Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Museum of London, London Wall, central London

Seemingly in the middle of a roundabout and surrounded by the towering glass and steel of the financial district, the Museum of London is a tour de force that does justice to the history of one of the world's great cities. Laid out in chronological order, the galleries begin with prehistoric flints, bones and skulls, before immersing you in Roman Londinium using several impressive and intricate models of Roman settlements, plus a mock-up of a kitchen and larder, complete with an unskinned rabbit, fruit and vegetables. Next-up, are the medieval galleries, which includes a model of a late Anglo-Saxon hut with rock hard beds, animal skins and cooking utensils. Then you have the War, Plague and Fire galleries covering the 1500s and 1600s, dwelling on the horrors of the Black Death and the Fire of London, as well as the cut and thrust of the Civil War. The five horrendous days of the fire are told by a video fronted by a dark model of London which lights up gradually as the flames consume the city. You'll also find ornate pistols, muskets, halberds and rapiers, as well a fine model of the Elizabethan Rose Theatre.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Angers, Maine-et-Loire, France

An attractive and prosperous city straddling the river Maine in north west France, Angers has enough sights to detain you for at least a day. As well as being home to two famous tapestries series, the fourteenth-century Apocalypse and the twentieth-century Chant du Monde, Angers boasts an ancient and massive citadel with 17 imposing, circular towers made with rings of black and fawn stones. This monolithic fortress is surrounded by a moat planted with elaborate topiary and flowerbeds arranged in geometric patterns.  From near the main gates, which are reached by a stone drawbridge, there is a sweeping view of the river, lined with barges and crossed by a couple of stone bridges, adorned with flowers. North east of the citadel, atmospheric medieval lanes thread towards the striking twelfth-century white-brick cathedral with its distinctive twin spires. From the cathedral, wide cobbled steps, lined with flowers, flow down to fountains in front of the dual carriageway running alongside the Maine. It is also worth scouting around the shopping district centered on the Place du Ralliement, which is home to several popular restaurants and the Galeries Lafayette department store housed in a fine nineteenth century building with elegant black wrought iron balconies. In the summer of 2010, this square was being dug up to accommodate new tram lines and was essentially a building site. It is also worth wandering around the tranquil old courtyards near the Museum of Fine Arts with their eye catching sculptures. Angers has substance and style. 8/10

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Château de la Villatte, near Laval, Pays de la Loire

Majestically situated on a hillside overlooking rolling green countryside near the Mayenne river, the nineteenth century Château de la Villatte has a handful of lovingly-furnished guests rooms and several acres of picturesque grounds. Well cared for, the chateau has a grand, stone hallway with a billiards table and a white marble staircase with a black wrought iron banister. The landing above the stairwell has been turned into a cosy little hideaway with a pleasant window seat. Tastefully decorated in period-style, the guest bedrooms have high ceilings, tall original windows, fine wooden floors and venerable antique furniture.  They have their own bathrooms also boasting large windows and plenty of light and space.  Two of the bedrooms have a small linking corridor and can be booked as a family suite, but you can't lock your doors.

Monday, 20 September 2010

La Braise, Rue Trinité, Laval, Pays de la Loire

Tucked away in an atmospheric back street in Laval's historic quarter, La Braise feels like a traditional French restaurant aimed at locals rather than tourists. Inside, the rugged white walls are decorated with lots of clutter, fairy-lights and postcards, while the tables are covered by white cloths and lit by chunky candles. On a recent visit, the sole waitress was friendly, but didn't speak English and was very inattentive as La Braise got busy later in the evening.You can eat a la carte or there is a 23 euro set menu with a couple of choices for each course. The starters can include a small, salty, but tasty, bowl of mussels, served with bacon, cheese, cream and shredded carrot. The main course options may include a kebab made up of chunks of beef, lamb, pork and veal. They aren't great cuts of meat, but are precisely cooked and are served with fried potatoes, some decent vegetables and choice of sauces, including some delicious Roquefort. One of the best options on the desert trolley is a rich, dark chocolate tart, served with a dollop of vanilla or orange ice cream. From the wine list, you can get half a bottle of innocuous Beaujolais for 10.5 euros. There is also a good selection of Bordeaux and Cotes du Rhone vintages. La Braise gradually fills up with locals and even on a Sunday evening, there can be quite a buzz by 9.30pm. 7/10

Friday, 17 September 2010

Laval, Pays de la Loire, France

Don't be put off by the drab suburbs, dominated by American-style drive-to stores and restaurants, Laval has a well-preserved and charming historic heart. You can park alongside the river Mayenne, which is straddled by several fine old bridges. On both sides of the river there are cobbled streets and ancient timber-framed buildings, but you'll find most of the sights on the west bank. Winding, largely-pedestrianised roads climb steeply up to the atmospheric medieval chateau and its newer (mostly nineteenth century) neighbour, next to the spacious Place de la Trémoille. Separated by a timber-framed sixteenth-century gatehouse, the two chateaux provide a picturesque backdrop to Laval's festival in late August, featuring free circus acts, bands and other entertainment. Nearby, is an attractive Romanesque cathedral and a small park flanked by the towering remains of the city's medieval stone walls, studded with imposing towers. On a Saturday, shaded by trees, locals throng around the scores of stalls that have set up for business in the sloping Place de la Trémoille. Their wares include plenty of French delicacies, which you can purchase and then consume at one of the tables outside the local bars (as long as you buy a drink). 8/10

Monday, 13 September 2010

La Brasserie du Théâtre, place du Ralliement, Angers

Occupying a prominent position on one of Angers' grander squares, la Brasserie du Théâtre is an imposing establishment in a distinguished neoclassical building. Out front, are more than a dozen spacious tables surrounded by comfortable wicker-style chairs, shaded by parasols and attended by a squad of smart, young waiters. The lengthy and appealing menu has a wide selection of salads, carpaccio dishes and platters of meat and fish. Served with lots of crispy fries, the carpaccio with mozzarella (13.4 euros) is a bit bland and really needs a side salad. But the smoked salmon and goats cheese salad (11.9 euros) is fresh and generous. Children are well catered for: the Menu Enfant (8.9 euros) for sprogs under six has a choice of three simple main courses, followed by desert, plus a fruit juice or pop.  The Menu Junior (12 euros) for under-twelves is the same except the main courses, such as the seemingly home made hamburger and toast, are larger and more elaborate. The kids' fruit juices are tall and enticing, while their deserts include a hefty dollop of cream, topped with a biscuit and flanked by two balls of good ice cream, served on a specially-made plate, or a big bowl of rich chocolate mousse.  La Brasserie du Théâtre is a comfortable venue for an enjoyable family lunch in the sun, but steer clear of the raw meat. 7/10

Sunday, 12 September 2010

The Derby Arms, Epsom Downs, Surrey

A whitewashed and heavily-refurbished Victorian inn standing isolated on the edge of Epsom Downs near the racecourse, The Derby Arms is a very refined pub with a predictable racing theme. But the celebration of racehorses is retrained and just about every furnishing and fitting in this unusually-polished watering hole is the epitome of quality and taste. In the meticulously-decorated bar, for example, the smart leather sofas are padded out with plump embroidered cushions, while white circular stone tabletops rest on ornate cast-iron legs. There is also a restaurant area with striped high-backed chairs and large, striking prints of racehorses and their trainers. Behind the bar are laid-back, but helpful, young blokes, while the prosperous clientele seem to be a mix of old and new money. There is an extensive and reasonably-priced menu. But if you just want a snack, you can get a small bowl of  fat chips, topped with a big dollop of mayo, for just £2.50. The drinks are also competitively-priced, with a pint of rich and refreshing Aspall cider costing about £3.50. The Derby Arms is posh, but not too pretentious. 8/10

Friday, 10 September 2010

Cycling the Thames Down Link, south west London

Starting in Kingston-Upon-Thames, this well-signposted route is really designed for walkers, but much of its 15 miles can be cycled on an off-road bike to transfer from the sedate Thames Path to the challenging bridleways of the North Downs. The first half of the Thames Down Link is  mostly drab and dull. Although it follows the narrow, winding Hogsmill River, the path is often through suburban scrub land awash with nettles and you have to cross the A3 using a grim subway. But the route becomes more appealing when it follows broader paths through the more rural Horton Country Park, followed by Epsom Common and Ashtead Common. After cutting through well-kept Ashtead Park, you have to negotiate an upmarket housing estate and then cross over the M25. From here, the route is a very straight, but undulating, Roman road, making for some fun descents and stiff climbs. After working your way through pleasant deciduous woodland, you emerge near the pretty village of Mickleham, where you can get a much-needed drink in The Running Horses pub. 6/10 

Thursday, 9 September 2010

The Running Horses, Old London Road, Mickleham, Surrey

Despite being just a few miles from the M25, The Running Horses has a convincing air of a rural pub deep in the English countryside. A popular watering hole in the prosperous village of Mickleham, this well-preserved sixteenth century coaching inn attracts a lot of walkers and cyclists taking on the heady heights of nearby Box Hill. It can also quickly fill up with scores of wedding guests having a swift drink before decamping to the church opposite. Inside, the decor is traditional and the young, self-assured bartenders (probably local public school boys) wear white shirts and ties. As well as a couple of cosy bars, there are some neat rows of wooden tables out front and a more formal dining room at the back. On a Sunday, you'll find a big pile of newspapers next to the old fireplace in the main bar and a selection of pricey roast meals (about £15) on the menu. But the broke or the budget-conscious can opt for the still-substantial roast beef baguette (£8.50), which is packed with plenty of sliced meat in gravy (plus mustard, if you want it) and served with a small pile of crisps and some lettuce. As well as the usual lagers, there is Adnams and London Pride on draught, while the Aspall cider, served in an odd, oversized port glass, is a refreshing option on a sunny day. 7/10

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

La Table Du Pecheur, Boulevard Lenon Seche, Ancenis, France

Although this popular seafood restaurant has outside tables with views across a lazy stretch of the Loire, there is a busy road between La Table Du Pecheur and the riverside. In any case, the modern interior is pretty comfortable with smart blue leather seats and arty black and white photographs of eel fishermen on the curving wood panel walls. If you get their early, the waiting staff are friendly and attentive, but they become less accessible as the restaurant fills up. Given the good quality, good value food, its not surprising the locals turn out in force even on a weekday evening.

Fat king prawns
Among the starters, the sea food platter (about 10 euros) makes a good dish to share. It features half-a-dozen oysters, fat king prawns, shrimps, winkles and small prawns, all deliciously fresh. One of the main courses (10-15 euros) is an appetising plate of prawns, hunks of salmon and white fish, served on a bed of creamy cabbage. You can also get expertly-cooked salmon, mullet or another fish, accompanied by diced parsnips, mushrooms, mash potato and red peppers. The local Gamay La Couvretiere red wine is pretty velvety and smooth for 14 euros a bottle, while a large bottle of San Pellegrino will set you back four euros and tap water is free. The deserts (around 6 euros each) are also very good.  If you  have a sweet tooth and can't decide, you can get a crème brulée, mango crumble and ice cream served on one plate. The chocolate sponge, complete with melted chocolate inside and served with large dollops of cream and a fruit coulis, is also very generous and very good. La Table Du Pecheur is a deserved hit. 8/10

Cycling the North Downs, near Reigate, Surrey

Just off Reigate Hill, between the town and the M25 motorway, is a small National Trust car park with a refreshment kiosk and sweeping views overlooking the leafy suburbs of Reigate. Immediately west of the car park, the North Downs Way is categorised as a bridleway for several miles, which means you can cycle it. After threading its way through woodland, the route opens up, providing broad vistas of verdant green English countryside across an open field anchored by a neo-classical monument. You'll also pass an old fort designed to protect London from invaders and plenty of picturesque countryside. After a few miles, mountain bikers will have some fun as the North Downs Way starts to descend and narrow, linking up with several other bridleways in the Buckland Hills. Take the wrong turn and you might find yourself on a hair-raising descent, followed by an arduous climb back up to the ridge. If you keep heading west, you'll eventually hit a B road, which can take you to Box Hill, one of the highest points in the south east. 8/10

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Cycling the Mayenne Towpath, from Mayenne towards Laval

From the distinctive tourist office beside the river in Mayenne you can hire respectable hybrid bikes for adults and kids (5-7 euros each for a half day) and set off across the cobbles south towards Laval. Although you have to use the road for about a kilometre, you are soon on the traffic-free towpath and being treated to lovely bucolic views across this tranquil stretch of the Mayenne river. On a summer weekend, you'll pass walkers and other cyclists every kilometer or so, but the path is wide enough to mean collisions are unlikely. Every so often, you'll come to a lock usually with a picturesque old lock-keepers cottage, one of which now houses an organic boulangerie, selling beers, ciders, hot drinks and snacks. The track is mostly flat, so it is easy to just keep cycling southwards, soaking up the scenery, but the tourist office closes at 6.30pm and you won't cover the round trip to Laval (about 65 kilometres) in half a day. So, you need to be sure to turn round in good time, leaving at least half an hour for a riverside drink en route back to Mayenne. If you want to venture further, you can hire the bikes for longer periods and a useful map, available at the tourist office, shows the 68 kilometre route the towpath takes right down to Chateau-Gontier. 8/10

Monday, 6 September 2010

Lunch at the Walled Garden, Scampston Hall, Malton, North Yorkshire

In an ultra-modern, glass-panelled building overlooking the meticulously-tended walled-garden, Scampston Hall's restaurant is a relaxed eatery with big wooden tables, bare brick walls, framed pressed flowers, bustling, jovial staff and very posh toilets. Prepared with care and attention, the light lunches are pretty good, but pretty light. For just under eight quid, the 'Scampston Florentine' consists of ham, spinach and a poached egg topped with Yorkshire rarebit. It is fresh and wholesome food with a good mix of flavours, but not very substantial. If you are hungry, a better bet is the Gardeners Lunch (£11.25), which is a mix of top notch ham, some fine cheeses, root vegetable slaw, red onion marmalade and decent bread.  The rustic food goes very well with a glass of the pear cider from the nearby Wolds. The kids menu (£5.75) is very short and very simple. They can choose a sausage in a bun followed by a large cookie and a glass of milk or a cheese and ham sandwich, served with raw carrots and cherry tomatoes, followed by a small tub of ice cream and some fruit juice. The very fresh and healthy food just about justifies the highish prices and smallish portions. 7/10