Saturday 23 October 2010

Ryanair, London Stansted to Malaga

If you can get away with hand luggage, you'll avoid both Ryanair's hefty luggage surcharges and the stress of dealing with this airline's infamously unhelpful staff, until you reach the departure gate. If you check-in online and print your boarding pass, you can go straight to security. Ryanair insists you get to the gate well before the flight is due to depart, meaning you end up in a succession of queues, as people jostle for the best seats on the plane. Once on board, the seats are cramped, the food and drink are expensive and there is a steady stream of sales pitches for lottery tickets, duty free and the like from the cabin crew. As you would expect, the early morning and the evening flights are the cheapest, but you end up coming and going from Stansted at some ungodly hours. Still, you'll maximise your time in sunny Andalusia. 5/10 

Restaurante Granada, Nueva, Ronda

One of many similar restaurants competing vigorously for your custom on this pedestrianised nineteenth century street, Granada offers large portions of mostly Spanish food at keen prices. As part of the cover, you are given some saggy and salty green olives, plus shrink-wrapped rolls of bread. As you peruse the plastic menus in several languages, you may spot one of the cooks opening and closing the microwave. Among the main courses, the large mixed paella, served in a wok, is full of grisly chicken and pork, king prawns, fat mussels and clams. It is salty, but pretty good for the modest 9.50 euros a head. The mixed salad (six euros) is an eclectic mix of wafer-thin Palma ham, manchego cheese, tinned pineapple, beetroot, sweet corn, shredded carrots, loads of lettuce, sliced tomatoes and peppers. The okay spaghetti bolognese is filling, while the Spanish omelet is also substantial and passable. Granada's tacky decor, with a gold-trimmed Alhambra-theme, is reminiscent of the seventies. Even as if it fills up with tired tourists, this unremarkable restaurant lacks atmosphere. 5/10

Ronda, Andalusia

In a spectacular setting high over a gorge, the beautifully-preserved Andalusian town of Ronda is well worth a couple of days of your time. If you can find a space, part in one of the cramped underground car parks in the central shopping district and head over to the charming 19th century Alameda del Tajo park with its broad, paved promenades, lined with vintage lampposts, and lush foliage.  They lead down to the iron railings and ornate stone wall, guarding a sheer drop to the valley floor below and providing sweeping views across the hills. As it sets, the sun bathes the park in a magical light tailor-made for tourist snaps.  Follow the path hugging the cliff edge around the parador to the towering eighteenth century stone bridge with its elegant arches, which merge into the rocky sides of the canyon. Across the bridge, are narrow, atmospheric cobbled streets lined by stately white-washed town houses, some with smart restaurants overlooking the gorge. The lanes open out into a peaceful cobbled, tree-lined square surrounded by handsome historic buildings, including a convent and a striking, old red-brick church with an ornate bell-tower.

Friday 22 October 2010

Hotel La Fuente De La Higuera, Partido de los Frontones, Ronda, Andalusia

Housed in a sympathetically-extended and restored country house overlooking a fine stretch of Andalusian countryside, the Hotel La Fuente De La Higuera is both a good place to chill out and a good base for exploring the historic town of Ronda. From the terrace, where you can eat your fine buffet breakfast, there are spectacular views through the mature garden, across the verdant valley to the picturesque hills beyond. Inside, the tasteful and high-quality decor, fittings and furniture are built to last and to appeal. Arty black and white photographic prints line the cream walls, which are mostly bathed in natural light. In the central atrium, lit by a large skylight, climb the cream staircase, for an ariel view of the massive tropical plant, the small honesty bar and to admire the huge poster advertising a Ronda bullfight. The centerpiece of the garden is a well-kept swimming pool, backed by a dry stone wall and surrounded by a grassy lawn, lined with wooden sun loungers. Hotel La Fuente De La Higuera has about a dozen or so tasteful rooms or suites in all shapes and sizes. Some have open fires and their own terraces and one of the suites even has its own spiral staircase leading up to lofty bedroom with a stylish blue wooden board floor.

Painfully slow
The Hotel La Fuente De La Higuera's buffet breakfast includes decent juices, cold meats, cheeses, fruit, cereal, bread and boiled eggs. You can order coffees from the staff, but you need to toast your own bread. You can also book in for an overpriced dinner (42 euros for three courses, without wine) in the cosy dining room where the tables are covered with smart white table cloths and funky music is playing on the retro-style wooden stereo. There is a choice of two dishes for each course. Before you get going, you may be offered a  lovely little appetiser made up of creamy cheese and an anchovy wrapped around a morsel of caviar. The starters may include Andalusian soup, which contains soft and scrumptious chick peas in salty chicken stock. The main courses may include a chunky tuna steak, which can be a bit too dry and salty, while the rack of lamb may also be over-seasoned. Still the accompanying creamy mash and green veg is delicious. For desert, the chocolate cake is light and crumbly and is filled with hot oozing chocolate sauce, offset by fine ice cream. To drink, the house A Pasos 2006 red wine from Ronda is rich and velvety. Unfortunately, the portions are often too small and, if you have restless or tired kids, the service can be painfully slow. Still, the friendly and helpful Dutch proprietor seems to have no trouble attracting adult guests and diners to Hotel La Fuente De La Higuera. 8/10

Altamirano, Plaza Altamirano, Marbella, Andalusia

Marring a picturesque cobbled square in Marbella's old town with its Pepsi-branded plastic chairs,  Altamirano is a lot better seafood restaurant than it looks. Although the white facade is adorned with attractive painted tiles, inside, neon light casts the basic decor in an unforgiving glare. You might prefer to sit outside in the lovely square and watch the tourists wandering around the other nearby eateries, but you may be serenaded by an embarrassing busker, singing classic Mexican ditties. You pay a small cover charge for bread, which is a bit hard, and olives, which are also nothing special, so its worth sharing a big plate of very fresh anchovies in vinegar (eight euros).

Soft, succulent fish
The menu lists a wide selection of fish, plus dishes of the day, which are mostly priced by the kilogram and served with a couple of boiled potatoes and some lettuce leaves, shredded carrot and sweet corn. It can be difficult to figure out what you'll end up paying and the final bill may not make a lot of sense. The grilled sea bass can be served as two large crispy and delicious fillets of soft, succulent fish, but be warned they might cost a whopping 30 euros. Strangely, a similarly large plate of grilled calamari (fresh, but a little tough and chewy) can cost less than 12 euros. The waiting staff recommend that kids have a healthy plate of mixed fish, deboned, served with boiled potatoes and lettuce - great value at just eight euros ahead. After such fresh main courses, it is disappointing to find that the deserts appear to be bought frozen from a supermarket - the desert menu is just stock photographs on a laminated menu. There is also no coffee. Despite its many faults, Altamirano is probably the place to savour seafood in Marbella. 7/10 

Wednesday 20 October 2010

Marbella Old Town, Andalusia

About a square-kilometre of heavily-restored, but atmospheric, cobbled streets and alleys, Marbella's old town is close to the beaches and the resort's smart boardwalk. The remains of the Arabian castellated walls, supposedly dating from the 9th century, partially enclose an eclectic set of white-washed buildings, including an handsome and striking church, spanning hundreds of years. But you'll find yourself looking down as much as up. Beneath your feet, is an ever-changing array of elaborate patterns of cobbled stones and tiles.  You'll also find appealing tree-lined squares with vintage lamp-posts, pavement cafes and restaurants. You'll stumble upon the occasional lavishly-carved, Arabian-style wooden door and there are scores of wrought-iron balconies, decorated with flowers and pot plants, to admire.

Tuesday 19 October 2010

Stuzzikini, Alderete, Marbella

A good-value Sardinian restaurant that prides itself on slow food, Stuzzikini doesn't bend over backwards to serve Marbella's big tourist market. There are no kids meals and virtually none of the standard pasta dishes on the menu, except for a meaty, home-made lasagne (8 euros). But there is a decent selection of wafer-thin 11-inch pizzas (6 to 7 euros each) topped with generous helpings of fresh ingredients. If you don't fancy pizza, try the Sardinian seafood dish (9 euros), featuring little balls of pasta, mussels, clams and slices of biscotti bread swimming in a slightly-spicy sauce. The mozzarella and tomato salad (6.5 euros) is also very good and very fresh. It is worth leaving room for the fine chocolate fondant (6.5 euros), served with a ball of vanilla ice cream. The hot chocolate sauce, oozing out of the middle of the cake, is delicious, but it comes with too many mint leaves. The dark wooden tables are scattered around several small rooms and, depending on where you are sitting, Stuzzikini can lack atmosphere. The cool, clean decor is broken up by some eclectic touches, such as the roses hand-painted on to the walls, Roman-style urns and Sardinian guide books. 8/10

La Taberna del Pintxo, Avenida Miguel Cano, Marbella

Although it is only a hundred yards or so from the seafront, the traditional La Taberna del Pinxto is a world away from the tourist haunts that line the beach. The friendly waiting staff, who don't speak English, patrol the tables offering plates of hot and cold tapas to the mostly Spanish patrons. The tasty tapas range from one to two euros apiece - the actual cost is flagged by the style of toothpick used to pin them to the accompanying bread. When you sit down on one of the high stools outside or the tables inside, you are given a basket of decent bread, which you can dip in the delicious, thick and creamy gapazio. Its also worth keeping an eye out for the warm slices of tortilla, the melt-in-the-mouth ham croquettes and the juicy slices of beef.  You can also order bigger dishes, such as the rather oily sausages in cider, moreish patatas bravas in a creamy sauce and a refreshing goats cheese and spinach salad, for about five to seven euros. The beer and water is also reasonably-priced. Its easy to eat too many savoury snacks, but if you do leave room, the waitors also have some sweet tapas up their sleeves. 8/10 

Monday 18 October 2010

The Town House, Marbella, Andalucia,

In the heart of Marbella's old town, the tall, elegant Town House hotel is aptly-named. Outside the door, are narrow, atmosphere streets and squares, but it is also just a few minutes walk to Marbella's beaches and smart boardwalk. The ground-floor lounge and bar are stylish, but small. Still, they are more than compensated for by a lovely little roof terrace with views across the terracotta tiles of the nearby houses to the handsome church tower and the mountains beyond. You can use the Town House's lift to bring your buffet breakfast (decent croissants, rustic breads, cheeses, fine cold meats, fruit etc.) up here on a tray and eat it on the padded white seats lining the walls. A scenic sun trap with lots of flowering pot plants, the roof terrace is also a pleasant place to watch the sun go down over the town, while sipping a beer or glass of sparking wine from the handy honesty bar. 

Sense of style
Containing distinguished furniture and stylish prints of enlarged postage stamps, some of the tasteful and distinctive rooms have elaborate cornicing, quirky nooks and other period features. Although they can feel a bit cramped, they are comfortable and decorated in appealing shades of white, fawn and brown. It can be expensive, but the Town House's location and sense of style is hard to fault. 8/10  

Sunday 17 October 2010

Goldcar car rental, Malaga Airport, Andalusia

Goldcar is one of a clutch of hire car firms with desks and parking bays in the bowels of Malaga airport. Booked through Holiday Autos, Goldcar's vehicles can be very good value, but they tend to be scratched and scraped. Although this kind of damage is apparently covered by the standard insurance, Goldcar still recommend you take an additional insurance package to avoid excess payments on more fundamental damage. In any case, you'll be charged up-front a hefty sum (82 euros for a Ford Focus) for a full tank of petrol and you are supposed to bring the car back near empty, which can be tricky if you are on a short break. 5/10

Tuesday 12 October 2010

Aloft Hotel Schuman, Place Jean Rey, Brussels

Having opened in September, the Aloft is a trendy and still-shiny hotel in the heart of Brussels' European district. On the outside, it looks like a fairly-funky apartment block, while the lobby has the feel of a smart and rather-lavish student common room. The reception, lounge and bar merge into one elongated loft-style space complete with modernistic and colourful furniture, flat computer screens, a pool table, cartoon-style art, exposed pipes hanging from the ceiling and blond-wood panelling. The circular reception, manned by lively, standing receptionists, is opposite a self-service canteen, where you can help yourself to breakfast or snacks anytime of day or night, charging your purchases to your room bill. The overall effect is striking and different, but not relaxing.

Saturday 9 October 2010

Capolino, Place Jourdan, Brussels

For a traditional pizzeria, Capolino has a stylish red facade and a fairly funky, but smoky, adjoining bar. However, the restaurant itself has painted brick walls, a bland white floor and neat rows of closely-packed dark wooden tables, while the stereo plays tired pop classics, such as Cherish by Kool and the Gang. The very lengthy menu features a wide selection of pizzas for around €12, as well as salads, risottos, pasta, fish and meat dishes. The highlight of the reasonable sea food risotto (€13), which needs seasoning, are the juicy mussels, while the mixed-salad (€3.25) is fresh, large and well-dressed.  You can get a pint of well-chilled Jupiler beer for €5.5 or there are Italian wines available by the glass or the bottle. Service by the weary waiters in waist-coats can feel a bit overbearing. Unfortunately, Capolino, which can be half-empty on a weekday, really lacks atmosphere. 5/10

Sunday 3 October 2010

P&O Ferries, Dover to Calais

The cheapest and most entertaining way to reach France, on a sunny day, the ferry crossing can even feel like part of the holiday.  Relaxing on the top deck, admiring the white cliffs of Dover and the extensive beaches of Calais, makes an invigorating change from sitting in the car, even if you might have to inhale a bit of fag smoke. P&O's ferries are a mixed bag. While the aging Pride of Burgundy is grim and knackered,  the refurbished Pride of Canterbury is comfortable and civilised. On the morning crossings, there can be a scramble to be at the front of the lengthy queue for breakfast. In the Pride of Canterbury's battered canteen, the English breakfast, which is charged at one pound per item, can be pretty greasy, but the sausages aren't bad. It may be tricky to get hold of tap water, while the coffee can be strong, nasty and small.  You'd be better off getting a hot drink from the on-board Costa Coffee, but you may have to queue again. 7/10

Saturday 2 October 2010

Chateau de Cop-Choux, near Mouzeil, Loire Atlantique

Set in fairly flat and innocuous countryside, but within striking distance of La Loire, Nantes and the Breton coast, Chateau de Cop-Choux is well-placed for a few days exploring a fine part of France.  Dating from before the French Revolution, the well-proportioned chateau appears handsome from a distance, but, up close, the stone work is quite plain and the box-hedge, grass and gravel surroundings don't do it justice. Still, the 45 acres of grounds has plenty of features from cordoned-off, crumbling ruins to a couple of large forest pools, reachable via a steep and dilapidated stone staircase. You can stroll through the woodland and circle back to the chateau following the grassy path that runs alongside the paddock. Moreover, the chateau's modern facilities are good - the smart swimming pool is new, well-maintained and warm enough in late August, while the tarmac tennis court is just about playable. There is even a modern conference centre.