely reminder

Granada’s Alhambra is a case in point. Part of the longest-lived, and by all accounts, the most glorious of all the assorted Muslim kingdoms that flourished in Dark Ages and Medieval Spain, Granada was one of the first places the Muslims conquered and was the very last place they left, a stay that totalled just over 800 years. The Alhambra itself was only built in the last few centuries of Islamic rule but it is, without doubt, one of the most magnificent buildings the Moors ever built.

Ahhhhhhhlhambra….

Naturally, I chose to visit it on one of Granada’s rare days of torrential rain. Andalucia is the wettest province in Spain, a fact of which I was unaware until my recent visit. It does not rain for most of the year, but when it does, it’s diluvial.

While the rain occasionally stopped from time to time, thus permitting the clouds to part briefly, revealing the fresh snowfall on the Sierra Nevada behind the palace, the sky remained a sullen, leaden grey for my entire visit.

It is a testimony to the Alhambra’s magnificence that the weather did not detract from the experience. Room after room of sumptuously decorated rooms, rich with exquisite tiling, delicate wooden screens, elegantly carved Lebanese cedar ceilings and mind-bogglingly elaborate arabesques cast from a mixture of plaster and marble dust and then shaped into arches, doorways, intricate panels of calligraphy and elegant geometries and stalactite-like clusters called muqarnas.

Magical muquarnas

Given that most of the palace’s decorations have been removed – the Alhambra was abandoned for decades and until the early 20th Century, it was possible to purchase bits of it from gypsy squatters, who were happy to strip walls and floors of decorative tiles for the right price – what remains is so over-whelming that the original must have been beyond breath-taking.

And so I wandered, centuries after muezzin ceased his morning call, I wandered and I wondered. Through garden courtyards with geometric watercourses, every bit as functional as the day they first brought water into the palace.

Still running after all these years

Through pavilions adrift on a sea of tapering pillars, petrified forests supporting magnificent domes, whose every inch of which were covered in such a profusion of mouldings that their abundance and intricacy capture – if such a thing is possible – a snapshot of infinity, frozen forever until the end of time.

Look closely and you might just see god

Do not let Alhambra’s unadorned, almost cubist exteriors fool you. There is no modesty here. For those reddish walls, which give the palace its name (it is actually called the Al-Hamra or the Red One in Arabic) conceal interiors so lavish they would make a Caliph blush.

Being more mortal, I did what any self-respecting visitor would do. I threw back my head and gaped in open-mouthed, slack-jawed, wide-eyed wonder at the miracle wrought around me in timber and stone.

Wander in wonder

2 Dec 2010
Christina Lund Sørensen
I'm a keen collector of refrigerator magnets and I have a newfound passion for 'usu nigori' - sparkling sake

So, friends – the show is over. No more Quality Hunting from this day. My colleague, Wolfgang, already said au revoir and counted how many miles he flew in 60 days. I wish I’d done the same, counted the miles that is, but all I can say is, that it’s A LOT. More than some people fly in a lifetime.

As predicted my most memorable experiences on this trips has not been food, hotels, sights or flights (sorry Finnair, but it hasn’t). What I’ll remember most is the people I’ve met during these past two months. People I already knew and people I met for the first time.

In Tokyo Melinda Joe taught me to enjoy sake and shared her knowledge on Japanese food with me. Hanae was the loveliest company and answered all my silly questions about Japan. And in Osaka Dave volunteered as my tour guide on a day trip to Kyoto.

When I got sick in Prague Marino and Hana offered to drive me to a doctor although they’d never met me. And in Budapest David and his friends were kind enough to let me in on the communist pizza secret.

In Berlin all the amazing people in Biebricherstasse took me in, fed me, washed my clothes and showed me Berlin. Thank you Anna & Co. In London friends once again welcomed me into their home and took me for a Sunday Roast – thank you Gabrielle and Chris. And when I arrived in Stockholm one of my dearest friends picked me up at the bus station and for three nights his home was my home and he cooked me dinner and listened to all my crazy travel stories.

Along the way I’ve even had friends, who flew to Hong Kong and to Paris to see me and spend time with me in my search for quality for Finnair. I believe that’s what you call true friends – Emmanuelle and Gertrud, thank you so much.

And thank you to the Finnair aircrew on my flight to Hong Kong for giving me a wonderful experience.

The biggest thanks of all, is to all the readers and the people who have actively engaged in discussions on travel and has been commenting on my posts. Without the comments and the feedback it wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun writing the blog, also when the feedback has been negative and when you guys didn’t like, what I wrote.

I’d like to make a Top Ten list of things I liked and disliked during the trip, but at the end of the day quality for me might not be quality for my neighbor or for the readers of the blog. So instead of a hit list I’d rather encourage you readers to venture the world to find out what is quality for you.

All there is left to say is Goodbye, thank you for the music and for following my journey. And a Merry Christmas to everyone.

2 Dec 2010
Ella Marshall
I am a self-confessed foodie, I am always seeking to test my taste buds.

So, we have come to the end.

After two months of travelling, blogging and eating (!) I have finished my mission as a Quality Hunter. Was it an eye-opener? Yes. Quality is hard to define, but you know it when you see it. And the best part of this project was realising how diverse quality can be between cities. My best experiences weren’t the ones where I spent a lot of money or was given special treatment. They were those were I felt comfortable, valued and at home. I have seen some crazy things along the way- from chained elephants to 22 light switches in one room, but the bad experiences of quality have only reinforced my acknowledgment of good quality when I come across it.

So, without further ado, I present to you Ella’s Quality Oscars!

Best City- I thought Copenhagen was my perfect match, but then I met my Seoul-Mate. Sorry Danes, but you were pipped to the post at the very last minute. Despite being a sprawling mass that would confuse the most seasoned traveller, Seoul was full of surprises, with some of the friendliest locals I have encountered. Good food, a burgeoning design scene and an diverse range of districts and neighbourhoods, this city has something for everybody.

Most Underrated City- Frankfurt! I was told to expect boredom and gloom in advance, but I feel that Frankfurt offers a lot more than is expected. I loved the fact that I encountered many things to do that involved spending no money whatsoever, which is incredibly difficult in some cities. My only advice to the city would be to toot it’s horn a bit more!

Best Meal- Wow. This is like Sophie’s Choice. I really can’t choose. Probably the meal I had in Phuket in a family run shack by the beach- perfectly cooked Thai style crab and  rice for about 5EUR. 5EUR would just abotu buy me a crab sandwhich in London!

Most Interesting Individual-Tirawan. The hospitality of this woman left me awestruck; inviting me into her home and showroom to give all of us a glimpse into her life and how she defines quality. Tirawan was quality personified and I am so grateful to her for taking the time to introduce me to Quality, Thai style.

Best Hotel- It’s between Sokos Levi and the Park Hyatt Seoul. I’ll go for Sokos because it was one of the cheapest hotels I stayed at (60EUR per night) yet one one of the very few which delivered free internet- always a winner in my book!

Best Flight- New York-Helsinki. Okay, so it’s hard not to have a good time in Business Class, but everything on this flight was good- the service, the food and the fact that I accomplished the unthinkable- a full night’s sleep on a plane. It could be that it was also my first Business Class flight with Finnair too, but it will always be memorable as the first time in my life that  I took a flight without complaining once!

Best Airport- Rovaniemi. Two rooms, four shops, easy check-in, free internet. Easy and simple. Enough said.

Destination I Will Be Returning To ASAP- For the reasons stated above, it has to be Seoul. But I’d also like to return to Helsinki because despite visiting the city consistently throughout this journey, I never really got to explore the city. I’ve made some amazing friends here and it almost feels like a home from home. Except my real home is never that cold.

Most Impressive Sight- by about week three, it was hard for anything to ‘take my breath away’. Not because I was bored or had seen it all, but when you see so many landmarks in such a short time, you don’t really get a chance to savour and contemplate each of them. But St Marks Square (week eight I believe) left me speechless. In fact the whole of Venice did. It was at moments like these that I felt truly lonely though because when you see something so amazing you want to share the experience with somebody in person. Thank goodness for the blog!

Best Overall Quality- I can’t answer this since everywhere had highs and lows and for me, that is the beauty of travel. Every place is unique, with both surprises and letdowns and the best part of this trip was that I was given the opportunity to explore these elements with the support I had.

So, there you have it. Logging off and back to London. Follow me on Twitter if you’d like to be kept updated on any of my future travels or if you would just like to keep in touch. I would like to thank Finnair for providing me with the opportunity of a lifetime despite my age and lack of experience in comparison to the other Hunters. I hope I delivered! And most of all thank you to the readers, especially the regular ones who I feel like I almost know now- Patrick, Stephan, Dana, Mariel, Michael, Peter, Lauren, Lara, Mandy and anybody I have forgotten. Thank you for taking the time to read my posts and comment- I really, REALLY appreciate it.

Happy travelling and a Merry Christmas!!

2 Dec 2010
Ella Marshall
I am a self-confessed foodie, I am always seeking to test my taste buds.

Quick post about my visit to Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art.

Perched on a hill atop the Itaewon district, the gallery is a great demonstration of why Seoul has been designated 2010′s World Design Capital.

Comprising of three buildings designed by Jean Nouvel,  Mario Botta and OMA’s Rem Koohaas, the complex of galleries exhibits an impressive selection of both traditional and modern Korean and international art.

My favourite piece in the museum was a installation by Adad Hannah called 18 Minutes (2010). From afar the piece look like a set of photographs of human beings in everyday situations:

But on closer inspection, you could see that they weren’t photographs at all, but films where the subjects were remaining as still as possible in order to look like a photo:

Can you see them moving slightly?!

Well curated, well designed- even if you are not an art aficionado, go for the amazing architecture…

Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art

747-18, Hannam-dong, Yongsan-gu, T 02 2014 6900, leeum.samsungfoundation.org

2 Dec 2010
Ella Marshall
I am a self-confessed foodie, I am always seeking to test my taste buds.

Firstly, thanks to everybody for the lovely comments on my last post- they were heartwarming and it’s hard to imagine life after this without speaking to you readers everyday and hearing your very helpful feedback.

I thought I would use this post to share with you, what I can only describe as heaven on earth: the Park Hyatt Seoul. First of all, money talks. At about 250EUR a night the hotel wasn’t cheap (we had budgets for each city, so before you think that Finnair gave me a load of money just for this hotel, they didn’t- I just stayed in some cheaper hotels along the way in order to balance out the total spend). I can definitely say that each penny was well spent:

Pure. Luxury. Everything has been thought of. Flat screen television in front of the freestanding bathtub? You got it.

Bathroom stocked with fresh flowers and quality toiletries, the kind that make you a little embarrassed about the products you brought with you? You got it.

Big comfy bed with the softest sheets? You got it.

Amazing views? You got it.

I think  you get it. Notwithstanding the fact that the room is the size of a standard apartment, everything about this hotel and the service it provides is spot on. Staff that greet you by name. The fact that the hotel will pay for a taxi to take you to the airport bus terminal. Proper fresh fruit in your room everyday. A reception that doesn’t put you on hold when you call for assistance. I could go on, but I won’t. The most obvious thing that stood out to me, was the Park Hyatt’s successful accomplishment of pure simplicity. No design gimmicks. No complicated TV/internet systems. A clear layout and inoffensive room interiors. Simple and easy. I believe that this is what travellers want but it just shouldn’t be reserved for the top five star hotels. In fact, I think it’s easier to be ‘simple’ on a budget which is why I am always dismayed when hotels get it so wrong!

But.

It seems that our old friend has come back to haunt us dear readers. Cue horror movie music:

No…

No…

Nooo!

Really? I lost count of how many light switches there were and this is the only thing that lets the room design down. Otherwise, I can say that this is one of the best encounters of quality I have come across on this journey. It’s a shame that it is a bit on the expensive side, especially since we have found on this journey that quality hotels are achievable at a low price- remember the Sokos Hotel in Levi?

So what do you think ? IS 240EUR per night too much for a hotel? Have any readers stayed at a Park Hyatt? What did you think?

And what was your best hotel experience?

1 Dec 2010
Christina Lund Sørensen
I'm a keen collector of refrigerator magnets and I have a newfound passion for 'usu nigori' - sparkling sake

In Paris there is a term known as ’Metro Boulo Dodo’, which is a far more poetic version of, what in English is known as ‘the grind’ or in Danish as ‘trummerum’. It describes the monotony and repetitive things that happens in everyday life in Paris – metro – work – sleep. The same as in any other major city around the globe – a portion of which, I’ve been lucky enough to visit over the past 60 days.

I’ve been observing the ‘metro boulo dodo’ in cities such as Tokyo, London, Hong Kong, Stockholm and now Paris. I’ve had some of my most memorable experiences on metros. I experienced the madness of a tube strike in London, I was saved by a girl in a batman t-shirt on the underground in Tokyo and I enjoyed the history and roughness of the U-bahn in Berlin. Public transportation is the best place to observe the human specie, in my opinion.

In less than 24 hours I’ll be on the metro in Copenhagen on my way to my home, which I haven’t seen for over two months. I will be going back to my own ‘metro boulu dodo’ and I never thought I would say this, but I’ve actually missed it.

One of my favourite Danish poets, Dan Túrell, wrote a poem in which he praises everyday life, the grind, the metro boulo dodo. I’ve never really understood the text in the poem, where he praises the little things like having your morning coffee in your own kitchen or going to sleep in your own bed, but after two moths on the road, 21 flights and a ridiculous amounts of alright, excellent and horrible hotels, I know exactly, what he means.

For two months I’ve had my morning coffee in hotels and airports and my bed has been a hotel bed for most of my journey (or a seat on a Finnair flight). Vantaa Airport has been my second home and the Finnair crew has been my second family and friends and they’ve been absolutely wonderful, but by now I’m looking forward to go home to my real home and my metro boulo dodo.

PS:

If you’re not really into my pseudo philosophical thoughts and all my yadadada, here’s a video of what the Parisians might run into during a day of metro boulo dodo.

1 Dec 2010
Christina Lund Sørensen
I'm a keen collector of refrigerator magnets and I have a newfound passion for 'usu nigori' - sparkling sake

In most European cities Sunday brunch is a well-known phenomenon, but in Paris brunch doesn’t seem to have the same level of popularity as in other cities. Cafes are abundant in all Parisian neighbourhoods and they’ll have the classic crouqe and salads on the menu and a ‘petit dejuner’, but a brunch menu can be tricky to find.

But search no more as my good friend Gertrud, a former resident in Paris, has revealed this little gem to me – Le Réservoir, which I will share with all of readers of this blog.

It doesn’t only have a great brunch buffet, but also has live jazz bands and the perfect atmosphere for a lazy Parisian Sunday. In the company of good friends you can spend the entire day here eating fresh salads, smoked salmon, sausages (with actual meat in them), pain au chocolate, pancakes and a lot of other tasty stuff. And another good thing is that wine is included in the price and it’s ad libitum.

At 25 € it’s a bit pricy, but in my opinion it’s definitely worth it, as you can sit and eat and drink for almost as long as you want. But make sure to make a reservation – Le Réservoir is a popular place on lazy Sundays.

Le Réservoir

16, rude de la Forge Royale

75011 Paris

+33 (o) 143 56 39 60

1 Dec 2010
Ella Marshall
I am a self-confessed foodie, I am always seeking to test my taste buds.

So, regular readers will know that for me this is almost as much as food blog as it is a travel blog! So apologies for the multiple food related posts over the past two months- I promise that this will be be the last…if I can help it.

I couldn’t come to Korea without sampling as much of the infamous cuisine as possible and I was informed by locals that the best way to do this was by following the crowds. It seems that literally every street in the city has about two dozen restaurants offering everything from dolsot bibimbap (meat, rice, vegetables, and a raw egg served in a hot stone bowl which slowly cooks the ingredients) to those specializing in a specific dish (knuckle bone soup anyone? More on that later…).

One of the best meals I have had so far was in a tiny restaurant in the Seoul Station area which, to be honest, I chose for no other reason that I was absolutely starving. Perhaps by European standards it doesn’t look so enticing:

But as always, especially in Asia, a packed eatery is a telling sign of good quality so I followed my gut (geddit?)

I had no idea what I was ordering since there was no menu in English (in fact there was no menu at all), but instead there were signs on the wall which I watched locals pointing to as they ordered. I did the same- who knows, I probably pointed to a sign reading ‘Fire Exit’- but within a couple of minutes I presented with this beauty:

Rice cakes!

Korean meals containing rice cakes (known as Tteok) are for some reason every hard to come by in London, so this was like the Holy Grail of Korean cuisine for me despite being a staple food for most people in Seoul.

Glutinous goodness…

The sauce was deceptively spicy, but nothing I couldn’t handle. This was followed by a doughnut-like dessert which I didn’t manage to catch the name of. Maybe a reader could identify it?

???

On to the next, and most markets seemed to be peppered with stalls offering this snack- some sort of dried octopus tentacle:

Was I brave enough to try it? I’d like to say yes…

Then there’s the famous Korean BBQ, which you have to try at least once in Seoul. Usually served in dedicated restaurants equipped with tables that have barbecue grills inserted within them and overhead extractor fans above each table in order to minimise the fumes, this is more of a communal dining experience where all diners chip in and take turns in cooking the meat (usually beef or pork).

Served with a selection of banchan (small side dishes, like kimchi), the barbecued meat, in this case beef, is cooked and then smeared with a chilli sauce, rolled in a lettuce leaf and eaten.

Believe it or not, this was a portion for one!

Was it a lot of food? Yes. Will I have high cholesterol levels when this trip is done? Probably. Do I care? NO!

So, now on to the ‘knuckle soup’. Whose knuckle was it? No idea, but it was good!

Served in a metal cauldron-like bowl, the soup is still bubbling at the table

The best thing abut this restaurant in the youth-friendly Myengdong area was that it was truly traditional- shoes off, sitting on the floor, no English menu and filled with locals.

I have to say that out of all of the cities that I have visited, Seoul has delivered the most in terms of food (closely followed by NYC and Venice). Yet unlike most other cities, the food is dirt cheap by European standards and yet the quality is always good. In fact, the only places that you are likely to find ‘average’ quality- in my opinion- is in the Western imports found in many of the city’s malls (KFC, Pizza Hut, etc).

I have not had one bad meal here- Seoul food indeed.

1 Dec 2010
Ella Marshall
I am a self-confessed foodie, I am always seeking to test my taste buds.

A cold and windy afternoon in Seoul provided a somewhat ‘rustic’ backdrop for my visit to the city’s Gyeongbokgung Palace, which coincided with the changing of the guard ceremony.

The above video is actually a prelude to the actual changing of the guards which was quite a long winded process and not nearly as interesting; with lots of marching around and standing still…then some more marching…and then standing still!

I was quite disappointed to learn that the palace as it stands is not completely original (the buildings were initially constructed in the 14th century by King Taejo, when it served as Seoul’s principal palace), having being razed by the Japanese in both the 16th and 20th centuries. So what you actually see here toady is only around 40% original with the remainder of the compound consisting of modern reconstructions.

Nonetheless, it was still a spectacular experience and most of all it was so interesting to observe the Korea that is currently being played out in the news and then to observe it first hand in person. There doesn’t seem to be ‘tension’ in the air- people are admirably going about their daily lives as usual, although most kindly advised me not to visit the DMZ (which I had really wanted to go to) at the present time!

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