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This was the second Sideways wine weekend of 2009; this time to Piedmont, Italy – home of Barolo and Barbaresco – and I used the opportunity to tag on a couple of days in Turin, a new city for me.

It’s proximity to France, but perhaps more importantly it’s history as the home of the Dukes of  Savoy, gives TURIN a hybrid Italian-French look and feel – colonnaded boulevards and huge piazzas with a combination of Romanesque, medieval and classical architecture. It’s a lovely city to explore on foot and the autumn weather was perfect for this.

The Palazzo Real is a grand affair, befitting a capital city, with a maze of opulent rooms and extensive grounds. It sits on one edge of Piazza Reale which adjoins Piazza Castello; this really is the heart of monumental Turin. The state apartments are a mixed bag with some badly in need of restoration. The armoury is a spectacular space, though it’s difficult to get excited about its content unless you’re turned on by a lot of swords! The high spot though is its long narrow Library, still in use as an archive.

The heart of working Turin is Piazza San Carlo, a vast rectangular colonnaded space with two churches at one end. The cafes around the collonade bring it to life and it’s en route to lots of places so it’s forever populated by people on the move or stopping to rest. The streets which lead to the square are populated by Turin’s finest shops; being born without the shopping gene, I gave those a miss.

Turin contains the finest collection of Egyptian antiquities outside Egypt (more impressive than Berlin or London) and they are housed in their own museum. It really is a stunning collection, particularly the statuary – two big rooms of them – but there’s also the complete contents of several tombs, lots of mummies and a spectacular Book of the Dead.

Most cities have a curiosity and here it’s a 19th century brick tower called the Mole Antonelliana (the tallest in its day) originally built as a synagogue and now housing a 21st century cinema museum. A free-standing glass elevator rises to a roof terrace from which the 360 degree view is spectacular (though on the day I went, the haze rather limited it). The museum is badly signed and curated so it’s hard to get the most out of it, but the building and the view (and a rather good antipasti buffet in the cafe!) make it a must.

Parco del Valentino, along the River Po, looked gorgeous in the autumn colours. It houses a medieval village and castle built for an 1884 exhibition; it’s a folly, but the craftsmanship of the day means it’s now a beautifully imagined antique theme park!

Add a few churches – particularly the riots of baroquery at Santuario della Consolata in Romanesque Turin and San Lorenzo in Piazza Reale – and GAM, a disappointing modern & contemporary art gallery, and you have a very enjoyable couple of days exploration.

Our PIEDMONT WINE WEEKEND started with a truffle hunt! The ease with which the dog found the truffles made us a bit suspicious, but if they were planted they were certainly well covered up! The manic way the dog behaves suggested to me she must be addicted to truffles (and she gets to eat the small ones) so I wasn’t sure what I thought about it all. It was white truffle season (the more expensive ones) and they were retailing at £5000 per kilo (ten times black truffles at a mere £500) so there’s clearly a rather good living to be made here. When we entered the shop, the smell was intense and overpowering. We tasted more than 10 truffle products – its fascinating how many uses they have – but I can’t say I entirely appreciated the taste or understood the value placed on it.

Piedmont is primarily known for three grape varieties – Dolcetto, Barbera and Nebbiolo – which make the renowned wines of Barolo and Barbaresco. Our first wine tasting was at the wonderfully named Conterno Fantino (www.conternofantino.it), a family winery on a hilltop overlooking Monforte, one of the 11 villages that comprise the Barolo DOC. The son showed us around the winery and mother led the tasting – until Dad turned up looking like he’d had a rather good and rather long lunch and proceeded to add a few more wines including a 99 Barolo Sori Ginestra and a preview of the 06 vintage! I love these family run businesses – they aren’t the most slick and you may find better wines elsewhere, but there’s a real sense of individuality, preserving tradition, innovation and living their passion.

Our hotel for two nights was Albergo Cantine Ascheri in Bra (www.ascherihotel.it), a modern 28-room 3-story hotel with en suite winery hidden in a courtyard on the outskirts of Bra. Winery owner Matteo Ascheri showed us around his sparkling modern facilities with a very compelling and lucid account of the history, tradition and modernisation of the Barolo region. After a ten wine tasting earlier at Conterno Fantino, this was a more modest four wine tasting in a lovely purpose-built tasting room in the cellars of the winery / hotel which was followed by dinner in their restaurant; this is a new breed of winemaker who sees the added value of providing dining and accommodation.

Our visit to the lovely hilltop village of Barberesco was a pilgrimage to meet the godfather of Italian wine, Angleo Gaja (www.gajawines.com). A larger-than-life character, he showed us around his impressive cellars and renovated castle and talked almost non-stop for 90 minutes. Though it was clearly an honour, he did bang on a lot in a rather pompous fashion! He left the tasting to his daughter and the five wines we tasted were spectacular, but I soon realised that they were so expensive I may never taste them again!

After a simple but delicious lunch in the village, we headed to the vineyards of Bruno Giacosa (www.brunogiacosa.it) on the hills overlooking Serralunga where the autumn colours took your breath away; a riot of reds, yellows, browns and greens. The tasting of six wines back at their premises included a sparkling white and our first white made with the local Arneis grape. It was another good selection which proved Piedmont holds its own as a region of fantastic reds; I think I’m about to enter my Barolo period…..

Here are some photos….. 

 
You are invited to view Gareth’s photo album: Turin & Piedmont Wine Weekend
Turin & Piedmont Wine Weekend
Nov 1, 2009
by Gareth
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OPERA

At the Guildhall School of Music & Drama there was a pairing of Martinu and  Rossini one-act comic operas. I love these Guildhall opera evenings – always value and often a treat. I wasn’t mad keen on the music of the Martinu though I liked the production and performances (particularly Nicky Spence). The Rossini, an inspired setting in a lap dancing club, was a hoot, with Spanish soprano Elena Sancho-Pereg giving a sensational vocal performance. Who needs Covent Garden when you can have as much fun as this for a sixth of the price.

Roberto Devereaux at Opera Holland Park made for a nice summer evening. There’s something formulaic about Donizetti’s operas, his obsession with setting British history is intriguing, and the result – assorted queens, dukes and duchesses emoting histrionically in Italian – is somewhat incongruous. Having said that, this is the perfect opera for OHP’s backdrop and it looks both attractive & authentic, it was played and sung beautifully and a good time was had by all. OHP is a summer must and this rare outing of this opera was very welcome.

James MacMillan’s opera Parthenogenesis (fatherless conception) is based on a 2nd World War tale about a woman whose conception is triggered by a bomb blast. It’s an intriguing story but it makes for a slight 50-minute opera, which I’m not sure is worthy of the huge resources the ROH have heaped upon it. It has some lovely atmospheric music and passionate performances, but designing in restricted views for those at the side (well, certainly on the left) is unnecessary, inconsiderate and unforgivable.

I’d been so looking forward to Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Royal College of Music. As soon as I saw there was no designer credit in the programme, I groaned…..and so it was; an opera set in a forest without a tree, bush, branch or even leaf in sight. It’s not easy to enjoy Britten’s magical music in such an unmagical setting. It didn’t help that the Britten Theatre, with the most uncomfortable seats, was hot, stuffy and airless.

 CLASSICAL MUSIC

Another concert in Julius Drake’s English song series at the Wigmore Hall; this time with soprano, mezzo, clarinet and piano! The programme combined rarer pieces and curiosities with the usual suspects (which is probably why it was so empty) so it was different but complimented the earlier concerts in the series. I’ve really enjoyed these.

The programme for the City of London Choir’s concert of rarely performed English choral music was inspired – two works by Vaughan Williams & Holst bookending pieces by Britten, Parry & Foulds – with the symmetry of a secular first half with piano and harp accompaniment and a scared unaccompanied second half. Despite my love of British music, all bar VW’s Mass in G was new to me and it was an absolute treat.

I love work which breaks out of the theatre or concert hall, and this year Spitalfields Festival invited five extraordinary musicians and four composers from the Royal Academy of Music to create music in the old Huguenot houses of Spitalfields. We visited five houses in 100 minutes and were given solo Baroque Cello, Tuba, Flute, Clarinet and Violin (with electronic soundscape). In addition to four new pieces (all for violin) they included a whole range of composers from Bach to Turnage and I though the whole experience was enthralling, with a walk around the much gentrified Spitalfields a real bonus.

My only visit to this year’s City of London Festival was for a chamber programme by the Hebrides Ensemble at the wonderful Stationers’ Hall. The programme of this year’s festival is 60º North, linking music from Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Finland, St. Petersburg and the Scottish isles. Tonight’s programme had Sibelius, Shostakovich and Stravinsky plus three living Scots (or adopted Scots) Peter Maxwell Davies, James MacMillan and Judith Weir and a bonus from Iceland. It was inspired programming – challenging but thrilling – and the venue was terrific. I loved the way the organisers mingled with the punters over a (free) glass of wine in the interval. Bravo!

ART

The one-room exhibition of Picasso prints at the NG complements the main exhibition, but it was a mixed bag. Next door at the NPG there was a small but brilliant exhibition of photos of Bob Dylan’s famous 1966 tour. I never saw the tour, but it still felt nostalgic. Richard Long is an eccentric Bristolian who travels the world carrying out obsessive walks, creating art from nature. The trouble is, photos and word descriptions don’t do this justice and in this huge Tate Britain exhibition the one room of stone sculptures just isn’t enough to capture your imagination. Also at Tate Britain, BP Connections is a slim contemporary art exhibition but it does deliver one coup – a room of (seemingly) ethnic sculptures collected from around the world by the Chapman family. They turn out to be modern creations with hidden references to a hamburger chain, its character for kids and hamburgers themselves! The exhibition of actor Anthony Sher’s paintings at the NT is wonderful; he’s as good an artist as he is an actor. The portraits in this exhibition include his family, but it is largely made up of fellow actors. At the same venue, the 30th anniversary of Greenwich Printmakers is celebrated by a lovely exhibition which shows just how under-rated printmaking is. The exhibition is made up of a very eclectic selection, but its more hit than miss. I ventured into another unexplored part of fast up-and-coming arty E1 / E2 for an exhibition of 60’s photos by ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins, an extraordinary man who founded International Times and set up the UFO club. The pictures, which ranged from street kids to The Beatles via demos and drugs, were terrific. Futurism at Tate Modern proved much more extensive and exciting than I was expecting; an amazing range of work that is mind-blowing today, so imagine seeing this for the first time 100 years ago. At the same venue, a major retrospective of Danish artist Per Kirkeby (who I’d never heard of) started with a yawn, but rather grew on me. The sculptures were awful but the big canvases splashed with colour were lovely – very Hodkinesque!

FILM

Two of Britain’s greatest film directors have tried lighter fare with their latest outings. Whereas Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky failed to impress me, Ken Loach’s Looking for Eric proved to be a real treat – utterly charming and ultimately hopeful. I have little interest in football, no interest in Man United and to me Eric Cantona is some idiosyncratic Frenchman who uttered quirky statements at press conferences, but even I was captivated by what is clearly a bizarre cult. Nick Moran’s Telstar was a good play with a sensational leading performance by Con O’Neil. The story of 60’s record producer Joe Meek, it makes a good film but somehow I think it could have been a great one if he’d handed it over to another director able to bring objectivity and a new perspective. Con O’Neill reprises his role (less sensationally on screen) and is accompanied by a superb collection of young actors and a surprisingly good retired army major from Kevin Spacey!

OTHER

The prospect of a concert version of Kurt Weil’s first Broadway musical, after his exile from Nazi Germany, was a tempting one. It’s a First World War tale called Johnny Johnson which, for the 30’s, made very brave statements about young men as cannon fodder. In reality it’s a musical play, not a musical, and by including all of the dialogue it outstayed its welcome at over 3 hours. A curiosity, but not particularly entertaining.

I’ve got mixed views about classical ballet – I can’t stand the dancer hierarchies, the overly mannered performances, the sickly unnatural bows & curtain calls and the audience! – but when it’s good it takes your breath away as Jewels, a triple bill of Balanchine ballets to music by Faure, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky, did at Covent Garden. The costumes and sets were gorgeous, the three ballets were complimentary and much of the dancing – particularly from Carlos Acosta, Alexandra Ansanelli and Rupert Pennefather – really did take your breath away.

Taste of London in Regent’s Park has now become an annual must. It features 36 restaurants, each presenting 3-4 signature dishes for you to sample in small portions for between £3 and £6. It has grown to include cooking master classes, lectures, wine & other drinks, cooking shops etc. We found a nice place in the VIP enclosure and took it in turns to wander around and sample 10 dishes each. It has got very popular (it is now replicated around the world) and may become overstretched, but for now it’s still a fun afternoon.

Having heard about the completion of their renovations and added galleries etc., I couldn’t resist a trip to Northampton to see one of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s last commissions – 78 Derngate. It’s a small terraced house which is fascinating because it shows how he was evolving towards Art Deco – more geometric (triangles and straight lines) and stronger colouring (black combined with yellow, purple and turquoise). They have taken over two adjoining houses so that they can add galleries and the customary shop and restaurant. I particularly like the fact that they’ve given over galleries to modern designers for selling exhibitions.

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OPERA & CLASSICAL MUSIC

Handel’s Giustino, one of his 42 operas!, was given a very rare performance by Trinity College of Music in Wren’s wonderful Royal Naval College Chapel in Greenwich. The staging was a bit hit-and-miss but the singing was terrific. The venue has great acoustics and a wonderful atmosphere, but the pews proved a challenge for a bum-numbing 3 hours 10 mins. Welsh National Opera’s Queen of Spades is another feather in their cap. I found it a bit imbalanced, with a first act that dragged and the next three speeding along, but you couldn’t fault the innovative staging and fine performances and Tchaikovsky’s music is gorgeous. Peter Grimes is, in my view, the greatest opera of the 20th century and this spring at the ENO, it got the production it deserved. The orchestra and chorus under Edward Gardner were electrifying and have never sounded better. In a terrific British cast, John Daszak was a fine Peter with particularly stunning support from Felicity Palmer’s Mrs Sedley, Matthew Best’s Swallow, Gerald Finley’s Balstrode and Amanda Roocroft’s Ellen. This is one of the best things the ENO have ever done and it’s great to see this recently troubled company on such a roll.

I paid my first visit to London’s newest concert venue – Kings Place – for an OAE (Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment) concert of Handel concerti, arias and a short cantata and it was a treat. I’d never heard soprano Julia Doyle before but I can’t wait to see her again; she has a lovely voice. The OAE chamber group played beautifully and the venue really is terrific – two small halls of c.200 and c.400 seats with two galleries, restaurant and café and a canal-side setting. At St John’s Smith Square, the Lufthansa Baroque Festival opened with Handel’s oratorio Athalia. The German chorus & orchestra were exceptional as were the soloists, particularly Sarah Fox; though soprano Simone Kermes rather overdid her acting histrionics. A few days later, Handel’s opera Arianna in Creta, in concert at the Barbican, disappointed largely because in all truth the music is second rate Handel and its far too long. I was taken to a home concert in Kensington to hear South Africa’s entry to the Cardiff Singer of the World competition, baritone Dawid Kimberg, give a run through of his repertoire. He sang far too loudly for a drawing room, so that there was no light and shade and no subtlety and his choice of programme was a bit idiosyncratic – eclectic, but not the best of any of the composers chosen. Delius’ Mass of Life isn’t really a mass at all, but an oratorio based on Neitshe’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. I love Delius but I’d never heard this and it proved to be a complex and demanding piece, particularly for baritone Alan Opie who rose to the occasion magnificently. The Bach Choir and the Philharmonia were also lucky to have Susan Bullock, Susan Bickley and Nigel Robson as well as Alan Opie and it was a great performance. It has to be stopped at one point because an alarm had gone off in some lady’s bag; she bizarrely tried to sit it out until she realised the show would not go on. I’ve never seen so many dirty looks and I was amazed she had the nerve to stay.

 CONTEMPORARY MUSIC

Nick Lowe defines growing old gracefully and on his current tour he’s happy, charming and on great form. The selection was skewed to the 90’s but executed with perfection. I’ve never really taken to support Ron Sexsmith, but on this occasion I began to get the point – maybe he’s matured, or maybe I haven’t given him a fair crack of the whip until now. Anthony Hegarty is a bit of a one-off – when you hear him sing his hypnotic songs with his extraordinary voice you find it hard to believe it’s coming out of this tall, stocky, transgender, British-Canadian. I’d seen two earlier shows – one a collaboration with an artist and one with the LSO, but this was my first ‘bog standard’ Anthony & The Johnsons concert. Apart from a long ramble about climate change which continued into the song Hope Mountain thereby spoiling it, he sat at the piano in a half-light hardly engaging with the audience – but the sound that emanated from his mouth with piano / acoustic guitar / string accompaniment was heavenly. Malian singer / guitarist Rokia Traore has been a favourite since an impulsive visit to see her in Cambridge on a free evening during a short work assignment a few years ago. I think she’s moving too much away from traditional instrumentation, but when she’s rolling she’s simply terrific. She has one of the best rhythm sections I’ve ever heard and the whole Barbican audience was on its feet dancing – it was just impossible to sit still.

ART

I love the V&A’s comprehensive reviews of periods / styles which have in the past included Art Deco, Arts & Crafts, Art Nouveau, Modernism and Gothic. Baroque is just as comprehensive and if it’s less enjoyable that’s more to do with this OTT style than the exhibition. It really made the point that the style permeated everything and travelled far. I enjoyed the National Gallery’s Picasso:Challenging the Past much more than I thought I would. It’s a clever curatorial idea – how he paid homage to artists before him – that captures your imagination. At the NPG there is a stunning ‘installation’ of c.300 paintings of St. Fabiola by Francis Alys, based on an original now lost, discovered in places like flea markets and crammed onto 8 walls in 2 rooms. All but c.5 of them face left and all but c.15 are the same colour and it takes your breath away was soon as you enter the first room. I love Diane Arbus’ quirky 60’s portraits of real people but the exhibition at the Timothy Taylor Galleries was disappointing because of the overlap with her big V&A exhibition a few years back.

CINEMA

The British comedy Is Anyone There? featuring Michael Caine disappointed me – it was charming but it all seemed so contrived with a stunning British cast somewhat wasted. For some reason, I could hardy stay awake in Star Trek but what I did see seemed rather good, so I left the cinema deeply frustrated. I can’t say I understood Synecdoche New York but I was captivated by the surreal weirdness of it all. It made Kauffman’s earlier films – Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – seem positively straightforward.

OTHER

I was lucky to be invites to the London International Wine Fair, the major trade event. It was a bit of a maze and as a LIWF virgin I’m not sure I got the best out of it, but it was an excellent experience all the same.

I’ve wanted to see La Clique in Edinburgh but it’s normally at 1am and I’m not convinced anything can keep me awake at that hour in a darkened room. It’s been so well received in London that I was surprised to find myself underwhelmed. I was expecting edgy but got mainly mainstream and rather tame. Maybe it’s running out of stream after a long run.

The month ended at Bale de Rua, a colourful high energy Brazilian street dance show and the last in the Barbican’s BITE season. It started a bit over-slick and conventional but soon took off; another show picked up from the Edinburgh fringe.

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This was a weekend organised by someone we met on the South American wine tour back in February 2008 – three days in Languedoc-Roussillon in South West France, staying at Vinécole near Limoux and accompanied by The Observer’s wine writer and master of wine Tim Atkin. The region’s co-operatives are in decline and new (often foreign) wine-makers have moved in to set up more modern wineries and introduce new practices aiming at higher quality wines and things are changing fast. Whites and roses predominate over reds and there’s a huge variety of grapes including grenache, syrah, cabernet franc, macabeo, mourvedre, chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc, pinot gris, pinot blanc, muscat and mauzac.

Vinécole (www.vinecole.com) is a new venture by master of wine and former Safeway wine buyer Matthew Stubbs and Emma Kershaw, who brings both a training and gastronomic background. It’s adjacent to the Domaine Gayda winery with a converted old house containing four gites sleeping up to 20 people and a brasserie, poolside BBQ and training room. We stayed 2 nights in the accommodation, which has been nicely renovated and decorated – comfortable with lots of character.

After a lovely lunch, we visited Château Rives-Blanques (www.rives-blanques.com) in nearby Cépie, which was taken over 10 years ago by a Dutch-Irish couple, Jan and Caryl Panman. At the end of a walk in their vineyard they surprised us with an open-air tasting of Blanquette de Limoux, a sparkling white wine whose history pre-dates champagne and is alleged to be the inspiration for it. They were a lovely couple, clearly living their passion, preserving traditions but improving wine quality at the same time.

Neighbouring Domaine Gayda (www.domainegayda.com) is a modern winery owned by South African and British businessmen along the lines of lots I visited in South America and northern Spain, but with an enthusiastic young French wine-maker called Vincente. We’d had a very good gastronomic dinner there on the first evening and we went back in the morning for a fascinating tasting of 5 single vineyard syrah’s direct from the same oak barrels so that the only differences were age, soil, altitude and (micro) climate. We took our two favourites, with some grenache and mourvedre from the barrel, and experimented with blending back at Vinécole. It would be too boastful to mention who was in the team that won with a blend we called Chateau Margot after our tour organiser!

Lunch was a fantastic seven courses each matched with different wines from which I learnt a lot about matching; with a lot of surprises including whites that went really well with cheeses (I’m a real red-with-cheese traditionalist!). It was a struggle to find the energy for a visit to our third winery – Domaine Begude (www.domainebegude.com) – back in Cépie in the afternoon, but I’m glad I did because the hilltop setting was simply stunning. Here James Kinglake, a former city trader, had ‘opted out’ and spent his bonuses on a winery where chardonnay predominates. His approach was much more business focused than Jan and Carol but he was interesting and enthusiastic and his wines were good.

Here we met a new driver, Alison from Tooting!, who owned the minibus company when she wasn’t being a DJ on the local community radio station or engaged in a variety of pursuits including African dancing and was highly entertaining company. The following day she and Matthew took us on a spectacular drive through deep gorges to Maury in Roussillon for our first French-owned winery, La Préceptorie (we weren’t given brochures, tasting notes or contact details, which is a revealing contrast in marketing with the invaders!). We had a lovely welcome by the owner and export manager and a tasting in the vineyard. The setting was again stunning, this time with mountains towering above the vineyards on all sides. The trip ended with lunch in and a wander around Maury.

This was a real treat – a region of France new to me, learning things about wine blending and food matching, and some great food and wine. If you’re interested, Margot is repeating the trip in June – www.sidewayswinetours.co.uk. The link below will take you to some photos.

 

 
You are invited to view Gareth’s photo album: Languedoc-Roussillon Wine Weekend – May 2009
Languedoc-Roussillon Wine Weekend – May 2009
May 11, 2009
by Gareth
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‘Why?’ I hear you ask. Before I went I would have said ‘Why Not?’ After the visit, I can report lots of good reasons for visiting this welcoming and interesting city with lovely buildings, canals and green spaces.

 

I landed on my feet accommodation-wise at one of the best examples of the ‘boutique’ hotel in a nice part of town with bars, restaurants and excellent public transport (www.mozaic.nl). The rooms are spotless, stylish and comfortable and the (entirely female) staff couldn’t be more helpful. Though the exchange rate makes you wants to make you say ‘how much?’ to everything, the restaurants were very good; the highlight being a family-run Italian where you get what the lady of the house thought as best when she went shopping that day (though there’s a limited choice). It was a superb 4 courses, as good as any meal I’ve had in Italy, for 38 Euros.

 

The Dutch are very direct but they’re also very welcoming and tolerant. When I sat in 1st Class on the train in error the guard said, in perfect English, ‘never mind, don’t move, you’ll know next time’. My pre-booked tour of the parliament was in Dutch but they gave be a transcript in English, a simultaneous translation of the video and often stopped to ask if I had any questions. There were some sort of carnival celebrations while I was there and on my last evening there was a little bottle of wine and a bowl of Pringles in my room with a note ‘just in case you missed the carnival, have a drink on the house’. How thoughtful is that?!

 

The Parliament visit was very interesting, but the tour of the Peace Palace (home of the arbitration and mediation courts, but not the war crimes tribunals) was spectacular with sensational stained glass, silk wall coverings, paintings, ceramics, carved & painted ceilings and marble floors from all over the world. Such a beautiful building.

 

Art was another highlight, with the modern art museum proving particularly good. I’m not sure I liked the way the permanent collection was curated, with film and video in each room showing 20th Century events alongside the art, but there were a couple of special exhibitions – one showcasing a German artist called Christian Schad I’ve little knowledge of and another featuring artistic couples (O’Keefe / Stieglitz, Khalo/ Riviera etc.). The collection of Dutch art at the Maurithuis had its moments – Vermeer’s ‘Girl With A Pearl Earring’ and Rubens’ ‘Old Woman & A Boy With Candles’ – but a lot of mediocrity. The artistic highlight though was the Escher Museum; the most comprehensive collection of his work anywhere, in a palace with kitsch modern chandeliers. Talking of kitsch, I mustn’t forget Madurodam which is a miniature replica of most of Holland including cities, ports, airports and forests!

 

I made the mistake of choosing Sunday for a side trip to Delft which meant that you couldn’t visit it’s greatest attractions – The Old and New Churches. Still, it was a pretty town of canals just like you expect in Holland!

 

The Hague is a perfect weekend city which I would thoroughly recommend.

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I’ve got to like avoiding the excesses of a British Christmas and this was the 8th escape in the last nine years; the third to Italy. After a very busy two months, the sleep, fresh air and walking were particularly welcome (not that the food and drink were exactly unwelcome!).

I’d only been to Florence once before, something over 30 years ago, and hadn’t really liked it. This has proved a bit puzzling over the years, as so many friends have returned raving about it, so a 2nd visit seemed to be in order. I still stick to my view of the city as a city (though it didn’t help that last time I arrived straight from Venice!), but this time I appreciated what it contained.

We started with the architecture and statuary of Piazza della Signora, most notably a wonderful Neptune, a scary Perseus and The Rape of the Sabine Women (three intertwined bodies carved from a single piece of marble). These were eventually surpassed by Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia and by the sheer number of statues in the Bargello, but they’re out there where statues are supposed to be.

The highlights in a feast of frescos were in the priory cells at San Marco (though rather too many crucifixions and Madonna’s for my taste), in the Capella Brancacci hidden away south of the Arno, and in the Cappella Gozzoli in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi. The Medici’s were an extraordinary dynasty, a huge influence on Florence, great benefactors of the arts and apparently selected as royalty by the citizens themselves. Of course, this was accompanied by larger-than-life egos which means their crest appears absolutely everywhere and they turn up as ‘guests’ in works of art – looking modest whilst making it clear it was their cash what made it!

A side trip to Sienna brought us snow; atmospheric rather than restrictive. The Duomo is simply stunning and the frescos in it’s Libreria Piccolomini and a 13th century carved marble pulpit took my breath away, but there was also much pleasure to be gained from wandering the small streets and gasping at the scale of the Piazza del Campo.

Christmas lunch was at a restaurant on a hill overlooking the city – peccorino souffle, tiny ravioli floating in a capon consommé, roasted capon and chocolate cake washed down with copious quantities of prosecco and chianti – followed by a visit to the nearby San Miniatto del Monte to cleanse the soul and a long and much needed walk back to the hotel to cleans the body.

Though I enjoyed Christmas in Palermo and Rome more, I was glad I returned to Florence and those frescos and statues are now embedded in the memory.

Here’s a link to a small selection of photos:

 
You are invited to view Gareth’s photo album: Florence Christmas 2008
Florence Christmas 2008
Dec 22, 2008
by Gareth
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I enjoyed the February South American wine tour so much that here I am doing the same in Spain in October! This one is accompanied by wine writer Andrew Williams who hails from Pontypridd, 3 miles over the mountain from my home village of Abertridwr, and takes in 12 wineries in 7 wine regions (DO’s) in northern Spain. The most distinctive grape of these regions is tempranillo but there’s also viura, graciano, verdejo and more. The DO’s dictate percentages of grape varieties and minimum times in barrels and bottles for the Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva classification, but some wineries are beginning to opt out of this in order to be free to make what they want .

Before we’d even arrived at our first hotel, we stopped off at Palacio de Bornos in the wine region of Rueda (www.palaciodebornos.com) to taste their whites, mostly made with the Verdejo grape unique to the region. These were a very pleasant surprise and those like me, bored with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, might like to try them. Waitrose / Ocado have a verdejo/viura blend from this winery for £7. Here they were storing some wine in green jars in the open air, defying all wine-making rules.

Our first base was Zamora, the most westerly point on the trip, where we stayed at the Parador, a 15th Century nobleman’s home built around a central courtyard. Zamora is a small walled city on the River Duero with a large modern urban sprawl. The old town was very lived-in and un-touristy.

Our next visit was to the wine region of Toro, known for big reds made with tempranillo grapes. At Farina (www.bodegasfarina.com), after a tour of the winery, we tasted an ambitious 9 wines; a broader range than expected which included a white, a rose and a couple of dessert wines. The consensus was ‘mediocre’ but I rather liked them. I’m clearly less discerning and more easily pleased!

From here we headed to Dehesa la Granja (www.dehesalagranja.com) for a tasting over a very long, very tasty but very filling lunch. This is within the new DO of Zamora and is the 4th winery of someone who built an empire on the strength of one rave review from US writer Robert Parker. He’s renovated a deserted winery with an extraordinary underground ‘city’. His wines were good, but dreadfully over-priced – but who can blame him if American ‘sheep’ are prepared to pay 58 euros a bottle for what Parker described as ‘Spain’s Petrus’.

We moved on to the Ribera del Duero DO for a visit to Legaris (www.legaris.com), one of the new generation of investor-backed ventures which to my mind are a bit like wine factories – good wines, but without any distinctiveness or personality; a little like Lapostelle which I visited in Chile. It was a striking piece of modern architecture, though there didn’t seem to be anyone working there (apart from the lady who showed us around)! The tapas lunch was good though.

We managed a sight-seeing stop in Burgos en route to Rioja which was a treat. Burgos has a spectacular and enormous cathedral, within a lovely old town, which has been beautifully renovated and it was good to fit in some sightseeing between the food and wine.

Our second base was Haro on the northern edge of the Rioja region and our most northerly point on the trip. As a lover of Rioja, I began salivating as we approached! Out hotel was a 14th century monastery with a 21st century design makeover that worked wonderfully. Our first visit was virtually next-door at Muga (www.bodegasmuga.com) an old family firm with an excellent selection of wines. These got most people’s votes as the best of the trip. this was the only winery making (some of) their own barrels.

One of my personal favourite visits followed, at a gorgeous hillside estate called Remelluri (www.remelluri.com). This was the antidote to Legaris; lots of tradition, little hype and an over-excited winemaker who spoke so fast the translator could hardly keep up – and a wonderful lunch washed down with some great Reservas!

We were invited to dinner at Marques de Caseres (www.marquesdecaceres.com), a large producer with a big presence in the UK. Their Marketing Director turned out to be a lady from Glasgow and she laid on a great dinner with 8 surprising, cleverly selected accompanying wines. We even had a cheese tasting with a semi-sweet to accompany a blue cheese that knocked your socks off (the cheese, not the wine).

Before we left Rioja we visited Baron de Ley (www.barondeley.com) whose winery was built alongside a ruin of a monastery, which they used their first 10 years profits to renovate beautifully but hardly use. They were harvesting so we were able to see the full range of activities including grape selection and de-stalking. They’re aiming at the quality mass market (Mr Parker’s fan club) and as a result some of their wines didn’t seem like Rioja at all. A bit of a disappointment.

We now crossed into our 5th wine region, Navarra, and straight to another highlight at Senorio de Arizano (www.bodegaschivite.com) where architect Rafael Moneo has built a striking new winery wrapped around an old church, tower and house alongside a river surrounded buy 350 hectares of vines. They produced a great lunch with 4 accompanying wines in a lovely dining room with great views of the winery and vineyard.

Our third base was Tudela, our most easterly point and very much a working town whose run-down old quarter is slowly being renovated. The main square was colonnaded on two sides with balconies with crests suggesting it once housed bullfights. From here we visited two wineries. The first was Ochao (www.bodegasochoa.com), a family affair where the winemaking has passed from generation to generation and is currently in the hands of the charming 20-something daughter. This is the first winemaker we visited where the UK was their No.1 market, which just goes to show that we’ve got good taste and an eye for value.

The next visit was by far the most eccentric. Guelbenzu (www.guelbenzu.es) began making wines in 1851 but lapsed and re-stared some 25-30 years ago. The winery we visited was a run-down pink house in the heart of the village; you expected to bump into a Young Mr Grace anytime. They’d opted out of the DO so that they could break all the rules. Most of their wines were blends and I wasn’t too keen; when we got to the 8th it was all a bit of a blur anyway. The rest of the group raved – out-of-synch with the more discerning again! We followed this with a tapas lunch with even more wine; a siesta was the only option after that.

Our final visit was to the up-and-coming region of Calatayud where they mostly use the garnacha grape variety. We were told that the winery at Bodegas del Jalon (www.castillodemaluenda.com) was ugly so they brought 6 wines to a local restaurant for a tasting – followed by lunch, of course! These were amongst the best we’d had and it was a fitting end to the tour. Well not really the end, as we headed to Siguenza to spend our last night at the 12th century castle at the top of this lovely town that is now a parador. I visited here 2.5 years ago, but we didn’t stay, so though it was the only part of the trip where I was re-tracing my steps, it was a treat.

The wines on this trip illustrated how much Spanish wine has moved up the quality scale and how distinctive they can be. My worry is that as they try to satisfy the international market by increasing the use of international grape varieties like cabernet sauvignon and merlot, they will lose this distinctiveness. Let’s hope not – until then, lets enjoy them!

After tasting 76 wines there was just enough time for 4 hours in Madrid to catch some art; in this case the Reina Sofia Museum. The contemporary art collection may be the worst in Europe, the 20th Century modern art is rather dominated by the Spanish (like Miro), but the Picasso’s, and Guernica in particular, made the visit worthwhile (well, and the lunch in their new restaurant washed down with a rueda verdejo to take me full circle!).

There’s a link to some photos below.

 
You are invited to view Gareth’s photo album: SpainishWineTour2008
SpainishWineTour2008
Oct 13, 2008
by Gareth
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