24 Hours in Portland, Maine

I’m sure that most travellers will agree that after the bright lights of New York City and the old-world English charm of Boston, most US cities have a very hard act to follow and my hopes were virtually nonexistent when it came to the state capital of Maine. But as if to prove me oh so wrong, Portland turned out to be my favourite stop on our NYC to Montreal road trip – it’s quiet, unassuming vibe was a welcome relief after the bustle of Boston and the fresh sea-salted air reminded me of being back home in Wellington. For anyone wanting a foodie stop on their East Coast road trip, this is the place and there are a raft of newly-renovated apartments and lofts to rent on Airbnb – we stayed here and promptly decided the deco and couch were nice enough to spend the evening in with a bottle of wine and random episodes of Gilmore Girls.

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The next day, we started our morning with a cold brew and some morning bread on the sun-drenched terrace (an ultra-thick slab of cinnamon-spiced brioche) at The Standard Baking Co., located in the Old Port directly across from the Casco Bay Ferry Terminal. It’s a family-owned bakery making artisanal breads and pastries and heavily influenced by Maine’s pan-European past. There’s German Vollkornbrot, French brioche and cinnamon scrolls to rival the kanalbullar I tasted in Stockholm. Definitely a place for any bread geeks out there!

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With the last brioche crumbs gone, we headed off to wander around the Old Port. Until very recently, downtown Portland had suffered in the name of capitalist progress. The opening of a huge mall in southern Portland (the largest in the state of Maine) put many department stores and smaller retailers in the port area out of business and stores sat empty for several years. However, recently the council has committed to rejuvenating the area, with ongoing projects to protect the city’s elaborate Victorian architecture, and the Old Port is now a mecca for independents and quirky eateries.

We spent the morning wandering past local coffee roasters, organic food stores, homeware shops and market stalls selling jewellery and art. It’s nice to escape the cruise ship crowd and explore the smaller streets that branch off from Commercial Street. The best place to get a photo is either down on the pier by the Information Centre (14 Ocean Gateway Pier – worth visiting for the toilets and friendly advice on the city and surrounds) or next to the Casco Bay Ferry Terminal, where restaurants and bars stretch out onto the piers.

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One thing this city has in common with its West Coast namesake is a small but buzzing independent coffee scene, which is surely the lifeblood of the city’s “hipster” revival. We stopped at Coffee by Design, a café with a cosy, community feel to it and just a stone’s throw away from the information centre. Other local recommendations included Tandem Coffee Roasters, which is just a bit further up the street on Anderson Street, and Crema Coffee Company on Commercial Street, which we popped into to take a look at – a huge space, great for working and with a fireplace for those cold wintery Maine days. For any keen coffee beans, there’s a great guide to Maine’s coffee culture both in and around the city here.

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After the coffee break and before heading out to Cape Elizabeth to do some seagull spotting, we decided to make one last stop at Duckfat in Middle Street, just off the Old Port area. People from around the country flock to this tiny eatery to try the Belgian-style chips that are fried in (you guessed it) duck fat and served in a cone along with one of eight homemade dipping sauces – we can highly recommend the horseradish mayo! If we’d had more time, we definitely would have stayed in to eat – they also do sandwiches, salads, charcuterie, milkshakes and soups, and if everything is as good as those fries were, then it is definitely a lunch-worthy stop.

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Finally, before you leave the Portland area, make a stop at Cape Elizabeth for superb views of the rugged Maine coastline. The town was originally settled as one of the English trading posts in the early 17th century, with the first being on Richmond Island where beaver skins and rum was traded with the Native Indians. It went from strength to strength as a trading outpost until it became Maine’s twenty-third town during the American War of Independence. Along with the Portland Head Light (which was built at the order of George Washington), visitors can also see the remains of a large artillery fort (hence the name Fort Williams Park) that was built at the end of the 19th century and remained active until 1962. The park is a twenty-minute drive from Portland and there is lots of free parking on site.

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Happy travels folks, Mo

Food History USA/Canada

New Zealand – no description needed!

South Island, NZ – Part I –

Boasting about my home country and its beauty is something I enjoy doing regularly while travelling. It’s astounding just how many foreigners want to visit our Aotearoa; the magical and faraway haven. Despite being reasonably well travelled internationally, I am ashamed to say that my own backyard remains relatively unexplored so with two weeks of annual leave up my sleeve, myself and two friends packed up our Toyota Corolla and made the trip “down south”.

Setting off on the Kaitaki (Interislander Ferry), our Cook Strait crossing was blessed with calm seas and clear skies. As we cruised into the Marlborough Sounds, we were lucky enough to spot two dolphins frolicking in the waves off the bow of the ship – a good omen for the trip ahead perhaps? We stepped foot on southern soil just after lunchtime and promptly hit the road.

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Our first overnight stop was in sunny Nelson. Surrounded by stunning vineyards and a number of great New Zealand walks, we instantly regretted only having one night in this unique spot. We stayed at the Quality Inn, which was affordable, clean and quiet.

The next morning we set off for Blackball, a small gold-mining town on the West Coast.  While driving through the stunning Nelson Lakes National Park, we made a quick detour to Lake Rotoiti (also known as Lake Arthur). Thanks to the indispensable ‘jetboil’ we were lucky enough to enjoy a cuppa overlooking the icy blue water and snow-capped mountains (Mount Robert and St. Arnaud’s Range). In the summer, the lake is a popular water-skiing spot but we were thankful to be rugged up sipping hot tea!

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After a few more hours behind the wheel, we arrived at Blackball and checked into ‘Formerly the Blackball Hilton’ for the night. The story behind the quaint small-town hotel is an interesting read (more about it here)  Tip: while in Blackball, pop across the road and sample some Blackball Salami – we particularly enjoyed the venison pepperoni.

While the sun was setting, we visited Punakaiki and the famous Pancake Rocks, which were utterly breathtaking (and a must-see for the anyone in the area).

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The next morning we were on the road bright and early, making our way to Franz Josef via Haast (a UNESCO world heritage area). A must-visit is the Hunter Gatherer Café in Harihari which is one hour north of Franz Josef.  Tip: get the cheese scone, it’s to-die-for.

We arrived in Franz Josef just in time to take a helicopter flight to the glacier before the weather packed in. The flight was about $200pp for 20mins of flying and 10mins on-ice time. It’s not until you are standing on the glacier that you really appreciate its sheer magnitude.

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Tip: wear sensible shoes and sunglasses! We finished the day with a soak in the thermal springs and dinner. For an affordable but atmospheric eat, I would definitely recommend SnakeBite Brewery (Asian fusion cuisine).

As we made our way further south, the temperature continued to drop (we hit -1 degree coming into Queenstown) but the scenery only got better. A real highlight was Glenorchy, a small town about 40 minutes out of tourist hub Queenstown. We stayed in a small station cottage (quite the rural experience) owned by a friend. In the morning we explored some the spots used in the filming of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, including Isengard, Lothlorien, and Amon Hen. Just drive past Paradise, a small village north of Glenorchy for 10-15 minutes and you’ll find them.

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Leaving the tranquility of Glenorchy behind, we journeyed back to Queenstown for the weekend to enjoy the Winter Festival.

 Part II to follow…

Many thanks to guest blogger Lottie of Wellington, NZ – looking forward to Part II!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Food History New Zealand Pacific

The Beauty of Barga and the Garfagnana

If you’re looking for somewhere to get away from it all, the medieval town of Barga in the Garfagnana is a lovely location. While there are several historic sites, churches and monuments, none are as compelling as the vistas of the countryside and mountains, so it is the perfect place to take a break from sightseeing and spend a restorative day or two ‘smelling the roses’. If you’re after a little more action, Barga is also a great base for some serious mountain biking and hiking.

The Garfagnana is the area that encompasses the valley and hills trailing the Serchio River between the Apuan Alps and the Apennines towards Lucca. It is probably the most undiscovered part of Tuscany and is prized for its wide skies and mountain vistas. Mostly consisting of small, hillside hamlets scattered among oak and chestnut forests, Barga is one of the larger settlements in the Garfagnana and is billed as the most Scottish town in Italy (a nod to the Scottish Highlands).

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Getting there

Barga is approximately 35km from Lucca and is an easy, 45-minute drive. From Pisa, it’s about an hour. There are regular trains from Lucca to Barga-Gallicano station on the Lucca – Aulla line (€9.00 return trip). From Barga-Gallicano station, Barga is about 4km uphill. If you’re fit, take a bike with you (additional €3.00 return trip on the train), but the climb from the station is quite steep and would challenge a novice rider. Buses run from across the road from the station, but may not connect with all trains, so it is best to check at the time of booking. It is also possible to travel direct from Lucca by bus.

Staying there

If you don’t have a car, you will almost definitely want to arrange accommodation in Barga. For those with a car, the range of accommodation extends to luxury spa hotels and agriturismos in the surrounding hamlets.

We travelled by train (with bikes) and stayed in Barga at 3-star Villa Moorings Hotel, which was a 5-minute walk to the old city and to a range of restaurants and osterie. Villa Moorings Hotel is a Liberty style villa-turned-hotel and is packed to the gunnels with history and charm. Our room and bathroom were vast and full of period furniture and fittings. Beatrice, the owner/manager, was as charming as her hotel. She has done a wonderful job of repurposing the villa, once owned by her grandparents – think frescoed ceilings, grand staircases and ornately tiled floors. The effect of stately charm extends to the outdoors where there is a large pool alongside a grassed lawn and orchard. We travelled to Barga in June and booked through a booking website, however you can contact Beatrice direct on +39 583-710915 or +39 583-711538. We paid €101 for the night plus €10pp for a breakfast that was delicious and way more substantial than we needed.

Eating out

There is a range of trattorie and osterie in the old city and several options outside the old city walls, including bars and pizzarie. Like other Tuscan cuisine, the Garfagnese take pride in preparing traditionally simple food, using local, seasonal produce. We had dinner in the old city at L’Osteria, which included an antipasto of cheese, nuts and honey, followed by macaroni (no resemblance to what we are used to in NZ) with truffle, then by lamb and potatoes – all delicious and relatively inexpensive at €39 plus drinks. We skipped dessert and were treated to a glass of local limoncello ‘on the house’ before we left.

What to do

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A walk up to Barga’s Duomo (Church of San Cristoforo) through the old town is a must. Walking through the town, you can be forgiven for feeling somewhat of an intruder – the cobbled lanes and stepped passages are very narrow and steep; even the piazze are tiny. Follow your nose uphill and you will eventually arrive at the terrace of the Duomo where you can take in the majesty of the views of the Serchio river valley, the Appenines and the Apuan Alps. From behind the Duomo, looking down towards the valley floor, you can see steeply terraced plantings of grapevines, olive trees, citrus and vegetables that are typical of the area. The Duomo itself is well worth a look and will provide welcome relief from the heat if you are there in the summer.

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Sommocolonia…
Looking out of our hotel window, I was intrigued by the tiny village sitting atop a not too distant hill to the north of Barga. Beatrice was quick to provide us with directions that included a hike up to Sommocolonia by way of an ancient mule track (mulatiettiera). The mule track can be joined about 2km from Barga at Catagnana; keep an eye out for the red and white ‘signs’ (which may just be paint marks on the road, and may almost be worn away). We lost our way a couple of times and needed guidance from a helpful local, the owner of two mules which we had the pleasure of encountering along the way. The climb up to Sommocolonia is not difficult, but it is a steep walk and requires a reasonable level of fitness (approx. 1.5 hours). At the top, from the tiny village (population about 35), the views are sublime. Originally an important fortified Roman outpost, Sommocolonia was partially destroyed by bombing in 1944 during the Second World War. At the village’s highest point, a monument to the partisans who died fighting alongside US forces seems incongruous with what now appears to be a peaceful and sleepy village. It’s a good idea to take plenty of water and a snack with you. When we visited, the only people we encountered were also hikers and although it was very hot and made sense for locals to be indoors, the chance of happening upon a bar or any other eatery seemed very remote.

Another big thanks to guest blogger Niki McNeilage of Wellington who is currently spending a few months living and touring in Italy, France and Spain.

Europe Food History Italy

Heidelberg Cool

I don’t know what I was more excited about – seeing daughter Mo who had been studying at Heidelberg University for the year, or staying in this charming town – the first stop on our much anticipated Christmas Market tour of Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic! Of course it was seeing Mo – but timing our trip to commence late November meant that we could have our cake and eat it too.  Yes, it’s Winter in Europe at that time of year but if you want to experience the charm and beauty of a traditional Christmas with all the bells and whistles (and sometimes snow), then put on your hat, coat and gloves and start your Yuletide adventure (our Czech Christmas Market blog to follow).

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The historic town of Heidelberg is located in southwestern Germany and sits on the banks of the Neckar River. Home to one of Germany’s oldest and most reputable universities founded in 1386, it is not only a quintessentially vibrant University town but a popular tourist destination.  The romantic and historic cityscape, baroque Old Town, Heidelberg Castle and the well-known Philosopher’s Walk are among just some of the many attractions in this town full of Gothic and Renaissance architecture.

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Driving from Frankfurt Airport to Heidelberg took around 1 hour and with a satnav that we couldn’t re-programme into English, we quickly became proficient at German driving instructions!  We always prefer to stay in the historic centres of European capitals for the atmosphere but this is not always the easiest for car parking, so you have to do a lot of research in advance if travelling by car.  There are many excellent tour operators who have itineraries that cover the best of the Christmas Markets by either coach or river-cruising, so if driving is not your bag maybe consider one of these as an option.

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We booked into The Hotel Goldener Falke, right on the historic Altstadt Marktplatz, with a window overlooking the colourful Christmas Market. Located right next to the 15th century Heilleggeist Kirche (Church of the Holy Spirit), the atmosphere was incredible. Rugging up in puffer jackets, we joined the locals and other tourists who gather from around 4 pm as the dusk settles in, to enjoy a Gluhwein (our mulled wine) or two.  You very quickly forget the cold – but have to watch out for those uneven, narrow cobbled streets by the end of the night! Interestingly, our concern that it could be noisy next to the square at night, was dispelled after the first night. The markets finish at a respectable hour, the cold sends people indoors to fires and a hearty dinner at a reasonable time and our excellent hotel was not only well heated but had very good double-glazing.  Hard to imagine that this festive square was once where witches and heretics were burned at the stake or local miscreants suspended in cages for all to see their torment and shame!

Our first day was spent in a daze of sightseeing, eating and catching up.  Typical of old town environs, everything from the Hotel restaurant to the little traditional pubs features decor with lashings of dark timber, heavily-carved furniture that all give a homely, traditional feel and makes you want to linger. We sampled such delights as Käsespätzle (a “warm the cockles of your heart” type of German macaroni cheese), Bratwürste mit Sauerkraut und Kartoffelpüree (traditional sausage with Sauerkraut and mashed potato) and Apfelstrudel (apple strudel). My new favourite German word and food became Kartoffelpüffer – the name of the German equivalent of Swiss Potato Rosti. The restaurant at our hotel served the traditional Schnitzel dinner exceptionally well and one evening we were lucky to have the front table overlooking the market, watching the snow gently falling on the festivities outside. Breakfast at the “Golden Falcon” is also worthy of mention being varied, plentiful and included in your room price.

Another happy evening was spent at the Kulturbrauerei on the eastern end of the Altstadt. Dripping in atmosphere with painted ceilings, good home-brewed beer and a convivial atmosphere, the food was hearty and traditional and washed down with copious amounts of the obligatory Gluhwein. Tables were long bench type arrangements so you may end up sharing with someone else, but it’s all part of the charm.

 

Our photos certainly don’t do justice to our experience, as the dull skies make everything look a little gloomy, but in reality, it was far from that. The Castle was particularly interesting. Having suffered extensive damage from lightning strikes, wars and fires since its beginnings around the 13th century it had slowly decayed over the centuries after being ransacked by locals for stone and ornamentation. In the 19th century, the ruins were the romantic setting for many painters, writers, poets and those young men and women completing their “Grand Tour” of Europe. Ironic that some 150 years later and after the occupation of Heidelberg by the American military in WWII,  the majority of its present tourists are Japanese or Americans who swarm the observation terraces to take in the spectacular views. There are excellent displays inside the Castle as well – from the intact Apothecary Museum to the World’s Largest Wine Barrel or Heidelberg Tun. Opening hours in Summer are 8am-6pm or Winter from 10am-5.30pm and the reasonable charge of 4-7€ (slightly more for interior as well) it’s a great day out.

This is a town where you don’t have to pay for everything if you just want to wander and drink in the sights and history.  Walk the Alte Brücke (old bridge) c.1786 with its intriguing brass monkey statue and the twin-towers which once formed part of the city wall. Another famous attraction that has inspired many a well-known Poet is the Philosophenweg (Philosopher’s Walk). Established in 1817, the walk reaches an altitude of 200 metres. Along the route, there are botanical displays that would no doubt be quite stunning in Summer, with an eclectic mix of exotic and tropical trees and shrubs. The invigorating walk is well worth the view at the top where you can admire the town from above with fantastic views across the River Neckar and back to the Castle. In Summer the walk is also illuminated at night and must be a sight to see.

The 18th century Rathaus (town hall) is another beautiful building and the Kornmarkt, the old agricultural trading centre/square features the well-known statue of the Madonna with great views of the Schloss (castle) and a photo opportunist’s dream.

In three days we really didn’t leave the old town except to drive out but it was obvious that the town must have been (and still is) a very affluent one judging by the beautiful 19th and 20th century villas on the sides of the Neckar, built to take in panoramic views and all that this lovely destination offers.  It must have been a very “genteel” place to reside or study in days gone by and I know that Mo’s own experience has left a lasting impression on her.  Happy travelling, Liz

Europe Food Germany History

Slow travel – Lucca, Italy

If you’ve pounded the cobbles, jostled with hordes of tourists, wilted in queues for the ‘must-sees’ and yet remain in love with Italy, consider Lucca in Tuscany as a slow travel destination or base for your next experience of la dolce vita.

Ignore the current herd mentality: ‘Tuscany is done to death. Florence is overcrowded. Chianti is expensive and overrated’. Head to Lucca for an experience that is quintessentially Italian, in a city that is very liveable for residents and tourists alike.

Yes, the scenery in the surrounding countryside is jaw-dropping – olive groves, vineyards, peach and cherry orchards. And yes, the medieval buildings, churches, and monuments are awe-inspiring. It’s the essence of Lucca and its citizens (Lucchesi), the ease of getting around, and its proximity to other transport hubs that differentiate Lucca as an ideal destination.

Lucca is defined by le Mura, an ancient 12-metre high, 4.2km stone wall that surrounds the historic centre of the city. Originally built to protect citizens from invading Pisans and Florentines, the wall is now a tree-lined promenade and wooded park for the Lucchesi and invading visitors. On any day, the wall resembles a treadmill of strollers, amblers, dog-walkers, runners, and cyclists. On its grassed and wooded bastions, locals engage in cross-fit, yoga, board games and any number of other activities.  It’s a venue to meet friends, sit, read, and for those with time on their hands, to while it away. Drop down from the wall into il centro and you’ll discover a maze of cobbled streets, lanes and piazze. There are myriad shops, bars, delis, restaurants, trattorie, pasticcerie and gelaterie. Of course, there are also supermarkets, banks, pharmacies, and the usual trading establishments you would expect to find in a thriving city. After all, unlike many of Italy’s other, more touristy cities, the Lucchesi live and work in their historic centre.

Lucca is not however confined to its historic centre. Outside the wall and beyond its pastured fringe, a tree-lined ring-road spills traffic to nearby residential, commercial and agricultural areas, and to all the services essential to support the city.

The Lucchesi are a paradox of professional and polite yet warm and friendly, parochial yet cosmopolitan, and laidback yet conscientious. In the hotels and restaurants and in many of the shops, staff speak sufficient English to easily accommodate visitors. They know when you buy a coffee that you’ll likely want to sit at a table outside, and they don’t charge extra for table service, which is common in many of Italy’s busier tourist cities.

Getting about is easy. Walking or better still, cycling is the most convenient way. In fact, the centre of Lucca is limited to residents’ vehicles and in much of the centre, vehicular access is prohibited. Whether you’re an accomplished cyclist keen to take advantage of the fantastic cycle routes on offer outside the city, or a novice hoping to master a few laps of le Mura and pick up dinner from the deli, there are bike shops that can rent or sell you the right bike for the job. Lucca is a city of bike users and bike aficionados.

Options for activities in Lucca are plentiful. Shopping ranges from high-end designer stores to farmers’ markets. Take in some of the sightseeing, festivals, shows, exhibitions, and concerts on offer. There’s something for everyone. Take a language course or a cooking class. Don’t be surprised, when you’re out for dinner, to find there’s a free concert in the piazza you’re dining in. For the more active, there’s hiking, mountain biking, equestrian, and cycling.

Within an hour of Lucca and an easy day trip by train or car (or by bike for the fit), you can visit the vineyards, wineries and olive oil producers in the hills of Lucca and in Monte Carlo; the seaside resorts of Viareggio and Versilia; the spa towns of Bagni di Lucca and Montecatini Terme; the mountain towns of the Garfagnana; or Pisa (and its famous tower). Many are worthy of at least one night’s stay, if you have the time.

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Florence and all that it offers, Siena, the hill towns of San Gimignano and Volterra, and the Italian Riviera cities of La Spezia (the southern gateway to the Cinque Terre) and Portovenere are within easy reach by train or car. You will almost definitely want to consider making more than a day trip to these.

Venture further afield by car or by public transport; trains hub out of Pisa and Florence, and both cities are serviced by international airports.

If you’re looking to immerse yourself in la dolce vita, Lucca is an easy and relaxed destination to do it from. Expect the unexpected, take the time to observe the locals, soak up the atmosphere and experience the culture. Do as little or as much as you like; you just might not want to leave lovely Lucca.

Big thanks to guest blogger – Niki McNeilage from Wellington who is spending a few months living in and experiencing the charms of Italy, Spain and France.

Europe Food Gardens History Italy

Česky Krumlov – a fairytale town

Most travellers know the Czech Republic best for its beautiful and historically intact city of Prague.  Many do not venture further into this vast country unless they are driving to one of its four neighbouring countries (Germany, Austria, Poland or Slovakia) or taking a tour of this most interesting of regions.

After a memorable stay in Prague we reluctantly left the city on our way to Austria, but decided to break the trip in Česky Krumlov as 2.5 hours seemed about the right distance to drive in a day.  The countryside was punctuated by large stretches of forest, field and smaller villages with unpronounceable names but outside of the city, life seemed quite simple and agrarian. There were many hop orchards, unsurprising for a country with the highest beer consumption in the world!  I had decided on a stay at Česky Krumlov, having read that it was quite untouched by time, had a UNESCO World Heritage rating and that there was a 7+ hectare Rococo styled garden within the grounds of the 13th-century castle – all magnet keywords for me.

(Left-hand image from Hotel Konvice website)

As soon as we reached the town perimeter, we knew this had been a good choice. Dominated by the large castle built over a solid rock-bridge on a promontory of the river, the town is a typical medieval combination of narrow lanes and alleys, tall terracotta-roofed buildings and a “chocolate box” view around every corner. The architecture of the town developed between the 14th-17th centuries and shows the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque influences typical of these periods. The Vltava River forms an almost moat-like circle around the town and its hairpin “S” shape is best viewed from the castle bell-tower (around 160 steps – small entrance fee). This is the land of “Good King Wenceslas” of Christmas carol fame, a Bohemian Duke (not King) who embarked on a journey braving harsh winter weather to give alms to the poor. Considered a saint and martyr after his murder, the Czechs celebrate his feast day on 28 September.

Able to drive to the door of our charming boutique accommodation Hotel Konvice on Horni ulice 145, we were able to leave our bags and drop the car to a nearby carpark with a nightly charge of around NZ$12.00. Now, this hotel was a great choice – a 16th-century building with a stunning lobby area full of curved stone ceilings, views to the castle and a somewhat “shabby chic” style. Each suite or room is individually decorated and our room (Chamber 11), contained 2 bedrooms, the master with a view to the bell-tower and a very well equipped and spotless bathroom. The hotel is a member of the Schlosshotels & Herrenhäuser – Castle Hotels & Mansions, a select group comprising romantic castle hotels, historic country homes, manor houses, estates, inns and restaurants in Austria, Germany, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

Breakfast is included in your stay, with a small but excellent continental range and is served in the restaurant just off the lobby. We also enjoyed an excellent dinner at the Restaurant Konvice with their signature goulash and dumplings, followed by a delicious honey cake and their homemade plum and cherry spirits – a sure way of warming the cockles of your heart! The Czech beer range is huge, it is well priced and so popular that many Czechs drink beer with breakfast. Staff were friendly, the surroundings warm and comfortable and dotted with antiques – this was a fairytale hotel fit for a fairytale town.

Our visit list included the Castle and gardens – one of the biggest castle complex in Europe, and can take quite a while to get around – but it’s worth it.  We were all fascinated (and a little sad) that the dry moat area around the land side entry to the castle has a bear pit that currently houses 4 brown bears. The Castle has bred bears for the defensive moat since the 16th century and a castle family crest contained the emblem of bears holding up shields. We walked over the stone moat bridge that had replaced the old timber drawbridge into the first of a series of courtyards, each emanating or developed during a distinctive period in history. The IIIrd and IVth upper castle courtyards contained Renaissance paintings depicting mythological scenes from Greek and Roman history on their facades and are the work of Renaissance court painter Gabriel de Blonde. The Castle preserves its famous Baroque theatre, built in 1680. It is one of few such court theatres to retain its original stage machinery, scenery and props but due to its age, is only used three times a year to perform Baroque opera under false candlelight.

One of the many advantages of visiting Europe in the Winter months is that we did not have to vie with the hoards of tourists who descend on this picturesque village at other times of the year.  A downside for some travelling in Winter through Europe is that gardens are not as vibrant as in Spring or Summer and many of the statuary or ornamentation is covered against frosts. An advantage I see in viewing gardens, or in fact countryside in the Winter is that you just plain see more. With so many deciduous trees in Europe, the structure of the view or vista is revealed to a greater extent in Winter and there are some Chateaux, Villas or Castles that you may never see from the roadways during other seasons.

We paid around NZ$25 for a family pass to the museum and tower and entry to the gardens is free. There are a number of very good guided tours of the castle interior in English, with family prices at around NZ$36.  The castle is open almost every day, year round (excluding Christmas and Boxing Day) but check this website for all information on open dates, times and tour times.

Would we go back? Without a doubt and this time, I would like to study the Castle and grounds in much more detail.

Happy travelling, Liz 🙂

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Mezquita de Córdoba – Spain

After pounding the busy streets of Seville or competing with fellow tourists for Alhambra tickets in Granada, you might find yourself wondering if the Andalusian dream of long, lazy lunches and sleepy, sun-soaked terraces exists at all. That is until you arrive in Córdoba, the second-largest “Old Town” in Europe and home to some of the sultriest street corners in Spain.

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We arrived in Córdoba after three days of scaling Granadian Hills and all the blisters and aching feet that go with it. The city seems confusing from the outside, as is perhaps fitting of a city originally founded by Romans in the 206 BC and subsequently invaded and settled by the Moors, eventually becoming the capital of the Moorish caliphate Al-Andalus in 766 AD. Under the Moors, the city flourished financially and culturally and was considered one of the most important cities in the Mediterranean world. The city’s crown jewel and main attraction, the Mezquita de Córdoba, dates from this period.

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Our stop for two nights, Hotel Mezquita, was located a stone’s throw away from the Mosque and in the centre of Córdoba ’s old Jewish quarter. While the rooms are basic (but very clean), we were amused by the quirky and eccentric mix of English and Spanish antiques throughout. A delicious continental breakfast was served in the traditional Andalusian courtyard and while the hotel seemed slightly gloomy to start with, we were quickly grateful for any respite from the harsh August sunshine.

We got up early to explore the Mezquita, hoping to beat the crowds and get some good pictures in the morning light. Despite being officially called a “Mosque”, the Mezquita is more formally known as the Córdoba Cathedral and is still a functioning Roman Catholic place of worship. As a result, opening times do vary so make sure you check before you head out – in summer (between March and October) it is opened from 8:30-9:30 am and 10:00-19:00 from Monday to Saturday and 15:00-19:00 on Sundays. The best news is that the Mezquita is free for tourists between March and October (otherwise €10/€5).

The interior of the mosque is truly astonishing and unlike any other mosque I have seen. Unlike, its contemporaries in Damascus and Jerusalem (Dome on the Rock), the Mezquita was designed as a simple, democratic space echoing the traditional Islamic prayer space of desert or home. The space is horizontal in shape and dominated by a hypostyle main hall held up by hundreds of columns of marble, onyx, jasper and granite. Throughout, you can see the recognisable red and white double arches, modelled on those found in the Dome on the Rock in Jerusalem. At the south end of the hall, is the magnificent mihrab (prayer niche), which is potentially the most beautiful part of the mosque. Illuminated by 1600kg of gold mosaic cubes sent by the Emperor of Byzantium, Nicephoras II Phocas, the mihrab is framed by golden flower motifs and qur’anic inscriptions. Inside the mihrab, a single block of white marble has been crafted into the shape of a scallop shell that forms the dome and amplifies the voice of the imam.

 

If you have time after your visit, take a few minutes to wander around the Patio de los Naranjos, the picturesque courtyard that frames the entrance to the Mezquita. It’s full of orange, cypress and palm trees as well as gurgling fountains that add an air of serenity to any morning visit. This is the site where ritual ablution (washing oneself) was done before entering the Mezquita for prayers. You can also enter the imposing 54-metre bell tower from the courtyard via the Puerta del Pérdon, a fine 14th-century example of Mudéjar architecture. The tower was originally built to be the Mezquita’s minaret but was subsequently strengthened and made taller by Christians in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Afterwards, head to Córdoba’s Plaza de las Tendillas for breakfast to people watch and enjoy the 1920s vibe. Stop in any café (we tried a couple and they are all excellent) and if you’re feeling brave, go for the crushed tomato on bread (Pan con Tomate) with a generous glug of olive oil and a pinch of sea salt – delicious!

Happy Travelling, Moey xx

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