Sunday 29 March 2009

National Portrait Gallery, St Martin's Place, central London

Packed with portraits of famous figures from the past five centuries, the National Portrait Gallery is as much a treat for British history buffs as for art-lovers. If you are neither, you will still enjoy the ground floor galleries which feature an incredibly diverse collection of paintings, photographs, montages and the occasional sculpture of contemporary figures against a backdrop of simple white walls. They range from a cartoon-like depiction of Salman Rushdie painted on linen to a carved wooden head of Andrew Motion, the recent poet laureate, to a brooding oil painting of actor Pete Postlethwaite to a huge, captivating and amazingly photographic black and white painting of biochemist Paul Nurse. By contrast, the gloomy and rather oppressive galleries at the top of the tall escalator are given over to flattish, staid paintings of Tudor royalty. Down one level are the Victorian galleries lined with a series of marble black busts and white busts of distinguished dignitaries with facial hair. Many of the paintings here are surprisingly eye catching, such as one of thirty or so Victorian VIPs mingling at a social gathering.

Friday 27 March 2009

B'Twin Forme 2008 Road Bike

Priced around £230 in the January sales by Decathlon, the B'Twin Forme 2008 is a fast bike for very little money. With its low price tag, an aluminium frame, thin wheels and 24 gears, this bike is ideal for commuting except for one drawback: Many of the components are cheap and nasty. If you don't swap the outer tubes for kevlar replacements (about £10 each from Decathlon), you will probably get a series of punctures. And don't expect the brake pads to last more than a few months of regular riding. Moreover, some of the gears tend to slip even after the free adjustments within three months of purchase. At least the workshop at Decathlon's Surrey Quays store is accommodating and good value, so repairs aren't too much hassle and won't cost you a fortune. 6/10

Tutti's, Lamb Conduit Street, central London

Facing down a Starbucks on the other side of the road, Tutti's is a cut above its rival. It serves good Costa-branded coffee at keen prices (£1.50 for a large Americano), as well as having free Wi-Fi, a handful of leather arm chairs and friendly, quick service. The hot paninis are tasty and good value at about £3.50, while the outside tables catch the afternoon sun. Even better, if you are prepared to perch on the high stools along the window benches, there are sockets where you can plug your laptop in. On the downside, Tutti's is a tad scruffy and its popularity means the upstairs room can get cramped. 7/10

Monday 23 March 2009

Sissinghurst Castle Garden, Sissinghurst, Kent

Planted around a clutch of charismatic and weather-beaten, red-brick buildings dating from the fifteenth century, the immaculate and imaginative garden at Sissinghurst Castle is in an exquisite setting. At the front entrance is the handsome, but shallow, main house and long library, divided by an archway leading into the front courtyard at the foot of the elegant tower. A wooden spiral staircase inside the tower takes you past a cluttered and homely library laid out as it was when writer Vita Sackville-West lived here and Virginia Woolf came to visit. You pass two much barer rooms before reaching the small roof terrace from where you can survey the neat patterns in the gardens below, the aging jumble of red brick buildings and the rolling farmyard beyond.

Sunday 22 March 2009

The Spotted Dog, Smarts Hill, Penshurst, Kent

A concrete terrace, with harsh steel railings, mars the pretty white clapboard facade of this fifteenth century inn. Still, the front terrace catches the sun, is decorated with hanging baskets of flowers and the wooden tables are flanked by comfortable benches. Inside, the Spotted Dog's low ceilings and well-preserved wooden beams, fireplaces and other period features make for a cosy and amenable pub, which pulls in plenty of prosperous locals. Outside the back, more tables are spread over two levels perched on a hillside, with an expansive view across the partially-wooded valley to the rooftops of quaint Penshurst village. Manned by efficient, but sometimes curt, staff, the bar stocks local beers from the Westerham brewery, as well as international lagers, plus the pale Chiddingstone cider, which is refreshing, heady and dry.

Plentiful meat
The menu is mostly conventional pub grub, such as a stilton ploughmans or sausages and mash and Sunday roasts (about £12). The food comes out hot, but suspiciously quickly, and the plentiful meat in the roasts is rather thinly sliced. The lean beef comes with a big crispy Yorkshire pudding, but the lamb can be fatty and the flavour weak. Still, it is served with crispy, tasty roast potatoes, gravy and a side order of al dente mashed turnip, cauliflower cheese, broccoli and carrots, but sometimes without the promised mint sauce. The kids meals include some anemic-looking ham (£5) topped with fried egg and accompanied by plump, squidgy chips and a token salad. Alternatively, children can have a half-portion of an adult roast for £6. Despite the medicore food, the Spotted Dog is worth a visit for the ambiance and the view. 7/10

Monday 16 March 2009

Nymans, Handcross, West Sussex

A charming ruined manor house with picturesque grounds, encompassing 35 acres of acclaimed gardens and 275 acres of woodland, Nymans commands pastoral views across the Sussex Weald. From the entrance gate, Lime Avenue takes a circuitous route down to the house, surrounded, in the spring, by hundreds of daffodils, following the crest of the hillside overlooking an arboretum and the woods below. Alternatively, you can thread your way through the top garden, the rose garden and the walled garden, which are punctuated with statues and manicured, ornamental hedges. Just below the top garden is a sloping bank of thick, soft grass, which makes a fine spot for a picnic with a view.

Lombok, Half Moon Lane, Herne Hill, south London

Compact, good-value south-east Asian restaurant serving flavourful, spicy curries and other Thai dishes. 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), with its peanuty sauce, but the health or budget conscious might prefer the steamed rice (£2). Bottles of Singa or 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. On weekend evenings most of Lombok's tables are full and you may find yourself a little too close to your fellow diners for comfort. 7/10

Saturday 14 March 2009

Ciao Bella, Lamb's Conduit Street, central London

A throwback to another era, Ciao Bella is a good value, but rather tired, Italian restaurant in a quirky Bloomsbury enclave. Musical instruments and prints of movie stars hang from the white walls, overlooking rows of small tables with white tablecloths and white wooden chairs. The pavement tables, which are warmed by patio heaters, offer a better ambiance. The menu has a long list of pizzas, pasta dishes and salads, priced around the seven pound mark, plus some more expensive Italian meat and fish dishes. The dough on the calzone is a bit tough, but the mozzarella and ham filling is nice enough. It is topped with a tomato sauce and a healthy pile of rocket. For some stronger flavours, try the spaghetti ally puttanesca, which comes with a generous serving of anchovies, olives and capers. Tipping is optional, which is in line with the sometimes erratic service. 6/10

Tuesday 10 March 2009

Move It, Olympia, central London

Four-day extravaganza devoted to dancing in all its variations, Move It features an exhibition, classes in everything from bellydancing to streetdancing, competitions and semi-professional performances by the cream of Britain's gyrating youth. Olympia's vast Victorian hall, with its spectacular glass and iron arched roof, is decked out in pink hoardings and buzzes with hordes of youngsters in hooded tops. If you are male and over thirty, you will be in a small minority, but most kids will love the funky music, the large group routines and the chance to perform impromptu dance moves in front of an appreciative audience. While entrance prices are quite high (kids over five pay £12 at the door and £8 in advance), there is plenty of free entertainment and dance classes are good value. 7/10

Sunday 8 March 2009

Mimosa, Half Moon Lane, Herne Hill, south London

Alluring and cheerful delicatessen renown for its good selection of heart-stopping French cheeses, big fat olives, marinated artichokes and other fresh morsels, Mimosa has a handful of cramped inside tables, a small garden and free, fast Wi-Fi. The young staff will make very tasty baguette sandwiches (about £3.50 to eat-in) to order from the fresh ingredients, such as chorizo, brie and ham, under the glass counter, while you can buy a bottle of decent fruit juice for just a £1. Other goodies on offer include small crispy samosas, French wines and jams, as well as a handful of cakes and muffins. Actor James Nesbitt, who lives round the corner, is a regular. 7/10

Saturday 7 March 2009

The Monument, Monument Street, central London

Commemorating the Great Fire of London and designed by Sir Christopher Wren, the Monument is a grandiose, seventeenth century Doric column crowned with a gold flaming urn just visible above the surrounding office blocks. You can climb the 311 black, polished steps up a narrow spiral staircase inside the column to a small 360 degree viewing gallery. Despite the mesh cage preventing visitors from jumping or falling off, there are good views of nearby Tower Bridge, distant Canary Wharf and particularly the high-tech cluster of office blocks dominated by the distinctive rocket-shaped Gherkin. On an overcast day, the City of London looks very grey from here with only the red buses providing splashes of colour. On the way down, the vertiginous should avoid looking over the heavy iron railing around the staircase. Admission for adults is three pounds and you may have to queue for 15 minutes or so at weekends, but you do get a certificate on the way out. 7/10

Tuesday 3 March 2009

Princesa 23, Carrer de la Princesa, Barcelona

Late on weekend evenings a queue builds up outside Princesa 23 and this tapas-bar-cum-pub gets packed with bright young things from about 11pm onwards. The atmosphere is generally good and the waitresses are pleasant, but things can get edgy - on one evening a customer managed to smash one of the glass doors and a fight ensued in the street. Moreover, the San Miguel (5.50 euros for a pint) is insipid and the tapas (about 6 euros a dish) is haphazard.

Forlorn manchetta cheese
There is a lot of sauce, but little meat, in the meatballs, while the potato wedges are salty, but moreish. The king prawns are a bit bland, but the fine ham and melon is delicious. The thin and slightly forlorn manchetta cheese comes with a handful of seeded grapes and a celery stick, while the Spanish omelet is unmemorable. Aside from the tapas, you can order more substantial dishes, such as a pile of mediocre and very salty fish paella (12 euros), crowned with two king prawns, or a messy mixture (6 euros) of over-cooked scrambled egg and salty smoked salmon, topped with a cross made from an asparagus stick sliced length ways. Princesa 23, which can also get a little smokey, is not a great place to eat, but it certainly has a buzz. 6/10

Monday 2 March 2009

Hotel Ciutat, Carrer Princesa, Barcelona

With the historic Parc de la Ciutdella, the famous La Rambla, the sweeping sea front and the handsome Passeig Gracia all nearby, the recently-opened Hotel Ciutat is within walking distance of many of Barcelona's tourist draws. Although the sometimes garish paint is barely dry and the geometrical decor is reminiscent of Ikea, this hotel has some style. In the foyer, for example, the large three dimensional line drawing of this quarter of the city is pretty cool. But there is no lounge or bar in which to hang out and the en-suite rooms have thin walls, firm beds, small televisions, thin, rough towels and erratic hot water. Some have small windows overlooking a gloomy, compact central courtyard, but you can get sunshine, and a pleasant view across the nearby rooftops, by heading for the sixth-floor terrace with its petite swimming pool. A buffet breakfast is served in a large and funky, yet uncomfortable, room with long school-dinner style tables lined with benches. Although the machine coffee is bland and the scrambled eggs dry, you can get some half-decent slices of ham and toast, plus yogurt and cheese. Better still, free and reliable Internet access is available in the bedrooms via cables handed out by the helpful, young reception staff. 7/10