Posts from the “Europe” Category

Rome: A few quick tips

Well, I’m just back from spending a week in Rome, and I thoroughly enjoyed strutting around as a tourist. This isn’t something I do very often, I must admit.

Usually when I travel I’m either working or doing my damnedest not to look like a tourist. Standing on a street corner looking perplexed map in hand and a camera slung round my neck? Not I (thank god for smartphones).

But then I got to Rome and realised that as I would be walking pretty much everywhere paying HK$168 a day data-roaming charge just to use Google maps was probably not worth it, and if I didn’t have my camera slung round my neck, I’d be diving into my bag so often to get it I would end up with a repetitive strain injury.

Will post proper reviews later, but here are some tips:

Go to Rome in late winter/early spring.  The weather was perfect, the skies clear, the humidity low and the temperature a cool 14 °C to a balmy 19°C.  We never queued for a single museum, and even the Vatican wasn’t crowded.The idea of wandering the narrow streets of the Centro Storico with a million other people in the height of summer makes me feel queasy.

If you’re not fussed about 5* service, then seriously consider renting an apartment. There are lots of good apartments if you take the time to look, and they are very reasonably priced for the size when compared to the tiny hotel rooms in most of Rome’s hotels.

Do try and get on the Vatican Scavi Tour. It was fascinating, and one of the highlights.

If you don’t get to the Collesium, don’t worry – it’s like the one in Gladiator, but rather a mess, and the centurions and caesars outside lower the tone rather drastically.

Do go to the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill – the context it gives you after learning about the Romans so many god-damn times in school makes you wince at the superficial knowledge your teachers imparted.

Don’t miss the Pantheon – it’s extraordinary. Even if you only want to go because you saw it during Angels and Demons once you see it and learn a bit about what it actually is, you’ll be truly impressed.

The Aventine Hill is a chilled place to watch the sunset over the roofs of Rome, and you can also pop along to peep through the keyhole of the gate to the Malta Knight’s old HQ.

Sorry to say, but the taxi drivers are some of the most obscene swindlers I’ve ever experienced. Pick up a Roma taxi guide at their booth at the airport before you leave it so you know what you should and shouldn’t be paying for, and be on the lookout for the switching of banknotes when paying.

Much of the food we ate was pretty damn average and on the expensive side. Rome seems to be completely stuck in the past and even it’s modern variations on trad dishes still seem old fashioned. Do your research before you go as you could end up mightily disappointed. The nights Mrs H cooked at the apartment were some of my favourite meals as the ingredients on offer are fabulous.

Bring your walking legs as the metro and buses are only good for certain sights, and you’d miss so much by not scooting down the smallest of alleys.

Finally, buy the Blue Guide, and not just the concise one but the big tome. The Blue Guides focus overwhelmingly on history and culture rather than shops, restaurants and hotels, so in a city like Rome it is an absolute must.

Stuff looking like a geek, it’s more important to know what the hell you’re looking at when faced with the latest unnamed Roman ruin you happen across in an alley, or a statue that could be a Bernini or a Canova. I have the internet for the latest and best hotels, bars and restaurants, whereas history doesn’t change quite so quickly.

 

 

A long weekend in Gibraltar and my twisted sense of style

One of the facts I like most about Gibraltar is that the tiny enclave gave us the word gibberish. The Spanish/English version of our own dear Chinglish here in HK. Thank you Gibraltar.

Another fact, for those of you who didn’t go to school, is that the Rock of Gibraltar is the northern Pillar of Hercules.

caustic_candy_rock_gibraltar

Various versions of the Greek and Roman myths of Hercules’ Labours have him smashing the mountain of Atlas in two rather than having to climb over it to get where he was going to, and this event created the Straits of Gibraltar.

Thus was the Med connected to the Atlantic, and one part of the split mountain is The Rock, and the other Monte Hacho or Jebel Musa across the water in Morocco, (that’s Morocco across the water in the photo below).

caustic_candy_gibraltar_sunset

Poor, dear, run-down, misrepresented, ignored, forgotten and maligned Gibraltar. Known more recently as the poor-man’s cruising destination, home to online-gambling giants, British squaddies, and for having the worst food in the Med. It’s a crime, it really is.

Don’t get me wrong. It has a long way to go, but Gibraltar is massively better than it used to be. What’s more frustrating is that it doesn’t have to be like this.

It needs one champion. One patron who will buy both The Caleta and The Rock hotels and restore them to 1920′s glory (David Tang, Lungarno, Rocco Forte or Byblos would be my choices).  The rest of what’s needed will follow.

I love the place. I think it’s delightful, and there is more history packed into its 6.8 km² area that almost anywhere else on Earth.

I tell people I’m going every year and there are either blank looks returned by non-Europeans, or looks of commiseration by my fellow Brits or Continentals.

This is what I love:

  1. It has a great climate.
  2. It is in an amazing location.
  3. It has staggering natural beauty.
  4. It has low tax status.
  5. It has some frikkin’ awesome architecture from Napoleonic docks and fortifications, to old-school Spanish streets and art-deco hotels.
  6. Is has a truly fascinating history, with some quite wonderful landmarks.
  7. It has some beautiful gardens.
  8. It’s super retro in the best 70s tradition.
  9. I can indulge my interest in trade, ports and naval strategy.
  10. (This may sound strange coming from me), it has possibly the coolest bowling alley in the world.
  11. Because it’s so ignored it’s not very busy, and I can happily gets lots of work done and not be tempted out to restaurants, delis and clubs.
caustic_candy_old_gibraltar

Everything is there to make it into an even better version of Monaco, but unfortunately no one who could do anything about it has realised this yet. Shame on you British Government.

What you have to ignore though to appreciate all of the above is:

1) Truly horrendous dining options.

There are no great restaurants, there aren’t even any good restaurants. Really there aren’t.

I mean, we’re on the Med, at the southern tip of Spain in a town that has been ruled over by the Moors, the Spanish, the French and the British and has been a trading port for thousands of years, starting off with the Phoenicians in 950BC by crikey. (Another useless fact, is that archeological evidence suggests that the caves of Gib seem to have been the last bastion of Neanderthal man before they were finally wiped out by good old Homo Sapiens.)

This place should have spectacular cuisine! At the very least you should be able to get fresh bbq’d fish straight out of the sea on every street corner, yet it is impossible to find.

Pizza Express seems to be the epitome of modern sophistication in the town, and The Rock hotel which is meant have the best restaurant, clings onto it’s 1970′s Robert Carrier style menu like there’s no tomorrow. It’s one thing to hark back and recreate 70′s French food in new, lighter and exciting ways, it’s quite another to have stuck with the same heavy stodge since that decade, serving it in 90°C heat in Fawlty Towers’ dining room.

Queensway Quay, which is meant to be the hip, hot and happening Mega-Yacht marina is bland, bland, badly built and a bit more bland.

2) Traffic.

Get you’re damn roads sorted out, and quickly. I don’t want to sit in a traffic jam every time I want to go anywhere.

3) Hotels.

The Rock and The Caleta on either side of the rock, are wonderful examples of art-deco architecture, and they have great swimming pools. But they are pretty dreadful establishments. Shabby, disorganised, slack and with bad restaurants and facilities. Staff are often overwhelmed and rude at the Rock, but both have a certain retro charm, that is crying out to be refurbed beautifully.

The Eliott, more in the centre of town, had an upgrade about 4 years ago, and scores highest on efficiency as well as actually having working internet access in every room (unlike the Rock where you either have to sit in the lobby or mostly stand on one foot facing west if you want to get even a bar of signal in many of the rooms). It’s probably the best of a rum-ish bunch.

4) Development

A few year’s ago (pre-financial world blow-up) there was a brilliant plan to reclaim more land from the sea (strongly opposed by the Spanish) and build Gibraltar out a little, putting in a marina that could take huge yachts and building on the marine repair and engineering facilities and skills that are already in the town.

Every year the mega-yachts have to pass through the strait on their seasonal shift from winter in the Caribbean to summer in the Med. What better place to get your repairs done and take on fuel than in tax-free Gibraltar? And if there were a couple of decent hotels and some great restaurants it would also start attracting the users of those yachts to board in Gib rather than further into the Med.

That’s the sort of tourism you want. Not package tourists who come and spend a few pennies in Marks & Spencer, for crying out loud! And who go to the pub and grab a couple of pints and a pie, only to go back on board for their dinner and disco dancing.

That is not the quality tourism that can keep an economy vibrant and fresh. You need people to stay in town for 3-4 nights and splash some cash around.

Instead, what Gibraltar now has is a stucco, albeit low-rise, marina complex called Queensway Quay. It’s stuffed with themed and franchised restaurants (like Pizza Express), pumping out low quality, non-local food at extortionate prices. It’ll do, as it still has better restaurants than other parts of town, but it’s utterly generic. In fact, it’s rather like The Waterfront in our own dear Discovery Bay, but with even less charm.

5) Casino

Can you believe that the only casino in the town is run by Gala, better known for its Bingo Halls in the UK?

No thank you.

I prefer my casinos to be more of the Mando standard in Macau, or 50 St James in London: Small and refined.

Apparently the casino will move to a new building at some stage, so one can only hope it will have a bit more class.

6) Macaques

I hate them. Anyone who hikes the Maclehose in Hong Kong, or has been to Ubud in Bali will know what I’m talking about here.

There are other things lacking in Gibraltar like unique shops, good local food stores, decent customer service etc, but really you can’t expect those things in the Gibraltar of the present day. The population is really small, and is still caught between working in some sort of support role to the British military, catering to the dreariest form of tourism, or to the worst end of the financial services industry, poor loves.

Hopefully some hedge-funds will start choosing Gib over Geneva and Monaco and the whole place will change overnight.

caustic_candy_gibraltar_docks
Spot HM’s sub

Upshot.

I’ve stayed in a room with sea view and balcony at The Rock. I’ve never had breakfast there or dinner, but have partooken of a few sundowners and snacks on the Wisteria Terrace. I’ve also stayed at the Eliott more recently and apart from the choking-ly expensive GBP18 fee for 24 hours of internet usage, it was of a higher standard decor and efficiency than the Rock, if a little less charming architecturally.

We lunch at The Caleta and dine mainly on Queensway Quay. We drink down in Grande Casemates Square often at the Lord Nelson, bowl in King’s Bastion and for some reason, even have late night kebabs and have, on more than one occasion, almost got into a fight. How British is that?!

It’s a lovely town to walk around, plus there is a diversity of history which is obvious and fascinating, with lots of different places to visit or hike to.

If you’re London based, a nostalgia freak or just a little bit twisted, and have been most everywhere in Europe for a long weekend, Gibraltar is close and easy to get to. It really is a great little place to discover, and get some sun in the bones. It’s tiny, hot, super-quiet and has enough to do to keep you happy for a good few days.

Alternatively, if you just want to slip into oblivion for a while – concentrate on getting a project finished or just collect your thoughts, there’s a lot worse places to sit on a terrace and watch the Qatar Gas II Project in action than The Rock.

Courchevel – Rappers, Hookers, Oligarchs and Lords

Review:

The biggest rip off in the French Alps.

Just don’t bother staying in Courchevel unless you are the type of person who thinks it’s cool to show off to your mates that you can afford to waste thousands of dollars in a hooker Disneyland.

Yes you can avoid the horrible restaurants and tacky nightlife by staying in some of the most gobsmacking chalets in the Alps, but there are awesome chalets in Switzerland so you’d be better going there instead.

The view from the Carlina

The reason, of course, that Courchevel 1850 has become Puerto-Banus-On-Ice is because it is very, very pretty. Some of the approach runs through the trees into the village past the old-school hotels and cafes are stunning, you do have access to the entire 3 Vallees, and it is without doubt the most beautiful of the resorts in the area.

However, in the same vein as has PB developed in the past decade,  Courchevel 1850 now attracts the most bedazzling of EuroTrash and their penchant for paying scantily clad beauties for sex.

Interestingly, like PB, Courchevel became The place to go decades ago for the moneyed and sometimes titled Brits, and so you also have the incongruity of seeing a few red-nosed, tweedy, British eccentric smoking cigars and guffawing into their Campari sodas – the only reason you don’t notice the same thing happening in Tuscany is that it’s just spread over too wide and area to make an impact.

My experience of Courchevel was thus:

Decided on last day of ski trip in the 3 Vallees that we wanted to stay longer. We wanted to see if Courchevel 1850 was worth the splurge, so we skied over after a week staying in Les Bruyeres in a very modest but well run chalet in a fantastic location, (We sent the luggage round by taxi).

We told our Coutts concierge in the morning that we wanted a room at a hotel which was ski-in, ski-out with a decent terrace – so they booked Le Courcheneige. Arrived there at around 5pm that afternoon after a wonderful day’s swooshing through snow, and drinking chocolat and vin chaud – fantastic trip over the mountains, and such a pleasure not to have to do it in a rush due to the usual impending return trip.

As soon as we saw the location we were a little worried as it is the highest up the mountain of any hotel and a long, long way from the village.

When we walked in we knew we were possibly making a bit of a blunder: huge hotel, reeked of chlorine from the swimming pool even in reception, and all the wood was so bright orange you wanted to wear sunglasses. Couple this first impression with the appearance of a pair of barrel-bellied Russian gents flip-flopping through the lobby in speedos, and we really began to wonder what our €800 (yes, that’s HK$8,000) suite was going to be able offer in recompense.

When we found our way to the room more hilarity ensued at the wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling tangerine coloured wood; orange, brown and yellow curtains; and the fret-saw madness that had taken place throughout the space. Totally dated and definitely not worth the kishty-cash.

Called lifestyle manager, told them they’d made a boo-boo and to sort it.

Thirty minutes later we were down at The Carlina which was very trad (made for the bufty Brits of old I presume), but at the centre of the village, was better value, and altogether a much better option.

We had the choice of Kilimandjaro, which is deeply trendy but again we felt it was a little bit too far to walk into the village of an evening and was €1200 (HK$12,000) a night. The Carlina was just (just?) €530 for the room, which was lovely, had a balcony and the pretty view above. The service was good (even if the concierge was a little deluded considering the restaurants he suggested), and it was quiet and refined. Definitely the right choice.

So, accommodation sorted out, now for supper.

We were recommended by the hotel concierge to visit an informal bistro, which was meant to be very good down in the village.  Oh my, how we were ripped off and treated like dirt!

The restaurant was La Saulire.

The waiters ignored us for 10mins before seating us, the maitre’d was obnoxious to the max until we ordered a bottle of Chateau Palmer ’90 and then he become so blindlingly obsequious it made me want to grind a lava-hot tartiflette into his simpering mug.

The food was breathtakingly overpriced and completely average (a dish of pasta with some truffle on it was going for €93), plus they’d stuffed far too many tables into the space available. The restaurant was chockablock with hookers and their johns making the evening all rather seedy, what the heavy stench of aftershave, cigar smoke, cheap hair-spray, and lasciviousness.

Round-Deux

Next evening we tried one of the two 2* Michelin restaurants in the village – Le Chabichou at the hotel of the same name.

Again, this was a very traditional hotel, it was all pink napkins, red roses on the table, and pastel carpets. Very nice, don’t get me wrong, but very old fashioned.

This is the restaurant where I learnt how not to order French food. When I know the chef is good (either by reputation or from a Michelin guide), I will usually order a tasting menu on the assumption that chef knows best. However, these are usually many courses long with at least three hidden extras, and as I felt as though I’d been stuffed like a Toulouse goose all week at the previous chalet I thought I’d order just a starter and main.

My God, the food was stodgy, I barely made it out alive! It was all foie-gras, pigs trotters, dauphinoise potatoes, grease, cheese, cream and hunks of meat. Maybe on another day I would have loved it, but I had to stop half way though as my liver was screaming and I’m pretty sure my pancreas had blown a gasket. So much for 2 Michelin stars, and so much for our romantic sojourn in Courchevel…

As you can see then, things weren’t going well.

For our final evening (which was rather earlier than first envisaged) we were pointed in the direction of another more informal dining location which I cannot even begin to remember the name of. I recollect that my beau wanted to eat pizza and we ended up in some stone-walled, velvet curtained gothic bar which served food as well. All very strange, and obviously unremarkable.

Safe to say I was done with Courchevel at this stage and was looking forward to a week in Paris.

I would never go back to stay in Courchevel 1850.  I love the skiing there, but now I’m actually competent I can ski there and back in a day, enjoy the runs and the lovely sun terraces, and then bounce back to the far more reasonable, honest and simple location of Reberty and Les Bruyeres (which is also close to one of my favourite restaurants in the whole, wide world - La Bouitte, and an order of magnitude better than Chabichou).

If I want to splurge I’ll return to St Moritz or Gstaad. At least you can hang with the old schoolers who teach you how to chop the top off a bottle of champagne with a sword and wear the same kit they did in the 60s, rather than these arrivistes who think class is a pair of Chanel skis, and fun is all about who can tell the worst story about what they paid their Belarusian hookers to do to each other when they were on their mega-yacht in Puerto Banus the previous summer…

No, no no. Done, done done.

Lyon, France: a few tips for this gastronomic heaven.

Lyon in January

There are two things I never realised about Lyon before I found myself there earlier this year.

1) The old city (Vieux Lyon) is a UNESCO heritage site.

2) It is the culinary capital of France.

These two facts together mean that Lyon is a great place to visit for a few days of eating, drinking and walking off the effects of said eating and drinking so that you can carry on eating and drinking.

The third lesser known fact about Lyon is that its hospitality industry workers run a close 2nd to those of Paris in the brusqueness stakes… Sheer, barefaced abuse in some cases. Pretty hilarious.

Being British, previously when I’d thought of France’s second city, images and emotions of Birmingham had sprung to mind, so it was a wonderful surprise to turn up and find such a pretty place.

Lyon again

So, here are some tips on where to stay, stuff-face and visit if you are in Lyon on a long weekend.

lyon basilica_causticcandyHotels:

There are really only two luxury/ boutique hotels in Vieux Lyon, and very few in the whole city which is a real surprise, and frankly this lack of choice is severely irritating.

We stayed in Villa Florentine, which I would quite happily blow off the face of the earth, massively overpriced and the rudest general manager I’ve ever had the misfortune to meet. The other is Hotel Cour des Loges.

In summary, Villa Florentine is in massive need of an upgrade, all rooms are desperately 80′s including suites, so not one room is value for money there.

In Cour des Loges, the lowest level of room you should even think of staying in is a Piazzetta room (lower than that and you are basically staying in a monk’s cell) and the standard rates for those start at €485.

If I were to go back to Lyon I probably stay at the Sofitel Bellecour, which is modern, comfortable and on the banks of the river in Vieux Lyon. It’s much less expensive than either of the two “boutique hotels” mentioned above, and sometimes that style vs cost equation comes out on the side of the established hotel chains.

Take my advice and give both Villa Florentine and Hotel Cour des Loges a wide birth.

Wherever you do end up, don’t opt to include breakfast. The point of holidaying in France is to eat that in cafés.

Pottering:

Just idly wandering around Vieux Lyon and the peninsula of Presqu’île is a very pleasant pasttime. There are lots of shops, galleries and countless cafes and bouchons. Even just strolling up and down the two river banks of the Rhône and Saône for a couple of hours is time well spent.

There is a fantastic street market along the riverbank of Quai St-Antoine every morning save Monday, selling everything from cheese to cider, chacuterie to snacks, Bresse chickens, truffles, vegetables, flowers and bread (closes by lunchtime). All from independent producers and farmers.  Quintessential French. Wonderful.

basilica-lyon2_causticcandyOne of the first stop-offs should be to take the fenicular to the top of Fouvière to see the Notre-Dame de Fouvière basilica. It’s a bit of an odd place, built close to the end of the 19th Century, so not even particularly old. It was privately funded, and is a great strapping piece of architecture built by some fervent Christians to put two fingers up to the socialists or something. Anyway it’s an amazing vantage point from which to see Lyon, and that view is great for informing you on where you fancy exploring next.

There is a lovely park cascading down the hill from the basilica and walking down to river level you get to see all sorts of nooks and crannies of the old town.

Don’t bother with the Museum of Automatons in Saint Georges – just not what I was hoping for. The Museum of Contemporary Art is definitely worth a looksee though.

Eating:

causticcandy_lyonNow we really get down to business.  The Bouchon is a particular type of brasserie that serves Lyonnais food. According to the Wiki entry there are authentic and non-authentic ones, with the authentic ones deemed to serve the most traditional Lyonnais cuisine with the correct atmosphere i.e. a Bouchon does not serve haute cuisine, in stuffy surroundings, it is more robust fare served in a congenial, simpler atmosphere. Not sure you really need to seek out all the authentic ones though, generally the ones we found were all really good.

I would heartily advise you to book ahead if you want to stand a chance of eating dinner out at the weekend in any half decent restaurant.

Auberge Rabelais- We (finally) ate on the Saturday night at this restaurant, apparently one of the oldest in Lyon, that we stumbled on after being turned away from a dozen others.

It’s very trad and a bit worn, but you couldn’t fault the food or wine, and there were groups of 10 turning up at 11pm at night and the proprietress was happy to keep on serving.

Paul Bocuse -This most eminent of chefs has a number of eateries around Lyon, his 3* Michelin restaurant is in the burbs, but he has a chain of 4 brasseries in Lyon itself Le Nord, l’Est, Le Sud, and l’Ouest, each serving a different type of French cuisine (food reasonably priced, but wine expensive).

Brasseries Georges- This seems like a popular and well regarded (if touristy) restaurant in Lyon. We were sent by our concierge who had apparently phoned ahead and ascertained that we wouldn’t need to wait more than 15mins for a table (you can’t book). When we arrived, we discovered that the wait would be at least 1.5hours, so hungry and pissed off, we caught a cab back into Vieux Lyon to try and find somewhere else, as there isn’t anywhere else around it to eat.

It was a huge venue though, very art deco and really bustling. I would not suggest this for couples, go if you are in a big group and fancy a raucous meal out.

Rue Mercière – one of the oldest streets in Lyon, has seen it’s ups and downs over the years, but since the 80s has become well known for it’s restaurants, especially a number of Bouchons.

Scoot along earlier in the day and maybe book for later that night at the one that takes your fancy.  There are a number of really beautiful venues, with Le Merciere being one of the top bouchons in all Lyon (we couldn’t get a table on a Sunday afternoon, which was a great shame).

bouchonauxvins_causticcandy_lyonLe Bouchon aux Vins- We spent a couple of lovely hours at this restaurant on a Sunday afternoon, part of Jean-Paul Lacombe’s clutch of 6 venues in Lyon, another of which is also on Rue Mercière - the rather splendid Bistro de Lyon. His Micheln 2* Leon de Lyon is in rue Plenèy not far away.

Bernachon – Maurice Bernachon is a very well respected chocolatier, and he has a tea-room alongside his shop. Nice place to rest up for 30mins.

Les Lyonnais Bouchon – Couple of nice venues in Vieux Lyon. I felt the food is a little on the pricey side, nice surroundings though and good place to sit and chill whether it’s brunchtime through to post dinners drinks.

Le 110 Vins – originally a wine bar set up by a guy who had recently trained as a sommelier. Pierre Many turned his bar into a restaurant a couple of years ago. It’s buried in Saint George, and he loves to introduce wine to his customers (he now has over 350 types in his cellar) and pair it with his dishes (which he experiments with a lot in his open kitchen).  I like it because it’s a place with a story, and Pierre was the friendliest guy we met in Lyon!

Sandwiched in between two of France’s most important wine regions (Beaujolais to the north and the Côtes du Rhône to the south), the city is stuffed with wineshops, and every restaurant has its favourite local producers, with everything served by carafe as well as by bottle.

The surrounding wine country means that you can spend many happy days roaming the area visiting wineries, and there are many, many fabulous restaurants out in the countryside too.

Lyonnais cuisine is really good, my favourite specialities were the St Marcellin cheese, which was a revelation as a dessert, and the Lyonnais sausage which has that slightly fermented taste rather like Laotian sausage. I also enjoyed the pike quenelles, and it was great to have puy lentils with lots of dishes, kind of old fashioned but scrumptious.

I’d go back to Lyon in a heartbeat, but I would definitely book ahead on the restaurant front, as it was frustrating not being able to eat at the places we wanted to.

I think also that I’d try and go for 4-5 days and split my trip between staying in Lyon and staying out somewhere in wine country, because there are some fabulous hotels with great restaurants of their own (or should that be fabulous restaurants with hotels of their own?) – not least George Blanc in Vonnas, and Troisgros in Roanne, both run by 3* Michelin chefs.

Lyon is a really exciting place to visit if you are a foodie, it was a huge surprise for me and I’d definitely recommend it as somewhere a bit different to go for a weekend away.

36 Hours in Verona – great place for a romantic weekend getaway, or foodie jaunt.

Not a lot of time to do stuff in 36 hours, but that’s long enough for two evening meals, and scoot around the city sites and shops.

verona_night_caustic_candy

We ended up in Verona by chance after discovering rather belatedly (we rarely plan our trips) that the Italian lakes were completely shut up  for the winter. I’m so pleased we were forced to make this switch – Verona was lovely, has great restaurants and is slap in the middle of wine country, (Valpollicella and Soave to be exact).

ampitheatre_verona_causticcandyVerona is a perfect place to wander around for a day (You could spend two with ease). It’s an ancient town, and of course has that world famous Roman ampitheatre where they hold the opera every summer. Couple that with the opportunities it presents for day/evening trips to the Italian Lakes and various wineries and it’s actually a pretty good base for a longer stay.

Outside the old town Verona is pretty grubby, as is most of Northern Italy in between their ancient cities. There seems to be absolutely no planning rules and it’s pretty damn ugly.

Places to stay: I really enjoyed staying at Villa Amista, 10km out of town – fascinating place with superb service.

The other hotel we were offered was Hotel Gabbia D’Oro, a pastiche of an old house. It’s stuffed with antiques, and seems to be medieval in structure, but apparently was put up from scratch in the 1980′s. It’s meant to be a good hotel, but we didn’t fancy trying to drive into the centre of old Verona, and were told that Amista was better.

If I went back to Verona outside winter, then I would probably be tempted to give Villa del Quar a go as this has a 2* Michelin restaurant, is in an ancient building, and is in the middle of a winery. Looks good.

Where to eat: There are a bunch of great restaurants in Verona. Obviously I wasn’t there very long, but I can wholeheartedly say don’t bother with Il Desco, even though it’s 2* Michelin. If you are not staying at Villa Amista, then it’s well worth going out to their restaurant Atelier for lunch or supper. The food is brilliant (without doubt better than Il Desco), the decor wholly unexpected, and the service and sommelier wonderful.

veronatower_causticcandyWe had to make a decision whether to go to Il Desco or Dal Pescatore. The latter is 3* Michelin and has an amazing reputation wherever you look, but it was nearly an hour away from the hotel, and obviously we both wanted to be able to drink. At the time we thought that going to Il Desco was a suitable alternative. How wrong we were. I wish we’d gone to Dal Pescatore. Opportunity missed there.

Pottering: The old town is pretty small and it’s a great pleasure to go pottering about, stopping off for coffee or drinks as often as possible. As well as all the churches, Roman architecture, palazzos, piazzas and museums all dripping in history and romance, there are some great furniture and homeware shops, as well as delis and wine shops.

In fact, if I was traveling around Veneto in summer, I’d definitely go to Verona over Venice, as Venice is ruined when it’s hot, and jammed with far more tourists. I’d also choose Verona as a great location for a long romantic or foodie weekend in Europe.

Venice in winter – the only time to go.

And so to Venice. There are only two things you need to heed if you are planning on visiting Venice:
Go in winter
Stay in Venice. Do not go as a day-tripper.
Why number 1? Venice is a stinking, teaming horror-pit in the summer.
By contrast, in winter the day trippers are still numerous but manageable, the light is fantastic for photos, the few hotels that are open will give you really good deals, and the restaurants that are open must be the ones able to survive on locals’ patronage, so must be amongst the best.
Why number 2? Avoid the crush of day-trippers and potter around the empty city at night.  Magic.
Part of the experience of Venice is about feeling smug lounging around in your palazzo whilst the hoards canter around the alleyways trying to see everything before their buses whisk them away.
Because the trippers have to see everything in a rush, they congregate around the big highlights, whereas you can stroll leisurely around the likes of Dorsoduro unmolested during the earlier parts of the day and then head across to the more touristy attractions later in the afternoon when the majority of visitors are dragging themselves away.
Places to stay: I stay in the Ca Maria Adele in Dorsoduro, as it’s stunning, tiny and the area is convenient to the all the places I want to go and is one of the quietest and most residential districts in Venice. I’ve had friends who have stayed at the Cipriani, and loved it, but the only reason to stay there really is that it’s got an outdoor pool, and if you are going in winter, you aren’t going to be taking advantage of that!
A short list of my favourite things:
Hotel: Ca Maria Adele, an utter gem, in my top 3 romantic hotels of all time, a tiny palazzo in a quiet, beautiful part of town.
Culcha: Peggy Guggenheim Collection (about 10mins walk from Ca Maria Adele).  Small, but perfectly formed collection of important modern art – Surrealism, Cubism, Abstract. Picasso, Pollock, Dali, Magritte – fantastic intro to modern art if it’s previously not been your thing.  Fascinating lady, fascinating little palazzo on the Grand Canal, lovely little garden and a tea room.
Coffee: Hotel Londra, sitting outside by the Piazza San Marco watching the world go by, overlooking the lagoon.
Restaurant: Antica Carbonara, super old-school restaurant serving Venetian cuisine.  The booths are made from the timbers of an old Hapsburg yacht and the supporting pillars are from the masts. We stumbled on this place at 10pm one cold February evening, and it was jammed with locals.  Down a tiny alley, tucked away. Great find.
Transport: forget the gondolas. The real treat in Venice is flashing around in the Rivas.  They are one of my all time favourite makers of small boats, and it was brilliant zooming around town in them.
Walking: You will most likely spend a lot of time pounding the streets, it’s difficult to stop exploring the tiny alleys and canals. Dorsoduro is a lovely part of town to do this whilst you wait for the hoards to disperse.
In winter, the fact that many hotels and restaurants are closed can constrain where you stay and eat (for example the Cirpriani and Palazzo Barbarigo are both shut), but it means that there are so few tourists staying in the city that you really do have the place to yourself, and that is a fantastic opportunity that you should never pass by.

Venice

And so to Venice.

It really is mind boggling to think about how bonkers the merchant princes were to build Venice where they did and how they did. I’m fascinated by trading ports (must come from living in HK), and to me Venice is the ultimate collaboration of trade, engineering, art and architecture.

There is no denying that the city is now only a hollow carapace – what I’m trying to work out though is what that symbolises. A stark reminder of the vagaries of trade routes? Or the importance of diversifying your economy?  If the North East Passage becomes fully navigable in the next 15yrs will Hong Kong’s port be suddenly redundant? Anyway, I digress…

There are only two things you need to heed if you are planning on visiting Venice:

  1. Go in winter
  2. Stay in Venice. Do not go as a day-tripper.

Why number 1? Venice is a stinking, teaming horror-pit in the summer.

By contrast, in winter the day trippers are still numerous but manageable, the light is fantastic for photos, the few hotels that are open will give you really good deals, and the restaurants that are open must be the ones able to survive on locals’ patronage, so must be amongst the best.

Why number 2? Avoid the crush of day-trippers and potter around the empty city at night.  Magic.

Venice Canal Caustic Candy

Part of the experience of Venice is about feeling smug lounging around in your palazzo whilst the hoards canter around the alleyways trying to see everything before their buses whisk them away.

Because the trippers have to see everything in a rush, they congregate around the big highlights, whereas you can stroll leisurely around the likes of Dorsoduro unmolested during the earlier parts of the day and then head across to the more touristy attractions later in the afternoon when the majority of visitors are dragging themselves away.

A short list of my favourite things:

Hotel: Ca Maria Adele, an utter gem, in my top 3 romantic hotels of all time, a tiny palazzo in a quiet, beautiful part of town.

Culcha: Peggy Guggenheim Collection (about 10mins walk from Ca Maria Adele). Small, but perfectly formed collection of important modern art – Surrealism, Cubism, Abstract, Picasso, Pollock, Dali, Magritte – fantastic intro to modern art if it’s previously not been your thing. Fascinating lady, fascinating little palazzo on the Grand Canal, lovely little garden and a tea room.

Coffee: Hotel Londra, sitting outside on the terrace of their Do Leoni restaurant, by the Piazza San Marco watching the world go by, overlooking the lagoon.

Restaurant: Antica Carbonera, super old-school, centuries old restaurant serving Venetian cuisine close to the Rialto bridge. The booths are made from the timbers of an old Hapsburg yacht and the supporting pillars are from the masts. We stumbled on this place at 10pm one cold February evening, and it was jammed with locals. Down a tiny alley, tucked away. Great find.

Transport: forget the gondolas. The real treat in Venice is flashing around in the Rivas. They are one of my all time favourite makers of small boats, and it was brilliant zooming around town in them.

Walking: You will most likely spend a lot of time pounding the streets, it’s difficult to stop exploring the tiny alleys and canals. Dorsoduro is a lovely part of town to do this whilst you wait for the hoards to disperse.

In winter, the fact that many hotels and restaurants are closed can constrain where you stay and eat (for example the Cirpriani and Palazzo Barbarigoare both shut), but it means that there are so few tourists staying in the city that you really do have the place to yourself, can eat where the Venetians themselves do, cutting out a lot of tourist clutter and the light is so very pretty for photos.

Venice in the winter light

Skiing in France’s 3 Valleés – Courchevel vs Les Menuires

Review:

I’ve been skiing in the 3 Valleés for three years now, and so far out of my limited experience of other ski-areas (Crans Montana and surrounding area of Valais, and St Moritz both in Switzerland being the only other places I’ve been), I really do enjoy the vast number of runs and different locations I can ski to in this area of the French Alps.

I should also point out that I am very much a recreational skier – Sunshine Club rather than Extreme Team if you catch my drift. Blue runs are my favourite, but I’m happy to go on reds if it means getting to a great restaurant, but I’m not happy on blacks at all.  And that is what is so great about the 3 Valleés: I can get to all the same places a my Extreme Team mates, but I can go on Blues and Reds instead of Blacks.

Here are the other things I really appreciate about the 3 Valleés:

1) It’s bloody huge.

2) If the weather or snow is bad in one valley, it’s often better in another and you can get there easily.

3) Different valleys suit different pockets, so you can stay in cheaper resorts (Les Menuires/Val Thorens) but enjoy the facilities, restaurants and pistes in the upmarket resorts (Meribel/Courchevel).

4) It’s easy to get to from a number of airports – Geneva, Lyon, Chambery or Grenoble, and it’s also very accessible by train at Bourg St Maurice.

5) It’s great for all levels of skier.

Where to stay:

I’ve stayed in Courchevel and Les Menuires which are as opposite as you can get. Courchevel is Eurotrashtastic and ludicrously overpriced, but 1850 where we stayed is very, very pretty.

Courcheval - pretty, but dumb expensive

Courchevel - pretty, but dumb expensive

Les Menuires is very 18/30, it’s the cheapest of the resorts and not pretty at all.

Les Menuires - not very pretty but reasonably priced and convenient

Les Menuires - not very pretty but reasonably priced and convenient

However, I would stay in the Les Bruyeres end of Les Menuires over Courchevel every time unless money was really no object and I could stay in Hotel Kilimandjaro or one of it’s affiliated chalets and have my own chef.

Some of the best skiing in the 3 Valleés is in Val Thorens, the highest of the resorts, and Les Menuires is next door to it, whereas Courchevel is 3 valleys away.

Les Menuires’s pistes stay sunnier later into the day than either Courchevel or Meribel (in fact Meribel’s slopes dip into shadow fairly early), Les Menuires is cheap to stay in and has easy access to what I think is the best restaurant in the whole 3 Valleés – La Bouitte.

Plus, if you stay in either Reberty or Les Bruyeres, not only are you in the quietest and low-rise part of the resort, you also have access to the best restaurants and you are also on the doorstep of the best lift in the Valley – Les Bruyeres for the quickest and easiest access to both Val Thorens and Meribel.

Here are my picks of Cafes/Restaurants:

In and around Les Menuires:

La Croisette:  L’Oisans in the Croisette is very reasonably priced for lunch (self service, no faff, Savoyarde food), it’s right at the bottom of the slope in La Croisette and has a big outside terrace, so it’s good for a meeting spot.

Reberty: La Ferme – very much the place to go for the end of day Vin Chaud. Very large terrace and friendly waiters – although as it gets very busy you do have to grab waiters when you can (tip em big the first round of drinks and tell them to keep em coming). A lot of the chalet hosts and ski instructors come down here, I think mainly because they serve Vin Chaud in pint glasses for €4 or €5 a pop. Also does very good lunches, and is nice and sunny at that time of day.

Les Bruyeres: Both Marmite de Geant and Les Marmottes either side of the ice rink are good value for lunch or dinner, one of them has a terrace as well.  Both serve traditional savoyarde food – it’s all tartiflette, big salads, raclettes and fondues.

For Sunshine Club skiers: At the top of the Roc des Trois Marche 1 lift there is a nice new cafe that has bundles of deck-chairs out front, has a great view and sunshine til late afternoon. Great for a chocolat chaud mid-morning or an espresso after lunch. Again, La Ferme at Reberty is good for a sunny stop off. In Les Bruyeres there is a new sun terrace at the restaurant right by the main Les Bruyeres lift. It’s a bit pricier than other places though.

St Marcel: La Bouitte – the best restaurant in the 3 Valleés, and only a 15 min taxi ride from Les Menuires, or if the snow is good – navigable off piste.

Val Thorens:

Funitel Peclet: Up at the top of the Funitel Peclet there is a restaurant on the right that has a couple of terraces – upstairs and downstairs.  The upstairs terrace gets the best of the sun and there is also a cosy interior (It’s also waiter service rather than downstairs which is self service and a bit sparse).  It’s pretty damn high up so it can get chilly outside, but they do serve very good goulash soup!  More importantly the Funitel Peclet lift takes you onto my favourite ski-run in the 3 Vallees: the blue run Dalles – non stop sweeping turns, can go hell for leather, it’s really wide and lovely.

Chalet du 2 Lacs: Up at the top of the 2 Lacs chair lift it’s a little further away from the madding crowds.  I really like the interior of this restaurant – puts me in mind of a viking banquet hall (animal heads, soaring ceilings, lots of wood) and there are huge windows overlooking Les Menuires and down the valley to St Martin de Belleville. Standard Savoyarde fare, but we thought very decent. The runs down into Val Thorens from here are great blues and you can also go all the way to Les Menuires from here when the snow is good, rather than having to go all the way back up to the top of Col de la Chambre.

Meribel: Les Darbollets for lunch.  Really pretty spot on the Rhodos/Dorons runs near Rond Point. Looks out over the valley on one side and down into the forest on the other and catches the midday sun wonderfully. Bit more expensive and upmarket that a lot of the other restaurants on the pistes, but very nice, and maybe because of the price, not so busy.

For my experience in Courchevel, read the dedicated post here.