Monthly Archives: April 2017

What we can see and do in Turin, Italy

With direct flights from the UK, taking around two hours, Turin is a convenient destination for a long weekend. Originally laid out by the Romans, the streets still follow the same grid pattern, and the centre is compact enough to explore on foot.

This was a Royal city, first the capital of the Kingdom of Savoy and then, briefly Italy’s first capital, before becoming an industrial powerhouse in the 20th century. These days the factories are silent and the pedestrianised centre is full of museums, galleries, cafes and restaurants.

Grand Cafes

Showing the influence of Hapsburg Empire, the city is endowed with ornate historical cafés similar to those in Vienna. Their interiors are a riot of gilded upholstery, chandeliers, wooden panels and long mirrors. Ava Gardener and James Stewart were regulars at the Café Torinoand Baratti & Milano is famous for its thick hot chocolate. Café Mulassano invented the Tramezzino in 1926, the Italian take on a crustless triangular sandwich and they still serve around 40 varieties at around 4€ each.

Ice Cream Parlours

Gelateria Pepino was founded in 1884 by an ice cream maker from Naples but the present shop dates from 1929. The grandfather of the present owner, Edoardo Cavagnino, came up with the idea of putting gelato on a stick in 1935 but it was sloppy and difficult to eat. He solved the problem by coating it with chocolate to keep it cool and the first Pinguino or Penguin went on sale in 1939. It originally sold for one Italian Lira, the price of a cinema ticket, and claims to be the world’s first choc ice. Of course it was a tremendous success and they are still making it today in five different flavours.

Markets

If you really want to get an idea of the quality of the region’s produce, then you won’t be disappointed at the Porta Palazzo Market, located in Piazza della Repubblica. With over 800 stalls, it’s one of the largest open air markets in Europe and is open Monday to Saturday. There are also three market halls dedicated to fish, meat, cheese and bread and a farmers’ market with around 100 stalls selling fresh produce.

Car Museum

Nearby is the Museo Nazionale dell’Automobile with over 200 vehicles from Italy and the rest of the world on display. The museum dates from 1932 but was extensively refurbished in 2011 and is imaginatively laid out on three floors, using sound and light to enhance the experience. It’s a journey through the history of the automobile, from the earliest models to cars of the future. Don’t miss the 1892 Peugeot and a 1980 Ferrari 308. There are also sections dealing with car design and environmental issues.

Palazzo Reale

The elegant 17th century facade of the Palazzo Reale and the splendour of its numerous, richly furnished rooms, reflect luxurious life at court and centuries of history of the House of Savoy. Don’t miss the Armeria Reale, the Royal Armoury, with a long gallery of armoured knights sitting on full sized stuffed horses, including King Carlo Alberto’s favourite animal. Adjoining the Reale is the chapel where the Shroud is kept, but it was closed for repairs when I visited.

Explore the greatness and kingdom of Bhutan

Bhutan is a small kingdom wedged between two mighty countries, India and China, in the shadows of the Himalayas. It is a country steeped in Mahayana Buddhism, myths and legends under the sovereign rule of the Wangchuck Dynasty. The magnificent landscape is picture perfect with majestic mountains sweeping down to lush valleys carved by cascading rivers.

Locals still wear their national costumes as their daily attire with pride and success is measured via the Gross National Happiness index because here the welfare of the people is paramount.

Bhutan has never been big on tourism and slow to progress. The internet only arrived here in 1999 and it’s infrastructure is still a work in progress.

Thimphu – the capital of Bhutan

Thimphu the capital city has no skyscrapers or traffic to blot its cityscape. The mini roundabout is a pavilion with statues of goddesses while policemen physically conduct the traffic instead of traffic lights.

There are hints of modernity creeping in slowly with new buildings but this is tightly controlled by the government who insist that they be inkeeping with Bhutanese tradition.

On a hill overlooking the city, the colossal Dordenma Buddha statue of 51.5m high cast in bronze and gilded in gold is like a spiritual beacon to the people. Dzongs (a type of fortress), which are found everywhere in the country, were built in ancient time as fortresses and monasteries. Today they are used as monasteries as well as government administration offices.

Punakha District – the heart of Bhutan

Travelling into Punakha, the old capital, the heart of Bhutan, is on bone-shaking unfinished road hewn out of the mountainside. The scenery is the jaw-dropping natural beauty of the country which unfolds at every turn of the road. Prayer flags are installed everywhere to send prayers to the universe.

Punakha Dzong, also known as Palace of Great Happiness, was built in 1637 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. He was a Tibetan Lama, who unified Bhutan as a nation-state and instilled a unique cultural identity. The mighty fortress has glorious allegorical frescos, intricate artwork and carvings and houses the most sacred relic known as Ranjung Karsapani and the resting place of Zhabdrung’s embalmed body.

The most esoteric temple in the Punakha District is the fertility temple of Chimi Lhakhang where the phallus symbol is worshipped notably by women to beget children. We walked through the village amidst rice fields where every house has a phallus image painted on the walls for good luck. The gift shops sell penis talisman for fertility much to the amusement of tourists.

Valley of Phobijkha – flight of the cranes

The valley of Phobjikha is a breath-taking vista where the wide sweeping valleys are flanked by lofty mountains. It is a vast wetland that welcomes the annual winter migration of the rare and endangered Black-Necked Crane where hundreds flock in from the Tibetan Plateau in late October till mid February for their winter roost.

This natural wonder is celebrated with the Black-Necked Crane Festival in November every year with crane-themed dances, folk songs and drama performances in the Gangtey Monastery. The ancient monastery sits atop a spur overlooking the stunning valley and houses a Buddhist school and prominent religious iconographies. It is said that the cranes circumambulate three times in their flight over the monastery on every arrival before landing on the wetland nearby and do the same on their return flight as if to pay respect to Gangtey Monastery.

Bound for Bumthang

The district of Bumthang in Central Bhutan is the nation’s religious heartland and home to some of the oldest temples and Dzongs in the country. Jakar, a small settlement that sprawls over an expansive valley is home to Jambay Lhakhang, one of the oldest temples in the country built in the 7th century dedicated to the Maitreya Buddha.

Trek to Tiger’s Nest

The ascent to Taktsang Lhakhang, the Tiger’s Nest, revered as the country’s most sacred site and iconic landmark is the climax of most visitors to Bhutan. Legend has it that their most revered saint Guru Rinpoche, flew to the mountains on the back of a celestial tigress in the 7th century at a time when the area was abound with demons to harm people.

He meditated in the cave for three years, three months and three days to subdue the evil spirits living in the caves. The temple was first built in 1692 to consecrate the sacred site and ever since it has been a place of pilgrimage for Buddhist saints, monks, devotees and a major tourist attraction.

The mountain is over 3,120 metres high and the temple is 900 metres from the car park. The path varies in steepness along the way, hugging the mountain ledge overlooking a picturesque valley of blue pine and rhododendrons. After the cafeteria half way up, a stretch of steep climb reaches the view point where a long flight of steps leads down to an iron bridge by a waterfall and then another tortuous flight of steps take you up to the temple complex. The path is festooned with colourful prayer flags fluttering in the wind. As in all Dzongs and temples, shoes have to be removed before entering and photography is strictly forbidden. Cameras and phones have to be surrendered at the security checkpoint at the entrance of the temples.

The Hull City of England is the Capital of Culture Really it?

 

I admit it. Even though I had never visited, I was one of those who was cynical when the city of Hull (full name Kingston upon Hull) was crowned UK Capital of Culture 2017. I was that incredulous that all I could think was – who did they bribe?

As recently as 2015, a survey by the City Council found that over half the population lived in the most deprived areas of the country. Before that Hull had not achieved that many column inches in the newspapers beyond the cod wars with Iceland in 1970s which all but ruined its fishing industry. And during the World War years poor Hull was the second most-bombed city in England, thanks to its docks.

So, you can understand why it took me four months to find the impetus to do my job and check it out.

Boarding Hull trains from Kings Cross it was a direct three-hour whizz and before I knew it I was face-to-face with a huge, unmissable smile-inducing pink poster saying “Welcome to Hull, where have you been all our lives?”

A few steps away there was a stand with half a dozen (of 4,000 dotted around the city) sky-blue-jacketed people smiling and giving out leaflets about the city. “Who is paying you to do this” I asked. “We are volunteers, we want to tell you about our fabulous city” they said as they handed me some blurb.

I picked up a taxi outside the station: “Are you visiting?” asked the eagle-eyed driver spotting the leaflets I was still holding. “It’s a great time to be here – the city has spent £25 million on the pavements alone and £30 million on the New Theatre”, he said pointing to an unfinished building. “Oh and over there” he said nodding his head in the direction of a huge board with the words Fruit Market, “is the new regenerated trendy area where the old fruit market used to be”. Was everyone here secretly working for the press office I wondered.

A 90-minute walk around Hull that changed my views

To find out more I hooked up with effervescent local guide Paul Schofield. We started out at the beautifully revamped marina (formerly Humber Dock) where the free-to-enter trawler museum is moored, on his fact-packed 90-minute walking tour on shiny newly paved and cobbled streets, around this compact city.

Paul led the way into the Old Town’s twisty, narrow alleyways that with elegant Georgian architecture looked surprisingly lovely in the morning sun. Cosy eateries and homely pubs appear every now then, and old shops whose decor looked like time had stopped, were beckoning.

Phone boxes are coloured cream not the usual red. Turns out it’s because Hull, a city with secret ambitions to be independent, had its own phone system while the rest of the country had BT.

We walked into the Victorian Hepworth shopping arcade with its magnificent glass dome roof sheltering a clutch of independent shops including Beasley miliner (with a hat for every occasion) and Dinsdales that opened in the 1930s. It is the oldest joke shop in the UK and with its faded price tags in its prank-packed windows it looks it too. It’s claim to fame is that it inspired Reece Shearsmith’s sketch show League of Gentlemen. John Dinsdale, the owner, was a bit of a joke-a-minute laugh who was more than a little partial to high-jinx.

There’s also a hall of fame with images of Hull’s greatest sons and daughters. Hundreds of biographies hang on the wall showing off Maureen Lipman (no intro needed), Amy Johnson (first female pilot to fly a plane from England to Australia), Barbara Buttrick the world’s first female boxer, Phil Larkin (novellist and poet) and former MP Lord Prescott.

On the street absurdly named Land of Green Ginger (no-one knows why) there is a hard-to-find window, thought to be the smallest in the world. It’s less than an inch wide yet if you peer in you will be rewarded by the shocking sight of a monster face.

We took time to look around Museum quarter and I made a note to return. The same with the Fruit Market that revolves around Humber Street, an urban village that will have had £80 million spent on it once all the brand new restaurants, independent shops and homes are complete.

The walk ended on the very spot that the English Civil War started when Hull refused to let King Charles into the then walled city. Workmen are busy excavating the spot in the shadow of the 700-year-old Holy Trinity Church, as I write.

Things change though and right now, Hull is not just letting people in they are encouraging them any way they can to get to know their frankly quirky city.

Everything you need to know

Getting there: Hull Trains has trains that depart from London Kings’s Cross. Seats are comfy and roomy and come with plug to recharge appliances. And free wi fi. Return fares start at £36

Stay: The best located hotel is the Holiday Inn Hull Marina, which is walking distance from everywhere you will want to visit. It has doubles from £74, room only. Parking is available for £7 a day.

Dining: Head to 1884 because this gem of a restaurant offers beautifully presented food, in an atmospheric environment right by Humber Dock Street, overlooking the marina. It is managed by Start with your favourite tipple in the bar and when ready transfer to the dining room. A fabulous menu of British food tempered with influences from around the world is available in a relaxing, stylish chandaliered environment, with dark wood ceiling and wood floor setting a calming scene.

Incidentally, they also have their own 1884 wine and tapas bar opposite which has a lovely ambience in which to sup a tipple over some easy eating food.

Take tea: Liquid Jade is a lovely easy-to-miss tea room on Whitefriargate, serving loose leaf tea, home made cakes, paninis and sandwiches in a pretty environment.

Tapas: Located in the newly renovated Humber Street is this brand new restaurant Ambient Tapas. A lovely selection of small dishes and a veggie share plate served in a funky industrial chick environment.

Down a pint:  There are cosy pubs at every turn in the old town and even micro breweries such as the Lion and Key on High Street, who brew under the Cathead label. Their Brexit or Bust pint is a staggering 14 per cent alcohol, yet tastes so honeyed you would never know it. Their decor is interesting too, with walls and ceiling covered in different styles of beer mats.

Drink gin: Just opened in the newly revamped Fruit Market is the brand new Humber Street Distillery Co – a first for the city. Choose from a selection of more than 100 gins – many fruit flavoured – and be served by a bartender wearing braces behind a mirrored bar.

Visit: The Deep, an aquarium whose iceberg shaped building is in itself, a work of art. The wonderful comings and goings of life in the sea are displayed and you will see a small community of penguins and sharks.

Walk: Paul Schofield runs myriad of themed walks from pubs, literature, sculptures and the fish trail. From £4 per person

Museums: Hull has several fantastic museums worth knowing about even if like me, you don’t do museums. And incredibly they are all absolutely free to visit.

The newly redeveloped Ferens art gallery is superb. At the very least, pop in to see it’s newest addition, Rembrandt’s “The Shipbuilder and his Wife”. It belongs to the Queen and has been loaned to the museum. The Francis Bacon: Nervous system collection is quite haunting.

There’s also the Maritime Museum home to an Offshore exhibition exploring Hull’s relationship with the sea. You will also see the largest collection of scrimshaw (engraved bones or teeth, in this case whales or other sea animals) in Europe.

Museum street quarter comprises four venues: the Street Life museum home to various modes of transport from cycles, trams, steam to trollies; the Wilberforce museum – perhaps the oldest building in Hull which was once the home to William Wilberforce, a Hullensian MP who was pivotal to the abolition of slavery and the Hull and East Riding Museum of Archaeology where you will encounter sea monsters, Romans and a life-sized woolly mammoth.

Why this next holiday is your next visit in Nicaragua

For years, Nicaragua was considered pretty much off the beaten path with holiday makers choosing to venture to the Caribbean or to Costa Rica next door.

But these days tales of contra rebels from Bianca Jagger’s homeland are being replaced by tales of undeniable natural beauty of its lakes, volcanoes (out of the 26, six are still active), jungle terrain, beaches and, they say, the best seafood in the world.

You can still see black and red murals from time to time whose role was to eke out support for the left wing Sandinistas (a Nicaraguan group that overthrew President Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979), ox carts that sometimes slow down the traffic, cycle taxis, and creaky but colourful chicken busses transporting school children, farmers or chicken-carrying locals around the cities and towns, often at breakneck speed.

Here the water is drinkable, people are very friendly, and your credit card is welcome.

Managua – a stepping stone

The capital, Managua, home to the international airport, acts as the gateway to the gems that Nicaragua offers. The city looks a little wayward, but anyone who has seen it from the air can’t help but be awed by the vision of the electronic trees that light up the city at night.

The city has a colourful market selling all manner of trinkets. “Que están buscando?” they shout, offering up purses and jewellery to passing women. It’s the best place to buy a hammock, so leave some space in your suitcase.

Night life is not exactly lively, but meat eaters should seek out Don Candido restaurant – a gourmet highlight. The meat they buy in is produced locally, totally organic and without a hormone in sight. There are 42 cuts but the best steak on the menu is the tenderloin which literally melts in the mouth.

Selva Negra

It’s a two-hour drive north east from Managua to the 1,400-acre Selva Negra coffee plantation in the highlands. It is pretty high up – around 4,000 feet above sea level, and has been owned by Eddy Kuhl and his family since the 1880s. The name means Black Forest which harks back to the family’s German origins.

They offer an interesting tour from bean to coffee and you can stay a few nights in a cabin by the lake where geese gather to meet you. Or stay cheaply in their youth hostel at the base of a forested mountain. There are walking trails around lagoons and plenty of wildlife such as Howler monkeys and birds lurking in the trees. Farm animals such as pigs and chickens are kept and they even have a worm sanctuary where worms are bred to nourish the land.

Leon – the intellectual capital

Leon is a lively, pretty, colonial city whose population comprises a large number of students, poets and artists. There’s  plenty of colonial-era monasteries and churches, a massive Cathedral resplendent in baroque and neoclassical architecture, several art galleries and even a bar or two. A busy market adds local colour to the appealing city streetscape.

This is in fact the second version of the city. The ruins of the first, known as León Viejo can still be seen  near the base of Momotombo Volcano and is one of the oldest Spanish colonial settlements in the Americas. It’s downfall was due to eruptions and earthquakes and so the city was moved in the 17th century to a safer place.

Nicaragua’s most famous and loved poet Rubén Dario, lived in Leon for some 14 years. His house is now a museum and some of his belongings are scattered around the house including a hand-written copy of his first ever poem which was written here.

You can still see the bed in which he died an agonising death, his personal bible and the clothes he wore as Ambassador to Spain. Dario is revered around the country, but this museum has his echoes in its walls. His final resting place is in the town’s Cathedral.

Another interesting museum is the Mi Museo which has a fascinating collection of pre-Columbian ceramics.

A nice excursion for rum lovers is around a 40-minute drive away in Chichigalpa an area with sugar cane fields. Flor De Cana is recognised as produced some pretty good rum and they offer tours that end with a tasting. Parts of it are Hollywood shmooz but nevertheless a fun couple of hours.

Granada – The Paris (sort of) of Central America

This colourful city is a joy to explore and photograph. Founded in 16th century by the conquistador Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba, the city has low rise colonial architecture in sunny colours, red domed yellow churches that seem to have emerged from a bygone age. It also has the brooding Volcan Mombacho as its backdrop and no matter where you are in town, you will spot her in the distance.

There are two interesting experiences to be had in Granada. Chocoholics should check out the chocolate museum. You will find it in the Mansión de Chocolate hotel. You can buy bars or join the ‘beans to bar’ chocolate workshop, where you learn to roast, grind and mold your own Nicaraguan chocolate bar. Kids will love it. If you decide to stay there, they have a chocolate-oriented spa plus a great swimming pool and a cafe that wraps around a mini-forest where beans are growing.

Cigar aficionados or those just interested, can visit Dona Elba Cigars. Pop into their delightful boutique cigar factory and see how cigars are rolled and perhaps pick up a couple for your own pleasure.

Hiking Mombacho Volcano

Just 10 km away, from Granada is this moody volcanic mountain, whose peak is shrouded in cloud forest.  Though Mombacho hasn’t erupted in decades (the last time was in 1570) there are still puffs of fumes that escape, a reminder that she is just dozing.

She reaches 1,344 metres into the clouds and it’s a bumpy five-minute ride in a truck to the top. Once there you can get close up to the steamy fumaroles (an opening in or near a volcano, through which hot sulphurous gases emerge) and see, and smell, first hand the bubbling thermal activity hiding beneath the vines and orchids. The views over Granada from the top are pretty good too.

San Juan del Sur

This lovely fishing village, close to the border with Costa Rica is defined by two things: appealing sandy beach and a towering figure of Christ. Known as Mirador del Cristo de la Misericordia, he lords it over the sea and the far reaches of the region. Climb up to share the views with him. This is the second largest statue of Christ, after the one in Rio.

Chilling with a cocktail at one of the seafront restaurants is a lovely way to spend an afternoon especially as the sun begins to set. Keep your camera handy to catch those celestial hues that are thrown out at sundown.

What’s the food like?

Food styles are distinctly Latin American. Refried beans and various concoctions of rice and beans are served routinely in restaurants. But there’s also vaho – slow-cooked meat, plaintain and yucca – Vigoron (port, cabbage and yucca) and quesillos a tortillo served with a lovely soft cheese and cream. Keep it local by downing it all with a tiste – a soft drink made with cocao, beans and corn.

Another tasty snack is a quesillo corn tortilla filled with soft cheese, pickled onions, and sour cream. Most cafes will have it on the menu or buy it freshly made in the market.

Beer is a popular tipple and the two favourites are Toña and Victoria Clásica. The latter is slightly stronger and a little bit cheaper.

When to go

Late November to May is the dry season. Nicaragua is not in the hurricane zone but does get tropical storms from June to November.