Sunday 27 December 2015

Caerphilly Mountain, Wales

The view of Caerphilly from the summit of the eponymous "mountain", which is a modest 271 metres high. Still, the climb to the top can be both energetic and exhilarating. 

Saturday 26 December 2015

Caerphilly Castle, Caerphilly, Wales

Sitting on the largest site of any fortress in Wales, Caerphilly Castle is an immense, brooding citadel dating from the 13th Century. It was built by the English to defend south Wales from Llywelyn the Last.

Friday 25 December 2015

Roath Park, Cardiff, Wales

Opened in 1894, Roath Park contains a 30 acre man-made lake, featuring the Scott Memorial Lighthouse, the Wild Garden, the Llandennis Oval, the Botanic Garden with a large conservatory and the Roath Pleasure Gardens with bowls, tennis and basketball facilities.

Sunday 6 December 2015

The Portland, Great Portland Street, Central London

A small, but smart, modern European restaurant, The Portland is popular with discerning diners and it can be hard to get a table. The decor is modern and minimalist, as is the menu. There is a choice of three dishes per course, supplemented by a handful of specials, but they may sell out quickly. As an alternative to a starter, the snacks are imaginative and full of novel flavours. They may include white truffle and gruyere macarons (£3), crispy chicken skins with liver parfait, candied walnuts and grapes (£3), wild rice crackers, crab, lime and sorrel (£6) and warm pumpkin cakes, chestnut, truffle and aged Mimolette (£7). The latter conjures up a particularly rich and sophisticated mix of flavours. Among the three main courses, there will probably be a meat dish, a fish dish and a vegetarian dish. The Gressingham duck (£24), served with onions and kale, is earthy and nourishing, but reviews of the turbot (£27), served with carrots and lemon verbena, aren't quite as good. The sides are expensive - five pounds for some new potatoes or an autumn salad - but there is generally enough for two. On the whole, the food is both beautifully presented and precisely cooked: this is posh nosh. The very cosmopolitan wine list starts at about £20 a bottle, rising to over a £100. Fortunately, it features very helpful descriptive notes. The Bisceglia, 'Terre di Vuloano' Falanghina, Campania 2014 is crisp and drinkable, but not quite worth £27 a bottle. The service can be impeccable, while the ambiance is pleasant. Your fellow diners are likely to be middle-aged and middle class, rather than hip young things. 8/10

Sunday 25 October 2015

Naughty Piglets, Brixton Water Lane, south London

Images from Naughty Piglets' Instagram account

A small and cosy neighbourhood bistro, Naughty Piglets describes itself as a "charcoal grill restaurant and a natural wine bar". In practice, that translates into imaginative modern European food served tapas style, encouraging you to share and taste multiple dishes, supported by a lengthy and pricey wine list, starting at £23 a bottle and rapidly rising to more than twice that. Bewarned, the advice from the waiting staff can be erratic. Do not be tempted by the Riesling (£36 a bottle), which can have an unappealing apple aftertaste. Fortunately, the food is more reliable, if a tad expensive. The scallops and chorizo (£6) amounts to three tasty morsels, while the measly ham croquettes (two mouthfuls for £4) will leave you hungry for more. The portobello mushroom and egg yolk (£5), served with hazelnut pesto,  is also very good. Among the larger dishes, the leg of lamb (£16), served with shallots and kale, is earthy and delicious. To finish, the panna cotta, served with plums, and the salted caramel chocolate pot and hazelnut (both a fiver) are expertly done and hit the spot. However, the modest portion sizes mean particularly naughty pigs may leave either hungry or broke. 7/10

Wednesday 21 October 2015

Terranea Resort, Terranea Way, Rancho Palos Verdes, California

Tucked away on a picturesque peninsula just south of Los Angeles' suburban sprawl, the Terranea Resort is a spacious and plush hotel complex overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Dotted with villas, the well-watered grounds enclose several swimming pools, bars, restaurants, cafes, shops, car parks, jogging paths and a nine-hole golf course. The high-spec rooms are suitably luxurious and comfortable. They are also well-equipped with a spacious safe, good WiFi, an iron and ironing board, flat screen telly and bathrobes, and well-stocked with toiletries and glossy magazines. You may also have a balcony ideally-positioned to watch the sun set. There seem to be extremely helpful and excessively cheerful staff just about everywhere. Although it ain't cheap, the Terranea Resort is a fine place to while away a few days. You won't want to leave, partly because it is very pleasant and partly because a taxi into LA proper costs an arm and a leg. 8/10

Tuesday 13 October 2015

The Angel, Bermondsey Wall East, south London

A salt-of-the-earth riverside pub where you can still get a pint and a packet of crisps for less than four quid, the Angel offers panoramas of Tower Bridge, the Shard and London's docklands. Refreshingly old-school, this Sam Smiths run-establsihment still has its original Victorian interior with dark wooden screens, snugs, open fireplaces, old fashioned prints, vintage radiators and paned sash windows. There is a small open air terrace on the river, as well as a comfortable upstairs lounge with captivating views over the Thames. The punters at the Angel favour loud conversation, punctuated with the occasional obscenity, over music. This pub is a precious throwback to a London fast disappearing into the mists of time. 8/10

Sunday 4 October 2015

Oulton House Farm, Norbury, Stafford,Staffordshire

Surrounded by lush rolling green countryside, Oulton House Farm is a cluster of single-storey and double-storey converted barns capable of housing 30 or so people. The site, which still has a handsome Victorian farmhouse, is a tad isolated. But you can walk into the village of Norbury and the nearby Shropshire Union Canal. Although the barns appear to have been furnished quite recently, they have been kitted out on a tight budget. You may find the double beds narrow and short, while the mattresses can sag. The windows won't open very far and the rooms can get stuffy. Still, each house has a spacious kitchen and large lounge, complete with WiFi, big sofas, armchairs and television. In the grounds, there is a slightly dilapidated tarmac tennis court, a table tennis table, and a games room with a pool table, as well as trikes and other stuff for the kids to mess about on. At the back is an enclosed paddock with a football goal and a trampoline - active families will like Oulton House Farm. 7/10

Saturday 3 October 2015

The Sutherland Arms, Tibberton, Shropshire

Having added a large extension in November 2014, the Sutherland Arms feels slightly schizophrenic - half historic country pub, half modern hotel restaurant. Moreover, the fresh and fancy decor is a bit incoherent - wooden slats are mixed with arts and crafts swirly wallpaper, glitzy chandeliers and tiled floors.  The Sutherland Arms, which claims to be able to sit 60 people for dinner, certainly isn't very cosy. If you are a large party, you might be offered a three course menu featuring three choices per course - the options tend to be old-fashioned and unimaginative pub fare.  To start, the prawn cocktail can be poor, but the soup is better. Among the main courses, the steak and ale pie is not bad. Although the accompanying chunky chips can be a bit greasy, they are tasty all the same and you get a pile of nicely-cooked vegetables. For desert, the apple pie can be a little lame. Moreover, on a busy evening, the waiting and kitchen staff seem extremely stretched and the service can slow almost to a halt. Fortunately, the Cumberland beer on tap is very smooth and goes down a treat. 6/10

Norbury Junction, Shropshire Union Canal, Shropshire

The meeting point of the Shropshire Union Canal and the now defunct Shrewsbury Canal, Norbury Junction is a popular place to park your narrowboat. For landlubbers, it is also a good starting point for a canal-side stroll. If you head south along the lush, green towpath, you'll pass under elegant stone bridges and through atmospheric woodland. On your return, you can grab a drink in the surprisingly edgy pub or the unsurprisingly chintzy tearoom.

Thursday 1 October 2015

London Riviera, near Tower Bridge, central London

A pop-up bar with its own palm trees, brightly-painted deck chairs, heavy duty sound system and alligator, London Riviera brings many splashes of colour to the austere charcoal and steel palette of the More London complex. Serving cocktails, beer, fruit juices and fast food, typically with chips, this sprawling establishment seems to be a bizarre fusion of European and American Latin styles.

Wednesday 23 September 2015

Heart Beat, Covent Garden, central London

The work of French artist Charles Pétillon, the 54-metre long Heart Beat installation in Covent Garden features 100,000 white balloons, illuminated by pulsating white light. Pétillon says the goal is to draw attention to Covent Garden's role as the beating heart of London.

Friday 11 September 2015

Palace Street, central London

Only a stone's throw from Buckingham Palace, a block of houses in an elegant Victorian terrace on Palace Street are boarded up and in sore need of some tender loving care. Next to Westminster City School, these four-storey blocks still have ornate green wrought iron balconies and railings. Further down the street is the Cask and Glass, a characterful and compact Shepherd Neame pub with tables in the sun.

Sunday 30 August 2015

Boqueria, Acre Lane, south London

Images from Boqueria's web site
With a lively and youthful vibe, the Brixton branch of Boqueria has buzz. It's downstairs room, with clean lines and big skylights, strikes the right balance between comfort and cool. But the tapas (around a fiver a dish) is hit and miss. The Spanish omelette may be overcooked, while the chorizo in cider lacks a kick and the king prawns may have been on dry land too long. The spinach in creamy cheese with pine nuts and raisins is better, while the broken eggs with chorizo, ham, cheese and potatoes (Huevos rotos con Jamón Ibérico y sobrasada) is delicious, if a tad unhealthy. The rosé wine can taste too much like sherry, while the service can be incoherent - the food might arrive before your drinks and you may have to remind the staff what you ordered. There are better places to eat in Brixton and Clapham. 6/10

Tuesday 11 August 2015

L'Idee, Place du Petit Marche, Beaugency, France

A fairly smart and slightly pretentious restaurant, L'Idee serves modern French cuisine in two dining rooms and on an outdoor terrace in a small square in the heart of Beaugency. In the evening, you can get an elaborate and beautifully-presented three course meal for less than 25 euros from a menu offering a couple of options per course. The starter might be duck pate, served with toast and salad, while your main might be a precisely-cooked fillet of white fish, served with a vegetable rice, and doused in a creamy sauce. The deserts are lavish and rich - one option is to sample three different chocolate creations. Although the food is a treat for the eyes and the stomach, the dishes can take an incredibly long time to arrive. On a busy summer evening, you may end up waiting almost an hour between your starter and your main course. That gives you plenty of time to admire the 19th century cast iron market hall next door. L'Idee is a place for a patient gourmet. 7/10

Monday 10 August 2015

Hostellerie de L'Ecu de Bretagne, Beaugency, France

In the heart of the historic town of Beaugency, the Hostellerie de L'Ecu de Bretagne is well placed for exploring this leisurely section of the Loire either on bike or on foot. Although the car park in the central courtyard is a bit unsightly, the bedrooms are both elegant and characterful, mixing ageing timbers and vintage furniture with mod-cons, such as flat-screen televisions, air conditioning and decent Wi-Fi. Tucked away at the back, the lush well-kept garden has a surprisingly large swimming pool, comfortable loungers and a trampoline. Although the in-house breakfast is pricey, there are several good boulangeries and coffee bars nearby. The Hostellerie de L'Ecu de Bretagne is a comfortable and relaxing place to chill for a few days. 7/10

Sunday 9 August 2015

Beaugency, Loiret, France

A sleepy settlement on the banks of the Loire, Beaugency is known for its elongated medieval stone bridge complete with 23 arches. Legend has it that this broad bridge was built by the devil in exchange for a soul (apparently he was given the soul of a cat). The rest of the town, which is sprinkled with historic buildings and decorated with flowers, is also well worth a wander. 

The Château of Chambord, Loir-et-Cher, France,

A truly monumental chateau standing in very expansive grounds,  Chambord is a sprawling testament to the extraordinary power and wealth of the French monarchy during the Renaissance. The lengthy drive through the heavily-forested walled grounds is impressive enough, but your first sight of this 440-room building will stop you in your tracks. Built in the sixteenth century to serve as a hunting lodge for Francis I, Chambord is reputed to be the largest of the many chateaux in the Loire valley. Surrounded by a moat, the chateau's central cluster of ornate towers and 365 chimneys rise from a vast partially fortified building, which sits on a pancake-flat plain. Once you have taken in the long view, it is worth joining the queues to purchase an entrance ticket to have a wander around inside. 

La Crep'Zeria, Rue du Pont, Beaugency, France

With outdoor tables on a pretty old street lined with waterways, La Crep'Zeria is a basic creperie serving simple fare and cheap, coarse wine. Crepes cost about 10 euros, as do the pizzas and spaghetti dishes. The food is nothing to write home about, but it is good value and the staff are welcoming enough. 6/10

La Plage Municipale de Thonon, Lake Geneva, France

With broad vistas over Lake Geneva from its grassy banks, this outdoor pool complex is a pleasant and popular place to while away a steamy summer afternoon. For your 4.5 euros admission fee you get access to several swimming pools and diving boards, as well as loos and showers. You can also swim in the lake itself, but you need to negotiate the stony shoreline. Spanning three hectares, the site also has its own restaurant and bar, plus a fun 100-metre water slide (you need to buy tickets for this, but they are very cheap), volleyball court and table tennis tables. Note, men are supposed to wear swimming trunks, rather than shorts, in the pools. Busy, but not crowded, la Plage Municipale de Thonon is both picturesque and great value. 8/10

Saturday 8 August 2015

L'Etale Restaurant, Morzine, France

Even in the summer, L'Etale Restaurant is bustling. Large and central, it boasts a pretty extensive menu featuring most of the classics you would expect in the Alps. If you want something rich, tasty and filling for less than 15 euros, opt for the tartiflette. Served with a small salad, it is delicious, thanks primarily to the very strong cheese. For desert, the ice cream is very good. However, service can be patchy, while the table water may be tepid and the bread a tad hard. Still, L'Etale Restaurant's packed tables indoor and out, and buzzy atmosphere, are testament to the quality of its hearty mountain food and its reasonable prices. 7/10 

Yvoire, Lake Geneva, France

A medieval village on the banks of Lake Geneva, Yvoire is undoubtedly attractive, but also very touristy. Its crumbling stone walls and gateways enclose a distinguished chateau and a distinctive church, as well as dozens of shops, cafes and restaurants adorned with flowers. Thanks to the large car parks outside the walls, the village itself is traffic-free and a little twee.

Le Château de Ripaille, Avenue de Ripaille, Thonon-les-Bains, France

Once a castle and a monastery, partially destroyed during the French Revolution, Le Château de Ripaille was restored in 1892 by a rich industrialist and art lover, Frédéric Engel-Gros.

Friday 7 August 2015

Lac de Montriond, Haute-Savoie, France

A modest, but azure, body of water surrounded by steep green hillsides, on which trees cling precipitously, Lac de Montriond attracts scores of sunbathers in the summer.  Most of them cluster around the shallow outdoor pool, leaving plenty of space on the grassy banks of the lake proper. It is a very pleasant 3km walk or jog around the circumference of the Lac de Montriond. Or you can go for a swim, once you have waded through the muddy shallows. On site, there are toilets and a couple of places to eat. When temperatures rise into the thirties in the Alps, the Lac de Montriond offers a scenic reprieve, but parking can be tricky.

The Pointe des Mossettes, Chablais Alps, France

In the summer, you can park in the car park about a kilometre or so above the goat village of Les Lindarets and hike up to the Mossettes chair lift, which climbs up to the Pointe des Mossettes (2,277 metres). From this grassy mountain top, there are far-reaching views into Switzerland, as well as back into France. The walk down is quite hard on the knees, but the scenery is spectacular and you get to watch the mountain bikers hurtling down the bare ski runs.

Thursday 6 August 2015

La Chaudanne, Route de la Plagne, Morzine, France

Image from La Chaudanne's web site
One of the better value restaurants in Morzine, La Chaudanne offers a very keenly-priced Les Tranchants menu (three courses for about 22 euros) that is perfect for feeding a horde of teenagers. To start, the chicken salad is delicious and probably better for you than the other option - rabbit rillettes. For a main course, the cod fish, with basil and pistachio pesto, also hits the spot. For desert, there are several high sugar options or cheese. But if you want something relatively light, the two boules of ice cream is pretty good. In the summer, you can sit outside on the spacious terrace, surrounded by wood and off-duty mountain bikers. Service is excellent, while the table water is cold and you'll get plenty of decent bread.  A pint of fine Warsteiner beer is 6.5 euros or the extensive French wine list has bottles starting at just 13 euros. As you dine, you may be tempted to sing along with the diva crooning out pop and rock classics from the eighties. La Chaudanne delivers a good atmosphere, good food and good value. 8/10

Wednesday 5 August 2015

Summer in Morzine, Haute-Savoie, France

As well as being a well-known winter resort, the mountain town of Morzine has established itself as something of a mountain biking and outdoor sports mecca. In the middle of summer, it draws hordes of middle-aged men in their body armour, many from Britain. To gain some height, they sling their bikes on special contraptions on the side of chairlifts and then come charging down the trails, which are lined by lush grassy slopes or dense coniferous woodland. There are also zipwires, good walking, road biking and white water rafting in the vicinity. After burning through the calories, you'll find dozens of reasonably-priced (by ski resort standards) restaurants, cafes and bars on Morzine's two main thoroughfares. In the centre of the town, there are some pleasant pedestrianised areas, complete with modern sculptures, vintage lampposts and baskets of flowers. And on some days, a large street market camps  in the car park near the tourist office. By Alpine's standards, Morzine's altitude of 1,000 metres is quite low, but its lift systems and road network link with the higher modern resort of Avoriaz.

Tuesday 4 August 2015

La Vieille Auberge restaurant, Souillac, The Dordogne, France

Serving beautifully presented local French cuisine, La Vieille Auberge houses a traditional hotel restaurant with a surprising amount of flair. Although the two dining rooms tend to be pretty full, the food overshadows the ambiance - the neutral decor is elegant, but unremarkable, while the table cloths are white, crisp and conservative. If you are hungry, the four course Menu Tradition (36 euros) begins with an amuse bouche, such as cold carrot and fennel soup. You then get to choose from several starters, main courses and deserts.  Among the starters, the parmesan biscuit, served with a creamy cheese, is very salty and full of flavour.  For a main, the saddle of lamb is a little fatty, but is served with a fine vegetable cake. The duck breast, skewed and resting on young carrots swimming in a red wine and shallot sauce, is also rich and succulent.

The Dordogne Valley, Inntravel cycling holiday, France

One of a dozen or so cycling tours organised by the "slow holiday" company Inntravel, this seven day jaunt around the Dordogne Valley makes for a fairly challenging, but rewarding, trip for a family. Inntravel sells the holiday on a half-board basis and, although the accommodation can be a bit basic, you'll be well fed each night. You collect your sturdy hybrid bikes at La Vieille Auberge in the pleasant old town of Souillac - the start and end point for a loop, potentially taking in almost 200 kilometres of hilly and picturesque French countryside. Inntravel provides excellent and extensive directions and notes, which you can store in a plastic case on your handlebars, making it easy to navigate. Your luggage is transported from hotel to hotel by taxi, but you can carry a few essentials (such as water, a raincoat and the lame puncture repair kits) in your panniers. Note, the provided locks are very skinny - bring your own. On a typical day you'll ride for about three hours (including stops), leaving time for a leisurely lunch and sightseeing, caving, canoeing down the Dordogne and whatever else takes your fancy.

Sunday 2 August 2015

Restaurant at Hotel Les Falaises, Gluges, France

The eccentric in-house restaurant of Hotel Les Falaises is a somewhat unpredictable place to eat. Primarily serving guests from the hotel, its daily changing menu features a very small selection of dishes. Rather than writing them down on paper, the gregarious waitress describes them rapidly in French, making few concessions for Anglo-Saxon diners. Prepared by the seasoned chef, the meal tends to feature sublime starters, moreish mains and dour deserts. To start, you might get five big fat king prawns or an impressive salad with cheese, walnuts and prosciutto. Both dishes are doused in a fine dressing.

Canoeing on the Dordogne, France

At Gluges, you can hire a canoe or a kayak for the trip down to Creysse (6km, one hour), St. Sozy (10km, two hours) or go even further.  Although you are supposed to be drifting with the current,  the Dordogne can be very dozy in this stretch and you may have to paddle fairly hard to ensure you are in time for your minibus trip back.  As it winds its way past rocky crevasses and shady woodland, the river is both picturesque and peaceful. In the shallow, slow moving water, there is virtually no chance of capsizing unless you want to mess about. In any case, you are issued with lifejackets and you can hire a waterproof drum for your valuables. Costing about 15 euros for an adult for the two hour trip, canoeing on the Dordogne is very pleasant way to spend a summer afternoon.

Martel, The Lot, France

Known as the town of seven towers, Martel has a harmonious and impressive Medieval stone core clustered around the Place des Consuls with its eighteenth century covered market. Overlooking this handsome structure with its intricate timber roof are some stately stone buildings, including the surprisingly grand Hotel de La Raymondie. If you wander around the atmospheric streets, you'll find some traditional boulangeries, cafes and brasseries, mixed in with a handful of more arty shops aimed at affluent tourists.  As well as its seven historic towers, Martel still has a some of its original fortified gateways, as well as a rather austere and imposing church with a 40 metre bell tower.

Gluges, The Lot, France

A partially-abandoned village on the banks of the Dordogne, Gluges nestles below some crumbling old houses built into the face of an looming cliff. There is also a striking church, with a soaring bell tower and windows funded by Edith Piaf, some fine stone houses with steep pitched red-tiled roofs, a campsite and a pleasant spot where you can paddle in the river or hire a canoe.

Hotel Les Falaises, Gluges, France

In the shadow of a towering rock face in the crumbling hamlet of Gluges on the banks of the Dordogne, Hotel Les Falaises is a rambling and quirky establishment. Although they are clean and there is a fair bit of space, the eclectically-decorated bedrooms and communal areas feel like they belong in a student house dating from the 1980s. Painted bright orange, some of the walls are plastered with an artex swirl effect! Like the rest of the hotel, breakfast is fairly basic, featuring okay bread, croissants, jam, cereals, orange juice and coffee.  Still some of the bedrooms have pleasant balconies and there is WiFi.  Moreover, the terrace, overlooking a leafy garden, is well equipped with comfortable furniture (a good place to sip a beer from the bar) and there is a large, if rather stark, swimming pool about fifty yards from the main house.  The elderly staff are slightly eccentric, but are helpful enough. An old-school French establishment, Hotel Les Falaises is well placed for both cycling and canoeing in a fine part of France. 6/10

Saturday 1 August 2015

Chateau de Castelnau-Bretenoux, Lieu-dit Castelnau, Prudhomat, France

An imposing, yet beautiful, medieval fortress perched on a rocky buttress, Chateau de Castelnau-Bretenoux gives off a golden glow as it bathes in the Dordogne's summer sun.  Although it dates from the twelfth century, much of the castle (and the village it shelters) remains intact following restoration work by Jean Moulierat, an opera singer, towards the end of the nineteenth century. You can park your bike or car below the panoramic restaurant and hike up the steep slope to the main gates. At this point, you step back in time, surrounded by the weathered stone ramparts, grassy moat, elegant circular towers and formidable keep.  Attracting only a trickle of visitors, Chateau de Castelnau-Bretenoux makes it is easy to lose yourself in another, more earthy, century.

Loubressac, the Lot, France

One of several Les Plus Beaux Villages de France at the north end of the Lot, the fortified hamlet of Loubressac is best approached by bike on the D118, which climbs steadily up through beautiful countryside. At the top you are rewarded with sweeping views across to the golden Chateau de Castelnau-Bretenoux perched on a hill in the wide La Bave valley. Once you have admired the landscape, you can wander round the elegant period architecture in Loubressac itself. The well kept, traditional Quercy-style houses with steep tiled roofs, a Romanesque church and a fifteen century chateau are protected by stone walls with intact gateways and wrought iron balconies decorated with flowers. You'll also find one or two restaurant-bars, plus a rather pricey village shop.

Carennac, the Lot, France

A jumble of fine stone buildings dating from the Middle Ages on a promontory overlooking the Dordogne, Carennac is a pleasant place for a pit stop for cyclists touring the Lot. After you have had a wander round, there are a couple of cafes for a drink or an ice cream.

The Relais de Castelnau, Loubressac, the Lot, France

The Relais de Castelnau hasn't made the best of its enviable location. Although all the bedrooms boast captivating views north east across the lush countryside in the La Bave valley, the hotel has the air of a tired mid-market chain that you might find on the outskirts of a big city. Moreover, the swimming pool is cramped, while the tables on the terrace have to be tightly packed to accommodate the scores of guests at breakfast or dinner.  The rooms are also compact and have been furnished on a tight budget, while the WiFi is patchy. Still, you will get a fridge and there is a tennis court.  In the morning, you might have to weave your way though coach loads of pensioners to get to the passable breakfast buffet. Given the commanding view from its location on the edge of a picturesque village, the Relais de Castelnau probably should have gone upmarket, building spacious rooms with balconies, rather than trying to cram in lots of punters. 6/10

Friday 31 July 2015

Restaurant at the Relais de Castelnau, Loubressac, the Lot, France

Images from restaurant web site

Offering an expansive view across the verdant valley below, the Relais de Castelnau's restaurant packs tables on to its outside terrace in the summer.  Still, the white table cloths are crisp, the wine list is long and reasonably priced, while the service is smooth. The four course set menu offers a couple of dishes per course. To start, there might be tasty langoustines (served with a salty sauce) or a mediocre soup.  For a main course, the crispy leg of duck with potatoes and stack of vegetables is a reasonable choice. But save room for the impressive and extensive cheese board, which arrives on a trolley and offers the chance to sample some fine local produce. The deserts are less exciting - the chocolate mousse is super sweet and sickly, while the pear tart is lacklustre. Although you may be surrounded by elderly Anglo-Saxons, the Relais de Castelnau isn't a bad option for a meal with a view. 7/10 

Autoire, The Lot, France

The distinguished and picturesque village of Autoire is home to several fine stone chateau, the legacy of a lucrative wine industry in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Sitting just above a stream, Autoire's jumble of sturdy stone and wood-beamed houses, many with intricate, steep roofs, are virtually untarnished by the twentieth century. The village is overlooked by some dramatic limestone cliffs, which constitute a natural amphitheatre, known as the Cirque d'Autoire, and a towering waterfall.  Unsurprisingly, the setting and the harmonious and handsome architecture attracts scores of tourists. But Autoire has only a couple of places to eat or drink, and it can be hard to get sustenance in the afternoon. Still, the nooks and crannies of this well-preserved and prosperous village are well worth exploring.

Hotel Le Troubadour, Belveyre, near Rocamadour, France

  1. Secluded, quiet and boasting extensive grounds overlooking rolling countryside, Hotel Le Troubadour is both comfortable and well-equipped. Next to the original farmhouse, which dates from the 18th-century, is a relatively new, but sympathetic, two-storey block with a tall slate roof. Built in stone and wood in keeping with local architecture, this well-designed block has a large terrace, ideal for watching the sun set, and houses ten en-suite guest rooms. Although they aren't very spacious, these rooms are both tasteful and robust. They have oak floors, solid furniture, WiFi access, good showers and overlook the heated outdoor swimming pool. In the grounds, you'll find a barn converted into apartments and another ancient farm building, now hosting a pool table, alongside its original bread oven. 

The Gouffre de Padirac, the Dordogne, France

Like a set out of Journey to the Centre of the Earth, the Gouffre de Padirac is an extraordinary and elaborate cave system reachable via an enormous hole in the ground. Although there may be a long queue to buy tickets, it moves pretty quickly and the admission price is very reasonable (10.50 euros for adults). Still, you should try and buy tickets online in advance. You can take the vertiginous stairs down to the base of the open cave or queue for the cage-style lift. Once at the bottom, you follow a winding path underground before descending further via some dank, dimly-lit staircases. 

Restaurant of Hotel Le Troubadour, Belveyre, near Rocamadour, France

If the weather is good,  Hotel Le Troubadour serves dinner outside on a very pleasant outdoor terrace surrounded by well tended gardens. You sit in comfortable wicker chairs at sturdy round tables with the old farmhouse as a backdrop. The set menu offers a choice of four or five dishes for each of the three courses. To start, the precisely poached egg on French bread tastes good, while the goats cheese with a well-dressed salad is also delicious. Among the main courses, the cassoulet (containing bacon, sausage, goose and white beans) is rich, liquid and full of fine flavours, while the veal can be a bit dry and less impressive. For desert, the lemon meringue pie hits the sweet spot or you might prefer the mouthwatering warm goats cheese on bread, served with local walnuts. You can enjoy a respectable bottle of local red wine for 17 euros, while the table water is cold and the bread is fresh. Serving mostly fine food in a fine setting, Hotel Le Troubadour's restaurant is a good place to dine. 8/10

Thursday 30 July 2015

Rocamadour, the Dordogne, France

Tumbling down the side of a gorge above a tributary of the Dordogne, Rocamadour is a precipitous and virtually intact medieval village in the shadow of a monastery, below the shell of the chateau at the top of the cliff. Although the village's paved and pedestrianised main street is lined with ancient and atmospheric houses, it can be difficult to admire them. In the summer, the area inside Rocamadour's well-preserved stone gateways is awash with tourists milling around the cafes, restaurants and the inevitable souvenir shops.  You can escape the commercialism by climbing the 216 steps of the Grand Escalier (on your knees if you want to follow the pilgrim tradition) up to the shrines, chapels and churches above. You'll find a confusing maze of atmospheric stone alleyways, stairwells and diminutive squares that seem to belong in some fantasy epic. The sanctuaries include the Chapelle Notre Dame, which is famous for its medieval statute of the Black Madonna. From here, a path winds its way up through the woods, past some gaping caverns, up to the chateau. If you continue following the trail towards the neighbouring village of L'Hospitalet, you'll be able to take in the timeless views of Rocamadour enjoyed by millions of visitors over the past few centuries. Although the crowds may mar your visit, Rocamadour is quite a sight. 8/10

Château de la Pannonie, La Pannonie, The Dordogne, France

Dating from the 15th century, Château de la Pannonie is a fading, yet beautiful, landmark in the hamlet of Pannonie, in the Lot department of France. Inhabited by the same family for 350 years, the  Château offers guided tours on summer afternoons.

Wednesday 29 July 2015

Souillac, The Dordogne, France

The Abbaye Sainte-Marie
A pleasant historic town with a smattering of restaurants and bars, Souillac is a good base from which to explore the eastern end of The Dordogne. It's most famous sight, Abbaye Sainte-Marie,  is a large and curvaceous building dating from the turmoil of the 12th century and originally designed by the Benedictines for both defence and worship. But it is also worth exploring the warren of old streets north of the abbey, which house a mixture of handsome nineteenth century buildings and ruined remnants from Souillac's time in the front line of the Hundred Years War.

La Vieille Auberge, Souillac, The Dordogne, France

Well situated near the heart of the attractive old town of Souillac, La Vieille Auberge is a traditional French hotel with half-a-dozen rooms and a fine restaurant.  Although the rooms have en-suite bathrooms and have recently been refurbished, they are still fairly basic, lack air conditioning and can get very warm. There are ceiling fans, but they are pretty noisy. The bedrooms are reached by a tired old staircase and are flanked by communal toilets and service rooms, including one marked "lingerie". Still, the rooms have small fridges, the WiFi works quite well and there is a garage in which to park your car (seven euros a night) or secure your bike. Moreover, La Vieille Auberge does a decent, albeit continental (read cold), buffet breakfast, featuring respectable coffee, cheeses and meats, plus an appealing fruit salad and excellent pastries. 7/10