Category Archives: Travel Writing

Glasgow School of Art Goes Up in Flames…Again!

I was very, very sad to hear, today, that Glasgow’s Art Nouveau landmark, The Glasgow School of Art, has been gutted by fire for the second time in four years.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s masterpiece was heavily damaged by fire in 2014. It was in the midst of restoration and scheduled to reopen in the spring of 2019. Given the scale of the destruction, that is not likely happen now.

Glaswegians watch in horror as landmark Glasgow School of Art destroyed by fire. Photo The Evening Times via Twitter.

In fact, though there has, as yet, been no official word, I very much doubt that there is anything left to restore after the latest fire, this morning.

I visited the school in 2015 when restoration was just taking hold and I was truly looking forward to seeing it fully restored next year. Now all I have are memories of these few details I managed to capture with my phone on a very overcast day.

Mackintosh Art Nouveau weathervane in Glasgow.
Weathervane atop the Glasgow School of Art by Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

Decorative touches were everywhere, many of them familiar Rennie Mackintosh themes, like this weathervane with its coloured balls and resident pigeon – who regularly attracted live pigeons for a quick look.Wrought iron used for pure decoration – and every set of windows had a different motif. Typical Rennie Mackintosh touches. His style of Art Nouveau became known as the Glasgow Style and was widely imitated by his contemporaries.His masterpiece was the library, which was being fully restored at the time of the fire. This smartphone snap of a scale model, in the new art school building across the street, hints at Mackintosh’s artistry. After the first fire, the loss of the library was not its books, which could mostly be replaced. The loss was the multi-level library itself. You can still view the model.

Find out more about this lost landmark here.

Greek National Opera at SNFCC

Summer Nostos Festival at Athens SNFCC – Huge, Fun and Totally Free

Featured image above by Ava Babili ccl.2.0

Head for Athens next week (June 17 to 24), for the Summer Nostos Festival at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre (SNFCC). It’s a huge, free international multi-arts and sports party being staged indoors and out at Athens newest major park and architectural landmark.

And while you’re there, you’ll have a chance to explore what the truly sustainable public buildings of the future could be like.

Venue for the Summer Nostos Festival
Auditorium of the Greek National Opera will see a lot more than opera during the Summer Nostos Festival in Athens.

What’s On

Music – including classical, pop, jazz and world music from all over Europe, Africa and North America. Among the highlights:

And that’s just skimming the surface – there are divas, bands, soloists, lots more.

Dance – with performances from several international ensembles including:

Plus – Circus performances and workshops, art installations, group participation performances, chorales, art workshops events for children and sports – from fencing and petanque to kayak racing  in the SNFCC’s  51 acres of parkland and 400 meter canal.

Everything is free but some events in smaller spaces do require advance booking. You can check out the full schedule and book as needed here.

About the SNFCC

While you’re there – or later if you miss the festival – take some time to explore the SNFCC – a remarkable park, cultural center and sustainable modern landmark, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano – in Kallithea, on the southwestern edge of Athens.

Some background

In the late 1990s, the Greek National Opera (GNO )and the National Library of Greece, both in need of space and viable new premises, approached the Stavros Niarchos Foundation for grants. Eventually both organizations and the foundation joined forces to develop the center with a foundation grant of €630 million. It was the largest single grant the foundation ever made and was to cover, design, construction and fitting out of the cultural center, relocation of the two companies and assistance with operating expenses for five years.

Work began in 2012 on what had been a former Olympics parking lot and then derelict ground. Today the site supports two state-of-the-art institutions – the multi-stage Greek National Opera and the million-plus volume Greek National Library along with a 51- acre park  bringing much needed green space to Athens.

Sustainability was always an objective in creating the SNFCC. During construction, 95 per cent of building waste was recycled. The finished result was awarded Platinum LEED certification (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), from the US Green Building Council.

Take a free guided tour (they are given in English several times a day), for a behind the scenes look at both buildings.

Among the eco-friendly highlights:

  • The GNO’s “floating” energy canopy of solar panels. Weighing in at 4,500 tons, it contains 5,700 individually shaped solar panels. Energy monitoring in the first full year of operation indicates that during the summer months, the canopy generates almost 100 per cent of the center’s energy needs.

    SNFCC Canal
    Seawater fills the SNFCC Canal – where you can have a go at kayaking.
  • The Canal. It is 400 meters long, 30 meters wide and about one and a half meters deep. It’s filled with sea water from the nearby Bay of Faliro and processed  in reverse osmosis units. The treated water is used for irrigation of the park and eventually returned to the sea at the same or similar quality. 
  • A landscaped walk to the sea taking the park across a bridge over the highway to reconnect the site with the sea.

How to Get There

The SNFCC is just a few miles from Athens cruise and ferry terminals in Piraeus so easy to reach with a short taxi ride.

Other transportation options include:

  • Free shuttle buses, operating every 20 minutes from Syntagma Square at the corner of Ermou Street and Syggrou-Fix Metro station, Line 2, and from Faliro Metro Station, Line 1. Click here for full shuttle schedule during the festival.
  • Public Transportation by bus and Metro – There are a number of lines to choose from arriving from Athens Center, Piraeus and Kifissia. Check the Summer Nostos website FAQ pages for full public transportation information.
  • Car parking at the SNFCC will be limited but free parking will be available at the Faliro Olympic complex. It’s about a 15 minute walk and there will be free shuttle buses to the SNFCC. 

 

Byzantine Church in Athens

Are You Ready to Kick the Bucket List?

Last month, on a return visit to Athens, I found a tiny Byzantine church surrounded by olive trees in a square just off Ermou Street in the heart of the city’s main retail district.

As I sat beside it, in a cafe that could easily have passed for a Greek island beach taverna, I reflected on why I love revisiting favorite cities – going back for seconds, so to speak – again and again.

Skordalia and zuccini
Skordalia and fried courgette sticks – Greek island grub circa 1990 – right in the middle of Athens.

The Bucket List Race

If you are reading this travel blog, you are either a traveler or a travel dreamer. Visiting destinations we’ve read about and imagined for years is something we travel dreamers all try to do as often as possible. Whether we’re into cities, island, mountains, seashores, rivers; the perfect bed, the tastiest meal, the most breathtaking adventure or the most exquisite designer shoes, we all have our hit list – the targets we’ve saved and planned for for years.

Then we arrive and most of us do the same thing.

We rush around from one “top-of-the-pops” sight to another, making sure we see all the things we’re supposed to see, taste all the foods we’re supposed to taste, and, depending upon our generational tribe, take loads of photos or do the selfie thing in all the instagrammable places on our list. We take the pictures of the same places that everyone else photographs – The Tower of London, The Eiffel Tower, the Parthenon.

And then, just before we head home, we say to each other “I wish we could have seen more of….stayed longer at….learned more about….” 

Oh well, there’s always next time. “Next time we’re here let’s do….we should be sure to see….”

But, for most of us, there never is a next time, is there? Because we are off to the next destination on our bucket list.

Time for a Second Helping

Unless your only aim is ticking off items on your bucket list, there is much to be gained on second visits when the pressure to see the usual sights is off.

Breakfast at le Petit Cler in Paris

On my repeat visits to Paris, with no specific agenda and the freedom to wander at will:

  • I discovered a really great falafel shop in the Marais
  • bought watercolour papers in a side street near the Musée D’Orsay
  • walked along the Canal St Martin
  • spent a few days wandering the rue Saint-Dominique and the area around the Metro station known as La Tour Maubourg – right beside Les Invalides yet a world away.
  • Had capuccino and warm, fresh brioche in le Petit Cler on the equally petit rue Cler Market.
Lovers in Paris
By Canal St Martin in Paris

On a return visit to Madrid:

  • I found El Rastro, the huge Sunday flea market 

    El Rastro Market Madrid
    El Rastro – Fan seller at the Sunday Market in Madrid
  • had time to have espadrilles custom made in Casa Hernanz, on Calle de Toledo, just outside the Plaza Mayor 

    Casa Hernanz
    Queueing for shoes. Women line up for handmade espadrilles outside Casa Hernanz, Madrid’s famous shoemaker
  • stumbled into a city center food market where I bought a heavy iron plancha, perfect for grilling meat and veg. 

    Bull fighter
    Novice bullfighter waits for his bull at Las Ventas arena in Madrid.
  • and allowed myself to be talked into seeing a bullfight at Las Ventas (awful and moving at the same time).

And just last month in Athens, after I’d photographed the tourists gathering in Syntagma Square to video  the Evzones (I call them the men from the Ministry of Funny Walks – see why), I discovered a half a dozen tiny, thousand year old Byzantine churches tucked into quiet squares and side streets around some of the city center’s busiest neighborhoods.

None of us has time enough or money enough to visit every wonderful world destination we’ve heard about. We can either rush around trying to tick off as many items as possible on our bucket list or we can try a different approach. Next time you are planning a holiday or vacation go back for a second helping of a place that you liked and wanted to know more about. Then, instead of skimming the surface of a lot of places, you might get to know one place really well, get to scratch below the surface and have some real experiences  with memories that will last you a lifetime.

Wild Pink Thyme

It’s About Thyme

A memory of an idyllic French lunch, with a recipe, first published in the US magazine Barbecue and Beverage.

The drink arrived in a gigantic stemmed glass shaped like a cross between a bell and an old-fashioned hurricane lamp. As pale gold as straw, yet with a slight greenish tinge, it was garnished with pink flowered stems and smelled of summer – Mediterranean summer.

The scene was a long time ago, but the memory is still fresh and green. In honour of my friend’s birthday we had travelled, in early summer, to a famous restaurant overlooking a hazy valley in Provence, in the south of France.

We were seated at a table in the shade with just the right, artful amount of sunlight filtering down through the fingered leaves of a massive fig tree.  A small wedding party, chattering and laughing at a table for ten or twelve were the only other patrons. At an open grill in the corner, a chef turned a roast on a spit using a brush of rosemary branches to baste it with olive oil. The same breeze that ruffled the turquoise waters of the swimming pool carried the scent across to us.

In the spirit of celebration, we ordered the somewhat expensive  aperitif de la maison – the house cocktail – which was served to us in huge glasses.

“What’s in it?” I asked the waiter.

“It’s made of white wine, Madame,” he said. But that didn’t begin to describe the taste which brought to mind honey bees and wild flowers and the spikey scent of the garrigue – the sun baked scrub country on the western edge of the region.

White wine in a glassAfter the first sip, I tried to discover the mystery of its taste yet again. “What is it flavoured with? What makes it taste so vibrantly green?”

“Ah, Madame,” the waiter replied, with great seriousness, “That is the secret of Monsieur le Patron.”

When he left, a member of the wedding party leaned over. “You like?” she smiled. “It is, here, a most famous and traditional aperitif.  The secret is the serpolet.

“What is that…in English?”

The woman’s brow creased as she struggled to find the perfect word. “So…you know it is like…lawn…yes, lawn.”

She had mistranslated the French word herbe (which can in fact mean grass) and for years I thought this wonderful drink was made from grass. Much later, I discovered that serpolet is, in fact, wild mountain thyme.

Thyme, native to the western Mediterranean, grows in its wild (serpolet) and cultivated (thyme) forms throughout Provence.  Walking across a field you will crush it underfoot, releasing its evocative scent, a key element in the famous herbes de Provence. In addition to this refreshing  and unusually perfumed drink, local cooks use fresh thyme as a robust and versatile herb for the barbecue. Scattered on hot coals, the woody branches produce a smoke-scented flavour that is wonderful for grilled meat, fish or chicken.  A generous handful of branches stuffed into a bottle of quality olive oil makes an excellent base for a marinade or homemade mayonnaise.  New potatoes take on a continental dimension when roasted with thyme.

French thyme (thymus vulgaris), cultivated from wild Provencal thyme, is reputed to be the best of the approximately 100 varieties of the plant. It has larger leaves, more essential oils and a stronger, sweeter flavour  than English thyme.  In Provence, cooks pick a few sprigs from the garden as needed to preserve the strong, fresh taste until just before use.

Fortunately, it is relatively easy to grow in most temperate gardens. Seeds for French thyme can be ordered online from a wide range of suppliers.

We first tasted a version of this drink at the then Michelin 3-star L’Oustau de Baumanière under the ramparts of Les Baux-de-Provence. The late, legendary chef, Raymond Thuilier, who founded the restaurant and the hotel Le Baumanière still presided over the kitchen. This recipe, similar to the one we sampled, was given to me by a French traiteur who made it for her own catering shop.

Coupe Serpolet

Recipe

4-6 servings

  • 1 liter of dry white wine
  • 6-10 branches of fresh, pink-flowering thyme (preferably in bloom), washed but left on the branch.
  • 3 tablespoons of honey (more or less to taste)
  • 1 1/2 to 2 quart covered glass or ceramic container (don’t use metal)

Spread the thyme branches in the base of a one-and-a-half to two-quart non-reactive container. Pour in all the white wine. Cover and soak for 15 days in a cool (but not refrigerated) spot.

Line a sieve with one layer of clean, dampened cheesecloth or muslin, Strain the wine through it and into a glass bowl, squeezing as much juice as possible out of the thyme branches. Discard the branches.

Wash and dry the container, making sure any soap residue is gone.

Warm honey until it reaches a thin consistency. Add the honey to the wine infusion; mix well and return to the container. Cover and allow to age for one month in a cool (but not refrigerated) place.

Serve straight or over ice in a roomy, bowl-shaped glass, garnished with a sprig of flowering thyme.

Featured photo above by Philip Goddard, ccl

* FULL DISCLOSURE STATEMENT: If you use links on this page to book tickets or services, I will receive a small amount of money, at no extra cost to you, to help fund this website.

montage of cherry Bakewells

Pudding, Pie or Tart? So What is a Bakewell?

When I headed for the Derbyshire market town of Bakewell, I was sure I would taste the original Bakewell tart.  I was even sure I knew what it looked like. I was wrong on both counts.

What’s a Bakewell – or a storm in a pudding basin

You see, you can’t get a Bakewell “Tart” of the sort we uninitiated expect in Bakewell – unless you visit the supermarket to buy Mr. Kipling’s Cherry Bakewells, a brand almost as ubiquitous in Britain as Oreos are in the USA.

The mass-marketed cross between a cake and a tart, pictured above, consists of a spongy layer of frangipane baked in a tartlet case over a layer of raspberry jam, the whole lot smothered in thick white icing – sometimes striped with chocolate – and topped with a candied cherry. 

A nicer version, made by home cooks and bake shops all over the UK, skips the sugary icing and tops the cake-like almond frangipane with sliced almonds. 

Nope, that’s not a Bakewell in Bakewell either

In Bakewell, near Chatsworth House, where they claim to have invented this dessert, they call it a Bakewell Pudding. It has neither a cake-like sponge of frangipane nor a thick layer of white icing. And hold the candied cherries. too.

Will the real Bakewell please stand up

The Bakewell I was served at the Old Original Bakewell Pudding Shop was a bit of an ugly ducking to begin with. The glass counter was full of  lopsided pastries looking pretty unappealing for such a famous treat.  

Partly baked Bakewell puddings.
Partly baked Bakewell puddings look less than appealing before final preparation.

“Is that a Bakewell tart?”, I asked hesitantly.

“It’s a Bakewell pudding,” the woman behind the counter snapped, “That’s what we have.”  

Chastened, I found a seat in the suntrap terrace behind the bakery and waited, somewhat dubiously, for my pudding to arrive.

What was finally served bore as little resemblance to the dry, cold and soggy looking pastries I’d seen in the shop as the iced, mass produced version bore to the real thing. Having been heated, the pastry had undergone a transformation from an ugly duckling to a lovely, tempting swan. The raspberry jam had somehow risen to the top. flooding the entire surface. And the egg and ground almond layer, that looked so claggy and unappealing had become a translucent part of the whole dessert, tender and virtually invisible. What came to the table was a clear, shimmering and wobbly pool of raspberry and almond flavored filling, floating on a delicate, crisp base of multi-layered puff pastry. Maybe it was the sunlight sparkling in the molten jam that added to its appeal. Delicious. So, then, this must be the real deal, right? Well… Continue reading

Opening of the Great Exhibition of the North Photo courtesy of the Newcastle Gateshead initiative.

Great Exhibition of the North – The UK’s Biggest Event in 2018

The Great Exhibition of the North is set to celebrate the powerhouse cities of the North of England this summer with 80 days of celebration, exhibits, performances and events centered around the NewcastleGateshead waterfront.

If you haven’t made it up to Newcastle-upon-Tyne yet, this is the summer to do it. From June 22 to September 9, the waterfront, and venues all over the city, will come alive with a festival of northern innovation, culture, art, design, music and creativity of all kinds. Continue reading

The ROM Skatepark, photo courtesy of English Heritage

Four Listed Historic Landmarks That Will Astonish You

Historic England protects England’s important historic places. Some that are considered “historic” may surprise you. 

Perhaps you imagine that being “listed” (the term used to indicated a landmark is recognized and protected) is reserved for historic homes, castles, forts, mysterious earthworks and prehistoric monuments. There certainly are plenty of those;. But among the almost 400,000 listed historic monuments, there are also factories, filling stations, playgrounds, even a London zebra crossing. These are some of the unusual buildings and eccentric places that have been listed and protected in the past few years:

The Shrewsbury Flax Mill Maltings

Currently hidden by scaffolding and restoration works, this landmark can rightfully claim to be one of the most important historic buildings of the modern world. The flax mill, one of eight buildings at the site on the northern edge of Shrewsbury, is the world’s first iron framed buildings. This  ungainly, utilitarian structure, erected in 1797, paved the way for the skyscrapers of the modern city. Continue reading

Feast for pickpockets within sight of Big Ben

Tricky scams that target tourists

Bring your caution with you on your European city holiday. Don’t be a target for the increasingly creative petty criminals who plague places popular with visitors.

This is a great time of year to visit Europe. Nice weather brings everyone out into the streets to sunshine and relax at sidewalk cafes. But warmer weather also brings out the conmen, pickpockets and scam artists who prey on tourists. From all over the continent they arrive in Europe’s biggest cities – London, Paris, Rome, Madrid, Barcelona – for the rich pickings to be had from vacationers who  have left their everyday cares and their normal caution behind.

You can stay smart and avoid becoming a victim by wising up to a few of these latest and most common scams that target tourists.

  Continue reading

Dome and stacks of the British Library Round Reading Room. Photo by Alex Watson ccl

Remembering the Round Reading Room at the British Museum

The British Museum plans to reorganize its collections and displays over the next ten years. Visitors to Britain’s number one visitor attraction can expect a gradual evolution of the museum’s gallery spaces, providing “more compelling and coherent stories”, according to museum managers. Perhaps that means they’ll unite the monumental Egyptian statues – now on the ground floor – with the mummies and ancient artifacts that are now several floors and a maze of corridors and galleries away.

The Round Reading Room

I’m glad to hear that the overhaul will include some serious attention to the Round Reading Room and its role in the grand scheme of things. The 19th century, Grade I listed room, with its beautiful blue, cream and gold dome and its halo of 20 arched windows, holds a special place for me and many other writers. I spent the better part of one intense and memorable summer studying there.

Continue reading

Luxury bathroom in Wales

25 Perfect Hotel Room Essentials

What makes the perfect hotel room?

As a travel writer, I’ve stayed in a lot of hotel rooms, from the bare bones basic to the breathtakingly expensive. And I’ve learned that the cost of a hotel room bears little relationship to how close it comes to perfection. In fact, one of my most comfortable nights was spent in a cheap chain hotel room at a motorway rest stop

Worrying that my standards might be unusually low, I conducted a very unscientific survey of my travel writing and blogging colleagues in the British Guild of Travel Writers. It turns out that, among experienced travelers, traditional luxuries fall pretty low on their lists of what makes the perfect hotel room.

Cost is no indicator of perfection. And, for purposes of this list, neither are views or destinations. Soft, powder sand beaches beside turquoise waters under reliably cloudless blue skies can make up for a certain amount of inconvenience or discomfort. 

And friendly, helpful staff are essential. Even the most seasoned traveler is more stressed by minor mishaps and inconveniences when away from home. Knowing you are in the hands of competent, knowledgeable, pleasant staff can make up for a lot of other shortcomings.

The top 25 requirements for hotel room perfection

In no particular order

1. Decent beds – It should go without saying that a comfortable bed, with clean sheets free of critters, is not negotiable. Sadly, some hotels do need reminding.

2. Reliable wifi – Hotels in remote areas where the only internet connection is via satellite have a get-out clause on this one. But if broadband or wifi is generally available in the area, in this day and age, it should be free.

3. An up to date directory of hotel services  – The most basic directions – how to reach reception, how to connect to the wifi, how to work the television and clock, should be on the first page.

4. Convenient power points or electrical outlets – This is such a big topic it deserves its own special section, so here goes:

Continue reading