Thursday, 29 December 2016

Walk at Dusk around Merrist Wood Golf Club, Surrey

Frost in Brockwell Park, South London

 Trees cast long shadows across the crisp grass on a frosty winter morning in Brockwell Park

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Ham Yard Hotel, Ham Yard, central London

One of the small chain of upmarket and distinctive Firmdale Hotels in London and New York,  the Ham Yard Hotel boasts 91 individually-designed bedrooms and suites, 24 apartments, 13 independent stores and a restaurant and bar with outdoor dining. There is also a drawing room and library, spa and gym, theatre  and a 1950s-style bowling alley.  Designed by Kit Kemp, the expansive interiors have a quirky and playful character.

Festive Afternoon Tea at the Ham Yard Hotel, Ham Yard, Soho, central London

Combining elegance and tradition with contemporary art and a vibrant atmosphere,  the Ham Yard hotel serves a fine festive afternoon tea. For about £30 a head, you get an array of sandwiches, cakes, macaroons, scones with jam and clotted cream, crumbly mince pies, and other morsels, washed down with mulled wine and tea, of course. If the hotel runs out of mulled wine, you may be offered some fizz instead. Your only complaint might be the food seems to favour the sweet-toothed, as the sandwiches can be a bit bland. 8/10

Friday, 25 November 2016

North Bank of The Thames from Blackfriars Bridge, Central London

This stretch of the Thames is lined with charismatic buildings celebrating many different architectural styles, exemplified in the Art Deco panache of Unilever House.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Amadeus, the National Theatre, South Bank, London

Images from the National Theatre web site
An ambitious production melding classical music with melodrama, theology and comedy, Amadeus follows the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart through the jealous eyes of Vienna's incumbent court composer Antonio Salieri. Once you get past the strangely lethargic and dreary opening monologue, Salieri springs out of his wheelchair and back in time to when Mozart first arrives in Vienna. The play also springs to life, harmoniously working extracts of soaring Mozart's operas into the narrative, which traces how Salieri comes to terms with the fact that he is a mediocre composer and that Mozart, rather than him, is God's instrument on earth.  At times the storyline's exploration of the nature of genius and its impact on others is both compelling and entertaining. In one memorable scene, Salieri plays a dull welcome march he has composed for Mozart. A little while later, the prodigy vaults over to the harpsichord and plays Salieri's march back by memory, embellishing it with flourishes that ultimately transform it into a fine piece of music.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

DoubleTree by Hilton, Hawthorne Blvd, Torrance, California

A big boxy building overlooking the busy Hawthorne Boulevard, the Torrance DoubleTree franchise is a typical soulless mid-market hotel. If you have a room at the front, you will have to put up with the extraordinarily noisy air conditioning units. Although they seem to quieten down as the night progresses, there can still be a steady hum from the nearby highway. You probably won't spend much time on your compact balcony. Still, the en-suite rooms themselves are quite comfortable and fairly plush, if predictably decorated in browns and beiges. It is a lengthy walk down to the ocean front (more than two miles), but the hotel is on several bus routes and there are coffee shops and restaurants within walking distance. And you get free cookies when you check in. 6/10

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Hotel Plasky, Avenue Eugène Plasky, Brussels

Some of the quiet and comfortable rooms on the sixth floor of Hotel Plasky have fine views over the north side of Brussels. In one room, the basic and clinical en-suite bathroom even has its own balcony overlooking the suburbs below.

Charles Buls Fountain, Rue du Marché aux Herbes, Brussels

The Mayor of Brussels at the end of the nineteenth century, Charles Bruls is credited by Wikipedia with protecting Brussels' historic heart from redevelopment by King Leopold II.

Lycée Emile Jacqmain, Rue Béliard, Brussels

Housed in the former Institute of Physiology,  a beautiful building, Lycée Emile Jacqmain is enviably situated on the edge of Leopold Park in Brussels' European district. Its pupils can be seen running around this hilly green space.  In 1927, the building hosted the fifth Solvay Conference, which brought together Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Marie Curie and more than a dozen other Nobel prize winners to discuss Quantum Theory. 

Edificio - Bibliothèque Solvay, Parc Léopold, Brussels

The stunning interior of this 114-year old building is something of a shock after the fairly restrained stone exterior. Reopened in 1994, after extensive and painstaking restoration work, the centrepiece is a magnificent lecture hall lined with wood panelling, leather bound books, lead-paned windows and intricate wrought iron work, and sheltered by a soaring arched ceiling. Built as the Institute of Sociology and bathed in natural light, the Edificio - Bibliothèque Solvay is a sublime work of art in its own right.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

South Dock, Canary Wharf, south London

A newly-built twisted skyscraper with 45 stories, Baltimore Tower is designed to be a green apartment block with solar panels and a brasserie-bar at the top

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

The Prospect of Whitby, Wapping Wall, East London

A historic riverside tavern, the Prospect of Whitby has a stone floor dating from the original inn built in 1520. Rebuilt in the early nineteenth century after a fire, today's hostelry retains its period charm despite some garish touches in the downstairs bar. Decorated in a nautical theme and with black and white prints of twentieth century celebrities, the upstairs rooms are particularly atmospheric and have far-reaching views across the Thames. 

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Norwood Park, South London

Blanketed across a steep slope, Norwood Park affords far-reaching views of the city skyline

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Texture, Portman Street, central London

Pollock with chorizo, tomatoes and avocado
A Michelin-starred restaurant with an Icelandic chef, Texture serves imaginative and exquisitely-presented food. Smart, but not stuffy, the stylish dining room has very high ceilings, plenty of natural light and a view of the prep area in front of the kitchens. The quirky crockery and modernist lighting add to the ambiance. The good value set lunch (three courses for £33.50 or two courses for £29) has a choice of two starters, two mains and two deserts, but you'll also be treated to several little tasters, such as an edgy gazpacho, mini poppadoms and chocolate truffles with your bill. To start, the yellow fin tuna tartare, served with ginger, coriander and bonito, is very fresh, but the flavours are pretty subtle. For a main, the precisely-cooked pollock, served with avocado, tomatoes and chorizo on a small bed of creamy mash potato, has more punch and is delicious. The dishes contain very little carbs, but the accompanying basket of warm sourdough and rustic brown bread, accompanied by a fine olive oil and rock salt, is a real treat in itself. For desert,  the Icelandic skyr (a kind of sweet, rich yoghurt) with blueberries and breadcrumbs, really hits the spot. The table service is a bit random, but the Slovenian maitre d' has charm and charisma. As you would expect, Texture's wine list is impressive, extensive and pricey, and you will certainly find something to your taste. Both the Saumur L’Insolite Thierry Germain and the M3 Chardonnay Shaw + Smith (a tenner a glass) are clean, crisp and go well with the seafood. A meal at Texture is a visual and a culinary treat. 8/10

Period Living, Highgate Village, North London

Highgate Village can have a rural air reminiscent of Wind in the Willows

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Middle Temple Lane, central London

A rather grandiose gateway marks the southern entrance to Middle Temple - one of the four Inns of Court in London.

Monday, 29 August 2016

Barbu, the South Bank, Central London

A intense and intimate circus performance featuring a hefty cast of hirsute performers, Barbu is performed in the South Bank's atmospheric and vintage wooden Spiegeltent. Accompanied by a live three-piece band, which plays continually throughout the 80-minute performance, Barbu (bearded in French) features a heady mix of acrobatics, juggling, clowning, nudity, magic and feats of strength. Much of the comedy revolves around the bushy beards and the stiff upper lips of the four male acrobats, while the more elderly clown, who has a discrete grey goaty, relies on pair of high heels and a stone-faced puppet to raise a few laughs. One of the most impressive scenes sees a performer in what looks like a giant inflatable nappy twirling around inside a hoop at high speed, while another involves one of his colleagues lifting three men at once using his shoulders, his legs and his arms. In one cameo, a beefy man slings a metal beer cask around with surprising ease and then pierces it open to spray foam everywhere. A female acrobat also gets the blood racing by spinning manically inside a ring suspended from the ceiling while hanging on, one limb at a time. There is also a daredevil episode in which various members of the cast use a springboard to leap on to the shoulders of their colleagues. At times they look genuinely nervous, adding to the sense of risk.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Lokanda Peskarija, Ribarnica, Dubrovnik

A large and bustling fish restaurant overlooking Dubrovnik's old port, Lokanda Peskarija is staffed by a small army of waiters in distinctive sailor-style blue and white hooped t-shirts. The menu is dominated by seafood, even eschewing standard side dishes, such as chips or potatoes. You can get salads and olives, but no meat. The seafood dishes, such as cuttlefish risotto and seafood risotto (both 99 kuna), is served in generous portions in black metal cooking pots. The small squid (99 kuna) has a pretty subtle flavour and isn't that exciting.  In general, the food is fresh and competently cooked, but isn't spectacular, while the service can be a little frazzled and haphazard. Still, the buzz and the view compensate. 7/10

Lovrjenac Fortress, Dubrovnik

Included in a ticket for walking the city walls is a visit to Dubrovnik's 11th century fortress, built on a rocky outcrop more than 100 feet above sea level. The higher ramparts offer fine views of the terracotta roofs of the old city and the surrounding coastline. Inside, the fortress is pretty much an empty stone shell, but it does host some plays and concerts.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

The Golden Hour on The Stradun, Dubrovnik, Croatia

Early evening sunlight illuminates the Stradun - Dubrovnik's picture-perfect main drag. Rules forbidding conventional shop facades mean this pedestrianised street can feel like a giant film-set. The highly polished flagstones, worn down by generations of travellers, and the period lanterns outside each building add to the Stradun's captivating charm. 

Gradska Kavana Arsenal Taverna, Ul. Pred Dvorom, Dubrovnik, Croatia

A smart cafe-bar in an enviable location in the heart of Dubrovnik's old town, Gradska Kavana Arsenal Tavern has an elegant stone terrace where you can linger over a coffee (about 20 kuna) or hot chocolate (25 kuna) served by old-school waiters. But in August, it might be tough to be a table.

Banje Beach, Dubrovnik, Croatia

Crowded, stony and commercial, Banje Beach isn't Dubrovnik's best feature

Pizzeria Domenica, Ul. za Rokom, Dubrovnik

One of a cluster of pizza restaurants on this street running parallel to Dubrovnik's main drag, Pizzeria Domenica serves tasty toppings on light dough. The Greek salad, with a generous helping of feta, is also fresh and appealing. Although the food is a tad expensive by Croatia's standards (a pizza is about 90 kuna), in this tourist-packed city, the prices are reasonable enough and the service is warm and welcoming. A pint of local beer is slightly cheaper (38 kuna) here than in most of Dubrovnik's bars and restaurants, while the house white wine (24 kuna) is quite good. The outside tables also offer good people watching. Not a bad pit-stop. 7/10

City Walls, Dubrovnik, Croatia

It takes about an hour to walk around Dubrovnik's formidable medieval limestone walls, but the views of the sea and the city are so diverting you might want to take two hours to travel the 2km circuit. Try to go first thing in the morning or after 5pm in the evening, when the cruise ship passengers are back on board their vessels. As you work your way round, you'll scale numerous stone steps, visit watchtowers and peer down over the battlements at the jumble of terracotta roofs, elegant bell towers and opulent domes that form the Dubrovnik skyline. There are also a couple of bars where you can linger over an expensive beverage.  Highlights include the view down over the Stradun, the main drag, from above the Gate of Pile  - the primary entrance to this captivating city - and the extensive vistas of the coastline. Admission is free if you have bought a Dubrovnik Card, otherwise an adult ticket is 120 kuna (with a visit to Fort Lovrijenac included in the price), while children (aged 5-18) pay 30 kuna. 9/10

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Medieval Walls, Ston, Pelješac Peninsula, Croatia

Criss-crossing the surrounding hillsides, Ston's fourteenth century walls were built by Dubrovnik to defend the Republic's northern frontier

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Orebic, Pelješac Peninsula, Croatia

Restoran Castello, Žrnovska Banja, Korcula Island

With a great view of Žrnovska Banja's secluded bay, you would expect the tables on the poolside terrace of Restoran Castello to be packed in August. But it can be very quiet. Although the service can be temperamental, the food is quite good and comes in generous portions. The fish platter (130 kuna), featuring prawns, mussels and a white fish, is served with greasy vegetables: the flavour combinations can feel a little random. But the seafood spaghetti (110 kuna) is very impressive, while the mussels (80 kuna) are juicy and generous, and you can mop up the salty sauce with the decent bread. The seafood salad (68 kuna) is also well stocked with flavour. You can get some skinny greasy chips for 25 kuna, but you won’t really need them. A mediocre glass of wine costs just 16 kuna, while a pint of local beer is 25 kuna and a large bottle of water 20 kuna. If you are staying locally and don't want to make the hike into Korcula Town, Restoran Castello is worth checking out. 7/10

Monday, 15 August 2016

Konoba Komin, Korcula Town, Croatia

Located right on the headland, Konoba Komin Restaurant is embedded into Korcula Town's stone walls. With some tables on a terrace on the front and some in a kind of conservatory the other side of the road, this scenic spot is good for watching the steady flow of passerbys and the sun setting over the Croatian coastline. The tables in the small glasshouse are probably more comfortable than the outside berths, but the latter certainly have a better view. The food is fairly simple, but tasty enough. Served brown on the outside and pink on the inside, the big juicy rump steak (100 kuna) is only accompanied by a lettuce leaf and a slice of tomato.  You may also want to order side vegetables, which can be quite greasy, and the half-mashed potatoes, which are quite garlicy. The shrimps are also generous, while the risottos (about 60-70 kuna) are on the small side, but are infused with fresh seafood. The house white wine is more drinkable than most and the service is friendly and welcoming. In the tourist trap that is Korcula Town, Konoba Komin is one of the better options for dinner. 7/10

Fort Wellington, near Korcula Town, Korcula

A relic of the British occupation during the Napoleonic Wars, Fort Wellington is actually just a stumpy stone tower, but it does offer absorbing 360 degree views of the lush Korcula coastline and the Pelješac Peninsula. A short, stiff climb from Korcula Town,  the conical tower is reached by dozens of flights of steps that start in the suburbs. If the door to the tower is open, you can follow your nose up the staircases to the small roof terrace. You might find a chatty fire watcher on the stairs.

Cycling in Korcula, Croatia

You can hire a respectable mountain bike from Kaleta in Korcula Town for 50 kuna for three hours. It is a stiff climb into the interior of the island, but even in August you will find the roads fairly quiet. Travelling north to south is easy enough and it is a pleasant sojourn down to the beaches of Lumbarda, but riding east to west is tricky - the roads either peter out or wind all over the place. Wherever you go, you aren't far from the coastline or a fine view.

Postrana, Korcula, Croatia

A quiet village in the hilly interior of Korcula, Postrana is reached by climbing up broad stone steps from the D118. At the top, you will find a small stone church and wide-ranging views across this rugged island

Lumbarda Beach, Korcula, Croatia

One of the few patches of sand at the eastern end of Korcula island, Lumbarda Beach can get uncomfortably crowded. Although the shallow and calm bay is well-suited to small children and the surrounding development is pleasingly low-key, the terrain is pretty rough and the beach is a bit of a trek from Korcula Town.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Konoba Nautta, Ul. don Iva Matijace opata, Korcula Town, Croatia

A cramped restaurant tucked away in a narrow alley in Korcula Town, Konoba Nautta has a handful of tables outside and a few inside. A big party will have to straddle the dour dining room and the tables outside. Wherever you sit, it can be uncomfortable. Moreover, the catering is flaky. The sea food risotto is disappointing: the tomato sauce overwhelms the lacklustre prawns and mussels. The baked squid rings are also a bit stringy and lame, while the bland house white wine may not be fully chilled. Still, the Greek salad is fresh and tasty. 5/10

Bokeria, Domaldova, Split, Croatia

Suave, sophisticated and stylish, Bokeria is a cut above most of the restaurants and bars in Split. The stone facade is handsome and welcoming, while the internal decor is a feast for the eyes, combining brightly coloured bottles, arty prints, elegant tiling, cool lighting and high ceilings. Even the loos are pretty special, while the service is refined and responsive. A coffee here will still only cost you 12 kuna, while a lemonade or a fruit juice is less than 20 kuna. Conveniently placed in the heart of medieval Split, Bokeria makes for a good break from sightseeing. 8/10

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Split Waterfront, Croatia

Hvar, Croatia

Travellers throng in the early evening sunshine in Hvar harbour, photographed from the ferry from Split

Trilj, Croatia

A low-key outdoor tourist resort with lots of bars, Trilj sits on the banks of the picturesque Cetina river not too far from the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Hotel Sv. Mihovil, Trijl, Croatia

A waterside hotel dating from the former Yugoslavia, Hotel Sv. Mihovil is now a base for adventure holidays on the Cetina river. A white washed modernist building in various states of disrepair, the hotel has the air of a sanatorium despite the small pool, a dilapidated games room with a table tennis table and pool table, and an outside terrace from where you can admire the big graffiti sign on the opposite bank that reads "Hadjuk Split Ultras." In an effort to lift the mood, the hallways, landings and spacious rooms are dotted with large prints of people having fun white water rafting, canoeing and canyoning. Although they are quite big, the en-suite bedrooms are very basic. The walls are paper thin, while the furnishings are cheap and distressed. There can be a strange smell in the bathrooms and key items, such as bath plugs, may be missing. There may also be telephone wires protruding from the bathroom walls. The reception staff are friendly enough, but they seem to be able to do little about these wrinkles. Still, the setting on the river is a bit special and there are plenty of shops (including a supermarket), bars and restaurants nearby.

Pizzeria Marinero, Trijl, Croatia

A cheap and cheerful neighbourhood restaurant in the riverside town of Trijl, Marinero sells generous pizzas, salads and other lunchtime staples at generous prices. A filling medium pizza is just 40 kuna and a seafood salad only 30 kuna, while a small pizza margherita can be had for just 25 kuna - only five kuna more than a large bottle of water.  A large octopus salad costs 50 kuna. The food is generally tasty, but can be a bit salty. Although the decor is a little dated and downmarket, the outside terrace is pleasant enough. Marinero is justifiably popular with locals and guests at the Hotel SV. Mihovil opposite. 7/10

Konoba Varoš, Ban Mladenova, Split, Croatia

Although it doesn't look too promising from the outside, Konoba Varoš attracts a steady stream of locals and in-the-know tourists. Arrive early enough and you can sit in one of the cluttered rooms in the cavernous interior or one of the shaded tables out the front.  The risottos here are very good: The ingredients are fresh and plump, and the food is expertly cooked. A seafood or scampi risotto costs 78 kuna, as does the seafood linguini, while the black cuttlefish risotto is 85 kuna. A beer is just 16 kuna, while a big bottle of water is 15 kuna. The waiters dress in traditional costume and vary from cheerful to grumpy, depending on who you get. 7/10

Friday, 12 August 2016

Canyoning on the Cetina River, Croatia

Parts of the Cetina River are tailored made for canyoning, which involves clambering over rocks, floating down waterways on your back and jumping into pools. Only a few kilometres inland, in the village of Zadvarje, you can hire a wet suit and life-jacket and recruit a guide. Once you have made the steep (rope-assisted) descent into the 180 metre-deep canyon, the guide will take you on a testing or traumatic route downstream depending on whether you have chosen the standard option or the extreme option. In the summer, you won't be the only group of tourists making the trip. Although there is plenty of space on most stretches, you may find yourself queuing for some of the rock jumps. At one point, you need to work your way round a 50 metre waterfall (Velika Gubavica) by stumbling through a dark tunnel cut into the side of the canyon. Towards the end, the bold can make some very high jumps (up to 10 metres) into deep rock pools. Although the route is only a few kilometres long, it can take a large group several hours to navigate the full course. Even in summer, the water is cold and clear.  You can hire canyoning shoes, but your trainers should have just enough traction. Note you'll need bare hands to help your grip on to the rocks, but you may find you shave some skin off your finger tips. All in all,  this is an exhausting and exhilarating adventure. 8/10

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Cycling from Trijl to Gala along the Cetina River, Croatia

The tourist office in Trijl has a map of local cycle rides. Many of these involve steep climbs, but if you are looking for something flat, several cycle trails meander through the grassland banking the Cetina river, its tributaries and other waterways between Trijl and Gala. Unfortunately the Cetina itself is often obscured by vegetation and you may get chased by the odd grumpy dog. Although the gradients are very gentle, the rough terrain can be hard going and the routing is tricky in places.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Split Old Town, Croatia

The Bell Tower, Cathedral of St Domnius, Split, Croatia

In the heart of Split's old town, the Cathedral of St Domnius has a towering Romanesque belfry, reconstructed in 1908 after the original collapsed. For the princely sum of 20 kuna, you can head up to the Belfry. The staircases are very open and the steps can feel a bit treacherous in rain and wind, but they won't be crowded in these conditions. And the 360-degree views of this historic city and the meandering Croatian coastline are worth the climb.

Trg Republike, Split, Croatia

A surprisingly open space not far from central Split's maze of medieval alleys, the Trg Republike (Republic Square) is a pleasant place to while away an hour over a beer or ice cream. As well as the distant view of the sea, you can admire the red and pastel neo-Renaissance 19th century architecture, the smooth flagstones and the laundry hanging from some of the windows.

Villa Matejuska, Ul. Tomića stine, Split

Conveniently located on the edge of Split's historic beating heart and very near the harbour, Villa Matejuska is a compact, but comfortable place to stay. The furnishings are robust, the air con works well, there is decent Wi-Fi and the en-suite accommodation is clean. Some of the rooms also have hobs, fridges and small balconies, but you will be living on top of the other apartments, so it can be a bit noisy. Pricey in the middle of the summer, but well positioned, Villa Matejuska works well for a short visit to Split. 7/10