Saturday, 19 December 2020

Christmas in Covent Garden, Central London


In the hours before the UK Government imposed a tier 4 lockdown on London, parts of the capital's shopping districts were buzzing.  In Covent Garden, mulled wine, fake snow and lego sculptures were the order of the day.

Saturday, 12 December 2020

Maison François, Duke Street, Central London


Housed in a grand building with high-ceilings and theatrical lighting, Maison François's striking Art Deco dining room can imbue any meal with a sense of occasion. The French menu is safe and stimulating at the same time. The emphasis is on classic French dishes made with high-quality ingredients, precision and passion.  Among the starters, the rock oysters, sauce mignonette (£21 for six) and the assiette de charcuterie (£15) are both top-notch takes on traditional favourites, while the anchovies, ricotta and thyme, with grilled bread (£9.50) is a treat for the taste buds.  On a cold winter's day, the special main of green lentils with bacon and a Toulouse sausage (about £17) is hearty and enjoyable, particularly when combined with the moreish pommes Anna à la truffe (£7) and the rustic cabbage, anchoïade, breadcrumbs and chilli (£8). For fish lovers, the halibut in a mussels sauce is a tad pricey at £29, but gets rave reviews, while the hungry might opt for half a roast chicken cooked in herbs for £24. The very extensive wine list starts at about £26 a bottle and is heavily orientated towards France and its European neighbours. If you are celebrating, the Toffoli Prosecco Frizzante (£36 per bottle) is a decent option. Providing proficient, yet relaxed, service, Maison François successfully occupies the middle ground between fine dining and a fun meal out. 8/10

Sunday, 6 December 2020

J Sheekey, St Martin's Court, Central London


On a chilly December evening in the Covid era, the distinguished Atlantic bar of J Sheekey is a comforting place to take refuge. A bustle of bartenders mix and serve drinks frenetically while you perch on high chairs and survey the black and white prints of celebrities that adorn the walls. In the dining room the small army of staff flow backwards and forwards shepherding eye-catching plates of seafood in all directions.  Among the starters, the chargrilled squid served with roasted chorizo, padron peppers and smoked butter (£14.50) is both nourishing and flavoursome. Even more impressive and substantial is the Atlantic Bar platter of seafood, which includes oysters, prawns, mussels, clams, ceviche, cockles and whelks. At £25 per person, it is a punchy starter, but this is fresh and scintillating seafood. Among the main courses, the Sheekey’s fish stew (£26), with garlic mayonnaise, is more prosaic, but enjoyable all the same. You should find something you like on the lengthy wine list, but at a price. If you aren't too fussy, the Terres d'Azur Sauvignon Blanc is a crisp and fairly affordable option at £36 per bottle. All-in-all, J Sheekey is a refined and rewarding place to indulge a fish fetish. (8/10)

Sunday, 8 November 2020

The Thames, East of Greenwich, London


On a surprisingly mild November day, the Thames is like a millpond. The meandering moody stretch between the Royal Naval College and the Thames Barrier is marked by industrial debris, shards of greenery, flashy riverside apartments, the O2 dome and the soaring cable car over the river.

Wednesday, 12 August 2020

Giardini Luzzati, Genoa

Stumble on Giardini Luzzati early in the evening and you might find talented eight year olds kicking a ball around and locals sipping aperitifs in this versatile open space in Genoa's old quarter. The square also affords views of some of the city's most venerable landmarks, including the charismatic bell towers of the 12th century San Donato church (below) and the Church of Sant'Agostino Genoa (above).

Chiesa di Santa Maria di Castello, Genoa


Dating from the 12th century, this well-preserved Romanesque church and convent of Santa Maria di Castello sits proudly on high ground in the heart of Genoa.

Hotel Palazzo Grillo, Piazza delle Vigne, Genoa


You may have to navigate some very narrow and seedy alleyways to reach the small square which is home to Hotel Palazzo Grillo. But it is worth the effort. Staying in this dignified and handsome historic building, which dates from 1545, is a treat.  Many of the 25 bedrooms, which are comfortable and well-equipped, still have striking period features and look out over the charismatic buildings clustered in the heart of the old city.

Le Rune, Salita Inferiore di Sant'Anna, Piazza del Portello, Genoa

One of many good restaurants woven into Genoa's tight-knit historic centre, Le Rune stands out for serving exceptional Italian cuisine at very moderate prices. With a regularly changing selection of five or so dishes (costing between €10 and €20 each) per course, the food is both imaginative and generous.  For example, one of the primo dishes (pictured above) combines the delicate flavours of three different porcini mushrooms with some excellent carpaccio. The pasta and secondi dishes also major on fresh ingredients expertly prepared. You can order a respectable bottle of local wine for just €15.  The outdoor tables are spread over a multi-level garden, which backs on to a funicular railway, adding to the atmosphere. With patient and friendly service, Le Rune's proprietors have perfected the art of the neighbourhood restauranteur.  9/10

Tuesday, 11 August 2020

Santa Margherita Ligure, Liguria, Italy


One of a clutch of resort towns on the Italian Riviera, Santa Margherita Ligure is a colourful and comfortable place nestling below the green hills of Liguria. Better still, it is easily reachable from Genoa via train. The beach is all pebbles, but that doesn't stop the locals lounging about in the sunshine.

Via XX Settembre, Genoa


The main shopping drag in Genoa, Via XX Settembre features elaborate mosaics, classical colonnades,  lofty stone arches, period street lamps and grandiose 19th century buildings. Although most of the shops are nothing special, this distinguished avenue is well worth a peek. 

Travello Beach, Near Rapello, Italy


A lovely little stretch of seaside, marred only by the continuous stream of high season traffic, Travello Beach has tall colourful houses, a pebbly bay and a wooded cove, which also serves as a memorial to locals that died in the Great War - many of the trees bear small plaques. There are also dreamy views across the small boats to the hills sloping down into the sea. Overlooking Travello is a sixteenth century watchtower. This is a fine spot to linger if you can find sufficient space to spread out.

Piazza delle Erbe, Genoa


A buzzy and colourful clearing in the midst of the narrow alleyways of Genoa, Piazza delle Erbe is a popular spot for an early evening al fresco drink.

Via San Lorenzo, Genoa


One of old Genoa's most atmospheric and longest streets, Via San Lorenzo runs through the heart of the city and past the elegant cathedral after which it is named.

The Italian Riviera, near Rapallo


The dramatic coastline near Rapallo 

Chiesa di San Giorgio, Genoa


The latest in a succession of churches to occupy this site, the neo-classical exterior of the Chiesa di San Giorgio was constructed in the mid 19th century.

Santissimo Nome di Maria e degli Angeli Custodi, Genoa


 Hidden away in the back streets of Genoa, the ornate pastel yellow facade of the Santissimo Nome di Maria e degli Angeli Custodi provides a striking splash of colour in a gloomy neighbourhood.

Chiesa di San Pietro in Banchi, Genoa


The construction of this handsome sixteenth century church was financed by the rent from the shops below it, according to the Comune di Genova. Today, a couple of gaudy retail outlets continue to bring Chiesa di San Pietro in Banchi back down to earth.

Monday, 10 August 2020

Via XX Settembre, Genoa

A grand neo-classical and dead straight nineteenth century thoroughfare, Via XX Settembre stands in stark contrast to the higgledy-piggledy medieval maze that makes up much of historic Genoa.  Behind its ornate archways are many of the city's main retail outlets.  About half way down is the aptly-named Monumental Bridge.

Belvedere Castelletto, Genoa

With commanding views across Genoa and its port, the Belvedere Castelletto is a fine vantage point from which to get the lay of the land in Italy's sixth largest city. You can reach it via a couple of ornate elevators, which whisk you up from the medieval streets below. Note, you are supposed to buy a ticket for the ride.

Trattoria Rosmarino, Salita del Fondaco, Genoa


Located close to the Piazza De Ferrari, Trattoria Rosmarino offers tasty and authentic Italian fare at competitive prices in sleek surroundings. But the service can be painfully slow when the staff struggle to cope with a full set of covers.

Via Garibaldi, Genoa


Via Garibaldi is lined with handsome UNESCO-listed palazzos built in Genoa's heyday in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Today, these grand ornamental buildings, many decorated with elaborate frescos, are owned by banks or serve as municipal buildings and museums.

Isola delle Chiatte, Genoa


The pleasant stroll along the Via al Mare Fabrizio de André (a jetty) past Genoa's vast aquarium, offers sweeping views over the city's harbour and the eclectic ships it shelters.  You'll spot the Neptune, a Disney-esque replica of a Spanish galleon, as well as some massive cruise liners marooned by the pandemic. You'll end up on some floating barges, where you can sit down and soak up the maritime atmosphere.

Piazza De Ferrari, Genoa


Venturing out into the wide open space of Piazza De Ferrari from the narrow alleyways in Genoa's old town can be something of a surprise. With its vast circular fountain, polished flagstones and distinguished nineteenth century buildings, the square feels like it doesn't quite belong in this otherwise gritty maritime city.

Sunday, 9 August 2020

Osteria Le Colonne, Piazza Invrea, Genoa

With socially-distanced tables laid out in the piazza in front of the handsome Cattedrale di San Lorenzo,  Osteria Le Colonne serves well-presented Italian food with a view. The menu mixes classic and unusual dishes, such as a prawns and courgette spelt salad (pictured below). Selecting one of the latter can be a tad risky. But for a first course and just 10 euros, the cannelloni filled with spinach and ricotta cheese and accompanied by walnuts (pictured above) is a bit special.  The waiters are friendly and talkative, helping to justify the punchy cover charge. Although it is a little pricey by Genoa's standards,  Osteria Le Colonne is a memorable and enjoyable place to eat. 8/10

Cattedrale di San Lorenzo, Genoa


With its distinctive monochromatic striped marble walls and soaring arches, the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo is one of the symbols of the maritime city of Genoa. The current building dates from the eleventh century, but it was remodelled in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in the Romanesque style. Today, its magnificent facade is marred by some longstanding scaffolding.

Saturday, 8 August 2020

Cycling a Circuit through Le Bar Sur Loup and Gourdon, Alpes-Maritimes, France


With just over 600 metres of climbing in less than 30km, this scenic, and sometimes spectacular, ride is one big up and down. The long drag up to Gourdon is rewarded with sweeping views across the thickly-wooded landscape down to the Med.  Although the clifftop village is a tourist trap, it is a dramatic one with some charm. The ride back down to Le Bar Sur Loup is fun and fast.

Riverside Walk from Pont de Loup, Alpes-Maritimes, France

If you follow the verdant riverside path north from the hamlet of Pont du Loup, overshadowed by the remains of the bridge, you should soon find a secluded spot where you can use the rocks to dip in and out of the cool clean water. Overlooking cascades and some small stretches of white water, the path climbs through the trees eventually reaching a narrow green iron footbridge straddling the Loup below. If you turn back here, the round trip is probably about 3km. A very enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.

Friday, 7 August 2020

Market day in Valbonne, Alpes-Maritimes, France

The medieval village of Valbonne holds a bustling market every Friday morning. Even during a pandemic, scores of stalls line the narrow streets, peddling everything from local produce to clothes and jewellery. In the heart of the village, the seventeenth century place des Arcades is a good spot to take a break, have a drink and people watch. Once the market subsides, you can wander around the pleasant pastel alleyways in peace and take a stroll down to the lush riverbank.

Le Bistrot du Sommelier, Rue Eugène Giraud, Valbonne, France


Serving a generous two-course lunch for just €17.50, Le Bistrot du Sommelier is a good place to feed a hungry family. The service is pretty pacey and the traditional French fare is well-prepared and tasty. If you choose not to have a starter, the medley of classic deserts makes for a fun and filling way to conclude the meal. You can sit on the terrace in the street or in the surprisingly smart dining room.

Cycle Ride East of Le Bar-sur-Loup, Alpes-Maritimes, France


Taking in the medieval settlements of Tourettes-sur-Loup (pictured below), Vence,  Sant-Paul-de-Vence (pictured above) and Le Colle-sur-Loup, this 40km circular route from Le Bar-sur-Loup is both scenic and stimulating. However, the traffic can get a bit dicey in places. 

Le Bar-sur-Loup, Alpes-Maritimes, France

A semi-fortified medieval village nestling in the steep hills overlooking the Côte d'Azur, Le Bar-sur-Loup is a sleepy place with just a handful of shops and restaurants. From the main square, which boasts some handsome historic buildings and sweeping views, atmospheric stepped alleyways lead down to the Avenue Amiral de Grasse - the main through-route. Although there are some pleasant walks in the vicinity of the village, buses and taxis are rare, so you really need a car or a road bike to explore the locality.

Thursday, 6 August 2020

Cycle Ride through Le Bar Sur Loup-Valbonne-Grasse-Gourdon, Alpes-Maritimes, France

Taking in almost 1km of climbing in just over 50 km, this is a tough ride, particularly in the summer heat. But Valbonne, Grasses and Gourdon are all picturesque pitstops and there are views aplenty.

Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Hôtel Particulier des Jasmins, Le Bar-sur-Loup, Alpes-Maritimes, France


It can be tough to get a table at Hôtel Particulier des Jasmins in the summer season, but it is worth persevering for the setting - it is housed in a venerable old building and there is a lovely view over the valley from the garden terrace. While the sheltered tables have crisp white cloths, the transparent tables in the open strike a more modern vibe. Hôtel Particulier des Jasmins serves well-presented and tasty French fare at reasonable prices, given the dearth of competition in Le Bar-sur-Loup. The fish is particularly good and be sure to leave room for the medley of creamy desserts. Service can be a little patchy, but you will want to linger anyway. 8/10

Chez Palmyre, Rue Droite, Nice, France


Probably one of the most authentic French restaurants in the heart of Nice, Chez Palmyre serves unpretentious, but tasty food at keen prices - the three course set menu is just €20. You'll probably need to book to get a table and the service by the one-man waiting staff can be brusque. Still, if you like hearty food and an old-school vibe, it is worth seeking out this long-standing eatery. 7/10

The Jay Hotel by HappyCulture, Rue Meyerbeer, Nice, Alpes-Maritimes, France


Handily placed just a few hundred yards from the Med and within walking distance of the heart of Nice, the Jay Hotel is a comfortable and relaxing place to chill. You can squeeze a party of four into one its suites, which are equipped with a micro-kitchen, a sofa-bed and an en-suite shower and loo. Both the air con and the Wi-Fi do the job, while the decor is elegant without being stuffy. You can eat your Covid-secure buffet breakfast beneath the chandeliers in the ground floor lounge, which hints at La Belle Époque. Although it consists of fairly standard fare, the coffee is okay and the pastries should fill you up. 7/10 

Tuesday, 4 August 2020

Traditional Cordonnier, Nice Old Town


One of the timeless shops still scattered around Nice's old town.

Cathédrale Sainte-Réparate de Nice, Nice

A handsome Baroque building, the Cathédrale Sainte-Réparate de Nice is somewhat submerged in the cafes and shops of Vieux Nice. The surrounding bustle makes it hard to fully appreciate the splendid seventeenth century facade and the adjoining eighteenth century bell tower.

Palais de Justice, Nice, France


Built in the late nineteenth century in a neoclassical style, Nice's imposing courthouse is illuminated in patriotic colours at night. 

The Quai des Etats-Unis, Nice


With plenty of space for pedestrians and a coastal breeze, Nice's seafront is a pleasant place for a stroll. Instagrammers might want to wander up to the "I Love Nice" sign for a photo-op. 

Monday, 3 August 2020

Rue Saint-François de Paule, Nice


Lined with fairly bohemian cafes and restaurants, the largely pedestrianised Rue Saint-François de Paule is one of Nice's most atmospheric thoroughfares. It also boasts a couple of grand ornamental buildings, such as the late nineteenth century opera house (pictured below) and the neoclassical eighteenth century Saint-François-de-Paule church (pictured above).

Rue de la Préfecture, Nice, France

Overlooked by the elegant Eglise de l'Annonciation dite de Sainte-Rita, Rue de la Préfecture is one of the main drags in Nice's extensive old town. It runs from the Place du Palais de Justice east towards the park that blankets Colline du Château.

Walk up to Colline du Château, Nice, France

It is well worth scaling the 400 or so steps from Nice's sea front up to the Colline du Château. Although there is an elderly and free lift, the stone steps offer different vantage points from which to survey the city rooftops and the Mediterranean. From here, you'll see the clear delineation between Nice's medieval old town and its nineteenth century boulevards and squares. As you take in the view, the odd passenger jet is likely to be descending towards the coastal airport just west of the city. Once you reach the top (90 metres above sea level), you'll find a shady green park incorporating the ruins of the castle (demolished at the beginning of the eighteenth century), several cemeteries and various mosaics depicting classical scenes at your feet. As well as providing sweeping views of the hills around Nice, the castle is a fine spot from which to survey the yachts in Nice's sheltered harbour on the other side of the hill.

Saturday, 1 August 2020

El Patio Bistrot Tapes, Passeig Mar, L'Escala, Catalonia

A buzzy bistro for an informal meal, El Patio offers classic Catalan tapas with aplomb. Served on a mixture of slate tiles and white plates, the food is fresh and filling. Although the decor is nothing to write home about, the covered terrace is comfortable and spacious. 7/10

Friday, 31 July 2020

L'Escala to Pals by Mountain Bike, Catalonia

The best part of 50km, the round trip between L'Escala and Pals is a flattish ride through a relatively peaceful part of the Costa Brava. Once you leave L'Escala, you can take a back route that follows minor roads and dusty tracks to skirt the stark hills that overlook Torroella de Montgrí. After you pass through the pleasant town, you'll need to take the busy C-31 down to Pals. However, the road is safe enough for cyclists and, for the last stretch, you can follow some tracks into the medieval village of Pals - a fine place to stop for refreshments before retracing your route. 

Thursday, 30 July 2020

L'Escala to Cadaqués by Mountain Bike, Catalonia


If you have a mountain bike, you can mix and match roads and trails on the 100km round trip between L'Escala and Cadaqués - a charismatic and picturesque seaside town nestling below the hills north of the Bay of Roses. For the challenging stretch between Roses and Cadaqués, you can take the mountain road (GI-614), which carries a fair bit of traffic, or a rocky trail closer to the coast. Both routes through the Cap de Creus Natural park are very scenic, but the latter (marked as cycle route 12 on the local leisure map) has the edge when it comes to broad vistas and you don't have to worry about cars.  As the trail is tough and long - it goes up hill and down dale - it is probably best to only take it in one direction, particularly in the heat of summer. In any case, make sure you refuel properly, while enjoying the cobbled streets and handsome white-washed buildings of Cadaqués. 8/10 

More cycle routes in Catalonia can be found here.

Sunday, 26 July 2020

Windsor Great Park, Berkshire


From the higher elevations in the eponymous Great Park, you can see Windsor Castle rising above the treetops, like something out of fairy tale.

Windsor, Berkshire


Lightening up the mood in Windsor, three customised white mopeds strike a pose in a town centre almost devoid of tourists.

Sunday, 21 June 2020

Dawson's Hill, South East London

Dawson's Hill is a small park with a big view. You can pretty much see the whole London skyline from the sloping lawns where teenagers like to gather with a few beverages on a warm summer evening.  It backs on to a blocky housing estate, which some imaginative commentators have likened to a Tuscan hill town. 

Thursday, 18 June 2020

Brockley View, South East London

The aptly-named Brockley View offers vistas of Canary Wharf, as well as a diverse mix of housing.

Friday, 5 June 2020

Grand Union Walk Housing, Regents Canal, North London

Designed by Grimshaw Architects, the submarine age Grand Union Walk comprises 10 three-bedroom houses, a one-bedroom maisonette and a bedsit, built in 1988.