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Quito Day 1: Casa Gangotena and Old Town

Quito old town

After a lovely bath and long sleep to shake off the flight, I was ready to explore Quito. I landed on my feet with my first hotel stay at Casa Gangotena. The above was the view I woke up to just before sunrise.

Casa Gangotena
Casa Gangotena
Casa Gangotena

This place is luxury on toast: voted 6th best boutique hotel in the world by TripAdvisor, it’s situated ridiculously centrally in the old town overlooking Plaza San Francisco and the same-named church. It’s the old mansion of a wealthy Quito family which was converted into a 31-room boutique hotel a few years ago. Despite being so central with the bustling square right outside, my room was a haven of peace and quiet.

Quito old town

It was such a lovely introduction to the city to wake up and watch the sun rise behind the church and see the plaza slowly roll into life.

Casa Gangotena

Breakfast blew away any remaining plane-fuzz. Seated in a sunny corner with more views of the square, I started with a mimosa and tasty homegrown coffee.

Casa Gangotena

There’s an extremely well-stocked buffet including juicy local fruits, breads, pastries and cheeses, and you can also order cooked-to-order dishes.

Casa Gangotena

I had to try something local: the ‘San Roque’ comprised soft-boiled eggs next to a cheese-topped pancakey flatbread, with a brown sugar syrup to drizzle over. Slightly weird and utterly delicious.

Quito old town

I met my guide for the week, Luis, in the hotel lobby and we set about on a walking tour of some of the nearby sights of the old town. The entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage Centre, on the strength of it having the best-preserved historic centre in South America. You can easily see the Spanish and Moorish influences in the architecture; if you plonked me here at random I’d have said it was Barcelona.

Quito old town

We started by doing a lap of some of the streets leading off the plaza, taking in some of the local shops. I see they got the memo to send out a welcome cat.

Quito old town
Quito old town

Grain stores selling masa, beans and rice by the sack, and small stoves cooking up hot snacks.

Quito old town

Beautiful vegetables, familiar and exotic

Quito old town

An alternative pharmacy, which uses herbs and plants to make remedies – camomile, aloe, ochre root and so on.

Quito old town

A flower shop – roses are a big export for Ecuador, and I’ll see a rose farm later in the week.

Quito old town

I bought a delicious fruit-flavoured shaved ice from an old lady’s cart. Street selling is a huge thing here: fruits, hot food, ices and sweet snacks are on offer literally every few paces for a bit of small change.

Quito old town

Quito old town

Quito old town

Quito old town

We walked to La Ronda, a little cobbled street which is known as an artsy bohemian hub, housing several bars, restaurants, artisan studios and workshops. I bought some beauty products made using local honey, and watched some metalsmiths and wood carvers at work.

Quito old town
Quito old town

Back on the Plaza San Francisco, we had lunch at Tianguez restaurant. It was nice to taste some more local food: I had spicy sauteed mushrooms with salsas and chips followed by a lovely potato soup with avocado and crispy corn kernels, with a sweet steamed tamale for dessert. The juice is a local fruit, tomate d’arbol, ‘tree tomato’ which tastes like a cross between tomato and apricot – really tasty and refreshing.

Quito old town

We visited three churches: first, Iglesia de San Francisco, the one that formed my sunrise view. No pictures allowed inside (though I just had to sneak one) but it was quite breathtaking with every surface carved and gilded, sombre statues and Renaissance paintings bearing down, and the ink-blue domed roof dotted with more gold. High Baroque at its finest.

Quito old town
Quito old town

The Basílica del Voto Nacional. The outside is quirkily decorated with stone animals of all the local fauna: alligators, armadillos, turtles and so on, and it’s pure Gothic drama inside.

Quito old town

Finally the equally Baroque St Ignatius Jesuit church. No photos again but it’s another highly gilded wonder, with every square inch covered in intricate baroque- and Moroccan-influenced carvings. The church also houses a small collection of 16th century religious paintings and a special tribute room to a nun called Mariana who allegedly sacrificed her own life to God to save Ecuador from an earthquake. She is buried in the church; you can see her tomb at the altar and the crypt underneath. Also notable are the two arresting paintings on each side of the church’s entrance; one an extremely gruesome depiction of hell and the other of a more serene heaven. Religious or not, I found it all utterly absorbing and beautiful.

Quito old town

Finally we got a first glimpse of the city from above by driving to Itchimbia, at 3,000m above sea level. This is a little park with some rare species of tree and flower, most of which are used for medicines. The crystal palace in the centre is used for events, exhibitions and concerts.

Quito old town
Quito old town

It was incredible to see the sprawl of the city for the first time: my guide explained that most of the houses on the hills surrounding Quito are self-builds, but the government has started to crack down on planning permissions as over-development is becoming a concern. Quito has seen exploding growth in the last decade and right now the infrastructure, particularly travel and pollution, is playing catch up.

This was a great introductory day to the historical wonders and everyday life of the old town. Tomorrow I’d be seeing more of it, and climbing even higher into the clouds…

My trip was sponsored by KLM and Branding Latin America / Quito Turismo UK; views as ever are my own

Introducing Ecuador

Ecuador

I’m back from Ecuador! I had a amazing trip, as you can probably tell if you were following my Twitter or Instagram. Thank you again to sponsors KLM and Quito Turismo UK for making my visit possible. I’m going to write my usual daily diary of all the fantastic things I saw and did, but first here are a few general facts and tips about Quito and Ecuador if you know as little as I did about this beautiful country.

Ecuador

Ecuador is about the same size as the UK area-wise, with 15 million inhabitants. It’s split into 24 provinces, from the coastal Manabí to jungle of Sucumbíos, with the Andes of Chimborazo running down the middle. It borders Colombia to the north and Peru to the south, with a Pacific coast on the west.

Ecuador

The varied landscape and interesting anthropological history of the country mean you can see a massive variety of scenery, nature and lifestyles just by travelling a couple of hours in any direction from the central capital city, Quito. Of course there are also the Galápagos Islands a two hour flight away, which I did not see this time. The Quito tourism board are keen to divert visitors away from Galapagos as it has become vastly over-visited, to its environmental detriment, and instead to promote Ecuador as a destination in its own right. There’s certainly enough to see and do here to justify that!

Ecuador

KLM flies to Quito and Guayaquil daily via Amsterdam from several UK cities. You get a little Cityhopper to Amsterdam which barely takes any time at all, then the long haul is about eleven hours from there. The transfer is simple – I was a bit worried as it was my first-ever totally solo flight but it was really straightforward! I found the journey comfortable overall, with decent food and a great selection of films to while away the time. You can read a bit more about my flight experience here. Quito has a brand new modern airport which is close to the centre, but the access road is currently too narrow and traffic is common – a new road is being constructed right now. A taxi into town only costs $20-30 though.

Ecuador

Most of inland Ecuador is at high altitude – 2000-4000m above sea level. Surprisingly I didn’t notice any ill effects but some people get dizziness, breathlessness, fatigue and headaches. Be sure to carry water and take regular breaks in the shade when you’re out and about. I never tired of seeing the hills peaked with clouds; a reminder of how high up you really are. The rolling valleys and hills make for some extremely breathtaking (literally, ho) scenery.

Ecuador

The year is split into wet (Dec-May) and dry (June-Nov) seasons, although it varies a little depending on if you’re at the coast or in the highlands. While the temperature may hover in the teens and low twenties, it feels much hotter due to the strength of the sun at the equator. So pack suncream, a hat, sunnies and shorts – plus mosquito repellent if you’re going into the forests. For my late May visit it only rained in short bursts in the evening and night (plus a couple of lively night-time thunderstorms) and was warm enough for bare arms and legs nearly all the time.

Ecuador

The currency is the US dollar. Food, transport, souvenirs and most other things are pretty cheap. Expect to pay $3 for an in-city cab ride, $1-3 for museum entry, 20-50 cents for a street snack and maybe $20 for a higher end 3-course meal with a drink. There are lots of markets selling the gorgeous local handcrafts – more on those later, of course!

Ecuador

The cost of accommodation varies depending on what you go for: there are chain hotels, boutiques, and hacienda guest lodges. I’ll share all the places I stayed in upcoming posts.

Ecuador

Ecuador is generally safe, stable and welcoming for visitors. It’s recommended that tourists, especially women, don’t walk around on their own late in the evening both in the city and countryside, but I didn’t feel unsafe anywhere. Spanish and Quechua (an indigenous language) are the spoken languages. Not many people speak English outside of touristy attractions, so knowing a bit of conversational Spanish would be very helpful in navigating and ordering food etc.

Ecuador

The local food is pretty heavy on meat and fish, and the concept of vegetarianism isn’t really understood – but everywhere I went had something I could eat, and the food was generally really great. Expect eggs, corn bread and fresh fruits for a filling breakfast with excellent homegrown coffee and a tropical fruit juice. Lunch is usually the main meal of the day and typically consists of a potato or quinoa soup to start followed by a a platter of meat/fish/veg with tortillas (here these are tasty thick fried discs of corn or potato), choclos (delicious crispy fried maize kernels), and a salad, plus a dessert of helado (sorbet / ice cream) or cake. I was usually too full to eat a large dinner!

Ecuador

Cell phone signal is poor due to the valleys and mountains. Signal for calls is very hard to come by, never mind 3G, even in Quito. Most hotels and restaurants have wifi that you can use if you’re a customer. Just something to bear in mind if like me you are over-reliant on phone data for navigating and staying in touch with people!

Ecuador

Quito was the base for my trip. This sprawling city of 1.6 million is split into the old colonial town (also called the historical centre) and the new town to the north. It’s a very easy city to navigate, being well-signposted, well lit after dark, and split into regular blocks with constant landmarks to help you get your bearings. I am terrible with directions and didn’t get lost once, even without my usual Google Maps crutch.

Ecuador

However the public transport situation in Quito and the country as a whole is currently not great. There is a lot of road traffic in Quito from locals using their cars to get everywhere, so walking around parts of the new town in particular can be a bit grubby and unpleasant. The government is working to improve this, with a new subway line and hybrid buses coming soon, as well as the promotion of cycling and no-car days. For now, taxis are plentiful and cheap if you get tired of walking, and the traffic eases up over the weekends.

Ecuador

There is also construction in the works to open up new train lines between the major towns (Guayaquil – Quito – Ibarra – Otavalo – Salinas) which will make travelling the country less reliant on having a car. The first of these from Ibarra to Salinas is already open (and a stunning journey – more on that later) with more to follow later this year. This is great news because all of these towns are worth visiting and it’d make a great 2-3 week trip taking the train between them spending a few nights in each.

Ecuador

Hope that was a useful introduction to this lovely country! Back with day one of my trip soon…

My trip was sponsored by KLM and Branding Latin America / Quito Turismo UK; views as ever are my own

A Vegetarian tasting menu at L’Atelier Joel Robuchon

L'Atelier Joel Robuchon

I apologise for it being blogger-perk frenzy round here at the moment. I’ve had a good run lately! The latest was the chance to try the tasting menu with matching wine selection at Michelin-starred restaurant L’Atelier Joel Robuchon, on the borders of Covent Garden and Soho, where a new executive chef (Xavier Boyer) and pastry chef (Francois Delaire) have just been appointed.

L'Atelier Joel Robuchon
L'Atelier Joel Robuchon

L'Atelier Joel Robuchon
L'Atelier Joel Robuchon

We started by going up the first floor for a delicious cocktail in the plushy bar. There’s a lovely terrace which on this warm evening was full.

L'Atelier Joel Robuchon
L'Atelier Joel Robuchon

Downstairs, we were seated at the central bar with a view directly into the working kitchen. Quite uniquely for a Michelin restaurant, the food is informally served by the bar staff/waiters, as was the wine for each course. I really liked this less stuffy approach and our waiters were relaxed and funny – a nice change from formal fine dining.

L'Atelier Joel Robuchon

In what must be a first, L’Atelier Joel Robuchon is a Michelin-starred French restaurant with a vegetarian tasting menu. Gosh, I do love the treat of seeing a list of delicious-sounding food where I can eat all of it!

L'Atelier Joel Robuchon
L'Atelier Joel Robuchon

Each course was beautifully dainty and almost too pretty to eat. It was a real ode to the humble and lovely vegetable, whether a mushroom whipped into a silky veloute or an heirloom tomato simply dressed and served zingily red in a martini glass with pickles and flowers.

L'Atelier Joel Robuchon
L'Atelier Joel Robuchon

Asparagus with comte; a beautiful girolle and truffle risotto; crisped glazed tofu with wild mushrooms. It was all perfectly pitched and a delight to eat. Unlike some tasting menus, the pacing and portion size were spot on: it never felt like an onslaught and I didn’t feel uncomfortably full at the end.

L'Atelier Joel Robuchon
L'Atelier Joel Robuchon
L'Atelier Joel Robuchon

Josh went for the omnivore tasting menu; he declared the ox cheek gyoza to be a particular standout dish. Personally I loved the blingy gold toast rack and gilt leaf on the caviar and salmon starter.

L'Atelier Joel Robuchon

As a special side we were given some of the infamous Robuchon pommes puree, made with 50% butter to 50% potato. Jeez, I could feel my arteries furring up as I ate it but it is just so good I didn’t care.

L'Atelier Joel Robuchon

The dainty portions meant we had space for dessert, hurrah. Josh’s was a beautiful physics-defying orb of shiny gold, with a delicate citrus mousse inside.

L'Atelier Joel Robuchon

I had an equally gorgeous concoction; light as air milk chocolate mousse with bitter dark chocolate sorbet and Oreo crumbs.

L'Atelier Joel Robuchon
L'Atelier Joel Robuchon
L'Atelier Joel Robuchon

Each course was matched with the sommelier’s selection of wine, and wow – they were all utterly amazing. I don’t know much about wine at all, but I loved how our choices featured some really unusual ones with tasting notes like smoke, mushroom, cellar, and minerals. Even the dessert wine which I don’t usually drink was a sweet, light red that was perfect with the chocolate.

This was one of the most enjoyable fine dining experiences I’ve had; partly for the superb food and partly for the unique relaxed ambiance and friendly service. For a special occasion meal I would certainly go back.

I was a guest of L’Atelier Joel Robuchon for my dinner; views my own.

L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon on Urbanspoon

Lettering workshop with Martina Flor

A few weeks ago I spent a sunny Saturday taking a hand-lettering workshop with Berlin-based letterer Martina Flor of goodtype.co. It was held in a fab artists’ supply shop called Jackson’s which is about a ten minute walk from my home here in Stoke Newington. The class, generally aimed at creative types, was all about creating and sketching our own lettering piece while getting advice from Martina on how to improve our process.

First, Martina talked us through some of her work, including for commissions for clients including Etsy, Esquire, Penguin books and Harrods, as well as self-initiated pieces for exhibitions.

She then explained her process for creating a new type piece and gave us a demo. Basically she starts with a loose composition sketch and lays tracing paper over the top, adding more details and making revisions where needed.

While we had a go, Martina walked around giving tips and advice.

It was a bit difficult for me to separate lettering from calligraphy. Martina explained that while calligraphy can be useful in learning about pressure, line weights and character consistency, hand-lettering is a much more free process so you shouldn’t feel bound by any ‘rules’. However it’s still important to ensure there’s a rhythm through the piece and shared characteristics between the letters so they create a cohesive whole.

I did about a million versions, ran out of time, and my piece is still not finished! I came away with a better understanding of how to improve my process, composition and letter-making though. Next time I would like to push myself and try something completely different away from the calligraphic style.

Find out more about Martina’s workshops here, and visit goodtype.co to see upcoming dates.

Disclosure: I received a discount on my ticket from Martina.

Hola from Quito, Ecuador

quito2

Hello there. I’m on my travels again – this post comes to you from Quito, Ecuador, care of KLM. After visiting Panama with their partners Air France and Branding Latin America, I’m so pleased that KLM invited me to take another trip to show off one more of their increasingly popular Latin American destinations. Panama so exceeded my expectations that I was raring to see more of this part of the world. Even better, Ecuador is officially in South America (Panama is part of North America, continentally speaking), so it’s a brand new continent that I can tick off.

quito1

KLM fly to Quito daily from several UK airports, including Heathrow where I took off from yesterday morning. The trip is undeniably a long slog, but KLM made it pretty easy and comfortable. As with Panama, I was treated to use of the SkyTeam lounge at Heathrow. With a 6.30am flight time I was out of the door at 3.15am (I didn’t even bother to go to sleep, which was an error in hindsight), so it was very nice to be able to recharge and get a little breakfast in the lounge before the short hop to Amsterdam. From there it was a quick transfer and on to Quito. No upgrade this time sadly as the flight was full, but Economy was plenty comfortable enough to get some sleep and there was a great selection of TV and films (I watched The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, which was absolutely hilarious and beautiful – watch it if you can!).

quito3

I can’t wait to see what this country has to offer – the tiny peek I had getting from the airport into town already revealed some stunning vistas. The itinerary I’ve got planned looks amazing and covers some of Ecuador’s natural wonders such as volcanoes, lakes and geobotanical reserves, as well as plenty of time in the colonial city of Quito checking out the local crafts, markets and food. Keep an eye on my Instagram and Twitter for regular updates and of course more in-depth updates here.

I’ve been sent to Ecuador as a guest of Branding Latin America / Quito Tourism, and my flight was provided by KLM.