Over breakfast we chatted with two ladies on a weekend break from Japan who were sitting at the next table. They had both visited England and one had fond memories of the Cotswolds. We assured them that Japan was high on our list of places to visit, which they thought was nice.
Before leaving home, we’d booked a 10.00 a.m. tour of the Presidential Office Building which is located in the Zhongzheng district. This Baroque style building is a famous historical landmark in Taipei and was designed during the period of Japanese rule and completed in 1919. Uncertain exactly how long it would take us to get there, we arrived at 9.40 a.m. but were allowed in without delay despite noticing long queues snaking around the exterior of the building. Entrance is from the northern gate next to the Bank of Taiwan building and clearly pre booking saved us a great deal of time, tours being free of charge. It’s necessary to take passports / ID for checking but this was a quick formality and we were soon ushered onto an English speaking tour with two people from Finland. Other tour groups seemed to have around 30 people but as Taiwan receives relatively few western visitors we were fortunate to be in such a small group.
Our friendly female guide took us through the main entrance which is dominated by a large bust of one of the founding fathers of the Republic of China (ROC), Dr. Sun Yat-Sen. The one hour tour provided us with a good introduction to the history of Taiwan and was very enjoyable.
After the tour had finished we set off to visit the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall (CKS) a few blocks away but a small detour followed as to get there we needed to pass the 2-28 Peace Memorial Park so we decided to take a little look around there first. The 2-28 Peace Memorial Park contains memorials to victims of the pivotal event in modern Taiwanese history which took place on 28th February 1947, the killings known as the 2-28 incident. In the centre of the park stands a memorial and strolling along paths we came across attractive ponds, pavilions and a bandstand.
Our phone map gave the impression that the CKS Memorial Hall was close by but we had to hurry along to arrive in time for the Changing of the Guard at 12.00 noon as there were numerous large roads to cross where we repeatedly had to wait for the crossing to turn green.
There are 89 steps leading to the entrance of the blue roofed octagonal neoclassical memorial to the former president, 89 being significant as this denotes the age at which he died. The Memorial was erected in 1980 in honour of General Chiang Kai-Shek the former president of the Republic of China.
The ceremony takes place on the upper floor of the memorial hall on the hour and fortunately we managed to secure a good central position just before crowds built up.Promptly at 12.00 noon the guard change commenced and with much pomp and ceremony the guards marched like clockwork soldiers adjusting their gun positions in unison with each other, finally exchanging places on the pedestals vacated by the retiring guards.
It was fascinating to observe the 12 minute ceremony and afterwards we walked through the vast Freedom Square which is flanked by the elaborate National Concert Hall and National Theatre located on each side.
Conveniently, CKS Memorial Hall has its own MRT station so we jumped on board for the short journey to the Taipei Botanical Gardens. Admission here is also free of charge but perhaps springtime isn’t the best season to visit as there were very few flowering shrubs and, although well landscaped, it was mostly a sea of green.
Still, we rested our legs on a bench overlooking the lotus pond whilst taking a drink from our water bottles. Referring to our map, we noticed that the Longshan Temple was within walking distance so we headed that way stopping off for some delicious mugs of frothy coffee in a small, independent cafe on the way. Cappuccino doesn’t seem to exist on the menu in most cafes here so we had to settle for Latte, but Taiwanese Lattes are more like our Cappuccinos anyway!
Feeling energised after our coffee break we continued on our way, by chance passing an entire street selling birds of varying sizes from small sparrow like birds to large parrots, hanging from hooks in ornamental cages. There seemed little activity but it was fun to observe as we strolled by.
Soon, we arrived at Longshan Temple, it’s definitely worthy of a visit, incredibly ornate with elaborate carvings, teeming with worshippers and tourists with a waterfall feature in its grounds. Noticing a nearby bakery, we bought some egg custard tarts and found a bench in the square outside the MRT station to sit and eat them.
We then hopped back on the MRT to the Songshan Cultural and Creative Park, a former tobacco factory in a park setting. The former manufacturing spaces now contains the Red Dot Design Museum and the Puppetry Art Centre of Taipei, whilst the factory worker’s homes have been transformed into galleries, cafes, craft shops and boutiques. We came here on the suggestion of a Taiwanese interior designer we’d shared a table with in McDonalds at Hong Kong airport. At weekends this area comes to life with a craft market, artisan food stalls and street entertainers but despite it being a quiet Monday afternoon it was still fascinating to see how the factory had been brought back to life, retaining its huge chimney.
Just a few minutes walk from here we found a hidden gem, IKEA House. Now you might think it very strange that we would travel over 6,000 miles to spend time in an IKEA store but this is a completely different concept from the giant blue and yellow warehouses we are all so familiar with!
Feeling curious, we were duty bound to step inside, and yes, it is small, located over four floors with rooms furnished as in an ordinary house but with IKEA furniture and accessories. There’s a small cafe counter on the ground floor where one can feast on the ever popular Swedish meatballs or, like us, opt for warm cinnamon buns and cups of coffee.
Taking these on a tray, we went upstairs finding some comfortable chairs in the living room to enjoy our afternoon snack. This ‘room’ was also furnished with cosy sofas, a dining room table and chairs, customers being able to sit where they pleased. Other floors contained the kitchen, equipped with IKEA products with seating around the breakfast bar and kitchen table. There was even a fully furnished bedroom where it was permitted to sit on the bed but obviously climbing in and going to sleep was not allowed!
Using the IKEA WI-FI I tried to find out if there were more IKEA houses around the world, but it doesn’t appear to be the case, not even in Sweden, it’s spiritual home. Our thoughts were that it was a splendid concept, showcasing IKEA products in a realistic setting. Small items can be purchased here whilst larger items can be ordered. The only problem I can foresee is that as it’s so comfortable and welcoming and the staff are only located on the ground floor, that some people might overstay their welcome!
Our final stop of the late afternoon was another short trip on the MRT, this time to the Ximending district – a youth culture hub favoured by students and a frenzy of neon lights, sports and electronic stores, the entire area buzzing with activity. A wander through the locality followed before returning to our hotel for a well earned rest.
By mid evening we were feeling re-energised so off we went on the MRT again, this time taking the Green Line to its terminus at Zhongshan, the home of the Raohe Night Market. A bright illuminated archway welcomed visitors into this night market which was bustling with activity and temptation at every step of its 600 metre long street. Next to the market lies the Ciyou Temple illustrated in my feature photo above.
It’s always a good sign if certain stalls have long snaking queues, the locals must know these are the best places to buy their snacks from, so we joined one such queue where a production line of at least five people were preparing black pepper pork buns, one person was rolling dough whilst another added meat and cabbage before being placed in an Aga type oven. Delicious couldn’t really describe them, they were delectable with a crispy base combined with a mouthwatering, peppery succulent inside – I’m sure we’ll be looking out for them again. Weaving our way through the crowds, stalls were offering anything from shoes and clothes to electronic devices. Fairground type games seemed a popular evening activity with locals trying their hand at darts, shooting balloons and throwing hoops over objects to win soft toys or some other small prizes. By the time we had reached the far end of the night market we had been tempted to try some sausages, pork skewers and at least one healthy item – freshly squeezed watermelon juice! Certainly a feast for our senses.
Back near the MRT stands a tall clock which played a tune at 10.00 p.m. as we were passing with characters popping out of doors above the clock face as the bells chimed.
Close by is the Rainbow Bridge which crosses the river. Taking a short stroll, it was extremely quiet here with virtually no-one else in sight except for a couple of people who had brought their street food to one of the riverside benches. After yet another fast paced today we returned to our hotel, loving every moment so far of our time in Taiwan.