The best views of Oxford, England

Oxford is the most beautiful city in England. Its famous “dreaming spires” have inspired generations of writers, poets, and scholars. The problem is, there are only two easily accessible spots to get appreciate Oxford’s skyline at its best.

This photo shows the Radcliffe Camera, part of Oxford University’s Bodleian Library and where I work when I’m not feeding hyenas in Harar, Ethiopia. I took this from the top of the spire of the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. The tower and spire were built between 1280 and 1325 and are the oldest parts of the church. It’s covered in ornate Gothic carvings and leering gargoyles so don’t forget to take a photo of the exterior before entering the church gift shop and buying your ticket to go up!

The stairs are steep and the staircase is narrow. If you are not reasonably fit do not try to go up. Once you huff and puff your way to the top, you’ll be treated to a 360 degree view of Oxford–its churches, its famous colleges, and the green countryside beyond. You’ll also see the gargoyles up close and personal. The nice folks at the gift shop will give you a free map showing you where everything is. After five years living part time in Oxford I still can’t name all the colleges!

%Gallery-122796%Once you come back down be sure to visit the rest of the church, most of which dates to the 16th century and features some beautiful stained glass. There’s also a cafe serving tasty and reasonably priced food and coffee. There’s something soothing about sipping a mocha under medieval arches. If the weather is good, you can sit in the garden and enjoy views of the Radcliffe Camera and All Souls College.

An even more interesting and much easier climb is up the Old Saxon Tower of St. Michael at the North Gate. While it’s not as high as the spire of St. Mary’s, it’s the oldest building in Oxford. It dates to the late Saxon times and was built around 1040. This used to guard the city gate of Oxford, but all that’s left is the tower. Climbing up here you’ll see a little museum filled with medieval and renaissance bric-a-brac, including a raunchy church sculpture I’ll blog about later. On one landing is an old clockwork mechanism. If you put 20 pence in it, the gears grind to life and chimes start to play. The last time I climbed this tower with a kid I spent a whole pound on it!

Peering over the parapet you can watch shoppers stroll along Cornmarket St., Oxford’s busiest pedestrian road, and you can see birds wheel and soar amidst the spires of nearby colleges. The 13th century church downstairs is worth a look for its rare medieval stained glass and a font that William Shakespeare stood next to as his godchild was baptized. It was the kid of a local innkeeper, and I hope The Bard got a few free pints for his trouble!

If you know anyone who works at or graduated from Oxford, try to get into their college and climb up one of the towers. While most colleges are open to visitors for at least part of the year, the “dreaming spires” generally aren’t, so you need an insider to gain access.

Tomoca: the best little coffee house in Africa

Ethiopia has a lot of great attractions–castles, medieval cities, even werehyenas–yet the thing visitors rave about the most is the coffee.

And why not? Coffee was discovered in Ethiopia. Legend has it that long ago a boy was tending his flock and saw his goats eating unfamiliar berries off a bush. Soon they were dancing around and looking happy. The boy brought some of the berries home to his mother and the rest, as they say, is history. The same story is told about the discovery of the narcotic plant qat.

Most people arrive in the capital Addis Ababa first, and this is the place to try Ethiopian cafe culture at its best. There are hundreds of cafes throughout town, from chic Italian-style places to little roadside stands. In Ethiopian markets you’ll often see women carrying around a thermos and a few battered cups, selling a shot of coffee for two birr (12 cents). No matter where you buy it, Ethiopian coffee is always rich and strong. If you’re lucky, you’ll get invited to a private home and be treated to an Ethiopian coffee ceremony.

My personal favorite cafe in Addis, and the favorite of many locals, is Tomoca. They’ve been serving it up since 1953. Many Ethiopian businessmen from nearby Churchill Avenue come here for a pick-me-up, and more relaxed patrons will read a newspaper or watch BBC News on the TV. It’s certainly on the tourist map, so if you want to pretend you’re the only foreigner in town, this place isn’t for you. The coffee is great, though, and they sell vacuum-sealed bags of beans, both ground and unground, for you to take home. Any time I’m in Addis I load up on a couple of kilos.

Tomoca, like most Ethiopian cafes, has a friendly atmosphere and is a good place to meet Ethiopians and practice a bit of Amharic. To get you started: buna means “coffee”, buna bet means “cafe”, and betam konjo means “very good”! You’ll be saying that last phrase a lot.

So give Tomoca and the other cafes in Addis a try, and if you want to explore something stronger, check out this post on Ethiopian alcohol.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s city of Saints.

Coming up next: Ten (more) Random Observations about Ethiopia!


Cool cafe alert: Uganda, Jerusalem

Jerusalem is gloriously beautiful city. It is also an overwhelming place. One of the world’s most important religious cities is the site of ongoing conflicts over land and territory. It is difficult to visit Jerusalem without considering these issues. Even a short visit to Jerusalem (especially one that includes Palestinian cities to the north and south of the city) compels visitors to think about religion, culture, state conflict, and land.

The preponderance of religious sites, the throngs of religious tourists, and the tension that buzzes through the Old Town’s air make for a very particular atmosphere. You could forgive visitors for hankering after a break in scene.

If you’ve got cash to burn, there’s the admittedly spellbinding Orientalist sanctuary of the American Colony Hotel, with its incredible ambiance and storied history. The American Colony provides a true oasis from Jerusalem’s chaos.

For visitors in search of a grittier, more contemporary sort of respite, a posh hotel will not do. Happily for these anonymous hipsters, Jerusalem boasts a very cool cafe called Uganda (4 Aristobolus Street) that is absolutely worth a visit.

A record store-cum-bar/cafe named after the former British protectorate once proposed as a Jewish homeland, Uganda feels well and truly countercultural. Opened in 2005, Uganda sells zines, comics, and graphic novels as well as music from Israel and beyond.

The interior is a curious mixture of hipster and hippie. On the hipster side, there are classic vintage (or lookalike) pieces of furniture; for the hippies, there are waitresses with dreadlocky situations atop their heads. The clientele is young and geeky-hipster, an the scene is undeniably bohemian. Uganda’s scene is sustained by a packed calendar of performances throughout the year. Recent months have featured scheduled gigs on a near-nightly basis.

And if none of the above wets your whistle, there’s this: Uganda serves an excellent Palestinian beer called Taybeh.

Fuglen, Oslo: The world’s most stylish cafe-furniture shop

After a few days wandering around Oslo in the middle of winter, I felt as if I’d hit upon the city’s essence. In a frenzy of reductive resolution, I decided that the Norwegian capital is best described as a city of winter sports-crazed jocks.

My evidence: the many locals who made it abundantly clear that they couldn’t wait to drive to their cabins in the mountains for a skiing weekend. That and the absence of the sort of local design scene that characterizes the other continental Nordic capitals. Jocks and design are sort of opposites, right?

Other Nordic countries are leagues ahead of Norway as recognized sources of contemporary design. Norway doesn’t have the design heritage of Sweden, Denmark or Finland by a long shot. Even Julie Ann Seglem, the charming proprietor of a shop called Mitt lille hjem, bemoaned the absence of a stronger domestic design scene in conversation with me. She sources many of her shop’s items from Denmark.

On my February visit to Oslo, I studiously walked the streets of Grünerløkka, Grønland, and central Oslo looking for evidence of contemporary design. I found some cool stuff, certainly. The most interesting blocks of Oslo, retail-wise, are along Markveien in the commercial heart of Grünerløkka, where second-hand stores and cute personality-driven boutiques make for a distinctly local atmosphere.

Standouts here include Brudd, a collective-run shop that sells handicrafts, some very beautiful, by Oslo-based artists. Especially captivating, I thought, were the delicate cups by Sara Skotte. Markveien is also home to Chillout TravelCentre, a small chain that started in Bergen. Chillout covers lots of ground. It is a travel gear shop, a bookstore, a café, and a branch of Kilroy Travel. It’s an exciting store concept, one I’d love to see replicated elsewhere. And there’s also the aforementioned Mitt lille hjem, which pursues an attractive vintage cottage chic approach to home decor.

But there was no sign of a shop with an aesthetic powerful enough to seduce visitors with its very vision. This was no big deal. I was already convinced that Oslo, a city of snowmobiling jocks, was operating with something of a design deficit.

And then I chanced completely randomly upon Fuglen and I realized that I hadn’t quite gotten things right.

Fuglen is a café and furniture store in central Oslo. Every last detail has been worked out, from the modernist logo on up. The café so successfully replicates an early 1960s den that it was recently hauled into service as a backdrop for a Mad Men-esque photo essay featuring Jens Stoltenberg, the Norwegian Prime Minister.

Fuglen was originally opened as a café in 1963, though its current hybrid cafe-shop incarnation only dates back to 2008. It has three proprietors: Einar Kleppe Holthe, vintage furnishings expert Peppe Trulsen, and barista/bartender Halvor Digernes.

Fuglen serves fine pastries and very fine coffee drinks, and the lounge areas of the café spill out across several rooms. The space transforms into a cocktail lounge on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings.

The furniture and the objects on the walls, mostly very beautiful vintage pieces, are for sale. Most interestingly, a huge number of the outstanding items on display were created by domestic designers. Norwegians Birger Dahl, Fredrik Kayer, Cathrineholm, Arne Halvorsen, Erik Pløen, Torbjørn Afdal, and others receive their due here. The Norwegian design legacy, it turns out, is quite a bit more impressive than the attention it receives.

And yes, there are hipster ladies at Fuglen chatting softly, wearing big glasses and looking not unlike their compatriots in Portland or Hackney. And hipster gentlemen looking aloof and pulling off their trick of managing to look neither straight nor gay at the same time.

So where does this leave the city of weekend jocks? Might Oslo be the sort of city whose jocks also enjoy snapping up vintage enamel ashtrays to crown their Alf Aarseth dining tables? Whatever the answer to these questions, there is no debate around the recognition of Fuglen as a design beacon in Norway. In fact, just today, Fuglen received special recognition in the form of an award from the Norwegian Design Council.

[Images: Eirik Sand Johnsen for Fuglen]

Smoking ban takes effect in Spain today

Starting today in Spain, it is illegal to smoke in any enclosed space where the public gathers. This includes bars, cafes, and restaurants. It will also be illegal to smoke in school playgrounds and near hospitals. Smoking will even be banned from TV shows.

Spain joins a host of countries that have recently toughened up anti-smoking laws, including Finland, Egypt, and Syria. Countries with national health care systems are looking for ways to reduce costs, and getting people to give up an unhealthy habit is one way to do that. In the U.S., health insurance companies have been among the biggest proponents of anti-smoking legislation.

Living in Spain, it’s seems inconceivable to me to spend a night out on a juerga (pub crawl) and not come home smelling like an ashtray. Then again, I had a hard time believing British pubs would enforce the UK smoking ban a few years back, and they did.

Spanish bar and cafe owners aren’t happy, though. With the economic crisis some have already gone under, and others fear that customers will keep away. A Spanish law in 2006 seemed to have solved the problem by allowing smaller places to choose whether to be smoking or nonsmoking, while larger venues had to provide no smoking areas. Most smaller places chose to allow smoking, but a few did well by becoming bastions of clean air. Now everyone has to ban smoking, and those larger places that built special nonsmoking sections ended up wasting their money.