Friday, 28 December 2012

Walk up to Dover's Hill, Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire


This two mile walk takes you up to a scenic escarpment that marks the northern edge of the Cotswolds and overlooks the flat, open countryside of Worcestershire and Warwickshire. Turn north off the Lower High Street in Chipping Campden at the sturdy stone catholic church and stroll past the attractive old houses on West End Terrace and then on to Hoo Lane. This modern, but sought-after, residential road climbs gradually upwards before turning into a gravel path with a steeper gradient. You pass a farm before reaching a bench about 200 metres above sea level with a view back down to the western end of Chipping Campden. From here, it is a stone's throw to a country road. Turn left, walk about 50 yards along the road, and then turn right on to a footpath, which takes you up to Dover Hill. From here, you can follow the trail south west, admiring the sweeping views to the north. After about half a mile, you come to a car park, from where you can clamber down to a path that runs back east, just below the escarpment. Make your way south back to the road and retrace your steps back down Hoo Lane. 8/10    

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Brawn, Columbia Road, East London


An inviting restaurant housed in an elegant early Victorian building, Brawn combines a hip buzz with excellent  earthy food. The front dining room with its big windows and high ceiling is more appealing than the back dining room, but the latter does include the bustling kitchen, providing some much needed warmth on a cold December evening. The bare brick walls, painted white, and the avant-garde art give Brawn the loft-living vibe.  The cover includes a basket of freshly-baked wholemeal ciabatta, but don't eat too much of it because Brawn serves big portions.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

The view from Hay's Galleria, central London


The shiny city: The Victorian splendour of Old Billingsgate fish market is overshadowed by a sparkling office block, near London Bridge, on a crisp December afternoon. This photo was taken from the quirky Hay's Galleria shopping arcade near London Bridge.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Sesami, Railton Road, south London


A bustling deli stroke cafe in the pedestrianised section of Railton Road leading down to Herne Hill station, Sesami serves top notch sandwiches. The toasted panini (about £4) containing chicken, chorizo, mozzarella, roasted vegetables, pesto and (appropriately) sesami seeds is almost divine. The coffee is also good here. The only downside is, to eat in, you have to perch on a high chair next to one of the handful of tables at the scruffy back of the shop. In the summer, the aluminium tables out front are more appealing. The service by Sesami's multinational staff is pleasant and polished. 7/10

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Walk through Barbury Castle Country Park, Wiltshire


This short, but satisfying, circular walk starts at the car park in Barbury Castle Country Park. From an elevated grassy ridge sheltering the car park, you can survey the big skies and open countryside to the north, across the M4 to the sprawl of Swindon. Follow the Ridgeway path west and you will soon come to the remains of an iron-age hillfort, complete with grassy mounds that kids will enjoy scrambling up and down. You then descend steeply down into the valley, go through a gate and follow a gravel path north east for about a mile or so. From here, you can climb up the steep, narrow road directly back to the car-park or you can turn east off the road on to a bridleway and extend the walk by about a mile by climbing up Burderop Hill. The full 3.5 mile route is detailed here7/10

Silks on the Downs, Main Road, Ogbourne St Andrew, Wiltshire


A smart pub-restaurant in horse racing country, the Silk on the Downs is a good choice for a leisurely family Sunday lunch after a stroll in Wiltshire's rolling countryside. Recently refurbished, the interior is decorated with racing paraphernalia, such as framed jockeys' colours and a crude picture of Frankie Dettori resembling Barack Obama. In addition to the half-a-dozen starters and main courses on the printed menu, there could be some specials, typically fish dishes, on the blackboard  The starters might include scallops (£8.50), soup (£4.25), mussels (£7) and a selection of antipasti, featuring cured meats, such as chorizo and Parma ham, served with a small  helping of feta and sun-dried tomatoes and a sliced baguette on a wooden chopping board. The cheese and meats combine well, but the plate is on the small side for £12.95.  The main courses on Sunday include roasts, such as a slow-cooked shoulder of lamb (£13.50) with rosemary, some leathery roast potatoes, gravy and a side dish of vegetables, such as broccoli, carrots and cabbage. The tender lamb is enticing, but may need more seasoning. The pork belly (£10.95), which comes with roast potatoes, vegetables and crackling, gets rave reviews.

England versus South Africa, Autumn Internationals


England lost 16-15 to South Africa in a wet, error-strewn and tense encounter. South Africa scored a fortunate try, England knocked-on frequently, missed two penalties and made a poor decision in the closing stages. With the score at 16-12 and four minutes left on the clock, England kicked a penalty for goal, rather than a line-out near the try line.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The Blackbird Bakery, Railton Road, South London


A cosy little place opposite Herne Hill station, the Blackbird Bakery has a few tables where you can lunch on a really excellent cheese, ham and tomato toasted sandwich, packed with juicy, salty meat. Toasties don't get much better. The Blackbird also offers other appealing sandwiches (the chicken madras in olive bread is out of the top drawer), plus an array of breads, pastries and cakes. The coffee is good, but the food can be exceptional. Well worth checking out. 8/10

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Autumnal Sunset in Brockwell Park


The end of a bright and chilly day in Brockwell Park, one of the best green spaces in south London

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Columbia Road Flower Market, East London


On a Sunday, a vibrant and verdant flower market opens up in front of the quirky independent shops, restaurants, pubs and cafes on and around the early Victorian terrace of Columbia Road on the fringes of trendy Hoxton. As the sun sets, the boisterous stall owners start flogging three bunches for a tenner or even a fiver. There is plenty of prepared patter: One trader suggested feeding his Indian chilli plants to the mother-in-law in the hope that she won't wake up in the morning. 8/10

Arnold Circus, East London


Built to replace a notorious slum, the late Victorian Boundary Estate is centered on Arnold Circus - a raised circular park encircled by handsome five-story, red-brick housing blocks and school buildings, dating from the nineteenth century. Seven roads lead into the circus. Two flights of steps take you up through the well-tended borders and past the wrought iron railings to an elevated circular platform containing mature trees and an aging bandstand sheltering a table tennis table. This is a good vantage point from which to admire the harmonious and historic housing estate all around you.  The subject of an episode of the 2012 BBC series The Secret History of Our Streets, Arnold Circus has been home to generations of east end immigrants. 8/10

Leila's Shop, Calvert Avenue, East London


On the ground floor of a distressed Edwardian red brick block on the edge of Arnold's Circus, Leila's Shop is a cool and compact cafe. There are about half-a-dozen wooden tables inside, enclosed by white clapboard walls and a kitchen counter. This open plan arrangement, which means you can see the kitchen staff working away among the pans and other paraphernalia, gives the place a homely feel.  There are also a couple of tables outside, where you can perch on green plastic seats. The blackboards tend to offer simple dishes, such as a ploughman's lunch (about £7), sandwiches, porridge with prunes and molasses (£3) and fried eggs & sage (£5). If you are there in the afternoon, you might prefer one of the hefty chocolate brownies, served on a wooden chopping board, with your cup of tea or coffee. Leila's Shop's understated ambiance attracts an urbane, cosmopolitan crowd. 7/10

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Crowne Plaza, Redondo Beach, California


Showing its age, this Crowne Plaza is undergoing a much-needed renovation. It has a cavernous lobby, bedecked with pot plants and pillars, which can be eerily quiet, and an adjoining restaurant-bar called the Splash Bistro. The bedrooms are a respectable size, but the fixtures and fittings are looking pretty tired - the flowery curtains are old fashioned, as is the mock antique desk and wardrobe. The en-suite bathrooms have mirrors with fussy "gold" frames. If you pay more for a room with an ocean view, that view will also take in the coast road, a car park and a marina. On the downside, the Wi-Fi costs $5 for four hours and $10 for 24 hours and the TV is a bit ropey with only US channels. On the upside, you get a balcony, an ironing board, an iron and a safe. The immediate  area around the hotel is a bit dead - it is more lively a mile or two up the coast at Hermosa beach.  The Crowne Plaza, Redondo Beach, is also disturbingly close to a major industrial plant. Still, the hotel is pretty good value, if you avoid the extras. 6/10

Monday, 22 October 2012

The Terrace, Washington Blvd, Venice Beach, California


A colourful cafe-bar just off the oceanfront in Venice Beach, the Terrace serves brunch with a buzz on a Sunday in October. The tables on the shaded terrace and the suntrap pavement can be heaving, but the diners turn over fairly fast. Below the bright yellow hoardings, the walls are plastered with garish pictures of flowers and shrubs. The Terrace's orange juice (about $4) isn't great, so you might prefer the free iced water. For 10 bucks, you can get three eggs cooked any way you want and served with ham, bacon, pork or turkey sausage, hash browns and an English muffin. The portions tend to be generous, but the ingredients aren't that good and the scrambled eggs can be a little overcooked. The bill comes with an automatic service charge of 18%, but the fast service probably warrants it. The Terrace is in a fine location, but it's food isn't anything to write home about. 6/10


The Strand Bike Path, Los Angeles, California


A well-marked, flat and fun bike path that hugs the Pacific coastline for about 20 miles, cycling the Strand in the sunshine is a great way to soak up California's outdoor vibe. Most of the route either runs alongside or through large swathes of fine fawn sand, taking you past scores of quirky ocean-front villas. As you roll north, the white apartment blocks of Venice Beach shimmer invitingly in front of the Malibu hills in the distance. On the beach, athletic locals throw themselves around volleyball pitches and there are wooden, skyblue lifeguard huts every few hundred yards. But it is not all so picturesque. The Strand takes you past a power station, a refinery and very close to Los Angeles International Airport - the planes fly alarmingly low over the understandably empty Dockweiler Beach.  And you have to go inland for a couple of miles, crossing a dead straight canal, to circumnavigate Marina del Rey on your way to Venice Beach - the famous cocktail of muscular posers and grungy streetlife - and then Santa Monica pier with its sedate fun fair. If you ride The Strand on a Sunday morning in October, you'll be joined by scores of other cyclists, joggers and assorted fitness fanatics.  9/10

Saturday, 20 October 2012

The Palmerston, Lordship Lane, East Dulwich


A well-established gastropub on Lordship Lane, the Palmerston is something of an institution among local carnivores. With a bar at the front and a dining room at the back, it still has the feel of a traditional Victorian pub with wood-paneling and ceilings and walls painted a deep red. Changing daily, the mostly British menu typically features half-a-dozen starters and half-a-dozen main courses with meat well-represented. While you are choosing, you can nibble on an artisan-style fresh bread roll. One of the starters on offer may be some decent mussels swimming in a creamy, salty soup. It is pretty moreish, but there is not really enough for £8. The main courses might include a juicy and mouthwatering steak (about £18). This will likely be a decent slab of beef, but it may be let down by the lackluster side dishes, which cost a few quid each. The fries might look like they belong in McDonalds, while the green beans, tomatoes and new potatoes are fairly mundane.  The Palmerston boasts a lengthy wine list, starting at about £14 a bottle, spanning the new and old worlds, plus some real ales, such as the Cornish Doombar, which has a bit of bite. If you can't manage a desert, the Palmerston does impressive Irish coffees. Service can be sluggish on a busy Friday evening, but is cheerful enough. 7/10

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

El Paso, Old Street, central London


A hybrid hang-out for high-tech hipsters in Hoxton, El Paso doubles as both a Tex-Mex cafe and a workplace, equipped with free Wi-Fi, abundant electric sockets, tables, desk-lamps and even lockers. The predominantly white decor, over two floors, is mostly stripped-back and minimalist, except for large stencils of revolvers, ten-gallon hats and cacti. And in one room the walls are decorated with zany, cartoon-style muriels. A fiery breakfast burrito containing chorizo, mushrooms, peppers, onions and chilli will set you back £6. You'll need the accompaying guacamole. If you want something less spicy, you can get a generous and delicious bacon sandwich in a granary baguette for about four and a half quid. The coffees are on the small side, but are pretty good and you get a glass of iced water. El Paso is a pleasant place to graze and work. 7/10

Monday, 24 September 2012

Radisson Blu, Atatürk Airport, Istanbul


A good option if you have an early flight out of Atatürk Airport, the Radisson Blu is spacious, clinical, modernist and highly-service orientated. Even the standard rooms are large and well-equipped. The beds are big, the efficient air con is quiet and there are free bottles of water. There is also free Wi-Fi, but you don't seem to be able to log on with more than one device. The strong service ethos means reception staff will go the extra mile, letting you print out boarding cards using their computers, for example. The sleek bar, which will probably be showing football on the TV, serves competent, filling food, but it is a little pricey. There is a free shuttle bus on the hour to the airport. It takes about 10 to 15 minutes and you can grab a cereal bar, a bottle of water and machine coffee from the self-service kiosk on the way out. If you like a spaceship look and feel, the Radisson Blu is a very pleasant place to stay. 7/10

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Best Western Eresin Taxim Hotel, Topcu Caddesi, Taksim, Istanbul

The view over breakfast at the Best Western Eresin Taxim
The Best Western Eresin Taxim would be just another midmarket city-centre hotel, if it weren't for the impressive buffet breakfast on the tenth floor with great views of the sun rising over the rooftops of Istanbul. Although you can't quite see the Bosphorous, there is plenty to survey as you munch on the freshly-baked bread, unusual croissants and pastries. The buffet also features meats and cheeses, plus plenty of juices and half-decent coffee.  The accommodation is less enticing. Although the cramped bedrooms have modern, inoffensive Ikea-style decor, they have no wardrobes or chests of drawers. Instead you have to make to do with a hanging rail. And there is only free Wi-Fi in the compact lobby. Still, this hotel is well-placed for Taksim Square - one of Istanbul's bustling hubs. 7/10

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Cycle ride from Battersea Park to Hammersmith, central London


This approximately 12-mile round trip along the Thames is almost entirely traffic-free, flat and fun for families.  Although you are supposed to ride along the road, rather than the riverside, in Battersea Park,  you still can see the Thames in the distance and the park itself has been beautifully-landscaped. From here, you can ride west along the smartly-paved Thames Path, past an endless series of futuristic glass and steel apartment blocks, lining the river. Although the route occasionally takes you on to a road, these stretches are short and usually quiet. You skirt past London heliport and the heaving Ship Inn before reaching picturesque Wandsworth Park with its avenue of mature trees overlooking the Thames. After navigating through the traffic on Putney Bridge, you ride for a mile or so along the riverside road, lined with pubs and then boathouses, before reaching a more rural section of the Thames Path. You can admire Craven Cottage, Fulham FC's ground, on the other side of the water. The route then skirts past the London Wetland Centre and the handsome and historic Harrods Repository. If you cross Hammersmith Bridge, there are some pleasant pubs on the north bank where you can enjoy a drink with a river view. Although the Thames Path can get busy on a Sunday, this is a rewarding ride. 8/10

Friday, 7 September 2012

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Buona Sera, Northcote Road, south London


A long-standing and buzzy Italian restaurant selling competent pizzas and pasta dishes for less than a tenner apiece, Buona Sera attracts gangs of lively twentysomethings, but also older diners. The philosophy is "pile it high, sell it cheap" and it works. Buona Sera is a large restaurant, but the tables are closely packed and its popularity means it can feel quite cramped inside.  Like the food, the drinks are keenly priced for London - a glass of prosecco is £4.80, while beer comes in at £3.50 for a bottle. Unfortunately, the décor is white and a rather sickly, luminescent green - it needs updating. But with fast and efficient service, it is easy to see why Buona Sera has been round for so long. 7/10

Monday, 27 August 2012

Olive Tree, Tower Street, York

Image from the Olive Tree's web site

A dated Mediterranean restaurant, the Olive Tree has prints of naked Greek gods on its walls and the staff wear white shirts and even ties. Nevertheless, it is a pleasant place to eat near the centre of York. There is a lengthy, largely-Italian a la carte menu with pizza, pasta and other safe dishes, such as chargrilled fillet of salmon and roast lamb. There is also a set menu, which is about £12 for two courses, but the dishes are smaller. You seem to be able to pick and mix from the two menus. Among the starters, the salmon roulade (£6.85) with cream cheese is chunky and refreshing. It is served with a slice of crusty garlic bread and a small salad. For a main course, the Moroccan lamb stew (from the set menu), containing chickpeas, olives and couscous is tasty enough, but could be a lot bigger. The service is friendly and attentive - the waiters keep bringing you jugs of tap water, while the compact wine list is keenly-priced with bottles starting at about £16. 7/10


Sunday, 26 August 2012

Coffee at Grays Court, Chapter House Street, York


It would be hard to find a more refined location for morning coffee than Gray's Court, an upmarket boutique hotel in a fine historic building in the shadow of York Minster. You can reach the gardens by taking some steps down from the city walls. There are a handful of outdoor tables dotted around the expansive and immaculate lawn. If you take a seat, one of the demure waitresses will take your order. The decent filter coffee arrives in a small caftiere. Make sure you explore inside - Gray's Court has a clutch of lovingly-restored historic rooms, including a fine Jacobean oak-panelled gallery. 8/10


Black Swan, Peasholme Green, York


A distinctive timber-framed pub with lead-paned windows standing in a desolate corner of York's medieval centre, the Black Swan is well worth seeking out. Its ancient rooms are dark and atmospheric, seemingly blackened by the ages. Ideal for a winter's night, but less appealing on a summer afternoon.  There is a beer garden, but it is small and a bit uncomfortable - you have to sit on fixed benches attached to tables.  Don't let that put you off - the food is hearty and the beer well cared for. Great value for £9.25, the steak and stilton pie, with fluffy pastry, is very large and very rich - the succulent meat somehow overwhelms the cheese. It is served with peas and a rich gravy that is ideal for dipping the chubby chips in. The other pies are also very substantial and can be served with mash and vegetables, if you prefer. Even the sandwiches are bulging with rich red meat, such as three slices of thickly-cut ham. On draught, the Black Swan has Theakston's XB, a very smooth pint, as well as Golden Pippin, which has more flavour, but isn't quite as drinkable. If you prefer something sweeter, there are giant bottles of pear cider. Almost untouched by the ravages of time, the Black Swan is a perfect pit stop for anyone walking York's medieval walls. 8/10

Walking York city walls


Largely intact Medieval stone walls still encircle much of the historic city of York. At one of the well-preserved four gatehouses, you can climb some steps and join the walk along the ramparts. The best (and most popular with tourists) stretch runs clockwise from Bootham Bar, affording fine views of York's majestic Minster and the serene gardens around the Deanery, Grays Court Hotel and the Treasurers House on one side and the elegant old buildings of York St. John University on the other. You'll probably encounter a few pedestrian jams, but there are towers where you can stop and soak up the history.  The next stretch, beyond Monk Bar, is more peaceful and less scenic.  After a gap, protected by the River Foss, the walls start-up again in the gritty backwater around Walmgate. The final stretch, which starts on the other side of the River Ouse, is more rewarding. Punctuated by the imposing Mickelgate, this section of the walls overlooks steep grassy banks running down to handsome Victorian terraces. As you pass the railway station, you'll get more picturesque views of the Ouse river and the Minster, as you make your way back to Bootham Bar. Although the higher ramparts are mostly guarded by railings, kids should be watched in places. If you need a break during the two mile plus circuit, some of the atmospheric gatehouses have shops and mini museums. These city walls are a bit special.  9/10

Sunday, 19 August 2012

The House of the Trembling Madness, Stonegate,York


A quirky pub above a beer shop, the bohemian House of the Trembling Madness is somewhat out of keeping with the posh shops on Stonegate. Although there are signs warning you that the pub doesn't have a kitchen, the menu is appealing for anyone who likes their meat. It offers stews, platters, pies and sausages, all at very reasonable prices. The steak and ghost ale pie (£8.50), served with mash and peas, is very tasty and very filling. You might struggle to finish it. The platters also offer a generous selection of good grub, such as serrano ham, smoked venison and smoked lemon and thyme trout. As you would expect, there is a broad and eclectic selection of draught beers, such as Belgium's Kwak (8%) and Wales' Gwynt Y Ddraig Black Dragon Cider (7.2%). With its timber-framed ceiling and walls, decorated with stuffed animal heads, the House of Trembling Madness fittingly calls itself a medieval drinking hall. 8/10

Cinder cycle track, Scarborough to Whitby


The defunct railway line between Scarborough and Whitby now serves as a superb, seaside cycle track. The round trip of about 50 miles takes in some spectacular coastal scenery, particularly on the stretch between Ravenscar, perched high on a cliff top, and the precipitous village of Robin Hood's Bay. Along the route, you'll pass several former stations, now serving as picturesque cafes or homes, complete with original platforms, benches and rail signage. Although some stretches of the track cut through patches of lush green forest, others provide far-reaching views across the moors and the sea. As you approach Whitby, you get glimpses of the distant Abbey before crossing a tall viaduct with fine views of the river far below. Although there are no steep hills, there are some lengthy climbs, compensated for by fun descents. Even on a summer Saturday afternoon, the Cinder Track only attracts a smattering of cyclists and pedestrians, so you can usually blast downhill. It gets bumpy in places and it is probably best to use a mountain bike. You can hire a respectable hardtail model from Letsbike.net, which will deliver bikes to hotels around Scarborough. They charge £22 for a day's hire - if the sun is out, it's worth every penny. 9/10

Scarborough Seaside, Yorkshire

Scarborough's South Bay basks in the evening sunlight

Friday, 17 August 2012

The Blacksmith's Arms Inn, Cloughton, Yorkshire

Images from the web site of the Blacksmith's Arms

An old fashioned inn that has made few concessions to the modern age, the Blacksmith's Arms seems to be run by would-be librarians. The atmosphere is quiet and middle-aged, but authentic and friendly. The menu is mainly classic pub fare, with fish playing a star role on a Thursday evening. If you aren't really hungry, the fish cakes are pretty good for around eight quid. They pack some zing and are served with a small bowl of fat chips and a simple, but tasty egg, tomato and cucumber salad. The beers on tap include hand-pulled Tetley's and Srumpy Jack cider. In the bars, the oak-beamed ceilings are low, the maroon carpet has a diamond pattern and the white walls have large stone fireplaces and are decorated with Blacksmith paraphernalia. The restaurant is more formal, with white table cloths and smart chairs. 7/10

Thursday, 16 August 2012

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



Moving gradually upmarket, this hotel restaurant now has comfortable wooden, steel-rimmed chairs on its terrace overlooking the picturesque Montgó beach and bay. You'll either need to arrive early or book to be sure of one of the tables in this prime spot. On the appetizing Mediterranean menu, the anchovies and tomato paste on bread is a good choice, but a tad pricey at nine euros a pop. Sometimes, the rich and salty sea food paella (about 15 euros a head) is excellent and plentiful. Other times, it is can be a bit burned on the base of the pan and a little stingy. The noodle equivalent, which comes without prawns, is very filling, but can also be a bit charred. The risottos can be good, but the portions are modest by Spanish standards.  If you drink enough Torres Vina Sol, a pleasant and refreshing white wine, you won't notice. Moreover, Can Miquel's chocolate fondant desert - a mix of warm cake, ice cream and biscuit - is mouthwatering. Service is assured and relaxed - you are under no pressure to vacate your table. 7/10

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Restaurant Can Coll, Placa Major, Sant Marti D’Empuries


With a prime position in the charming hamlet of Sant Marti, Can Coll sees a lot of repeat tourist traffic. On an August evening, you may have to park some distance away, but it is worth the walk up to this elevated village overlooking the sea. The restaurants in the well-shaded square, opposite the fine old chapel, are buzzing with holidaymakers crowded into the tables, making for a lively atmosphere. If you can secure one of Can Coll's tables, you will be served a bread roll, olives and a garlic dip (1.3 euros ahead), while you read the very lengthy menus. The starters include the tasty octopus with paprika and potato (10.5 euros) - a big plate of juicy morsels. Served with a green salad, the salmon and cod carpaccio (13.35 euros) is also very fresh, but surprisingly short of flavour. Among the main courses, the slow-cooked fatty veal (15.85 euros), in a red wine sauce, is generous, rich and very satisfying. It comes with a large pile of fries, some asparagus wrapped in very crispy bacon and cooked tomato. A half bottle of respectable Spanish red wine (Faustino VII Rioja) will cost you about 10 euros. You probably won't have room for one of the heart-stopping deserts, which are served with a heap of shaving-foam style cream. With an well-drilled squad of white-shirted waitors and a strong service ethos, Can Coll is a good dinner destination. And it is worth returning for a lazy lunch or afternoon drink. 8/10

Sunday, 12 August 2012

La Garriga de Castelladral, Carretera de Súria a Castelladral, Castelladral, Catalonia


An upmarket family-run hotel deep in the Catalan countryside, La Garriga de Castelladral is a former vineyard, perched on a hillside with distant views of the sabre-tooth mountain of Montserrat, across the scars of a nearby salt mine. There is a very wide terrace leading down to the outdoor pool, which would be a great vantage point, if it weren't for the pool cover, obscuring the view from the water. The hotel itself oozes character - the old manor house huddles around a cobbled courtyard. The owners have lovingly-preserved the original features, such as the massive brick vats and the ancient wooden barrels. There is also plenty of stylish, communal space, such as the tasteful lounge and library, which are decorated with arty travel prints and equipped with wicker chairs and hefty coffee-table photobooks.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Montserrat, Catalonia


Clinging to the side of an extraordinary jagged mountain, the famous Benedictine abbey of Montserrat is in a dramatic, almost celestial, location. At the top of a vertiginous and winding road, you can park your car for about five euros and stroll up to the half-monastic, half-commercial complex in the shadow of the tooth-like mountain top. The spectacular views both below and above mean you will hardly notice the utilitarian canteen on the near-side of the bridge that leads to the far more photogenic Santa Maria de Montserrat abbey. The towering Renaissance Basilica and adjoining monastic buildings are made  of an attractive cream stone. To enter the abbey, you climb up to a broad stone terrace lined with surprisingly funky street lamps topped with crosses. The route into the Basilica itself is through one of the grand archways, which leads to a handsome tiled courtyard adorned with dozens of sculptures of saints and kings below a large round window. Inside the church itself, the lavishly-decorated nave is a riot of white marble decorated with scores of statues and intricate carvings. Above the altar, is the so-called Black Virgin, the ancient Lady of Montserrat, which draws pilgrims and newly-wedded couples seeking a blessing on their union.

Restaurant ca la Rosa i el Pauli, Placa la Font Gran, Monistrol de Montserrat, Catalonia


This unpretentious tapas bar in a village at the foot of the holy mountain of Montserrat makes an excellent stop for lunch on your way up to the monastery. You can sit at one of the aluminium chairs and tables out front and sample generous servings of fine calamari, big juicy prawns, patatas bravas, chorizo, tortilla and other classic Spanish dishes at keen prices (between 3 and 7 euros a dish). Beer or water will cost you about 1.5 euros apiece and there are decent ice creams for desert. Better still, the patient and friendly waiter has a smile on his face. 8/10 

Friday, 10 August 2012

Solsonès, Catalonia


The old quarter of this charismatic Catalan town is still partially enclosed by its high stone walls, which date from the eleventh and sixteenth centuries. Built right next to the fortifications is the Gothic cathedral with its eyecatching blue dome decorated with white flowers and yellow stars.  If you park in the car park on Carreterra de Bassella next to the river and walk through the heavily-restored, imposing Bridge Gate, you will find yourself in a warren of medieval streets, which frequently open out into appealing squares lined by golden stone buildings. In the square next to the cathedral, you'll find an attractive circular fountain, surrounded by flowers, and topped with wrought iron lamps. The surprisingly-extensive and largely-pedestranised old quarter, with its elegant merchant houses and traditional shops, is seeped in history, making Solsonès a pleasant place to wander round, before stopping for a drink in one of the pavement cafes. 8/10

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Restaurant El petit Perico, Cardona, Catalonia

A friendly Italian restaurant, El petit Perico seems to be popular with locals and tourists alike. The menu has classic pasta dishes, carpaccio and decent pizzas for about 8 to 10 euros apiece. El petit Perico's sleek, modern decor makes extensive use of slim wooden slats, giving the place a stylish feel. But you may have to sit on uncomfortable wooden stools around petite tables. Moreover, most of the menu isn't available until 8.30pm. 7/10 

Súria, Catalonia

A largely non-descript town in the Catalan countryside northwest of Barcelona, Súria does still have a small medieval core, clustered around a church and a castle. It also has a pleasant riverside setting, surrounded by rolling hills. Although there are some tastefully landscaped terraces on the steep slopes leading up to the old town, there isn't a great deal to see. 6/10

Parador de Cardona, Catalonia


An imposing medieval fortress perched on a hill overlooking the charming town of Cardona, this Parador is a memorable place to stay. As you wind your way up the hill, you pass the sprawling outer walls, studded with mini-turrets, before reaching an expansive car park. If you have luggage, you might want to drive under the archway up the steep stone ramp, bordered by shrubs and an old canon, to the castle gates - a real sense of arrival.  You then take the sharp turn up to the much smaller car park. Inside the keep is an elegant courtyard, complete with cloisters, leading on to wooden boardwalks with wide open views of the open cast salt mine and the surrounding wooded hills. The Parador's reception is an inviting room with appropriately grand furniture and handsome fittings, adorned with the Spanish, Catalan and European flags. From the castle, a steep path zig-zags through the walls down to the town. But the climb back up can be tough in the heat.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Cardona, Catalonia


Dominated by the imposing medieval fortress at the top of the hill, Cardona is an atmospheric old town sitting in the bend of a small river and in the shadow of a sprawling open cast salt mine. In the ancient core of the town at the foot of the castle, is an elongated stone tiled square overlooked by the sturdy fourteenth century gothic Church of Sant Miquel with its wrought iron bell tower. This pleasant open space is sheltered by mature trees and lined by restaurants. It is a popular place for families to hang out on summer evenings. Nearby, is a small maze of medieval streets and alleys, home to some old-fashioned and prosperous shops, cafes and restaurants. Below the square, there are a couple of appealing outdoor swimming pools, surrounded by well-tended green lawns. Cardona is also home to a half-finished medieval bridge, which looks like a pair of stone handcuffs, and the cavernous, but decrepit, buildings of the salt works. Beyond Cardona's medieval core, modern houses ramble up the neighbouring hills. 8/10

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Wok Oriental, Avinguda Montgó, L'Escala, Catalonia

A cavernous canteen-style restaurant with utilitarian decor, Wok Oriental has an all-you-can-eat buffet for just nine euros a head. You can choose a mix of cold food, such as salad, and hot food, such as chips, croquettes and rice. Or you can select some raw ingredients, such as steaks, king prawns, razor clams, squid, mussels and vegetables, for the chef to fry up on the wok with one of the house sauces. There is just about everything and anything, including an array of seafood, you might want. But the quality isn't always that good and the format definitely encourages gluttony.  You even get desert, such as pots of ice cream, yoghurts or semi-frozen cakes. Children under 120cm in height pay even less. Although drinks are extra, they are reasonably priced. The service is brusque and you are supposed to clear your own plates and put them in a large tray, but you can't fault Wok Oriental for value. 6/10

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Olympics Cycling Road Race, London 2012


In Richmond Park, Ian Stannard and Bradley Wiggins try and put the peloton and Mark Cavendish back in touch 

Friday, 27 July 2012

Samba on the South Bank


Promoting Rio, during the London Olympics, Brazilians do their thing outside the Royal Festival Hall.

The Penultimate Leg of the Olympic Torch's Journey


The Olympic torch arrives at City Hall in style, while multinational spectators look on.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Scotney Castle, Lamberhurst, Kent


One of the most idyllic of the National Trust properties in the south east of England, Scotney Castle's 770 acres of woodland and parkland contain both a substantial Victorian country house and the remains of a fourteenth century moated castle. The stone solidity of the stately home contrasts with the  crumbling curves of the castle nestling in the valley below. Although the terrace of the austere and angular house is bare and forlorn, it does afford tantalizing glimpses of the intricately tiled turret and pitched rooftop of the fairytale castle. You can follow a meandering path down through the verdant gardens to the wide, peaceful moat, which can be covered in waterlilies. One side of the castle is a ruined shell, which forms a picturesque stone scaffold for the mature trees, shrubs and flowers growing in amidst the old stone walls. The other side of the castle is still intact and you can explore the charming Elizabethan brick house built next to the medieval conical tower. Although it oozes atmosphere, the interior is barely furnished, with just the odd remnant of centuries past, such as the antique wooden toilets, buzzing with flies, and an ancient pram.