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