Saturday, 26 December 2015

Christmas 2015

A totally self-indulgent catch-up this time, with only a little travel at the end, but here goes...

Christmas started early this year, in fact, it was still November when London's Winter Wonderland opened in Hyde Park. With market stalls, rides, lots of life-size models of animals – not really sure why, but there were plenty of African ones, like an elephant and giraffe, plus a whole sled team of huskies – a giant man and an even gianter Ferris wheel, plus an ice-skating rink, beer halls, live music and food, it made a jolly outing.

Next up was a trip to see The Blues Brothers Christmas Special at the Arts Theatre in London's West End. Like the movie, but with even less of a plot and total non-stop singing and dancing so that, by some time in the second half, the audience was on its feet, singing and dancing along. Great fun.

Hyde Park wasn't the only location of a Ferris wheel. Smaller, but no less jolly was the one in Leicester Square and from the top there were great views of central London and an escape from the pre-Christmas hordes. This before a trip to see three films in the Adventure Film Festival, all of which were inspiring and absorbing. By the end of the last one, I felt like having an adventure too...

Then there was the trip to Cambridge where the car we were in was overtaken by two, apparently in a rush, random Santas.

After which the marathon really kicked in. There is a tradition in the UK, at least it seems this way to me, that everyone feels they must see everyone they know before the 25th of December. Why? I don't know. It will be January soon and you could see people then as well, but suddenly people get in touch with the words, "We must get together before Christmas!", which leads to quite a few consecutive nights out, often involving large quanitites of alcohol, and a workforce who are visibly struggling to get through the day.... One of these nights involved a trip to Kent, where the hosts had transformed their summerhouse into a very good reproduction of an Alpine chalet, complete with sheepskin-covered chairs, a log-burning stove and plenty of fairy lights. There was also restaurant-level cooking and quite hilarious games to follow.

There were also the requisite company nights out and, as a freelancer, I got to enjoy more than one – a perk of having multiple employers – and one of these was held at a pub/restaurant with a stuffed stoat to keep us company and possibly the most interesting bathroom sinks I've seen for a good long while.

As ever, central London put on a good display of lights and trees round every corner and in every square. I got to enjoy Covent Garden's bluey-lit tree on the way back from another night out, and the folks at Waterloo train station did their best by hanging a massive bunch of mistletoe from the clock.

All in all, after a fairly scary year in terms of world events, it seemed everyone just wanted to spread good will and cheer - hoorah!

At last it's the travel bit: Nerja, Spain, where we came for Christmas and saw a Christmas-decorated olive tree, went to the beach on the actual day – but didn't swim – and partook of a chocolate yule log. It's true it's warm all over the Western world this year – 70°F in New York, 50-odd in London – but nothing beats the sunshine and warmth of southern Spain for pretending like winter just doesn't exist and it's summertime already.

Boxing day at last. Everyone take a deep breath – phew! Why is it that, as soon as Christmas is over, I feel as though now I can relax? Maybe because it's like the rush is over, the stress of planning is done and now a few days can just be enjoyed.

In Nerja, this means a visit to the caves, followed by a walk up into the Sierra de Tejeda, Almijara y Alhama Natural Park – basically, enormous mountains covered with pine trees and wild thyme, lavender, rosemary and sage. The air smells wonderful.

Oh, and food. Plenty of food. First resolution for 2016? Hint: it begins with the letter 'd'...

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Delray Beach, Florida

I'm sitting here in my living room in London, listening to the wind batter the trees and hit the snowy rain against the window and thinking how, less than a week ago, I was swimming in sea water as warm as a bath and snorkeling off Key Largo...

When friends buy a reposesssion in Delray Beach and say, sure, come on down, well, it's too hard to resist. Just about an hour's drive north up the Atlantic coastline from Miami, and far less city-like, Delray feels suburban and it's so flat that you start to navigate by which giant stores are at which intersection. That said, when there's this much sunshine and warmth, you find yourself forgiving everything.

We stayed in the bird neighborhood, at least, that's what it should be called. There was Heron, Curlew, Ibis and Albatross Drives, plus plenty more of that ilk and heaps of folk in Delray have taken the local wildlife, if not to their hearts, then certainly to their mailboxes.

It's not far from the Everglades, again, about an hour's drive and excitement was high on the drive down. Southern Florida is the only place in the world where you can see both crocodiles and aligators in the wild. There's also a ton of bird life and we saw egrets, anhinga, storks, ibises and a surprisingly relaxed grey heron who let us get very close.

The Everglades weren't what I was expecting. That is, we didn't get in a flat-bottomed skiff and scoot across the water, missing aligator jaws by inches. Instead, we took a very civilised stroll along a boardwalk through a mangrove jungle. It was at the hottest point of the day, but even so we saw a few crocs and a turtle and watched an anhinga do its feather-drying thing in the sunshine. This is when they find a perch and spread out their oily looking wings to dry.

I learned a few things while I was down there (Florida is 'down' from just about everywhere I've ever been, hence the directional description), like it has only two seasons: wet and dry. We were there in the beginning of the wet season and it did rain on last day, but it never stopped being hot and frankly, in November, that's no bad thing. In fact, it was almost too hot to be out walking in the full sun – hard to believe now that I'm back here in northern Europe, shivering in front of an empty grate...

Another first for me was seeing Spanish moss. It's amazing stuff. There's a lot of interesting tree stuff in Florida, like strangler fig, which grows up around a host tree and eventually kills it, but wow, does it look incredible.

From the Everglades we shot off down to Key Largo, the first of the little islands that tail off the bottom of Florida. We hired a boat from John Pennekamp and took off for Molassas reef, about seven miles off the coast. I'm going to say that again: Seven. Miles. Off. The. Coast. That's a long way! And, when you pull on the flippers, adjust your mask and snorkel, and slip into the water off the boat, it's an eerie feeling to be so far from land, out in open water, but, hey! What was that fish? And that one? And–– ouch! Was that a jellyfish sting? And how come the guys are just using hand signals? Have they spotted a... shark?!

OK, I'm getting back on the boat. That was great fun and all, but it's nice just to chill.

You're never too far from food in the USA and after a full day of sun, sea and snorkels, we were very happy to get taken to Alabama Jacks (58000 Card Sound Rd, Homestead, FL 33030), where they specialize in things like conch fritters and fried shrimp. The menu also featured grilled dolphin, but there's no need to be alarmed – it's just snapper.

It's an interesting place. There are no walls, as such. It's more of a big shack with a kitchen at one end, a bar at the other and some rough and ready bathrooms. Just as we were leaving, I nipped into the ladies and heard someone kicking off in the men's. No idea what was going on in there and think maybe we'll just leave it like that.

So, as the sun set over the keys and the mangroves, we headed back up to Delray full of fried seafood and plenty of good memories.

Like I said, it's hard to believe I was there so recently. The world already feels like a different place, for lots of reasons. So it was nice to have a little ray of Florida sunshine on my desk this week: Key Lime Salt Water Taffy. Not Americans getting toffee wrong, as some of my office mates thought until they popped one in their mouths – just a nice, soft, chew...

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Woolley Grange, Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire

Remember when you were a small child and you'd be taken somewhere new. You might have felt excited and a little tiny bit anxious, but mostly incredibly curious. You just couldn't wait to explore... Well, if you'd been lucky enough to be taken to Woolley Grange, your curiosity would have been well rewarded.

It's a country-house hotel, created on the premise that, just because you now have children of your own, that's no reason to give up any of the luxury and comfort you knew beforehand. But, unlike many hotels that say 'family friendly', at Woolley Grange, children are positively welcomed. There's nowhere they mustn't go or things they shouldn't touch. There's even a friendly resident hotel dog, Rex, who wanders about looking for a stroke or to have his belly rubbed. That doesn't mean grown-ups have to compromise though: there's an on-site spa with pool, sauna, steam room and professional staff on hand to provide treatments; a comfy living room filled with overstuffed sofas and panelled walls where you can take afternoon tea, a pre-dinner cordial or an after dinner nightcap – or just play cards, if the mood strikes you.

Meanwhile, your children might be in the supervised Woolley Bear's Den, being entertained and enlightened by the trained Mary Poppins types; hanging out in the unsupervised Hen House, playing pool, table football or air hockey; or just exploring – of which there's plenty to do. In fact, you might want to explore with them...

Inside, you could come across unusual carousel animals to clamber on, find a stuffed bear to dance with (he's on a wheeled stand) and all sorts of interesting things to stop and look at.

Outside, the grounds have been cleverly divided up into different areas that pique the imagination. Will you spot a fairy in the Fairy Garden? Come take a look... Or what about a swim in the outdoor pool (open in the warmer months)? A game of football, a jump on the trampoline, a swing on the tree swing...? Or a visit to the Good Life Garden, where a clutch of little shed-houses need looking into and the eggs from the free-range chickens might need collecting. Oh, and then there's the helicopter landing pad. You drove here? Never mind, there's always next time.

Remember to pick up the Sheep Trail rhyme. There are eight sheep dotted about the house and grounds, devised and created by the head gardener – can you spot them all?  We found two without much effort, but where are the other five...? We'll just have to come back and have another look...

The hotel is just outside the pretty Cotswold town of Bradford-on-Avon, which still has one-off stores rather than chains, and not just the pretty Avon wending through it, but the Kennet & Avon canal as well. You can do a very reasonable walk from town up the canal to Avoncliff, where a feat of 1797 (yes, they knew how to do this way back then) engineering sees the canal go over the top of the river and train line in a bit of Esher-esque craziness.

Cross over, enjoy the views and take the little lane back toward town, admiring the countryside and, eventually, lovely stone houses on either side. It's not an overly long hike, maybe an hour or two, depending on your pace. In fact, even a child could do it.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Puglia tour, part II, with Inghams Italy

If it's Wednesday, it must be Matera, the third oldest town in the world. Yes, you read that right. To qualify, it must be a place continuously lived in since it was settled and this hilltop, cave-pocked place has been occupied since about 10,000BC.

It's the middle of the week and our Inghams tour group has started to gel. I'm on my own this particular day and a number of the others kindly take me under their wing, so I don't actually feel alone at all. Some folks are now sitting together for dinner, we've all made contact with one other and there's plenty of chat and laughs inside our coach – helped along by our very jolly guide.

What's that? You can't see any caves in these pictures? The reason for this is that, as the inhabitants excavated the soft rock, they would use it to fashion house-like fronts. Inside, where thousands of people lived until the 1950s, the rooms were most definitely caves and quite small – think your front room plus a couple of alcoves – in which lived families of up to a dozen, plus the family donkey (transportation), pig (meat), goat (milk), chickens (eggs), dog and cat, with no running water or sanitation. Hence, for better or worse, a forced evacuation took place mid-20th century into social housing elsewhere in town. Nowadays, a number of the cave houses are available on long leases from the government and part of the deal is that leasees must – at considerable cost – do them up to strict building codes. So, you can stay in one overnight if you like and there is also one which we visited that shows how people lived in them (so, in case you weren't sure, that horse-cum-donkey is not real...).

After our very knowledgeable local guide let us loose for lunch, I found a fabulous terrace restaurant, Il Terrazzino, with a spectacular view. And the food was good too, though I stuck to a simple primo piatto rather than a full meal.

Our final guided day was to Ostuni, another beautiful, whitewashed, fortified, maze-like town. Why such a confusing street layout? To flummox invaders, of course!

From here we were taken to the idyllic, family-run, small production (only 200,000 bottles a year) Vetrère vineyard and winery. Two very beautiful sisters explained how it all worked – their mother and aunt, also sisters, run the place and both families live in the picturesque main house.

We were served a wonderful wine tasting in a shady glade accompanied by homemade focaccia, pasta and a range of delicious fruits, all grown on the premises, for dessert. I can now cross 'try a prickly pear' off my bucket list...

From here, all slightly jollier for the refreshment!, we were taken off to Il Frantolio, where they produce olive oil – and olive face creams, shampoo, conditioner and a few other olive oily things. The energetic and entertaining owner did a wonderful mime for us on how to taste olive oil and what to look for. It was so good, in fact, that we were all laughing at the jokes before our guide even translated.

Finally, it was time to head back to the hotel but, as a special treat, we were taken out into the olive groves so that we could photograph these extraordinary trees. Because by now I didn't just like olive trees – I love them. They're like people, each absolutely an individual and some in this region are up to 1,000 years old.

Friday is a 'free' day and, while most of the others in our group have decided to take it easy by the pool and beach, we're going to do a little exploring. To this end, we hire a car through the hotel, as it turns out a number of rentals are kept in the parking lot, which makes it all very easy. Our goal? To get over to the Ionian Sea side of Puglia.

It doesn't take too long, especially once we put the city-like Taranto (which we nicknamed Tarantula for absolutely no reason) behind us. We're glad we took the trouble. Soft white sand, Caribbean blue water and gorgeous summer-type weather, so that we stop and have a swim.

A further drive down this western coast and we come to a seafood restaurant on the water which – along with delicious, crispy, flavoursome squid – has the best paper napkins I've ever seen. A map! And the restaurant name. If you come down here, stop at Sant Isodoro and head for the corner table overlooking the sea.

By now we were on a mission to get to the very tip of Puglia, where the Ionian meets the Adriatic sea by the lighthouse at Leuca. Would there be a difference in the waters' colours? Would we see the join where they met? Do I let you in on the answers to these questions...?

I can tell you this: by the end of our guided week, I felt as if I really knew Puglia, had met its people, tasted its produce straight from the land and seen how varied and beautiful a place it is. I certainly wasn't ready to leave, so I guess that means I'll be back!