Monthly Archives: March 2017

Basque Country

It’s no longer a secret: San Sebastian, European Capital of Culture in 2016, is a gastronomic gem in a land of spectacular food. If you’re planning on spending 24 hours in this city you’ll need to loosen your waistband.

Sure, Spain has a glut of fantastically picturesque cities and some of the best food on the planet, but San Sebastian known as Donostia in the Basque Country, might just be the jewel in the crown.

The city is also very compact so you will be able to walk from one side to the other relatively quickly. If nothing else, bring your swimming gear and comfy walking shoes.

Must Visit

La Playa de la Concha beach, with its golden crescent sweeping from Parte Vieja (old town – the heart of the city) in the east to Monte Igueldo in the west, is a wonderful feature of this city.

It is probably one of the finest city beaches in Europe, probably the world, you’ll want to spend a while splashing in the sea or people watching. And let’s not forget Playa de Gros (also known as Playa de la Zurriola), a favourite with surfers.

But to get the picture postcard view you’ll need to head to the funicular up to the top of Monte Igueldo. A €3.15 ride takes you to the antiquated but charming funfair on top of the hill which offers views that can accurately be described as ‘breathtaking’.

We also went for a ride on the rickety roller coaster and climbed ‘The Tower’ for even better views. All the attractions are about €3 each for adults.

Must Eat

Food wise, San Sebastian is akin to a culinary sweet shop. The old town (Parte Vieja) is studded with wood-panelled bars sporting unpronounceable Basque names such as txepetxa and etxberria. Passing each one you’ll spy little gastronomic works of art lined up along the bar.

These are pintxos (pinch-os), the local variety of tapas and it is these that give the Basque region their rep for quality food. Each one costs around €2-3 and it can be tempting to get stuck in and spend a fortune.

Our favourite pintxos bars were Bar Zeruko, where everything on the bar looked picture perfect and Bar Azkena, which is down a flight of stairs hidden in a market near the locOrder from the specials board. We had slow-cooked veal cheek with foie gras and a lobster morsel served in a shot glass with dry ice (don’t drink the dry ice!).

But our advice is treat the pintxos like an appetizer and head to one of the many Michelin starred restaurants in town. There is a splendid selection.

Arzak is the most famous of the three Michelin starred restaurants on offer. But you’d be hard pressed to choose between them, Akelarre or Kokotxa.

We sampled the fare at Narru for their exquisite lunch menu. Bookings are recommended at all the restaurants..

Must Stay

A literal stones throw from La Concha beach, Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra is a grand and palatial looking building in the heart of the city centre. The rooms are cool and light with a chic modern finish, despite the classical exterior. The location is ideal for the 24 hour visitor, with the old town a 10 minute walk, the beach barely 2 minutes and the main shopping area on the doorstep.

The bar in the hotel also overlooks the beach so you can watch the world go by over breakfast.

Surfing in the Philippines

Before arriving in Siargao in the southeast of the Philippines, I’d spent the previous three months travelling and surfing around Australasia and Southeast Asia taking in popular hotspots like Bali and Australia’s Gold

Siargao: one of the top 10 surf sites in the world

In everyday parlance, “on Cloud 9” means feeling elated, on top of the world, but for surfers it’s more than this. Cloud 9 is the name of the most famous wave in the Philippines, and Siargao Island is regularly rated as one of the top 10 surf sites in the world. That alone was enough to make me book the succession of flights — two days in total of travelling — which would ultimately bring me to Siargao.

Dive and surf in Siargao

The sea is omnipresent, wherever you go on Siargao. When you lie in bed, you hear the waves breaking on the shore. When you walk out, it is always in view. And when you want to hop from one picture-perfect island to the next, the only way to do so is by boat.

But back to Cloud 9, the raison d’être for my trip. Its thick, hollow tubes make it ideal for surfing, especially from November to April when the waves have plenty of swell. These extra inches of water lift surfers comfortably above the reef, which otherwise lurks perilously close to the surface of the water.

I sailed out to Cloud 9 from Siargao Bleu with a handful of other surfers, our boards, and a clutch of hangers-on who would sit on the beach and watch. The boat was wooden, styled like a traditional fishing boat, but with a roaring motor onboard. We dashed across the tops of the waves, bouncing up in the air when we hit one straight on, then crashing back down with a thunk. It was scarcely past breakfast, but still a few beers were being passed hand to hand. The anticipation was building.

Turning into the bay, half a dozen surfers were already riding Cloud 9. They must have headed out at daybreak to get the waves to themselves. The boat had a shallow enough draft to pull close to the beach, so we kicked off our sandals and and paddled the last few metres. The water at most was knee-deep.

Surfing is hungry work, and by mid afternoon I was worn out and starving. I staggered back up the beach to meet our boatman. Whilst I’d been surfing, he’d cooked up a veritable feast. Freshly grilled tuna, caught just hours before, is the sort of ingredient which culinary heaven must be made from. Accompanied by steamed rice and huge slices of pink-red watermelon, it was Philippine cuisine at its freshest and finest.

Almost too full to move, let alone get back on a surfboard, we made our way back to the boat. Unlike the morning when we were in a rush to reach Cloud 9, now there was no such hurry. The boatman sensed this, and we motored back at to Siargao Bleu at a considerably more leisurely pace.

Approaching the resort, the boatman cut the engine and the boat began to drift. The broken water settled, and looking over the side we could see probably to a depth of 15 metres and quite possibly more.

Tropical fish, stingless jellyfish, and sea snakes swum about, completely unperturbed by our presence. Encouraged, we grabbed snorkels and masks, and slid ourselves overboard. The water was so clear we could see every detail of the creatures around us, admiring their colours, form, and agility. It felt like an aquarium, only this time we were inside the tank and could reach out and touch the fish.

Tourism development is a balancing act. If you don’t create enough infrastructure, enough opportunities for things to do, then people won’t want to come. On the other hand, if you build too much, and visitors come by the thousand, you can damage the environment, spoiling the places and experiences which made it a desirable destination in the first place. Thus far, Siargao has got the balance right. Of course there are bigger, brighter, and more luxurious resorts in the Philippines. But what they gain in facilities, they lose in atmosphere and quality of experience. The purpose of a tropical island retreat is to get away from other people, to appreciate the beauty of the sea and the sand, and to feel at peace. When you swim or surf, you don’t want to be competing for space. Thankfully, in Siargao you won’t have to.

 

Visiting manor house in england

Six miles south of Sevenoaks, this 14th-century moated manor house is one of the Garden of England’s hidden gems. A former home to Medieval knights and Victorian society figures, it’s surrounded by the most tranquil of gardens with an orchard, small lakes and woodland walks that meander off into the surrounding countryside.

The historian David Starkey, impressed by its atmospheric central courtyard, the house’s Great Hall, crypt, and Tudor painted ceiling, has described it as “one of the most beautiful and interesting of English country houses”.

Owned by the National Trust since 1985, it’s worth a visit for the estate that surrounds it alone. Three designated walks take in all the flora and fauna of the Kent countryside, through an ancient bluebell wood or past 19th-century hopper’s huts and even the natural spring that feeds the moat.

A particular delight is to wander south, away from the house, climb a five-bar gate and stumble across one of the most charming village cricket pitches imaginable. The English countryside at its best.

Hatfield House featured in blockbuster films such as Harry Poter and Shakespeare in Love

It’s all too easy to step into what was the childhood home of Queen Elizabeth I and imagine you’re on a film set.

The grand Jacobean manor house has served as the backdrop for scenes from major movies including Harry Potter, Tomb Raider, Shakespeare in Love and The King’s Speech.

It sits in a vast swathe of land only 20 miles north east of the capital and a few minutes’ drive from the A1, encompassing formal and informal gardens complete with a maze, a children’s farm and play area, endless acres of rolling countryside to lose yourself in and even its own 12th century church.

The house itself promises everything you’d expect; from chandeliers and tapestries to a vast library and armoury and one of the finest examples of a Victorian kitchen in the country.

But the hidden bonus here is the fabulous stable yard and the period roads and buildings that lead to it. Flanked by an eclectic mix of buildings converted from the days when the royal stud lived there, is a café that spills outdoors when the weather’s fine and sits among cobbles and a circular fountain in which children toss coins to make wishes.

Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire in the fairy tale town of Woodstock

Blenheim is an awe-inspiring 18th century country house in the heart of the fairy tale town that is Woodstock. It is the principal home of the 12th Duke and Duchess of Marlborough and, more significantly, the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill.

A true Baroque masterpiece, the house, seen by many as the greatest of its kind in Britain, sits amongst more than 2,000 acres of Capability Brown parkland and the most elegantly landscaped formal gardens. There’s a miniature train that transports families to pleasure gardens with its adventure playground, tall-hedge maze and butterfly house.
But everything about the palace is vast; from its 180ft library to its 67ft high hallway.

And outside, it’s on the same scale; big enough, in fact, to host events like the International Horse Trials. So if you’re looking for room to ramble, be warned: you’ll need to be fit to enjoy it fully and have serious amounts of time.

Best time to visit? Other than Spring when the daffodils are in full bloom, it’s Christmas when for more than a month the gardens are turned into a wonderland of light to create an hour-long circular walk past singing trees, a scented fire garden and lawns set ablaze by thousands of colourful fibre optics.

This is where the Duke of Northumberland lives when he’s in London and the closest of the country houses in terms of distance from the city centre. Built in Tudor times, it underwent a thorough transformation at the hands of the neoclassical architect Robert Adam and bears many of his hallmarks. Portraits by Van Dyck and Lely hang on the walls on what is the last surviving ducal residence and country estate, in Greater London.

Only nine miles from Charing Cross, you can quickly find yourself immersed in gardens renowned for their extensive collection of rare plants and trees, all of which surround a spectacular conservatory which dates back to the 1820s and was long known for housing plants from all over the world.

Woburn Abbey has spectacular views of the deer park

Woburn itself is about 40 minutes from drive up the M1 and about five miles south of Milton Keynes. It’s best approached from junction 12 where you can head towards Flitwick and detour off through some of the most charming villages in the county.

That’ll bring you to a small rise that opens up to spectacular views of the deer park. There’s a 20 mph speed limit to help you avoid them and enjoy the view. The Abbey entrance is on the left (the wildlife park is on the right) and, once through the entrance, you’ve a two-mile drive through the grounds, past the house, a lake and an avenue of trees to the main entrance.

The far corner, over a wooden bridge, houses a maze and the entrance yard houses one of the most charming cafes where ducks will snap at your feet for scraps on the terrace on warm days.

Having come all that way, it’s probably worth doubling back through the deer park afterwards into the town, just for a stroll through the high street. A bonus: the car park is free.

Trip in Ukraine

Ukraine, the country famous for banning Hollywood Steven Seagal from visiting, is opening up to tourism with visa-free travel. Add to that direct flights from the UK and the fact that it is still remarkably good value for money, this is as good a time as any to visit. We suggest you get behind the wheel or a hire car or indeed to hop on a train

Situated in the far west of the country, just 50 miles from the Polish border, Lviv was known as Lemburg when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire from 1772 to WW1. That’s reflected in its quaint cobbled streets, proliferation of churches and architecture reminiscent of those other Hapsburg cities like Vienna and Budapest. Of course it also has trams, trolley buses and coffee houses. Indeed they say that the first coffee shop in Vienna was opened by an Ukrainian from Lviv in 1686.

It’s a pleasant place to wander round, with street musicians on every corner, and the Market Square in the old town is lined with renaissance houses. The elaborate Lviv Opera House still stages productions of opera and ballet and imposing Cathedrals beckon you inside. My visit coincides with National Embroidered Blouse Day so everyone is sporting one, men and women alike.

The Carpathians form an arc running roughly 1000 miles across Central and Eastern Europe, making them the second-longest mountain range in Europe. They occupy the South West of Ukraine, separating the country from Romania, with the highest peak, Mount Hoverla, reaching over 2000m. Life carries on here much as it’s done for centuries and during the Soviet period was left almost untouched. Even guerrillas fighting their Russian oppressors stayed holed up here for years.

The landscape begins to change as I climb up to the town of Yaremche at 580m. The wide cornfields give way to forested hills, wooden houses and quaint chapels by the side of the road. The River Prut runs through the centre of town in a series of rapids, and there’s a rather tacky craft market on either side of the ravine. However if you’re in the market for woolly slippers or dodgy fruit wine, this is the place for you.

An easy day’s excursion from Chernivtsi, is the fairy-tale fortress of Khotyn, on a cliff overlooking the Dniester River. It was built around 1400 by the Moldavians but fell into Turkish hands in 1713. They kept it for another 100 years, until the Russians became the final owners. These days it’s been much restored but it’s still an impressive, with walls 40m high and 6m thick. It’s been the location for many feature films, including the Ukrainian version of Robin Hood.

Ukraine’s capital city has wide leafy boulevards, onion-domed churches and relatively few of those dull Soviet architectural monstrosities. Since Ukraine’s independence many of the building have been restored and repainted as symbols of national pride.

Don’t miss the 1980’s reconstruction of the Golden Gates of Kiev or the 11th-century Orthodox cathedral of St. Sophia. I like the 19th century St. Volodymyr’s cathedral which was a museum of atheism during Soviet times. The big attraction is the Lavra Cave Monastery which is a complex of religious buildings with catacombs below contained mummified bodies of former monks. Nearby is the huge Motherland Monument, known locally as “Brezhnev’s Daughter”, 62m high, dominating the skyline. It’s part of the WW2 museum and you can climb up to the mother’s hand in an interior elevator.

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