The magic of Blue Gold in the Midi-Pyrenees.
During the renaissance the leaves of this very ordinary looking plant known locally as Pastel created a triangle of huge wealth in the Midi-Pyrenees linking Toulouse, Albi and Carcassonne. In its heyday during the 16th and 17th centuries the pastel plant (known as woad in English) became known as ‘blue gold’. Local merchants gained great wealth producing a unique blue colour dye produced from the leaves. Henry IV in 1609 and later Napoleon worked hard to try and limit the amount of indigo dye being shipped to Europe from Asia. But, by the 19th century the battle was lost and the farming of Pastel ceased.
During our last visit to the region we were excited to discover a resurgence of ‘blue gold’. After several centuries of oblivion, it’s making a come-back as Pastel blooms again in the fields of the Midi-Pyrenees. Local producers are using the pigment to produce fine arts and textiles featuring this very distinctive shade of blue. Almost magically, with its green leaves and yellow flowers, after being soaked for 24 hours, the addition of oxygen causes the colour to change to its distinctive rich blue. What’s more, when used in clothing it maintains its richness of colour regardless of how often you wash the garment.
The oil from the leaves was, in Medieval times, known for its therapeutic properties. Being rich in Omegas 6, 3 and 9 its now being used in cosmetics where it’s gaining popularity due to its rich moisturizing and anti-ageing properties
The legacy of ‘blue gold’ can still be found in the elegance of the mansions built by affluent merchants located in the centre of each of these stunning cities, all of which are worth a visit for this and many other delights.
Elegant Toulouse, known as the pink city due to the colour of the stone used for its buildings.,
The Pink City of Toulouse
Albi boasts the largest surviving brick built cathedral in the world and the adjoining Toulouse Lautrec Museum.
Episcopal City of ALbi
Carcassonne needs little introduction with its mystical walled city and medieval citadel.
Carcassonne, a fortified town in the Aude department in the Region of Languedoc-Roussillon.
Details of our September 2019 small group tour to this region of Southern France and across the Pyrenees into Northern Spain can be found by clicking on the ‘Destinations’ button at the top of the page. The tour focuses on the history, art, culture and food of this stunning region which takes us from the mountains to the sea. Still largely undiscovered by international tourists it’s slow travel at its very best. For solo travellers you’ll enjoy sole occupancy of a comfortable queen size room in delightful small hotels with no single supplement.
Dubbed the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ the location of the original Amber Room is still a mystery.
Gifted to Peter the Great by the King of Prussia in 1716. This extraordinarily beautiful room glowed with tons of amber and other semi-precious stones and backed with gold leaf. Originally installed in the Winter Palace, in 1755, Czarina Elizabeth had the room moved to the Catherine Palace in Pushkin. Additional amber was shipped from Berlin as Italian designer, Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli extended the design to fit a larger space.
There the room remained in splendour until, in 1941, Operation Barbarossa was set in motion with over 3 million German soldiers invading the Soviet Union. As the German army began its approach to Pushkin, a desperate attempt was made to disassemble the Amber Room and hide it from the invading forces. When it became obvious that this wouldn’t be achieved in time an attempt was made to hide the room behind a layer of wallpaper.
The Germans had lists of art treasures it wanted to acquire and was a priority as they progressed through the countries they invaded. They knew exactly where to find the Amber Room. Within 36 hours, its reported, they managed to disassemble the entire room and pack it in 27 crates. These were then shipped to Konigsberg and reinstalled in the Castle Museum.
When the writing was on the wall in 1943 and defeat became likely the Germans again dismantled the room and re-packed it in its crates. It’s at this point that the mystery begins. Konigsberg Castle was destroyed along with the city in allied bombing raids in 1944. Did the Amber Room survive hidden safely away or was it destroyed in the bombing? Nobody seems to know although many historians have tried to solve the mystery.
In 1979 it was decided to build a new Amber Room. Construction began and took 25 years to complete at a cost of over 11 million dollars (US). The new room was opened to mark the 300-year anniversary of St Petersburg by Russian President Vladimir Putin and then-German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder in a unifying ceremony.
The room is on display at the Tsarskoye Selo State Museum Reserve at the Catherine Palace outside of St Petersburg.
The Amber Room is just one of the many spectacular sights we’ll be visiting during our 19 days Cultural Exploration of Russia’s two great cities and ancient Golden Circle towns departing Moscow on 22nd August 2019.
Following the brutal Spanish conquest of the Americas in the 16th century the conquerors immediately set out to convert the indigenous people to Catholicism.
Violence was the preferred method of persuasion of the Spaniards so, the Indians opted to incorporate elements of Christianity into their traditional beliefs as a means of survival. Avoiding the wrath of the Spaniards, by this accommodation, they managed to maintain their native spirituality and cultural identity. The Mayas came to accept the Christian god as a supreme power but held on to their traditional deities by transforming them into saints.
There were enough similarities between the Mayan religion and Christianity to make syncretism (amalgamation of different religions) possible. Both religions had priests to guide people, used images and statues to represent holy figures and burned incense during rituals. Both Christians and Mayans worshiped a god who died for others and was resurrected, for Mayans this was the Maize god. The concept of the cross also had meaning to the Mayans as it resonated with their belief in the World Tree, the tree of life, depicted in cruciform.
San Juan Chamula Church
This syncretic system is nowhere better observed than in the State of Chiapas in Southern Mexico. In San Juan Chamula, a small town near the lively town of, San Cristobal de Las Casas, the main church is lined with statues of Catholic saints dressed in local clothes and adorned with mirrors. Here, you’ll find no altars or pews just a stone floor covered in pine needles and thousands of candles. Worshipers, seated in groups on the floor, openly engage in unique rituals involving animal sacrifice (usually chickens) led by the Curandera (healer) and, rather bizarrely, the drinking of Coca Cola or the strong local beverage . Bodily expelling gases fuelled by these drinks is the final symbolic stage in ridding the body of the impurities thought to be causing emotional distress or ill-health.
The Virgin of Guadelupe, the Roman Catholic title for the Virgin Mary, is the revered patron saint of Mexico and depicted with a brown skin. Myth has it that she appeared to an Indigenous peasant, Saint Juan Diego, in 1531 and told him that a church in her name should be built on the site. The place where she chose to appear was Tepeyac the site of the temple to Tonantzin, the Aztec goddess . The name Tonantzin translates from the native Aztec language of Nahautl to mean ‘Our Mother’. Another example of the blending of the imposed Catholic beliefs with Maya religious traditions.
These days the Basilica of our Lady of Guadelupe in Mexico City has become the most visited Catholic pilgrimage in the world and the third most-visited sacred site.
Interested in learning more of the fascinating culture and traditions of the Maya? Then join us in February 2019 as we explore Chiapas, its towns, villages, artisans and spectacular hidden Mayan ruins? A stunning and unforgettable destination physically and culturally.
Ancient Mayan City, Chiapas
A medieval curse and an exorcism with every meal
Isola Comacina is the only island on stunningly beautiful Lake Como. For centuries it remained uninhabited. It was abandoned after the destruction of its fortifications and buildings in 1169. One of the casualties of the wars between Milan and Como.
The island was on the side of Milan and following its destruction the Bishop of Como issued a curse which stated that the bells will not ring anymore and that anyone playing host on the island would suffer a violent death. Despite its magnificent location, centuries past before anyone was brave enough to challenge the curse.
Finally, in 1947, ignoring the curse three friends decided to build the restaurant, Locanda, on the island. One of the three lost his life in a boating accident and another was killed by his girlfriend. The remaining investor, Lino Nessi, was persuaded to continue with the project and a suggestion was made to hold an exorcism by fire.
To this day following an always superb lunch a bell is rung and the host of the restaurant gathers his guests around a bubbling cauldron. Guests listen as he tells the story, witnessing this exorcism by fire and imbibing the magic mixture. We may not believe in curses and exorcisms but something seems to be working as the restaurant has gone on to charm and delight thousands of visitors since it opened. Why not be one of them and experience it for yourself.
Just one of the many wonderful stories and experiences to be shared during our tour of Northern Italy.
Our boutique small group travel tour to Northern Italy in 2019 includes 8 days in the walled city of Ferrara and 3 days in Bellagio, the most beautiful town on the Lake. It also includes a visit to Venice to experience the highlights of the Venice Biennale. Perfect for solo travellers who will enjoy sole use of a queen size room with no single supplement. Not to be missed. Head to the tour page for full details of the itinerary.
This week’s trip from our home in L’Escala was to Andorra. We went there once before – many, many years ago – and had been, how shall I put it, underwhelmed. From the border and into the capital, Andorra La Vella, is just one long traffic jam; it is almost impossible, not to mention expensive, to park; and when you do finally get out of the car all there really is to see is a single shopping street with one unimpressive shop after the other selling booze, fags and perfume – oh, and elite cars. This time, as the place obviously hadn’t improved much, we didn’t linger in Andorra La Vella but passed on through with a view to finding out what the rest of Andorra had to offer. I suppose neither the size of the population nor the landscape are conducive to building anything other than ribbon developments. There are just two numbered roads in Andorra – the no. 1 from the Spanish border to Andorra La Vella and the no. 2 from Andorra La Vella to the French border. On either side of the road are numerous hotels and rental apartments, small shopping malls and car parks.
We came to a small town called Encamp and were surprised to see a cable car crossing the road. So surprised, in fact that we quickly parked the car and went looking for where we could get on it. I do love a good cable car – closest I ever get to mountaineering! We established that the cable car took 25 minutes to reach the summit, paid our €10 each and off we went. It was a wonderful ride up over one, smaller, peak-ette and on upward. There was a mid-station so the energetic could get off and walk the last part (or the over-ambitious who had started to walk down could give up and take the cable car the rest of the way).
Then on again and up to the top station where there is a ski centre and a cafe with an outdoor terrace with absolutely wonderful views. It must be even more spectacular in the winter covered in snow. We were 2502metres above sea level, the temperature was still 26 degrees, there was quite a stiff breeze but if you went onto the leeward side of the cafe and sat in the shade, it was just perfect. Two bags of chips and a couple of shandies (we did have the car!) – really living.
Also on the cafe terrace at the same time was a large group of British walkers – about 20 of them. I do appreciate that some people are far more committed to hill walking than I am, so I can see that some stout footwear might be useful, but long trekking trousers, fleeces tied around waists, huge sunhats, ruck sacks the size of a small child with straws coming out so they can walk along sucking. What’s that all about? Why do Brits have to look complete idiots just because they are out walking in a foreign country? We have even seen a group of British walkers striding purposefully, in full gear and complete with ski-poles, through the centre of Girona when it was over 30 degrees. My husband always takes great delight when we come across British tourists – he is Norwegian so is fairly unlikely to meet any of his countrymen as there are only 5 million all told. As soon as he spots Brits he says: “Your lot” as if I am personally responsible for the entire 60 million official residents of the United Kingdom (I say official as there is much discussion around what the true figure might be which resulted in the somewhat controversial outcome of the recent referendum).
The trip back down the mountain was equally spectacular, past hill farms, a strange tower with steps up it, little rivulets rushing down to the valley and, as we approached Encamp, the town rushing up to meet us. We were so pleased we had taken the cable car – we could now appreciate that Andorra was more than booze, fags and perfume. Back in the car, we drove on towards France. The ribbon developments continue. One small town was pretty – Canillo – which is apparently popular with Spaniards and has a couple of nice hotels and some good restaurants. Eventually we came to Soldeu which is probably the best known ski destination in Andorra. In summer it felt rather claustrophobic – large hotels on either side of the road meant you couldn’t see the sun. I have since been told it is the resort of choice for young Brits coming to ski and party (in no particular order) who find the layout very convenient as it is easy to skip from one bar to the next and the ski lifts are no more than a stone’s throw behind the hotels. Having said that, the ski centre looked very impressive with several lifts and what looked like some pretty challenging black runs. Probably give that a miss as my skiing skills are limited to some gentle cross-country preferably without anything too taxing such as turning a corner or stopping!
After leaving Soldeu it was getting a bit late so we chickened out of going over Andorra’s highest pass – the Pas de la Casa. The small town lies at over 2000 metres but the road over the mountain to it is windy and I was beginning to get mountained-out. So we took the tunnel and then joined the queue of traffic to cross the border into France. It was a reminder of how Europe used to be to have to go through customs on the way into and out of Andorra. Makes it feel more special somehow instead of just sailing on down the motorway with very little evidence of leaving one country and entering another.
Driving on the French side of the Pyrenees is very different from the Spanish side. It is obviously on the north side of the mountain so even in summer there are parts of the steep valleys that do not get much, if any, sun. The houses of the small towns are, like Andorra, built right by the roadside – there is literally about 2 feet between people’s front door and the traffic driving past. It all feels rather depressing – not somewhere I would want to live. The scenery on the other hand is awe inspiring. Deep ravines, rushing rivers, a couple of spectacular railway bridges – always something to see. The road follows the route of the famous Train Jaune. As we passed through Villefrance de Conflent we spotted the bright yellow carriages of the little train – such a bright yellow they are hard to miss. I think a trip on the train could be another wonderful day out.
On down, and down, and eventually we come to Perpignan where we again decided to forgo the more scenic route through Le Boulou and Le Perthus as it was getting dark, so picked up the motorway for the short stretch to Figueres and back home.
A very interesting day out. Andorra is still not somewhere I would rush back to but it is somewhere we could spend a couple of days either in Encamp or Canillo and explore the countryside a bit more.
So, we’re nearly there – it feels dreadful to almost wish your life away, but August is such frenetic month that you just want it to be over. Our otherwise sleepy little town with a permanent population of 8000 souls is suddenly invaded, first by the Dutch who arrive at the end of June, then the Germans, the French – LOTS of French, it only being half an hour to the border – and finally the Catalan/Spanish tourists from the big cities such as Barcelona and Girona, culminating in a population of over 80,000 for the month of August. As you can imagine it is pandemonium – the bars and restaurants try desperately to milk every last centimo from the idiot tourists, supermarkets put a good 10% on their prices for the months of July and August, people on the Old Town beach have to turn over in unison to avoid unpleasantness and the daily excitement for the residents is watching the air ambulance try to land on the little square by the beach to deal with an emergency – sometimes twice in one day! I really don’t envy the paramedics, all togged up in their orange jumpsuits and crash helmets, manhandling patients on trolleys from an ambulance to the confined space of the helicopter in 34 degrees of heat. And if it’s not the beach it’s the road – why is it that people on holiday seem to leave their common sense at home and drive like lunatics?
It isn’t just the bars and restaurants who try to part the tourists from their cash. Home-owners move out to stay with friends or into tiny bedsits with no air-conditioning in order to rent out their property for exorbitant sums. The house two doors down from us where normally there is just one retired French lady was occupied for two weeks by three families – a total of five adults and seven children. The house is identical to ours so we just wondered where they all slept – we feel our house is full to bursting when our son, his wife and three year old daughter come to visit, but twelve people in a three bedroom house? That’s beyond cosy. Must have been quite a queue for the loo in the morning.
Our way of retaining our sanity is to take short trips away from the coast. Over the past two weeks we have been to the pretty mountain town of Compradon and also to Andorra.
Compradon is about a two hour drive from home into the Pyrenees, close to the beautiful Catalan mountain of Canigou. I adore that mountain the sight of it, particularly in winter when it is covered with snow, is magical. At this time of year it is often hidden in haze but makes a majestic appearance from time to time. Compradon is popular both in summer and winter. In summer the river is a cool oasis, the little town has a couple of squares with bars and restaurants and there is the most eccentric little hotel – imaginatively named Hotel Compradon – which from the front looks as though nothing has changed there, including the customers – for the past 50 years; but at the back the rooms have balconies overlooking the river at the other side of which is the hotel’s beautiful private garden with a swimming pool, accessed by an elegant footbridge. In winter, of course, Compradon is close to ski resorts and is even home to the Compradon Ski Club, no less. The town has had a traumatic past, particularly during the civil war and there is a museum in the town devoted to past struggles. We had a delicious picnic sitting on some big boulders right by the rushing river, but our reverie was interrupted by the first rumblings of thunder and some big spots of rain so we quickly packed up and headed back to the car. We drove up to the top of the mountain pass, where Spain meets France, and sat in a car park to watch the storm – spectacular lightening over the mountains and torrential rain. But, as is mostly the case here, it only lasted about half an hour and then the sun started to peek through again. We drove down on the French side so we could do some shopping – whilst Catalan wines have improved immensely over the past 10 years or so, and many are quite enjoyable, no-one will ever convince me that Spanish wine is a patch on French so we always take every opportunity to stock up!
Hotel Compradon with the footbridge over the river to the private garden.
The ancient stone fortified arch and bridge
Idyllic picnic spot
Storm over Canigou
One of the squares with several bars and restaurants
A good place to stock up for a picnic!
Just some of the things the Italian painter Caravaggio was accused of during his notorious career.
Despite the troubled life he led and his early death at just 38 he was a prolific artist, created some of the most stunning works and became known as one of the fathers of modern painting.
His style is one of unflinching realism with a direct appeal to the emotions.
The works we visit during our tour to Sicily and Malta were created during his flight from justice for a murder committed in Rome. Standing in front of these extraordinary works it’s hard not to be physically moved by their breath-taking beauty and realism.
It was while he was in Malta that he worked on the largest of his paintings, The Beheading of St John, created for the oratory of what is now the Cocathedral in Valletta.
It’s the only one of his works that bears his signature, spelled out in the blood that gushes from St John’s neck.
Caravaggio died in Porto Ercole, Tuscany in 1610 and was buried in an unmarked grave.
A winter stay in the English Midlands
Most people when they visit Britain tend to go to London, Edinburgh or maybe York, Bath or Glasgow. The vast majority of the country is completely missed by overseas visitors.
The Midlands, as the name implies, is in the middle of England. Interestingly it comprises some of the most beautiful, and diverse, scenery – from the flat fens of Lincolnshire to the Peak District of Derbyshire, Rutland Water and much green rolling agricultural land throughout its 11 counties.
But it also boasts Britain’s second city – Birmingham – and the UK’s “curry capital”, Leicester; plus the historic cities of Nottingham, Warwick and Lincoln. The Midlands border Wales in the west and in the East, from the Lincolnshire coast, the nearest neighbour is Norway.
My husband and I recently spent six weeks staying in a typical English village called Stonesby, in an old stone cottage overlooking rolling hills and fields of horses and sheep, some with new-born lambs. As is often the way these days, the village has lost its village shop so the nearest shop, pub and Post Office is in the next village a couple of miles away, and the nearest town is Melton Mowbray – spiritual home of the pork pie – plus it is about 20 miles to the city of Leicester.
So what were we doing there? Good question! It is a common saying that no-one visits Britain for the weather, and February/March are definitely NOT the best months. First we endured the tail end of storm Henry, then the full force of storm Imogen (who names these storms?) with three days of wild winds and horizontal rain, and on some of the quieter days temperatures went down below zero centigrade. I think we saw the sun on a couple of occasions, too! Paradoxically many of the spring flowers and blossom came out early as a result, so we were told, of a mild autumn and winter, but it certainly didn’t feel mild to me. One could only feel sorry for them all – must be something of a shock emerging into an icy downpour.
The reason we went to the Midlands was to house-sit (*) for a couple who were heading off on their “trip of a lifetime” visiting Columbia and Ecuador. We looked after their home and their cat – the characterful Princess Tammy. The main form of heating in the cottage was an old-fashioned, coal-fired Raeburn (kitchen range) and a wood-burning fire in the sitting room. The Raeburn, whilst very effective, was a full-time job. It seemed to constantly need cleaning/stoking/filling up – it was more demanding than a small child. The cat, by comparison, was easy. She slept most of the day but then demanded (loudly) five meals between 4pm and 11pm. She is the only bulimic cat I have ever come across – most are perfectly capable of self-regulating their food intake, but if you gave Tammy a full dish of food she would eat the lot – and then throw it up again soon afterwards. Hence the five meals.
It is always good to return to Britain – great places to eat, friends and family to visit, and not to mention the shopping. It is a great excuse to stock up on things we miss and to update the wardrobe. It is one of the bug-bears of living in Spain that I find it almost impossible to buy clothes – and even worse for shoes. Spanish women are quite a different build from we Northern Europeans – much smaller boned, shorter generally but particularly between the armpit and the waist, and if you want a size 41 (7 ½ UK) shoe, as I do, then you need to buy one of the boxes the others come in. Well that’s my excuse for shopping in England anyway – and I am sticking to it.
As we were staying so long we took the car. It is a pleasant journey through France and we now take our time, with one or two stops on the way through when we can enjoy a good French meal and a better bottle of wine. We know exactly how far we can comfortably drive now so book ahead to ensure we have a comfortable bed waiting for us. On the way back, we encountered some snow as we crossed the Massif Central, but at least the roads were kept clear. The French really are very efficient when it comes to transport.
We have now been back a couple of weeks and are enjoying the spring sunshine. It is such a contrast from the chill of Britain. Having said that, and probably put you off visiting England for life, I really can recommend a visit to the Midlands. The cities are all very different, and yet all are worth visiting. Birmingham has an interesting jewellery quarter and has some pretty canal-side areas; Leicester, as I mentioned, has the best curry – my favourite restaurant is the Flamingo Bar & Grill which serves modern Indian food such as spicy sizzlers rather than the old-style greasy curry, that traditionally followed several pints of beer on a Saturday night out in my youth. Leicester also has a good market with fruit and veg stall-holders shouting out their wares – great atmosphere. Nottingham with its castle and links to Robin Hood is particularly good for those interested in history, but it also has some excellent shops, not just the usual chains, and what is reputed to be the oldest inn in England – Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, which dates from 1189. Lincoln has a truly impressive cathedral that can be seen for miles in all directions being perched on the only large hill in Lincolnshire, and around the cathedral is the old quarter with cobbled streets, quaint shops and restaurants. Warwick is also lovely and boasts a castle dating back to 1068 and William the Conqueror. The castle is well-maintained and has a lot of interesting activities through the summer months. You can even book a room in the Tower for an overnight stay.
I hope I have whetted your appetite for a visit to a lesser-known part of England – try it in late spring or summer and you might even be blessed with some sunshine.
Left, the village of Stonesby, Leicestershire – the cottage we looked after is on the left – in the centre is the view from the cottage sitting room, and on the right is Princess Tammy …
Below are pictures of Rutland Water (left), the statue of Robin Hood at Nottingham Castle (centre) and Leicester market (right). For a further selection of images of the Midlands I can recommend the photographs of Darby Sawchuck, a Canadian currently living in Manchester. Here is a link: http://dsphotographic.com/photos/english-midlands/
* House-sitting is a good way to spend a little longer exploring a new area. There are various websites but the one we use is Trusted Housesitters (trustedhousitters.com).
Living in Spain is wonderful but, as a born and bred northern European, sometimes you need to get away from the walltowall sunshine and endless red wine. We are lucky to have our family living in Norway so we can go there for a “fix” of normality a couple of times a year.
Thus on 19 December we set off for Oslo with suitcases stuffed with boots, thermals, furry ear-muffs and Christmas presents – and wearing a huge fox-fur coat that looked somewhat incongruous at Barcelona airport, but came in very handy later on. We went the weekend before Christmas because we wanted to go to the Christmas market in central Oslo, which has grown steadily year on year, now occupying two sites in the city and has a lovely atmosphere.
Oslo is a beautiful city – perched between the mountains and the fjord. In the evening the impressive sweep of the Holmenkollen ski jump is lit up and clearly visible from most parts of the city, and the waterfront is a hub of cafes and fine dining. Christmas lights are elegant and understated. Norwegians abhor ostentation – to the extent that they will actually snitch on a neighbour if they feel their lifestyle outstrips their expected income bracket, so it is rare for anything to be over the top and naff. Unfortunately this trait can be interpreted, with some justification, as thinking themselves superior and displaying a self-satisfied smugness. Norwegians have grown used to being rich and have always believed they live in God’s own country – this is not a particularly appealing mix for non-Norwegians.
But back to Christmas: the main part of the Christmas market occupies Eidsvoll Plass, the small central park known locally as Spikersuppa (The Nail Soup) because it was originally funded by a local nail factory. There is a pretty little lake with a fountain at the centre of Spikersuppa which in winter becomes an ice-rink popular with children during the day and young couples in the evening when music plays and there is a lovely romantic atmosphere which easily rivals the ice-rink in New York’s Central Park.
Nestling between the impressive buildings of central Oslo – the Royal Palace at one end and the Stortinget (Parliament) the other, the National Theatre, University and the Grand Hotel where the Nobel Prize-winners stay, along the side – Spikersuppa attracts locals and tourists alike. The wonderful thing about the Christmas markets is the variety of smells – hot chocolate, freshly cooked waffles, gløgg (the Norwegian version of glühwein), hot-dogs, barbecued pork ribs, elk burgers, reindeer steaks. All delicious, it is so hard to choose!
The newer “overflow” market is in Youngstorget – another impressive square presided over by the old Police Headquarters which was notorious during the war years when it was occupied by the Nazi SS who used the cellars to interrogate Norwegian resistance suspects. Despite the amount of time that has elapsed this square still has a strange atmosphere – but the Christmas market helps to banish the ghosts. This part is more traditional with large Sami lavvu (tents) housing stalls selling Sami products, most made from various parts of the reindeer which still form the basis of the Sami economy. Again there are some wonderful smells and many delicacies to try – as well as the chance to pick up traditional Norwegian knitwear, reindeer skin rugs and a lot of things made from reindeer horn you didn’t know you wanted.
Despite what everyone believes there is no guarantee of a white Christmas in Oslo. Ironically more often than not the snow usually falls between Christmas and new year. This year we had a mild and sunny Christmas Day, a light fall of snow on Boxing Day which disappeared quite quickly and then about three inches of snow fell over the new year weekend which then stayed delightfully light and fluffy as the mercury plummeted to minus fifteen centigrade – at which point I really appreciated the fur coat.
The only disadvantage to spending Christmas in Oslo is that Norwegians make the most of any religious holiday that allows them to stop work, shut the shops and restaurants, and spend time with their families, preferably in a small cottage in the mountains. Thus the place is like a ghost-town from lunchtime on Christmas Eve until the 27th or, as happened this year with Christmas Eve falling on a Thursday, the 28th. Christmas Eve is the big day in Norway with the main Christmas meal eaten late afternoon followed by a visit from Julenissen (Santa Claus) – usually a member of the family or a neighbour dressed in the usual red costume to hand round the presents. My father-in-law used to be Julenissen for about 10 houses in their road – however the custom is for each house to give Santa a glass of Aquavit (schnapps) and a ginger biscuit, so he used to return somewhat the worse for wear!
So, in all honesty it is probably better to visit Oslo either a week or two before Christmas or afterwards. In mid-December you can enjoy the Christmas Markets and maybe treat yourself to one of the excellent Christmas Tables (Julebord) – a fabulous buffet-style meal with the most fantastic selection of cold and hot dishes, deserts and cheeses, they really have to be seen to be believed. Most of the better hotels offer a good Julebord throughout December, but it is essential to book as they are extremely popular.
Holmenkollen Hotel and Voksenkollen Hotel are both out of Oslo city centre, near the iconic ski-jump and the ski slopes of Tryvann, yet they can be reached by T-bane, the local Oslo underground/overground train system, and if there is any snow around it will be up there. Alternatively if you really want to push the boat out and experience Norway at its elegant best, take the train from Oslo to the ski resort of Geilo (about three and a half hours), stay at Dr Holms Hotel (www.drholms.no) and enjoy the very best Christmas table money can buy.
New Year can be fun in Oslo. It is one of the few occasions when the normally ultra conservative Norwegians literally set fire to their money. There are great public firework displays around the waterfront but also most households will set off a small fortune in fabulous rockets – there can be fierce local competition as to who has the best fireworks, not least because they are ferociously expensive and this is one of the few acceptable ways of displaying your wealth. If it is a cold, clear night you will see a fantastic display – and if you are really lucky you may even see God’s fireworks, the Aurora Borealis.
A real bonus of being in Oslo around new year is the start of the sales. As everyone knows, Norway is expensive. But they have the best sales I have ever experienced. Whereas in London you may get 10% off – or if you are really lucky and it is something no-one else wants, 20% – in Oslo it is 50% and sometimes 70%. You can pick up some real bargains – I always buy my shoes in the Norwegian sales.
I adore the cold of Norway in the winter – it is crisp and dry and if the sun shines it makes you feel it is good to be alive. What I like less at this time of year is the dark – it is not light until after 9 in the morning, and dark again soon after 3pm. If it is a dull day it feels as if it doesn’t get properly light at all. But for a visit it is novel and atmospheric – just make sure you have good footwear, a warm coat and a hat so you can get out and enjoy the many delights Oslo has to offer.
We left Oslo in -17 degrees and arrived back in Barcelona to +19 – once again the fur coat was surplus to requirements. The cold was refreshing but the sun warms your soul. Good to be home.
It was the perfect quid pro quo. On a recent trip to Sicily Jean-Paul, my local guide, and I were planning our visit to Tasca d’Almerita, a winery where I’d arranged a site visit and cookery class with the owner and renowned chef, Fabrizia Lanza. This winery was known to Jean-Paul but it was not one he’d previously visited.
As we were driving from Palermo to visit the evocative, Greek origin, town of Erice perched on top of the mountain, Jean-Paul asked if we could take a short detour.
A few minutes later we arrived at Feudo Disisa, a winery which has been owned and managed by the Di Lorenzo family for the past 200 years and known for the fine wine it produces. From the villa positioned on the edge of the escarpment the view out across the valley towards the distant hills was breathtaking and alone would have been worth the detour.
The view from the Villa at Feudo Disisa
The name Disisa, I discovered, originates from the word ‘Aziz’ which is an Arab word meaning ‘splendid’; perfectly summing up the beauty of the land and those extraordinary views.
The estate was originally gifted to the Archbishopric of Monreale by King William II in the 12th Century.
The Di Lorenzo family open their doors for private tastings and their kitchen for lunch served on the verandah overlooking this amazing view. Combining the old traditions with modern technology and with great passion and commitment they produce some fine quality wines. Needless to say, thanks to Jean-Paul and his friendship with the family and the introductions he facilitated, it’s now an excellent additional inclusion in our itinerary for Sicily.
On the following day it was my turn to introduce Jean-Paul to another extraordinary family owned and run winery, this time located in the very centre of the island. The 200 year old, 500 hectare Tasca d’Almerita agricultural estate boasts an internationally renowned cookery school as well as an extensive kitchen garden for farm to table production and an extensive winery producing award winning wines.
Arriving at Tasca d’Almerita – Fabrizia arranging the flowers
Anna Tasca Lanza established the cookery school in the Casa Vecchie, a traditional 19C villa set among the vineyards, on the family estate in 1989. In 2006 her daughter, Fabrizia Lanza, returned to Sicily to take over the school after 25 years working in museums as an art historian.
Having left the busyness, energy and visual overload of Palermo it was wonderful to arrive at this beautiful and peaceful location deep in the Sicilian countryside. We arrived to find Fabrizia relaxing in the central courtyard arranging flowers just picked from the cottage garden.
Coffee was followed by an opportunity to work with and learn from Fabrizia as we prepared and cooked lunch. All the ingredients are locally produced and menus based on traditional local recipes.
As Fabrizia describes the food we are preparing she shares the history, anthropology and traditions behind each dish. As she says ‘’taking a journey through our island’s landscape of food means discovering the thousands of Sicilies that have developed under millennia of Italian, Spanish, Greek, North African and Arab influence”.
A leisurely three course lunch, great conversation and some fine Tasca d’Almerita wines is followed by a tour of the kitchen garden. It’s bursting with flowers, ancient roses and herbs as well as having an extensive vegetable garden and an orchard of endangered fruit trees with everything nurtured using organic principles.
On this occasion, unfortunately, we had only arranged to visit for the day. It was very hard to leave. Fortunately the Casa Vecchie includes a number of accommodation rooms as does the main villa situated a stroll up the hill in the middle of the vineyard so our next visit will include an overnight stay, more wonderful food and wine and the opportunity to wake up in peace and tranquillity deep in the Sicilian countryside.
To learn more about Nero d’Avola Wine which is produced from the most important and widely planted red wine grape variety in Sicily click here www.wine-searcher.com/grape-323-nero-d-avola
Autumn is probably the loveliest time of year in Catalonia. It is mostly sunny, warm, but not too hot, and the tourists have all gone home so we can once again enjoy the beauty spots of the area in peace and tranquillity.
At this time of year we like to go inland. Just a short drive takes us into the Pyrenees, to beautiful scenery, clean, sharp air and clear waters. In a couple of hours we can reach the ski-resorts of Andorra. But one of our favourite trips takes us to Banyoles.
Banyoles lies where the Alt Emporda – the coastal plain – meets the Garotxa, the volcanic region that lies between Girona and the Pyrenees. The area has been inhabited since Neanderthal times – around 80,000 years. It was also occupied by the Romans and then developed from the ninth century. The outstanding feature of Banyoles is the Estany – the large freshwater lake. The water is crystal clear with much of it being a nature reserve. The lake is fed by underground springs coming from the volcanic Garotxa so the water is rich in minerals to the extent that it forms deposits that eventually become rocks which have been used to build the original parts of the town. Parts of the lake are extremely deep and that, combined with the mineral deposits and strong currents where the underground sources feed in, mean that much of the lake does not support life. The shallow parts on the other hand are teeming with fish and water birds.
There is a foot/cycle path around the lake that is relatively flat and gravelled most of the way, so easy walking. The circumference is about 10 kilometres and it takes about 3 hours to walk all the way round. We pick up the path by the Tourist Office which must rank as one of the prettiest I have seen, being housed in one of the delightful bath-houses perched over the lake. Turn left and walk anti-clockwise. After twenty minutes or so the route passes the small church of Santa Maria de Porqueres (Swineherds), then leaves the lakeside, passing through deciduous woods to reappear on the north shore from where there is an uninterrupted view down the lake, and even a little wooden jetty that is perfect for a picnic.
The lake was used for rowing events during the 1992 Olympics and from this angle it is easy to imagine how it must have been. Nowadays there are three major sporting events on the lake: a triathlon in July involving a 1500m swim, 40km bike ride and 10km run; a lake perimeter swim (6km) in September, and a New Year’s Day swim – brrrr!
So, picnic consumed we walk on through woodland with glimpses of the lake until we come to the municipal park and then the archaeological excavations at La Draga, an early Neolithic village discovered in 1990 when work started on the park. To the right of the path at this point is the public swimming area (free) with a small beach and a grassy area where you can relax in the sunshine – if you are here in the summer it is worth bringing a swimsuit.
Again the path leaves the lake, passing on the inside of Club Natacio de Banyoles (the local swimming club) which has two pools – one indoor and one in the lake. The Club welcomes visitors who can purchase a day ticket giving access to all the facilities. And finally we once again pick up the tree-lined lakeside promenade with its collection of exotic looking bath-houses which look as though they would be more at home in India than Catalonia, and then we are back at the Tourist Office where we started. Opposite the Tourist Office are several restaurants and a couple of hotels so, if you didn’t manage to take a picnic there are plenty of opportunities for a “menu del dia” for lunch. The daily menus are excellent value, offering three courses and usually including wine and water for about €12 – €15 (or less away from the beauty spot of the lake).
But Banyoles is not just the Estany. The old town itself is also worth wandering around. Centred on the original medieval town square surrounded by shady arcades with a selection of restaurants and bars, the town was recently extensively remodelled. The town had become somewhat run down and overtaken by cars so the decision was made to make the centre a pedestrian area so local people and tourists alike could enjoy this beautiful old town. The remodelling, completed in 2011, was undertaken sympathetically in order to retain what was good whilst getting rid of things that were, to put it bluntly, an eyesore, such as hanging electricity lines and the remains of old open sewers. But, whilst sanitised, the area has lost none of its charm with several beautiful squares, some picturesque use of refreshed waterways, old churches and some lovely shops in which to browse. All in all, a very pleasant day out.
Is the Catalonian region of Spain on your list of places you’d like to visit including, of course, the must see city of Barcelona? The region has a proud history and is one of the wealthiest regions of Spain which is why they are so keen to secede. From the coastline to the mountains there’s so much to see and experience. Register your interest with us now as we’re planning to add Catalonia to our 2017 destinations.
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