Tourist experiences

The big trend nowadays is to do tourism without doing “touristy stuff”. What counts for social currency is to do “authentic stuff” and to avoid things that are “made for tourists”. So tourists try to not visit places with too many other tourists, and go out of their way to find “authentic experiences”.

However, our recent holiday in Lisbon showed us that not all “touristy things” are the same. There were ┬átourist experiences we liked, and those that we abhorred. Marginal differences made a huge difference in how we experienced places, and not all “tourist experiences” were bad.

For example, on each of the three days we had breakfast in restaurants that seemed to almost wholly cater to tourists. It was possibly a function of living in a part of town (Alfama) that is now host to a lot of tourists. Each day we would check on google for places to have breakfast at, pick one and go.

All of these places had brunch menus, which were pretty good. All of them seemed overpriced given what I’d heard of Lisbon’s price levels. Waiters all spoke very good English. And people at other tables seemed to be tourists. But the food was generally of a good quality, though coffee was bad.

On the other hand, there were these restaurants where we ended up for lunch at clearly touristy places, where you knew very quickly that the food wasn’t up to the mark. One Asian restaurant we went to (we’d been walking for a while and went in desperation) served Indian Chinese food – not something you’d expect in Europe. The pork belly was cooked excellently, but then slathered with sriracha! The previous day, a restaurant close to the Cathedral had charged a fortune for a bottle of water after denying tap water. The food there was rather ordinary as well.

The contrast in tourist experiences wasn’t just about food. As I mentioned earlier, we were in a touristy part of town called Alfama, but it was a nice touristy part of town. Lines (at the castle, for example) were never too long. No place was that crowded (admittedly we went in the off season, and on weekdays). You never got intimidated. And there was the occasional smile or nod to people you came across.

On the middle day of our trip, though, we headed to Belem (another touristy part of town), to Jeronimo’s Monastery. The tourist experience there was something else. The crowds were massive everywhere. Lines to buy tickets were long. The feeling one got was that if we weren’t careful we might be robbed. There were lots of beggars around. The entire atmosphere was intimidating. It was as if we were longing for “our touristy places”. And in very quick time we had made our way back towards Alfama.

So through the trip I decided that avoiding “touristy places” isn’t a good strategy during holidays – touristy places are touristy for a reason, and the effort to avoid them can be significant. Instead, what we should avoid are tourist traps. We need to do some research and go to places that are well rated. There is nothing wrong in doing touristy stuff. All we need to do is to do the “good touristy stuff”.

Why coffee in Portugal is so bad

The title of this blog post is the text I entered into my google search bar at Lisbon airport, on my way back to London last weekend. What Google showed me on top was a blog post titled “why coffee in Portugal is so good“. The contents of the post, though, had given me the answer.

In terms of coffee cultures, Spain and Portugal are rather similar. Coffee shops usually double up as bars, unlike in England for example. This means that the baristas aren’t particularly skilled, and so you don’t get fancy latte art. The coffees you get are thus espresso, espresso with some milk and espresso with lots of milk. The milk being foamed gives the coffee a good taste, in Spain that is.

The reason coffee in Portugal tastes bad is the same reason that coffee in France tastes bad – it is a result of colonialism.

During the years of the Salazar dictatorship, Portugal was economically isolated. This meant that it could only turn to its colonies for coffee. And the Portuguese colonies (not sure if Brazil is included in this since it became independent way back in the 1800s) exclusively produced Robusta coffee. And Robusta coffee, being inferior to Arabica, is roasted slowly, and produces a bitter brew. Which is what we uniformly got in our trip to Lisbon.

France had a similar story. Though there was no economic isolation, imports from its colonies were subsidised, and this was again largely Robusta coffee. And so, as the roads and kingdoms post linked above explains, coffee in France is bad.

I’m not sure if Spain got/gets most of its colonies from its erstwhile colonies. If it does, it goes a long way in explaining the quality of coffee in Spanish cafes, despite them doubling up as bars and not necessarily having skilled Baristas. For the likes of Colombia and Ecuador and Honduras produce absolutely brilliant Arabica coffee.

 

Liverpool

While I absolutely remain a fan of Liverpool Football Club, and had a fascinating tour of their facilities this morning, I’m not such a big fan of the city itself. Somehow overall the experience there (barring some taxi rides and the Anfield experience itself) was not particularly great.

For starters, it doesn’t help that the city has lousy weather. Being up north, in England and on the coast means there are strong winds, and it can be pretty bad when it rains. Then, when I got off the train station last night, the city seemed dead and the roads that I walked on until I found a taxi were deserted.

And this afternoon, after I had finished my stadium tour and went to the renowned Albert Docks, the experience there was similar as well. Rather dull and without too many people around. And once again the weather didn’t help matters.

And then there is the hotel I stayed in last night. The check in and check out were rather pleasant and I mostly got a good night’s sleep as well, but a former office building converted to a hotel can be a bit depressing. The room was rather small, with the bed stuck to two walls. And a part of it had been earmarked for the bathroom anyway. Even this morning when I got out of the hotel the area wasn’t really bustling (this was in central Liverpool).

And while I found the breakfast to be pretty good (I got a a “large English breakfast”), the service and decor of the restaurant wasn’t particularly appealing. And as I got out of the restaurant, I saw a “up for sale” board on the door!

Anyway, it’s just a few data points. However, in hindsight I feel less bad now about not booking my ticket to York yesterday itself, which would’ve cut my journey cost by 50%. Without a booked ticket, not finding the place particularly interesting meant I could quickly get to the station and take the next train onward.

So here I am, nearing York (I’m finishing this post now in a hurry since I should reach any time now, and I don’t want to scramble). The views on the journey have been rather stunning. The big breakfast meant that I didn’t need to have lunch today. And I had some beer and peanuts and cake on the train and am feeling happy about it now!

The only sore point is that soon after I had bought beer from the cart on the train, the conductor announced that the toilets on train aren’t working. In any case, York isn’t far away!

Cheers

This is Anfield

 

I had a massive fanboy time this morning, as I went on my long-awaited (nearly 14 years) pilgrimage to Anfield, home of the Liverpool Football Club. As I had mentioned in my post last night, this was the explicit purpose of my visit to Liverpool, and I had left home with only three bookings – train to Liverpool, hotel in Liverpool and the Anfield tour.

So after having polished off a “large Full English” (in hindsight, I’m thankful for that) at a local cafe close to my hotel, I took an Uber to Anfield. The driver was also a Liverpool fan and we spent time chatting about last afternoon’s game, when Liverpool played insipidly to draw across Stanley Park with Everton. I was in good time for the tour (that was to start at 11), and spent the time walking along the outside of the Main Stand.

There are benches dedicated to Liverpool’s greatest players of all time, and the floor is tiled with names of members (not all members I think – perhaps those that made contributions to rebuild the Main Stand 3 years ago). I paid my respects at the Hillsborough Memorial and walked back to the Kop end where the entrance to the Stadium Tour is situated.

The tour started on the sixth floor of the newly redeveloped Main Stand (if you’ve wondered why TV broadcasts of Liverpool games suddenly started showing a very high angle, this is the reason). Our guide Terry first took us to the hall where there were photos of “Liverpool’s six great managers”.

The choices were interesting – Shankly, Paisley, Fagan, Dalglish, Houllier and Benitez. As the Elo ratings show, these were all definitely managers who improved Liverpool, sometimes in a significant way (though the last two also let things slip considerably towards the end of their reigns.

I sensed some sort of discomfort in the group. Evidently, a majority were Liverpool fans, but talks about “the purpose of the club being to win trophies” and talking up of the number of trophies won so far brought up the painful reality that we’ve “AJMd” on a league, a europa league and a champions league in the last five years itself, and look on course to AJM the league once again. Nobody really wanted to point out that things aren’t going as well as we would like.

In any case, the tour moved on and our guide Terry was excellent, though sometimes he went back to familiar cliches. Describing the miracle of Istanbul, for example, he made the familiar joke of “Milan had Kaka, and we had Djimi Traore, and yet we managed to win”.

We moved on to a view of the pitch from the highest tier of the main stand, my first impression was that this is a rather “cosy” stadium. Now, the only other stadiums I’ve been to are the behemoths Camp Nou and Wembley, and in comparison to them, Anfield looked rather intimate. That also suggested why the crowd at Anfield is sometimes like “Liverpool’s 12th man”, as a poster outside the away dressing room claimed.

The small stadium means the crowd noise can reverberate easily around the stadium. The Anfield Road End is yet to be redeveloped, and once that happens the stadium will become “taller”, meaning the noise levels might get higher. Looking at the pitch from up the Main Stand gave me another regret – that I haven’t watched a game at Anfield (though I did watch Liverpool play at Wembley). Hopefully sometime in this lifetime I’ll fulfil that!

There were cutouts of various players placed near the dressing rooms. Salah’s was the most popular as everyone lined up to take a selfie with him. Rather than waiting there, I managed selfies with cutouts of all of Firmino, van Dijk and Alisson. The dressing rooms were impressive (especially the Home dressing room). I also found the differences between home and away dressing rooms interesting – the home room is soundproof while the away room isn’t. The home room has lighting control to adjust the lighting to the pitch. The away room has no such facilities. These are subtle differences we don’t appreciate as TV viewers, but can have a profound impact on the game.

And based on this, I don’t mind the draws at Manchester United and Everton that much!

 

You’ll Never Walk Alone

I first became a fan of Liverpool FC in April 2005, on the day of the first leg of their Champions League semifinal against Chelsea. While I was in London for a month and half after that, I never really executed on the pilgrimage to Anfield. Instead I went on trips around the country which my friends had planned.

For a long time, this was on my To-Do list. Yet, I continued to be lazy. I moved to England exactly two years ago, but had somehow kept putting off my trip to Liverpool. The initial plan had been to do it with family, carrying my daughter as she put her hands on the “this is anfield” signboard.

Finally, as it happens, I’ve made the trip just before we end our current stint in London and move back to India. And unlike that plan of that photo-op of my daughter with her hand on the “this is anfield” sign, I’ve come to Liverpool alone.

I don’t know the last time I had one an “unplanned trip”. This time I did some planning, though, but haven’t booked much. As things stand now, I’ve only booked my train to Liverpool (which I took this evening), my hotel for the night (where I’m writing this from) and the Anfield tour for tomorrow morning.

In my eagerness to get to the hotel after the train rolled in to Liverpool Lime Street at 10:20 PM tonight, I exited the station without bothering to see where the taxi rank was. And then google maps told me I could get a bus nearby, so I walked alone for a bit. There was a bunch of bus stops but it was unclear what bus I should take. So I walked on.

And presently an empty taxi came that way. And I hopped in. The taxi driver told me that my hotel is “one of the several old office complexes that have now become hotels” in Liverpool, “all thanks to the football”, he said. The room does look weird. It’s among the smallest hotel rooms I’ve stayed in, perhaps smaller than the one in Hong Kong.

I dont have the enthu to get up now, so here’s a photo of my room from my bed (that glass wall you see on the left is the bathroom). I trust what my taxi driver told me – I can fully imagine this little space having been a meeting room or office cabin once upon a time.

Anyways, off to bed now. Anfield beckons tomorrow morning! Never mind today’s derby result, and that we’re behind in the title race now.

Somerset wanderings

So we went for a road trip. To be precise, four adults and three children rented a car and drove down to a relative’s place in Cornwall, and all the way back. And on the way back, we saw Stonehenge. Rather, tried to see it, failed, and then stumbled upon it. For more details, read on.

The premise is that my wife’s cousin and her family are visiting us, and on Friday all of us set out to my wife’s uncle’s (same “side” as the visiting cousin) house in Cornwall. The idea of driving there was that on the way, or the way back, we could “cover” some tourist attractions that were hard to do by public transport, such as Stonehenge.

There are times when I pride myself on my planning. Such as this afternoon when we were driving from Cornwall towards Stonehenge, on our way back to London. On the way to Cornwall on Friday, I had noticed that the rest stops on the “M” motorways were much better equipped than those on the “A” highways (admittedly based on one fully sampled data point each, along with signboards). Our journey from Cornwall to Stonehenge had a short stretch on an M motorway sandwiched between two A highways. And I announced a slightly early lunch break so we could take advantage of the better facilities.

A post-prandial double espresso relieved me of the severe headache caused by caffeine withdrawal symptoms, and I presently took the wheel. Ten minutes later, I had taken a wrong turn at a roundabout which meant we were back on our motorway rather than motoring way towards Stonehenge. The wife, who was sitting next to me and navigating, proudly announced that the estimated time of arrival hadn’t changed due to my mistake.

I don’t know if the estimated time of arrival changed during the next hour and three-quarters, but most of that time was spent driving through the country roads of Somerset and some surrounding counties. There were hills and valleys and grasslands and sheep. We frequently passed through beautiful forests, which retained a tinge of green despite it being winter. The roads were mostly two-lane (one in each direction), and the sceneries kept changing.

Sometimes I like to describe my wife as being my “conscience keeper”, for she quickly pulls me back when I make the sort of mistakes I normally caution people against. For example, for the last six years I’ve been lecturing about cognitive biases, and I fell right into one of them when I said “I guess missing the exit wasn’t too bad after all, since we’ve been rewarded with such beautiful scenery”. “Well”, she replied, “you can’t say that because you don’t know what you really missed (in the road not taken)”. I quickly complimented her on how smart she is and drove on.

It was windy. Occasionally it was foggy. It even rained a fair bit. And the kids were screaming in the back of the car. But it was a most pleasurable journey. By the time we got close to Stonehenge, I thought to myself that it wouldn’t matter if we couldn’t see Stonehenge – the journey itself had been worth it (I’m not sure the adults in the back of the car shared this view).

And then it turned out that I had wished for too much. I have mentioned earlier about how I pride myself on my planning abilities, such as optimisation of lunch breaks. One thing I had failed to plan on, though, was Stonehenge’s opening hours. I had only seen that the place is open till 5, not that the last entry is at 3 pm. And when we happily drove past meadows of sheep and signs warning us that tanks might be crossing the road to finally reach Stonehenge, we were politely asked to turn back by security personnel.

Not having a place to park suitably as the wife tried to find directions home, I just drove round and round a roundabout. Directions found, the next order of business was to give some tired arses a rest, and to comfort the screaming kids strapped into their child seats. I quickly pulled into the first available hard shoulder on the A303, without waiting for a designated “service area” (with toilets and restaurants and fuel). By the time we had reoriented ourselves and pulled out of there, there was a traffic backlog ahead of us.

The road dipped and then rose again. Until the dip, there was bumper-to-bumper traffic. Beyond it, I saw cars go freely. It was similar in the other direction – there was bumper-to-bumper traffic leading up to the dip. After that, there was free movement of cars.

My first thought was that there was possibly an accident there. I soon dismissed that and thought there were sheep on the road (there were plenty in the meadows around). And then someone in the back figured out why the traffic had backed up from the dip from both directions – Stonehenge was clearly visible from there, and people had been slowing down to take pictures!

So here is one such picture taken from our car, along with a few others from our trip over the last few days.

Cousin-in-law-in-law drove the “home stretch”, which I didn’t mind at all since it was mostly along motorways which I find boring. I absolutely enjoyed driving around Cornwall yesterday (though we didn’t see that much of the famed Cornish coast), and the unexpected roads of rural Somerset today.

 

Vacation Shopping

This is yet another of those questions whose answer seems rather obvious to everyone, and to me in full hindsight, but which has taken me a long time to appreciate

For a long time I never understood why people shop during vacations, when both time and luggage space are precious commodities. With global trade, I reasoned that most clothes should be available at reasonably comparable prices worldwide, and barring some special needs (such as a certain kind of shoes, for example), there was no real need to shop on vacations.

The last day of our trip to Munich in June convinced me otherwise. That was the only day on the trip that the wife was free from work, and we could go out together before our afternoon flight. The only place we ended up going out to turned out to be a clothing store, where the wife freaked out shopping.

It didn’t make sense to me – she was shopping at a chain store which I was pretty certain that I had seen in London as well. So why did she shop while travelling? And she shopped far more than she does in a normal shopping trip in London.

In hindsight, the answer is rather simple – diversity. While the same stores might exist in various countries or cities, each is adapted to local tastes and prevailing fashions. And while everyone watches the same “runways” in Milan and Los Angeles, there is always a subtle difference in prevailing styles in different places. And clothes in the stores in the respective places are tailored (no pun intended) to these styles.

And it can happen that the local prevailing styles are not something that you particularly agree with. For example, for years together in Bangalore I struggled to find plain “non-faded” jeans – most people there seemed to demand faced or torn jeans, and stores responded to serve that demand (interestingly, jeans shopping in my last Bangalore trip was brilliantly simple, so I guess things have changed).

Similarly, the wife finds it hard to appreciate most dresses in the shops in London (and I appreciate why she doesn’t appreciate them – most of the dresses are a bit weird to put it mildly), and as a result hasn’t been able to shop as much in recent times. She had taken to claim that “they don’t seem to be making normal clothes any more”.

But the styles in London aren’t correlated with the styles in Munich (or elsewhere), with the result that in that one chain store in Munich, she found more nice dresses than she had in some 20 shopping trips over a year in London.

Fashion suffers from the “tyranny of the majority“. It makes eminent sense for retailers to only stock those styles and models that have a reasonably high demand (or be compensated for stocking low-demand items with a high enough margin – I have a chapter on this in my book). So if your styles don’t match with those of people around you, you are out of luck. ┬áBut when you travel, you have the chance to align yourself to another majority. And if that alignment happens, you’re in luck!

PS: On a separate note, I’m quite disappointed with the quality of clothes in London. Across brands, they seem to wear much faster than those bought in continental Europe or even in India.