A Travellerspoint blog

Five Best and Worst Coffee Experiences

sunny -1 °C

I love coffee! Check out this rundown of five experiences, good and bad, that sum up my relationship with the beautiful bean...

5. Best - Coffee outdoors

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Coffee on Curracloe Beach, Ireland 2008

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Coffee on the Seine gazing at the Eiffel Tower, 2001

While the arrival of summer may make many people think of sport and adventure activities, I have to say sunshine - much like cold or wet weather - generally just makes me want to sit around! With the possible exception of beers in the open, there's no better way to do this than to grab a coffee and sit outside and watch the world go by. You can do this equally well with friends or by yourself with a iPod and something to read, and it's a pastime you can set up in seconds almost anywhere in the world (see no. 2).

4. Worst - The corporate Starbucks counter

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(Photo: hartini)

I have nothing against Starbucks per se: in fact I find it quite tasty, especially Pike Place brewed coffee. Moreover, in some parts of the world it's the best coffee going (see no. 2). But some of their mini-counters within corporate buildings don't have any brew coffee - at least not in Ireland - and instead they just sell pretty insipid americanos, lattes, espressos etc. Needless to say, the effect of joining a lukewarm espresso shot with searingly hot water does not produce nice coffee. Plus in place of a nice coffee smell, the counter will probably stink of vanilla, yuck.

3. Best - Coffee at the cinema

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(Photo: Anubisis)

Generally, most representations of the cinema involve people going to see a film in the evening. And that's great, but if you ask me the best time to go to the cinema is during the day, a weekday if you can. The theater will most likely be empty, so you can slouch into your seat in whichever way seems best to you and while away the afternoon in a complete daydream. Essential to this experience is a good strong coffee. One of the first times I moonlighted as a film critic in Dublin I was allowed to bring in my coffee - with china cup and saucer, no less - into the movie, which the IFI doesn't allow regular patrons to do. A great way to start the day!

2. Worst - Coffee in China

The worst thing about coffee in China is, well, there is no coffee in China. Picture a two-horse town where there's only bad, weak, lukewarm instant coffee for sale - if you can even find it - and then multiply that by like 100 million: that's China. Unlike in normal times when Starbucks is the fall-back option, if you are in a metropolitan center of China that has a foreign population large enough to sustain a coffee house, you jump at the chance to drink one - look how ridiculously happy I am in this photo!

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We did have an Italian stove-top coffee pot in our apartment in remote east China (above), thanks only to my wife's foresight and my personal importation of same. If that place had burned, I would have left everything except my coffee pot! If that sounds a bit extreme, I once paid about $13 for a quite small cup of real-ish coffee in Hangzhou International Airport - and you know what, it was worth it!

1. Best - American brewed coffee

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When it comes to stereotypes about coffee, most will probably picture an artsy cafe in France or Italy complete with fresh baguettes and outdoor seating. As nice as that does sound to me, it's not the best in the world: American coffee is. This is simply a question of method - the filter process just makes better coffee, period. I don't know why espresso-based coffees are considered gourmet and are served in fancy restaurants and hotels around the world when regular brewed coffee tastes way better.

And best of all, it comes in plentiful quantities - no frantic looking around to catch the waiter's eye in order to pay again for a second cup here! My favorites include Seattle's Best, Flying Star (a cafe chain unique to New Mexico) and Dunkin' Donuts, but almost anything that isn't Folgers will generate a delicious brew. In fact, until next time dear readers, I'm going to go make a fresh pot right now...

Posted by BillLehane 12:06 Archived in USA Tagged food Comments (8)

Seven Unique Churches I've Visited

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7. Hong de Tang Great Virtue Christian Church, Shanghai

One of the most interesting places I saw in China, Shanghai has a reputation for being a modern global center of international finance. It's actually just full of millions of Chinese businessmen trading with each other, but there are several pockets of foreign influence both new and not so new. This church, built in 1928, is a rare example of a Christian house of worship built in a Chinese architectural style.

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6. The Basilica of San Albino, Mesilla, New Mexico

Certainly the newest basilica I've ever visited, it was only designated as such by the Pope in November 2008. It's had a varied history before that, however, as part of a town that at different times has been part of Mexico, Arizona and Texas. In contrast to the main path of Spanish missionaries north from Mexico to modern day New Mexico, this church was founded in 1851 by Mexicans based in the United States who wanted to resettle in Mexico after the Mexican-American war. The church itself was completely rebuilt several times since then, and of course the town is now part of the US.

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5. Valencia Cathedral

With this enormous cathedral, a visitor's first challenge is to actually find the front door. Originally just a church of three sides in the 13th Century, various rulers later extended its naves and added a chapter hall, dome and tower. Inside you can do what Dan Brown never could and actually find the Chapel of the Holy Grail, complete with golden chalice in plain view.

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4. St Colmcille's Church, Dublin

This entry would not be complete without the church where my baptism, communion and confirmation all took place. My favourite features were the bright wooden benches - in contrast to the more usual dour mahogany tones - and the church's unique dove shape.

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3. St Mark's Basilica, Venice

The wonderful thing about many of Europe's oldest cities is that they were built at a time when the church was one of, if not the, main building in town. There's no better example of this than Piazza San Marco, which may be famous for pigeons but when you get there the entire vista is eaten up by this wondrous building. The only shame about this extremely gilded Byzantine masterpiece is that it was originally built only for the wealthy Venetian rulers, and makes you think of the many starving people that never set foot inside.

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2. The Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

A church of unique contrasts, the Hagia Sophia was a Catholic cathedral, then a mosque, and now a museum. Inside you'll find a very strange mix of features of a Christian church and a Muslim mosque, in many cases just painted over or placed on top of a previous feature. My favourite part though was the dome within a dome within a dome - if you step inside gradually while looking up you can really get a sense of the awe-inspiring effect intended.

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1. St Peter's Basilica, The Vatican

I hate to be so obvious, but there's few more amazing churches to be seen around the world than this one. Perhaps its most impressive feature is simply its sheer size: while everyone knows its significance as the mother church of Catholicism, it's easy to forget before you go in that it's also the largest Catholic church in the world. While not strictly part of the church itself, the Sistine Chapel is certainly the most impressive thing you'll see inside the Vatican. The ceiling is somehow smaller than I imagined, but that only makes the intricate paintwork even more impressive. Additional kudos to the security staff for managing to say 'quiet please, no photography' in about a dozen languages, over and over.

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Posted by BillLehane 15:41 Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

An Intercultural Christmas

Two kinds of Indian in one day

semi-overcast 2 °C

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'An Eagle Ceremony At Tesuque Pueblo' by Gustav Baumann, 1932

A few days before Christmas my friend Paul, a videojournalist from Dublin, commented that if I had been told a year ago that in 12 months' time I would be married and living in America, I would have laughed.

To this quite true observation I added the fact that on that day last year, I was getting ready to take my then girlfriend, now wife Megan to an Irish family Christmas in Rathfarnham, Dublin. A year later and I was getting ready to celebrate Christmas Day at a dance and feast day at a Native American Pueblo!

And so it was, very enjoyably so indeed. Myself, Megan and my mother-in-law Patricia glided up a near-empty Interstate 25 past the snow-dusted Sandias from Albuquerque to Santa Fe. By the time we got there, notwithstanding our final destination of a feast, we were already in need of some lunch.

As our server noted on our way out, it was the only restaurant aside from fast food and Starbucks that was open in Santa Fe on Christmas Day. The funny part was that it was an Indian restaurant - as in New Delhi, Calcutta and Mother Teresa. While the buffet lunch was delicious, the stop was especially worth it for the even more delicious double entendre!

Suitably stuffed, we trailed down the 285 past some spectacular snowy scenes to Tesuque Pueblo. We first met some very helpful Tribal Police who guided us to our hosts. There we found an adobe dwelling that was just like any other American home on the inside.

We were treated to some tasty posole and other local treats too spicy for this writer, as well as some more familiar turkey. Five minutes later, and we were joined by the same two policemen, who sat down to eat and were quite fascinated to be in the company of an Irishman! We traded questions about international and Native American cultures in a very friendly and equitable exchange - what could be more in the spirit of Christmas!

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The dance we saw was the Deer Dance - as represented by the figures on the right of this old postcard (credit). While it was brief, we were quiet glad to get in out of the sub-zero temperatures. The only drawback of the day was not being able to visit the church within the square of the pueblo - innocently, it was just closing, but perhaps it was not a great omen for Christmas Day!

Our trip was bookended by two more conventional celebrations that combined with Christmas Day to create a very enjoyable holiday season - drinks in at our new place on Christmas Eve with our friend William, and food with family for what I still know as St Stephen's Day at Megan's aunt Jane's house.

So until we meet again in the new decade, dear readers, consider that the Christmas spirit can be found and enjoyed in the most unexpected of places. Happy New Year from New Mexico!

Posted by BillLehane 17:18 Archived in USA Tagged postcards Comments (3)

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