Monday 27 August 2018

Notting Hill Carnival, West London

Intense, frenetic, bombastic, colourful, erotic, claustrophobic, creative and fun, the Notting Hill Carnival is an assault on all of the senses. Even if the sun isn't out, you'll feel like you  have been transplanted into a heady fusion of Caribbean exhibitionism and restrained Georgian architecture.  Leaving can be difficult given the crush of the crowds and the number of Tube stations that close for the occasion.

Wednesday 15 August 2018

Casa rural Finca el Tossal, Bolulla, Alacanti, Spain

A secluded boutique hotel tucked away in the hills north west of Benidorm, Casa rural Finca el Tossal combines sweeping mountain views with superb home cooking and tasteful decor. Although the access road is steep and narrow, it can be navigated successfully with care and you are very unlikely to encounter a vehicle coming the other way.  Boasting four-poster beds and wrought iron balconies, the seven rustic rooms are comfortable and well-equipped, if you don't need a fridge. The swimming pool and jacuzzi are also well designed and maintained, while breakfast and dinner on the terrace are memorable both for the modern European food and the rural vistas, marred only slightly by the plastic sheeting obscuring many of the local crops. You can just about see high-rise Benidorm shimmering in the sun. Although breakfast is basically a cold buffet, the cheese, meats, fruit and bread are fresh, and the good coffee is plentiful. The four course dinner (about 30 euros a head including tax) is pre-set and takes time, but each dish is lovingly prepared and presented. The reasonably-priced wine and beer is also available from the honesty bar during the day. However, the proprietor can seem over-protective and a car is a must - the rugged and rubble-strewn locale means walking or cycling from the hotel isn't a very appealing option. Still, Casa rural Finca el Tossal makes a relaxing place to stay for a few days, if you just want to chill. 7/10

Xàtiva, Spain

Just 50 km south of the city of Valencia, Xàtiva is well worth a day trip, especially if the weather is cool and you fancy climbing the steep steps and rocky paths up to the sprawling medieval castle overlooking the town. In the middle of August, you might prefer to stay in the shade around the elegant streets flanking the handsome Collegiate Basilica, which was once a cathedral. There are several marked trails taking in a clutch of fine churches and mansions, close to Xàtiva's cafe and tree-lined beating heart. In mid-August, you might stumble on a fiesta, featuring some very loud motorbike racing.

Tuesday 14 August 2018

Altea, Spain

Although it is within easy reach of Benidorm, Altea is a world away from the high rise, low rent resort to the south. Cobbled streets lined with white-washed houses, sporting wrought iron balconies, span out from the central square, making their way down to a fairly smart restaurant-lined seafront, complete with palm trees and tasteful paving stones. In some of the narrow streets, blossom and canvas paintings add a splash of colour. Although the beach itself is full of pebbles, the water can be clear and inviting. The square is dominated by the La Mare de Déu del Consol with its exotic octagonal blue-tiled domes. Altea conjures up North Africa.

Monday 13 August 2018

Unoom Restaurante, La Nucia, Alicante, Spain

A space age restaurant decked out entirely in white splashed with multi-coloured lighting, Unoom has floor-to-ceiling glass windows affording sweeping views of the hilltop town of La Nucia and the surrounding mountains. The food is more conservative (paellas and fideuas are prominent), but is surprisingly keenly priced, generous and tasty. Although the service is warm and jovial, it can also be painfully slow. Moreover, you may have to park in the bowels of a cramped underground car park. Still, for the patient, Unoom's vantage point makes it a convivial place to chill as the sun goes down. 8/10

Sunday 12 August 2018

Guadalest, Alicante, Spain

Perched dramatically on a rocky outcrop and with winding cobbled streets, an atmospheric castle and sweeping views over the reservoir below, Guadalest is undeniably picturesque. But in August it is also over-run with tourists turning the heart of the village into a gaudy honeypot. Moreover, parking can be a problem, even at 7pm in the evening.

Saturday 11 August 2018

City of Arts and Sciences, Valencia

A complex of space age buildings a few miles from Valencia's medieval core, the City of Arts and Sciences was built in the decade between 1996 and 2005. The white-washed avant-garde architecture, the shallow lakes and the wide paved areas give the area a sci-fi feel. Each of the five major structures has a different character, with the striking Hemisferic resembling a giant eye, and the brooding Museo de las Ciencias an angular animal carcass.  The elegant Umbracle is a giant arched greenhouse, while the Parque Oceanografico features water lily-shaped buildings overlooking its aquariums. Finally, the aerodynamic Palacio de Las Artes looks like a track cycling helmet. Together, they make a remarkable composition. 

Friday 10 August 2018

Buskers outside Catedral De Valencia

Playing Abba melodies on wind instruments in the mid-day August heat, a group of buskers outside Valencia Cathedral draws quite a crowd.

Banco De Valencia, Valencia

Occupying a corner plot, Banco De Valencia's highly ornate and sumptuous headquarters was completed in 1942 after a break on construction during the Spanish Civil War. It conjures up images of a wedding cake.

Torre del Micalet, Catedral de Valencia, Valencia

It costs a couple of euros and quite a few calories to climb the 207 steps of Torre del Micalet, the iconic octagonal bell tower of Valencia's cathedral. From the 50 metre high terrace, there are captivating 360 degree views over the city's rooftops, encompassing everything from the medieval gateways to the futuristic City of Arts and Sciences.  The 13th century bell tower takes its name from the massive clock bell, el Micalet, which is reputed to weigh over 24,000 pounds.  Although you may have to queue for a few minutes on the way up and down, climbing the Torre del Micalet will give you a good sense of Valencia and its fine architecture.

Plaça de l'Ajuntament, Valencia

The main square in Valencia, Plaça de l'Ajuntament boasts impressive fountains, green space, too much traffic and some spectacular civil architecture, notably the elegant neoclassical Town Hall (pictured) and the Modernista Central Post Office.

Puente del Mar, Valencia

Dating from 1591, the Puente de la Mar was closed to traffic in 1933 by the architect Javier Goerlich, who also built the broad access stairways, according to the Valencia City Guide, which notes the bridge has ten pointed arches spanning great cutwaters. The statutes are of the Virgin Mary and San Pascual Bailon.

Mercado Central, Valencia, Spain

Housed in a spectacular Art Nouveau building, replete with domes, stain glass and elaborate iron work, the Mercado Central is a treat for all the senses. The seafood, fruit, vegetables, olives, meat, drinks and other wares give off pungent smells, while the enormous variety of produce on display will tempt the tastebuds.

Turia Park, Valencia

Wrapped around the heart of Valencia like a comfort blanket, the vast Turia Park occupies the bed of a river that was diverted after disastrous floods in the 1950s. Complete with cycle lanes, extensive sports facilities, ponds, playgrounds, striking architecture and lush greenery, this is the place where Valencians can escape the claustrophobia of the city and get active. For tourists, the park offers the perfect cycle route from the medieval core of Valencia down to the futuristic City of Arts and Sciences with its extraordinary architecture and shallow lakes. On route, you'll pass under a succession of ancient stone bridges. It's just a shame the Turia Park doesn't quite reach the coast, meaning cyclists need to navigate some traffic to arrive at the port. At the other end, the park bleeds into shrub land that eventually reaches the rural landscape west of Valencia.

Mercat de Colon, Valencia

 Designed and built during the First World War, Valencia's splendid Mercat de Colon is fine example of the graceful Art Nouveau architecture of the region.  Today, its soaring station-style roof shelters a clutch of smart stalls selling food, drink, flowers and the like. 

Thursday 9 August 2018

Plaza de la Virgen, Valencia

In the heart of the city, the Plaza de la Virgen is a picturesque square paved in creamy marble and surrounded by some of Valencia's most charismatic historic buildings. Fully pedestrianised, the square is home to the elaborate Cathedral of Santa María, built in the Valencian Gothic style, the seventeenth century Basilica of the Virgen de los Desamparados, with its extraordinary blue-tiled dome, and the handsome Palace of the Generalitat, the seat of the Valencian government. 

Plaça de la Reina, València

Although it can be packed with tourists, is excessively commercial and is open to cars, Plaça de la Reina has charm, thanks largely to the presence of the splendid cathedral at one end, a green square in the centre, the many handsome nineteenth century town houses and views of the ornate tower of the Esglèsia de Santa Caterina.

Torres de Serranos, Valencia

Completed at the end of the fourteenth century, the gigantic gothic Torres de Serranos was once one of 12 gateways in Valencia's city walls, which were pulled down in the mid nineteenth century. Today, the Torres de Serranos is both an imposing landmark and a vantage point from which to survey the modern city.  Only one other gateway - the Torres de Quart - survives.

Museu Nacional de Ceràmica, Carrer del Poeta Querol, València,

Housed in a fifteenth century palace, the National Ceramics Museum has a resplendent rococo-style alabaster entrance dating from 1740.  In fact, the whole facade is a riot of cherubs, busts, horns and swirling fruit, foliage and flowers. Although the museum houses an impressive collection of exhibits spanning the centuries, many tourists seemingly like to stand outside and take selfies.

Wednesday 8 August 2018

Castellfollit de la Roca, Catalonia

Built on a basalt crag, about 1 km in length and 50 metres high, Castellfollit de la Roca has a medieval core built from the local volcanic rock.

Besalú, Catalonia

Famous for its fortified 12th century Romanesque bridge, Besalú is a well-preserved county town with a clutch of medieval Christian and Jewish buildings.  If you get there early enough, you'll have the cobbled riverside walkway and atmospheric old streets and squares almost to yourself

Tuesday 7 August 2018

Olot, Catalonia

The capital of the volcanic Garrotxa region nestling in the foothills of the Pyrenees, Olot is a popular base for road cyclists and mountain bikes alike. Although the town sprawls across the rolling countryside and it has all the amenities, hotels and restaurants you'll need, the historic and commercial heart is pretty compact.  Charismatic modernista buildings are dotted around the old town and the substantial Church of Sant Esteve forms an imposing centrepiece, but Olot is not pretty in the way some Catalan settlements are. In fact, it has a slightly raw edge, giving it the character of a working town, rather than a tourist trap. You can enjoy a few days here.

Monday 6 August 2018

Kayaking on the River Ter, Catalonia

At the village of Colomers, you can hire kayaks for a two hour cruise downstream the Ter to Verges. It costs about 25 euros for each adult and backrests are another 5 euros per kayak, but the river is both serene and scenic. You'll see turtles basking in the sunshine, the lush riverbanks are a verdant green and you can float much of the way.  In August, there are a few stretches of choppy water, but nothing taxing. The biggest hazard is probably other kayaks. Try to get there before 10am, so you should have the water to yourself and you'll avoid the queue for a boat. A minibus will collect you at Verges and ferry you back to Colomers. 7/10

Walking the Parc Natural del Montgrí, Catalonia

Cutting through shady pine woods and traversing rocky inclines, the undulating cliff path in the Parc Natural Del Montgri makes for a fine walk. Although it can take you perilously close to the cliff edge, the views out to sea are sublime and the park is a welcome respite from the crowded beaches in August.

Saturday 4 August 2018

Begur, Catalonia

Perched on the top of a steep hill, Begur is crowned by a dilapidated sixteenth century castle. It is a stiff walk or cycle to the very top, but from here there are far-reaching views of the Costa Brava's lush coastline and Begur's beguiling beaches.

The Bay of Roses, Catalonia

A sweeping 18km arc of Catalan coastline near the French border, the Bay of Roses boasts long, sandy beaches, waves, wind and relatively little development for much of its length.

Friday 3 August 2018

Cadaqués, Catalonia

Close to the French border and the former stomping ground of Salvador Dalí, the white-washed seaside town of Cadaqués retains a remote and bohemian vibe distinct from that of the rest of the Costa Brava. A picturesque port surrounded by hills, the town has both charm and character.  With bougainvillea in abundance and hints of the surrealist style favoured by Dalí, Cadaqués is an antidote to the bland beach resorts that plague parts of the Med. Although tourists are here in force in August, the extended bay with its pebbly beach seems to absorb them easily enough, making the town a pleasant place to explore.

Restaurante Origens, L'Escala, Catalonia

Offering a generous three-course menu for 25 euros, including wine and water, Restaurante Origens serves traditional Catalan and Spanish fare made from very fresh ingredients.  To start, the anchovies on tomato bread is exceptional, while the ham and melon is also a good choice. Among the main courses, the fideuà is flavoursome and filling. Although Origens' decor is a bit dated, there is a sea view, the air con is effective and the service is smooth, particularly early evening which can be quiet. And you might get to sample some delicious caviar as an appetiser. 8/10