Tuesday 31 July 2007

Vall de Núria Rack Railway, Catalonia

This leisurely train journey (15.85 Euros Return for adults) winds its way from Ribes de Freser up into the mountains, past crags and forests, providing dramatic views in all directions, only marred by the mind-numbing lift music inside the carriages. For the most enjoyable ride, grab one of the seats next to the driver. At the top, you alight next to a vast, forbidding, almost Stalinist, building that sits on the site of a medieval religious sanctuary. Today, it houses a hotel, five restaurants, including a cheap and cheerful canteen, several auditoria, a high-quality wildlife photography exhibition, a small museum and a souvenir shop. Outside are some ski lifts, a boating lake, an open expanse of grass, where school parties play games, and a small farm. For 7.50 Euros, kids can take a pony ride around the farm and a go on the tubby, which involves sitting in a large inflatable tyre and hurtling down a plastic track. Included in the price of the train ticket is a sedate cable car ride up to a youth hostel higher up the mountain. From there, footpaths lead up the surrounding summits. The adventurous should also consider walking back down to Ribes de Fraser along the enticing footpath that runs alongside the river and the railway line. 8/10

Setcases, Catalonia

Set half way up a picturesque valley surrounded by mountains, Setcases is an attractive mixture of crumbling farm buildings, cobbled alleyways, smart apartments, rustic restaurants and modest hotels. In winter, the village serves as a base for skiers tackling the VallTer 2000 resort further up the valley. In summer, Setcases makes a good starting point for some sensual riverside walks - colourful butterflies flutter around an array of wild flowers bordering the grassy footpaths leading off the quiet road through the valley. A particularly pleasant amble alongside the Riu de Carboner, an idyllic mountain stream, begins about a kilometer or two north of Setcases. 8/10

Hotel La Coma, Setcases, Catalonia

Modern, but attractive and solidly-built, hotel blanketed with hanging baskets of flowers and offering fine views of the mountains surrounding Setcases. Popular with the elderly and young families. Tasteful and understated rooms are kitted out with very solid wooden furniture and many have balconies overlooking the small car park, the large children's play area, outdoor pool and the forested slopes further down the valley. But you may need to remove the plastic waterproof mattress covers to get a good night's sleep. Half board is great value at 54 euros per person. It includes a buffet breakfast, which you can have on a sun-drenched terrace, featuring a wide variety of tasty cold meats and cheeses, and simple three-course dinners, generous and competently prepared. One of the best starters is anchovies, roasted peppers and aubergine on toast, while main course highlights include a flavoursome veal and mushroom stew and a succulent shoulder of lamb. Staff are fairly friendly and the hotel is well-placed for some lovely riverside walks. 8/10

Monday 30 July 2007

La Palmera, Passeig Lluis Albert, L'Escala, Catalonia

This recently-refurbished restaurant appears to have big aspirations, but it doesn't quite deliver. It is across the road from the sea front promenade, but most diners don't quite get a sea view. Instead, you can watch crayfish and lobsters living out the last hours of their lives in fish tanks next to the windows. The inner walls are lined with surrealist prints of variable taste, while the loos are fitted in an odd mishmash of contemporary styles. If you order the three-course, 20 Euro, menu, the head waiter will probably give you an exasperated look over the top of his heavy-rimmed glasses. Still, you get a bottle of ordinary wine, bread and water thrown in. To start, you can do battle with a large, intimidating plate of crustaceans or opt for something a little less demanding such as the goat's cheese salad. The main courses include a run-of-the mill paella, while the ice cream desert appears to be straight out of a supermarket tub. Although the 8.50 Euro children's menu is good value - respectable cannelloni or macaroni followed by well-cooked fish in batter and ice cream to finish, adults should probably go a la carte and choose carefully. 5/10

Empuries Beach, near L'Escala, Catalonia

A rare find in the Mediterranean - miles of golden sand mostly without a concrete backdrop. The presence of the partially-excavated remains of an Ancient Greek and Roman settlement and a nature reserve has limited the development between the medieval hamlet of Sant Marti and the full-on resorts much further up the coast. As a result, there is typically plenty of elbow room between the towels and sun-shades on the beaches, which are very clean and offer far-reaching views across the Gulf of Roses. This is an exposed stretch of coastline ideal for water sports - wind-surfers zip across the sea, kids frolic in the sizable waves and the sky is dotted with colourful kites. At the southern end near the ruins, you can take a pleasant stroll along well-maintained paths and board walks through the sand dunes and pine trees. Car parking is available for 1 Euro an hour or you can catch the pricey and sluggish, but fun, toy-town 'road train' from L'Escala. 8/10

Sunday 29 July 2007

Can Miquel, Platja de Montgó, L'Escala, Catalonia

On a sunny evening, opt for one of the dozen outside tables, overlooking the small beach and the attractive bay, rather than the less enticing tables inside the modern, undistinguished building. The waiters can be slow to seat diners and a little disinterested, but service is swift once you order. The food isn't very imaginative, but the portions are generous and the ingredients fresh. Any starter featuring the local anchovies is a good bet, while the hearty mixed paella (13 Euros each), which must be shared between two people, contains plenty of lamb, sausage meat, crustaceans and other seafood. A refreshing and uncomplicated accompaniment is the Amat Sauvignon Blanc (7.50 Euros a bottle). A local institution and a step up from the other restaurants in the immediate vicinity, Can Miquel also makes a good place to take a break from tanning on the beach for lunch, coffee or ice cream. 7/10

Peix Blau, C. La Torre, L'Escala, Catalonia

Tucked away in a back street, this unassuming restaurant is worth seeking out for the traditional seafood Catalan five-course menu (25 Euros). The courses are finely-judged and make for an interesting and tasty meal - as long as you like seafood and don't mind it salty. Fresh anchovies on toast to start, followed by a salad with a delicately-cooked sardine as a centerpiece and then a big plate of shell fish in a garlic source. Next up is a suquet with big hunks of fish and potato swimming in the stew, followed by a delicious apple tart accompanied by ice cream. And there is a tiny coffee to finish. The house rose wine is refreshing, but somewhat bland. Black and white prints of old fishing scenes in L'Escala decorate the walls. Although the traditional decor and atmosphere is undermined by the flat screen TV in the centre of the restaurant, a visit to Peix Blau is an economical way to sample good quality Catalan cuisine. 8/10

Friday 27 July 2007

Can Coll, Placa Major, Sant Marti D'Empuries, Catalonia

One of a clutch of restaurants that have taken over the hamlet of Sant Marti's quaint square facing the village church. While well-positioned to serve undiscerning beach goers, Can Coll has plenty of regulars, as the food is a cut-above the usual tourist fare and the service, overseen by the watchful proprietor, is swift and friendly. Most diners order one of the large selection of pizzas, which come with generous toppings and are good value (6 to 10 Euros), from one of the dozen or so outside tables protected by sun shades. The Sicilian, which has a sprinkling of pine nuts, raisins and walnuts, is one of the more unusual toppings on the menu. Aside from pizzas, the other dishes available include a great hunk of goat's cheese surrounded by a substantial salad and bread. This is a pleasant spot to shelter from the often ferocious sun over a cold beer and on a Saturday you might see a wedding party posing outside the Ancient church opposite. 7/10

Playa and Punta Montgo, near L'Escala, Catalonia

Small, but picturesque, sandy beach and bay enclosed by whitewashed villas on one hillside and green forests and scrub land owned by the Spanish military on the other hillside. The bay shelters a flotilla of small yachts, but towards the shore, the shallow water and lack of waves make the beach ideal for small children. As you would expect, the sand can get very crowded near the sea line. Debris is removed from the beach every morning, but the surrounding roads are litter-strewn and some of the cafes scruffy. The energetic should hike up through the villas to the top of the point, where there is a small stone tower and grand 360 degree views taking in the Gulf of Roses and the eastern edge of the Pyrenees. You can continue to enjoy the view across this vast bay by taking the bracing, vertiginous cliff walk through undeveloped scrub land towards Riells. 7/10

Thursday 26 July 2007

Carcassonne Cite, Languedoc-Roussillon, France

A huge, largely homogeneous, 12th and 13th Century citadel rising above the Languedoc countryside and the town of Carcassonne, the Cite must be one of the largest intact medieval structures surviving into the modern era. Up close, it feels like a film set. There are no cars or modern architecture within the walls, but look too closely in the wrong places and the sometimes crude restoration work is all too obvious. Still, the original stone battlements, narrow streets and 50-odd towers are extensive enough and well-preserved enough to successfully evoke the era of chivalry and bloody hand-to-hand fighting. Try to stay overnight in the Cite or nearby, so you can stroll round the inner and outer walls in the early morning or at dusk and avoid the hordes of day trippers spilling out of the inevitable souvenir shops and themed restaurants. Or sidestep the constant jostle in the streets by stopping for a drink in one of the pavement cafes in the small, but atmospheric, central square, Place Marcou. 8/10

Wednesday 25 July 2007

Le Capoul, Place Wilson, Toulouse

Timeless, refined brasserie with smart burgundy leather furniture, responsive, young waiters in white shirts and starched white tablecloths and napkins. The starters on the menu le Capoul (18 Euros for two courses) include some juicy roasted vegetables served with a delicious anchovy and olive sauce, a slightly bland gazpacho or six very fresh oysters with chopped onions, lemon and freshly-baked bread and butter. The main courses include a memorable and very rare beef kebabs doused in paprika sauce, served with fries and tomatoes on the vine. Less inspiring, but still flavoursome is cod and black olives mashed with potatoes. The children's menu features a succulent, expertly-cooked piece of cod, that would grace an adult's plate, accompanied by crispy, skinny fries. The house rose wine (9 Euros for 45cl) isn't very exciting, but refreshing enough. Le Capoul is deservedly three-quarters full on a Sunday evening. Impressive. 8/10

Hotel Mercure St. Georges, re saint Jermone, Toulouse

Mid-range, comfortable, but characterless, modern business hotel well-positioned near the heart of Toulouse. It occupies a utilitarian building containing utilitarian, air-conditioned rooms with large, comfy double beds. The extensive buffet breakfast (14 euros for adults and free for children) includes nicely-cooked scrambled egg and sausages, plus a wide choice of cheeses, cold meats and other standard continental fare. Many of the guests appear to be knackered middle managers in crumpled suits, but four-room apartments with a kitchenette are available for families at 170 Euros a night. The public car park below the hotel costs about 15 Euros a day. Service is businesslike. 6/10

Tuesday 24 July 2007

Orleans, France

Cobbled streets, elegant nineteenth century boulevards, an ornate Neogothic cathedral, walks along the banks of the fast-flowing Loire, a mostly pedestrianised square with fountains and a substantial statue of Joan of Arc on horseback. Orleans is an enticing city that can easily justify a day of loafing and wandering, marred only by the need to dodge dog poo and the occasional motorbike. If you haven't much time, walk past the grand four-storey cream terraces on the rue Jeanne D'Arc towards the Cathedrale Ste-Croix. Up close, you can study the bewildering array of carving, including some grisly leering gargoyles, that adorn all four sides of this towering church. Pop inside to admire the stain glass windows before strolling round the historic back streets that lead down to the river and host numerous bars and restaurants. 7/10

Hotel des Cedres, rue Marechal Foch, Orleans, France

At just 60 Euros for a double room, Hotel des Cedres is a good value two star hotel, 10 minutes walk from the heart of this well-preserved historic city. Outside, the hotel is an attractive 19th century building on a residential street with free parking, but inside most of the period features have gone. Although the en-suite rooms are basic and battered, they are clean and generally quiet thanks to two sets of doors. But avoid those near the tiny, noisy and aging lift. A generous continental breakfast can be eaten in the airy conservatory overlooking the pleasant garden for 8 Euros for adults and nothing for children. On the way out, be careful not to tread on the sleepy dog lounging in the foyer. 7/10

Monday 23 July 2007

Le Brin de Zinc, Rue Sainte Catherine, Orleans, France

Big, buzzy, old-fashioned bistro spread across several shopfronts with tables inside and outside on a pedestrianised street just off Orleans' main square. Each of the inside rooms has a different feel, but all are cluttered with prints and artifacts. The house speciality is a huge bowl of salty mussels with one of six or so different sauces. The Moules de Bleu, which are adorned with a hefty dollop of heart-stopping Roquefort cheese, are particularly good. However, the accompanying chubby, greasy chips let the dish down somewhat. If you are watching your salt intake, the salmon lasagna comes with a respectable side salad. For kids, the menu de enfants is good value at 8 euros for two courses and a drink, but there isn't a healthy option - choose from steak and chips, chicken and chips or mussels and chips, followed by chocolate mousse or ice cream. Service is efficient, but sometimes surly. 6/10

P&O Ferries, Dover to Calais

Not the fastest way to cross the English Channel, but can be fun. Check-in, passport control and security are faster than at Heathrow, but still take at least half an hour. On board the top deck, you are compensated on a sunny day with great views of the striking White Cliffs of Dover as you chug out of the harbour and miles of golden sand as you arrive in Calais. Below deck, you can jostle with backpackers, lorry drivers and families for something to eat or somewhere to sit. Alternatively, you can wind away the 90-minute crossing by browsing through the shop, watching cartoons in the kids' lounge or playing arcade games, but try to avoid using the sometimes filthy toilets. If you aren't in a hurry, good value at £100 return for a family and a car. 6/10

Friday 6 July 2007

Le Mess, Boulevard Louis Schmidt, Brussels

Upmarket French restaurant spread over several floors of a former military barracks perched on the side of a noisy six-lane-carriageway. Inside, the traffic fades away, the decor is tasteful and restrained and the service polished and well-paced. To start, the light Montagne de carpaccio de filet de boeuf en salade, accompanied by sirop de tomate and chips de prosciuttons, has a wide variety of flavours, well-balanced to complement each other. But the Carré d'agneau en croûte de pain d'épices main course is less-appealing - the richness of the sauce isn't sufficient to make up for the disappointing tiny rack of red meat, which is barely worth the effort required to prise it off the bone, while the accompanying gratin of sweet potato is bland. The Fruits frais de saison for desert is a better effort thanks to the plump, crisp fruit and the creamy, rich topping. While the main courses aren't exactly filling, they are fairly priced at 13 euros to 23 euros and the deserts good value at around 6 euros. Le Mess pulls in plenty of Eurocrats and locals on a mid-week evening even though Brussels is packed with alternative gastronomic experiences. 6/10

Sofitel Brussels Europe, Place Jourdan, Brussels

Modern, understated hotel in Brussels' European district with young, fashionable staff and spacious, cool, mostly white rooms, tastefully decorated with restrained prints of City scenes. The large soft beds are exceptionally comfortable and the windows and walls well sound-proofed so guests returning from sampling Brussels' limited nightlife don't disturb each other. A coffee-maker, a large flat-screen television, a cordless phone and very quiet air-conditioning are among the mod-cons designed to justify the pricey 245 Euros room-rate. The buffet breakfast in the light, but surprisingly ostentatious, restaurant costs an additional 25 Euros. But the hot food, in particular, is disappointing - the scrambled eggs watery and the sausages undercooked. 6/10

Monday 2 July 2007

Covent Garden Piazza, London

Just about London's only continental-style piazza, the focal point of Covent Garden is a former fruit and vegetable wholesale market standing in the middle of a large cobbled square. Today, the grand neo-classical stone walls and vaulted glass roof of the market shelter a handful of boutiques surrounded by very touristy, and sometimes, tacky restaurants and market stalls. Inside the solid stone pillars, the tone is often raised at weekends by a string quartet, while outside the mood is lifted by jugglers, mime artists and the many other street entertainers who ply their trade around the pavement cafes. The cobbled square, which throngs with tourists on sunny days, is enclosed by a clutch of distinguished buildings, including the rear entrance of the striking Royal Opera House, the London Transport Museum and the monolithic, neo-classical St. Paul's Church. The best place to survey the scene is the balcony of the otherwise unremarkable Punch & Judy pub. 7/10

Sunday 1 July 2007

Horniman Museum, London Road Forest Hill, South London

A quirky and sometimes charming museum set in manicured gardens perched on top of a hill providing fine views across south London. Entrance to the permanent exhibits is free. These include a large gloomy Victorian room stuffed full of stuffed animals, a full-scale model of a walrus and a couple of skinny, but living, snakes. More entertaining and interesting is the music gallery, which contains a dizzying array of instruments from all over the world and interactive screens that enable you to hear the sounds many of the exhibits make in the hands of a musician. In an adjacent room, kids can bash a jumble of unusual percussion instruments to their hearts' content. Also worth seeking out are the imaginatively decorated tanks of jellyfish, sea horses and radiant Angel fish in the recently refurbished aquarium downstairs. By comparison, a small ground-floor room containing a beehive in a transparent box seems neglected and run-down.

The temporary exhibitions, which usually involve an admission fee, are also hit and miss. Walking with Beasts, based on the BBC series of the same name, contains full-sized models of a Woolly Mammoth being attacked by a cave man, a sabre-toothed tiger and other long-gone beasts, but isn't large enough or varied enough to justify the adult admission charge of £4.50. When you have seen enough, a reasonable cafe is on hand to provide refreshments or enjoy a picnic beside one of the colourful flowerbeds that surround the museum. 7/10