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First, a link to an online photo album https://photos.app.goo.gl/1fUHwvLLBzMuZ4v1A There are lots, but it’s only a quarter of what I took. It’s a very photogenic city where interior photography is welcome!

When I first visited this city forty-two years ago we were amongst the first tourists to the then USSR. The plane was escorted from touchdown, security guards were at the gate and the state Intourist staff did everything in their power to get you on their escorted tours and keep you away from the real Soviet Union. We were in our early 20’s, with more interest in the excitement of being somewhere so different than we were in the heritage of the Tsars to be seen in palaces and museums. We somehow ‘escaped’ to visit the one department store, ride the metro, get cautioned for jaywalking and trade cigarettes for Red Army belts with soldiers. One of the few nods to culture was a visit to the Kirov for the ballet – a three hour depiction of the revolution, in dance!

It was of course then called Leningrad, as it had been for c.50 years. Brezhnev was in power and the cold war was in its 30th year. It’s now 27 years since the demise of the Soviet Union. The Russian Empire is reborn, with Putin as Tsar and all those oligarchs the new nobility. Other than a dubious democracy and an obsession with security, it’s like any other Western city, where money talks and the infrastructure, hotels, restaurants and shops very much the same. The palaces and museums have been renovated, the churches restored and religion no longer out in the cold, and even the opera house (now the Mariinsky) has a sparkling new bigger brother next door. It’s a totally different place to the one I visited before and unlike China, it links itself to the rest of the world with uncensored international TV news stations and social media like facebook and twitter. Relations with the UK may have been at a new low, but it didn’t really impact our visit. Putin came too, to continue courting the Austrians and to fire the city governor, but apart from the sort of heightened security you get with any such visit, life went on.

The chief reason for returning is that I am now interested in the empire’s heritage – the opulent palaces of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, the Hermitage Museum (one of the world’s biggest and greatest, with some 16,500 paintings alone, as well as being the Winter Palace), the now pristine cathedrals and churches like St. Isaacs, St. Nicholas and the more modern but extraordinary Church on Spilled Blood, and world class opera and ballet. For a culture vulture like me, it’s a great big toyshop, and it didn’t disappoint, though we did occasionally have to contend with cruise ship visitors and the phenomenon of the onward global march of the Chinese tourists, but early entry to The Hermitage and other special arrangements helped a lot.

Central St. Petersburg is a relatively flat, low-rise city intersected by rivers and canals, though not to the extent of Venice or Amsterdam, on the Gulf of Finland. The whole central area is designated by UNESCO as a world heritage site. It’s very clean, virtually devoid of litter. With seemingly unrestricted parking, there are parked cars absolutely everywhere. Peter the Great founded it in 1703, bringing in the best of European architecture, art and design. His work was continued by subsequent tzars, most notably Catherine the Great later in the eighteenth century. Apart from its 65 years as Leningrad and ten years as Petrograd, it has retained this name for 240 years, 200 of them as the capital. It’s Russia’s 2nd city with a population of 5 million. The 1905 revolution began here and the storming of the city’s Winter Palace signalled the beginning of the 1917 revolution. The 2.5 year seige during World War II left a deep scar.

Amongst the highlights were the palaces – Winter Palace (The Hermitage), Shuvalov Palace (housing the new Faberge Museum), Menshikov Palace and Yuupov Palace in the city, Peterhof and Catherine & The Great Palace in Pushkin. Perhaps because they have all been renovated relatively recently, everything seems sparklingly new, with the gold leaf positively blinding. The same can be said of the cathedrals and churches, notably St Issac, across the road from our hotel, SS Peter & Paul, St Nicholas Naval Cathedral and the extraordinary Church on Spilled Blood, built on the site of the assassination of Tsar Alexander. The Russian Museum is a brilliant display of 100 years of Russian Art, again in a former palace. I wasn’t sure I was going to like the bling of the Faberge Museum, but I admired the craftmanship and the palace and other contents made it a worthwhile visit. There’s not a lot you can say about the Hermitage except that it is overwhelming, but the palace rooms and the impressionist & post-impressionist collections in particular are unmissable. We got to a lovely ballet at the old Mariinsky and Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman at the new one, so there were arts fixes too. The accompanying photos tell the rest of the story.

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Starting in Verona, our base for three nights at http://www.duetorrihotels.com and ending on the island of Mozzorbo in the Venice Lagoon, this trip took in the towns of Vicenza, Basano del Grappa and Treviso, with the lovely hill town of Asolo our second base for four nights. Thirteen meals, from simple plates of pasta or asparagus to three at Michelin starred restaurants, were supplemented by visits to prosecco, wine and grappa producers and rice, olive oil and cheese makers. I feel stuffed and pickled.

Photos: https://photos.app.goo.gl/MRU5fJhtBCnaNCfH9

Verona was the only point of the trip where I was retracing my steps, though only for a morning, as we headed out of town to the lovely winery of http://www.seregoalighieri.it in Valpolicella, the estate of Dante’s family, rice grower http://www.risoferron.com at Isola della Scalla where the 17th century mill was still in use and olive oil producer http://www.oliosalvagno.com At Riso Ferron, chef Stephano showed us how to cook risotto in a rather unique way (that’ll come in handy!) and served up three for us to eat, with a starter including leftover risotto and a dessert which substituted rice flour. Dinners in Verona were at http://www.12apostoli.com, built upon Roman and Mediaeval ruins still visible from the cellar where we had our aperitif, and the rather quirky Michelin starred http://www.ristorantelafontanina.com

Our journey to Asolo was broken in Vicenza, a terrific city with a fine main square, famous for Palladio buildings, including a spectacular 16th century theatre with life-size streets on stage providing ready-made sets – one of the greatest theatres of the many I’ve visited – and our one-and-only art gallery. Here we tried four different baccala (salt cod) dishes for lunch. On to our second base in the lovely hill town of Asolo  – http://www.albergoalsoleasolo.com – whose only downside was that our vehicle couldn’t get within a half-mile of our accommodation – but we discovered the shuttle for our very steep uphill returns.

Sunday saw us worshiping the god of prosecco at http://www.villasandi.it, another Palladian building, a long walk through the cellars and an alfresco tasting in the Cartizze vineyards of Valdobbiadene, where the very best prosecco grapes are grown, followed by an alfresco lunch washed down with local wines. The following day, we climbed 3000 ft (no, not on foot!) to an alpine plateau to visit a small Asiago cheese maker, whose cheeses changed with the seasons and in particular his cows’ food. Back down on the plain, Bassano del Grappa proved to be another lovely town with a Palladio wooden bridge, a lunch of white asparagus (which I didn’t know until then was grown underground) & eggs mashed with olive oil and a grappa tasting, obviously, at http://www.nardini.it A visit to Treviso was a bit of a damp squib. Cities never look good in the rain, but I’m not convinced it would have matched the other visits in the sun. We lunched at http://www.ristorantetonidelspin.com

We ended with two Michelin starred restaurants, http://www.fevaristorante.it in Castelfranco, which I thought was good rather than great, and http://www.venissa.it on the island of Mazzorbo in the Venice Lagoon, a short journey by water taxi from Venice airport from which we were flying home, which lived up to expectations, and more. Here the winery ceased production after the infamous 60’s high tide, but they have begun again, just one hectare producing a few thousand bottles of a very distinctive wine from grapes grown in saline soil giving it a unique mineralogy.

History, food, wine and good company; what’s not to like……

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It’s just over 40 years since I visited Crete, a lovely villa party in Agia Galini on the South coast. I remember visiting Knossos, walking the Samaria Gorge and getting stranded at the bottom and spending the whole night on the veranda after too much retsina. This was a much more grown up Minoan archaeology tour. Can you have too much Minoan archaeology? Well, maybe, but with good weather, fine company and good food & wine…..

Crete is Greece’s largest and most southernmost of its 166 to 227 inhabited islands (no-one appears to have done a proper count, not even the EU, it seems), the fifth largest island in the Med. It’s only 160 miles from Athens, but not much further from the African coast. A very mountainous island, reaching up to 8000ft, it’s long (160 miles) and thin (between 7 and 37 miles). The population is only 600,000 but there way more goats and beehives and 35 million olive trees!

First inhabited 8000 years ago, it’s the origin and home of Europe’s first great civilisation, the Minoans, who lasted for almost two thousand years, pre-dating both the Greeks and Romans by almost a thousand years, and exceeding the longevity of both. British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans is regarded as the godfather of Minoan archaeology, his partial reconstructions controversial, but responsible for ensuring everything stayed where it was found on Crete, unlike just about any other find in the world. There are palaces, towns, villas, cemeteries and museums full of astonishing finds. Lets start with some photos:

https://photos.app.goo.gl/70FvToq1zYE5uHYs2

We based ourselves first in Heraklion, where we visited the wonderful archaeological museum and nearby Knossos, the palace at the centre of the civilisation with Evans’ partial reconstructions, the Phourni Cemetery and the villa at Vathypetro, with finds in the Arhanes Archaeological Museum. We also ventured south to the Minoan town of Gortyn, the palace of Phaestos and the villa at Agia Triada. On our return, the sand-laden Sirocco wind had turned the air orange and deposited a significant chunk of the Sahara on the land. It was a three-day total immersion that I struggled to keep up with, but the boozy late lunches and dinners helped – Crete has an excellent rustic cuisine with goats cheese, olives, salad and vegetables dominant, and decent local plonk.

Our journey East to our second base, Sitia, took in another Minoan palace at Malia and another Minoan town at Gournia, popping into the popular coastal town of Agios Nikolaos for a non-Minoan break. One of the finest days saw us cross the spectacular mountains to the rarely touched East coast for another Minoan Palace at Zakros, close to both the beach and the mountain gorge. There was a treat on the way home, at the hugely atmospheric Toplou monastery, which now only appeared to have a couple of monks. Back in Sitia, on a sleepy Sunday, Greek Independence Day meant site closures but offered a street parade of just about every school, service and association, in costume or uniform, with a randomness and slickness in keeping with a Mediterranean island rather than a European state.

It was a long journey to our third base in the far West, Chania, but we broke it with a visit to Evans’ atmospheric 1906 Villa Ariadne and the lovely Venetian port of Rethymnon; oh, and another of those spectacular late lunches. Chania was our best hotel, the Kydon, right on the edge of the old town, which we explored after a hazy but lovely visit to Greco-Roman ruins, a Byzantine monastery and a Turkish fort at Aptera, a deeply moving visit to the Commonwealth War Graves at Souda Bay and another lovely visit to a Byzantine monastery on the Akrotiri Peninsula.

I did overdose a bit on Minoan ruins, but Evans’ reconstructions and the extraordinary museum exhibits brought the civilisation alive for me. The big revelation was Cretan cuisine, unique in Greece and Europe and appallingly underrated. A busy but lovely trip, and great to revisit after all those other places in-between.

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This was an extension to the Tanzania and Zanzibar trip. It was less than two years since my last visit, and the journey took forever, but boy was it worth it.

Some photos first….https://photos.app.goo.gl/24HkrxGhQciOrxWm2 including most of the building and exhibits at the wonderful new MOCAA!

On the sightseeing front, I spent a lovely sunny day on the tourist trail, to the top of Table Mountain and on harbour and canal cruises, all linked by the open top bus! A couple of museums I’d missed before – the Slave Lodge and eighteenth century Dutch home Koopmans-de-Wet House – were totally eclipsed by a visit to the new museum of contemporary African art, MOCAA (a typical acronym for such places) in its first week; a stunning reinvention of a waterfront silo by our own Thomas Heatherwick, with a world class collection of contemporary art as good as I’ve seen anywhere. Wine featured – no surprise there – with tastings at http://www.kleinezalze.co.za and http://www.lourensford.co.za and a whole day tour to Paarl, Stellenbosch & Franshhoek with a return to http://www.simonsig.co.za and firsts at http://www.glencarlou.co.za , Antonij Rupert (http://www.rupertwines.com) and http://www.annandale.co.za, where a retired Springbok player has the most rustic, least corporate winery with reds to die for.

The two major gastronomic experience were at South Africa’s top two rated restaurants, both extensive tasting menus with wine pairings (well, for me!) with more than a touch of playfulness and theatre. Lunch at http://www.lacolombe.co.za, high up in the Silvermist woods overlooking Table Mountain consisted of seven courses, a visit to the Enchanted Forest and a petit fours taste test, with more than a touch of Heston Bloomenthal about it. I loved it. The Test Kitchen’s Luke Dale-Roberts’ http://www.thetestkitchen.co.za has been reinvented since my last visit two years ago, with a ‘dark room’ of nine snacks from around the world accompanied by four cocktails – sweet, sour, bitter and salty; continuing La Colombe’s theme – then a ‘light room’ sitting at the counter watching the chefs prepare our 10 courses with 7 wine pairings! Both lived up to the hype.

Tapas-style food is very much in vogue and I thoroughly enjoyed my return to Liam Tomalin’s http://www.chefswarehouse.co.za and my first to its sister restaurant, http://www.thalitapas.co.za, with tapas on an Indian theme. Luke Dale-Roberts is at it too, with http://www.thepotluckclub.co.za in an old silo on what is now the 6th floor with night-time views across the docks. All three were excellent, and good value too. The other gastronomic treat was the first, at Terrior (http://www.kleinezalze.co.za/terroir/background) on the Kleine Zalze wine estate, a more traditional three-courser which I enjoyed very much. There is nowhere else in the world where imaginative, high quality food and outstanding wines are so affordable and it was a thrill to immerse myself in it for a third time.

So that’s another trip done. With plenty more to sample and lovely friends to enjoy it all with (try their Airbnb’s https://airbnb.com/rooms/9088391?i=10&ref_device_id=46744834b9964419cff00163edaa70046575cf9f&s=1&user_id=47873682 and https://airbnb.com/rooms/13390632?i=10&ref_device_id=46744834b9964419cff00163edaa70046575cf9f&s=1&user_id=47873682). The only question is…..when is the next visit?

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Here we are again, for the 30-something year. This time we started with food & wine at Scotland’s Restaurant of the Year, http://www.timberyard.co, where the food was lovely, the wine list too much of a tome and the staff doing cool a touch too much aloof. Still, it’s the food that matters most and here it excelled. On to the first cultural highlight with the Philhamonia and the wonderful Edinburgh Festival Chorus under Peter Pan conductor Andrew Davies for a rare outing of Elgar’s oratorio King Olaf. Unfathomable narrative, but musically exhilarating, with three good soloists to boot. The Usher Hall crowd were a bit too restrained; they should think themselves very lucky indeed.

Our fringe started with a little gem called Jess & Joe at TraverseTwo, a growing up story with a difference, told by the characters acting out what has already happened to them. Lovely writing, beautiful performances and unpredictable. I left welled up, with a warm glow. The first art was Beyond Caravaggio at the Scottish National Gallery which I missed, intentionally because of their dreadful gallery space, at the NG in London. Here in a proper gallery, the handful of Caravaggios are wonderful, but served to show up the rest, those he influenced. On to the Book Fest for a Q&A with Dominic Dromgoole, responsible for two of the most inspirational theatrical events of my lifetime, both in the last five years – Globe to Globe, every Shakespeare play in a different language, and the Hamlet World Tour to every country in the world. Insightful, with some great anecdotes and excellent audience engagement. I queued up to get my book signed and he was just as friendly and engaging one-to-one. More art with True to Life, realistic art from the twenties and thirties, including usual suspects like Stanley Spencer and Winifred Knights, but lots new to me. Worth the schlep out to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, a place Lothian Transport seems determined to wipe off the map. Then our first comedy, Ed Byrne at Assembly George Square Theatre, who I’ve been drawn to since his recent TV travel programmes with Dara O’Briain but have never seen. Very funny, very engaging, a bit of a lag in the middle, but a treat nonetheless. Late night supper at the delightfully named http://www.angelswithbagpipes.co.uk. where excellent food combined with friendly service to great effect. A lovely first full day.

Sunday started early with something more appropriate for a late night slot, Wild Bore at TraverseOne, which the critics seem to have taken against, unsurprisingly given that they loom large. It’s three women talking out of their, well, arses, mostly quoting vitriolic reviews of their shows and others, but it evolves and changes rather a lot, and I loved the combination of subversiveness, surprise, anarchy and humour. The next show over at Stand Six couldn’t be more of a contrast – that’s the fringe for you – with poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy reading her work, and multi-brass-and woodwind-instrumentalist John Sampson chipping in. A sombre start with First World War poems, the tone lightened and it became funny and cheeky; a rarger charming hour. I rested before the day’s main event, back at the Usher Hall. Edward Gardner brought his new band, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, along with a cast of soloists to die for led by Stuart Skelton, and they took us all hostage with an extraordinary interpretation of Britten’s operatic masterpiece Peter Grimes. The usually reserved Usher Hall crowd justifiably erupted. I doubt I’ll ever hear it that good again; a highlight in a lifetime of concert-going. Emotionally drained, I needed a drink before I joined the others at http://www.mumbaimansionedinburgh.co.uk where the food was a delicious new spin on Indian cuisine, but the staff rushed and harassed us too much.

With such an extraordinary start, things had to take a bit of a dip and so it was in (full) Day Three. It started well at that Edinburgh institution, the International Photographic Exhibition, though there were a few too many contrived, overly posed shots for my taste. The day’s first theatre saw the normally reliable Paines Plough deliver a mediocre and rather pointless piece called Black Mountain in their mobile Roundabout theatre at Summerhall, about a couple seeking to rescue their relationship when his ex turns up, or does she? A mildly thrilling atmospheric thriller with cardboard performances. As my companion said, it would have been better on the radio. From here, stand-up Dominic Holland at the Voodoo Rooms lifted things significantly with the brilliantly observational, autobiographical humour of a 50–year-old who’s career has been eclipsed by his 21-year-old son. Then back to Summerhall for Graeae’s Cosmic Scallies, a somewhat slight piece about renewing an old friendship, and Skelmersdale!, which never rose to the giddy heights of their Solid Life of Sugar Water in 2015. We ended on a high with another terrific meal at http://www.lovagerestaurant.co.uk Food & wine eclipsed culture on Day Three, but there are three more full days to go……..

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I’ve long wanted to come to Chiang Mai, so a stopover on the way home from Australia seemed to be the ideal opportunity. As it turned out, the flight times meant a night in Singapore, so it made sense to make that two nights and have a double-dip stopover!

I was impressed by the efficiency of Singapore on my only previous visit in 1992. It did come with a high degree of authoritarian, conservatism and compliance, but that doesn’t exactly interfere with a tourist visit. Give me a slick, clean, air-conditioned & cheap public transport network any day of the week! I chose a quirky boutique hotel on the edge of Little India, which proved to be well located, extremely hospitable and, well, quirky, though it probably isn’t in anyone’s list of hotels for those growing old gracefully – if there was a video of me getting into and out of my (albeit comfortable) bed pit, it would no doubt go viral and win comedy awards.

I hadn’t factored in humidity and mid-30s temperatures, so my preferred mode of exploration – on foot – proved challenging, and was abandoned for boat and metro mid-afternoon. I packed a lot into a day – colonial Singapore, new millenium architecture, Chinatown and Little India – with contemporary art at the Singapore Art Gallery and a visit to the top of the extraordinary triple-tower Sands Marina Hotel, which has what looks like a giant surfboard atop, spanning all three towers. I ended the day back in Little India where the food lived up to its reputation.

Chiang Mai is a walled and moated city and again I landed on my feet hotel-wise in a beautiful boutique hotel bang in the  centre of the city but blissfully quiet, with a terrific restaurant, delightful staff and one of the city’s most famous temple complexes virtually en suite. The challenge of pedestrianism was even greater here as it was even hotter and there’s little shade or wind and next to no pavements. Still, I did what I could, which by the fourth day was rather a lot  – too much, in fact. Two lovely trips out of town complemented my three half-day city wanders and took me to the mountaintop temple of Doi Suthep to join the pilgrims at Wat Pharat and the Doi Inthanon national park, Thailand’s highest point at 8500 feet, for nature walks, a visit to the King & Queen’s pagodas, waterfalls and wanders in markets and tribal villages. When we returned, the streets outside the hotel were in the process of becoming the night market, saving me the schlep across town, which I may have passed on through exhaustion.

I have a fascination with Buddhism and a high tolerance of temples (Joanna famously referred to my gompa-bashing in Ladakh), but even I was overcome and ultimately defeated by the hundreds here in Chiang Mai. It was well worth a visit though, even if you do have to put up with a lot of tourists, many from the country of the world’s rudest – the Chinese – who’ve taken this mantle from the Russians. The onset of selfie-sticks, surely the pinacle of vanity, just compounds the issue.

So that’s it. A terrific trip, even by my own high standards! Little went wrong and an awful lot went right. This was the second of the month+ trips that started with the US last September and continues with Southern Africa in October. My new motto is ‘travel while you can, while you can afford to and while you want to’. Now I have to earn some money to pay for the next one…..

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I bloody love this city!  The setting on the harbour, with the Opera House and Harbour Bridge as features and the downtown skyline as a backdrop, are unrivaled. It’s the most cosmopolitan of places and its people have taken the Aussie casual, positivie trademarks and given them an off-the-wall, cool spin. I could live here – well, if there was (even) more culture.

I landed on my feet with a B&B in the somewhat Bohemian Glebe, a short bus ride from the centre. In addition to a comfy suite and great breakfasts, they provided advice and an Opal card (Aussie Oyster), collected and returned me to the airport and did my laundry! Joining my host for one of his regular ‘old boy’ coffee stops with a local artist and designer made me feel at home. I also lucked out on the weather as the storms earlier in the week disappeared and the sun came out; just a late PM thunderstorm and a drizzly morning to briefly interfere with lovely autumn days.

As soon as I arrived in the city centre on my first morning, I was compelled to take the Manly ferry across the harbour and the short walk from here to the ocean. This whetted my apetite for more ferry journeys so before I was through I’d travelled as far up the Parametta river as I could and hopped over to Watsons Bay for lunch and onward by land to Bondi Beach and the coastal walk to Bronte in an attempt to walk it off. An early visit to the Fish market even had me sampling lobster, scallop and oyster mid-morning. Add in good advice on Glebe dining and Sydney was a great gastronomic stop.

The one rainy morning was a good excuse to spend it in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, a hugely impressive collection with brilliantly curated Asian galleries which juxtaposed the ancient and modern ‘in conversation’, and outstanding Australian art. I even stayed for a lovely lunch to ride out the weather. The Museum of Contemporary Art is a great building, with a striking new extension since I was last here, but needs more art to fill it. It featured a special show on artists who use light and in another of those senior moments, I paid for and entered it before I realised it was the one I saw at the Hayward last year! Still, it was good enough to see again. I walked a lot along the harbourside and through downtown, the trip to the top of the tower provided city views and I even got a personal tour of the NSW parliament.

Sydney was also the trip highlight for theatre and opera. It started at the Belvoir Theatre in Surrey Hills for Elektra / Orestes, a superb modern setting of the story of how the latter returned to kill his mother and her lover in revenge for them killing his dad, goaded on by his big sister. In a theatrical coup, the two halves were mirrors of each other in different rooms. The rain risked the open air Aida on a floating stage in the harbour, but in the end it was clear and dry. Productions like this often put spectacle above music, but this one was briliantly sung, enhanced by the framing of the opera house and harbour bridge stage right and the downtown skyline stage left. Radames triumphant return from war on a real camel (followed by three others) was greeted by a firework display in a stunning end to Act I. The final show was Beckett’s Endgame, which I’ve never understood and still don’t, but it was a particularly funny production with the great Hugo Weaving in the lead role, directed by Sydney Theatre Company’s AD at their home theatre.

Sydney gets under your skin and into your bloodstream, even in just four days. Sad to leave it, and this country, but I feel privileged to have had 2nd and 3rd visits to Melbourne and Sydney respectively and new experiences in Tasmania and the Top End. A stopover in Singapore and Chiang Mai beckons. More from there…..

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