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The journey to Istanbul and our First Night

I hadn’t even thought about the train journey. But it was just my luck that there were gale-force winds. When I got to the station many trains were cancelled or delayed.

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There were crowds of people staring at the boards in desperation, or anxiously chatting into their mobile phones. I assumed the worst, but scanning down I saw my train was at least running and only delayed by five minutes. I had set off at a perfectly respectable hour, 2pm. I even had time for a haircut and colour and had made the split decision to go brunette. I wasn’t sure of it, but the styling was good. By the time I got to London my train had been delayed by half an hour and my boyfriend had already had dinner.

When we got to the airport hotel I was suitably impressed; it was the sort that had Kettle Chips in the vending machine.

The next morning we were up at 7am which was easy enough. From there we drove to the cheap car park my boyfriend had booked online and then took a transfer bus the short distance to the airport. I hadn’t been to Gatwick before and was pleased with the variety of shops on offer. It wasn’t hard to choose where to have breakfast – Jamie Oliver had a restaurant there, which was a pleasant surprise. I expected only low-calorie options after his drive for healthy meals and so was astounded that a “full English” was on the menu. 019

After that I felt as heavy as my cabin bag, which luckily made it on to the plane with 0.2kg to spare for souvenirs on the way back.

We flew by Turkish Airlines and they were excellent, with complimentary Turkish Delight of course. I read my pocket guide book and phrase book and attempted to test my boyfriend, but he had no interest in it and said they’d speak English anyway. He was probably right but I wanted to make an effort. I then leafed through the book that had almost taken me over the 8kg limit: “Strolling Through Istanbul”, a fascinating guide book of the history and attractions of Istanbul. Unfortunately sometimes there was so much detail that I found myself reading the same paragraph multiple times. It all blurred into one literally as I found myself getting tired. 023 As we arrived four hours later, we flew low across the entire city. On emerging from the clouds we first passed long lines of hills illuminated purple in the sunset. Then as we got closer I caught glimpses of domes and minarets, even getting a picture of the Haggia Sophia (pronounced “Aya Sofya” in Turkish) and the suspension bridges criss-crossing the Bosphorous. It was magical.

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View of Haggia Sophia from the plane. Originally a church and built around 500AD, it rises majestically into the air. From the ground its minarets appear to touch the clouds.

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The Bosphorous

However we were brought sharply down to earth (and not just on the runway) when we tried to get out of the airport. It took us a while to find  the subway as there were not many signs until you had actually reached it. Then we assumed they would have ticket offices. No, there were only machines, and they didn’t take anything less than 10 Lira. This was a bit of a problem, we only had 100 Lira notes.

I sleepily suggested going back into the airport and buying something, at which my boyfriend pointed to the queue of disgruntled travellers waiting to get their bags through security. Oh of course. Well why didn’t we see if there were any shops in this large hall area then. We couldn’t see any nearby but I thought surely there would be some further along. Exasperated, we followed the sign for “buses”. This led to a car park with a couple of minivans parked up and guys sitting around smoking (almost everyone smokes in Istanbul).

So we headed back inside, with my boyfriend now thoroughly agitated and fed up. By this time we’d probably spent half an hour finding the place and wondering what to do, so my boyfriend finally decided to give my idea a chance and we went off in search of a shop. Sure enough, we found a “market shop” further down. We breathed a sigh of relief and bought refreshments. I got some sickly sweet cherry juice (I found most of their drinks are either too sweet or too bitter) and some watermelon chewing gum, what a novelty. We then spent some time trying to distinguish our route from the blurred map available and worked out that we’d need to buy a 3 Lira token for any number of stops in one direction. What a bargain compared to the tube in London!

My first impressions of Istanbul (formerly termed “Constantinople”) were that there were lots of mosques… 042

and stray cats… 039 It was heartbreaking seeing the poor mangy fluffy things scavenging in bins, some of them mere kittens. My boyfriend loved watching though them as he has a pet cat.

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I was expecting a standard modern posh hotel. However when we got there it was more vintage posh, or at least had been once. There were signs that the place was a shadow of its former self and the decor was quite overpowering. Everything was gold or crimson, even the walls. My favourite part of it was the winding staircase all the way up, which made me feel like a princess. The roof terrace was also fantastic, offering views across the city. We just walked up there and it was deserted.

Our bed was a modest double but all in gold velvet, with “Palace” written slightly off to one side in the middle. When we went into the bathroom there was a hanging basket overflowing with freebies, from dental kits to fluorescent blue shampoos.

There was a spa in the basement and I proposed we relax from our airport ordeal with a massage. We went down to the reception, which consisted of a small bar. When we turned around there was a small swimming pool and some rooms behind it, presumably the steam room and sauna.

After five minutes or so a young blonde and a Chinese girl turned up and booked us in. I went for a Swedish and my boyfriend went for a “Medical” as he had a sore back. We were sent to two rooms with glass doors. Thankfully part of them were opaque. There we were covered with so much oil that after having every limb attended to we slid off the table and into our clothes a little too easily.

I discovered that the girl I thought was Chinese was actually from Uzbekistan and had emigrated to Turkey for a better life. She had come from a large family and had considered going to university in Uzbekistan but it had been too expensive, so she was now excitedly saving for hairdresser college. She said she preferred Turkey as it was cheaper and there was more to do. None of her family had joined her and had no plans to, and I thought she was rather brave, being just 21 years old.

Following that my boyfriend and I could hardly keep our eyes open and we stumbled upstairs in a happy sleepy daze.

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December 15, 2013 · 10:03 pm

A night in Essex

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Surprises always carry some element of risk. So when I headed off down to Essex I just had to cross my fingers and hope for the best. But that made it exciting.

It required careful planning and some subtle questions. I booked time off work and the ticket. Then I asked where to send a birthday card, and whether it would be ok if it arrived a day early. I was arriving then as I had plans on the Friday – my friend had booked time off work to visit me and as she lived in London had kindly agreed to make it a road trip. I knew which station was closest as I had visited my boyfriend before. Then I had to find out what sort of birthday cake he wanted. So I said I was going to buy him a cake slice after work, what sort did he want. He was home the weekend before, back from working down in Essex. We had a rather heated discussion with him saying he didn’t want me to buy anything and with me still trying to find out what he wanted. I probed further at Birmingham, when as chance would have it we walked past a Patisserie Valerie counter in the Bullring shopping mall. I had already decided this was the most suitable option. I had previously spotted the cafe whilst trying to locate Boots in both stations to get an urgent product for a friend. Instead of having a cake going off on the train journey down I could buy it fresh there. Perfect! I love Patisserie Valerie. It’s so pretty and tasty and the cakes are unlike anything else I have seen.

So once at St Pancras I walked over to Kings Cross as the cafe is larger there. I picked up the fruits of the forest tart which I had discovered was the ideal birthday dessert. I was a bit worried it would get squashed on the connecting tube journey but luckily it was fine and in good packaging. Five hours later I was at a station in the middle of nowhere. I tried to call my boyfriend and it went to voicemail. I paniced a little. Plan B had not been settled upon, as I knew where my boyfriend was staying and what time he finished work. So I text him and then read a book about walking through Istanbul. It recommended the Galeta Bridge for a view of the ancient buildings. I decided Plan B was waiting until 9pm when he would have finished work at the latest and then getting a £25 taxi. This would cost as much as the cheap advance fare down covering two trains and the tube, for what was a 40 minute bus journey.

I breathed a sigh of relief as I saw my boyfriend calling. He didn’t sound as delighted as I had hoped, but that was due to a 6am-6pm day. He assured me in the car that he was delighted and seemed surprised by the Patisserie Valerie bag. He said he had no idea what it was. He’d obviously forgotten our discussions on two occasions on the subject with the amount of 12 hour days he had worked.

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We checked in to his lovely four star hotel and had a family room with two double beds. I looked forward to a good night’s sleep without the covers being pulled off me or being rolled into or trying to fit around a sleeping starfish. Like the Marriott the bathroom was all marble, with gold taps. They could have been cleaned a little better but after 027reading a microbiologist’s recommendations on hotels I knew that didn’t really matter, walking round in my flip flops. I was annoyed I’d forgotten antibacterial wipes which the article had said should be used for wiping down door handles and remotes. I’d checked it when I last stayed at the hotel when wondering whether to use the bath, and in the absence of a “chlorine bleach wipe” decided not to.

We went out to a Chinese restaurant, as the hotel’s restaurant menu is a bit limited. It looked like a former pub and had the words “Chinese, Thai and English cuisine” plastered on the front. The decor was lovely, all red Chinese lanterns. I chose the Thai menu and had a lovely creamy coconut and green curry soup with prawns and some rather 042interesting meat that tasted a little too slimy to be chicken. It was delicious though. Then I ordered pork sweet and sour. I imagined thin beef sirloin strips but instead I got fatty deep fried pork. I struggled through it as I didn’t want to cause a scene for my boyfriend’s birthday meal. An hour or two later I felt quite queasy- as I have IBS my digestion doesn’t cope well with fatty food. I made myself try a bit of the birthday tart – I wanted to see whether it was value for money. However it was just a biscuit base, some cream and some fruit. I was a bit disappointed but it looked great and my boyfriend enjoyed it. He saved some for work in his hotel fridge.

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When I settled down onto the bed once again I was disappointed that it was a firm mattress. This meant I couldn’t sleep. My boyfriend can sleep whenever he wants to, as long as he’s not too hot or cold. But I woke up every hour or so and in the morning awoke after a fitful sleep with a sore back. A double-blind study has confirmed this link. Jonny rushed off in the dead of night taking the tart for his colleagues to enjoy.

I now had the mission of getting to Edgware station. I had to take a bus in the middle of nowhere. Google said it was opposite the hotel but after walking around for some time I couldn’t see a stop. So I waited on the grass verge with cars whizzing past, one honking its horn at me. I started to feel a bit silly and wished I could hitch a lift. But miraculously the bus appeared from nowhere. The first one had not been until 9am, so I had told my friend the earliest I could arrive was midday. This meant we had more motorway traffic. I was the only person on the bus and told the driver to tell me when we got to the destination. I got off on a narrow country lane and walked round the corner to the next stop. Thankfully this time there was a bus shelter. No information though and I was unsure if I was on the right side of the road to do the next leg of the journey.

Then some old ladies turned up, all made up with bouffant dyed hair, talking about how they were going on holiday and how one of them had been exploring the local area with her free bus pass. It was a small village and they clearly knew everyone. I relaxed a bit when I heard one of them say that she was going to the station I was going to.

After winding round country lanes I queasily arrived at the station and felt proud of myself for getting there and saving £23.50 in the process. I did miss a train due to a typically slow bus but luckily the next train was delayed by a minute, arriving just a couple of minutes after my scheduled one. Then I took two tubes to complete the three hour journey. It was wonderful to make it to Edgware solely on public transport and to be able to plan with accuracy using transportdirect –  I had reliable times, maps and plenty of details.

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My friend then drove us with her friend for five hours up to London. It was a Friday and traffic meant a stop-start 071ride. I ate chocolates as I watched the entertaining sight of a bus going backwards – it looked like it was being driven instead of towed. I also enjoyed a hot spiced apple drink with cinammon and star anise in Costa Coffee, my favourite drink.

I had a lovely time in Essex although next time I think I’ll order something different at the Chinese, or perhaps try pub food.

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A weekend in Birmingham

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I feel like a villager in Birmingham. It’s a city for giants, with skyscrapers touching the clouds all around. If you have money to spare it’s a lovely place for a night out.

My boyfriend’s university friends were having a reunion. I imagined a rowdy night out with mostly guys, as it had been last year. But this year there was a married couple who worked at a charity for children with learning difficulties and a physicist with his Masters student girlfriend. Or at least that’s as much as I could gather from the conversation. I was feeling a bit shy. I had said I didn’t mind staying at home and working – after all my boyfriend was offered a spare bed. But when I saw the company I could see why he was keen for me to come.

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We rolled up at the Marriott Hotel. It had been the only last-minute booking available and my boyfriend grumbled about it and said it was “just a hotel”. But it wasn’t “just a hotel” to me. Although there were smudges of something on the marble floor under the light, everything else was clean. The bathroom was mostly marble, with pretty shell mirror lights. The room was standard, except that it had a nice wooden wardrobe and three windows, two of which opened. I was expecting a kettle and teas for the price but it was still a treat. I was so tired later I didn’t mind the firm mattress, which is just how my boyfriend likes it, though he really doesn’t need the extra support.

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Spot Santa!

I was going to put on a short party skirt and top but luckily my boyfriend told me that we would be outside for a while at the German market, so I kept my acrylic LBD (long black dress) on. The whole of the city centre was covered in little wooden huts with fake greenery and baubles on the top. There were Santas on the rooves and a large Christmas tree. It was “Frankfurt” in Birmingham and the prices were probably just as ridiculous. The atmosphere was lovely though and there was one stall selling incredible hand-crafted chocolates in tool shapes – there were pliers, bolts, calipers, cameras, instruments and hammers. All the details were so delicate.

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We went to a French restaurant, Le Truc. I had a lovely hot spiced apple cocktail with a slice of apple in. It warmed me up and tasted sweet and delicious. We sat down to dinner and I ordered onglet. I wasn’t sure what it was but it sounded fancy, and with beef dripping chips. I asked one of the company what it was and I heard “snake”. I proudly announced to my boyfriend that I was having the most exotic dish. He didn’t know what onglet was but asked why they would serve snake. I asked the waitress and apparently it was steak. She asked how my boyfriend would like his steak. I told her he likes it freshly killed with blood still oozing from it. When he served it to me for the first time recently I could still taste the blood and felt a bit sick.

The onglet arrived but gristle was a better description. I couldn’t cut it. I struggled for a while and then gave up, ordering a fillet steak instead. When it came it was the best I’d tried, juicy, succulent and full of flavour. It was £17.50 for that and some standard chips – I couldn’t taste the beef dripping apparently on them, and a couple of leaves of spinach. I also had a goats cheese starter that was a slice of fried goats cheese on a potato cake. I thought it wasn’t much for £6.

I shared my boyfriend’s creme brulee for dessert and that was delicious. I’d IMG_0016only taken £50 cash to the city, thinking I would just be going for dinner and maybe a few drinks, but the drinks were so lovely I ended up spending £40 on two cocktails and the meal. The surroundings were nice with chandeliers and arty sketches and cartoons, and there was actually a French waiter. He was asked whether there were any nuts in the tart or sticky toffee pudding and didn’t understand until I translated rather falteringly with what I could remember.

Gingers was a lovely cocktail bar. They were really tasty and there was a wide variety on the menu. They were £6.50 each so I tried to make mine last. I had a strawberry milkshake one with a little too much alcohol in, it was quite sharp. Some were £8.50.

Although it was a classy establishment, unfortunately shortly after we sat down someone projectile vomited out of the toilet door (clearly more money than sense) and there were no other seats free. We were soon breathing through our mouths due to the chlorine bleach cleaning operation underway from a glamourous member of staff in a figgure-hugging LBD (also long). Ladies tottered around her in ridiculous heels, wearing fancy short dresses, fake-style make-up, curled freshly-dyed hair bouncing about. It was lovely being able to talk – the music was in the background and there wasn’t a dancing area, one wouldn’t want to encourage drink-spilling and debauchery.

My boyfriend took great delight in ordering “the gayest thing on the menu”. He had been yawning since the restaurant and after enjoying IMG_0023a sweet “Pink Panther” cocktail in a delicate little glass yawned until everyone followed suit and decided to call it a night. Most of the company were 30 or over and clearly weren’t used to such late nights.

In the morning I was annoyed that I woke up too late to enjoy the hotel pool. I enjoyed using the marble bathroom and the novelty of riding in a lift with a carpet and a mirror though.

We went to brunch at one of The Independent’s top 50 cafes. Nothing on the meu cost less than £6 so it was a bit pricey, and for that I only got three IMG_0041Scottish pancakes with maple syrup, bacon, a couple of blueberries and a strawberry. When we ordered tea I asked what tea they had and they said Earl Grey or ordinary. I wasn’t impressed. The salmon and poached egg brunch was probably what impressed reviewers, it looked like better value for money. There were wooden tables and the tea came in a lovely knitted tea-cosy. It was called The Plough and the toilet was rather fancy, all wood pannelling with their own soap and hand cream.

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We then went round the Christmas market again. I had a potato pancake, deep-fried. It was very fatty and chewy and not to my taste, even with the apple sauce. Others had little dough balls. I tried one but they were also chewy and fatty. Not worth £4 but they looked pretty.

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Then we went round the Bullring shopping mall. It just had chain stores in but we got lunch there. We marvelled at the cakes and tarts at the Patisserie Valerie counter. I asked whether my boyfriend wanted a tart for his birthday (on Friday). I said he was only allowed an edible one though.

We rushed to the station only to discover that when I was really tired I had bought a ticket from Sheffield to Birmingham instead of the other way round, having booked a ticket from Sheffield to London for our upcoming trip to Istanbul at the same time. My boyfriend was driving down south for an 11 day shift, working away. I’m going to London the day before we fly  and my boyfriend is picking me up and taking me to the airport hotel. I bought him return flights and he’s treating me to free 4 star spa hotel accommodation throughout the trip, as he stays away so often with work that he has lots of points he can use.

So my knight in shining armour not only bought me drinks and my Christmas presents but then had to buy my train fare home. He’s refusing to let me pay him back so I’ll get him something nice for Christmas instead.

I’m really looking forward to the next two weekends and I’ll tell you all about them as soon as I can.

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Looks are deceiving

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On Saturday my boyfriend booked a “Royal” “Hotel” in Birmingham. The rooms looked modern and clean and the price was reasonable, reduced by £20.

As our taxi drove up the road we spotted a prison and a housing estate with an equally high fence. Then we stopped in front of a rundown pub. There were people hanging around it smoking with their beer. We both checked whether this was indeed the “Royal” “Hotel”. The pub’s car park was labelled as the hotel one. As my boyfriend crashed up the kerb entrance, we saw youths in tracksuits smoking and drinking outside the pub disco – all 90s music played through a sound system of the same era. Asbestos hung out of the car park ceiling where something had crashed into it.

Making our way past the leering locals, and already feeling rather out of place, we squinted in the disco lights as we were assaulted by noise. I wondered if the car would last the night and what delights we could expect in our accommodation. Trying to find reception, we walked through the disco and into the main pub. We spoke to the barman, and minutes later a pleasant, thin, anxious young man appeared. He took payment at the bar and then accompanied us. It was a bizarre experience being in a pub disco waiting for our hotel lift to arrive.

The second floor was completely different. There were modern-looking hotel rooms and framed pictures of the city centre in the cleaned corridors. We were shown into our room. The bed was a decent size and I was impressed with IMG_0853[1]the cleanliness. Instead of a kettle they had a “Tea-Mate”, a fast boiling tea pot. This looked fancy so I took the pot out and had a look. Mould floated in the water. I poured it out. It was marked with multiple drinks.

We left for Birmingham city centre. I was amazed at the size of the buildings, towering around us. I felt as small as an ant in a human’s world. The taxi driver remarked that there were too many people in Birmingham. He said there was a big problem with illegal immigrants putting a strain on the city, and that developers had demolished the beautiful old buildings and replaced them with ugly new architecture like the Bullring. He took us to Chinatown, as we wanted a reasonably priced restaurant meal.

496We found a diner, China Town Noodle Bar, off the main street. The decor was basic, just laminated wooden tables and plastic chairs. I was put off, but my boyfriend was keen. I was persuaded when I noticed the customers were mostly Chinese. We were seated in front of a roast duck, complete with head and legs, and a roast chicken, shining as they rotated. I’d never seen a whole cooked duck before. I ordered some in a noodle soup. It was delicious, and I had it with cream soda, not generally available when eating out.

We had a great night. When we collapsed into bed in the “4*” “hotel” we realised that our “bed” was in fact beds put together. A thin sheet covered the mattress.

At 7.40 there was knocking on the door and incoherent shouting. My boyfriend was asked to move his car as it was in the way. He’d only parked in the space because someone was reversing out of it. I opened the curtains to our grit bin and road view. My throat, dry like paper, demanded a drink. There was none due to the bacteria-laden pot. So I had a shower with the “toiletries” – two thin pink soaps. It was really powerful and I enjoyed it until I began wading in the previous occupant’s dirt from the partially-blocked drain.

I avoided the exfoliating towel and used my own. With filthy feet we went to breakfast. There were no staff around, although we were 5 minutes before closing time. Finally the cook came down and grumbled as much as our stomachs. He told us he had cooked for 15 but only 9 had booked, so it was a case of “making do” with what was available. We had never experienced this sort of customer service before. Apparently when guests complained about the noise keeping them up, he told them they “should have slept in the day instead”!

I sat down expecting scraps. In fact we got a lovely cooked breakfast, so it didn’t matter that the toast was burnt. “Was everything ok?” asked a barmaid as we left. I didn’t have the heart to comment.

The moral of the story? If you’re booking a hotel, check it out on Google Map street view first. Our “hotel” had good reviews on our booking website, so always check Trip Advisor first.

On the other hand, don’t be put off by the appearance of a diner/restaurant. It may serve excellent food despite the decor.

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