Cozumel, Mexico – February 2017

12 Feb
Click here for the photos!

San Martin Beach, Cozumel, Mexico

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

The Mayan Riviera was certainly an entirely different Mexican experience than our more recent ventures into the Central Highlands and a previous trip to the Pacific Coast a few years ago. It wasn’t a trip entirely entered into with the full enthusiasm of most of our adventures but was more the result of having to forfeit our much loved annual skiing vacation in Colorado due to a knee injury. There were tears and tantrums but eventually we conceded that a less physically active vacation would have to take the place of our pre-planned trip to Breckenridge. So, I stuck a pin in the map and came up with an alternative destination for picture-perfect February weather on the Mexican Caribbean island of Cozumel.

To be fair, the weather was absolutely perfect. Puffy white clouds drifted across bright blue skies and a warm Caribbean breeze gently fluttered the curtains of our well-padded, hibiscus flower-adorned cabana bed overlooking the translucent turquoise waters at our hotel (The Explorean) on the west side of the island in the hotel zone. Aside from Coz Coffee (purveyor of the worlds most delicious vegan peanut butter coffee in the world… and probably the only purveyor of said coffee in the world), the town centre of San Miguel de Cozumel offered few delights. It is a concrete jungle of cheap bars, grim divers hotels and jewelry stores (as per every major cruise ship destination in the Caribbean).

So we rented a Jeep and headed off in search of beaches on the wild east coast of the island. It was a quality vehicle with a hand painted interior, copious quantities of mold in various stages of bio-hazard growth and a gearbox with more play than a 1973 Austin Allegro  😉 There are pretty much only 2 roads on the island – the coastal road running around the periphery of the island and a central road which crosses through the jungle – so Cozumel doesn’t really require a lot of time or effort to explore.

First stop was the (allegedly) ancient Mayan village of El Cedral dating back to 800 AD and subsequently discovered by Spanish Conquistadors who razed much of it to the ground (as was their wont). Aside from a small portion of a fertility temple which looked about as exciting as a dilapidated garden shed with bars at the window there didn’t seem to be any sign of anything vaguely ancient remaining in the village. On the upside, of course, we could have bought a Mexican hat or some ceramic ornaments if we had so desired 😉  Now, the village is full of weekend holiday homes for wealthy Mexicans, a few tourist shops and a tequila museum where Geoff sipped his way through a not inconsiderable quantity of samples before weaving his way back to the Jeep and continuing around the coast until we reached our first (and what should have been our last!) beach club at Punta Moreno.

Here, Geoff bee-lined to the nearest massage table on the beach and was charged the exorbitant sum of $90 for an hour slumbering in the breeze. Left to my own devices I marveled at how the locals were unilaterally attempting to destroy what would once have been an absolutely beautiful deserted east coast beach. Maybe once, 20 odd years ago, there would have been a palm leaf topped beach bar filled with character and charm. To be fair most of the island is still undeveloped but what has been developed has not been done with the greatest taste in the world. The coastline is littered with Disneyesque water parks of varying degrees of commercialization and none of it remotely attractive or appealing to the eye. I know that we are old and miserable now but we prefer not to spend our days lounging on the beaches with 100’s of other tourists in regimentally laid out regulation sunbeds getting slowly sozzled on beer in plastic cups. Concrete swimming pools and kids slides, multicolored plastic inflatables and parks where you can swim with unhappy looking dolphins is an abiding memory I could take home from Cozumel, but I won’t, because there were still pockets of loveliness and we did have a very relaxing vacation 🙂

Any day starting with a dip in the warm transparent waters, snorkeling along the Dzul-Ha Reef directly outside of the hotel, followed by ceviche and fish tacos for lunch at the beach bar and then ended sipping pina coladas and mojitos watching the sunset from the cabana bed is obviously a good vacation day. However, unless you are a die-hard diver or are trying to entertain a family of kids at one of the endless Disneyesque theme parks this is unlikely to be the Caribbean island of your dreams.

When we did actually tear ourselves away from our cabana bed with a view, I will concede that it was an absolutely beautiful drive on the east coast: crashing waves, sandy beaches, coral reefs and water in every shade of blue and turquoise. Happily, we stumbled across the almost deserted beach of San Martin where we laid claim to one of 4 or 5 palm covered shades so that Geoff could resume lazing and dozing in the sun and I could walk on real sand. The west coast hotel zone is largely reef with no sand which is why it’s big for divers and snorkelers as they can leap straight off the hotel docks into the water. However, what I really wanted to do was paddle about in the warm waves, soft sand between my toes, without my senses being assaulted by some hideous manmade, multicolored monstrosity designed entirely to relieve the tourists of their pesos.

Back at the hotel on Dzul-Ha Reef, thank goodness, the snorkeling was fabulous. Sunfish, Eagle Rays, Stingray, Yellowtail Snapper, Blue Tang, Horse Eye Jacks, Sergeant Major fish, Durgeon, Great Barracuda, Honeycomb Cowfish, Triggerfish, Parrotfish, Reef Butterflyfish, Grouper and Tilefish, Blue Chromis, Blue and Yellowhead Wrasse – the list goes on…. none of them hung around long enough to do any modeling shots but they were happy to let me snorkel amongst them at the surface.

The coral was a little brown and trodden down (the legacy of decades of divers and snorkelers before us since Cozumel was first made famous back in the 50’s) but the fish were entertaining… all except the jellyfish, of course, which seemed to find me inordinately attractive because I rarely left the water without having an encounter with one or two of the irritating little creatures swiping their transparent tentacles at me 😉  Geoff tended to head to deeper waters and spent most of his time free-diving whilst I dodged the jellyfish at the surface 😉

Columbia Reef at the bottom of the island was far more interesting and less trampled – partly because it was accessible only by boat.

A brief 30 minute ferry ride from San Miguel de Cozumel to Playa del Carmen on the mainland and an unbelievably overpriced Jeep rental (pushing $200 per day… hence the reason we only took 2 day trips on the mainland) saw us out and about doing what we like to do best – exploring the offerings of the country.

Firstly, however, we felt obliged to make a quick tour of Playa del Carmen which, in the end, comprised a desperate search for a coffee shop recommended by a friend (Ah-Cacao Chocolate Cafe where I indulged in a mayan hot chocolate 🙂 ) and a quick stroll down Calle 38 which was a pretty tree-lined avenue with great looking bars and street cafes in shady courtyards. The beaches were very narrow and wall to wall log-jammed with people so we headed north to the attractive fishing village of Puerto Morelos. Understandably, the town has fought hard to prevent hotel development, high rises and the slippery slope of the ubiquitous “beach clubs” from springing up along their waters. As a result it was probably the most authentic place we visited in our 8 days in the Mayan Riviera. It also had a very appealing vegetarian friendly cafe (El Nicho) which made us feel slightly less guilty about all of the fish tacos we had eaten back at our local beach shack 😉

Heading south of Playa del Carmen again we passed mile after mile after mile of massive conglomerate golf/spa hotels all, no doubt, with pristine parcels of jungle and immaculate white sand beaches. We were looking for something a little more accessible, rugged and slightly less enormous. After a few u-turns and frantic googlemap searching we finally located a dirt track with a hand painted sign pointing to the beach I was looking for. We could have gone to the beach club next door with the loud music and sat with the melee of other tourists and backpackers in their regimental rows of sunbeds but I was determined to find a less commercial ingress to the beach. It still cost $1.50 each extorted from us (I say this tongue in cheek as I have no objection to a little free enterprise) by a young girl sitting in her garden who diligently wrote down our license plate and then lowered the rope across the dirt track to let us pass through the family land until we pulled up at the end of the track, dumped the car in a ditch and emerged onto the most beautiful mainland beach we were to see for the entire vacation – Xpu-Ha. I have to say it was the best $3 we spent in 8 days 🙂

Another beach, another massage cabana, naturally! Poor Geoff endured yet another hour of pummeling with the breeze wafting through his hair, listening to the softly breaking waves whilst I frolicked in them like a child 🙂

Sufficiently rested we headed up to Akumal famous for it’s protected turtles nesting on the shore. Another horrendously touristy enclave with beach bars and chaos and locals trying to sell you guided tours of the waters. We were categorically informed that without a paid guide we would have no hope of finding even a single turtle… hmmm… we took our chances and headed away from the people soup and found 3 turtles within 30 seconds grazing on the grasses as far away as they could get from the noisy families and tour guides 😉

To round off a day of non-stop excitement, we threw in a side-trip to Cristalino Cenote. A cenote is a natural swimming hole in the jungle formed by the collapse of porous limestone bedrock. Many of them have subterranean rivers which you can dive and snorkel. They contain groundwater, tiny freshwater fish which nibble at your toes and they are absolutely brain-numbing freezing! In essence, you are swimming amongst the mangroves and tropical flora in crystal clear water teeming with fish… which felt a lot like swimming in a fish tank.

Back at the ranch, Geoff took it upon himself to teach the bartender how to make Bushwhackers and then plied his offerings to the other hotel guests until no-one could stand upright any longer 😉  The end to a perfect day!

Another day, another overpriced Jeep – this time we headed further south on the mainland to the ancient Mayan ruins of Tulum which has been on my bucket list for a while due to its stunning location on the coast. Despite our ridiculously early morning (6am – which is completely unacceptable on vacation!) we still didn’t manage to avoid the crowds… and by crowds I mean more people than I’ve even seen in my life trolling through the various ruins and sights. It was a miracle we managed to get any photos with as few people in them as we did. Once upon a time it must have been a fantastic place to have discovered and explored – ancient ruins in the jungle against a backdrop of spectacular white sand beaches and electric blue and turquoise waters. Now, the lawns around the ruins are mown flat and there is a constant stream of half naked people heading to the beach under the ruins which ruined the ambience somewhat! Actually, if I’m honest, there really isn’t any ambience – it’s just a hot, sweaty photoshoot opportunity in the jungle with 20,000 other people 😉

Happily, the day trip didn’t end there! I had my heart (and stomach) set on locating Raw Love on Tulum Beach south of the ruins. A vegan cafe, steps from the beach in an eco-resort serving the best carrot cake known to man 🙂  If we ever return to the Mayan Riviera it will be to Tulum Beach. The sandy beach road is lined with beautiful boutique stores with palm leaf roofs, creative and unusual bars, coffee shops and restaurants tucked into the jungle overgrowth. Totally bohemian, half back packer, half luxury eco-resort. We loved it. This is where we should have been hanging out for the week 🙂

I wouldn’t be as complimentary, however, about the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve not 10 minutes drive away. Allegedly a pristine piece of natural real estate – a World Heritage Site renowned for its flora and fauna. The literature promises jaguars, deserted beaches and an escape from the commercial world.

Again, I was aiming for a specific beach – Playa Akun – apparently the pièce de résistance of Mayan Riviera beaches. Our real world experience wasn’t quite up to expectations, however. We tried to pull up at the side of the road (where indicated from my various blog researches) and were moved on by a local selling boat trips under a palm tree opposite. We were directed to a beach club (big mistake) where the sign said we could park for $5. That was fine – after all this beach was the beach to end all beaches 😉  As the owner of the bar sauntered over to us we explained we only wanted to walk on the beach and swim and didn’t want to use his facilities – whereupon the price doubled – an entry fee per person – now $10. Hmm… OK… I told Geoff it would be worth it and the owner spent a good 2 or 3 minutes telling us how gloriously beautiful the beach was and that it was a small price to pay for such beauty… blah… blah… blah… The word “clean” was used relentlessly in both languages so I felt sure all would be well. We grabbed our towels and headed across the dune to be faced with 3 feet deep of rotting seaweed as far as the eye could see liberally strewn with litter – bits of old plastic, bottles, parts of boats, discarded mechanical parts… you name it 😦

Whilst I seethed in the afternoon sun, Geoff thought he’d make the best of it and use one of the beach club sun loungers under a palm tree. I don’t think it was as comfortable as Geoff led me to believe as the base was broken and had a nasty looking list to one side 😉  Frankly, the biosphere and the El Ultimo Mayo Tulum beach bar was an utter disgrace. I went off to rant at the owner at how disgusting his property was (in quite impressively constructed Spanish, if I say so myself !) and even he finally conceded through a toothy grin that the beach was filthy.

Anyway, I could take no more and suggested we try to retrieve the day by speeding all the way back up to Xpu-Ha beach for a final massage and a dip in the briny before we headed home. Thank goodness for Xpu-Ha 🙂

 

 

Mexico – December 2016

31 Dec
Click here for the photos!

View of Guanajuato from our Rooftop Terrace

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

As we loved Christmas so much last year in San Miguel de Allende we decided to head back to the Central Highlands of Mexico to the neighboring city of Guanajuato. Guanajuato is distinctly more “authentic” Mexico than the highly popular expat enclave of SMA in a variety of ways: in its slightly less buffed, polished and manicured streets and buildings; in the quality of its drains ;-); in the glaring absence of gringos and, as a consequence, the almost total lack of english speaking native residents. So… great for Geoff as he likes to escape our relatively pristine, sanitized world from time to time…but not so great for me as pretty much every transaction was down to me and my fast fading linguistic skills. Still, as you can see from the photos, we hardly starved to death through our limited ability to communicate!

Perhaps that owed more to luck than judgement – and undoubtedly more to the presence of the chocolate shop Xocolat in our second favorite square (Plaza de Baratillo). There are a couple of other distinct and fairly fundamental advantages of SMA over the more rustic and far less touristy Guanajuato. Firstly, the top rated restaurants in SMA are open over the entire Christmas period for the eating pleasure of the hordes of incoming wealthy American tourists and, secondly, options for vegetarians (or even pescatarians) were far more accessible there.

Mexicans celebrate Christmas on the 24th which is the day when families get together for Christmas dinner so the most revered chefs and their staff are on holiday on the 24th and don’t return to feed the masses until the 27th. Not brilliant news for us and definitely not great when you have no intention whatsoever of cooking your own Christmas dinner on one day – never mind 3!

As a consequence, we had some distinctly average meals for 3 days whilst we waited for the best chefs in town to return to work after their extended Christmas revelings! Thank goodness for the chocolate shop and the poor lady behind the counter whose cruel boss didn’t allow her time off for the celebrations 😉

Miraculously however, we did discover (after some frantic and hunger induced googling) that there are indeed a few options for vegetarians in this overwhelmingly meat-eating part of the country. We wouldn’t normally survive for days on a diet of falafel and hummus wraps (courtesy of the excellent Habibti)… nor on seaweed salad (at the equally excellent Japanese Delica Mitsu)… nor, in fact, on totally delectable French quiches (at La Vie en Rose) but we managed admirably in the circumstances and didn’t suffer any noticeable loss in weight 😉

Christmas Day itself remained a torturous problem for me (as chief vacation planner and restaurant booker) with everywhere closing for the holiday. So I racked my brains and eventually hazarded a guess that the very posh Villa Maria Cristina Relais and Chateau Hotel wouldn’t let its venerable inmates starve on the 25th. I was correct although on the big day itself Geoff very nearly lost the lining of his throat when he opted for an unidentifiable dish with double chilli sauce. My tentative warning fell upon deaf ears, of course. For a few moments, as I mopped up the tears streaming from his eyes, I suspected another falafel wrap might have been his preference for Christmas dinner after all 😉

Anyway, we didn’t starve, as I have said, for our week long escape from the excesses of a typical American Christmas and the best restaurant by far in a sea of really bad ones (Truco 7 being a particular low point despite its incredible popularity) is Los Campos – for anyone thinking of following in our footsteps. We were good vegetarians but pretty bad vegans. Aside from the 2 or 3 pounds of handmade chocolates we nibbled upon whilst sipping vino every afternoon admiring the spectacular view from our rooftop patio, we also stopped in a few times to Estacion Gelato… also highly recommended 🙂

Not to dwell entirely upon food the real highlights of this UNESCO World Heritage city are its architectural delights (Baroque Spanish Colonial, Neoclassical and Mexican Churrigueresque), its shady plazas with cooling fountains, its courtyards, its famed subterranean streets (which you can walk if you don’t mind inhaling life-shortening carbon monoxide) and its buildings painted in every color of the rainbow. The city is a veritable artists palette of color – the more fluorescent the better! The brightly colored steep, narrow, cobbled, residential streets radiate uphill from the central artery in the city and spread throughout the long, narrow valley. They say it is impossible to get lost here as all streets lead downwards. We gave it a try and strangely all streets did, in fact, lead back to Xocolat 😉

Guanajuato was founded in the 16th century by the Spanish when they discovered silver in the surrounding hills. By the 18th century it was the worlds largest centre of silver extraction. Perhaps they’ve sold it all because, try as I might, I couldn’t find a single piece of jewelry I wished to appropriate and re-home in the US 😉

We had a wonderful time staggering aimlessly up and down the winding residential alleys; watching the world go by from one of the beautifully ornate but hideously uncomfortable benches at the Jardin de la Union and enjoying the brass band performances in the bandstand; we listened to the mariachi singers wandering the streets; we had a couple of massages of dubious quality (mine was more akin to being lightly dabbed with particularly malodorous body lotion); we gate-crashed a Christmas wedding at the Basilica; we watched processions of singers clutching candles going door to door performing the “posada” (a re-enactment of Mary and Joseph looking for shelter) and we dodged children with large sticks beating candy-filled piñatas strung up across the narrow alleyways. On the subject of piñatas I received an unexpected Christmas present purchased (no expense spared) from one of the stalls at Mercado Hidalgo. Lucky me! Just what I always wanted – my very own candy-filled papier-mâché crepe paper covered yellow, orange and pink piñata donkey. We took him for a walk to our favorite plaza – Plaza San Fernando – to see if we could find a deserving new home for him for Christmas. It didn’t take long… it looked as if his new owner was going to love him forever 🙂

Christmas Eve was as noisy, chaotic and terrifying as usual in Mexico. The fireworks started at 10pm and went on all night echoing across the valley until 7am on Christmas Day. It is impossible to sleep even with the very best earplugs known to man when the kids on the street outside of your bedroom window are letting off rockets all night long less than 3 feet from your eardrums. Our alleyway was littered knee-deep the following morning with the debris of a million exploded and unexploded fireworks, sparklers and other exotica (which is one reason why we’ll be going to the Caribbean for Christmas 2017, if I get my way 😉 ).

In addition to the usual street entertainments, food markets and arts and crafts stores to keep us occupied there are also a plethora of highly-rated museums in the city. However, the closest we got to the inside of any of them was the coffee shop in the Quijote museum. We are planning on saving the more intellectual tourist pursuits for when we retrace our steps around the planet when we are 80 so read no further if you seek intelligent comment and advice. On matters of caffeine, however, we can highly recommend our local purveyor (Cafe Tal). We felt we’d earned a shot by the time we’d staggered down hill to the city centre from our house on Callejon del Espinazo every morning.

Whilst I have touched upon the subject of our adopted neighborhood for the vacation, I would say that it was certainly interesting and definitely authentic! Stray dogs… local residents milling aimlessly at strategic points up the hill having a chat or perched on the steps savoring a beer or two with their amigos… and makeshift stores in the front rooms of homes selling Christmas decorations paired with plumbing supplies. Without doubt, it is very helpful to know (for future reference) that you can pick up a replacement u-bend at the same store as you can buy those last minute emergency twinkly lights for the tree.

Naturally, it is the height of rudeness in Mexico not to say good morning/afternoon and/or evening to everyone who passes you on the steep pedestrianized streets (which is nice). It also pays (according to the one and only American we bumped into and who is now a full-time resident) to smile sweetly at everyone – man, woman and child – to avoid any unnecessary run-ins with the local mafia. We certainly didn’t want to offend the locals and it is for this reason alone that we suffered silently through a second night of sleep deprivation when a roving band of mariachi singers (together with full musical entourage) wound its way slowly down our hill and stopped outside of our bedroom window for a good 45 minutes at 3am. Literally blasted out of our reveries for the second time in 24 hours by a trumpet so loud that the trumpeter might as well have been sitting at the bottom of the bed. We were tempted to stick our heads out of the window and encourage them to move along for their own safety but we decided that discretion was the better part of valor … for our own safety 😉

Anyway…we loved Guanajuato as much as we loved San Miguel but for different reasons. Geoff preferred the more raw aspects of Guanajuato and I couldn’t choose between them as they are both fabulous in their own ways.

We still love Mexico but next Christmas we are going somewhere more sedate and fitting with our advancing years where we can get some sleep 😉

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

England – October 2016

13 Oct
Click here for the photos!

Arlington Row, Bibury, Gloucestershire

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

For reasons unknown (but probably connected to my advancing age) my memories of England have become thoroughly romanticized over the last few years. Geoff is far more pragmatic about it but my ears have been firmly plugged for a while against our friends’ complaints of rain, relentless grey skies and penetratingly cold temperatures for months on end. My memory of those frigid, pitch black mornings in winter when I left for work to head to the office (returning in exactly the same bleak wintry conditions after a day of busy lawyering) have been miraculously erased by the passage of time 😉

“My” England is a verdant pasture of rolling hills and patchwork fields… mist rising on meadows in the morning clearing to a beautiful blue sky… puffy white clouds drifting across the horizon… lambs skipping through farmers’ fields and wild flowers blooming in the hedgerows…

Purple wisteria, pink clematis and old english roses tumble over walls and clamber around doorways… honey-colored limestone cottages are warmed golden in the afternoon sun… there are thatched cottages… village fetes… quaint medieval villages and market towns with bustling town squares… friendly village pubs… frill-decorated tea shops with homemade scones, clotted cream teas and Victoria Sandwich cake (preferably the labours of a couple of blue-rinsed elderly ladies from the local Women’s Institute).

There are peaceful churchyards… babbling brooks… manor houses and country house estates with glorious herbaceous borders… and most importantly, there are enduring towns and villages “of substance” and of history which have survived for hundreds of years largely unscathed by the less appealing ravages of time and modernization…

Obviously, Geoff thinks I have completely lost my marbles but I know that there are pockets of this England still remaining and… even better… I know where to find them! 🙂

Surprisingly, I won the battle for risking the notoriously unpredictable British weather in October again and this year (post an admittedly considerably warmer European vacation) we headed into the Cotswolds, one of my favorite parts of Ye Olde England, and more importantly, one which I know fits the description of “my perfect England” almost entirely 🙂

….all I had to do was keep my fingers crossed for equally perfect autumnal weather otherwise I may never hear the end of it 😉

To make the whole romanticized package even more wonderful I made a reservation at a particularly charming country house hotel (Abbots Grange) for the weekend in Broadway, one of the Worcestershire Cotswolds villages and one of the most picture-perfect and well-known of the Cotswold Hills region. To add a cherry to the top of our long anticipated weekend in the glorious English countryside we invited two of our best friends to join us, Gary and Tracey 🙂

Abbots Grange is a medieval monastic manor house built in 1320 with fully functioning contemporary 2016 plumbing.

Four poster beds… full and plentiful English breakfasts (with vegetarian sausages 😉 )… scrambled eggs and smoked salmon… croissants worth every calorie… afternoon tea and cakes fresh from Huffkins Tea Shop. We loved it – in all of its understated elegance and (simultaneous) pretentiousness.

Even better, it was a 2 minute stroll to a particularly good gastro pub (The Swan) and our postprandial evenings were passed sipping whisky and sherry in the great room with its fabulous exposed beam vaulted ceiling warmed by a roaring log fire.

What more could you want?

The Sky Gods hadn’t received my memo requesting the crystal clear blue sky on Saturday morning but they had at least given us a break from the rain, wind and/or freezing temperatures which Mr Negativity was predicting 😉 So we spent the day pottering aimlessly through the streets of Broadway, along the River Coln and Arlington Row in Bibury and down the High Street of the steep-hilled market town of Burford where we stopped in for an emergency 3-tiered afternoon cream tea… as you do 😉

In an effort to burn off a fraction of the thoroughly indulgent and unnecessary calories we shuffled off in the late afternoon in the direction of one of the most well-known short walks in the Cotswolds between the villages of Upper and Lower Slaughter. Wardens Way – part of the Great Cotswold Ramble – passes through meadows with grazing sheep, alongside the River Eye, crosses footbridges and passes millponds and an historic mill.

Only a 2 mile round trip, it would barely have burned off even one of the clotted cream and strawberry jam laden scones (let alone the array of crustless finger sandwiches and other sugary delicacies) but it was invigorating to stroll through the fallen golden leaves (the first chill of autumn in the air) and pretend that we were getting some exercise 😉

Happily, the Sky Gods were far more benevolent on Sunday. I flung open the old hinged windows in the Gardner suite letting the cold morning air pour in. I kicked Geoff out of the warm comfort of the four-poster bed and slung him (with some protest) under the shower with rather more urgency than normal for 7.30 on a Sunday morning. A lazy morning sipping earl grey tea in bed and nibbling on Huffkins lemon shortbread before breakfast was definitely not on the cards once I had spotted the sun rising in a clear blue sky 🙂  I, for one, was not going to pass up the peaceful tranquility of bundling up and strolling the early morning streets of Broadway before the clouds rolled back in.

It was all utterly lovely 🙂

Once the rest of our party had dragged themselves unenthusiastically from the warmth of their own four-poster bed we continued the aimless explorations and passed through Stow-on-the-Wold and Moreton-in-Marsh (where more emergency pre-lunch tea and cake were consumed in yet another frilly tea-shop) before our parting Sunday lunch in a pub in Bourton-on-the-Hill.

The common consensus was that Broadway was (hands down) the loveliest and most livable village and if we ever decide to invest in a summer holiday cottage back in our drizzly homeland to escape the heat of a typical Floridian summer in our dotage, it will be there 🙂

Burford is no doubt more famous with its sweeping views and beautiful High Street filled with tea rooms and antique shops but Broadway was still the firm favorite.

Neither Moreton-in-Marsh nor Stow-on-the-Wold could match the immaculate, peaceful, timeless, middle-class aura oozing from every dwelling and shop front in Broadway with its select few stores, gorgeous stone cottages and upscale cafes and restaurants.

The most diminutive village and the most popular with the tour buses was Bibury which was positively thronging with Japanese tourists. Their poor bus driver was trying to unsuccessfully round them up as they chattered excitedly and milled about in the main road taking photographs of each other on the bridge whilst the traffic dodged around them. I felt even more sorry for the poor local residents, however, who must have had some bizarre interactions over the years with foreign tourists escaped from their guides. This tiny village is just about the last place on earth that I would have expected to see “Private – no entry” signs pinned onto farmyard and garden gates written in Japanese, Korean and Chinese 😉

Of course, the quintessential English village “experience” was further enhanced in “near-perfect” Broadway by bumping unexpectedly into the Adlington Morris Men on a tour of the Cotswolds from Cheshire. It doesn’t get any more eccentrically British than standing in a chilly autumnal village square watching grown men dressed in top hats, white shirts, cropped trousers and long white socks, decorated liberally with striped green, yellow and red ribbons with bells hanging from their shins dancing around in circles to the music of an accordion whilst smashing sticks together over their heads. There are, apparently, stories to be told in this traditional form of dance but I have always been far too transfixed by the apparent lunacy of it all to consider the greater meaning 😉

The weekend sadly over, we headed with heavy hearts to London where the sun continued to shine (lucky me!). Geoff was otherwise engaged with meetings in the London office whilst I made the best of the weather and braved the rush hour crowds streaming across London Bridge and through the Square Mile. I couldn’t resist another photo shoot meander past the spaceship exterior of Lloyds of London and through the spectacularly decorative Leadenhall Market building.

I made it unscathed from the sea of bankers, lawyers and other suited city types and continued along the river around the Tower of London and across Tower Bridge to join, instead, a sea of other happy-snapper tourists. I passed through Southwark, by the Shard and into Borough Market (with its diverse, cosmopolitan market stalls selling everything from bubbling cauldrons of paella to fresh fish, French cheeses, saucisson and organic green juices) before catching the tube out to Camden to wander amongst the weird, wonderful and frankly inexplicable in Camden Lock and its Stables Market stalls under the railway arches.

Whilst Geoff was busy at work I took the opportunity to bundle up my octogenarian mother into the car and whisk her away for the day back to the Cotswolds! I hadn’t been to Bourton-on-the-Water for a good 20 odd years and I was interested to see if it had stood the test of time and survived the deluge of tour buses arriving on a daily basis. Unfortunately not. The shallow, fast-flowing River Windrush still runs through the village criss-crossed by stone foot bridges and the ducks still waddle around the green but I fear that the village has all but lost its identity to a rash of cheap cafes and tea-rooms catering to one-time visiting tourists. The only upside was the discovery of an artisanal bakery next to the Motor Museum where mum and I enjoyed “2nd lunch” sitting by flower-filled pots next to the river in the sun (mainly because “1st lunch” at the Small Talk Tea Room was so awful that I needed cheering up with a decent pot of earl grey and a particularly delicious upside down cake). Lesson learnt… never eat in a deceptively chintzy tea-room in Bourton. Should I ever pass that way again I would head straight for Bakery on the Water 🙂

The trip nearly over, I managed to squeeze in another (slow) walk with my parents through Eton, shuddering once again with memories of my early childhood in infant and junior school (the mere sight of those school gates at Eton Porny still makes me come out in a cold sweat), across the famous Eton Bridge into Windsor and along the River Thames to see the swans, the house boats and Windsor Castle in the distance.

As a parting gesture we took my parents to dinner and got them tipsy on a few sips of a shared martini. They are tea total so it was vaguely amusing although, obviously, very irresponsible of us 😉

By our last day the thermometer was dropping rapidly. It had rained overnight so it was bone-chillingly cold (which is, of course, a good thing for those departing their homeland again for almost another whole year) and even I will have to admit that it will be nice to get back to sunny Florida now for the winter to warm up 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Portugal – September 2016

7 Oct
Click here for the photos!

Monsaraz, Portugal

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

We miss Europe from time to time… the Europe of my daydreams to be absolutely specific! Geoff is a little less romantic in his musings…

Cobblestone streets, secluded courtyard cafes, abundant history, ancient architecture, plazas, fountains… the occasional whiff of ancient roman drainage systems 😉 … and, most of all, a sense of permanence that its ancient cities and towns have stood the test of time.

When I am feeling particularly “European” I suggest to Geoff that we should spend more time there and maybe even think about investing in a modest pied-à-terre somewhere in some (as yet undiscovered) town, city or beach destination which we could call home for a few months of year to escape the steamy floridian summers.

Neither of us have ever been to Portugal – too close to England to be “exotic” enough for a vacation destination when we lived there – and now that we are precisely 4250 miles away it is too far away to nip over for a quick visit or a long weekend. Still, my extensive research had lead me to consider the Algarve as a possible future summer destination – popular as it is with British ex-pats.

So, when the opportunity arose, I planned an exploratory visit with English friends Dave and Ali to see if Portugal might fit the bill.

First stop – Obidos – just north of Lisbon, a beautiful fortified walled town with cobblestone streets and traditional white-washed houses. Once owned by the Queen of Portugal, Obidos is one of the most picturesque and immaculately preserved towns in the country, albeit hardly undiscovered!

Excited to find our cottage as quickly as possible we did as instructed by the owner and followed the GPS directions from the airport. All was fine until we reached the outer walls of the town after which the GPS had no clue whatsoever where the cottage was located. She made a valiant effort at first, burying us deeper inside the maze of one-way cobbled streets and narrow alleyways (never intended to be traversed by anything wider than a donkey) and then, frustratingly, back out again onto the main road. After 45 minutes of circumnavigating the tiny walled town, having been led down increasingly narrow one-way switchbacks and then instructed to reverse back up or down hill again in the pitch black our cheery vacation goodwill started to falter. Geoff and I had flown overnight to the UK and then caught the afternoon flight from Heathrow straight to Lisbon so it was something in the region of 2am for us after a sleepless transatlantic night the day before. We were in no mood or condition to humor the GPS indefinitely and finally Geoff’s valiant perseverance failed him and he pulled the car up at the side of an unidentifiable road somewhere deep in the inner walls. We called the owner who abandoned her dinner to come and find us in the dark. We weren’t optimistic that she would even find us but suddenly she appeared through one of the stone archways and we all breathed a sigh of relief 😉

Miraculously, it transpired that we had abandoned the car less than a 2 minute walk from the cottage which was fortuitous as we had to drag our multiple cases of luggage (and bags of shoes 😉 ) up dark, uneven, ancient stone steps to the front door. With no sense of irony whatsoever the owner complained that nobody’s GPS could ever seem to find the house. What a surprise! I was too tired to suggest that it wouldn’t be beyond the wit of man (or woman) to provide a map to her paying customers in advance so that she didn’t have to be dragged out late at night every couple of days to find them in the dark nameless streets of Obidos 😉

We dumped our bags and wandered into the almost deserted town for dinner and life improved immediately with our discovery of a traditional local drink called Ginja de Obidos – cherry liqueur served in a chocolate cup. Things were looking up 🙂

We were wide awake the following morning to watch the sun rise from the terrace over the surrounding cottages and the town walls which was glorious. We encouraged Dave and Ali out of bed and headed into town to explore before the deluge of tour buses transformed the peaceful streets. All was lovely until 10.05am when a tour bus arrived and simultaneously all of the stores opened and the streets were filled with the paraphernalia of the tourist industry… mementoes, postcards and Portuguese tiles.

We escaped the worst of it by walking the walls before the sun got too hot and then hiding out in a cafe in a walled garden. It was all quite lovely and we passed a very relaxing day and a half soaking up the atmosphere – largely pre tour bus arrival and post exodus 🙂

Heading south to the Algarve, where we would be spending another 4 or 5 days we passed the coastal town of Cascais en route. Dave had been there decades before and described it with some fondness and my research confirmed that it would be worthy of a detour… so I can’t really blame him entirely 😉

Our first impression was encouraging but it was, sadly, fleeting. It all went rapidly downhill as we stumbled past an Irish bar, an English pub and a raft of burger bars. Abandoning our overpriced parking space we unanimously decided that this probably wasn’t for us, so I grabbed some emergency Portuguese egg tarts and wallowed in my disappointment covered in flaky pastry crumbs and road maps in the back of the car 😉

If I’m honest, I’m not sure that the Algarve itself was actually a great improvement over Cascais. There were some definite highlights but it didn’t take us long to work out that it was unlikely that this part of the country would be a long-term future summer destination for us in our dotage.

For those seeking travel guidance I would highly recommend not bothering to get out of the car at either of the following hotspots – Vilamoura (which is simply ghastly) or Carvoeiro (unless you are desperate to find a cheap cafe serving beans on toast for breakfast). Having said that, the view of Carvoeiro and the old whitewashed fishing cottages from the coastal path opposite is quite stunning.

If you have 5 or 10 million sterling going spare you might think of building yourself a mansion at Vale de Lobo with its very pretty yellow sand beach, backed by red sandstone cliffs. I can see why the well-heeled Brit might want to escape the bleak British winter by buying a golf villa here but, at the end of the day, it is an utterly soulless modern enclave… not at all what I had in mind for our own summer pied-à-terre.

Lest I sound too negative I will allow that there were a few worthy highlights in the Algarve 🙂 😉

The coastal walks linking various villages and towns were absolutely beautiful. Part boardwalk and part rough clifftop, the views were well worth the effort of having flown half way across the world to see them 🙂

Our first clifftop walk, however, at spectacular Praia de Marinha nearly brought our adventures to an abrupt and bloody end. To cut a long story short Geoff was trying to haul me up onto a clifftop view point (on the other side of which was an abyss) and for reasons neither of us can now fathom, instead of launching forward I toppled backwards landing on a stone wall. In an effort to prevent me dashing my head open on the rocks (which probably would have put a damper on the holiday) he clung on to me and, in so doing, I (effectively) pulled him off the wall and he landed on top of me impaling his flip-flopped toes into the wall. I’m not sure why he wasn’t wearing his walking shoes like the rest of us but there you are…

Poor Geoff was hopping about coloring the air with shades of iridescent blue – his big toe-nail bent backwards and my elbow (which luckily had lost all sensitivity) was pouring blood down my white shorts.

Not to be deterred (once Geoff had stopped hollering and hopping about and I had dabbed ineffectively at whatever biological horrors were ingrained in my elbow) I insisted upon seeing the view I had missed. My camera operating finger was, after all, still fully functioning 🙂

Another day trip took us to Ponta de Piedade and the town of Lagos. The coastal walk here, at one end of Lagos, was equally as fabulous as Praia de Marinha. The Algarve did not, at least, fail to impress us with its dramatic rocky coastline, sea caves, inlets and pristine beaches far below us. No injuries sustained this time around we ventured into Lagos which was considerably more attractive, civilized and authentic than the above-mentioned towns.

To add icing to the cake of aesthetic loveliness (the architecture, the tiled buildings, the waterfront promenade, hidden alleyways with cafes and boutique stores) we fell upon the London Tiger Coffee shop. This fine establishment served excellent metro-style coffee with homemade cheesecake and as much free Scottish tablet (fudge) as ones arteries could take… all served up by a friendly Scottish retiree who had always wanted to own her own coffee shop 🙂

Glossing over the more obvious signs of the locals having sold out something of the authenticity of their town to the needs of the massive annual influx of Brit holiday makers, we decided that we liked Lagos 🙂

Tavira, the “other” Algarve, however, we loved 🙂 Again, hardly undiscovered but it is certainly a gem which remains reasonably untouched by the worst of the British pub, fish, chips and a pint of Watney’s beer brigade. Tavira is a traditional fishing town (replete with the requisite whitewashed buildings and colorfully tiled houses) located on the banks of the tidal Gilao River.

Dave and Ali were unable to join us on the rest of our explorations as they had to return to England so we left them and the Algarve behind us and drove north to the Alentejo region of Portugal in search of authentic Portugal.

They don’t know what they missed! 😉 🙂

Our next night was to be spent in Evora but en route to this much lauded city we crossed the sun-baked plains of the Alentejo and headed uphill to Monsaraz for lunch. Monsaraz is high up on a rocky outcrop on the banks of the Guadiana River which forms the border with Spain to the east. A tiny fairytale walled medieval village (originally fortified by the Knights Templar) is today a hamlet of narrow, winding cobblestone streets and flowering vines draped over immaculate 16th and 17th century whitewashed homes. We wandered into a tranquil village square. In the shade of the church 2 elderly residents sat chatting with an equally ancient dog asleep at their feet. They didn’t look too troubled by the woes of the 21st century world 😉 We climbed the granite stone castle battlements and gazed down upon this perfectly formed village and its expansive countryside views 342 meters below. At last – we had found the Portugal that we were looking for 🙂

Reluctant to leave on one hand, I was also anxious to see if our 24 hours in Evora – a UNESCO World Heritage university city – would live up to my hopes. A historic city of wealth and culture: museums, public gardens, ornate Venetian architecture, plazas and courtyards, street cafes, roman ruins dating from the 1st century A.D. with impressive fluted granite columns, churches and a Cathedral, boutique shops, good restaurants, cobblestone streets, a fabulous back street bakery, the beautiful main square Praça do Giraldo, a 16th century aqueduct and a vaguely chilling Chapel of Bones created by Franciscan monks around the 17th century.

What more could anyone want? 🙂

Breakfast at the Pastelaria Conventual Pao de Rala, decorated with ornate blue azulejo tiles, was to die for: portuguese egg tart, plum cake and a croissant – all freshly baked (reputedly by a white-robed nun from the convent) and washed down with café latte. You have to admire any nation which can function effectively on a diet constituted almost entirely of cake 🙂

This was the cosmopolitan, sophisticated Europe we love and miss so much… a million miles from the Algarve…

I wish we could have stayed another night and revisited Pao de Rala but we would have burst straight out of our shorts if we had enjoyed another one of the sugary breakfasts so we headed further east towards the Spanish border en route to Marvão.

A nice man at the tourist office in Evora had recommended an unscheduled lunch stop at Vila Vicosa, a sleepy town in the heart of the marble mining region with a huge marble palace and an attractive central plaza with orange trees. On the hill just above the town there is a 13th century castle encircling a dusty little village complete with impressive church and gleaming white graveyard fabricated entirely from marble. The castellated village seemed to have been almost entirely forgotten by time.

Back in the central plaza in the “newer” side of town we were treated to a local delicacy – gazpacho. Not exactly a stranger to gazpacho, I was very surprised to find it served with an unanticipated side plate of salami (oh dear 😦 ) and a cheese omelet. The soup consisted of luke warm clear water with a few solitary chunks of cucumber and tomato floating forlornly in an olive oil slick at the surface… If this is typical of the Portuguese version of gazpacho I’ll give it a wide berth in the future.

Luckily, no time to linger long over the soup we had to reach Marvão before sunset. The countryside became more hilly and wild as we passed farmsteads, cottages and groves of chestnut and cork trees for which the region is famous. With the sound of chirping cicadas around us and the temperature gauge pushing an unexpectedly high 30c/86F, we caught our first glimpse of the famous village and its castle perched way up on a granite outcrop. We wound onwards and upwards via a steep, serpentine road punctuated by hairy hairpin bends. We squeezed the car through the fortress walls and finally entered our soon to be favorite Portuguese village.

Marvelous Marvão is a medieval, fortified, hilltop village (one of the most iconic and beautiful in Portugal) replete with white-washed cottages, terra cotta roofs, gothic arches, ornate Manueline 16th century windows, wrought-iron balconies and a castle. From its lofty perch at 843 m (2900 feet) it has a commanding view over the Natural Park of the Sao Mamede Mountains, the Iberian plateau and the surrounding hills and villages. Only 10 miles from the Spanish border this tiny town has hosted Romans, Arabs and, happily for us, relatively few other tourists 🙂 It was an oasis of peace and tranquility. From our vantage point on the wall of the 13th century castle, the panoramic sunset view over the mountains and valleys, the picturesque town and its various churches, the convent and the ornate gardens were breathtaking. Overhead, swifts were dive-bombing and swooping into the rocky crags and there was utter silence around us. It was absolutely fabulous 🙂

Breakfast on the terrace watching the sun rise over the mountains, bathing the walls of the castle with a warm early morning glow, was equally spectacular.

It was hard to leave… we should have stayed for a few days hiking in the surrounding countryside but even paradise in the mountains has a flaw. No bakery! No Portuguese egg tarts within miles! Obviously, that simply wouldn’t do so we threw our cases back into the car and descended once more to the 21st century passing back through the dusty sun-baked plains, traversing hills and valleys, and through olive groves and vineyards en route to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Sintra, close to Lisbon.

Oh boy, from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Traffic was log jammed trying to get into the small town centre and the sidewalks were packed 4 deep with people. Tourists strayed aimlessly across the roads packaged and labelled with sticky blue name tags so that their tour guides could find them easily and round them up if they strayed too far from their designated tour routes.

We wound our way down an alarmingly narrow, steep and tortuous road, hemmed in by high stone walls until we found the apartment which would be home for the next 2 nights. In all the chaos of the town centre, the apartment was, thankfully, an oasis of calm with a gorgeous flower-filled garden, arches, patios, statues and views over the valley below. And even better it was only a 5 minute walk back into the madness for sustenance and the welcome respite of a half decent coffee shop filled to overflowing with Portuguese egg tarts 🙂

Still, we hadn’t driven all that way back across the country just for me to continue my pilgrimage around Portugal’s bakeries so, refreshed, we tackled the crowds and made the grueling trek to visit our first palace. As I am chief planner, researcher and vacation booker Geoff rarely knows where we are heading to – or with what purpose. Occasionally he asks for a brief synopsis of the intended grand tour upon our arrival in a new destination but rarely does he look at me in bewilderment and ask “What on earth are we doing here?” 😉

We could have ventured instead (I suppose) even further north from Marvão to Monsanto (another pristine hilltop village) – which we certainly will visit next time we are in Portugal. However, as variety is the spice of life, I chose to visit the extraordinarily popular destination of Sintra to see the renowned UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Parque Natural de Sintra.

First stop, the Palacio y Jardines de Regaleira (Regaleira Palace) with influences from Gothic, Moorish, Egyptian and Renaissance architecture. A building with a highly ornate façade and a very dusty interior. Attractive wooded gardens with shady, winding paths, terraces, turrets, grottoes, pitch black tunnels and a subterranean tower with a descending spiral staircase known as the Initiation Well – used for Tarot initiation ceremonies. One of the wells has 9 platforms descending 27 meters (88 feet) underground and it is said to represent Dante’s 9 circles of Hell, 9 sections of Purgatory and 9 skies of Paradise. At the bottom of the well is a compass and a Knights Templar cross.

Finally! Geoff cheered up once there was something more magical and mysterious to contemplate than a dusty, boring old palace 😉

Still, there was a vaguely Disney feel to the whole experience as people clambered irreverently over turrets and walls for family group photos but this was Disney without the sensible rules and organized herding which we all know is intended to keep everyone safe from their own stupidity 😉 Where there is no control there is utter chaos. Wedged in a turret at the top of a tiny spiral staircase (wide enough for only 1 very diminutive person at a time to pass), a stream of giggling, oblivious Portuguese visitors continued to force their way up the staircase until we were pinned flat against the turret wall trying to avoid being pushed clean over the edge of the tower. We wondered at what stage the climbers would realize that there was simply no more physical space into which to squeeze another human before someone was squashed to death 😉

A similar Portuguese laissez-faire approach to the safety of the general public culminated in an exciting interlude watching grandma being rescued by the emergency services from the centre of Waterfall Lake. We can only hazard a guess as to what she was doing tottering about in the emerald green pond. There are stepping stones across its centre but surely poor grandma hadn’t actually been encouraged to hop across the stones just for a family photo?… That sort of thing just wouldn’t happen in the good ol’ US of A because we are thankfully protected from our own dull-wittedness. We would never have the opportunity to inadvertently dunk grandma into a weed-filled, bacteria riddled pond… even if we really wanted to 😉

Our final day in sunny Portugal was a mad dash around 2 of Portugal’s most iconic historic sites.

The most famous is Palacio Nacional de la Pena (Pena Palace) which sits atop a hill in the Sintra Mountains – a 19th century Romantic-era palace painted in vivid shades of red, yellow and grey. It is Sintra’s most famous historic site. Turrets, domed belvederes, Moorish tiles, terraces and watch towers. It was the distinctly flamboyant and highly decorative summer home of the royal family before they fled to Brazil to escape the revolution. Stunning, if not gaudy, we pondered from our lunch perched on the “Queens Throne” which is carved into a rock at Saint Catherine’s Heights, the choice of clashing paint colors, quite incongruous in the palace’s verdant hilly setting.

… and then finally on to The Moorish Castle (Castillo de los Moros), a medieval military hilltop fortress which was built, due to its strategic location, by the North African Moors around the 10th century to defend the locality and importantly maritime access to Lisbon. After a tumultuous history it fell into rack and ruin after the Christian Conquest of Portugal. We wandered the battlements and clambered up the steep ramparts until it was time for another Portuguese egg tart and then we headed back into town feeling suitably virtuous from the activities of the day 🙂

Portugal (in parts!) is definitely a place to add to the “must do” list of European countries for those contemplating a Grand Tour of Europe 🙂 …it’s unlikely to be staying on our list of potential retirement destinations, but we will certainly revisit and explore more of the countryside and mountain villages 🙂

 

Image

New England – August/September 2016

26 Sep
Click here for the photos!

The Lobster Pound, Cape Neddick, Maine

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

Summer 2016! Once again we spent an extended period of time (avoiding the heat and humidity of home) back up in New England. This was largely courtesy of an old friend with a condo in Gilford on Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire which he generously allowed us to use at will and largely unsupervised (which was brave 😉 ) for those parts of June, July and August which weren’t filled with art shows or trips to Europe and Canada. We struggled heroically through the summer months with breakfast, lunch and various dinners on the patio overlooking the tranquil blue waters of the lake watching the yachts glide by on windier days and the speedboats career past on the calmer days. From time to time we spotted the M/S Mount Washington cruise vessel in the distance on its crossing from Meredith to Wolfeboro… and all against the scenic backdrop of the White Mountains.

Of course, Geoff was still working during the week and as my paints and easel were a good 1500 miles due south sweltering in the heat of a Floridian summer, I had little option but to pass my days exploring the lake and its environs in preparation for the Grand Tour when Geoff would finally have a free weekend at the lake in mid-August. Just in case that sounds like an easy task – be assured that the pressure is always on to mastermind a seamlessly crafted “perfect” summer weekend filled with a flawless balance of activities and suitable rest periods… fueled by the best coffee the New Hampshire Lakes Region can offer, strategic visits to a smattering of fine, artisan bakeries and purveyors of the best lobster rolls, all topped off with delectable dinner dates to be enjoyed with a sunset view over the water 🙂

As luck would have it the sun shone in a cloudless sky for said weekend and, though I say so myself, I think I managed to pull it off reasonably efficiently with a guided tour of the highlights of the lake (Meredith and its charming waterfront boardwalk, the rolling countryside and idyllic farms around Center Harbor and Moultonborough and the pretty town of Wolfeboro); including a stop to sample by far the best coffee and lemon square of the state in Cup and Crumb (somewhere in Moultonborough and almost impossible to fall upon by accident without prior knowledge of its existence from an in-depth online search and a good GPS); the best crepes of the lake at Seven Suns in Wolfeboro; absolutely the best artisanal bread and flourless chocolate cake of the entire state from Boca Bakery in Wolfeboro (required for the picnic planned for the following day 🙂 ) and various waterfront eateries which were suitably romantic until precisely 2 minutes after sunset when the mosquitoes come out to feast upon the tender flesh of their victims…

In between various periods of idling on sunbeds down at the condo beach (and eating – as above) the planned highlight of the “big” weekend was kayaking to one of the distant beaches from Meredith. Luck wasn’t entirely on my side by that stage of activities as a head-on wind picked up as we left the dock and battered us about like a cork in the ocean. In addition to the general swell and trying to paddle into the wind there were some interesting moments as the waves crashed over the end of the kayak… my end… so Geoff was nowhere near as perplexed as I was about the possible watery fate of the camera 😉 Still, eventually we landed onshore and collapsed onto the beach in the sun for a while gathering the strength to eat my carefully curated picnic 🙂 Naturally, the wind had changed direction by the time we summoned the energy to tackle the return journey and we were once again barreling through choppy waters reminiscent of the North Sea in a full frontal gale. By the time we returned to the safety of the lake condo we were fit for nothing but straightening out our shoulders from paddling for 4 hours and dozing for the remainder of the afternoon on a sunbed until it was time to head out for the final lobster roll of summer at the lake 🙂

In addition to my comprehensive efforts to research the lake and its offerings, the rest of my time was unprofitably (but well-spent) re-exploring my favorite old stomping grounds along the coast:

… the harbor, boutique stores and Breaking Grounds coffee shop in Portsmouth, New Hampshire… I might also have stopped in briefly at my longtime favorite Ceres Bakery 😉 ;

… walking the Marginal Way and pottering aimlessly in beautiful Ogunquit, Maine with it’s huge sweeping beach and sauntering through Perkins Cove watching kids dribble ice-cream onto their flip-flops and fishing boats come and go in the harbor;

… photographing (from every conceivable angle – and for the umpteenth time) the quintessentially New England (and drop-dead irresistible) lobster shack at Cape Neddick;

… re-acquainting myself with the equally cute tourist town of Kennebunkport, Maine and walking Parsons Way along the coast to the headland at Walker’s Point (also known as the Bush compound) where President number 41 has his summer home;

… there was also a return visit to York Harbor, Maine to walk the Cliff Trail and breathe in the sea air punctuated from time to time with fragrant wafts of beach rose perfume and wild flowers around every corner.

Summer in New England is a sight to behold… I would, however, still need a 6mm wetsuit to brave the frigid 64F waters of the Atlantic (on a good day) but plenty of brave souls disagree (clearly without the limitation of the thinned blood of a Floridian coursing through their veins) 😉

On the days when I wasn’t conducting valuable research for the “big” weekend at the lake (and when I simply couldn’t justify another day trip out to the coast) I spent my time spit-roasting down at the lake beach with a good novel – the smell of warm pine in the air – and a determination to maintain a modicum of fitness by swimming for 2 hours a day. It was all rather blissful – accompanied by fluorescent blue dragonflies hovering over the water and the occasional octogenarian wealthy enough to have his summer home on the lake and the wherewithal to stagger down to the waters edge and topple in without having a coronary from the cold. Quite impressive as the temperature of the lake was a rather bracing average 75F – that may sound balmy to some but to put it into perspective – the temperature of the Gulf back home is pushing 90F at this time of year (as is our pool)… so I think I deserve full marks for effort and discipline! Conversely, Geoff’s attempt to take advantage of the proximity of the sparkly clean, clear lake water a few steps from the condo was woefully inadequate… largely involving dangling a big toe, shivering and whimpering like a child 😉

Many months ago back in winter Geoff was surfing the web unbeknownst to me, as a result of which I received an excited, breathless and rather panicky phone call to say that Coldplay (a hugely famous British band – for those who may not keep up with these important trends) would be playing in Boston on their “A Head Full of Dreams” tour on the night of an art show weekend in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Rather nonplussed by the possibility of a 5am morning to set up the booth, standing all day in the sun flogging my wares and then driving 2 hours to the venue (the Gillette Stadium in Foxborough) followed by who knew how long driving back again in the early hours of Sunday morning – I wasn’t keen to make a snap decision as to whether to pay vast amounts of money for the experience. To cut a long story short, my dilly dallying lost us the tickets he wanted… he was summarily ejected from the online ticket purchasing website as the page timed out… my name was mud for an eternal 10 minutes before he was allowed back into the system… and finally we got the 2 seats next to the ones he’d lost… which probably saved my scrawny neck 😉 Anyway… despite the unbelievably long lines snaking back down the approach road to the stadium on the night of the concert and our final arrival (after 3 hours on the road and, worse, 30 minutes after the concert had already started – luckily we only missed the support singer) the concert was utterly brilliant 🙂 Incredible laser displays, confetti falling from the sky, huge balloons falling from the sky, fluorescent wristbands coordinated to change color with the on-stage activities and video screens… and to top it off the band and the rather appealing lead singer, Chris Martin, wandered over towards the end of the concert to a small stage 3 feet to our right. If I had risked having my neck broken by one of the hefty security guards (or possibly by Geoff 😉 ) I might have been able to reach out and kiss the venerable Mr Martin’s feet 😉 All in all, it was worth every penny and probably even worth the 4 hour line to get out of the venue and return to our beds…

Finally, we had to say goodbye to the lake and I headed south to Florida for 10 days (just in time for Hurricane Hermine which was a lovely welcome home 😉 ) and Geoff flew to Singapore and Vietnam for 10 days for work. We flew back in to Boston variously wind blown (me 😉 ) and severely jet lagged (Geoff) and then headed onwards to our penultimate port of call – Fort Point in sunny Boston – for the next round of shows during September. Gorgeous as always at this time of year but particularly special this visit because we were lucky enough to camp out in the spare bedroom of a very old friend who recently moved to a new apartment in Boston’s latest primo real estate boom area. Locations don’t get much better than this… walking distance to downtown, spitting distance to the fabulously scenic Harborwalk (passing piers, wharves, residential areas, tourist hotspots etc etc), close to Chinatown, Boston Common, the Italian area in North End and to Back Bay. Naturally, I was sold immediately due to its proximity to the best coffee shop in the city (Barrington on Congress) and to an impressive array of baked items at Flour Bakery and Cafe… neither more than a 3 minute walk from the apartment. I believe the reasoning behind the choice of location for Jan, at least, is the 3 minute staggering distance to Drink – apparently the best cocktail bar in the world according to those with the qualifications to pass such a judgement – specifically Jan and Geoff 😉 I can attest, however, to the superior quality of the mocktails. Thank goodness we don’t live here… a week was quite enough to break the bank surrounded, as we were, by excellent restaurants (Bar Mezzana, Menton, Row 34 etc etc), 3 visits to Drink as Geoff couldn’t stay away 😉 and opportunities to empty the piggy bank in exchange for delicious comestibles every minute of the day.

Tearing myself away from the big city for an afternoon, I left Geoff frantically tapping away on his laptop and ventured out to the coast to one of our favorite coastal towns, Rockport, Massachusetts in Cape Ann to breathe in some fresh salty sea air and realign my karma in between art shows. Gloriously touristy and tackily quaint, this beautiful fishing village is New England’s answer to Olde England’s Cornish fishing villages. Replete with art galleries, pretty coffee shops (the Bean and Leaf Cafe with its view over the inner harbor, ducks sunbathing on the tidal sands and sailing boats bobbing about in the water is a particular favorite), fishing boats, colorful buoys, artistically creative gardens, lobster pots and the piece de resistance – Motif #1 – a bright red fishing shack in the middle of the harbor – it is an artists dream 🙂

And so on to Washington, DC for a week for Geoff to work before the last of the September shows.

It was cloudy and miserable nearly all week in DC so, whilst Geoff was busy in the office at Tysons Corner blissfully unaware of the inclement weather, I decided to explore further afield. I couldn’t wait to get out of  the vast nightmarish miles of shopping malls (I managed 2 minutes in the acclaimed Galleria before I gave up the will to live and retreated to the safety of the hotel 😉 ), away from the stresses of the 24 hour stationary traffic and the spaghetti junction conglomeration of metro rail stations and fly overs –  which pretty much sums up Tysons Corner for me in one damning sentence 😉

Still, maybe I shouldn’t have got my hopes up as far as I did with a trip south to revered historic Fredericksburg, Virginia. Many people obviously love it! Perhaps if I were a US colonial and/or civil war history buff I’m sure I would have found it infinitely more interesting. I have no doubt that it is a great educational day out for families who enjoy a trip down pre-memory lane in “living museums” where the guides dress in period costume and act, look and speak the part for the mid-1700’s. For MY part, however, having choked my way through the dust of the roadworks being conducted on the main thoroughfare, Caroline Street, and then near poisoned myself, firstly, on one of the worst latte’s ever to pass my lips and secondly, endured a less than memorable corn chowder for lunch with a side of stale focaccia, I huffed my way unenthusiastically around town with its very many scruffy-looking antique malls ignoring all of the probably good advice from the twinkly-eyed septuagenarian volunteer at the (undeniably) very helpful tourist office. Concluding that the town was really a little bit grubby and in need of some extra TLC in parts (to say nothing of a decent coffee shop 😉 ) I called it a day by early afternoon knowing that the insanely busy traffic around DC would start building up if I left it any longer and an otherwise 1 hour journey would inevitably become a soul destroying 3 hour crawl up the I95 and around the I495 clogged with millions of commuters. So perhaps I am being grossly unfair and should give Fredericksburg another shot and perhaps I might try to be a little less apathetic next time. No doubt some sunshine and a little less humidity would have enhanced its attributes. Maybe I would even bite the bullet with a highly recommended tour of George Washington’s sister’s house… amongst other highlights… or Hugh Mercer’s Apothecary (one of his patients being the venerable GW’s mother, Mary). I was told that I could visit and ask for the good doctor but that I would inevitably be informed that he was out and would return shortly… in the meantime, however, if I were happy to discuss my ailment I could look forward to a remedy fitting for the age… perhaps a course of leeches or a quick thrust of the lancet, some snakeroot or maybe a crab claw. And these are of course some of the very many reasons that I am constantly grateful that I was born in 1966 and not in 1766 😉

… and then finally the sun shone upon the righteous in the beautiful historic state capital of Maryland – Annapolis – one of Americas most romantic main street towns located on the Severn River and the Chesapeake Bay. And all was right with the world once again 🙂 OK, it’s very touristy (in addition to being the home of the US Naval Academy) but it’s also very quaint, distinctly more refined than Fredericksburg with a popular harbor liberally decorated with beautiful boat people. The white dome of the State Capitol is an impressive backdrop for the peaceful residential streets of colonial and brownstone gems which are ornate and immaculately maintained… albeit that you do have to have your wits about you if you aren’t going to end up face down in your artisanal ice-cream having failed to successfully navigate the dips and troughs of the cobblestone sidewalks – presumably left untouched for historic preservation purposes since 1649 😉

We braved the stationary traffic one evening to go in to Georgetown (my very favorite part of DC) and wandered along the Potomac River to The Washington Harbor – chock-full with buzzing bars and restaurants in a semi-circular building centred around a fountain entertaining the tourists with its rotating colored lights. Great people watching and fab cocktails 🙂

So in the end, at least I could finally leave DC and the states of Virginia and Maryland behind me with a smile on my partially sun kissed face before our penultimate show in New York and another transatlantic flight back to Europe 🙂

Montreal, Canada – July 2016

25 Jul
Click here for the photos!

Plateau Mont-Royal, Montreal, Canada

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

I followed along (like the long-suffering but dutiful wife that I am 😉  ) for a trip to Canada whilst Geoff had work to conduct with colleagues in the Montreal office.

I generously offered to sacrifice my rapidly expanding waistline to test the various cafe and coffee shop options for Geoff’s weekend off. That’s just the kind of gal I am 😉

Those who know me well are acquainted with the fact that my research is extensive and detailed when it comes to matters culinary as I do hate to consume an unworthy calorie 🙂

For those of you who may follow in our footsteps for a long weekend of gluttony in Montreal… a day commenced without a visit to Olive et Gourmando for coffee and breakfast (or just an emergency apricot croissant) is a day without meaning… a day devoid of joy… and thoroughly pointless…

…and should the sugar high from breakfast begin to wane, there is no better chocolate almond croissant in the entire state of Quebec than that created by the fair hand of Monsieur Faure at his very fine Maison du Christian Faure….

The restaurants are incredible, the chefs innovative and the quality of the fresh, local ingredients superlative (at least at this time of the year!)

If it weren’t for the brutal winters and the fact that we would both weigh 400 pounds within a calendar year, we could undoubtedly live here for the croissants alone… probably residing in one of those beautiful terrace houses with the winding staircases on a peaceful tree-lined street in Plateau Mont-Royal or Mile End (or if our numbers came up we might splash out on one of the fabulous residences overlooking the Saint-Louis Square)…

… anyway… if we lived here I’m guessing that after a leisurely breakfast at a window table at O et G we would meander through the pretty flower-filled streets of Vieux Montreal, chat with the artists at Place Jacques Cartier, stop in at Crew Collective for (another) coffee in the spectacularly gorgeous re-purposed Royal Bank Tower with its chandeliers and gilded ceiling, wander down to Vieux Port and (in order to burn off a small fraction of the calories) we would probably rent pushbikes and join the throngs of tourists and locals jogging, cycling or strolling along the Saint Laurence River and the Canal de Lachine in the summer sun…after that we would pay a brief but meaningful visit to Monsieur Faure for sustenance… we would waddle through the Place d’Armes and contemplate which one of the few hundred absolutely amazing restaurants in the city we should dine at….

And if we should tire of the old city we would head out to do much the same again in Plateau Mont-Royal, Mile End or Petite Italie… only we may also throw in a side trip to Marche Jean-Talon for some local produce and take a picnic up to Parc Mont-Royal or one of the other innumerable green spaces available to the lucky residents of Montreal 🙂

…which, incidentally, is exactly what we did! 😉 🙂

The city is also filled (so I’m told) with interesting and diverse museums. I still recall with a shudder the Insectarium which we ventured into many years ago, encouraged by friends to sample the wittchety grubs, the ant macaroons and the fried crickets. I have no idea if you can still do that all these years later but if you can I don’t think I’d join you… you’d find me waiting for you back at Monsieur Faure’s with a cup of earl grey and a chocolate almond croissant 🙂

 

 

Kefalonia – July 2016

6 Jul
Click here for the photos!

Myrtos Beach, Kefalonia

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

Deep mediterranean-blue skies, cypress covered hillsides, olive groves, bee hives buzzing with activity in fields of wild thyme, rocky coves with crystal clear ultramarine and turquoise waters, a gorgeous fishing village draped with bougainvillea and pink and white oleander trees radiant with bloom… a more perfect location for the wedding of one of my oldest friends, Kate and her charming new hubby Damion, than Fiskardo in Kefalonia would not have been possible to find 🙂

We were here for a week getting our annual “Europe fix” and also to kill two other important birds with one stone – firstly, obviously, to attend the wedding and secondly, to have a vacation with my brother Paul and our sister-in-law Katie who we just don’t get to see often enough 😦 As luck would have it though, we actually managed to kill another third unexpected bird with the same stone – one of our best friends Gary and his wife Tracey were finishing up their vacation on the island and we managed to spend our first afternoon (and their last) with them re-acquainting ourselves with the delights of grecian food as the sun glinted on the bay behind us in Agia Efimia. It was quite lovely 🙂

Having lured our family to Kefalonia to join us with the offer of the second bedroom in our hillside stone cottage we were relieved to find that the local town, Fiskardo, is absolutely beautiful. Fishing boats, yachts and catamarans bob around in the harbor, the waterfront is filled with shady cafes and restaurants where we probably spent far too much time dining upon cheese (feta, saganaki, haloumi… pretty much any cheese really – baked, raw, wrapped in filo pastry, decorating the top of a greek salad, drizzled in olive oil, herbs, nuts or honey), freshly baked and herbed pitta bread dipped in tzatziki, taramasalata and hummus… and way too many meals were finished with slices of sticky, pistachio-filled, honey soaked baklava. During our lengthy over-indulgences at the table we pondered ad-nauseum how we could afford to buy a 48’ catamaran (with all necessary mod-cons) between us and spend the rest of our lives floating aimlessly in the coves and bays of the Mediterranean 🙂

Whilst the cottage in the hills above Fiskardo was very pretty – with a vine-covered terrace on which we sipped our morning tea – and a sun terrace (overlooking the Ionian Sea glinting in the distance) with large comfy chairs at which many glasses of vino were sipped at the end of the day – the beds were clearly de-commissioned stock from Alcatraz and all 4 of us, although sorry to leave the island, would not be sorry to get back to a more comfortable sleeping arrangement – even if, in our case, that would be the BA business class beds on our return transatlantic flight which were far from comfortable either 😉

However, it wasn’t all relaxation, sleepless nights on a steel gurney and over-consumption! Katie and I started each day with a refreshing dip in one of either of our 2 favorite beaches – Foki or Emblisi (once or twice the boys also deigned to get their feet wet). The choice was tough – clear turquoise water with shades of ultramarine straight from my paintbox… or clear turquoise water with shades of ultramarine straight from my paintbox 😉 For some reason bobbing about for 30 minutes every morning seemed justification enough to potter into town for brunch and later we would grab the map and head off onto the open road to explore the island. By that I mean we would take to the terrifying hairpin bends, sheer mountainside cliff drops (most with no protective barriers whatsoever) and narrow, winding country roads where you were more likely to have to make an emergency stop for a herd of roaming goats than for an oncoming vehicle.

…and so we wound through the mountain roads with their spectacular backdrops of white cliffs plunging into the sea, marveling at the bright white pebble beaches far below us (the most famous being Myrtos Beach). We visited Assos – a bijou jewel in Kef’s crown and the only town other than Fiskardo to have been spared the ravages of the 1953 earthquake which all but razed the island and its old venetian architecture to the ground. In case there is any room for doubt, the views from the road winding up through the mountain pass and ultimately descending to the village of Assos are nothing short of jaw-dropping and on a tranquil day when the sea is calm, the bright white cliffs of the peninsular opposite reflect into the Ionian like a mirror image. The sea is so clear here that you can see the seabed from any vantage point way up on the pass.

We also drove south through the countryside to Agia Efimia where the best restaurant – Sea Rock-ws – and the best bakery – Strawberry – on the island can both be found. Conveniently, all roads on the island pass through Agia Efimia (at least they do when I’m map-reading 🙂 😉 ) so we managed to squeeze in a few repeat visits to enjoy a peaceful stroll along the marina… honest guv 😉

During our week we probably drove almost every road on the island (at least every road which passed in or out of Agia Efimia 😉 ). On our travels we passed through the capital Argostoli (very quickly as we struggled to find anything appealing there to actually stop for) and through both Sami and Poros (similarly, we struggled to find any highlights of note in either!) and on to the most southerly town of the island, Skala (highlight – the Sunrise Fish restaurant whose culinary fishy delights were sampled whilst watching the sun set on the sea). The village of Peratata way up on a hill above Argostoli was quaint – if for no reason other than there is a particularly good cafe called Kastro Cafe which is literally in the shadow of the Castle of St George. We stopped here for sustenance and for Katie to cuddle a cat which caused some amusement. Barely had we taken our seats in the garden with a view over the sea and mountains when Lucifer (the cafe’s ginger tomcat) leapt onto Katie’s lap (presumably with the full psychic knowledge that Katie isn’t the world’s biggest fan of our feline friends) and proceeded to roll around blissfully on her lap as if she were his long lost mother 🙂

Closer to the airport is Svoronata – another very pretty old town with a fish restaurant called O-Milos on a cliff overlooking the sea which is conveniently positioned 2 minutes from the airport and has no doubt been the location of the last meal of many a glum tourist heading back to the grey skies of their various northern homelands.

Just to add a frisson of excitement to our otherwise typically lazy, typically mediterranean island vacation, Geoff thought it would be fun to ignore my suggestions (several) to fill up with gas on our long journey home from the deep south to the far north of the island. He preferred instead to keep driving – winding up and down the hills, navigating the (probably) hundreds of steep hairpin bends as we traversed the mountains late at night in a country barely renowned for its work ethic (which – just to clarify – in my mind equated to little to no chance of finding a gas station open at 10pm on a Sunday night in the middle of absolutely nowhere).

Unfortunately, once we had left the coastal town of Agia Efimia (the town through which all roads pass 😉 ), with (according to the driver) 1/4 tank of gas left, the gauge suddenly plummeted to empty almost immediately we had embarked upon the steep climb north into the hillside boonies. Our map was useful enough to show the location of gas stations across the island and as designated map-reader I knew that it was going to be a very long time before we found any more gas stations – open or otherwise! I shared this factoid with anyone who would listen and sat po-faced in the rear of the car with my fingers crossed 😉

Now, our sister-in-law Katie is very fit… she has swum the English Channel and is constantly humiliating the competition in national swimming races and local running competitions. At one stage, the suggestion was mooted that (once we had finally run out of gas on a blind bend in the dark somewhere) she might be able to run to the nearest town (which I don’t doubt) to find someone who could rescue the idiot tourists from the side of the mountain. Luckily, it didn’t come to that and by some minor miracle, we puffed on fumes into a bright, shiny and totally unexpected gas station (clearly newer than the edition of the map we were using!) with many glorious options of gas available and even a nice Kefalonian man to dispense it for us – about 8 miles from home 🙂

And now on to the very purpose of our transatlantic voyage to Greece – the wedding of the year – Kate and Damion’s big day. Having looked forward to the day and incurred considerable expense in transporting ourselves across the Atlantic and then halfway across the Mediterranean to attend the nuptials one can only imagine my disappointment when I say that the specially acquired silver, bejeweled sandals which took me weeks to find for said big day received precisely 90 minutes of airtime before they were packed away again in tissue paper and replaced with flip-flops back at the cottage 😦

To avoid too much embarrassment to the party guilty of bringing “my” wedding day to an abrupt halt I shall gloss over the worst of the gory details. Suffice it to say, we were lunching somewhere quite delightful with Paul and Katie in town at 11.30 with 3 hours to go before having to ruck up at the chapel in our finery when Geoff turned quite grey, rushed away from the table and returned 15 minutes later in a pool of sweat insisting that we pay the bill forthwith and head home with some urgency. Unfortunately, we weren’t moving with quite sufficient urgency and we were all treated to the return of his breakfast and lunch under a tree at the side of the road. Oh dear… only 2 hours to go and Geoff is curled up in bed with food poisoning (we suspect the octopus he had eaten for dinner the night before). To give him his due he donned his wedding outfit and we made our way through the impeccably manicured grounds of the Emelisse Hotel to attend the chapel service which was gorgeous and mercifully brief. My friend Kate would look radiant in a paper bag so needless to say she was no doubt the most beautiful bride of the year and hubby Damion scrubbed up quite well too 🙂 Unfortunately, that’s about all we saw of the proceedings… poor grey Geoff survived the line to hug the newlyweds on the terrace overlooking Emblisi Beach and then darted off again to avail himself of the facilities… and that was pretty much it for the wedding! Another hasty rush home, a return to bed and I spent the rest of the day mopping a sweaty brow and clearing up the bathroom floor before my brother and sister-in-law returned from their afternoon out!

Aside from that excitement and a minor collision with the wall of the cottage next to ours (the less said the better perhaps 😉 ) the rest of the trip passed mercifully without incident and all concerned had a thoroughly lovely grecian vacation 🙂