Sunday 30 August 2009

Jazz in Regent's Park, central London

For about six consecutive Sunday afternoons in July and August, Regent Park's tall, elegant bandstand is the venue for free jazz concerts by accomplished vocalists and musicians. You can soak up the mellow music and the sunshine lying on the grass, which is speckled with dry duck poo and feathers, or sit in one of the traditional wooden deck chairs (for which you have to pay) or bring your own rug. Food and drink from the nearby cafe is pricey and the queues at the takeaway counter can be 20 minutes or more. It might be quicker and cheaper to trek over to the small Tesco near Baker Street tube. Still, you'll enjoy the chilled-out atmosphere, the long shadows and the lovely setting between the serene lake and the spectacular and colourful flower displays in the nearby borders. 8/10

Empuries Beaches, near L'Escala, Catalonia

A series of arcs of clean fine sand overlooked by extensive Greco-Roman ruins, woods and fields, Empuries' beaches are rarely too crowded, even in the height of summer. To the south of the hamlet of Sant Marti, the fairly sheltered bays are good for swimming or messing about in the pedalos (12 euros for an hour). By contrast, north of the village, waves frequently crash into the much more open and windy beach, which has far-reaching views across to the mountains and resorts on the other side of the Gulf of Roses. Behind the beaches are showers, a couple of grim portaloos and tasteful wooden boardwalks, which wind their way through the picturesque dunes between San Marti and the edge of L'Escala. In an idyllic setting, Empuries' beaches are well worth travelling to. 8/10

Carrilet, L'Escala, Catalonia

Kitted out to look like a blue steam engine with a couple of carriages, the carrilet road train runs from Playa Montgo through Riells to L'Escala, past the fine beaches in front of the ancient ruins at Empuries, before terminating at the tiny clifftop hamlet of Sant Marti. Riding on the wooden benches in the partially-open carriages is a fun, if bumpy, way to travel and the convoluted route includes some sweeping views across the coastline and the Gulf of Roses. But, with its lengthy stops, the carrilet, which only runs once an hour in each direction, isn't exactly quick. Moreover, the ticket prices are confusing and expensive - families taking a round trip might be better off buying the discounted bundles. 6/10

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

If the kids tire of negotiating the stones under the water on Montgo's beach, this hotel's pristine outdoor swimming pool makes for a refreshing change. Surrounded by well-watered grass, luscious plants and red tarmac, the fairly shallow water flows around an island reachable via a small bridge - perfect for hide and seek. A day pass for adults costs 3.50 euros and for children 2.50 euros, but there is an additional charge for sun loungers. 6/10

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

In the summer season, you might need to be at Can Miquel by 8pm to grab one of the tables on the terrace overlooking the beach and the pretty bay. Otherwise, you may have to settle for one of the more mundane inside tables with cream cloths and smart napkins, but less atmosphere. The house rosé wine is under 7 euros a bottle, but it tastes like pop, so go for something pricier from the lengthy Spanish wine list. Among the smaller dishes, the sea food tagliatelle (about 8 euros) is made up of dark green pasta swimming in a rich fishy sauce mixed with a smattering of clams, prawns and mussels. For something bigger, sea food paella (15.50 euros per head) is hearty, but is salty and can taste a little burned - rather disappointing for the price. Alternatively, there is the fatty oven-cooked shoulder of lamb (16.60 euros), which is served with roasted asparagus, courgettes and potatoes. Unfortunately, the latter can be under-cooked in the middle and burnt round the edges. Kids might like the spaghetti bolognese (about 7 euros), which is large and comes with a generous helping of mince sauce. You can finish with one of the substantial deserts for about five euros or children might prefer one of the prepacked ice creams. Service is competent, but can be unenthusiastic. 6/10

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

On an August evening, you may have to wait for an outside table in Sant Marti's pretty square where diners at Can Coll and its competing restaurants sit cheek by jowl. Service kicks off with some lame bread and a bowl of garlic butter, costing 75 euro cents a person, But the big wicker chairs with blue cushions are very comfortable and there is a lively atmosphere. The menu lists perhaps 20 pizzas (around 9 or 10 euros) with thin bases and a wide variety of toppings including walnuts, pine nuts and salmon, as well as the usual cheeses, anchovies, olives, hams and salamis. Alternatively, you can order a hefty slab of goat's cheese on a bed of very fresh salad (about 8 euros) or calamaris (9 euros) - an unaccompanied pile of fried squid rings with a lemon on the side. There is a large and commercial desert menu printed with photos of the extravagant sundaes, some costing the best part of 10 euros. But the drinks are reasonably priced - a 33cl beer costs 2.40 euros, while 50 cl of water is also 2 euros. Can Coll is a well-drilled operation and its waiters are unfailingly polite, but they can alternate between being inattentive and trying to hurry you as more potential customers arrive in the square. 7/10

Wednesday 26 August 2009

Torre Laurentii Restaurant, Placa Paula Armet, Sant Llorenc de la Muga, Catalonia

In summer, head for one of Torre Laurentii's handful of tables in the pleasant leafy courtyard with an attractive fountain decorated with a Gaudi-esque blue and green mosaic. The cover (1.25 euros each) includes some crispy bread served with an olive and white bean dip. In addition to the standard menu, the waiter will list some seasonal dishes, which in August tend to revolve around tomatoes. For something a bit different, try the refreshing gazpacho (5.5 euros) served with a twist - olive oil ice cream. Another special is the mozzarella and tomato salad (8 euros), which includes at least four varieties of tomato, some green, some yellow, some dark red and some tomato-coloured. The flavour differences are subtle, but the array of colours looks good on the plate. The main courses include a neat pile of slow-cooked and juicy lamb (14 euros), topped by sweet, caramalised onions, on near-perfect, creamy mash potato. The rabbit and mushrooms (12.5 euros), again served with fine mashed potato, is expertly cooked and well-seasoned, but needs some green vegetables. The ravioli (8.5 euros, made with large sacks of fresh pasta filled with gorgonzola, is a good choice, if you aren't too hungry, but the salmon carpaccio (7 euros), doused in a vinegar, is rather bland.

Torre Laurentii Hotel, Placa Paula Armet, Sant Llorenc de la Muga, Catalonia

A very stylish boutique hotel housed in an venerable villa built into the ancient stone walls of a medieval village, Torre Laurentii is meticulously run by an American of Cuban extraction and his Catalan wife. With just seven rooms, the hotel has plenty of communal areas, including two lounges and a very wide stone terrace, with big comfortable wicker armchairs, overlooking a well-tended, enclosed garden. Throughout the sympathetically-restored building, original features are mixed tastefully with modern additions and amenities. On the second floor, the grand suite has its own private terrace commanding views across the village and the surrounding wooded hills.

Monday 24 August 2009

Albanya, Alt Empordà, Catalonia

Although Albanya itself is unremarkable, on a hot summer's day, it is worth walking a little way west along the road out of the village to a bridge over the river Muga. From here, you can take a steep path down to an idyllic spot with fine clear water for paddling and swimming, surrounded by picturesque rocks. You can then head back up the path and follow the road a little further to an open meadow, from where you will find another trail down to the river. On this lovely stretch of the Muga, if you are wearing suitable footwear, you can have a lot of fun paddling through the cool stream and scrambling across the rocks. Follow the riverside path a little further north west and you will soon find a well-trodden route down to another bathing spot where local campers cool off by wallowing in the small waterfalls and tame rapids. If you need refreshments, climb back up to the road and head for the camp site, complete with swimming pool, restaurant and ice cream stall. 8/10

Samuga Restaurant, Sant Llorenc de la Muga, Alt Empordà, Catalonia

On long summer evenings, Samuga's metallic tables, across the quiet road from the restaurant, are a good spot to soak up the atmosphere in Sant Llorenc's lively central square. While kids ride past on bicycles, you scan the appetising menu featuring traditional Catalan dishes. The hungry should consider starting with the assortit torrade, which features slices of toast topped with wild boar pate, anchovies, salami and chorizo, warm goat's cheese and duck pate - all delicious and very generous for six and a half euros. The hors d'oeuvres - a big plate of salad, calamari, cold meats and cheeses - is also great value for five and half euros. Among the mains, the salty paella (just eight euros per person) is served in a rich brown sauce containing chunks of lamb and sea food, plus a few rather scrawny prawns. Better is the cod on a bed of spinach (10 euros), with the delicious, succulent fish enlivened by pine nuts, sultanas and tomatoes. But in the suquet de rap (also 10 euros), the flavour of the fish can be overwhelmed by the sauce. The deserts include a caramel biscuit (4.25 euros), which is creamy, sweet and good, but fairly modest, while 2.75 euros buys a slab of ice cream between two wafers. Water is quite pricey, but you can get a large and refreshing beer for a reasonable 3.5 euros. At the start of the meal, the young bohemian staff, who are courteous and fairly attentive, bring out a small bowl of olives and bread for which you pay one euro per head. Good food, good atmosphere and good prices. 8/10

Saturday 22 August 2009

Sant Llorenc de la Muga, Alt Empordà, Catalonia

Nestling in the wooded foothills of the Albères mountains, Sant Lorenc de la Muga is partially enclosed by medieval stone walls, punctuated by fortified towers and several evocative gatehouses, still with portcullis. At the heart of the village, is a sizable tree-lined square enclosed by a pleasing jumble of stone houses, low-key restaurants, shops and period street lamps. One end of the square is dominated by a huge cafe-cum-social club selling cheap coffee and beer, which you can drink on the raised stone terrace. On summer evenings, the offspring of the Barcelona residents that own holiday homes in the village, tend to cruise around on their bicycles watched by the locals hanging out in the square and surrounding streets.

Playa and Punta Montgo, near L'Escala, Catalonia

Small, picturesque, sandy beach and bay enclosed by whitewashed villas on one side and green forests and scrub land owned by the Spanish military on the other. The bay shelters a flotilla of small yachts, but towards the shore, the shallow water and lack of waves make the beach very popular with families. Unfortunately, a major storm has strewn stones and boulders across much of the waterfront, making it tricky to wade out to sea in bare feet. The same storm flattened many of the trees that were planted as part of a major programme to smarten up Playa Montgo. While some of the surrounding roads are still strewn with litter, the beach front car-park has been replaced by an attractive promenade and there is fun to be had scrambling around the rocks or up the path to the steep cliffs owned by the military. 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 sweeping view across to Roses by taking the bracing, vertiginous cliff walk through undeveloped scrub land towards Riells. 7/10

Train from Barcelona to Flaca

Travelling in clean, air-conditioned carriages, this journey to Flaca, the closest station to the northerly Costa Brava resort of L'Escala, takes about one hour 40 minutes, if you get one of the hourly faster trains. In Barcelona, you can pick up the Flaca train from Sants station (make sure you queue at the medium-distance desk for tickets) or from the more central Passeig de Gracia station. At just 15.50 euros for an adult return ticket and 10.40 euros for a child return to Flaca, this train, which also travels through Girona and Figures, is a good way to venture into northern Catalonia. 7/10

Friday 21 August 2009

Hotel Petit Palace Museum, Carrer de la Diputació, Barcelona

On the outside, the Petit Palace Museum is a distinguished nineteenth century building. On the inside, it is very much a funky twenty-first century hotel, conveniently-located on the southern edge of Barcelona's smart Eixample district. The centrepiece of the stylish foyer is a grand piano, framed by white pillars, lit by arty blue lighting and flanked by big leather armchairs and sofas. On hand, are several Internet-connected laptops for the use of guests and some weighty books about Catalan artists, while opposite the lifts is an amusing mini-sofa in the shape of some big red lips.

Wednesday 19 August 2009

Ciudad Condal, Rambla de Catalunya, Barcelona

In a prominent corner position on the huge junction where Rambla de Catalunya crosses Gran Via de l'es Cortis Catalanes, Ciudad Condal is an upmarket and bustling tapas bar. As you walk in, your eyes are drawn to the smart refrigerated counters displaying dozens of plates heaped with a mix of tempting ready-made canapes and very fresh ingredients. If you can, try and get a table near the front, which has more daylight and atmosphere than the tables further in or upstairs. Most of the furniture, fixtures and fittings seem to be made from the same warm brown wood, but bizarrely, the back wall is lined with illuminated Coke and Sprite bottles.

Monday 17 August 2009

Transbordador Aeri del Port, Barcelona

As long as you aren't seriously scared of heights, you should try and take this longstanding cable car ride from Montjuic high over the port to the beach side neighbourhood of Barceloneta. As you wait to board, the aging cables can creak and sway alarmingly, but the staff remain nonchalant. Suspended about seventy metres over the harbour you can scan Barcelona's eclectic architecture taking in the statue of Christopher Columbus, mounted on a towering plinth at the bottom of Las Ramblas, to the brooding medieval towers of the Gothic quarter to the elegant spires of La Sagrada Familia high above the city rooftops stretching across to the distant hills. Below you, scores of yachts form neat rows in the marina. Half way across, the distinctive red cable car, which can carry 19 people, passes through a central tower next to the World Trade Centre before reaching the tower at Barceloneta beach where you may have to queue for the small lift to take you down to ground level. A single fare is nine euros, but small children travel free. 7/10

Sunday 16 August 2009

Caliu Restaurant, Carrer d'Allada Vermell, Barcelona

One of several restaurant-bars with tables strewn around the quiet Carrer d'Allada Vermell, Caliu seems to attract mostly bohemian tourists looking to drink in the open air. The small wobbly tables are surrounded by a few wicker chairs and uncomfortable wooden stools. The peckish might fancy a bowl of a dozen fat green olives stuffed with anchovies (2.50 euros) or the mozzarella salad, which comes with some substantial slabs of cheese, small brown olives and slices of big juicy tomatoes, but it is pricey at 9 euros. If you need something bigger, you can try the gourmet dish (14 euros) - a plate of very tasty smoked salmon, serrano ham, hard cheese, and chorizo sausage. If you are on a budget, fill up on tomato and olive bread for 1.50 euros a plate or the warm, moreish tortilla at about 4 euros for a hefty slice. The drinks are also quite pricey with a 33cl beer costing about 3 euros and a 50 cl bottle of water, 2 euros. Sometimes there isn't enough waiters or waitresses to cover the tables and you may end up without enough plates to eat off. 6/10

National Palace, Montjuic, Barcelona

Perched on Montjuic and built in 1929 for the Universal Exposition, the monumental National Palace with its lavish neo-Gothic towers appears much, much older from the foot of the hill. Approaching from the north, you can climb the steep slope to the main entrance using a combination of escalators and broad stone steps. Outside the palace is a small, trendy cafe with tables providing a sweeping panorama of the city, stretching from the nearby fountains and Italianate towers of the Fira exhibition complex and the handsome former bullring behind, right up to the gleaming towers of Tibidabo in the distant hills north of Barcelona. The palace houses an acclaimed collection of art spanning a millennium of Catalonia's history. You have to pay to look at the paintings, but you can stroll into the handsome main hall for nothing. Gleaming white, this wide open space has an enormous vaulted and ornate ceiling held up by intricately-carved neo-classical pillars. Well worth a look. 8/10

Saturday 15 August 2009

Museum-Monastery of Pedralbes, Baizada del Monestir, Barcelona

A well-preserved and evocative fourteenth century Gothic complex tucked away in a residential suburb of Barcelona, Pedralbes Monastery is a peaceful sanctuary from the bustle of the city. The centrepiece is a graceful garden courtyard, arranged around a large circular pond, enclosed by two-stories of cloisters with surprisingly-slim pillars holding up elegant archways. In the courtyard is a striking Renaissance well with an intricately-carved stone arch. You can peer in on several of the small rooms that made up the nuns’ day cells and wander around the refectory, the kitchens, the infirmary and some museum-style galleries given over to exhibiting some of the monastery's more precious artifacts. One of the many subterranean rooms has a series of slightly unsettling illuminated models of scenes from the last supper and the crucifiction. Entrance to the monastery for adults is a reasonable six euros, while kids are free. Be sure to also look in on the dimly-lit and atmospheric fourteenth church, which is open between 11am and 1pm, slightly up the hill, with its fine stained glass and high vaulted roof. 7/10

Friday 14 August 2009

Barcelona Bus Turistic

One of at least two outfits providing open top bus tours of the extraordinary city of Barcelona, Bus Turistic operates three different slightly overlapping routes, on which you can hop on and off as the mood takes you. The blue route covers off much of the inner city, crawling around the unremarkable Sants station before climbing up Montjuic to the grandiose National Palace and the 1992 Olympic venues, before heading down to the port and skirting around Las Ramblas and the beguiling Gothic quarter. The red route takes you to Gaudi's audacious modernist cathedral, the Sagrada Familia, before heading off north west to some of the sites on the edge of the city, such as the peaceful Gothic monastery of Pedralbes and the vast Nou Camp football stadium. The much shorter green route hugs the coast, taking in some of the modern architecture and sculptures redeveloped for and since the Olympics.

Thursday 13 August 2009

La Taberna del Cobre, Argenteria, Barcelona

One of a handful of restaurants with outside tables on a pedestrianised square shaded by mature trees, La Taberna Del Cobre sells a respectable selection of mostly competitively-priced tapas. Avoid the measly 'smoked fish on toast' for 3 euros and opt for the only slightly more expensive and very flavourful Catalan sausages, which are as big as crayons. You get about a dozen. The patatas bravas is also generous and moreish, if a little spicy. Skip the modest and somewhat disappointing anchovy salad (about 7 euros) and pay just eight euros for a big helping of salty paella - chunky grains of rice mixed with peppers and snippets of sea food and topped with two large, juicy king prawns and half-a-dozen mussels. Alternatively, try the deep fried calamari rings - unhealthy, but tasty and filling. You will need plenty of water or San Miguel, which comes in 33cl bottles for about 2.50 euros. The square has a good ambiance marred only slightly by the ugly modern building housing the oddly-named Cheese Me restaurant opposite La Taberna Del Cobre. 7/10

Wednesday 12 August 2009

Barceloneta Beach, Barcelona

Less than 15 minutes walk from the bottom of Barcelona’s Las Ramblas, this long and curving sweep of fine sand is studded with stylish young city-dwellers and some less stylish tourists for much of the summer months. Overlooked by the high-tech white frame of the Arts Hotel and a neighbouring skyscraper, Barceloneta Beach is home to some wacky and very substantial sculptures, including a large, shimmering golden fish and a crooked block of four metallic cubes with windows. One stretch of sand backs on to a series of cafes and restaurants below a broad steel promenade lined with palm trees, while another stretch merges into a wide wooden boardwalk. In mid-summer, Barceloneta Beach is the place to take a break from sight-seeing, people watch and cool off in the crystal blue sea. 8/10