Category Archives: Epic Postcard Moments
My New Best Friend on the other side of The Pond is Adam Zettler of MetroMarks. He’s recently launched a regular feature called My Favourite City on the MetroMarks website, where you can find all sorts of insider info about an ever-growing number of cities around the world. They kicked off My Favourite City with a post about Toronto, Zettler’s hometown, and this week they’ve given me some space to rave about Venice, Italy. If you click on the link below, you’ll find out my top three must dos in Venice, my favourite restaurant for both memorable views AND food, as well as other reasons why I find this city so special. Most importantly, perhaps, are my tips on how to enjoy Venice without falling into the typical tourist traps.
Click here to read My Favourite City – Venice.
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To sign off, here are a few photos of Venice from earlier this year:
Casanova and his latest squeeze, spotted near Frari
A trio of palazzi
View of St Mark’s Square from the bell tower at San Giorgio Maggiore
A long time ago, in happy-go-lucky, freewheeling times, I lived in Venice. It wasn’t a long-term thing; just a summer internship over the course of a few months, but it was long enough for me to fall head over my Supergas in love with the place. When I returned to London, there remained some Venetian experiences on my Bucket List that would have to wait for subsequent visits. Quite unbelievably, if you think about my passion for food and drink, one such missed undertaking was to drink a Bellini at the erstwhile Hemingway haunt of Harry’s Bar.
As a student intern, my salary just about covered rent and food, but didn’t quite stretch to evenings, let alone just one drink at this eponymous venue, with the enduring reputation of being horrifically expensive. In the interest of keeping some Lira (yes, these were pre-Euro days) in the bank, I avoided it like the plague.
Some years later, I returned to Venice to introduce Monsieur to this grand city of canals. It was winter. For different reasons, I didn’t have a lot of dosh at the time, so, yet again, for reasons of economy, Harry’s Bar didn’t happen. Then, on my birthday this year, my dear French husband surprised me with tickets to Venice and boy, did he ever score brownie points. This time I was determined not to leave without sipping on a Harry’s Bar Bellini, all sixteen extortionate Euros of it.
Before we could even begin to factor Harry’s Bar into our trip, Monsieur and I found ourselves thirsty in Dorsoduro. We’d just about reached the white-domed magnificence of Santa Maria della Salute when we peeped through a gate to find a new hotel: the lush Centurion Palace.
Walking through the courtyard, we were surprised to find its elegant tables and seating areas empty at what was most certainly cocktail hour. Across the airy lobby we spotted a small terrace giving directly onto the Grand Canal. There were only a few tables, but all were free, so we sat and ordered a pair of Bellinis to celebrate our arrival in La Serenissima. It might not have been Harry’s Bar, but the view was hard to beat. Resting our feet we lazily watched the Venetian world pass us by on boats. Even the occasional scream of Vigili del Fuoco or Polizia sirens (also on boats) couldn’t bother us; this was bliss.
The Bellinis arrived after a suitable amount of time, which I must say I found comforting as it showed that our drinks hadn’t been poured out of a ready-mix cocktail bottle. One sip alone verified this. There was at least one whole fresh white peach involved per glass, blitzed with a healthy dose of gently bubbling prosecco. Ah, yes, we had lucked out in our impromptu cocktail stop and were now relaxing, the finest of godly nectars (I swear this is not hyperbole) slipping with ease down thirsty throats. What’s more, the generosity of measure and syrupy nature of the drink meant we could take time to smell the roses (or canals) before heading off across town to our dinner destination.
A while later, as we churned up the Grand Canal on a vaporetto, I snapped the terrace where we’d so enjoyed our first Bellinis of the trip. Sadly, this pic doesn’t do it justice.
The atmosphere was fit for bottling. Gondolas swaying in one direction:
Salute and San Marco beckoning from the other:
A crane in the background kept us firmly grounded in the current century, but it’s hard not to daydream when confronted by fairy tale palaces rising from the water:
In summary, the Centurion Palace would be hard to beat for a Bellini on the go. The drinks are fabulous, the vistas magnificent and the nibbles original and moreish (curry cracker, anyone?). If you’re a keen boatspotter, this is the terrace at which to imbibe.
A Bellini costs €15.00 here. Expensive, yes, but not quite as hefty as that establishment across the way where its forefather was conceived by a certain Signor Cipriani. All I can say is that if you feel like dropping €15.00 for one drink and a nibble or two, go no further; it’s money well-invested in a memory that will last a lifetime. As for Harry’s Bar? That’s a whole post of it’s own, but it had a lot to live up to after Bellinis at the Centurion. Suffice to say that I’ll never forget our evening there, for all the right reasons.
The easiest way to find the Centurion Palace: Take a vaporetto to the Salute stop. Get off and turn right immediately, heading away from the church. You’ll pass through an arch. A zigzag later will find the Centurion’s gate on your right hand side (Grand Canal side). Alternatively, if you’re made of moola, just whistle for a water taxi and they’ll drop you right next to the terrace I’ve been lauding above.
Driving from Cagliari to Sardinia’s Costa Smeralda gives the option of two main routes: one zig-zags you up the island on an efficient, wide autostrada (the SS131); the other snakes precariously around the sheer cliff faces of the east (the SS125). Never again do I want to travel the second way.
At various junctures along this serpentine route signs may be found warning of wandering livestock. They do not lie. We encountered quite a few four-legged friends, most often pondering life in the middle of the road or grazing calmly beside it. Pigs, goats, horned cattle, sheep… all came dangerously close to losing their lives beneath a large Ford people-mover as Monsieur, impatient to reach our hotel, zoomed us around the corners like a Schumacher brother. For much of this journey, I gripped the seat and door handle for dear life, closing my eyes and silently imploring St Christopher to protect us against what I now saw to be our inevitable end: diving down from the road to an untimely death, which, given the desolation of much of the area, I was certain may not be discovered for some weeks. If you’re even a slightly nervous passenger, I certainly do not recommend travelling this way. If you must, be warned: you may need to pop a few dozen valium to get through it.
At one point during the trip, when I felt momentarily calm enough to release my grip on the car and use the camera, I snapped the Three Little Pigs, calmly trotting across the road, impervious to the real threat of slaughter by automobile. A few nights later, as Monsieur devoured a good portion of juicy Sardinian suckling pig, we wondered aloud if it had been a relation.
The food of the island is certainly excellent and now we understand why: they raise happy animals like this example of proper, free-range pork. It was pleasant to see so much of Sardinia’s GDP ambling about her country roads, but once is enough for me. Next time, I’m determined to stick to the autostrada.
Marseille: an ancient city renowned for many things, among which number its huge commercial port, a small crime problem, the legendary Château d’If and fine bouillabaisse. The city lent its name to the French national anthem, la Marseillaise, pastis was born here and Marcel Pagnol took childhood walks in the lush Parc Borély. I suggest that we add to this hall of fame the Hotel Pullman Marseille Palm Beach, where Monsieur and I splurged for a night of luxury during our South of France ‘vacances’ last year.
Even for we two inveterate travellers, it had been a long day. We’d driven up from the Camargues, lunched at a sleepy Martigues and screeched into the last boat trip of the day around the calanques near the pretty port of Cassis. The driving in the vicinity of such a natural wonder is reputed to be fraught with tempers frayed by battles fought over parking spaces; sadly, we’d found it to be exactly so, yet somehow managed to escape without a single dent in our fender. Leaving the beauty behind as we entered the messy sprawl of the outskirts of Marseille, we were intent on a night of calm and relaxation. Fortunately, once we found the Pullman Hotel, calm and relaxation is exactly what we enjoyed.
I say ‘once we found’ because the Pullman is James Bond-esque in the way that it hides behind a curve in the Corniche, sinking its storeys below the coastal thoroughfare so that it’s barely visible from the road. We, as many others must have done before us, drove straight on past the entrance before recognising our mistake and navigating a U turn – no mean feat in the early evening rush of traffic – to return to our abode for the night.
A porter swiftly separated luggage from vehicle as a valet disappeared with the car down a ramp into what could have been Hades for all we knew – via the entrance to what we deduced must be the subterranean car park - very 007 once again. Inside, a vast lobby was populated by three or four staff and one of those life-size sculptures of a cow wearing far splashier colours than might be expected in your average milking shed. Elsewhere, the furniture was über chic in the fashion of a deconstructed Mondrian (read: hard-cornered squares and rectangles in primary colours) but quite uncomfortable looking – the subliminal message being that this was not a place to get cosy, although the view across the bay was spectacular and it would be quite possible to spend a couple of hours sitting here watching ships and yachts navigating the busy bay.
Fortunately, our room had its own, private view out to sea, and a balcony from which to enjoy it at our leisure. It was a hot evening, hazy and vaguely rose-tinted. We watched stand-up paddlers taking advantage of the calm waters.
Looking to our right the Corniche snaked against the coast, a gigantic propeller blade rising in dark silhouette against the sunset; this was the 1971 oeuvre of Marseille’s sculptor son, César, honouring the repatriation of people from North Africa to France.
To wash off the day’s accumulation of salt and sweat, we took a dip in the Pullman’s pool, which looked like this:
It was big enough to accommodate pre-dinner swimmers of all ages, from pre-schooler to retiree, and the water was just the right type of cool.
Later, as Monsieur and I basked in the last of the day’s sun, we flicked through guides in an attempt to decide how and where to dine. In the end, room service won. We would sup in our bathrobes, with the unsurpassable vista visible from our balcony, gathering strength for the serious task of exploring Marseille the next day.
The doorbell rang and our evening meal arrived. Seconds later, Monsieur settled down with comfort food: a burger and plump, golden fries with a verrine of coleslaw in a nod to the possibility of fresh produce, even if it hadn’t been ordered in quantity tonight.
I stuck to lighter fare. The smoked salmon was delicious, served with mini-blinis, a dollop of taramasalata and another of soft, herbed cheese. The salad leaves were unusually unblemished, natural, sans vinaigrette.
Then I allowed myself a small plate of cheese.
A glass of crisp, chilled white wine completed the experience.
And so, when last in Marseille, Monsieur and I unabashedly enjoyed our room service supper in our own time, watching all manner of seafaring vessel criss-crossing the bay as the sun sank in the west. It was the epitome of a holiday dining experience: good, simple food, great view, the privacy of our own room and no glad rags required. Not to mention the double bill of Engrenages (Spiral) on TV. A perfect evening, indeed.
In early May, the Sardinian summer season is slowly kicking off. The atmosphere’s halcyon, the sky cerulean, the waters clear and flowers exploding with colour everywhere you look, yet the tourist hordes have yet to land. It’s paradise.
One typically fine morning, Monsieur and I drove to Porto Rotondo, a village with impressive marina just south of the Emerald Coast in Sardinia’s north-west. It’s by no means ancient; farmers and fisherman inhabited the locale until prominent architect, Luigi Vietti arrived to design the village in the 1960s. He and his team of developers set to work, building hotels and apartments, boutiques and moorings and all the amenities a wealthy holidaymaker might demand. Love him or hate him, Silvio Berlusconi likes it here; he has a holiday home on the cliffs above the town. (If you’re into a bit of Silvio-spotting, I’ve heard it’s the one with several carabinieri cars permanently parked at the gate.)
Porto Rotondo is a curious place. It has a slick, artificial feel to it, with the tangible yet conflicting element of deep relaxation. The people don’t walk, they amble, whilst smiling in a slow, easy way. The streets are cobbled and inlaid with modern mosaic patterns, the church of San Lorenzo (patron saint of cooks) resembles an overturned hull and there’s a granite amphitheatre for the entertainment of culture vultures. The marina is a tribute to luxury pleasure boats, filled with every type of exclusive vessel imaginable, from fat, white gin palaces to wood-panelled speed boats and tall, classic schooners. Boat brokers are two-a-penny here and you can see why. There’s plenty of business to be had.
When I remember our visits to Porto Rotondo, it’s the perfect breakfasts that come to mind. Monsieur and I discovered a quiet, traditional eatery overlooking a quiet section of the marina, and there we’d sit of a morning, the tranquillity seeping into our souls.
The owners of the Bar-Gelateria del Molo have proudly hung the date of its establishment above the doorway: 1950. They’re evidently proud to have been here before Signor Vietti; quite possibly they fed and watered him as the village grew into a pleasure port. Our breakfasts there were simple – perfect shots of Italian espresso, hot and creamy with a proper Continental kick, tall, cool glasses of freshly-squeezed orange juice and soft, buttery croissants to start the day. At €10.00 a head for this simple breakfast, you might argue that it’s not great value, but Monsieur and I would disagree. The location is unbeatable, the staff welcoming, the views spectacular. The memory makes my heart slow in the most calming of ways.
Endearingly, outside the Bar-Gelateria del Molo is parked a tiny Italian delivery buggy of bright buffed red. In a wink to days of yore, there’s a wicker basket strapped to the back. I hope it’s tasked with carrying picnics to seaward-bound gin palaces, for it would be a complete waste to stay at home and order delivery food in Porto Rotondo, when you could so easily wander down to this refreshingly unpretentious bar with the perfect view. The del Molo certainly provides the quintessential Italian breakfast of quality, but I imagine it’s equally glorious for a cocktail at sunset, or a wicked lick of stracciatella on a hot afternoon.
Sitting here in the grey of January in London, the simple act of recalling breakfasts at the Bar-Gelateria del Molo warms me through. If that isn’t a glowing reference for an eatery, I don’t know what is. So, promise me, please, that if you find yourself in Sardinia one early May, you’ll make your way to Porto Rotondo and, even if it’s just the once, you owe it to yourself to breakfast by the marina. For the oft-harassed escapee from the hamster wheel of the Western World, this is a tonic not to be missed.
Think of some of the world’s record-breaking works of art at point of sale, and paintings from Claude Monet’s Water Lilies series will no doubt feature on the list. Ever since I first saw a Monet in the flesh in the eighties, during a touring exhibition that actually made it the extra xxxx miles to far-flung New Zealand (a rarity at the time), I have always dreamed of visiting Monet’s home at Giverny, to see the artist’s famed gardens for myself. In October just past, that dream came true. I had to pinch myself repeatedly, it was such a thrill to finally be in such an art-lover’s mecca.
Monsieur and I arrived in the small village of Giverny on a dull autumn day, amidst a steady Norman drizzle. I’d always thought that May would be the optimum time to see Monet’s gardens, as they’d be in the prime of spring blossom and bloom, but apparently the little village is overrun with international fans of Impressionism in springtime, so by coming later in the year, we’d wisely sidestepped the push and shove of tourist hordes. Would the effort be worth it? Would we see any flowers? Or would we curse our autumn plans and wish we’d come in spring or summer, with the world, his wife and their dog?
The weather was certainly disappointing on the morning of our visit but, ever the optimists, we still hoped there might be some sort of floral leftovers from the finer seasons just past.
Here’s a sample of what Monsieur and I found in Monet’s garden at Giverny. Our hopes were rewarded with late-bloomers in every direction.
I love pink flowers and these were among my favourites in Monet’s garden.
These fellows were drooping with the rainfall but still managed to remind me of a blazing sunset on a hot summer’s evening (even if I were wrapped up in coat and scarf at the time!)
The path from Monet’s house down to the end of the garden was wild with a carpet of nasturtiums – as a small girl, I used to pick nasturtiums from the school hedge suck ‘honey’ from the point beneath the bloom. Ever since, they’ve remained a favourite flower. At Giverny, their colours only seemed brightened by the grey day.
We wandered down aisles of flourishing flora and through an underground tunnel to reach Monet’s water lily ponds. So this was where the great painter created some of the greatest impressionist artworks known to man.
The artist said of his water lilies: “It took me time to understand my water lilies. I had planted them for the pleasure of it; I grew them without ever thinking of painting them”. Little did he know that through his paintings these would arguably become the most famous water lilies in the world.
It may have been gloomy when we saw them, but the ponds were still beautiful and, believe it or not, there was the occasional freshly-opened flower sitting on the lily pads.
The poor chap in red jacket waited patiently with his tripod as I photographed the ponds, but unfortunately for him, I wasn’t the only one annoying his view.
Imperceptible here are the water-lubbing insects who walk across the water on spindly wee legs. The pond life is happy and rampant.
As we left the ponds, returning to the main gardens, the sun decided to pop its head out from behind the clouds. This flower looked like a sunburst in its own right.
Sunshine on a rainy day…
The perfect lawn for picnicking.
This old wheel barrow must have worked hard in its past life, carrying plants and trees and soil and vegetables from the potager (vege garden). Now it sits in peaceful retirement.
There’s one word for flowers like this: happy. Monet said “I am following Nature without being able to grasp her… I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers.” With floral optimism such as this in one’s garden, it’s little wonder, although the great man started his life as an artist drawing caricatures, not a petal in sight.
This is one of the prettiest exit signs I’ve ever seen.
We were lucky with our Giverny expedition; it may have been raining when we arrived, but the sun appeared for just long enough to give us a taste of what it must be like to visit on a Halcyon day. Claude Monet once said “I am only good at two things, and those are: gardening and painting”.
This is not entirely true. He was also very good at what we were about to do next: eating.
For my friend, Pat Coakley, of Singleforareason
For those of you who haven’t yet come across Pat or her photography and philosophy blog, Singleforareason, you should visit it right NOW. If I ever finish writing my foodie memoir, I’d love Pat to illustrate it – her photos of plants and fruit and vegetables and other fridge contents really get me going. She also takes the most eerie photos whilst driving, and this inspired me to attempt the same while Monsieur and I were in Maui earlier this year. The only difference was that Monsieur was driving whilst I was photographing. Pat manages to do both at the same time.
Some of my novice drive-by-shooting results are here:
Those clouds above the mountains stay above the mountains. Down on the West coast, where most of the main resorts are, it hardly ever rains.
All the palm trees in Maui are bent in the direction of the dominant wind. The first bent palms we saw were just outside the airport. This one was a bit lonely, stood by the side of the road in the middle of sugar cane country.
Sugar cane and ominous clouds that threaten but never quite reach us.
The Maui skies are huge and the landscape dramatically craggy from its volcanic heritage.
The sun sets early here. It’s already hiding behind the mountains but hasn’t quite gone.
Just south of Lahaina the hills are terracotta and ancient-looking. The sky begins to blush as the sun drops closer to the horizon.
Its glow bounces off our shiny red Mustang as we head back up to Ka’anapali Beach and our hotel. It will be another postcard perfect evening for us as we watch the colours change around the neighbouring islands.
Monsieur thinks I’m nuts to sit in the car taking photos as we whizz around the island – nothing new there. I think it’s fun and will definitely do this again. It gives a whole new perspective on our surroundings. Thank you, Pat, for the inspiration.