Archive for the ‘Food & Wine’ Category

Even though I live in a big city, arriving in Melbourne after a week in sleepy Tasi was a bit of a shock to the system. I was concious of behaving just like those London tourists I ‘tut tut’ at all the time.

After an afternoon taking in the inner suburbs by car, we walked into Her Majesty’s Theatre and I knew instantly I was going to have a good time – the seats had been covered in gold, silver, turquoise and pink lurex. From then on, it was a riot of colour and the smile hardly left my face. True to his own 1992 film Strictly Ballroom, Baz Luhrman’s stage musical was warm-hearted, quirky and funny (and very colourful!). Little did he know its title would inspire a TV franchise that would lead to a resurgance in the dancing to which it is a homage. It was a great start to this second leg of the trip.

The following morning, I set off with my friends Gordon & Liz for Apollo Bay, taking it slowly along the Great Ocean Road, stopping occasionally, to their ocean-side home with 180 degree views of the said ocean, home cooking, too much wine (not a complaint) and a 4-day chill-out. Trips to Cape Otway and its lighthouse and resident koalas, the extraordinary Twelve Apostles rock formations at the ocean’s edge and a treetop walk in the temperate rainforst distraced us from the food and wine. Briefly. Four days later I was back in Melbourne.

When I revisit cities and find them better, I often wonder whether they have actually improved or whether I’m just a better traveller and get more out of them. Melbourne is a case in point; in truth probably a bit of both. It has certainly grown in the last 15 years, pretty free of the economic woes of other cities. Suffice to say I thoroughly enjoyed my revisit. I wandered the new Docklands, the expanded Southbank and the central core, uncovering architectural gems missed before like the shopping arcades and the bold new Federation Square next to Flinders St Station, now the heart of the city. The art bowled me over, both at the Ian Potter Centre for Australian Art and at the NGV (National Gallery of Victoria) International. Great permanent collections and some terrific temporary exhibitions, I was in my element.

A tour of the Victoria Parliament, spookily like our own, was both informative and funny and a visit to James Cook’s parents cottage relocated from Yorkshire 80 years ago somewhat surreal. The city has many new buildings, chief amongst them the Eureka Building on Southbank which provided terrific 360 degree views from its 88th floor, which I quickly followed by views up from a Yarra river cruise. I was lucky enough to catch up with three people from a former client over a dinner and a lunch and to catch favourite comedian Adam Hills stand-up show for the first time as part of the Melbourne Comedy Festival, which was very much the Edinburgh Fringe with just the comedy.

I’ve always thought of Melbourne as second best to Sydney, now I’m not so sure. In 10 days time I’ll be able to compare afresh. Before that, it’s time for a doubling of temperature, a huge increase in humidity and five days in the outback. More of that to come…..


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This was the first leg of a five-week trip that includes three other Australian states and visits to Singapore and Thailand on the way home. It’s somewhere I missed on my 2000 trip and somewhere I’ve grown more keen to visit as time has moved on. The island state is some 150 miles south of the Victoria coast and only about 200 miles long and wide at its longest / widest, but it has an extraordinary topographical diversity with beautiful coastlines, a mountainous centre, highland and lowland lakes and rivers and temperate rainforest. About half of it is categorised as national park, world heritage and / or wilderness.

I started, exhausted after a 33-hour journey (though only 20 hours in the air, on three flights) in Hobart, a beautifully situated port on the south coast, with Mount Wellington rising up dramatically behind it. Though it’s the capital, it’s more town than city, though 60% of Tasi’s 500,000 population live there. It was Easter weekend and ever so quiet; Good Friday was treated like Christmas Day in the UK. Tasmania’s newest atraction is a modern art gallery called MONA (Museum of Old and New Art, but there’s not a lot of Old). It’s best visited by ferry (a quirky affair with graffiti art and lifesize models of cows and sheep) through the harbour and up the Derwent river. It’s almost entirly inside a hill, with the hewn rock an integral part of the architecture, and it feels like a maze as you wander through the four or five levels of galleries. The experience is more spectacular than the art, but its unmissable.

I took a side trip from Hobart by car through lovely countryside to Port Arthur in the far south where the penal colony has been preserved, together with later free settlements in and amongst it. The beauty of the setting, on a gorgeous harbour, seems incongruous given the horrors of life there in the past. This was Australia’s second proper penal colony (after Botany Bay) though I also went to a much smaller and earlier one on Sarah Island in McQuarrie Harbour in the west of the island on my next stop at Strahan. You’re never far from this colonial, penal heritage in Tasmania.

The journey to Strahan was spectacular, rising through the central highlands, heavily wooded and littered with lakes, with the last stage through the Franklin Gordon NP, a world heritage temperate rainforest come wilderness. Strahan is a gorgeous little town on a huge harbour with its ‘hell’s gate’ entrance from the southern ocean. It all started with a smirk as my host spoke like Kath from Aussie sitcom Kath & Kim, with a touch of The Archers Linda Snell for good measure. Everything was just perfect and everything she said was scripted; it was as much as I could do not to giggle uncontrollably. I took a long cruise through the harbour and up the Gordon river into the rainforst with landings for a couple of walks, covering both rainforest flora and fauna and penal history. The following day I was back in the rainforst, this time on a late 19th century steam train built to transport copper from mine to harbour. A little too touristy but a worthwhile experience nontheless, and the regular treats from the Sydney family seated with me were a bonus.

The final destination was the northern city of Launceston, where I stayed in one of a small row of 19th century workmen’s cottages that each had ‘home country’ themes. The Welsh Cottage wasn’t available but there was much more potential for kitsch in the Scottish Cottage anyway – tartan-a-go-go! Launceston was a lovely town with a lot of well preserved / restored colonial architecture and a very walkable cataract gorge on the edge of town which brough the Esk river in to meet the Tamar, whose valley was the destination of a fabulous wine tour where we visited three wineries with lunch at one and an awful lot of wines at all three. With glorious weather and great company, this was a lovely treat to end the trip.

The following morning I headed to Melbourne where friends Gordon & Liz and Baz Luhrman’s Strictly Ballroom – The Musical were waiting…..

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The journey from Helena to Glacier National Park was shorter than I thought (I miscalculated the mileage) but it still managed to transform from mountains to fertile farming valleys to the shores of Flathead Lake just outside the park. Again, I was staying outside as it was fully booked within, in a lovely B&B called Bad Rock (which most importantly, by now, had laundry facilities!). My first day in Glacier was spectacular, driving the 50-mile  ‘Going to the Sun’ road from one end to the other, starting and ending at the lakeside (different lakes!) and rising and winding to over 6600 feet between, with spectacular views up to the glaciers and down to the valleys. Every time you turned a corner you encountered a different vista and had to stop continually to take it all in and to photograph it. One of my B&B companions mentioned a helicopter over breakfast and before you could blink, there I was linked up with four Belgians, up in the air seeing it all from a completely different and spectacular new perspective. By contrast, I followed this with a cruise on Lake McDonald where the small boat broke the perfect reflections and created extraordinarily beautiful effects.

The next journey was too long for a day, so I broke it in the university town of Moscow, Idaho, but before I got there I took an impulsive detour to Wallace in the Silver Valley, so called because it once contained hundreds of mines (and Wallace hundreds of millionaires as a result).  They’ve successfully reinvented themselves as a heritage site and I thoroughly enjoyed my visit down the mine, led by a retired miner (like Big Pit in Wales) who demonstrated equipment and techniques as well as showed them. A wander through the town was richly rewarding, with period architecture, a ‘bordello museum’ as an example of the miners leisure activities (I didn’t go in!) and an excellent lunch at the Fainting Goat, where the new managers were a couple passing through between Puerto Rica and the West and decided to stay!

From Moscow (nothing to say about it really, except that there are 17 Moscow’s in the US!) the journey continued through the rolling hills of Idaho, hay newly cut or still being cut, idyllic farms littering the landscape, until all of a sudden you’re confronted with a view down a big drop to the confluence of the Snake & Clearwater rivers with Lewiston, Idaho facing Clarkston, Washington, both named in honour of Lewis & Clark, Jefferson’s post-Louisiana Purchase explorers. From here, the journey to Joseph through an awful lot of gorges was slow and winding but really beautiful. The valley in which Joseph and Enterprise sit has Hells Canyon on one side, the Wallowa mountains on two others, and the gorges through which I travelled there on the fourth. If I’d known how inaccessible Hells Canyon was I might not have gone there, which would have been a shame as it was a lovely visit. My B&B was at the homestay end of the spectrum, but comfortable and welcoming. The drive to the canyon was through dense forest and the only part you could reach was the flooded and dammed part – the rest required serious hiking or even more serious upstream boat trips; but it was worth it and the stop made even better by a trip by cable car up Mount Howard for wonderful views and 2.5 miles of trails at 8000 feet!

The first part of the journey to Portland was pretty, but it got dull on the highway (despite a stop in Pendleton, an important stop on the Oregon trail, but closed as it was Sunday!) until we got to the Columbia River Gorge, at first a series of dams but later more rugged with waterfalls-a-go-go and lovely views. My B&B in Portland was a Victorian gem and my room had a sitting area in the turret! The neighbourhood of Irvington was both historic and cool with great restaurants but less than 30 mins by bus or tram to downtown. After three glorious weeks, the weather turned cloudy with showers but I was now in the first of two cities so there were indoor distractions, but before those there were the gardens – Chinese, Japanese & Roses! The Art Museum (like all others, so called because they combine art with historical and archaeological objects from around the world – I like this) was first class and there was a fascinating mansion that told the story of the Pittock’s, immigrants from Britain and self-made multi-millionaires. Portland’s downtown was very walkable with a blend of new and old architecture and also provided me with my one-and-only theatre trip, to see the musical Dreamgirls, based on the story of the Supremes. I’d seen the film but the show never made it to London. It didn’t really add anything to the film (well, it came first) but despite it being only the second preview, it was in good shape and the performances were outstanding.

I tried to get a tour to Oregon wine country but none were available (a bit late in the season) so I took an impulsive side-trip to Salem, Oregon’s capital, for a terrific visit to their art deco Capitol and a wander around the historic town. Another impulse took me into the Wild Pear Restaurant for lunch (at the counter) and when the owner clocked the accent the now customary ‘well, where are you from?’ solicited the equally customary ‘Wales, but I now live in London’. She said her husband’s family were from South Wales, so I asked the name, which was James – Geoff & Cecelia James. She treated me to a delightful lunch and planned my return through wine country with a winery and olive press to visit. Impulse wins again.

The shortish trip to my last base, Seattle, allowed me the luxury of two stops – the first in Olympia for yet another Capitol, the biggest and grandest if not the most tasteful! and the second in Tacoma to continue the Chihuly pilgrimage (a recommendation by a fellow Chihuly fan from Denver I met at the Bad Rock B&B – thank you!). The Art Museum had more of his work than the Glass Museum, though this did have live glassblowing demonstrations and a Chihuly Bridge to link it to the main street! The curator at the Art Museum was very welcoming to a British Chihuly fan (there weren’t many punters!) with discounted admission and a free gift. There were also works in the Courthouse (former Union Station), the University library and the Swiss pub (where he gifted them a handful of works in thanks for their hospitality!). Tacoma was a great example of a town re-inventing itself in style and I loved it.

Seattle is my only re-visit of the trip; I came here 14 years ago (whilst working on an e-commerce project code-named Seattle!). I stayed in the same B&B on Capitol Hill, the Gaslight Inn, in the same room (don’t fix it if it ain’t broke). In truth, the city isn’t as great as my memories, but there’s a new Chihuly ‘museum’, glasshouse and garden and having the car enabled me to cross over by car ferry to the Olympic peninsular for a final wonderful drive, a visit to the Olympic National Park, where the views of the mountain range of the same name from Hurricane Ridge were sensational, and the lovely old town of Port Townsend. The other newie was a bit of a disappointment. One of the founders of  Microsoft got architect Frank Gehry to build a perfect home for a rock ‘experience’, a crazy colourful affair, but sadly it’s a lost opportunity inside (unless you want to use the studios or you’re a Nirvana fan). The exhibition of Hendrix in London was nostalgic but the bolted-on SciFi & Horror presentations made Cardiff’s Dr Who experience (pre-facelift) look cutting edge!

The trip ended with a fascinating visit to the Boeing factory to see 747’s, 777’s and 787 Dreamliner’s being assembled, including watching the inaugural flight of a new 777 for American Airlines, followed six hours later my own flight on a BA Boeing 777! A suitably epic trip to celebrate 40 years of travel (Corfu September 1974 with Barbara & Mary!). 4750 miles driven (my normal annual mileage!) through 7 states, 9 national parks, 4 cities and 13 towns plus journeys by bus, tram, trolly, train, boat, car ferry, cable car & helicopter making it top the 5000 mile mark. When I’ve sorted the 2500 photos, there will be web albums!

In six months time, an even longer one to Australia – you have been warned!

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This one month / 3000 mile trip started in Denver on 1st September and it’s now the half-way point and I’m in Helena, the capital of Montana, the 4th largest state by area but the 44th by population. Walking around the deserted city (pop 28k!) on a Saturday afternoon was proof enough of the state’s low density. I’ve already driven 2500 miles, so it will come in way over 3000! Anyway, here’s a resume of the first part. I’ve tried inserting photos but the iPad doesn’t seem to want to, so you’ll have to wait until my return or look at my daily tweets http://www.twitter.com/TootingGareth…..

Denver is a delightful city and exceeded my expectations. For a mid-West Colorado city, it’s sophisticated and cool with great art and food. My B&B was an old mansion located right in the Civic Centre and the owner made spectacular & original breakfast dishes and provided excellent restaurant recommendations. The Art Museum, with its new Daniel Libeskind wing, is one of the world’s greatest; in addition to an unrivalled collection of Western US art, there were four temporary exhibitions and I had to drag myself away. Over in the Botanical Garden, glass sculptor Dale Chihuly has scattered his works amongst the flora and fauna, as he did at Kew but with more water here it was more effective. He comes from Seattle so a stop at his museum is a must later in the trip.  When you’re in a State capital, a visit to its Capitol building is a must. They all seem to have the same shape, modelled on the US Capitol, but each has its own decorative spin and Colorado’s was a fine example. My second day was spent in the Rocky Mountain National Park which was a thrilling introduction to my 16 days in the mountains, though when I got to have lunch at 12,000 ft I was feeling a bit light-headed. I’d have liked another night in mile high Denver (and high in another sense now that marijuana is legal and sold in all sorts of forms on main street!).

The first part of the journey to Durango, 350 miles south-west, was a bit dull, following the highway to get some distance behind me. Then a stop at the Great Sand Dunes National Park brought the first scenic spectacle (sand dunes in The Rockies!) and the rest of the journey through the San Juan mountain range was lovely. Durango is a bit touristy, and the food a disappointment after Denver, but The General Palmer Hotel was a pleasant period piece and I had selected Durango anyway as a base for two trips, the first of which was to Mesa Verde NP. The landscape of canyon and table (mesa) isn’t the main reason for visiting it; its the remnants of 3300-year-old settlements, abandoned mysteriously 700 years ago. The first settlers occupied the mesa (table) top, but they later moved to precarious buildings built into the cliffside (security?). A fascinating trip. The second trip was a ride on the Durango-Silverton narrow gauge steam railroad, first built in the late 19th century, when silver was mined at one end and transported to the other. It isn’t much more than 50 miles, but at 13mph rising 3000 ft in the Rockies, it takes 3.5 hours! I chose to ride it both ways in the more comfortable period car with external platform and hostess service, which was a great choice as it was spectacular but also very sociable. A treat.

I started early on the 400-mile trip to Salt Lake City when I discovered both Arches and Canyonlands NPs were en route, thinking I’d make a stop at one.  Arches was like a moonscape, acres of red stone of all shapes and sizes (only some of which form arches) scattered amongst the desert landscape. I decided I had enough time to take a look at neighbouring Canyonlands , but wasn’t expecting to be quite so blown away by the vast expanse of canyons that take your breath away as soon as you set eyes on them when you walk to the edge of the tableland. I stayed so long I arrived late in Salt Lake City, having to navigate myself to my B&B in the dark and miss dinner!

SLC was as much of a break in the journey as anything else, but it was a pleasant surprise. Another nice B&B, this time in an Arts & Crafts building near the Capitol called Inn on the Hill, and a return to more sophisticated city food courtesy of the recommendations of a man from Portland also staying at the Denver B&B! The Mormon religion pervades everything in the city, the heart of which is Temple Square, containing a somewhat kitsch temple (which you can’t enter) and a host of other church buildings, the best of which was a reused ornate grand hotel (which in all fairness they had restored beautifully). ‘Sisters’ from Tuvalu, The Philippines etc do their missionary work offering to help you find your way around the square but it’s fairly innocuous. US ‘elders’ running tours of buildings are more hardcore though, pushing some – including me – over the edge with tales of Jesus’ visit to the US in biblical times. When a Dutch lady commented on a wall of pictures of former ‘prophets’ and ‘disciples’, all men, he got very defensive, making things worse by saying women have their place, just not in church leadership! On my second day I ventured to the lake which gives the city its name and was surprised they didn’t make more of it. It’s still and rather eerie.

The next journey, to Yellowstone, was much longer than its 400 miles because it was so scenic that I kept stopping to take it all in and photograph it. It took me from Utah to Montana, through a bit of Idaho and a lot of Wyoming! After another dull start on the interstate highway, I headed into Logan Canyon where autumn colours were already evident and made me excited about what might come later. The drive above and past Bear Lake provided yet more stunning views and then I entered Grand Teton NP, where the snow-capped mountains and glaciers followed me all the way to the entrance to Yellowstone. This is where things turned a bit rustic on the lodging and gastronomic front. I’d been unable to get into any of the park lodges six months ago, so ended up just outside in West Yellowstone, a somewhat downmarket tourist trap just by the entrance, in a 100-year-old hotel made of logs surrounded by ‘restaurants’ offering a choice of burgers, pizzas, Chinese, burgers, pizzas…. Its the scale and diversity of scenery that surprises you at Yellowstone. 1m acres of mountains valleys meadows & canyons, rivers waterfalls lakes cascades & streams, and all sorts of thermal activity. It’s 100 miles north to south and 80 miles east to west and in 2.5 days I hardly touched the surface, but it was indeed spectacular.

Another lovely journey, though less than 200 miles this time, through agricultural valleys between the mountains, with a breakfast stop in Ennis, an archetypal small town with an archetypal diner, took me to Helena, Montana’s capital. I’m breaking my B&B policy here as both were fully booked (!), but after rustic West Yellowstone, it’s actually rather comfortable in a chain hotel! Helena is a delightful town, with a ‘mansion district’ of 19th century homes including the original governor’ s house, a Capitol that punches way above its weight, a spectacular neo-gothic cathedral with more stained glass and gold leaf than a handful of normal churches and a main street called Last Chance Gulch! The main reason for this stop, though, was a river trip on the Missouri through a canyon. It was named Gates of the Mountains by the 1805 Lewis & Clark expedition launched by President Jefferson just after the Louisiana Purchase, the land Napoleon sold. It was (another) glorious day and yet another scenic treat.

So tomorrow it’s another 400 mile trip to Glacier NP, close to the Canadian border and as far north as I go before heading west into Oregon & Washington. Can it possibly be  as good as the first half? To be continued…..


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Start with photos if you wish….


Three things brought about this 10-day trip to Italy. The first was seeing the Danish-English film Love is All You Need, set in Sorrento; I wanted to get on a plane there and then. A month later I went to the Pompeii & Herculaneum exhibition at the British Museum, which made me want to return to Pompeii after c.30 years and to visit Herculaneum for the first time. Then a specialist wine tour company I’ve traveled with twice before emailed about an Amalfi & Cliento trip run by the wine guide who gave us such a good time in South America six years ago. I needed no further encouragement.

Sorrento is a great place to base yourself to see the wonders of The Bay of Naples – it’s less than an hour from just about anywhere and it’s a relaxing spot to chill out when you’ve finished exploring. Apart from wandering in it’s narrow streets and eating & drinking, I took two side-trips, one by train to Naples and one by hydrofoil to Capri.

Naples is a very lived-in city, rough & ready, a bit edgy – a city with attitude; I rather liked that. The Archaeological Museum was extraordinary, with so much wonderful statuary, frescos & mosaics from the hugely important nearby sites. Even though it seemed like half of the rooms were closed, it was still a feast of wonderfulness. The rest of my visit was wandering down Via dei Tribunali and back down ‘Spaccanapoli’, taking in food smells, kitsch tat & grot and churches! It’s a wild city without gentrification and few compromises to tourism, though they’d do well to deal with the graffiti (the worst I’ve seen anywhere) and litter – there ‘s a fine line between rough & ready and dump!

Capri provided a lovely Sunday diversion. From the Marina Grande port to the town of Capri by funicular and the much nicer Anacapri by bus, it was pretty, with stunning views wherever you looked. The highlight was undoubtedly the Garden of Eden ceramic tiled floor of the Santa Michele church in Anacapri, though I rather took to the Red House, former home of a US military medic, too.

I joined the wine group in Amalfi. The bus journey from Sorrento was spectacular and scary in equal measure. During the first half I was on the cliff side, so less scary and less spectacular, but the second half was full of turn-away moments as you got close the the edge of this steep, windy, narrow road. There were times, going through Positano, where I honestly didn’t think vehicles could get that close without scraping each other’s paintwork.

The first base for our wine & food tour was Furore, just outside but way above Amafli. The Hosteria Bacco was a Cuomo family affair with the son in the kitchen, a cousin with a winery just across the road, and the rest also involved in some way. When it wasn’t misty, the sea views were sensational, the food was simple & fresh – la cucina povera! – and the wines (a lot of them) lovely. Pietro taught us to cook the four dishes we ate on the first evening (well, I watched) and between tasting as he cooked and then dinner, I rather overindulged.

Our first winery visit was Sammarro in Ravello. It was an uninspiring location in a sort of cave cut into the side of the road, but the family were very welcoming and the wines more inspiring than the location. They couldn’t match the next location, though, which was Tenuta San Francesco in Tramonti in the gorgeous Lattari Valley. Again lovely people, but this time with such a gorgeous location and some nice simple food to accompany their delicious whites and reds. Back in Amalfi, we visited the extraordinary cathedral and wandered up the main street and along the beach. It’s a popular place, but even crowds can’t detract from the charm and beauty of its location.

Two visits en route to our next base, Santa Maria di Castellabate in the Cilento region, and both treats. One of the partners of De Conciliis wines is a jazz buff, so the names of their wines often reference this in some way. The sparking is Selim, an anagram of Miles (Davies), and Perella is ‘for Ella’ (Fitzgerald)! Fortunately, they also tasted great, washed down with a light lunch to stop them going straight to our heads. The next stop was a white fig producer which I frankly wasn’t much looking forward to. Santomeile’s premises oozed style in a modern spin on B&W Italian movies of the 50’s and 60’s and their inventiveness with a simple fruit was breathtaking – jams, syrups, chocolates….. It was the most professional tasting I’ve ever experienced, and the figs a revelation, presided over by the young dottoressa in her white coat!

Our next base was a lovely seaside town and Villa Soria was on the water’s edge. It was a good location for our remaining Cilento visits, starting with a buffalo farm. Now I hate buffalo mozzarella with a vengeance – tasteless and chewy – but the yogurt and ice cream were great and there was lunch with more wine; oh, and the buffaloes were rather cute, particularly when using their mechanical back-scratchers. Then time for some history and a visit to the Greek temples of Paestum and the excellent on-site museum. These didn’t have the setting of Agrigento in Sicily, but the temples themselves were the most spectacular I’ve ever seen.

Our final winery was on our doorstep but required switching to 4WD vehicles, such was its remoteness. Sitting on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean Sea on the site of a former monastery, Sangiovanni was paradise. Owned by a young couple, refugees from corporate life, the setting was spectacular and the wines matched this. This was our best visit and we had to be dragged away, but there was an olive oil co-operative waiting with lunch further south! Here we were taught (and I instantly forgot) how to make simple pizza and sampled their olive oils – not as much fun as wine tasting, or figs come to that. There was a great back story about how they rescued a declining town by setting up the co-operative and the people were lovely.

Our final day took us for more history to Herculaneum, once buried like Pompeii under the lava and ashes of Vesuvius. It benefited from being a fairly compact site that you could do justice to in a couple of hours and it gave you a real sense of the shape of a Roman town – roads still intact, frescoes and mosaics still in place and partially ruined buildings that didn’t require much imagination to envision as complete. We’d earned our final lunch in modern day Ercolano, sat in the wine store like kids in a toy-shop, and the food was great, washed down with six wines, bringing our total for six says to somewhere between fifty and sixty! Only the goodbyes and a short taxi journey to my next base Torre del Greco kept me from my afternoon nap.

My final day was split between Naples and Pompeii. The weather was the worst of the trip, so I decided to go to Naples first, which proved to be a good decision as I came across a palace showing a recently restored Caravaggio and got to tour the Teatro San Carlo opera house, which I thought was closed on Sundays. Galleria Umberto I was grand and Palazzo Reale faded and run down. but with spectacular interiors. A long walk along the seafront completed a very satisfying return to Naples before a funicular, metro and train trip on to Pompeii.

The site is daunting as it’s so vast and I found it hard to get my head around it and navigate what is effectively a complete city. The rain returned intermittently, which didn’t help, but I was glad I returned here – the only revisit of the trip – as it is awe-inspiring and it completed the circle back to my second inspiration for the trip at the British Museum.

What I liked most about this holiday was the variety – the combination of food, wine, archaeology, scenery and city / town wanders. I packed a lot into ten days, even by my standards, but it was well paced and I came home rested. Now it’s time for a couple of Scandinavian cities – Stockholm in May and Copenhagen in July – before a 30-day 3000-mile US road trip in September; well, for September…..

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You are invited to view Gareth James’s photo album: Budapest at Easter
Budapest at Easter
Mar 27, 2013
by Gareth James

The latest in my re-visits to European capitals finds me back in Budapest after exactly 25 years. Last time I also visited Vienna, arriving from there by bus. I had been taken to the bus station in Vienna in a smart car with an uniformed driver. I was met at Budapest bus station by the hotel bell-boy with a blackboard on which he’d chalked ‘Mr James’. That completely summed the contrast between Vienna and communist Budapest back in 1988.

Well, the communists have gone but the current President is showing dangerous signs of autocracy, not that you’d know it ‘on the streets’. Like all other East European cities, business is the new politics and everywhere you go they’re after your Euro with tours, restaurants and the usual tourist tat. I didn’t feel it had developed as much as other cities in the region – Prague & Dresden my most recent examples – but it sure is a different place from Easter 1988.

It’s an attractive city straddling the Danube, with low-lying Pest on one bank and higher-level Buda on the other, the more compact & historical of the two, and some iconic bridges linking them. Most places can be seen on foot, though there’s a good metro, tram & bus network if you’re lazy or if its cold / wet (all of these applied to me at some point!), which enables you to look up and appreciate the vast amount of gorgeous secessionist (art nouveau to you) architecture, much of which is still awaiting restoration.

The parliament building is extraordinary, sitting on the river much like ours, and this time I got inside where there’s more gold leaf than you see in most lifetimes. The two main churches – Matyas in Buda and St. Stephen’s in Pest – are completely different but equally gorgeous, and the four main museums and galleries between them cover Hungarian history, Hungarian art (more lovely secessionist stuff), international painting & sculpture and applied art & design.

I made two visits to the stunning State Opera House, but neither for opera – a ballet of Onegin and a concert of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion (somewhat appropriately, on Easter Saturday), both excellent, with tickets a fraction of London prices. Bar one disappointing meal, I ate well – though the goose liver and goose liver mousse were probably a bit risky for a man who’s had gout twice! Being a wine-producing country, you get some great red and white stuff to wash it all down with too.

Covered in snow when I arrived, it started cold but pretty before we got a big, quick melt which turned the city into a giant puddle as your feet became soggy and you dodged mini-avalanches from building roofs as you walked. One more day and it was all gone – snow and water.

A welcome re-visit to one of Europe’s finest cities; if you haven’t, you should.

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Photos first!

You are invited to view Gareth James’s photo album: Azerbaijan, Georgia & Armenia
Azerbaijan, Georgia & Armenia
Sep 29, 2011
by Gareth James
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These three newly independent countries comprise the strategic Caucasus region that runs from the Caspian Sea in the east to the Black Sea in the west, bordering the Russian Federation in the north and Iran and Turkey in the south. At various times, it has been invaded / occupied by the Mongols, Persians, Ottomans and of course Russia, amongst others. Today, the big geopolitical issue is pipelines which take oil from the Caspian and beyond to ports in the Black Sea and hence by sea west, thus avoiding overland routes through Russia.

Azerbaijan has a long-time dispute with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh but gets on with everyone else. Georgia’s relations with Russia remain fraught but fine with the rest and it has had the roughest independence ride. Armenia has its dispute with Azerbaijan and ongoing tension with Turkey over the genocide of the late nineteenth / early twentieth century. You’ve got to watch what you say round here!

The three countries have a combined population of c.18m – Azerbaijan’s 9m are mostly Muslim, Georgia’s 5m are almost entirely Orthodox Christian and Armenia’s 4m belong to the independent Armenian Church. Georgia and Armenia were the first countries to adopt Christianity (and possibly the first to make wine). All three countries are littered with Soviet apartment blocks and much of the water and gas pies run over ground, bending and twisting over entrances and round corners.

We started in oil rich Azerbaijan, seriously excited about hosting Eurovision 2012 even though they haven’t quite laid the foundations of the venue on the waterfront. In many ways it retains a Soviet character – but with added bling courtesy of its oil revenues. Oil is nothing new here; they’ve been bringing it up for over 130 years and just over 100 years ago provided 50% of the world’s oil. There are very old and very small drills in the city, though much of it has now moved offshore into the Caspian Sea. Despite the fact it is overwhelmingly Muslim, there are few mosques and few obvious signs of Islam in appearance or behaviour. The food and wine was OK but a bit samey and not overly exciting, though they did make jam out of absolutely anything, including walnuts and roses, and eat it by the spoonful with their tea!

The capital Baku is one big building site with a particularly iconic building nearing completion – a hotel that comprises three giant glass ‘petals’ which you can see from absolutely everywhere. It’s a nice enough city, well at least at its centre, with a walled old town, art nouveau buildings from the early days of oil and a long prom with modern buildings vying for your attention whilst lovers stroll, holding hands. The highlights of our visit were the 15th century Palace of the Shirvanshahs in the old town, a Zoroastrian Fire Temple and the pre-historic petroglyphs at Qobestan along the busy oil coast. We won’t talk about my brush with the police for pointing the camera a little too close to the Presidential Administration Tower……

We travelled overland to Sheki in the mountainous north where the Christian heritage is evident through Albanian churches (no relation to the country). The journey took us through semi-desert, fertile valleys, wooded hills and pastures – a topographical tour in not much more than six hours. The highlight of Sheki was the 18th century Khan’s Palace, a riot of colour and glass inside and out, inside a walled compound on the mountainside. The following day we crossed into Georgia.

I fell in love with Georgia very quickly. This may have been because we started in wine country and within a couple of hours of arriving we were treated to a delicious feast with local wine at a home stay; I’m easily bought! The food in Georgia was in fact spectacularly good and the wine was excellent. We gorged on aubergines stuffed with walnuts, cheesy bread, stuffed vine leaves, dumplings filled with meat which you got to once you’d drained them of a consommé-like liquid and all manner of meats, cheeses and salads.

It was a long journey to Tbilisi, broken up my visits to a walled hilltop church, a fortified cathedral and a fortified convent. Tbilisi is buzzing with life; you’d never know the Russians invaded just three years ago. It has tremendous energy and a sense of renewal, and not just in new building like Azerbaijan. Though much of it is still very run down, it was fascinating to explore with a very moochable old town; though not a very pedestrian-friendly city elsewhere. It is dissected by the River Mikvari, with the old town rising and clinging to one side as far as a mountaintop fortress. Its iconic new building is a glass pedestrian bridge. At night, Tbilisi is beautifully illuminated.

The city contains two stunning collections of treasures – the gold of pre-Christian Georgia and more recent religious icons and jewellery. It’s only mosque is unique as Shiite pray on the left and Sunni on the right, both in the same building. Our visit to the new Holy Trinity Cathedral was timed to coincide with the Patriarch (head of orthodox church and state) formally welcoming the Archbishop of Cyprus (another head of church and state). With a convoy of black limousines and lots of men-in-black, it was all very exciting (though more in keeping with a US presidential visit than a pair of clerics!). The speeches were highly politicised.

Out of town, we headed north to Mtskheta for another fine hilltop church and another fortified cathedral and to Ananuri for a stunning walled compound of three churches sitting on a small hill at the side of a reservoir. Back in Tbiklisi, our visit to the lovely Open Air Museum had a bonus as the Georgian state dancers (on perpetual tour to make money) were making a rare visit to Tbiisi for filming, so we got to see them for free with the added fascination of watching the rehearsals and the process of filming. The love affair with Georgia lasted until our premature departure. Our guide Anna was exceptional and there was a great feel to the place. I suspect I shall be back.

Despite the fabulous mountain scenery, with autumn colours already in evidence, dark clouds, a relentless number of run-down Soviet apartment blocks and more austere dark stone churches and monasteries, (we visited 5 en route to Yerevan) the first couple of days in Armenia didn’t excite – not until our first dinner in Yerevan with lovely folk music followed by a visit to Republic Square and its nightly performance of dancing illuminated fountains with a Charles Aznavour soundtrack (an Armenian exile) lifted my spirits.

Armenia appears to be the most run down of the three, except in Yerevan, which is much brighter and airy with wide tree-lined streets and lots of open spaces and street cafes. The genocide of over 1m people hangs heavy over the country; there ate 2.5 times as many Armenians outside the country as inside it – one of the world’s largest diaspora.

Yerevan sits at the foot of Mt Ararat (made famous by Noah!) and when it isn’t cloudy it towers over the city. There are few great buildings, but within the city there is a superb archaeology collection and a spectacular selection of manuscripts. There’s a lot to be seen within an hour and most of our time was spent on trips to a Greco-Roman Temple, Cave Monastery / Churches, a mediaeval burial ground with 900 tombstones and the centre of the Armenian faith at Echmiadzin. Our tour leader is responsible for the relationships between the Anglican Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches, so here we were greeted by two bishops and given a private tour of the residence of the Catholicos (heads of church and state) as well as the cathedral and museum.

Armenia grew on me as the sun began to shine, Mt Ararat revealed itself and the food and wine got better! I admired the spirit of the people and their resilience during a mostly tortuous 20th century.

A trip of huge contrasts – landscapes, architecture, heritage & religion – which was always fascinating and often thrilling. Georgia is the jewel in the Caucasus crown and it won’t be long before they’re coming in droves for a long weekend; beat them to it!

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