Saturday 29 September 2007

Cittie of York, High Holborn, London

Stepping from bland, congested High Holborn into the Cittie of York is like travelling back in time. Everywhere you look there is wood, very dark, old wood, embellished with 200-year-old fittings and the white rose emblem of York. If it weren't for the odd fruit machine, the main bar could pass for the dining room of Hogwarts in a Harry Potter film. There is a very high wooden beam ceiling, huge wooden casks above the bar, stained glass windows, wrought iron grills and one wall is lined with ornate, wooden cubicles, which sit four people around a table and look like large confessional boxes. At the front of the pub and downstairs in the cellar, there are two more smaller, intimate, but less remarkable bars.

Respectable light lunch
On tap, there is a range of eclectic Samuel Smith beers, lagers and ciders, complemented by a respectable light lunch menu, which features a range of 'special sandwiches', such as toasted ciabatta with dolcelatte, mushroom and roast red peppers, served with salad and fries for £5.50, a selection of burgers at £6.50 and jacket potatoes at £4.50. Perhaps the best deal is a traditional sandwich, such as Stilton and red onion, with one of the soups of the day, for £5.50. The soups come in large bowls, but the spicy, almost sweet beef mulligatawny broth, was a little thin and disappointing - even a couple of pieces of meat floating amid the grains of rice would have made all the difference. Still, the Cittie of York is an extraordinary pub. 8/10

Hollywood Arms, Hollywood Road, Chelsea, London

Attractive Victorian pub with high ceilings, large windows, ornate archways and a buzzy atmosphere, near the Fulham Road and in the midst of Chelsea's cafe society. Downstairs, the walls are decorated with arty prints of Hollywood icons, such as Clint Eastwood as a grizzled cowboy from a spaghetti western, and upstairs there is a spacious room that can be booked for private parties. But drinks prices are as inflated as the local house prices - a pint of Peroni, for example, costs almost four quid. 6/10

Monday 24 September 2007

Siena, Tuscany

Even by Italian standards, this is an evocative, beautiful and atmospheric city drenched in character and tradition. Siena is, of course, renown for its summer Palios - madcap and downright dangerous bareback horse races around the tight corners of the stunning cobbled central square, the Campo. But Siena can surprise and delight throughout the year. Visitors might stumble upon a street party or a procession bedecked in flags bearing the colours and animal of one of the city's 17 medieval districts or contrada. Dressed in tights, pointy-toed shoes, tunics and other medieval garb, young residents play drums, whirl flags or blow trumpets while marching through Siena's narrow streets or encamped in one of its many timeless squares.

Castello di Leonina Relais, near Siena, Tuscany

A heavily-restored, red-brick fortified manor house on a hilltop commanding archetypal Tuscan views of rolling fields laced with roads lined with the distinctive spear-shaped cypress trees. The rooms, each named after one of the contrada in nearby Siena, are comfortably and tastefully furnished in a traditional style, but they don't get much daylight and can be cramped. The sofa bed in one of the junior suites (210 to 250 euros a night), for example, isn't big enough for two young children. Still, there are good communal facilities, such as a decent swimming pool 400 yards up the road, free mountain bike rental, a very picturesque terrace and a pleasant stone courtyard. The breakfasts are big on cheese, cold meats, pastries and cakes, but there is no hot food, the fruit can be ropey and coffee is in short supply. At lunchtimes and evenings, the restaurant serves a very limited number of Italian dishes at an exceptionally-leisurely pace, but the views from the terrace are captivating, while the food, when it finally arrives, is generally excellent and reasonable value given the quality. Fresh Strozzapreti pasta with a vegetable sauce and braised beef in a red wine sauce, for example, both cost 12 euros. There is also an excellent wine cellar, stocked with rich, if pricey, local vintages. All in all, a good, but expensive, place to chill out for a long weekend. 7/10

Thursday 20 September 2007

Ristorante Gallo Nero, via del Porrione, Siena

An unassuming and keenly-priced restaurant in one of the historic streets not far from the Campo, Gallo Nero is popular with lunching locals. Try and get a table in the ground floor room, which is dark, but atmospheric, rather than upstairs, where the very low arched brick ceiling and small windows can bring on claustrophobia. The menu has a range of Italian staples or you can opt for one of the 'medieval' dishes, which include duck, pear or similarly earthy ingredients. But the best value has to be the promotional menu - a large glass of table wine and two courses, such as fresh spaghetti with a bolognese sauce or a white bean, tomato and sausage casserole for just 10 euros. It is simple, but tasty food. Kids will probably be happy with a pasta dish with a glass of mineral water for 6 euros. Gallo Nero is staffed with good-natured young waiters who speak excellent English. 7/10

Wednesday 19 September 2007

British Airways, Economy, London Gatwick to Bologna, Italy

This flight takes less than two hours, but tends to be preceded by a lot of faffing about. Even though it is quick to check-in online or at one of the BA self-service kiosks at Gatwick, there are still lengthy queues to drop-off baggage and get through security. And afternoon flights seem to be prone to delays of about an hour or so. If the flight is full and you aren't in any great hurry, British Airways may offer you 170 pounds to wait for the next one. When it is finally time to board, you cross a futuristic new skywalk with fine views across Sussex countryside to some smart new outlying gates in Gatwick's North terminal.

On board, economy passengers are given a comfortable dark-blue leather seat, a glossy BA magazine, featuring well-known journalists and plenty of arresting photos, a sandwich and a drink, while kids also get a colouring book, a pack of cards or some other toy. But all these diversions shouldn't stop you admiring the birds' eye view of the momentous snow-topped Alps. The flight crew are friendly, but uncompromising on safety, even threatening to ask the captain to delay landing until a two-year-old boy sits down in his seat. And you might have a lengthy wait for your bags, particularly at Gatwick. 6/10

Friday 14 September 2007

Axis Restaurant, One Aldwych, the Strand, Central London

Descend down a spiral staircase into a sheek, subterranean restaurant that is as contemporary and cool as the One Aldwych hotel it belongs to. Around the crisp white tablecloths and the black chairs, the walls are decorated with dramatic, abstract images. Axis serves compact, well-presented and thoughtful 'Modern British' food, expertly cooked and seasoned. For example, the la carte main courses, which ranges from about £15 to £22, include a poached egg nestling on a fillet of haddock mounted on a round bed of mashed potatoes and leeks, providing a appealing mix of flavours. Delicious, but it won't fill you up. The coffees are also excellent and served with exquisite petite fours, such as a tiny, but intense lemon meringue pie. Service is slick and professional and Axis is a good choice for an expensive evening meal, but at lunchtime on a sunny day you might prefer somewhere with natural light. 7/10

Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, South London

A small, but world-class art gallery housed in a squat early-nineteenth century, purpose-built building with glass roofs, Dulwich Picture Gallery has a fine permanent collection including masterpieces by Rembrandt, Poussin, Gainsborough and Canaletto. Scores of ostentatious gold-framed landscapes and portraits are crammed on to the deep red walls in the main galleries, while temporary exhibitions are typically given more space in the side galleries. The current exhibition 'The Changing Face of Childhood' features a series of mainly 18th Century paintings of foppish children posing with early cricket bats, pet animals and the odd beggar. While an interesting reflection of the era, these are probably not the kind of pictures you would want on your wall. The Gallery (admission £4, plus a charge for the temporary exhibitions) is surrounded by some pleasant gardens and an upmarket and pricey cafe/restaurant. 8/10

Tuesday 11 September 2007

Chartwell, Kent

Steeped in memories and stuffed with artifacts associated with Sir Winston Churchill, Chartwell, his longstanding family home, is an extensive memorial and museum to Britain's war time Prime Minister. Much of the surprisingly-modest house, now owned by the National Trust, is laid out as it was when Churchill lived there. The walls are laden with his paintings, photographs and other mementos of his extraordinary life. On the sturdy desk in his study, for example, there are framed black and white photos of King George VI and a youthful Queen Mother. A handful of rooms have been turned into a museum gallery displaying an emotive collection of Churchill's hats, uniforms and medals, plus his monogrammed slippers. Nearby is Churchill's studio, which is littered with his mediocre watercolours, interesting more for their subject matter than their artistry, and more World War Two paraphernalia, including some metal chess pieces made out of the remains of a German V2 rocket.

The Dolphin, Sydenham High Street, South London

The drab facade to this recently-refurbished pub is deceptive. Inside, there is a large, attractive bar, decorated in a mostly minimalist-style with cool, dark walls, stripped floorboards, leather and wooden chairs. Out the back, is a large, heavily-landscaped and immature garden surrounded by walls propped up by red, iron girders. This substantial, enclosed space makes the Dolphin popular with young families and the garden can feel like a creche, but a giant game of Jenga and a giant set of dominoes in one corner distracts the kids. Service by the youthful staff is friendly and attentive, but somewhat confused, particularly when it comes to running a tab. The quirky menu includes an impressive array of Iberian cured meats (£8.50), served on a wooden chopping board, and a large slab of tepid, rare beef (£11.95), accompanied by a dry and crusty Yorkshire pudding, a couple of salty roast potatoes and some delicately-steamed vegetables. Still, an intense and rich chocolate pot for desert will take your mind off what has gone before. 6/10

Monday 10 September 2007

Cantina Vinopolis, Bank Side, near London Bridge

Neighbouring the foodie haven of Borough Market, this stylish restaurant is part of the Vinopolis wine emporium built underneath a Victorian railway viaduct, giving it an impressively-high vaulted ceiling made with thousands of bare bricks. Among the starters in the set menu (£30 for three courses), the tuna capaccio with salad has a delicious salty flavour, while the duck and foi gras terrine is rich and satisfying, if somewhat unethical. But the main courses are less appetising - the corn-fed chicken is dry and dull, while the accompanying spiced cabbage and new potatoes are also bland and a little rubbery. The lamb shank, accompanied by cherry tomatoes, pea puree and sugar snap peas arranged in a pretty pattern, is a better bet. Of the deserts, the substantial plate of cheese and biscuits stands out. Fittingly, Cantina Vinopolis has a huge wine list stretching over 30 pages, including an extensive choice of full-bodied desert wines. While the service can be sluggish and sometimes inattentive, Cantina Vinopolis still makes for a memorable meal. 7/10

Friday 7 September 2007

St. James's Park, London

The most picturesque and royal of London's Royal Parks is best enjoyed on a sunny Sunday when the neighbouring Mall, a broad avenue running down to Buckingham Palace, is closed to traffic. Take the tube to St. James's Park station, walk past the grand eighteenth century terraces and into the park, which absorbs hundreds of amblers easily. Cross the modest bridge over the tree-lined lake, pausing to admire the dreamy views of the distant, grandiose palace and the weeping willows huddled over the water. Stroll up to the north edge of the park and down the Mall towards the extravagant neo-classical Victoria Memorial, complete with fountains and giant black statues, facing the gates of the Queen's equally monolithic residence. Then return to the park for a coffee or ice cream at one of the very tasteful, upmarket cafes. 8/10

Tuesday 4 September 2007

The Florence, Dulwich Road, Herne Hill, London

A large, recently-refurbished pub, the size of a village hall, with funky decor, hip, young staff and its own micro-brewery. The Florence's focal point is a 'Cheers-style' square bar, serving an impressive range of premium beers, including the German wheat beer Erdinger and the renown Czech pilsner Budvar. Each tap around the bar has a small label describing the beer to the uninitiated. Elsewhere, the pub is furnished with trendy, but comically-uncomfortable seats, which are so deep they encourage you to lounge right back and away from the person you are talking to. Probably the best drinking den in Herne Hill, but as yet, the Florence doesn't attract enough drinkers, even on a Saturday night, to fill its wide open spaces and create a buzzy atmosphere. 7/10

Lombok, Half Moon Lane, Herne Hill, London

Compact, good-value south-east Asian restaurant serving flavourful, spicy curries and other Thai dishes. There are at least a dozen starters (about £4) to choose from, ranging from a refreshing seaweed and shiitake mushroom soup to a rich satay in a peanut sauce. The wide selection of main courses (about £8) includes a mouth-watering and eye-watering red roast duck curry and some fine king prawns with ginger and lemon grass. The pick of the side dishes is the tasty and filling pud Thai noodles (£6). Bottles of Singa and Tiger beer are the ideal way to cool down tingling taste buds and the efficient and friendly Asian waitresses will keep you stocked with tap water. Lombok, which also offers a fast takeaway service, gets a steady flow of customers most evenings and your fellow diners will probably be a smattering of couples and families.8/10

Saturday 1 September 2007

The Ship and Whale, Gulliver Street, Rotherhithe, London

An handsome and intact Victorian pub unsullied by fruit machines, televisions or other forms of modernity. Deep purple patterned wallpaper, wood panelling, framed black and white prints and ornate chandeliers - the decor is soaked in tradition and nostalgia. Near the bar, old British coins, such as the shilling, the sixpence and the crown, are mounted in frames. Outside, in the beer garden the emphasis is on comfort - good quality iron-cast furniture is shaded on sunny days by a marquee. But the best reason to come here is the excellent and generous food. When the barbecue is up and running, you can gorge on a rich, succulent beef burger in a tasty bap, accompanied by a lavish potato salad and a flavoursome tomato salad, for just £8.50. Alternatively, you can opt for one of the expertly-cooked beef or tuna steaks again accompanied by a top-notch salad. Service is laid-back, but friendly. A fine gastropub. 8/10

Cycle and Foot Path, Tower Bridge to Greenwich, London

Beginning on a high amidst the Victorian splendour of Tower Bridge and the futuristic City Hall, shaped like a warped egg, this five mile route metaphorically goes downhill. Loosely following the Thames footpath, it threads its way through the redeveloped warehouses and wharfs lining the river. Today, these cavernous brick buildings house trendy apartments and some upmarket shops, but they still retain enough of their maritime period features to be a reminder of London's historic role as a great trading port. The further east you go, the less the route follows the river as private developments force it to turn inland. Walkers and cyclists wanting to catch a glimpse of the river and Canary Wharf's towering office blocks have to make sometimes tortuous and frustrating detours to the river and back. Still, several appealing, well-preserved 19th Century pubs line the route and the baroque grandeur of Greenwich's Royal Naval College makes for a picturesque finale. 7/10