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The Silver Travel Book Club goes to Sardinia

The story of my trip to Sardinia, for the Silver Travel Book Club, following in the footsteps of an author, her characters and locations in Sardinia.

Silver Travellers may already be aware of the Silver Travel Book Club (“STBC”), set up recently as a result of our new partnership with TripFictionSilver Travel Advisor members can now access TripFiction’s database of location-based fiction and travel-related memoirs, set in thousands of alluring global destinations.

Debbie Marshall, MD and founder of Silver Travel Advisor: “The worlds of travel and books go hand in hand, and we know that our members will enjoy browsing the wide range of novels and memoirs on the TripFiction site, providing ideas and inspiration for their future travels“.

Rosanna Ley, the authorThe first STBC book of the month was The Little Theatre by the Sea, written by Rosanna Ley. Two lucky Silver Travellers received a free copy of the book, and have been reading it along with Andrew Morris, one of our regular writers and Literary Editor of the STBC.

The Little Theatre is firmly rooted in Sardinia, and Rosanna’s vivid prose transports you to the wild, unspoiled west coast of this intriguing island. Newly qualified interior designer Faye visits friends Charlotte and Fabio in charming Deriu, where she is employed – by brother and sister Alessandro and Maria Rinaldi – to draw up plans to restore the crumbling old theatre in the village.

Bosa StreetThis engaging romantic mystery is a classic destination novel. Close your eyes, and the author will have you walking through the narrow cobbled streets of Deriu’s centro storico, where pastel-coloured houses tumble down from the old castle to the Temo river, just a short distance from the sea and the marina. Or eating local speciality spaghetti con bottarga, washed down with a bottle of Cannonau wine.

But our intrepid Literary Editor wanted to get even closer to the author, her characters and locations…so we packed Andrew off to Sardinia to see if he could track down Deriu and solve the mystery of the Little Theatre by the Sea.

Over to Andrew

Before heading out to Sardinia, I contacted the author – Rosanna Ley – and she kindly answered a few questions, giving me an insight into her writing approach and a few clues about hunting down some of the places, characters, food and wine she included in Little Theatre. You can read the detailed Q&A session on the Book Club Forum thread here.

Bosa rooftops from near the castle, looking down to the snaking river TemoMy first port of call had to be Bosa. Rosanna: “I wanted somewhere that didn’t already have a theatre so that I could make it my own! I renamed it Deriu because it is easier then to “make it your own”, and hopefully none of the locals will be offended by anything I write about places & people which they might construe as being taken from real life.”

I wandered along the banks of the river Temo, spotting the converted houses on the river bank, where Faye stays with Charlotte and Fabio, and the ponte vecchio, where Faye gets closer to Alessandro.

But it is the centro storico that engaged Rosanna most, and which enchants Faye too: “the jumble of buildings lay mainly between the far riverbank and the hill beyond; Faye could see what looked like a castle on top of the hill, the other old buildings sheltered beneath. The cluttered houses were painted various shades of pastel, the river snaking from the cradle of the lush mountain valleys in the east through to the sea beyond.”

“That’s the centro storico, the old mediaeval town. It was originally founded by the Phoenicians – because of the fertility of the soil and the river.”

Malaspina CastleI too fell in love with beautiful Bosa/Deriu, home of the mythical Little Theatre. I ambled through the labyrinthine cobbled streets, craning my neck to see washing stretching from one pastel-coloured house to another. I climbed ever upwards towards the Malaspina castle, as Faye does when describing her quandary to her mother, and from where: “a prickly pear was outlined against the summer sky. From here she could see a jumble or orange roofs and flower-laden terraces; vines twisting around wooden pergolas, purple jasmine blossoming in a blue haze.” And I visited the Deriu Museum, from which Rosanna borrowed the name for her fictional town.

Outside Bosa, I went north – via a spectacular coast road – to Alghero, a fortified Catalan city jutting out into the sea. Faye eats “a delicious lunch of aragosta alla catalane, lobster with tomatoes and onions” with her father here. I had spaghetti con bottarga instead, another local speciality eaten by Faye back in Deriu, with Allesandro:Spaghetti con bottarga, local speciality with mullet roe “a type of caviar made from the roe of grey mullet. Faye’s bottarga was good; she loved the deceptive simplicity of Sardinian recipes and produce.” I also saw the restored Teatro Civico in Alghero, part of Rosanna’s inspiration for Faye’s redesign of the crumbling imagined old theatre in Deriu.

I found the marina at Bosa, where Alessandro works at a boatyard, but it was too large and on the wrong side of the estuary. Through the magic of social media, Rosanna pointed me in the right direction, teasing me perhaps in a game of literary cat-and-mouse.

Following Rosanna and Faye was a joy. I would love to have had more time to visit some of the other places seen by Faye, on different trips away from Deriu with Alessandro and with her visiting father, but I hope you’ve enjoyed sharing what literary stalking I did manage to achieve in Sardinia.

Where next, I wonder?

Sardinia with Sardatur Holidays

My feature on a sponsored trip to Oristano, Sardinia with Sardatur Holidays  – published on Silver Travel Advisor.

Felice Soru, founder of Silver Travel Advisor partner Sardatur Holidays, told me before I went that a trip to Sardinia is a discovery. The island is like a separate continent, with different landscapes and cultures – even languages – and with a wild, ungovernable centre.

I went to the central west coast, to the province of Oristano, an area of Sardinia that is also wild and relatively unspoiled, which is rich in history and with plenty of nature, activities, food and wine to enjoy, whilst remaining accessible.

History

Unpeel layer upon layer of history as you explore this continuously surprising area.

Sinis peninsulaGo to the Sinis peninsula, a marine protected area, to see the remains of the ancient settlement of Tharros. Reputed to have been founded by the Phoenicians towards the end of the 8th century BC, it was one of the most important cities in Sardinia through the Punic age, from the 6th century BC until Roman occupation. But there is some evidence suggesting that Tharros was occupied before the Phoenicians, by the Nuraghic civilisation in the much earlier Bronze Age.

TharrosThere are an estimated 7,000 examples of nuraghe, stone-built tower-fortresses from this ancient civilisation, dotted around Sardinia. One of the most important is the nuraghe Losa, near the village of Abbasanta. Here you’ll see a large complex construction in the shape of an old tomb, with a central triangular shape. A turreted wall is linked to this impressive core, and surrounded by later additions from Punic, Roman and Middle Ages occupation.

Back on the Sinis peninsula, visit San Giovanni di Sinis, one of Sardinia’s oldest and most important churches. Built with blocks of sandstone, probably brought from nearby Tharros, it is Byzantine, with distinctly Arabesque features.

Giants of Monte's PramaAnd one of the most important historic finds of recent years on this beguiling promontory is the Giants of Mont’e Prama. Farmers working the land a couple of kilometres from Cabras in the 1970s uncovered remains from the late Nuraghic period. Painstaking work has since pieced together Sardinia’s version of China’s terracotta warriors. As of today, 25 statues of large stone men – including warriors, archers and boxers – have been reconstructed, some of which are exhibited in Cabras Museum.

Nature

Wildlife abounds around Oristano. Flamingos inhabit the marshy lagoons, as do several rare aquatic bird species.

S'Archittu sunriseFor breathtaking beaches, head to Putzu Idu or the quartz-laden “rice sand” of Is Arutas and Maria Erma. But my favourite was probably S’Archittu, taking its name from the photogenic rock arch, one of Sardinia’s largest natural bridges, and through which you can swim or kayak.

If you’re adventurous, drive further south to explore the largest sand dunes in Europe, at Piscinas on the remote Costa Verde, and formed by the natural forces of the Mistral. But don’t get stuck in the sand.

Go inland to discover the special environment of the Giara di Gesturi, a high volcanic plateau now rich in flora and fauna, and inhabited by the island’s cherished wild horses.

Activities

Swim from the many beaches. Play golf at Is Arenas. Hike, cycle or twitch in the nature reserves. Take a boat out to the tiny island of Mal di Ventre (Italian for tummy ache!) for a snorkelling or diving expedition. It was near here that a shipwreck was discovered as recently as 1989, uncovering a scarcely believable cargo of almost 1,000 trapezoidal lead ingots, each weighing 33 kg and inscribed by their Roman owners from the 1st century BC.

Towns

BosaOristano is the provincial capital but take the coast road north to enchanting Bosa. Explore the narrow cobbled streets of the centro storico, head ever upwards amongst the crumbling pastel-coloured houses towards Malaspina Castle, and for a dazzling view over the red-roofed town, down towards the river Temo, snaking back towards Bosa beach and marina.

And enjoy the even more scintillating drive north along the coast – just into Sassari province – to Alghero, a vibrant Catalan fortified town, with towers, trebuchets and cannons a reminder of its more violent past.

Food and wine

Spaghetti con bottarga is a local food speciality, a simple but exceptional dish of pasta and mullet roe. Do NOT add cheese! Fregula (fregola) is the Sardinian equivalent of couscous, typically toasted semolina dough balls and often served with clams. Or try malloreddus, a gnocchi style pasta cooked with saffron and a tomato sauce.  Porcheddu – roast suckling pig – is a prized dish but not one for vegetarians.

But even in a trattoria in a small village, you’re likely to enjoy simple food, from well-prepared local ingredients and served with a Sardo smile.

Sardinian wines are much improved in recent years. Try the local dry white Vernaccia di Oristano, or the red Cannonau, little known outside the island, both excellent.

Where to stay

Is Benas Country LodgeHead for the Is Benas Country Lodge, an intimate retreat tucked away on the road to Putzu idu. With only 18 bedrooms and outstanding food and service, it feels more like a private country house than a hotel. A little isolated, it is a quiet refuge but within reach of all the many fascinating gifts this lesser know part of Sardinia offers the mature and inquisitive traveller.

On literary location in Sardinia….

I read The Little Theatre by the Sea recently, written by Rosanna Ley and chosen as the first read for both the TripFiction Book Club and the Silver Travel Advisor Book Club.

Thanks to Silver Travel Advisor, their partner Sardatur Holidays and Is Benas Country Lodge, I shall soon be following in the literary footsteps of Faye, Rosanna’s lead character in the novel, to explore the blurred world of fiction and reality on the unspoiled west coast of Sardinia.

In anticipation, Rosanna kindly answered some questions I posed about the places she had used in the book, the characters, food, wine, culture and history of this intriguing island that had influenced her research…..

Rosanna

Your latest novel, The Little Theatre by the Seawas published by Quercus in March 2017 (hardback) and on 1st June (paperback). 

The intriguing romantic mystery – can I call it that? – takes place mainly in Sardinia. As you know, Little Theatre was chosen as the first read for both the TripFiction Book Club and for the Silver Travel Book Club.

And thanks to Silver Travel Advisor partner Sardatur Holidays and Is Benas Country Lodge, I will be travelling to Sardinia in June to follow in the footsteps of your principal character, Faye.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions about The Little Theatre by the Sea, Rosanna, and about your writing approach.

I’m delighted. This is so exciting! I can’t wait to hear how you get on – and yes ‘intriguing romantic mystery’ sounds good to me.

Q. Your previous novels have been based in Cuba, Marrakech, Burma, the Canary Islands, Sicily, and now Sardinia. How do you decide where to base your stories, and how important a role does location play in the novels?

A. It’s different for each book. With Return to Mandalay, for example, my husband’s family had a fascinating story and a wealth of sources concerning the country and my late father-in-law’s life there. While the book is in no way a biography, it did inspire me to visit and use much of the material in my story.

For ‘The Saffron Trail’ the original seeds for me were saffron and the ‘hippie trail’ – I formed a story around these and Morocco was the obvious choice of setting. ‘Bay of Secrets’ came from the plot (based on a true story) and Last Dance in Havana I chose because I wanted to write about dance and because the history and politics of Cuba fascinated me. With ‘The Villa’ however I visited Sicily for a holiday and was simply inspired to use it as a setting. When it came to Sardinia for ‘Little Theatre by the Sea’ I wanted to write about transformation and I immediately imagined my crumbling theatre to be in Italy. It seemed the perfect setting for the story.

Location is a big part of a book for me – they have been called ‘destination novels’!

Q. Once you’ve decided on a location for a novel, how do you approach your research on “place”? And do you then write while you’re in the location, or can that creative process take place back at home in Dorset?

A. I read about the place both in fiction and non-fiction – anything I can get hold of really, and research it thoroughly using the Internet and libraries. I may also watch films or documentaries. I go there to get the flavour and travel around with my husband taking photographs and me making notes. I find the places I imagine the characters to live, work and play and the journeys that they might travel in various scenes. I generally write a few scenes while I am away but much of the work will be done when I am back at home using my notes and the photos to remind me.

Q. Your Little Theatre lead character Faye, a newly qualified interior designer, is invited by old friends to restore a crumbling old theatre in the Sardinian village of Deriu. Can you please describe where the inspiration for that fictional village came from?

A. I chose Bosa before I went there, just through research really. I wanted somewhere that didn’t already have a theatre so that I could make it my own! When I got there I realised that Bosa was perfect for the needs of the story. I re-named it Deriu because it is easier then to ‘make it your own’ and hopefully none of the locals will then be offended by anything I write about places and people which they might construe as being taken from real life! The truth is that all the people I wrote about were fictional but a few of the real places crept in, sometimes disguised…

QBosa sounds like a charming, traditional Sardinian town on the north-west coast, in the province of Oristano. What should I do and look out for there, to feel that I really am following in the footsteps of Faye and her creator? And how much do you think history has shaped the town today?

A. History has definitely shaped the town into what it is today. I think you can find the converted houses on the river bank (where Faye stays in Charlotte and Fabio’s house) including the museum. You can cross the bridge where Alessandro and Faye have a few ‘moments’ and admire the colourful houses on the other side. You can visit the Castle by walking up the steps through the olive grove as Faye did when talking to her mother on the phone about relationships and the mistakes we make and see the stunning frescoes in the chapel at the top and also the view of the town Faye reflects on. Casa Deriu is also worth visiting because although it does not feature in the book, I took the name for the town and you will see why when you visit this charming museum. At the marina you can see where Alessandro’s boatyard might have been and walk round the bay as they did. Best of all, just wander the old mediaeval quarter of Bosa to explore the area, the pretty piazzas, the artisan markets, the narrow cobblestone alleys that make up the old town. With a bit of luck you will find a building in a piazza which is actually an old chapel but has a rose window and could very well have been used as the basis for the Little Theatre itself.

Q. Where did the inspiration for the old theatre come from, if not from Bosa

A. Partly the old chapel (see above) but I also used the theatre at Sassari and other old Italian theatres that I found images of online. But basically, it was a madeup building, a fusion of all these parts.

Q. Food and wine play an important role in Little Theatre, as they do in Sarda cultureWhat local cuisine can you and Faye recommend…and what is your favourite wine from that part of Sardinia? 

A. Oh yes, lovely food! Some of my favourites were: burrida (a spicy fish soup), spaghetti con bottarga (with mullet roe) and malloreddus (a gnocchi style pasta cooked with saffron in tomato sauce). I also loved fregola – an unusual pasta similar to cous-cous, often served with clams. The seafood pasta was always good. And as for the lobster… Take me back there – now!

A lovely wine to try is the golden dry Vernacia di Oristano DOC.

Q. Whilst in Sardinia, most of the plot develops in Deriu. But Faye also discovers other parts of this intoxicating island, with theatre owner Alessandro and also with her father. Where should I go beyond beautiful Bosa, to see and feel what Faye experienced? Have you explored many other parts of Sardinia…and how would you say that this western coastal area differs from the rest of the island?

A. We travelled around the island in our motorhome to explore and research and spent three weeks drinking it all in. We didn’t get the whole way round, but focused mainly on the west of the island and the South, rather than the more touristy but stunning Costa Smeralda in the east. I would say that the west is more rugged and dramatic and is much less touristy and developed, which suited my purposes for the story.

We began by driving through the cork forests of the interior to the West coast from Olbia. We started at the National Park of Asinara in the north and basically drove down the coast. Some other high points were: Capo Falcone, the white beaches at Stintino, the ‘ghost’ mining town of Argentiera, Alghero (see below) the stunning coves on the magnificent Costa del Sud from Teulada to Chia which were also inspirations for the beach scenes, Nora (see below) and Cagliari.

In particular, Cala Domestica leads to the secret beach where Alessandro takes Faye. In the novel, this is near Deriu but it is actually a lot further down the west coast from Bosa and near the old mining town of Buggerru.

Nora is the site of the ancient village Faye visits with Ade. It is south of the island near Cagliari and is where she sees the ancient amphitheatre. This is a very interesting historical site.

Alghero is in north west Sardinia and Faye visits with Ade. It is a fascinating Catalan city which is a fusion of Italian and Catalan in food, history and architecture. It is also home to Teatro Civico.

The capital of Cagliari doesn’t feature in the book but is well worth a visit if you get the chance!

Q. There are some other lovely characters living in Deriu in Little Theatre. Are any of them based on real people you met while researching the story? Who should I try to meet while I’m in Bosa?

A. No, sadly none of the characters are based on real people! However, you will see women sitting outside their houses lace-making and men playing dominoes outside or in cafés. Down at the Marina you will also hopefully see fishermen – perhaps even mending their nets as we did!

Q. Do you know yet where your next novel will be based, and when we can expect to read another romantic mystery in an exotic location from you? I may have to follow you and our characters there too….

A. The next novel is entitled ‘Her Mother’s Secret’ and is set in Belle-Ile-en Mer, a small island just off the southern coast of Brittany.

Grazie mille, Rosanna, for giving us some insight into your latest novel The Little Theatre by the Sea and into the location that inspired your characters and plot. Good luck with promoting Little Theatre and see you at the location of your next novel!

An absolute pleasure. Thank you so much, Andrew and I hope you have a wonderful trip to Sardinia.

Borgo Tranquillo in Italy’s le Marche region with One Off Places

My feature on Borgo Tranquillo, a remarkable One Off Places property in Italy’s le Marche region – published on Silver Travel Advisor.

One Off Places

Fancy staying in a shepherd’s cottage in Spain? A South American jungle lodge? Or perhaps a cave house in Andalucia?

Well, you could.

One Off Places specialises in individual, quality holiday accommodation around the world, and is a response to bland mass market tourism and properties.

Tabitha Symonds established One Off Places in 2007, after many years searching for her own perfect holiday property. Today, castles, gatehouses, windmills, lighthouses and train stations are among the quirky – but classy – places to rest your inquisitive traveller’s head.

So, Silver Travellers, if you’re not excited at the thought of yet another glitzy cruise, or a week in a large impersonal hotel on the Costa del Tourist, why not look instead at staying in a One Off Place?

Borgo Tranquillo

I was very lucky to spend a few days recently at the remarkable Borgo Tranquillo estate. Perched on its own spectacular hilltop, high in Italy’s le Marche region and in the foothills of the mighty Appennines, Borgo Tranquillo sits in 15 Marchigian acres and is a world away from its brash Tuscan neighbour, on the western side of the mountain range that divides Italy.

View from private balcony of Borgo TranquilloA couple of the years in the planning, and taking more than 3 years to build, Borgo Tranquillo is the epitome of a One Off Place. Designed by Frank and Ariane Andrew and completed almost 10 years ago, it is an antidote to their previous lives, Frank as an international designer and Ariane as a senior manager for Bloomberg.

An innate sense of space, calm and understated luxury pervades the whole estate. Stay in one of the four self-catering 88m2 1-bedroom loft-style apartments, or the 150m2 2-bedroom villa, and feel any stress you might have arrived with evaporate in minutes. Or as long as takes to drink the bubbling Prosecco you’ll be offered as soon as you arrive.

Borgo Tranquillo apartmentWe stayed in one of the apartments. Interiors are starkly contemporary, white minimalism interrupted judiciously with injections of vibrant colour and whimsical design features. The furniture and equipment in the beamed high-ceilinged open-plan lounge and kitchen, and bedroom, are of the highest quality and yet calming and comfortable.

Externally though, the buildings are more traditionally constructed, blending perfectly with the verdant, hilly landscape.

The separate Clubhouse and Spa building is the beating heart of the Borgo Tranquillo estate. Upstairs is a spectacular space for reading, relaxing, drinking from the generously provisioned free bar, and planning your day as you gaze out of the vast windows across the foothills of the Appennines.

Downstairs – via the unique locally crafted curving staircase – is the high quality spa. Warm up in the sauna and hammam before stepping outside to laze on one of the sun loungers, or chill out in the black infinity pool.

Hammock time on the Borgo Tranquillo estateNear the Clubhouse is a large boules – bocce in Italian – pitch and a small football area. Or why not beat the bounds of Borgo Tranquillo, walk around the undulating perimeter of the entire estate, listening to birdsong, watching for wildlife and just absorbing the beauty and calm of this special environment.

But if that’s all too energetic, just find the hammocks strung up under the shade of some canopy-providing trees, or take your cocktails to the sunset bench, along the thoughtfully mown path, perched peacefully on a prominent western hillock.

Le Marche

If you can ever drag yourself away from the luxurious serenity of Borgo Tranquillo, there are plenty of other attractions to explore in le Marche, which is often described as Italy’s best-kept secret.

Ariane and Frank thoughtfully provide an encyclopaedic guide of nearby restaurants, wineries, sightseeing, shopping, walking and much more.

The charming hilltop village of Arcevia is only a 5 minute drive away, and has artisan butchers, bakers and grocers, a couple of friendly local bars, a few restaurants and some beautiful ancient palazzos, churches and houses in its enchanting centro storico.

Beating the bounds at Borgo TranquilloAnd within the wider municipality of Arcevia, you can explore many other interesting, timeless towns and hamlets, each with their own character. On a sunny May Day holiday we stumbled across Avacelli, a small village just a short drive from Arcevia, and holding its annual Asparagus Festival. There wasn’t much of the vegetable on display, but it was a great excuse for local people to eat, drink, listen to traditional music and dance in the rough gravelled street.

The larger towns of Ancona and Urbino are also within easy reach. Art lovers will know that Urbino is the pinnacle of Renaissance art and architecture, and is the birthplace of Raffaello Sanzio, better known to us as Raphael, equal of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, and whose masterpiece The School of Athens is one of the Vatican’s main frescoes.

For more athletic activities, the walking and cycling around Borgo Tranquillo are magnificent. Or swim in the Adriatic in the unspoiled seaside town of Senigallia, just 40 km from Arcevia and also offering some outstanding seafood restaurants.

One Off Silver Travellers

So why not explore the very individual properties on offer at One Off Places. And if Silver Travellers love Italy, the mountains, comfortable luxury, relaxation and activity, you really should think about staying in the Borgo Tranquillo. If you can avoid the peak summer months, the spring and autumn would be perfect times to stay at this special place, and to explore the beautiful region of le Marche.

Watch a video about Borgo Tranquillo Clubhouse

 

Winter adventure in Romania

My article on a fascinating Winter Adventure in Romania with ExploreThe Adventure Travel Experts – published on Silver Travel Advisor:

So what do you know about Romania?

That it’s somewhere in Eastern Europe? The home of Dracula? Ruled with an iron fist by the Communist despot Nicolae Ceausescu in the 1970s and 1980s? Gypsies? Orphanages? Nadia Comaneci?

I’m ashamed to say that I knew little of this fascinating – and endlessly surprising – country until experiencing Explore’s Winter Adventure in Romania tour early in March.

This revealing trip provides the perfect introduction to the country – its rich history; diverse wildlife; spectacular landscapes; fun activities – and will almost certainly whet the appetite to discover more.

Bucharest

The packed itinerary is book-ended by stays in the capital city of Bucharest. Far from being a utilitarian metropolis with a Communist hangover, the city earned the nickname of Little Paris in the early 1900s, thanks to its tree-lined boulevards, imposing Belle Epoque buildings and a reputation for good living. Today, it still has its own Arcul de Triumf – in honour of Romanian soldiers who fought in World War I – and Gare du Nord.

The Bucharest balcony where Ceausescu made his last speech in December 1989The crazed vanity of Ceausescu meant parts of the city were destroyed to make way for his mad projects, including the obscene Palace of Parliament. Started in 1984 – and still unfinished – it is the second largest administrative building in the world (after Washington DC’s Pentagon), has 12 storeys (including 4 underground), more than 3,000 rooms, 4,500 chandeliers and covers a scarcely believable 330,000 square metres.

Visit Revolution Square and see the balcony where the dictator made his final speech in December 1989, before people power forced him to escape by helicopter from the roof. He was found shortly afterwards and, after a brief show trial, executed by firing squad.

Lipscani Street, Bucharest by Carpathianland via Commons WikimediaThe atmospheric old town Centru Vechi, also known as Lipscani after its main artery, survived both World War II bombings and Ceausescu’s bulldozers. Wander its labyrinthine streets to discover monasteries, small churches, old inns for travelling traders and a vibrant modern collection of bars, cafes, restaurants and coffee shops pulsing from its otherwise jaded buildings.

An insightful walking tour with your knowledgeable guide will also pass The Old Court, built in the 15th century as the residence of mediaeval princes, including infamous Vlad the Impaler. Vlad is a national hero, battling to defend the city from the powerful Ottomans as they advanced from the east. His methods to deter traitors were perhaps a little extreme though: a successful impaling would take 5 days to kill the victim, the hot instrument of torture entering the, erm, backside before finding its exit point somewhere near the collar bone, if the impalee were not to die prematurely. Ouch.

Geography

Modern Romania is dominated by the three separate principalities of Wallachia (in the south, including Bucharest and bordered by Bulgaria and Serbia), Transylvania (in the heart of the country, with Hungary and Ukraine across the border) and Moldova (east, bordered by the independent state of Moldova).

The country and these provinces are delineated by the mighty Carpathian mountains, swooping south-east all the way from Poland and Slovakia, before jagging west in central Romania, near beautiful Brasov.

Activities

Bear tracks in the foothills of the Carpathian mountainsLeaving Bucharest, the tour soon introduces you to the first natural wonders of this ever surprising country. Join a wildlife expert for a walk in the snowy, forested foothills of the mountains to track deer, wolves, lynx and bears, which all thrive in the Carpathians. We saw fresh deer and bear tracks, and the guide explained the tactics adopted by herbivores and carnivores respectively, to survive or to kill. There are an estimated 6,000 bears in the country. The best time to see them is either in autumn, when they’re stocking up for the winter, or in spring, when they hunt for food after the long, hard winter. We came within 200 metres of a known bears’ den, but if you want to ensure you see one of these magnificent creatures in the wild, take a look at this separate tour with Explore.

Another highlight of this winter adventure is time spent frolicking in the snow. Take a cable car up to Balea Lac, a glacial lake 2,034 metres high in the Fagaras mountains of Transylvania, strap on some snow-shoes and trek out into the deep powder, like Bond hunting down his nemesis in a wintry lair. Don’t worry, it’s easy, just remember not to try and walk backwards, Mister Bond. Later, jump into a rubber ring, after taking off the snow-shoes and be pulled up a gentle slope for a spot of ice-tubing. Really.

Towns and villages

During the tour you will visit some beautiful towns and villages, which help to tell the story of the country’s rich history and cultural heritage.

Council Square in BrasovBrasov lies in Transylvania and is surrounded by the southern Carpathians. The town was our first introduction to the Saxon influences in this area, German colonists having first arrived in the middle of the 12th century – at the behest of Hungarian kings – to develop Transylvania’s towns, build mines and cultivate the land at this strategically important point, on the trading route linking Western Europe and the Ottomans in the east. Brasov is still also know by its Saxon name, Kronstadt. Visit the town’s old city walls and its famous and imposing Black Church, built in 1477 and one of the largest Gothic churches in south-east Europe. Then enjoy lunch in the charming Council Square – Piata Sfatului – where the town’s young population eat pizza and drink beer, surrounded by red-roofed history

Bran is a short drive from Brasov and is famous for its eponymous castle. The small town epitomises the constant struggle for power in this part of Europe, across the centuries: Hungary’s King Sigismund ordered a stone castle to be constructed in 1377, while the settlement developed nearby, and on a steep hilltop from where it could levy taxes on wealthy traders travelling between Transylvania and Wallachia; in 1498 Bran fell under the jurisdiction of Brasov; in the 16th century Bran became part of Transylvania, following defeat of the Kingdom of Hungary by the Ottoman Empire; the Austrian Habsburg Empire had their time in control before the town became part of the Austrian Empire in 1804, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1866. Only after WWI did Bran join the Kingdom of Romania. See, I told you it was a complex history!

Bran Castle - the inspiration for Bram Stoker's DraculaBran Castle is one of the country’s most visited sites today. It might resemble the home of Dracula in Bram Stoker’s entirely fictional novel – and was once besieged by our old friend Vlad the Impaler, who also provided inspiration to the author – but calling it Dracula’s Castle was a cynical marketing ploy conjured up by the Communist regime in the 1950s, to increase visitor numbers. The castle is open to the public and well worth a visit, if only to see how Queen Marie restored it after the castle was bequeathed to her in the 1920s

Biertan is a quiet village in Transylvania, near Sibiu, and is renowned for its impressive fortified church, one of the best examples of Saxon heritage in this part of Romania, and a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1993. The Saxon population thrived here in the middle ages, but many people decamped to Germany as a result of WWII and the collapse of Communism in 1990. However, it remains historically important for the annual reunion of Transylvanian Saxons, many returning from Germany to their roots. I will remember Biertan fondly for another less prosaic reason though – drinking a generous glass of rum schnapps with locals at 11 o’clock one sunny morning, on the street outside a bar. It cost the distinctly historic sum of 2 Lei, approximately £0.40

Sighisoara, also a UNESCO World Heritage site, has even older origins, from the Roman Empire in the 1st century AD. Now, it is one of the best preserved and most attractive mediaeval towns in Europe. Admire the 14th century clock tower, nine separate towers of the citadel, cobbled streets, burgher houses and ornate churches, including the striking Church on the Hill. And the house where our old friend Vlad the Impaler was born, around 1428

But the small, remote village of Viscri captured my heart more than anywhere else. Bump along an uneven 8 km track off the main road between Sighisoara and Brasov, and you will find life here much as it was 100 years ago. Viscri is another traditional Saxon village in Transylvania, but it has cherished its ancient traditions more than any other. The busy main street in teh Saxon village of ViscriTake a horse and cart ride along its main dirt-tracked street, towards the restored walled citadel. Inside, you’ll find a 12th century Lutheran church at which the remaining Saxon community of just 17 souls still worship, and a charming small museum depicting Saxon customs. Visit the local baker, making huge rye and spelt loaves by hand every day, blackened in the oven before tapping off the charcoal layer. We watched the animated Gypsy brothers Istvan and Matei Gabor fire up the blacksmiths’ furnace with the ancient bellows, and make horseshoes and nails on the anvil exactly as their grandfather had done many years ago. And just cherish the way large wooden gates of each house open up in the morning and evening, to allow their small herds of cattle to wander across the main street and guzzle from the long water troughs, hewn from the trunk of a single tree. Watch a video of gypsy blacksmiths in Viscri courtesy of Sam Laurie.

Food and wine

Another admission – I was expecting Romanian food to be typically eastern European, heavy and a little unimaginative. Another surprise. We enjoyed some excellent meals, including a pork dish with pickled cucumbers in Bucharest; a delicate herby potato and tarragon soup at Casa Zada in Moieciu, near Bran; and a stellar duck dish, with prune sauce and star anise, pickled gherkins and potato puree at the imaginatively restored Viscri 125 Guest House.

And did you know anything about Romanian wines? Its viticulture dates back more than 6,000 years, the country’s climate, geology and soil providing an attractive canvas for winegrowers. After a phylloxera crisis in the late 20th century and the Communist regime’s destructive presence until 1990, the industry is fighting back. Supported by foreign expertise and investment, its vineyards are flourishing again, growing enough to make it the 6th largest producer in Europe and 13th largest in the world.

The Rosu de Ceptura red is the perfect soul-mate for duck, and we tried quite a few decent white wines too.

Accommodation

Explore include accommodation that fits perfectly with the tour’s location and activities. A comfortable tourist hotel in Bucharest allows you to wander the city’s safe streets and easily explore its history and vibrant nightlife.

Moieciu - by fusion-of-horizon via Commons WikimediaNorth of the Carpathians you’ll stay in a friendly Alpine-style chalet guest house in Moieciu, with lovely home-cooked food after drinking home-brewed apple brandy poured from a teapot, as you stand in the garden and get warm by a blazing log fire; the faithfully restored Viscri 125, with traditionally furnished bedrooms and a spectacular converted barn where you eat, drink and play table football; and the Ice Hotel at Balea Lac, constructed every December with a different theme – this year’s is the movies: stay in the Harry Potter suite, or Star Wars, or Gladiator. You get the drift, and with polar sleeping bags the experience is not as cold as you’d imagine and the mulled wine before laying down on the ice bed certainly helps.

All in all, this trip to Romania was a revelation. Historically interesting, charming towns and villages, beautiful natural landscapes, friendly people, great food and wine – and not an impaler or vampire in sight.

Christmas Wine Taste Test Results

We sniffed, we looked, we held to the light, we checked for tears and legs, we sipped….and then we guzzled.

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Christmas Day in the Morris household (thanks, Paul & Carol) got off to a flying start, with a rather special wine tasting challenge.

I wrote before Christmas about how I was about to break open my first prized bottle of Sassicaia, from the renowned Tenuta San Guido estate, near the Tuscan coast. And how I didn’t think my oenophile brother would be able to tell the difference between a £120 bottle of wine, and a more modest £10 one.

I moved the goalposts a little, I must admit. The contenders were a decent Barolo (£20) and a more modest Cabernet-Merlot from the Barossa Valley in Oz (£10). Neither of which were direct Cabernet Sauvignon competitors for the mighty Sassicaia.

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So the test was all about price v taste.

How did we do?

It’s all a bit of a blur, to be honest. The only thing I can report with any confidence is that nephew Steve was the only guzzler to get all 3 wines in the right order. Take a bow, Steve. Move over, Bruv…the baton has been passed to the next generation.

What conclusions can we draw?

Absolutely none.

I probably didn’t let the wines breathe for long enough. They were all transported close to a lot of cheese. And some cranberry jelly. And we’d already drunk a glass or two of Sauvignon Blanc, with some smoked salmon and other nibbly stuff. And we swallowed, rather than spat. And perhaps we just know a lot less about wine than we thought….

But it was fun.

I think the next bottle of Sassicaia will be opened in splendid isolation. No fraternising with cheese during transportation. No confusion with other wines, however extravagant or humble. And decanted, aerating for much longer. And perhaps eaten alongside some rather buonissimo Italian food.

But in the end, I guess all that matters is enjoyment. Whatever the price. A metaphor for life.

 

Restaurant review – River Cottage

 

18-Agretti-Heart-Corbis.jpgSo what was the spindly green vegetable?”, I asked. “Looked a bit like samphire?”

Agretti“, said the chefs. “Italian. But we grow it in the garden here, then cook it and serve with three types of beetroot – candy, purple & golden.”

Nice. Loved it. And what about the cabbage?….I’ve spent 59 years avoiding it, but that tasted so good with the beef and all the other veg.”

“Yeah, that’s just a bit of lovely summer cabbage, chopped finely and cooked with chives and lemon.”

Whoever thought vegetables could be so interesting and tasty, almost hoisted to the front of the stage after years cowering in the wings?

I was in the kitchen of River Cottage HQ, in a gloriously verdant valley just outside Axminster, on the border of east Devon and west Dorset. I have never really watched the TV series but one of our holiday group is a fan of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and, staying nearby for a week, Sunday lunch at RC HQ sounded an appealing prospect to us all.

But this is so much more than just another meal.

From the moment you arrive – transported from the car park to the farm by rustic tractor and trailer – everything done here is a joyous celebration of nature and food, rather than a reverential prayer at the altar of yet another temple of gastronomy.

Welcomed in a splendid yurt with a glass of apple cider brandy, we sit on straw bales to hear what’s in store.

In a moment, we’ll bring round a couple of appetizers to enjoy with your drink. Then feel free to wander anywhere you want. The cottage is on the other side of the dining barn. The kitchen garden is beyond the cottage. The pigs and chickens are up on the ridge, by the polytunnels, where the tractor dropped you off. Drop into the cookery school, where they’re being taught how to make blue cheese today. And go and say hello to the chefs in the kitchen.”

Labneh with cumin, pickles and sauerkraut, and pork liver pâté with tomatillo chutney, got the taste buds moving. And after exploring the estate, sitting communally in the cathedral-ceilinged dining barn on two long tables, British split-pea hummus with seeded dukkah, and smoked pollock rarebit with leeks and apple chutney revved up everyone’s culinary engines.

Between courses, ask the friendly chefs about ingredients and techniques. No sweary, over-stressed prima donnas in this kitchen.

 

Or browse through the RC books and other merchandise on display by the bar, although there is no hard sell at any time. Or find out what’s brought your fellow diners to River Cottage.

Back at the table, fennel roasted carrots, green beans with shallots and tomatoes meant the innovative veggie support acts were threatening to steal the main course show.

But not quite.

The undoubted star was the 6 year-old local heifer, barbecued overnight in the rustic smoking machine, carved and served with that perfect combination of blackened crust and still reddish meat. Add a rich, silky beef-bone gravy, anise hyssop Bernaise sauce, roasted skins-off charlotte potatoes, the symphony of vegetables and a glass of red and you have a meal that lingers long in the culinary memory.

Orchard mist jelly, barely concealing cheeky wobbling raspberries, apple crumble, cinnamon and vanilla ice cream completed the show.

We wandered around the estate and trudged back up the valley to cars, reluctant to leave River Cottage behind.

This wasn’t a cheap lunch, but the overall experience was worth every penny. Come here to see first-hand the easy, natural transition of food from farm and garden to table, to understand better how to combine ingredients and how to cook with passion. But don’t come here if you want just another Sunday lunch.

Thanks to all at River Cottage, and especially to Andy Tyrrell – senior sous chef – for his humour and for his patience in annotating all the ingredients for me!

We’ve got a vegetarian friend coming for lunch tomorrow. I hope she likes agretti…..

Restaurant review – Galvin la Chapelle

The Galvin brothers are gastronomic rock & roll stars, with several acclaimed eateries in London and Edinburgh.

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La Chapelle is their outpost near Spitalfields Market in the city, close to Liverpool Street station and Bishopsgate. Once St. Botolph Hall, the building was a girls’ school in the 1890s and served as a parish hall and gymnasium until 1975. It was due for demolition in the late 1970s, until a group of local residents chained themselves to the front door gates to stop the bulldozers moving in.

Derelict for years, it was only opened again in 2009, as La Chapelle restaurant, after extensive refurbishment for Chris & Jeff Galvin.

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And what a refurbishment. As soon as you walk through the front door, the building and the interior space is as much a star as the food. Well, almost. Your eyes are drawn to the soaring cathedral-like ceilings, light flooding in from the Gothic-arched church-like windows, and the suspended mezzanine floor inserted into history.

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The restaurant was awarded a Michelin star in 2011, and continues to dazzle. We went for the first time a couple of years ago, for a special celebration, and vowed to return.

Well, we just have done. With friends, and to take advantage of a special summer menu, at a fixed price of £29 for 5 gastronomic courses, and including a glass of fizz. Yes, it’s expensive, but not bad value really for such an acclaimed venue.

Parfait of goosnagh duck liver was as light and ephemeral on the tongue as a church wafer…but much more sinful.

Lasagne of Dorset crab, with beurre Nantais and pea shoots, was a perfect marriage of English seaside and Italian pasta. I wonder if it will last…

The central culinary pillar was pot roast supreme of Landes corn-fed chicken, nestling down on a risotto of girolles and soft herbs. This was an unctuous dish, a tad salty but with rice of that perfect texture that is so elusive at home.

The cheese course – a creamy blue Fourme d’Ambert, with grape chutney and walnuts – was so small that we sent out a search party to find the fromage.

But a raspberry souffle, bathed in decadent Valrhona chocolate sauce, was a suitably indulgent finale, before we staggered out into the Spitalfield night.

Service throughout was impeccable. Professional, friendly and engaging, but not subservient as it sometimes can be at temples of gastronomy.

If I’m honest, the meal was slightly disappointing. It fell between the twin stools of a proper a la carte menu and a grazing option, and felt a little like a summer conveyor belt. If you decide to push the boat out, la Chapelle is highly recommended but go for the full a la carte experience, if you and your wallet dare.

Kapesovo, Zagori

Newsflash….this article won the Telegraph’s Just Back competition and was published in the Saturday print version on August 27, 2016 and online on telegraph.co.uk on August 29 – *surprised and chuffed*

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My latest entry in The Telegraph’s Just Back weekly travel writing competition:


Joanna pulls me into the kitchen before dinner. A necklace of walnuts, sewn together on a thread, has been coated in grape must, rolled in flour and “boiled with ashcharcoal? – before being strung up on a makeshift washing line.

She leads me down to the boiler room, where several pieces of nutty jewellery – zmpeki – hang for 5 or 6 days, to soften and infuse before being offered to guests.

Tradition echoes everywhere in the Thoukididis Guest House, restored by Joanna’s father over 8 years and now a faithful reproduction of a 19th century Zagorian merchant’s home.

 

You can taste the pride and love in every dish Joanna serves up in the small restaurant. Gigantes plaki – giant white beans – arrive, with spinach, leeks, sorrel, spearmint and parsley. “Anything from my garden”, near the Guest House in the stone village of Kapesovo, one of 46 settlements of Zagori. Known collectively as Zagorohoria, these sparsely populated villages sit high in the Pindus mountains of Epirus in north-west Greece, close to the Albanian border.

“My father’s mother came from Turkey. I like to combine the cultures in my cooking”, Joanna tells me the next evening. Zucchini fritters with yoghurt appear, sprinkled with parsley, dill and spearmint; stuffed tomatoes with rice; minced meat, mashed potatoes and porcini mushrooms, foraged earlier from the side of a mountain track.

Historically, the Zagorian region relied on family members sending money back from where they found work – Turkey, Egypt, southern Greece – to survive. But some villagers are slowly embracing independence, proud to share their heritage with outsiders.

After dinner, I wander down the narrow stone alleyways to the plateia, the heart of the village and inevitably shaded by the vast, gnarled limbs of an ancient plane tree.

I’m welcomed here too, by Joanna’s mother and father, at Sterna. The tiny shop is named after the 13 metre deep well, built in 1848 to collect rainwater for the villagers. The symbolic sterna is now an illuminated feature in the middle of a Zagorian treasure-chest. I’m offered tsipouro, the traditional ouzo digestive. Then a few aperitif liqueur flavours, all made from local ingredients: walnuts, cranberries, fig. And bitter orange, surprisingly infused with coffee beans. And a Greek coffee, as black and treacly as a vat of molasses.

During the daytime, try homemade lemonade or sour cherry juice, served in wide-rimmed jam jars and topped with a single, fragrant mint leaf. Or buy mountain tea, foraged from near Kapesovo and sheafed like an archer’s quiver. Some bellows for the winter fire, perhaps, made from local black elderberry wood.

My final breakfast from Joanna is a banana and peach smoothie; fried egg, with ham wrapped around grilled cheese as comfortingly as a Zagorian welcome; homemade bread, jams and cake.

I leave Kapesovo reluctantly. But as I begin to climb the 1,200 ancient stone steps towards the next village of Vradeto, I smile and wonder whether the packed lunch in my rucksack might include a piece of peach cake.

City Lit Travel Writing Workshop

I’m indebted to my missus Gill and to my Mum & Dad for their generosity and thoughtfulness. They kindly paid for me to do the 3 day Travel Writing workshop at City Lit last week, for my birthday prezzie.

The inimitable Susan Grossman led a class of 11 eager students, sharing with us a wealth of knowledge and experience:

How to write evocative travel copy, work with the travel industry, get on press trips and sell your work. Theory plus observation and interview skills out and about in Covent Garden. For bloggers and journalists. 

We were set loose in Neal’s Yard, in the heart of Covent Garden, one hot Thursday afternoon in July. The brief was to write a short piece, within one of a few loose frameworks, but essentially to demonstrate what we had – hopefully – learned.

Here is my own humble offering. With a couple of small, but astute, tweaks from Susan:

A little slice of Italy in Neal’s Yard

We take the classic Italian pizza, but use very original ingredients for our toppings“, says the manager of Homeslice. Javier may be Spanish, but his piccolo restaurant in London’s Neal’s Yard is otherwise very much a small slice of Italy.

With a cosmopolitan twist.

Calabrian peppers are married with chervil and Lincolnshire poacher. Or try aubergine, cauliflower cheese, spinach and harissa. How about goat shoulder, savoy cabbage and sumac yoghurt? All cooked in a wood-fired oven with an Italian accent, using mozzarella flown in twice a week from Naples, and eaten as a 20″ whole or by the slice.

Va bene for any Italian in London missing those home comforts.

Neal’s Yard, on the fringes of Covent Garden – between Shorts Gardens and Monmouth Street – and on the way to Holborn, is worth tracking down. Named after the 17th century developer, Thomas Neale, it’s crammed with Victorian warehouses, now eating places, posh hairdressers, therapy rooms and a pungent cheese emporium. Some are painted brightly, others still retain the original industrial brick facades.

Together, they create the atmosphere of a more intimate and colourful Piazza dell’Anfiteatro in Lucca.

Buonissimo!

Across the courtyard, in the recently opened Casanova & daughtersmanager Pablo Castelli from Rome explained that all their produce – tuna bresaola, anchovies, capers, cheeses, passata and sun-dried tomatoes – is sourced from small family estates on the west coast of Sicily. And their unique range of olive oils, barrelled like vintage wines, is the culmination of a careful and passionate process of olive growing and selection.

Authentic? It wouldn’t be a surprise if Inspector Montalbano showed up, asking if you knew the dead peccorino cheese-maker.

So if you’re in London but yearning for Italian passion on a plate, hunt out historic Neal’s Yard and feel right at home.

L’appetito vien mangiando, as the Inspector might say. The appetite comes from eating.