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

Sunday 19 July 2015

The Cutty Sark pub, Ballast Quay, south east London

A charming Georgian riverside pub, the Cutty Sark is in an idyllic spot on a cobbled street overlooking a big bend in the Thames. The elegant flat facade is punctuated by a beautiful double-storey bay window. Inside, tasteful wooden panelling, leather sofas, vintage lanterns and Victorian posters contrive to conjure up a historic ambiance. But the most impressive feature is a grand and curvaceous wooden staircase leading up to the first floor. Outside, there are a dozen or so wooden tables across the road, but many drinkers like to dangle their feet over the brick wall lining the river. With views of the mecanno-like Millennium Dome and shining towers of Canary Wharf, the Cutty Sark is an ideal pit-stop for anyone cycling or walking the Thames Path. 8/10

Lambeth Country Show, Brockwell Park, South London

If the sun it out, the free reggae, soul and jazz music at the Lambeth Country Show will draw large and diverse crowds including ageing hipsters hoping to hear the likes of Odyssey, Culture and Misty in Roots.

Greenwich Palaces cycle ride, south east London

An enjoyable 11 mile circuit taking in Greenwich, Blackheath and Charlton, this mostly flat ride takes you up to the riverside path where you get fine views of the Thames Barrier, the Millennium Dome and the shiny skyscrapers of the City. Although there are a few sections on quiet roads, the route is largely traffic free and reasonable safe for kids. You also get to see many of Greenwich's fine historic buildings, its beautiful park and the windy wide open spaces of Blackheath. More details in the London Cycling Guide, produced in association with the London Cycling Campaign.

Saturday 18 July 2015

Tanner & Co, Bermondsey Street, south London

On a weekend evening, Tanner & Co is one of few eateries on Bermondsey Street that may be able to muster a table at short notice. It benefits from handsome brickwork, a big airy dining room, a sizeable bar area and an outdoor terrace. Housed in a converted warehouse, Tanner & Co. is decorated with many industrial odds and sods. The resulting decor feels a bit contrived, but is pleasant enough and the place tends to buzz with thirty somethings. The comfort food on the menu, such as bacon and cheese burger on brioche, chutney, pickles and chips (£15), is competent enough and nicely presented. But barely justifies the premium prices. Tanner & Co also offers a fairly imaginative meat board and a tempting fish board (each costing £20) featuring fishcakes, smoked salmon and mackerel pate, brown shrimps, paprika aioli, ‘cold smoked’ salmon, pickled vegetables and a selection of breads. It sounds impressive on paper, but in reality, the platter is fairly modest and gets underwhelming reviews. Although it is a one-off, Tanner & Co. feels like it belongs in a coasting restaurant chain. 6/10

Sunday 12 July 2015

Luna Cinema, Morden Hall Park, south London

Although it is tucked away in the suburban sprawl of south west London, Morden Hall Park makes a fine venue for an outdoor cinema screening. On a summer's evening, it offers leafy tranquility and plenty of space. Moreover, you can park in the garden centre, which is near Morden Hall and the actual screen. If you enter the park by another entrance, you may have a bit of a trek. As it can be a long wait between the doors opening, when the best patches of grass are taken, and the beginning of the film, you should bring a picnic, as well as rugs and cushions to sit on. You might also need insect repellent.

Friday 10 July 2015

Maunsel Street, central London

Leading off Vincent Square, Maunsel Street boasts elegant period architecture and views of the Palace of Westminster

Tuesday 7 July 2015

Joe & The Juice, Dean Street, Central London

Part of a slick international chain, this branch of Joe & The Juice offers modernist furniture, sullen staff, incredibly loud music and pricey coffee and smoothies. But the drinks do taste good.

Cartwright Gardens, central London

Built in the early nineteenth century, the elegant townhouses of Cartwright Gardens are now mostly occupied by hotels. They overlook a leafy crescent-shaped park, open to residents and hotel guests.

Soho Square, central London

Dating from the seventeenth century, Soho Square is home to a bunch of media organisations occupying a diverse set of elegant buildings overlooking a half-timbered hut in the middle of a small park shaded by towering plane trees. Tucked behind Oxford Street, the square has a relatively laid-back vibe and provides much-needed greenery in the heart of London's West End.

Nude Expresso, Soho Square, central London

A pricey and pretentious coffee bar, Nude Expresso serves fashionable punters working in the vicinity of Soho Square. There is no WiFi (you are asked to talk to each other), it is a tad cramped (with a few tables downstairs and a few more on a mezzanine level) and even the long black coffee is small - you'll finish it in a couple of mouthfuls.  Still, the decor is undeniably cool and the food is fairly imaginative and looks appealing. Nude Expresso ticks all the style boxes, but it doesn't feel like a place to linger. 6/10

Sunday 5 July 2015

Mama Lan restaurant, Brixton Village, south London

Spicy beef noodle soup

One of the many quirky eateries competing for business in buzzing Brixton Village, Mama Lan has a short, simple Chinese menu, apparently harking from Beijing. You can sit at one of the handful of coarse wooden tables in the covered market alley or you might be able to get a cosier table inside.  The hefty king prawn and Chinese water chestnut dumplings (5 pieces for £6.50) are tasty enough, but the prawns are overpowered by the water chestnut. Better is the spicy beef noodle soup (£9). A real assault on the taste buds, this dish is strong, sensuous and substantial with plenty of meat and carbs. The spicy chicken ban mien (£9), on the other hand, is a little stodgy and doesn't win great reviews.  With the fiery food, you'll probably want a couple of bottles of Tsing Tao beer (330ml for £3.50), but there are also large glasses of mediocre wine for about a fiver and free tap water. You eat with chopsticks from large china bowls on wooden tables. The service is a little gruff and the staff may even ask you to move tables half way through your meal to accommodate other diners.  Still, Mama Lan is good value, if you choose your dishes carefully. 7/10