jc travels

72h: It all starts in Madchester

In a few days short of a month’s time, I will have been living in Berlin full-time for 3 years already. 2016 and what’s passed of 2017 have been really intense for me, lots of ups and downs — although unfortunately far more downs than ups. As every incident compounded on top of another, I found myself feeling more and more jaded and things that used to hold a lot of weight in my life just didn’t anymore. Somewhere in between the bouts of apathy and depression, I realized that I could either basically do nothing, or do something. And I grew tired of doing nothing. It soon became very clear to me that I needed to get away from everything and break out from the familiar and mundane for a while.

So, I resigned from my job and decided to do some solo travels for the next few months. I’ve once been told that when you’re feeling lost, the best remedy is to actually get lost. So far I’ve found this to be true — every time I’ve immersed myself in new experiences and surroundings, I’ve walked away with more clarity, and felt that I’ve done something conducive in rounding out the lens in which I see the world around me with.

I hadn’t really planned out a solid itinerary of destinations just yet, but I figured it’d be best if I just play it by ear and plan as I go. The first stop ended up being quite easy — just a quick hop over the English channel. Manchester — a city I’ve never been to but have heard some great things about, and I figured I could work my way up northern England ’til Scotland, which I’ve always wanted to visit. Warum nicht?

And thus begins the next few months of my post-desk-job adventures!

Day One: 24 July
I was originally going to be alone in Manchester, but had met someone from London at a music festival in Germany a couple of weekends prior who ended up meeting me there and making for wonderful company! (The serendipitous beauty of planning as you go.)

While waiting for my friend to arrive, I spent a quiet morning at Takk, an artisan coffee house that serves light brunches and small sandwiches. It’s quite cozy and humble — I was impressed with how unpretentious the staff and guests were here, which would otherwise probably be the case if this cafe was transposed into Berlin, for example.

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Brunch is served daily here ’til 4 PM. I had the “Takk-Shuka” which was essentially their version of a shakshuka — harissa-spiced sauce, baked eggs, mint yogurt, and pistachio dukkah, served with a slice of grilled sourdough on the side. The portion was quite small but not too small – the perfect amount for a late breakfast.

I took a seat in the corner, facing the window and enjoyed some time writing, people watching, and soaking in the small pocket of sunshine that came through the window and warmed up my tiny but cozy corner of the cafe.

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When my friend arrived, we headed over to The Oast House, a rustic pub situated amongst the towers of Spinningfields. There is an outdoor seating area with tables and plenty of cushioned seating, perfect for a very laid-back sunny afternoon like this one. We spent a very relaxing couple of hours there, chatting over a couple of drinks and sweet potato fries (comes with a very tasty garlic mayo!).

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We spent the remainder of the afternoon exploring and walking through the streets of Chinatown and the Gay Village — both were what you’d expect out of any Chinatown or Gay Village, really. Chinatown boasting an over-exaggerated pagoda-style gate, painted in golds, reds, and “jade” greens, and the Gay Village sporting streets of rainbow flags and flamboyant bars. The main bar in the Gay Village looked to be one called “G-A-Y”. It doesn’t get any more explicit than that, and it deeefinitely looked like it’d be a good time.

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We stayed right by the Northern Quarter of Manchester, which is pretty much the hub for all things young and hip — cafes, restaurants, shops, nightlife, and live gigs. I’d highly recommend staying here as it’s quite central, lively, and within walking distance from everything (including the Piccadilly station).

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Later that evening we went out for dinner at a ramen joint, Shoryu, recommended by our Airbnb host. Apparently it’s a chain restaurant, so I had my reservations, but the food was actually very good (according to my friend, the tan tan ramen may be better than Ippudo’s). We shared a couple of Shoryu buns to start (one with chicken karaage and the other with pork belly) and I stuck with the good ol’ Tonkatsu. I was quite happy with our meal, and let’s be honest, nothing hits the spot more than a bowl of hot soupy noodles after a day of traveling right?

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After dinner, we wandered our way to a low-key bar called The Washhouse, a speakeasy masked as a laundromat from the outside. There’s a small phone at the entrance of the faux-landromat where you can speak to someone to get access inside. I wasn’t particularly sure what you were supposed to say, but the couple in front of us seemed to, so we sort of casually hitched a ride on their coattails and made our way in.

When you enter past the front door (that really just looks like a washing machine), the room opens up into a narrow but deep space, dimly lit by candles and fitted with a generous bar and a moderate amount of intimate seating. The only thing missing to give it that “feel” was probably smoking indoors — although to be fair, I’m not really complaining about that.

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One thing about to note about this place is that the drinks menu is wildly confusing. It was difficult to gauge whether the descriptions of the cocktails were just there for laughs or if it was actually a legitimate albeit hyper-experimental concoction. I didn’t want to take the risk though — not entirely sure I’d be a fan of wasabi or squid ink in my drink. We ended up sticking with choices on the safer side — a Negroni and the Matsuri Old Fashioned (essentially your traditional Old Fashioned but with Japanese whisky, mirin syrup and served with a fresh lychee). All around a very cool and quirky experience and a real pleasant way to top off the evening.

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Back at the Airbnb, the evening was still warm enough to have a small break and chat out on the French balcony of the bedroom. We looked out over our neighborhood, which just grazes along the outside edge of the bustling Northern Quarter — it was surprisingly still despite the industrial urbanness of it all.

Day Two: 25 July
The next morning, we headed over to Gorilla for brunch — an industrial and chic space built under one of the railway arches at the Oxford station. Gorilla is pretty much everything you’d want in a hip hangout — it’s a cafe, gin parlor, restaurant, and venue for live gigs all-in-one. I’m usually skeptical about places that do a little bit of everything, but apparently this place does each thing it sets out to do brilliantly. I mean, I’ve only experienced the brunch here — and it was a pretty mean brunch — so if that’s anything to go off of, I have complete faith in them.

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We ordered the fried chicken & waffles, Eggs Royale (eggs benedict with smoked salmon), and the Fat Elvis (stack of pancakes with peanut butter ice cream, caramelized bananas, bacon, and candied peanuts). Whew, this meal will set you back a few hours but it’s entirely worth it.

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To ease the calorie-induced guilt and fight back the waves of the food coma settling in, we decided to go walk aimlessly around the city and see more of what’s outside the Northern Quarter. We made our way up towards and through the Green Quarter, N.O.M.A., and Ancoats neighborhoods. There was nothing in particular that really stood out, but the lack of distractions allowed for a lot of good conversation… about lost Egyptian history and ancient civilizations? (Note to self: check out works by Graham Hancock).

In between all of that “getting lost”, we did stop for drinks at a couple of notable places for a pick-me-up: Foundation Coffee and Cane & Grain.

// insert: cheeky afternoon nap back at the Airbnb.

We had dinner that night at Pie & Ale. The restaurant is in a pretty low-key area tucked away on a street that pretty much looks like a dead-end at first sight, but once you turn the corner, you’ll find a small area with outdoor seating that leads into the restaurant itself, which is actually quite spacious. This place is known for, as you may have already guessed, pies and ales.

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The selection is quite expansive, so the difficult part is really deciding on which pie and which ale (such a predicament, I know). We ended up getting the Steak and Yippee Pie Ale pie (British beef steak cooked with celery, carrots, silverskin onions, garlic, rosemary and horseradish in a Yippee Pie Ale gravy) and the Wild Game Stroganoff pie (braised British wild game cooked with onion, garlic, woodland mushrooms and Dijon mustard in a rich creamy sauce). The pies are served with a very healthy dollop of mashed potatoes, sitting in a shallow puddle of red wine gravy, and topped with a pastry cutout of the animal you’re about to eat, because why not.

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If a pint and a meat pie doesn’t put you into a full on food coma, I don’t know what does. We had originally planned to go to Twenty Twenty Two, a ping-pong bar, but did not feel like our energy levels were quite up for it yet. So we made our way to Roxy Ball Room for a couple rounds of pool. It was rather quiet on a Tuesday night, but the feel of the space was rather fun — colorful walls decorated with humorous “street-style” art and neon light fixtures.

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On our way back home that evening, we made a quick detour to check out the party scene in the Gay Village. It was still rather quiet though, but it was rather amusing to see all the heads turn as my friend walked down the street (feels nice to be on the other side for a change!). If the night had been more lively, I’m pretty confident he’d have been able to charm his way into some free drinks for us. Bummer, next time maybe.

Day Three: 26 July
The third and last day of our stay in Manchester was a rainy one. It worked out well though, pushing us to dabble in some indoor activities since we spent most of our first two days outdoors.

We grabbed a quick breakfast at Ezra & Gil, a cushy cafe with a spot-on chocolate croissant.

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We had booked a challenge at Breakout Manchester — you know, one of those escape room things. I’ve always wanted to do one of these, but never really had the motivation nor the reason to, until today. It turned out to be a lot of fun — it was the perfect amount of a challenge, just feasible enough to succeed but only if you’re at the top of your game. We managed to get through 5 of the 8 tasks within the 60 minutes, which isn’t too shabby for our first time, I’ll take that!

The rain started to come down rather hard later that afternoon as we were walking around the city, and we took shelter at the Manchester Art Gallery for some time. And I’m so glad we did, because we stumbled upon a temporary exhibition, True Faith, that “explores the ongoing significance and legacy of New Order and Joy Division through the wealth of visual art their music has inspired”. There were rooms with videos of the bands’ past shows, their old album cover artworks, and more. I’ve recently been in a bit of a New Order phase, so I definitely nerded out a little bit while I was here. Pretty neat experience to be in Manchester and visit a tribute to the city’s most iconic band.

We then headed to back to the Northern Quarter to Common for a very late lunch / early dinner. It’s hard to describe what kind of feeling Common gives you. It’s a mix of all good things — perhaps a combination of playfulness, urban artistry, simplicity, and childlike naivety. The place is hard to miss — walking down the street towards the restaurant, you’ll immediately spot a building painted in vibrant hues of cyan and oranges, really standing out amongst its classic red-bricked neighbors. Inside, the restaurant has got a Bohemian, cartoon-y vibe about it — decked out in light-hearted illustrations and an open-floor plan with communal tables and spacious sofas.

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For brunch, I much preferred the food at Gorilla, but if you want some no-fuss, easy food with a little bit of Korean/Mexican influence, Common is your spot. We ordered kimchi fries, beef chili with lime-coriander rice, and a Korean fried chicken sandwich. They’ve also got a pretty decent selection of craft beers. Let me just point out that whoever decided to bring in the sofas is a genius. Am I destined to be in a perpetual food coma in Manchester?

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We spent the rest of the evening prior to our trains out of Manchester chilling back at the Airbnb, with some now-very-standard (and necessary) naps spotted in between.

It was a 3 days well-spent — good food, good company (thanks Eug!), and good vibes all around. I ain’t mad. Next stop: Leeds!

1 comment
  1. Chris Chang (yes, the one from MSJ) says: August 25, 20178:00 am

    hi JC,

    went down the internet rabbit hole before bed and stumbled upon your website/blog. read this, lol’d (cause my coworker from manchester never shuts up about it), and read http://jacquelinechen.com/blog/?p=2587.

    love your writing.
    hope the tail end of 2017 provides more ups. i’m rooting for ya.

    hugs from san francisco.

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