Categories
Spain/Portugal

Tee off in the Azores

GREAT VIEWS, PRISTINE COURSES

The Azores are a group of nine islands off the coast of Portugal . Way off. In fact, they are one third of the way to the United States. Volcanic islands, they surged from the sea millennia ago. The crest of Pico, rising 2,351 metres high out of the Atlantic, is the highest spot in Portugal.  Until recently they’ve been known principally as a sort of stepping stone in the Atlantic, a convenient port of call for everyone from Christopher Columbus to today’s long-distance yachtsmen.

Warmed by the Gulf Stream and favoured by an almost constant ridge of high pressure, the climate is temperate ranging from about 11 to 25C.If you knew the Algarve, back before the building boom transformed it, you’ll know what to expect:  a laid-back holiday with golf the primary attraction and seafood the daily dish.

There are two magnificent courses on Sao Miguel, the main island:  the 27 hole Batalha Golf Course designed by Cameron and Powell and the 18 hole Furnas Golf Course designed by MacKenzie Ross (9 holes) and Cameron Powell (9 holes).  Admittedly you’d want to bring your wets to play them, but that’s the price you pay for courses of dazzling lush green, with vistas so remarkable they could take your mind off your game. They are still so under utilised that they may be the most pristine you’ll ever set foot on.

The Batalha and Furnas, along with their clubhouses, are managed  by Verde Golf, part of Oceanico Developments, which is already a familiar name in the Algarve.

The proximity of the Batalha course to the San Miguel airport at Ponta Delgada is a big plus.  From hotel in to course is a mere 15-minute drive and you’ll tee off virtually without delay.

Take a break from golf and enjoy a bit of whale and dolphin watching. Ferry to the nearby island of Faial and join one of the  whale-watching boat trips leaving from the harbour at Horta. In June, July and August they make two trips a day, 8:30 and 16:30. While you’re on Horta be sure to stop at Peter’s Café for one of his famous gin and tonics. Horta is a stop on the international sailing circuit.  A long section of the marina is patterned with colourful paintings done by ship’s crews… a superstition holds it’s bad luck to depart Horta without ‘leaving your mark.’

Try out the other islands too, Hire a car, the roads are good and traffic light to non-existant.   Soak in a thermal pool. Walk or bike for miles in landscapes alive with wild hydrangea, camellia and azalea. Buy local cheeses. Try some of the wine produced on tiny pockets of earth parceled off in a network of lava –stonewalls. Enjoy a meal steamed in a geyser. Eat seafood everywhere. The flavour and texture of the fish from this unpolluted sea is unforgettable,

Staying There:

The nearest hotel to the Ponta Delgada airport and to the Batalha course is a modern 211-room 4 star hotel at the upper edge of town, the VIP Executive, Rotunda de Sao Goncalo Papa Terra, 9500 Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel; email: crs@viphotels.com. Website: www.viphotels.com

The Camoes Hotel is a 35-room, four star hotel in a restored 19th century building.  In the centre of the old town it’s further from airport and golf course by 20 minutes or so but close to shops and a variety of restaurants. Camoes Hotel, Largo do Camoes 38, 9500-304 Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel; email: info@hotelcomoes.net; website: www.hotelcamoes.net

Categories
UK/Ireland

Unforgettable Dublin

Dublin’s tourist allure is infectious. People make you welcome, the vibe is relaxed, when it rains there’s always a  warm pub a few steps away. There’s plenty to see and a hop-on-hop-off bus links the most popular tourist sites. In principle you get off where you choose, explore, and then hop on the next bus.But chances are you’ll find the-board commentator so entertaining you might just stay on.

I visited the city for the first time decades ago and, in a sense, never did hop off. Dublin is home now. Visitors ask me what to see, and I’ve drawn up a list (given below). But I still recommend the bus tour. It’s the best way to get an overview and decide what to visit later.  I’ve known people to be in despair because they failed to visit Dublin Castle which, as it happens, isn’t on my list at all.

Here are the things that are on my list:

 Grafton Street — particularly on a sunny Saturday when buskers dot the busy thoroughfare. The street music can range from a string quartet to a tin whistle. I wouldn’t bother with the shops, though — they’re mostly branches of British stores. You might make an exception for Brown Thomas with its famous doorman.

Archbishop Marsh’s Library near St. Patrick’s Cathedral is a perfectly preserved scholars’ library established in 1701. Its most important manuscript — Lives of the Irish Saints -written in Latin, dates from 1400. Marsh’s is closed on Tuesdays and Sundays, and times of opening on other days require forward planning. But it most emphatically repays the effort. www.marshlibrary.ie

Dublin Writer’s Museum on Parnell Square is a shrine to the writers who have made Dublin famous and is well worth the pilgrimage. Plenty of books, letters, portraits and personal items. There’s a bookshop and a pleasant coffee shop, too, all housed in a magnificent 18th century mansion.

The GPO on O’Connell Street was the main stronghold of the Irish Volunteers during the Easter Rising of 1916. You can still spot the bullet holes on the pillars outside. And inside, plaques capture the significance of this historical focal point.

The Trinity College quadrangle is a popular tourist attraction where time stands still in the centre of the capital city. Join the queue to see the 9th century Book of Kells now enshrined in an orientation centre on the Trinity campus.

Call in at the Shelbourne Hotel on St Stephen’s Green for afternoon tea in the Lord Mayor’s Lounge.  Afterwards, wander into the Shelbourne’s Museum, a little treasury of artefacts from the hotel’s long history. White cotton gloves are provided for you  to wear when turning the fragile pages of the old guest books.

Dublin Writer’s Museum on Parnell Square is a shrine to the writers who have made Dublin famous.

The cobbled precincts of Temple Bar are also a must. Wander, check out the shops but keep an eye out for Merchant’s Arch. Pass under it and you’re at the famous Ha’penny Bridge, one of the dearest relics of Dublin’s long history.

The Georgian House, “Number 29” at Merrion Square, offers a wonderful insight into the domestic world of the well-off middle classes who lived in the elegant buildings which line so many Dublin streets.www.esb.ie

The Little Museum of Dublin, just a minute’s walk from Grafton Street, is in a beautiful Georgian townhouse at 15 St. Stephen’s Green.A sort of ‘people’s museum’ of 20th century Dublin, every item has been donated by a member of the public.  Look in for a glimpse of the interior plus memorabilia of U2, James Joyce, JFK. There’s a flight of steps up to the  front door . Wheelchair users are invited to telephone  661 1000 in advance for assistance.Open seven days a week from 11 am to 8 pm.

The Chester Beatty Museum, behind Dublin castle, is an 18th century clock tower with modern extensions. It contains a unique legacy — thousands of priceless manuscripts and precious items amassed by Ireland’s first honorary citizen, the New York-born Chester Beatty. He left it all to the Irish people on his death in 1968. The Islamic Collection is world-famous. www.cbl.ie

 But let’s say you see none of the above and you also miss the Tara Brooch, the Ardagh Chalice, plus the finest horde of prehistoric gold in Europe, all at the National Museum, as well as the dazzling Millennium Wing at the National Gallery and Christ Church cathedral with its hallowed remains.

And let’s say you do spend your day wandering aimlessly, enjoying the streetscapes, perhaps browsing for antiques or second-hand books. And in the evening, venture into a shabby-looking pub where there’s Irish music going hammer and tongs and you order a pint and let the evening slip by as you talk to the locals or let them talk to you. Because if you do, chances are you’ll come away feeling you know Dublin well. And no one would argue with you, least of all me.

The Best of Irish Dublin

Little by little, Dublin has evolved into a European city. Where once it was difficult to discover the Irishness of Dublin beneath its colonial legacy, it’s now a challenge to discern it under its European one. But there it surely still remains.

Where to stay: I like the Clarence at 6/8 Wellington Quay. On the edge of Temple Bar, on the banks of the River Liffey. It’s an authentic “arts and crafts” building, restored to the height of quiet sophistication by the Dublin rock group U2.  www.clarence.com

Where to eat: European restaurants abound, but for a taste of traditional Irish dishes, it’s the Old Dublin on Francis Street or the Boxty House in Temple Bar.

Shopping: For superb contemporary Irish design and craftsmanship in jewellery, textiles and turned wood, visit the gift shop at the National Museum, Kildare Street. For Irish woolens with flair, including things for children, Avoca Handweavers on Suffolk Street. At the end of Johnson’s Court — off Grafton Street — you’ll find the Powerscourt Townhouse, a shopping centre devised from Lord Powerscourt’s 18th century mansion. On the top floor, the Design Studio is a showcase for Irish-label high-fashion. The antiques gallery on the first floor is a good place to hunt for Irish silver. On the north bank of the river, at 5 Lower Ormond Quay, the Irish Historical Picture Company stocks hundreds of old postcards and photos of Ireland, organised by place name.

Tours: Choose between literary pub crawls, a musical pub crawl, a 1916 Rebellion walking tour and a number of other historical walking tours. Commentary is authoritative, amusing or both. In addition to the hop-on-hop-off bus, there’s a manic outing in an amphibious craft which rumbles around Dublin for 55 minutes, than splashes into the Grand Canal harbour for another 20, weather permitting. The Viking Splash Tour encourages passengers to wear Viking headgear and roar at pedestrians. More fun than I’m prepared to admit.

Glendalough

Day out: If you have time for only one excursion, make it Glendalough, the ruins of a monastic settlement south of Dublin set in the misty hills of Wicklow. Its stone-roofed chapel, round tower, high crosses and ancient cemetery lie wrapped in the solemn atmosphere of 6th century Ireland. It’s even more beautiful in the rain. 

For details of locations, opening hours, and tours, visit the Dublin Tourism Centre, Suffolk Street, which is also just off Grafton Street.   www.visitdublin.com

Categories
UK/Ireland

Unmissable London

Even if you’ve never been in London before, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey will look familiar to you. This iconic cluster of spires and towers spells “London” to people the world over. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and London’s number one tourist attraction.Ancient as it appears, however, the splendid Gothic Revival building in which the Houses of Parliament hold their sessions is surprisingly new; it replaced the Palace of Westminster destroyed by fire in 1834.

 Big Ben, the 13-ton bell in the clock tower, first rang out its variation on a theme from Handel’s Messiah in 1859. Westminster Abbey, on the other hand, is authentically, awesomely, old. British Monarchs have been crowned here since 1066. It’s impossible not to be impressed by the soaring vaulted ceiling, the stained glass, the monuments and memorials, which range from effigies of Elizabeth I and her half-sister, Mary Queen of Scots to statues of 10 contemporary martyrs, including Martin Luther King Jr.

Find your way through the cloisters to the Abbey Museum. This modest room houses the oldest known panel painting in England. A 13th century retable, it was taken down from the High Altar in the
16th century and by the 18th it was being used as the lid of a chest. It was sent for restoration in 1998 and returned to the Abbey in 2005. And if you’ll settle for paste gems instead of the real thing you can save yourself a trip to the Tower of London to see the Crown jewels. Replicas of the Coronation Regalia, used for rehearsals of the ceremony, are displayed here. (The museum is “usually” open every day but only from 10.30 to 16.00 on Sundays.)

The Abbey’s College Garden is another hidden treasure. This leafy space is open throughout the year but is especially beautiful in the spring when its apple and cherry trees are in bloom. In the summer, lunchtime band concerts are sometimes held. (Garden is open Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday; in winter from 10.00 to 16.00, in summer from 10.00 to 18.00.)

The Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre across Broad Sanctuary from the Abbey was finished in 1986; it included a bug-proof room on the fourth floor for Prime Minister Thatcher’s top-level meetings.

Visit Big Ben, Parliament and Westminster Abbey

 Only UK residents may climb the clock tower’s 335 stairs to see Big Ben (to be rechristened Elizabeth Tower.. Big Beth?), but all are welcome to visit the Houses of Parliament (for details, see www.parliament.uk.) To tour Westminster Abbey, simply pick up an audio guide, free with your ticket. If you prefer to wander on you own, your queries will be answered by one of the colourfully gowned Abbey staff members. (The Abbey is closed to tourists Saturday afternoon and Sunday; otherwise, last entrance at 15.30 or 18.00 on Wednesday.) Experience the Abbey as a living church by attending evensong, sung by the Westminster Abbey Choir. (Evensong sung at 15.00 Saturday and Sunday, and at 17.00 on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. On Wednesday, the service is spoken.)

For sidelights on London, stroll down Parliament Street…

From Broad Sanctuary and Parliament Street to Trafalgar Square is less than a mile – but it’s a mile packed with insights into London history.

The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom occupies the restored art deco building at the corner. Visitors are welcome to drop in on court hearings and watch bewigged barristers at work. The atrium coffee shop is open to the public.

The Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms are tunnelled under Government Buildings (detour down King Charles Street). This is the secret bunker from which Winston Churchill directed World War II. The warren of 27 rooms includes all the necessary offices, plus Mrs Churchill’s bedroom with chintz covered arm chair. (Open daily, last admission 17.00.)

Downing Street leads off Parliament Street but iron gates block access. Join the sightseers on the left for the best view of the Prime Minister’s home at Number 10.

Where Parliament Street becomes Whitehall, mounted cavalrymen stand guard under twin arches. Since 1750, this has been the Household Cavalry’s headquarters; here it prepares for ceremonial work such as the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. Walk under the arch to the Household Cavalry Museum. Inside, through a glass partition, you can glimpse the day’s work being carried out in the stables. (Open daily until 17.00.)

Directly across Parliament Street, visit the Banqueting House designed by Indigo Jones for King James in 1622; its crowning glory is an astonishing ceiling by Rubens. The Banqueting House was designed as the setting for royal masqued balls, but is best remembered as the site of King Charles’s execution in 1649. (Open 10.00 to 17.00. Closed Sunday and for private functions.)

In Trafalgar Square – the geographical centre of London – a statue of Lord Nelson surveys the traffic from his plinth. Behind him, the huge National Gallery houses one of Europe’s major collection’s of European paintings. (Open until 18.00 but on Friday until 21.00.)

Around the corner from the gallery is the porticoed entrance to St Martin-in-the-Fields. Don’t fail to experience the sublime interior of this 18th century church. It features an intriguing East Window, designed by an Iranian-born artist. The church holds free concerts, usually at 13.00 and 19.45. The popular “Cafe in the Crypt” is downstairs.

Something to read:

If the War Rooms under Whitehall kindle your imagination, you’ll love Double Cross: the True Story of the D-Day Spies by Ben Macintyre.

The five key D-Day spies were one of the oddest military units ever assembled: a bisexual Peruvian playgirl, a tiny Polish fighter pilot, a Serbian seducer, a wildly imaginative Spaniard with a diploma in chicken farming, and a hysterical Frenchwoman whose obsessive love for her pet dog very nearly wrecked the entire deception. Read it and wonder how they kept it all straight.. and made a massive contribution to winning the war.

Categories
France/Italy Welcome

Another Side to Venice

In his Companion Guide to Venice, the British art historian Hugh Honour wrote that to approach Venice in any way but by sea “is like entering a palace through the back door”.

To understand what he means take a water taxi from the airport. From your boat your first view of the city is the majestic white dome of the Church of Santa Maria della Salute. Punctuating the low skyline of Venice, as indistinct in its envelope of mist as a painting by Turner or Monet, it is the iconic symbol of Venice.

In Venetian terms, the church is not old; it dates from the mid-17th century when it was built in thanksgiving to “Our Lady of Good Health”, whose intercession was credited with halting a plague that had raged for two years and killed more than one-third of the population of Venice. The competition for the design of the church was won by an unknown, 26-year-old architect, Baldassare Longhena. He promised a building that would be “strange, worthy, and beautiful”. And that does describe Longhena’s octagonal Venetian Baroque building which, though supported by over one million wooden piles, seems to float near the tip of the Dorsoduro, the west bank of the Grand Canal.

One of the six sestieri or areas of Venice, the Dorsoduro (Italian for “hard ridge”) has always been considered less fashionable than the facing bank which is home to St Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace. But from the tourist’s point of view that works in Dorsoduro’s favour. Far less congested and in many ways more atmospheric than the sestieri across the Grand Canal, the area is mysterious and misty in the winter and in summer cooler and more tranquil. With its narrow streets and hidden alleys, Dorsoduro yields up its treasures one by one as if it were turning over playing cards. Although it’s linked with the opposite shore by the Accademia Bridge and the number one waterbus, you can make crossing the Grand Canal an authentic Venetian experience in itself; take the traghetto that runs during daylight hours from a “campo del traghetti” near the Guglie waterbus stop. (Yellow signs on house walls point you to it.) Traghetti are old gondolas, their seats stripped out to make room for passengers who stand on the short crossing, contriving to keep their balance even when the traghetto crosses the wake of a motorboat. You pay your 50 cent fare to the oarsman on arrival at a little wooden pier convenient to La Salute, the new Punta del Dogana art gallery and the Peggy Guggenheim collection of modern art.

If this very Venetian ride across the Grand Canal isn’t excuse enough to make the excursion, here are six more good reasons to visit

Dorsoduro:
1. Experience La Salute

The No 1 waterbus brings you right to the steps of the church; if you come by traghetto, turn left from the landing and a short walk will bring you there. Enter this Baroque masterpiece to admire the ceiling panels by Titian and Tinteretto’s famous painting, the Marriage at Cana. On the feast day of Santa Maria della Salute, November 21, a temporary pontoon bridge links La Salute with the San Marco district. Venetians carrying candles walk across to pay their respects and gondoliers bring their oars for a blessing.

2. Visit the Punta della Dogana

The only building further out to sea than La Salute, is the low-lying Dogana, a 17th century maritime Customs House remodelled by the Japanese architect, Tadao Ando into a chic contemporary art gallery; it opened in June 2009 to house one-half of the ongoing ‘Mapping the Studio’ exhibition made up of art works belonging to the French billionaire Francois Pinault. The other half of the exhibition can be seen in the Palazzo Grassi which also belongs to Mr
Pinault.

The two museums share a website:www.palazzograssi.it.
Opening hours are 10:00 to 19:00, with the last entrance at 18:00.
Closed Tuesdays and from December 24 to January 2.

3. Stroll down the Zattere quay

If you follow around the tip of the Dorsoduro you find yourself on the Zattere, a picturesque promenade lined with 15th and 16th century palazzi and churches which front on the Giudecca Canal. Zattere means ‘raft of logs’, and it was here that the wood that floated down river from the Dolomites was landed to be made into ships’ masts and pilings for the city of Venice. Today the Zattere is popular with Venetians for its restaurants (including one whose dining tables are set out on a platform in the water) and Gelateria Nico, which serves what many claim to be the city’s best ice cream.

4. See a gondola repair shop

Turn left off the Zattere at the fondamento that runs along the Rio San Treviso. From here you have the best view of the boatyard, the squero. New gondolas are rarely made here (there are three other boatyards in the city) but when they are, they are built traditionally from seven kinds of wood in a process that takes up to two months to complete. The principal work in this boatyard is the repairing and maintaining of the 350 gondolas still in service in Venice. The picturesque Tyrolian-looking wooden buildings that surround the squero have been home to the same owners for generations and are the original workshops, dating from the 17th century.

5. Visit the Accademia Gallery

This museum covering five centuries of Venetian painting up to the 19th century is so huge – 24 rooms – you should plan your visit in advance, it’s also a good idea to buy your ticket online and save queueing. The Accademia was founded in 1750 as an art school, but had several homes before its move in 1807, under Napoleonic edict, to the present location at the foot of the bridge of the same name. It benefitted from Napoleon’s suppression of religious schools and convents, acquiring many extraordinary works of art.

The gallery is open every day from 8:15, closes at 19h every day but Monday when it closes at 14h. You can find descriptions of the exhibitions – to help you decide which rooms to visit – as well as online ticket purchase at  www.tickitaly.com.

6. Relax at the Peggy Guggenheim museum.

This small palazzo, with its breathtaking view of the Grand Canal, was where the American millionaire collector lived. The rooms in which her sensational assemblage of modern art is shown still feel ‘domestic’. You can easily imagine the parties, the drinks on the terrace, the lifestyle she led here surrounded by her treasured collection. At the back of the garden is a café where you can enjoy a coffee or a light lunch. Open every day from 10:00 to 18:00. Closed on Tuesdays and on Christmas Day.

For further details, visit: www.guggenheim-venice.it

Take the taxi!

Book your water taxi on arrival in the airport – there’s a desk in the arrivals’ hall – or, pre-book at www.venicewelcome.com or www.venicewatertaxi.com. Expensive — but way to go!

Categories
Spain/Portugal Welcome

More to See in Barcelona

If you’re already familiar with Barcelona’s five top tourist sights, what next?

1) If you’ve seen the Sagrada Familia, then visit a secular masterpiece of Modernista architecture the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau. Another of Barcelona’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites this one was designed by Lluis Domènech i Montaner in 1903 to express his belief in architecture as therapy. It is still a fully functioning hospital (though it appeared as language school in Woody Allen’s film, ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona.’) Guided tours in English at 10:15 and 12:15 daily.  www.santpau.es

2)If you’ve visted the Cathedral of Barcelona with its ornately carved organ stalls, discover Santa Maria del Mar, the church beloved by Barcelona’s residents.  Despite being torched by anarchists in 1936 this medieval basilica with its beautiful 15th century rose window, still exudes an impressive serenity. The building of the church during the Spanish Inquisition is the background to a prize-winning novel  ‘The Cathedral of the Sea’ (lldefonso Falcones 2006).

3)If you know the Boqueria Market. wander through the Mercat Santa Caterina, just down the street from the Cathedral. From a distance you will spot the huge undulating canopy – a mosaic of 325,000 multicoloured Spanish tiles- that stylishly covers what was a rundown neo-classic market.   Enric Miralles who also worked on the Scottish Parliament Building was one of the building’s designers.

4)If you’ve been to the Picasso Museum, take the funicular up to Monjuic to the splendid Fundació Joan Miró. Housed in one of the word’s outstanding museum buildings (designed by Sert) Miró’s vibrant abstracts have a worthy home. Calder’s ‘Mercury Fountain’, a tribute to the mercury miners of Almaden, is here too.

5) If you’ve walked the length of the Ramblas.  you surely will find yourself walking it again.  Built over a dried-up riverbed it is itself like a river – its population of strolling pedestrians, bizarre living statues, flowers, birds and small animals for sale is constantly changing.  And look for the inlaid mosaics by Joan Miró. .. a large white circle bordered in grey with blue and yellow circles within  it. The artist’s signature is on a tile on the perimeter.

Categories
Sweden/Denmark

Day Out From Stockholm

If you tried to invent the perfect destination for a day out from Stockholm, it would be hard to improve on Sigtuna.  Situated not far from Arlanda airport, it is a picturesque, lakeside village full of history, old buildings, and enough cafes, restaurants and little shops to round out a visit nicely.

Sigtuna Main Street

From the point of view of history, Sigtuna has a head start. It is Sweden’s oldest mediaeval town. Dating from 980 AD, its single main street still winds along the same narrow route as it did in the middle ages. Of course many of the old houses have disappeared and all but one of the churches, but those that remain are original, standing where they were built.  Beckoning laneways- some of whose Swedish names translate evocatively into Crooked, Broad, Cross, Long and Noisy – lead down from the main street to the lake.

Sigtuna’s main street  is lined with tiny shops.  Its tiny ‘Main Square’ holds an even tinier town hall, the smallest in Sweden, maybe in Europe.  Built in 1744, it contains royal portraits, baroque chairs and a crystal chandelier. It’s small but sophisticated, and the same can be said of Sigtuna. The shops may be picturesque old wooden buildings, but the merchandise is surprisingly stylish with cutting-edge clothing designs and expe nsive handicrafts, too.  In addition to clothing shops, Sigtuna’s bookshops, antique shops, and toyshops can keep a browser entertained for hours. Take a break, though, in the ice cream shop or perhaps ‘Tant Brun’s, where homemade cakes are served with coffee from a copper pot. The café is in the oldest house in Sigtuna-late 17th century.  Most visitors will have to bend sharply to enter through the low doorway.

Thanks to the curious custom of jettisoning rubbish into the street and then covering it over with planks as needs be, recent excavations have revealed the town’s domestic history. You can explore it for yourself in Sigtuna’s appealingly undemanding museum, housed in a red wooden house at the end of the main street.

Staying overnight in Sigtuna

This could become the highlight of a visit if you secure a booking at the 26-bedroom  “1909 Sigtuna Stads Hotell” at the Western end of Sigtuna’s main street. Sweden’s ‘smallest five star hotel’ it is one of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World and routinely plays host to visiting dignitaries; US President Lyndon Johnson stayed here when attending the funeral of Dag Hammarskjöld’s funeral in Uppsala.  It has all the facilities of a very modern hotel, but was meticulously restored in 2001 in pure 1909 style. Wooden paneling and carvings recreate the atmosphere that King Gustav V knew on his visits. The rooms and restaurant, which serves Swedish food with an international touch, are decorated in pared-down Scandinavian style.   The hotel is a 15-minute journey from Arlanda airport. Details at www. sigtunastadshotell.se

Categories
France/Italy

At Home in Rome’s Wine Academy

Il Palazzetto has its feet on the ground on Vicola del Bottino but its head in the air. Its rooftop terrace looks out across Rome’s famous Spanish Steps. In between are the five elegant floors of the International Wine Academy of Roma.

For centuries, Il Palazzetto was one of the favourite residences of an aristocratic Roman family. Abandoned in 1980, it lay empty until 1998, when film director Bernardo Bertolucci used it as the setting for L’assedio (The Besieged), the story of a pianist’s romantic pursuit of a beautiful African servant.

In September 2002, Il Palazzetto opened as the “Wine Academy of Roma,” an informal club and meeting place for wine lovers. Today, a pre-dinner guided wine tasting in the library, or a gastronomic lunch or dinner in the garden (roofed and heated in winter), is the kind of refined delight which makes Rome “Rome.” The work of transforming an abandoned historical building into a luxurious and welcoming setting for the appreciation of fine wine took three years. It began when Roberto Wirth, owner and manager of Rome’s ultra-prestigious Hotel Hassler, acquired Il Palazzetto in 1999. He decided, along with a group of like-minded friends, to express his own enthusiasm for fine wines and food by making Il Palazzetto the headquarters of an International Wine Academy.

The subsequent renovation of the palazzo brought to light ancient materials and finishes such as the original marble pavement of the ground floor which dates from the year 500AD, and the wrought iron of the magnificent spiral staircase, dating to the end of the 1800s. As other architectural details were uncovered, they were restored and reinstated, bringing the building back to harmonious life.

Responsibility for coordinating the educational activities of the Academy was entrusted to Steven Spurrier, who established the Wine Academy of Paris in 1973 and the wine course at Christie’s in 1982. He orchestrates the daily wine tastings, the lunches and dinners at which food and wine are carefully matched, and the various educational courses, which are held at the Academy on a half-day, weekly or full week basis.

Four beautiful bedrooms – one with frescoed walls – have been opened on the upper floors of Il Palazzetto making it possible for a lucky few to stay in an historical palace in the heart of Rome.

Wine tastings, guided by a master sommelier, are held Monday to Friday between 6 and 7 pm. A platter of gourmet cheeses and cured meats accompanies the tastings. €20 per person; reservations are essential. For those who prefer to taste wine on their own, Il Palazzetto’s wine bar is ideal for a casual glass of wine; there are 400 to choose from, along with a cheese and meat platter or an appetiser. Il Palazzetto’s restaurant, under Chef Antonio Martucci, serves modern Italian fare combining fresh ingredients in adventurous ways.

For more information, or to make a reservation for a wine tasting, lunch or dinner: telephone +39-06-699-0878; email info@wineacademyroma.com; visit www.wineacademyroma.com; or write Il Palazzetto, Wine Academy of Roma, Vicolo del Bottino, 800187, Rome, Italy.

Il Palazzetto’s bedrooms each come with stylish bath en suite and continental breakfast. For full details and to book visit www.ilpalazzettoroma.com

Categories
France/Italy Welcome

Four Layers of Rome

Rome is built on a crust of history. It seems that wherever they break through, a secret museum is found lying beneath the ground. Currently, some 400 excavations are accessible, varying in degree of difficulty presented by the site and in terms of the amount of red tape required to arrange a visit.

One which requires no forward planning, but offers an easy walk through a four-layer cross section of Roman history, is the medieval Church of St Clemente. Simply descend a staircase in the nave to arrive in an earlier Basilica, larger than the one above it, built around 375 AD.

Both churches are richly decorated, the 12th century church with mosaics, the earlier one with frescoes. Sacked by the Normans, it became the foundation for the present church and lay forgotten until 1827 when a determined priest started the 40-year excavation project that brought it to light.

Down a further level is one of the best preserved shrines to Mithras yet found under Rome. This Persian religion, popular with the Imperial soldiers, had more followers than Christ at the beginning of the 4th century. The religion involved the sacrifice of a bull, and in the floor is the channel down which the blood of the animals ran. There are rooms with stuccoed ceilings, the dining room with stone benches, and what is thought to have been a schoolroom for young initiates.

Finally, under this pagan temple, you visit the still unexcavated foundations of the Roman buildings burned in Nero’s great fire and walk the cobbles of a 1,900-year-old Roman street, now 30 feet underground. The Church of San Clemente is at Via San Giovanni in Laterno, open every day from 9.00 a.m. to 12.30 p.m. and from 3.30 p.m. to 6.30 p.m.

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Sicily/Corsica

In Sicily? Visit Syracuse

Syracuse Harbour

Syracuse, on Sicily’s southeastern coast, has been an important city for 27 centuries. It has broad avenues, a busy harbour and some splendid baroque architecture.

It also has some of  the best Grecian ruins on the island. In the Piazza Pancali, flanked by an open market and a row of office buildings, stands the enormous temple to Apollo, the largest existing Doric temple in Western Europe.A few streets away, an ornate 18th century cathedral has all but swallowed the imposing remains of a 6th century BC temple to Minerva.The massive columns stand out clearly against the Duomo’s interior walls.

 Near it are stone quarries and enormous caves. One of the caves is called the “Ear of Dionysius” because its extraordinary acoustics supposedly allowed the tyrant Dionysius to eavesdrop on the prisoners held within it.The tomb of the scientist Archimedes, who was born in Syracuse in 287 BC, is in the northwest corner of the Neapolis.

A modern Archeological Museum was opened in 1988 to exhibit the fruits of a 20-year dig in the area. Its outstanding treasures are the “Venus Anadyomene,” a Roman copy of a Greek statue and an enthroned goddess dating from the 6th century BC. It’s an easy-to-visit museum with a wealth of geological and historical artifacts. In the centre of one room stand  two rather forlorn plaster casts about the size of small ponies – the skeletons of prehistoric male and female dwarf elephants.The female seems to have a huge eye socket in the middle of her forehead and it’s thought this gave rise to the Cyclops legend. It was actually part of the respiratory system, but you can see how the story started.

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Sicily/Corsica

Off Season Gem: Corsica

It’s not too late to see what the south of France was like before it  became the South of France. Go to Corsica. Not in the months of July or August,  when Italian and French holidaymakers overrun this small granite mountain marooned in the Ligurian sea, but in spring or autumn. Then the sombre peaks, the translucent sea, the vibrant light of the Mediterranean sun will seem to be your own happy discovery and the locals will be pleased and slightly surprised to find you in their midst..

My first visit was in May, the maquis was in bloom… the  nearly impenetrable ‘maquis’  which first sheltered Corsican outlaws and then the resistance fighters of WW2.  A soft sweet fragrance  rose from the tangle of vegetation on the lower slopes of  forested, brush-covered mountains….rock roses, lavender, thyme, sage, tree heather  cistus, asphodel.  It drifted through the open windows of the early morning train from Ajaccio to Bastia where I was going just for the ride, just because the route was called the most picturesque in Europe when the narrow-gauge tracks were  laid in 1888.

We travelled north along a spine of  mountain ridges on tracks which seemed no wider than a tea tray, often hugging the mountainside so closely one could have picked wild flowers from the rocks in passing. The views on the other side, over bottomless ravines and dark green valleys, were like 19th century engravings with seldom a house or a glimpse of a road. In the distance lay jagged, black peaks some traced with snow, pine, beech and chestnut  forests,  glacial lakes, white-foaming streams.  We passed over iron bridges so narrow they  disappeared underneath the railway car and for a few moments it was  as if the train had taken to the air.

The long steady climb up to Vizzavona, a town at the half-way point of the legendary cross-country trail, the  GR 20, caused  the train to wheeze like an asthmatic and justified its nickname: the Trembler. At 906 km, the air was cold, passengers searched out open windows and closed them before we set off again, downhill to Bastia, the island’s largest town and commercial centre.. We arrived right on time,  four hours, 155 km, 12 bridges, 34 viaducts and 38 tunnels after leaving Ajaccio .

Yachts in Bastia’s Old Port were overlooked by weathered 19th century houses and a baroque cathedral. Restaurants with starchy tablecloths and rows of wine glasses were readying for the evening. But before they opened, the train returned to Ajaccio, with me, a clatter of teenagers from the university in Corte, and an elegant  blonde carrying a florist’s red rose wrapped in cellophane. She was on her way to Ponte Nuovo to lay the rose at the bridge where French troops ultimately defeated the Corsicans and Corsican independence ended. Between 600 years of Italian rule and annexation by France, their autonomy had lasted only 14 years. The cause of freedom echoes around the hills of Corsica still, punctuated from time to time by the bombs of the FNLC.

Bonifacio, the much photographed cliff top village at the southern tip of the island, is Corsica’s main attraction. To get there, I took the bus from Ajaccio, which  plunged along the twisty mountain roads and through the tiny hamlets like an armour-plated elephant. We stopped to pick up passengers in the hilltop village of Sartene of which it has been said ‘it breathes war and vengeance’. It has also been called the most Corsican of Corsican towns. On its shadowy, steep streets famous vendettas have been plotted calling for a death inflicted on one family to be revenged by a death in the other . This could  carry down through generations with the cause  of the conflict becoming obscure even to the participants. Today the vendetta is said to be just a memory, but it is the brand name inscribed on the blades of a range of stiletto knives.

The journey to Bonifacio ended in a huge parking lot overlooking  a narrow yacht harbour edged with open-air eating places and small shops. Sheltering thefjord-like inlet are white limestone cliffs 60 metres high, their base  deeply eroded by an incessant wind and a turquoise sea..’The King of Aragon’s Stairway’, 187 steps carved into the cliff face, leads obliquely from the shore to the citadel and the mediaeval city. From above you gaze down on  Sardinia, 12 km away to the south. From below you  gaze up at houses perched so close to the cliff edge they look as if they might topple into the sea. In 1966, one did.