Category Archives: Travel – bon voyage!
Travel, travel and more travel
On a UK Monopoly Board, Piccadilly is the sixth most expensive property at a whopping £280.00 and bears the colour yellow. To build a Monopoly hotel on the site will set you back £1,200.00. In reality, Piccadilly is a busy, multi-lane thoroughfare in London’s West End, running from Hyde Park Corner past Green Park to Piccadilly Circus. It’s home to the Hard Rock Café, The Ritz and the Royal Academy. Piccadilly is where Russian spy, Alexander Litvenenko visited a branch of Itsu just after he was poisoned by polonium, a deadly radioactive substance, in a modern-day Cold War power struggle. It’s where to browse through book stacks at the amply-stocked bookstores of Hatchard’s and Waterstone’s, ogle gourmet delights at Fortnum and Mason and Caviar House or refuel at The Wolseley, where weekend brunch tables are a hot ticket. With such esteemed neighbours, both historic and present, it’s no surprise that Piccadilly is where the French hotel chain, Le Méridien, decided to install their landmark London hotel – a stone’s throw from Eros and the Circus’s famed flashing signs. It has now resided at the Regency property of number 21 Piccadilly for a sound twenty-six years, since 1986, in a purpose-built building that first housed The Piccadilly Hotel in 1908 and Masonic temples in its basement.
I’m ashamed to admit that Le Méridien on Piccadilly is a place I must have passed thousands of times yet never once entered and I cannot fathom why. This has recently been rectified; not only have I now entered Le Méridien Piccadilly, I’ve also luxuriated in its underground swimming pool and snored soundly in one of its gigantic beds, oblivious to the busy West End traffic artery located mere feet from my head.
My recent stay at Le Méridien has also educated me in their all-pervading approach to art. The arrival art is what a guest encounters first. As part of Le Méridien’s re-branding at the hand of the Starwood Hotels and Resorts group since they took ownership of the chain in 2005, art has been incorporated into all areas of the guest experience, starting the moment you walk through the door. Before I’d even reached the check-in desk I’d already noted a display of limited edition umbrellas by designer Duro Olowu, with snazzy geometric prints that any connoisseur would be happy to shelter beneath in a London rainstorm.
Even the lowly key card has been welcomed into the LM artistic experience. My card, a work of art in its own right, sported part of a Yan Lei Colour Wheel, its design being part of the LM Unlock Art incentive: not only does the key card open your door it forms part of a collection by a contemporary artist. The current featured artist at LM Piccadilly is Langfang-born Yan Lei, a member of the LM100, the collective comprising 100 influencers who contribute to the LM experience, through their expertise across a wide selection of the arts, from art and design to cuisine and perfumery. Some of the previous Unlock Art card collections, by fellow LM100 members, Hisham Bharoocha and Sam Samore, hang in frames by the lifts, but form and function are only two facets to the LM key cards; they also provide free access to Tate Britain and Tate Modern exhibitions – all you have to do is tell the concierge which Tate exhibitions you’d like to attend so he can arrange access for you, then just flash your key card when you get there, unlocking a local cultural experience for free.
Yan Lei’s Colour Wheel paintings hang in the Piccadilly lobby, the bespoke carpets underfoot are awash with lines, thoughtfully reflecting the inspiration for the company’s name – the meridian lines which criss-cross the globe, and in the ground floor internet den the shelves are set with contemporary ceramics, smart and stark against a dark background. There’s a video installation, created especially for Le Méridien, playing on a loop behind the Guest Relations desk and, on your way to the Longitude Bar, you’ll pass an elegant series of black and white portraits of the people responsible for the overall artistic experience that a guest will enjoy at Le Méridien – the LM100. As for that subtle aroma wafting through the lobby? That’s the signature Le Méridien scented candle, LM01, created by more members of the LM100 clan, Fabrice Penot and Edouard Roschi. It’s a unique blend of frankincense, iris absolute and musk with cedar notes, gently adding to the sensory welcome so carefully constructed with a guest’s first impressions in mind.
The final and possibly most important part of Le Méridien’s atmosphere is the human component. In my time at the hotel I truly appreciated the comportment of the staff. From greeting to leaving, there was always a smile, a courteous hand, nothing too much trouble. Lift doors were held open without asking, a troublesome door catch dealt with immediately by not one but three kind and patient staff, an unusual breakfast order delivered on-time, without issue, a forgotten toothbrush taken care of, taxi doors opened and closed, a myriad small kindnesses. Whomever I spoke with on the staff seemed to genuinely care that I had a positive experience of Le Méridien Piccadilly. That’s what I call the Art of Hospitality, and in the travel environment it’s absolutely priceless.
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.
Click here to find MetroMarks on Facebook.
Follow MetroMarks on Twitter: @MetroMarks
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
Doing the daily shop, French-style.
These aubergines are shinier than a militia man’s boots.
The lobster tank was looking a bit empty. I suspect there’d been a rush on lobster for cooling summer seafood platters.
This little piggy went to market, to hang out next to his brothers who are now a pair of delicious dried sausages. Oink oink.
Black-legged chickens with their heads ON, but running about no more.
Counting the chèvres…
Believe it or not, these rolls are called ‘hams’ of duck breast, and are stuffed with foie gras.
A trio of tapenades and other wicked treats to nibble with one’s apéro.
Legs of ham. With hoof or without?
Mimolette cheese (in case you were wondering). ‘Extra old’ says the label. You bet.
Extra old or prehistoric?
And to finish: Charentais melons in the Charente-Maritime.
Monsieur and I recently found ourselves in the searing hot Vendée region of France. On arrival it was forty degrees in the shade and the land was baking. The beach beckoned, so off we set for the coast for a swim. As it was still holiday season, we knew it would be busy, but the scene that greeted us at Les Sables d’Olonne reminded me of a real-life Ken Done painting; there was barely a square of sand free upon which to park our bottoms.
Even from a distance, the beach could be seen to crawl with hot, pink, sweaty bodies.
A short walk away was the lively little port, filled with fishing boats and gin palaces, afternoon excursion boats heading out to sea, yachts and hungry folk scratching their heads as they tried to decide which of the myriad eateries should get their business.
Here’s a romantic little boat we spied setting off for an evening sail:
Across the harbour, it would seem that the Entente Cordiale is alive and well at this frozen storage facility for the maritime co-op:
Back on our side of the water a local waits patiently for his dinner to take the bait:
Les Sables is really quite a pretty town, with an armour-clad winged victory atop its war memorial, looking suitably businesslike, yet stylish.
In spite of the armadillo-style fleece, I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be a sheep that this wolf is ogling. Dinner time?
It was for us, and now we were the ones scratching our heads as we trotted back and forth along the port-side promenade, trying to decide where to eat.
In summary: Les Sables d’Olonne is a lovely little seaside town, but don’t go there on a hot, sunny weekend, unless sardining yourself on the sand is your idea of fun. The water isn’t particularly clear, either (read into that what you will). Food-wise, you’ll be spoilt for choice, especially on the port-side, but be warned: you’ll need to be patient to find a good deal in high season – walk around and look at ALL the menus before making your choice. If you go on a weekday, however, the fish market by the port sells all sorts of seafood, sauces and even wine, all of which would make a great addition to any picnic, and at reasonable prices.
It’s hard to imagine an island of 5 square kilometers becoming a kingdom on the whim of a royal visitor, yet that’s exactly what happened to tiny Tavolara, off the east coast of Sardinia. When King Charles Albert of Sardinia visited Tavolara in 1836, he bestowed independent royal status upon it and decreed that resident shepherd Giuseppe Bertolioni should be king. The King wanted to show his thanks for the sheep that Bertolioni had presented to him in honour of his arrival on the island, thereby creating what was for many years (1836 – 1962) the smallest kingdom in the world.
There isn’t that much information available about Tavolara, should you want to visit, hence this post, which I hope will help any would-be visitors to the island. Monsieur and I visited Tavolara in May of this year, and it was a welcome distraction, yet we’d probably have enjoyed it more had we known more about what is, or rather isn’t there.
The main reason for visiting Tavolara, population a whopping 55, is probably to satisfy the curiosity of why such a place might have a king. The second reason might be to eat at the island’s one restaurant, Da Tonino (they’ll send a boat to pick you up) and a third might be to pay respects to the deceased island royals in the tiny cemetery. It’s also possible that if you work for NATO you may visit the large chunk of the island serving as a NATO base and absolutely off-limits to the likes of us.
There are no cars, bicycles or vehicles on Tavolara (not that we saw, anyway), making us feel a bit silly, having asked if it were possible to take our car across on the ferry. (Admittedly, that was before we saw the ferry.) One walks, as we later found that it’s perfectly easy to circumnavigate the portion of island accessible to non-NATO visitors. Do note that if you decide to visit Tavolara, be sure to bring a picnic with you as there is no shop and when we visited, the restaurant was closed until 1pm, by which time we were ready to head back to Sardinia proper.
Our ’ferry’ was in fact more of a shuttle boat, cram-packed with raucous local kids on a school trip. It was early morning and we’d been led to believe by hotel staff that getting coffee and a couple of breakfast pastries would be possible once we arrived at the island. It wasn’t possible as there is naught but the restaurant, which wouldn’t open for some hours yet. Fortunately, we had water in our packs, but I think you can imagine how hunger might have impacted our view of the island somewhat as my dear husband and I don’t travel too well on empty stomachs, food lovers that we are.
By the time the twenty minute boat ride was over, we’d had enough of smurf-swapping and excited screeching (although talking to the kids in basic Italian made me feel as fluent as Dante Alighieri because they understood everything I said), making away from the children as swiftly as our feet would carry us on the sandy paths. Now we understood why the ticket seller had mentioned the school trip, suggesting we might prefer to wait for a later boat. They were loud, as school groups so often are, but quite well-behaved nonetheless. However, later on, as I rinsed my hands in the ladies’ washroom at the back of the (closed) restaurant, one particularly precocious madam pointed at my slightly peeling shoulder, shook her head and tut-tutted. “Shame,” she said. It felt like being scolded by a grandmother in a ten year-old’s body.
Monsieur and I walked the length of the island’s main highway – a sand-swept walkway busy with determined lines of rather large ants. At various points along the way were information boards about the flora and fauna of the island, which was certainly unspoilt. The northern beaches just off the path were too rocky to lure us in for a dip; once we’d visited the cemetery with its rickety wooden gate and had spotted the yellow-teethed goats that share (and eat) the island, we’d pretty much covered all the options open to us. Heading down to the more sheltered southern beach of sand, we dozed for an hour or so until the next boat could take us back to civilisation and, naturalmente, FOOD. If you’re a botanist or biologist, Tavolara will possibly hold more interest for you; for us, we regretted not knowing to pack a picnic, ‘cos once you’re on the island, you’re on the island and you can’t leave until the next boat, on an inconveniently erratic timetable, arrives. Another time, we’d probably go when the restaurant is open, wiling away our time in the consumption of local dishes and gazing at the unimpeded views of the Sardinian coastline, followed by a lazy siesta on the beach. Alternatively, find out when the Tavolara film festival is on (usually July) to hob nob with Italy’s gliterrati of the cinema whilst watching Italian films and creative shorts capturing the beauty of Tavolara.
In summary, and to experience the best of this peaceful place, don’t do as we did and go unprepared; either visit at a time when the restaurant is open or take a picnic. Load up with reading matter or snorkelling gear or something else to entertain you if you’re easily bored and then Tavolara will become a haven of tranquillity to be savoured.
Check out the cutest little car in the world: the limited edition Ape (pronounced ah-pay) Calessino, manufactured by the Vespa kings – Piaggio. I’m doing a good job of breaking the tenth commandment this week…
It’s a far cry from the little Ape workhorses to be found chugging along Italy’s country roads or delivering a surfeit of produce to the local market via the narrowest of alleys.
Being Italian, they know how to sell these trusty little beasts of the car world – dressing them up for chic seaside photo shoots.
True Ape-lovers can be quite creative with their decoration:
Sal Machiani, a Tuscan Ape, made his name as an actor in Cars 2:
And now you can even build your own Ape. With LEGO!
This isn’t the only picture I’ve seen of a bride and groom making their getaway in one of these trusty little three-wheelers:
Berwick Street Market’s Pizza Pilgrims cook pizza in theirs:
And they’re not the only ones with such entreprenurial uses for their small vans:
There are so many Ape fans in the world that this selection of ape images only scratches the surface.
Alas, I have nowhere to park my dream Ape Calessino, even if Santa Claus managed to stuff one into my stocking this year and, truth be told, I don’t have stockings quite big enough for that sort of filler. Never mind. Thankfully, I’m content to daydream about my little Ape and what we might get up to together. With such a tiny engine and miniscule speed potential, breaking the sound barrier or filling up my licence with points wouldn’t be our kind of adventure, however filling up the back with a (small) friend, a (small) dog and plenty of everything for a relaxing afternoon in one of London’s parks, just might work. And, just like a cute puppy, a darling Ape like the Calessino is bound to be an ice-breaker, wherever we end up.
It’s hard to conceive of a Venice without Harry’s Bar. Opened in 1931 by former hotel barman, Giuseppe Cipriani, it’s found a stone’s throw away from St Mark’s Square, looking directly out at the beginnings of the Grand Canal. Calle Vallaresso, at the water’s end of which Harry’s Bar sits, is lined with designer stores, the likes of which are guarded by bouncers with earpieces, yet the location wasn’t always so exclusive. Once upon a time the Bar was part of an old rope warehouse – humble beginnings for what would become an internationally renowned destination watering hole, for both locals and visitors to Venice alike.
The Harry that donated his name to the bar was a young alcoholic, who’d been despatched by his family to Venice to sober up. He fell on hard times when his accompanying aunt abandoned him at the Hotel Europa, where he was a guest and Giuseppe Cipriani was barman. Cipriani loaned the guest some money, uncertain that he’d ever see it again. Some time later, Harry Pickering returned to Venice, repaid the loan and added an extra sum with which he encouraged Cipriani to open his own bar.
Harry’s Bar is known for inventing the Bellini cocktail and carpaccio of beef, as much as for its patrons; everyone who’s anyone in Venice will visit at least once and the list of famous names that have sought refreshment here is impressive. I, however, have been a little slow off the mark when it comes to darkening the Harry’s Bar doorstep. In spite of having visited the city multiple times over the years, at one point even working there, it was not until this year that I managed to make the pilgrimage to the bar where Ernest Hemingway was once a regular.
Unless you’re teetotal or underage, it’s de rigueur to order the bar’s invention, the Bellini cocktail, when you first go to Harry’s. Named for Giovanni Bellini, one of the city’s great artists, it’s a tasty blend of fresh peach purée and prosecco which, when combined, create a particular shade of pale orange which the painter favoured. I already knew from online reviews that the current rate of extortion for imbibing this particular cocktail at this particular bar would be €16.00 per glass. That’s a heck of a lot of dosh for one drink, especially when plenty of folk are vocal about how small the Harry’s Bar measures are, but in the end I relented. Having a Bellini at Harry’s has been on my Bucket List for so long that I figured it was time to take the financial plunge and cross it off.
And so, at cocktail hour, weary from a day pounding across Ruskin’s stones, Monsieur and I found our way to Harry’s Bar. This took a bit of doing because we walked straight past it several times, so unpretentious is the entrance. Once inside, we found a room simply decorated in Art Deco style, very little altered, I imagine, from the day the bar opened back in 1931. A waiter in smart white smock and black trousers seated us at a tiny table across from the bar. We ordered a pair of Bellinis and sat back to people-watch.
We’d arrived just after 4 in the afternoon, so luckily beat the traffic. A few minutes later and there wouldn’t have been room for us, such was the steady stream of tourists pouring through the door, mouths agape as they drank in the first impressions of the place. Given all the fuss about Harry’s Bar, it really is quite unexpectedly simple in design. Perhaps we expected lashings of gilt and brocade where Charlie Chaplin and Aristotle Onassis once sipped their evening refreshments? Venice certainly does excel at fussy. And yet, when you sit back and start to absorb the atmosphere, it’s obvious that this is an establishment that’s secure in itself and has confidence enough not to seek to impress like a Flash Harry on the make. Even better, for fans of 1930s interiors and traditional service, it’s like walking into a charming time warp.
Our Bellinis arrived in short water glasses, a small bowl of whole, green olives in tow. Having thoroughly enjoyed our Bellinis at the Centurion Palace Hotel terrace on arrival in Venice, Monsieur and I were interested to see how the original stacked up against the new kid on the block. And now, at the risk of incurring the wrath of Harry’s Bar die hard regulars, I must be honest: it was disappointing.
The Centurion Bellini was intensely peachy with a delightful fizz. It tasted as if the peach had been grown in the Garden of Eden and had fallen gently off the tree into a padded basket that very morning. Sadly, the Harry’s Bar Bellini lacked that fresh fruit quality. I’m not saying that they didn’t use fresh peaches; I trust they did. It’s just that, even if the peach content had been fresh, this Bellini still managed to taste like a blend of bottled Paga juice and prosecco. Perhaps it’s because of the excessive demand of visitors like us that their signature drink has lost its fizz. I’d suspect that’s the case. It’s just a shame that we didn’t find the Centurion Bellini within the Harry’s Bar atmosphere. We were certainly fortunate to have experienced both, but my advice to anyone intending to pay homage at Harry’s Bar - don’t order the Bellini here. Ask for one of their other traditional cocktails: a Manhattan or a Martini. Given the way those Harry’s boys shake and stir, I’m sure you’ll get the real deal and it should be better for not being produced for the masses who come here seeking to drink THE Bellini.
Would I return to Harry’s Bar? Definitely, but only when I’m cashed up and not for their blessed Bellini. I hear good things about their set menu lunches and might be tempted in that direction… Perhaps with a Sidecar apéritif.
Where would I go for a Bellini in Venice? The Centurion Palace Hotel. Ask for a terrace table. Fantastic views. AND the Bellini is a whole Euro cheaper.
Plus points: history, time-warp atmosphere, tradition, décor, free olives.
Minus points: costly, tourist haunt, the Bellini, apparently you’re not allowed to take photos but I did and no one stopped me! Woops.
How to find Harry’s Bar: stand at the end of St Mark’s Square looking out at the lagoon. Turn right. Follow the water’s edge as it leads to the Grand Canal, keeping the large white church of Santa Maria della Salute on your left. Just after the Square, there’s a small bridge. Cross it. The path will lead you into a calle on the right (Calle Vallaresso). Harry’s Bar is right on the right-hand corner of that calle.
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.