Bergamo – a city in the clouds

 

The Carabinieri of Bergamo
The Carabinieri of Bergamo

 

The ancient hill top town of Bergamo
The ancient hill top town of Bergamo

 

Many years ago I embarked on a journey to Italy with a group of opera buffs; one of my first ever forays abroad as a grown up. Being obsessed with singing at the time, part of the reason to visit Bergamo was to see a museum dedicated to Donizetti.

Through the archway of the Piazza Vecchia

Actually, it was a school that had a few exhibits dedicated to the great composer but it was still interesting.  I remember gazing into orderly shop windows and taking a ride on the funicular from the Cittá Bassa to the Cittá Alta.

But my most powerful memory was the pealing of church bells.

Now, on returning to Bergamo, I understand why I remembered the bells.  As our tour guide, Marco, regales us with stories of yesteryear, he tells us that the church bells were sounded every night one hundred times to announce the closing of the city gate.  This tradition began many hundreds of years ago and continues to this day.   No wonder I remember the incessant ringing.

Marco, our tour guide
Marco, our tour guide

And Marco told us a personal story about the alarm bells.  He had taken out a girl for the first time and he was nervous. They were sitting overlooking the valley when the sonorous and loud clamour of the bells began. The girl was startled and embraced him out of fear.  He was quite happy about that and it meant the date went very well from that point on.

The stunning hill top fortification, which had built up over millennia, was virtually abandoned once town folk decided it was safe to build homes on the valley floor below. Bergamo’s Cittá Alta, so the story goes, became a ghost town overnight. This came after the unification of Milan and Bergamo in the early 19th century under the rule of the Austrians; Bergamo was jointed together with much of the surrounding area including the alpine lakes.

Austrians had a strong influence on the Bergamese dialect which is full of distinctly Germanic umlauts.  An example is the word for a polenta dish: Chisöl.

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About a century ago, many Bergamese realised that they had a treasure on their hands and began to move back to the old city and to renovate it.  The popular and populated Cittá Alta is now one of the most expensive places to live in Italy, if not Europe.

Venetian fountain
Venetian fountain

As we drove through the city gate to began our tour, the first place mentioned was the famous gelateria and café “La Marianna” www.lamarianna.it.  La Marianna is famous for creating the chocolate ice cream flavour Stracciatella renowned the world over.

We walked through the Piazza Vecchia which was revealed to be built upon Roman ruins, something only recently discovered.  We were amazed at the beauty of the Cappella Colleoni (Colleoni chapel), which is annexed to the equally impressive Santa Maria Maggiore, a masterwork of Renaissance architecture and decorative art. It contains the tomb of the soldier Bartolomeo Colleoni.  On leaving the Santa Maria Maggiore, we noticed a strange coat of arms on the steel gate.  It was bronze and depicted three sets of male genetalia!!

A coat of arms with selection of male genitalia
A coat of arms with selection of male genitalia

 

We also popped into the stylish 5* Relais Lorenzo Hotel to see the ruins of the city wall which are nestled in the basement room of the hotel.  An extraordinary hotel in which to stay and spend a few days in this unique and ancient town.

Ruins of the city wall in the basement of the Relais Lorenzo
Ruins of the city wall in the basement of the Relais Lorenzo

On this occasion, another highlight was a wonderful lunch at DaMimmo Restaurant on Via B Colleoni.  Our meal featured local specialities including a Piccolo antipasta (made from polenta), a dish of traditional ravioli followed by a charred, roast lamb shank on a base of polenta.  The pièce de résistance was a simple dessert of cheese accompanied by miele del Parco dei Colli (local honey).  Bellisimo!

Traditional dessert
Traditional dessert

 

All images © Lynn Houghton

This trip was sponsored by www.wonderfulexpo2015.info and Turismo Bergamo and the Lombardy Region as part of the British Guild of Travel Writer’s Annual 2015 AGM. 

My Top Ten Cruises and Ships for 2014

Quantum of the Seas with North Star arm protruding
Quantum of the Seas with North Star arm protruding

 

You may have read about my top destinations for 2014…now here are my top ten cruises and ships.  I find cruises are the ideal opportunity to visit several new places.  I can see many ports and facets of a country, or indeed countries, without ever having to pack and unpack except when embarking and disembarking, of course.  If you haven’t tried a cruise yet, now is the time to splash out and go to sea!  Here is my pick of the best:

 

Bionic Bar with Robot bartenders. Image provided by RCCL
Bionic Bar with Robot bartenders. Image provided by RCCL

 

1. Royal Caribbean Cruise Line’s Quantum of the Seas

The 4,180 passenger Quantum of the Seas ‘changes everything’ (according to Royal Caribbean Cruise Line) and this is certainly true, particularly as far as technology is concerned.  This SMART ship has a dedicated satellite zapping down fibre optic type broadband that will create incredible bandwidth. This means superfast downloads and unbelievable connectivity.  Shazam!  Some of the other amazing features on board are: North Star (a London Eye type pod that pivots right out over the sea at about 350ft high), Ripcord by iFly which offers simulated sky diving, the Bionic Bar with robot bartenders mixing drinks and dynamic dining that encompasses 19 dining venues. I tried both Jamie’s Italian and Chops Grille.  Yum!!  And there is also first class theatre entertainment with shows like Mamma Mia.  The Anthem of the Seas will be sailing from Southampton in 2015.  Can’t wait.

 

Brazilian BBQ on Norwegian Cruise Line's Getaway
Brazilian BBQ on Norwegian Cruise Line’s Getaway

 

Sponge Bob Square Pants on Norwegian Cruise Line's Getaway
Sponge Bob Square Pants on Norwegian Cruise Line’s Getaway

 

2. Norwegian Cruise Line’s Getaway

At the beginning of 2014, Norwegian Cruise Line’s new ship, Getaway, had a spectacular launch in Southampton.  I wrote more about this ship than I ever expected to and it was, indeed, a beautiful vessel. Its bright and brassy livery and interiors are all about and dedicated to Miami, Florida.  And to top it off, the godmothers of Getaway were the Miami Dolphins Football Team Cheerleaders. I very much enjoy the exceptional venues (dining and otherwise) that Norwegian Cruise Line offers.  You can’t beat the Ice Bar for a bit of frigid fun and the Modern Churrascaria Brazilian restaurant is an all-time favourite of mine.  On this occasion, several people ‘walked the plank’ as part of a top deck that has water park type attractions.  Several also whizzed down a water slide tube while shivering in the English winter cold. At least the sun was shining!

 

Queen Elizabeth / Cunard
Queen Elizabeth / Cunard

 

3. Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth

I am cheating a bit here because I sailed on Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth at the very end of 2013 but I thought she deserves a mention and more.  I flew out to the port of Pireus in Athens and joined the cruise in progress. We sailed to several Greek ports of call enjoying the wonderful sunshine and history of these islands.  This Cunard ship is not as large as the Queen Mary, which is an all out ocean liner, but I love her traditional wood décor through-out and beautiful salons, theatres and dance venues.  To me it brings back the grand and glorious golden era of cruising that will hopefully live on forever!

 

Fountains in front of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul
Fountains in front of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul

 

4. Eastern Mediterranean Cruise on Azamara Quest

My first visit to Istanbul was one of my top ten destinations for 2014 and the highlight on my Eastern Mediterranean Cruise with Azamara Club Cruises.  The Azamara Quest luxury ship is mid-sized with a capacity of 686 passengers but still manages to create an intimate ambience.  The pool deck is fabulous and swimming in the ship’s salt water pool is a real treat. Other ports of call on our trip were Chania, Crete and Santorini, Kusadasi, Turkey; Dikili, Turkey and Patmos, Greece. The AzAmazing Evening Concert in Turkey, in one of the amphitheatre in Ephesus was a stunning event and meticulously planned.

Azamara Quest in Santorini Harbour
Azamara Quest in Santorini Harbour

 

Sao Joao fireworks in Porto from the Do'uro River.
Sao Joao fireworks in Porto from the Do’uro River.

 

5. Do’uro River Cruise, CroisiEurope’s Infant d’Henrique

The Do’uro River in Portugal is known mainly for its UNESCO heritage terraced vineyards and for the making of exceptional fortified wines.  Our itinerary and trip began in Porto on board Infant d’Henrique and that day was, by coincidence, the Feast Day of St. John the Baptist.  Incredible fun.  All the residents had sardine dinners along the river and then there was a spectacular fireworks display near the Ponte D. Maria Pia.  Sailing up the river was beautiful. I recommend the excursion to Vila Real to visit the historic Mateus House and to also try out the delicious pastries created during medieval times.

Interior of Uniworld's SS Catherine
Interior of Uniworld’s SS Catherine

 

6. The Rhône River, Uniworld’s SS Catherine

Launching a vessel with someone as famous and well known as actress Catherine Deneuve is always going to be an exceptional experience.  But when it is a six star vessel like her namesake, the SS Catherine, that brings everything to another level.  The launch was elegant and the meal that followed, luxurious.  This event was then followed by a cruise down the Rhone with visits to exceptional vineyard towns: Tain-l’Hermitage and Tournon-sur-Rhône. There was a special induction ceremony into the Touron-sur-Rhone wine-makers guild. Viviers was another stop on our voyage with a lovely village and spectacular climb to a well-known statue of St. Mary that overlooks the Rhone and the valley.

Cabin on Emerald Waterways' Emerald Star
Cabin on Emerald Waterways’ Emerald Star

 

7. Emerald Waterways

Another launch with a super celebrity was the Emerald Star river cruise ship which I joined on the Rhein River.  Twiggy was the godmother on this occasion though we saw very little of her during the actual cruise.  The ship is very modern featuring natural décor, white, black and crème coloured interiors and scaled back minimalist cabins.  Sailing through the famous section of the Rhein River, which is dotted with medieval castles, is always a treat. It was a dazzling afternoon and the beauty of this setting cannot be overemphasised.  There was an excursion to a beautiful spot in the Black Forest where they have refurbished, medieval farmhouses. This is not only a new cruise vessel but a brand new cruise line so expect to hear more about Emerald Waterways in 2015.

 

View from Stalheim Hotel near Flam.
View from Stalheim Hotel near Flam.

 

Bergen's Old Town
Bergen’s Old Town

 

8. Forever Fjords with Fred. Olsen on Balmoral

I just cannot get enough of the Norwegian coastline and ports.  This is such a rugged and gorgeous part of the world that I will always grab the opportunity to take a cruise to this wonderful destination.  And I also enjoy sailing with Fred. Olsen and writing about this good value cruise line. On this fjord itinerary, I got to see the Pulpit Rock which is a short boat ride up the Lysefjord Fjord near the port of Stavanger.  There were even mountain goats playing around on the craggy cliffs. Bergen and its old harbour plus bustling fish market is always a favourite destination as is Flåm and the incredible Flåm railway that climbs an enormous mountain traversing rivers and waterfalls along the way.

 

Hapag Lloyd's Europa 2
Hapag Lloyd’s Europa 2

 

9. Hapag Lloyd’s Europa 2

Nothing is better than Europa 2 according to Douglas Ward and his Berlitz Guide to the Top Cruise Ships.  This sleek modern ship, with luxury cabins with butlers, bathtubs and enormous balconies has a price tag that is not too unreasonable for well-heeled Brits.  There are speciality restaurants with exceptional cuisine (the Italian was my favourite) an amazing spa and spectacular pool deck as well as gorgeous art work through-out.  Though it was only a taster cruise on Europa 2 for me, I am looking forward to having the full experience in 2015.

 

The new Regal Princess
The new Regal Princess

 

10. Regal Princess, Princess Cruises

There was a launch in Florida this autumn of another brand new vessel, Regal Princess.  This new addition to Princess Cruises’ fleet was welcomed by well wishers including the former cast of the hit series The Love Boat.  Such a shame that, up to now, there has been little opportunity for the British press to experience the new ship but  I am sure this will be amended.  The sister ship of Royal Princess, Regal Princess has many similar amenities including the exceptional Sanctuary Spa. Watch this space for a report in 2015.

My Top Ten Trips in 2014

Storm approaching Boston
Storm approaching Boston

 

Sunrise traveling from Reykjavik and crossing Atlantic Ridge
Sunrise in Iceland.  Traveling from Reykjavik and crossing the Atlantic Ridge

 

Every travel writer worth their salt will tantalise you with a round-up of their top trips for the past year. So here is my list. Experienced new parts of both the U.S. and Europe I had never travelled to before though, I must admit, I did not go much further afield than that. But here’s hoping you get to enjoy and experience travel that excites you in the year ahead. Bring on 2015!!

Geysir on the Golden Triangle Tour
Geysir on the Golden Triangle Tour

 

1) Iceland
Relatively new as a winter destination, I went on a long weekend trip with hubby to Reykjavik and had a taste of what Iceland has to offer. The day of our Golden Triangle tour dawned clear and cold, perfect weather for seeing the natural sights. I decided my favourite thing to do in Iceland is luxuriating in the wonderful thermal pools – many of which are far from the capital city. Also seeing the Northern Lights is a surreal and soul-searching experience. I am really looking forward to my next trip there.

 

Hubby and me out lobstering off the coast of Maine
Hubby and me out lobstering off the coast of Maine

 

2) Maine
You haven’t lived if you haven’t lobstered in Maine. This is the real deal where you get to go to sea, set traps, handle the lobster and generally get to grips with what it is like to be a real fisherman and seafood scavenger on this rugged coast. We sailed out on a glorious day from Portland’s harbour and had the time of our lives. Just before coming to Portland we visited and had a wine-tasting at the Cellar Doors Winery near picturesque Camden. Another wonderful experience.

Pearl River Swamp near New Orleans
Pearl River Swamp near New Orleans

 

Typical French restaurant in New Orleans
Typical French restaurant in New Orleans

 

3) New Orleans
This intriguing historic city on the banks of the Mississippi River is all about the French Quarter and Mardi Gras. New Orleans’ residents consider themselves to be more European/Caribbean than American with immigrants from many backgrounds including Sicilians, Creoles, Africans, Acadians, Spanish, German, Cubans and the list goes on and on. The obsession with food must go back to the early settlers who were of French extraction. The first setters, who got on well with the local Indians, were Acadians; French Canadians that were booted out of their northern home by the English. They are famous for Cajun cooking (which entails lots of highly seasoned game). And speaking of game, I took a trip out to the swamp and really enjoyed the natural surroundings and wildlife.
Turtle soup, oysters, oysters grilled and topped with cheese, shrimp gumbo, crawfish and crab were just a few of the dishes I tried and enjoyed. And a trip to R’evolution Restaurant in the French Quarter was a revelation.

 

Pelican's at Robbie's Marina, Islamorada, Florida Keys
Pelican’s at Robbie’s Marina, Islamorada, Florida Keys

 

4) Florida Keys
Rock n’ Roll and Wild, Wild West begin to describe Key West which is one of the funkiest and fun-nest places I have ever visited. Sunset at Mallory Square is frantic and yet relaxing, with most folks trying out conch critters and washing them down with Margaritas. A few were even smoking Cuban cigars. A back water kayaking tour was one of the best activities of my year.

 

Florida Manatees © emol.com
Florida Manatees © emol.com

 

5) RHONE VALLEY
Lyon in France is one of those overlooked destinations that everyone should make the effort to see and experience. I stayed overnight in the historic old town staying at the Phoenix Hotel. Such a lovely part of town to explore. I then joined the river cruise vessel SS Catherine for a magical short cruise down the Rhone.

Golden domed capital building on Beacon Hill, Boston
Golden domed capital building on Beacon Hill, Boston

 

6) Boston
It is hard for me to believe that I have never been to Boston before now. It was tremendous staying at the XV Beacon Hotel on top of Beacon Hill and right next door to the golden domed State Capital. We also were very close to the famous Faneuil Market and scores of other historic sights such the famous Boston common founded in the 1600s. The proximity to water and the Freedom Trail, plus the many other great places to visit, such as the museum of fine art, make Boston a unique destination.

 

Fountains in front of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul
Fountains in front of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul

7) Istanbul
What can I say about the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul? It is probably the oldest establishment of its kind in the world and such a rich experience for the senses. The spice market, the glorious pashminas and the hustle, bustle and bartering make this a feast for the eyes, ears and nose. Seeing the Blue Mosque, the Golden Horn and the Hagia Sophia for the first time was nothing less than spectacular.  I can’t wait to visit again and explore further.

 

View from the Do'uro River
View from the Do’uro River
Ovos Moles, a dessert created and exclusively sold in Vila Real
Ovos Moles, a dessert created and exclusively sold in Vila Real

 

8) Porto and the Do’uro River
Don’t miss the opportunity to take a river cruise with CroisiEurope on the Do’uro River if you possibly can. Visiting ancient Porto and learning about the making of port wine is fascinating but it is seeing the terraced vineyards, now a UNESCO heritage site, that make this cruise something different. Don’t miss the excursion to Vila Real to see historic and fascinating Mateus House and, when in the town, try out the specialist pastry created in medieval times and still baked to this day.

 

Nantucket Lighthouse on the west of the island
Nantucket Lighthouse on the west of the island

 

9)  Nantucket
This mystical island off the coast of Massachusetts was renowned for being the world capital of whaling for several centuries.  It is now a tourist destination without peer and boasts white sand beaches, and an historic town centre with clapboard buildings plus lighthouses, windmills and other ancient landmarks. An incredible place to visit. I stayed at the authentic and evocative White Elephant Hotel.

 

Hogmeade Village, Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios
Hogmeade Village, Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios

 

10) Orlando, Florida
Speaking of magic, at the tail end of the year I visited Universal Studios, Orlando to explore the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at the Island of Adventure and Universal Studios theme parks. I would recommend it highly to families as it is such an interactive, fun experience. The new Hogmeade Train and Escape from Gringotts were my favourite attractions as was the evening performance of the Blue Man Group. My guest and I had an authentic Italian meal at Mama Della’s Ristorante at the Portofino Bay Hotel where I tried both the creamy risotto and also grilled sea bass. We were entertained by the restaurant’s strolling musicians while sipping wine. A relaxing way to top of our stay.

 

All photos @roaming_scribe / Lynn Houghton

Hugo’s Restaurant

You know you are in for a treat when the chefs and the kitchen are on full display.  Though you might imagine this to be a noisy environment, it isn’t at Hugo’s Restaurant.  Each chef is working quietly and earnestly as if on their own little culinary planet.  It is spellbinding to watch such an enormous amount of effort, detail and sheer artwork going into the preparation of these tiny portions of food.

Bar surrounding the kitchen at Hugo's Restaurant
Bar surrounding the kitchen at Hugo’s Restaurant

In 1988, this restaurant opened as a humble family eatery and it has changed dramatically over the decades.  It is now a refined space with a dark wood interior and elegant yet subdued artwork.  There are booths up against the walls and a bar with bar stools that surrounds and envelopes the über cool industrial kitchen.  (I noticed cookery books on display including a volume from NOMA).

Kuri squash with accruements
Kuri squash with accruements

With Hugo’s, haute cuisine is simplified but also has a presentation that is fresh and exciting.  The offerings change daily depending on what is in season and which market ingredients have inspired the chef on any given day.

The menu is separated into three sections with four categories and four items under each category.  Guests can mix and match across the categories as they wish.  Diners choose any five courses from all three menus for $90 or two courses for $45. Also one can add additional courses for $22.  Dessert is included.

Succotash styled dessert
Golden raspberry  styled dessert

The categories are:
Foraged and Farmed, From the Sea and Forest and Field

My starter is firmly in the Forest and Field category.  It is a luxurious cream of broccoli soup with parmesan puff, yogurt and carrot.  The parmesan puff is divine and the soup is tasty and perfectly seasoned.

Succotash styled dessert with miniature brown tomatoes
Succotash styled dessert with miniature brown tomatoes

For my third item I select the Kuri Squash, also known as Japanese Squash.  It has an orange coloured firm flesh yet quite delicate flavour.  My companion and I receive a sizeable portion which I didn’t finish it was so filling.  It is accompanied by duck liver mousse, crispy quinoa (which is stunning in appearance and taste) plus peach jam.  Yum!

My main course is the grilled swordfish which arrives with vinegar glazed mussels, head lettuce and sulfar beans.  The swordfish is quite a good sized portion and very succulent with the accoutrements being equally delicious.

Two desserts on a plank
Two desserts on a plank

But it is the dessert that wins the award for ‘Best Presentation’.  Two separate creations appear on a single wooden plank.  One is a succotash (a take on Southern style mixed vegetables…but sweet) with tiny brown tomatoes (I have never seen miniature or brown tomatoes before).  The largest fragment is a two tablespoon sized portion of cake topped with a minty foam.

Shipyard Brewed beer based in Portland
Shipyard Brewed beer based in Portland

Golden raspberries with a chocolate bark are the main ingredients of the next desert which includes a dollop of raspberry sorbet, tiny floral leaves and a smattering of crumble.  Both are displayed on the plate beautifully and tasted as good as they looked.

The imagination that goes into each individual portion of food is truly impressive. I would go to Hugo’s Restaurant again and again.

Hugo’s Restaurant, 88 Middle Street, Portland, ME
207-774-8538
www.hugos.net

 

The Rosetta Probe: Comet-Chaser

Rosetta Probe
Rosetta Probe

I am not sure why I feel so proud that the European Space Agency has hatched this incredible project.  But I do.

It was ten years ago, on 2 March 2004, that the Rosetta probe was launched into space.  Its mission: to go to the outer reaches of our solar system, get into orbit with an icy comet and then send a landing device to gather information from it.  It had three gravity assist fly-bys with Earth and one with Mars before going into hibernation and waking up in early 2014.  If all goes as planned, Philae, will land on the comet on 12 November, 2014

Here is a fantastical, fictional film by Tomek Baginski about the Rosetta Probe and comets.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H08tGjXNHO4

The Rosetta Mission was named after the ‘Rosetta Stone’ which is a fragment of Egyptian stone tablet which unlocked the secret to hieroglyphics for the first time.

Rosetta will study the organic, icy material in comets in great details. It is believed this could unlock secrets of the Solar System such as how the earth became a watery planet?   Comets are the most primitive building blocks of our cosmic world, surviving the Solar System’s chaotic 4.6 billion year history more or less intact.

Philae, the landing vehicle, is named for the island on the River Nile where an obelisk with found with bi-lingual Greek and hieroglyphic inscriptions similar to the Rosetta Stone.

So look to the night sky on the 12th November.  Who knows.  You might be able to see something of this miraculous comet-chaser if you look hard enough.

Galley Beach Restaurant’s Coastal Cuisine

A Nantucket sunset photographed from Galley Beach Restaurant. 

 

Pink sunset, Galley Beach, Nantucket
Pink sunset, Galley Beach, Nantucket

With the late afternoon upon us, it is time to explore the north eastern part of the intriguing sea and windswept isle named Nantucket.

The White Elephant Hotel, where we are staying, ferries us to Galley Beach, a typically beautiful spot on Nantucket.   We walk through perfect white sand to the Galley Beach Restaurant and are assigned our table before having a stroll along the beach.  David Silva’s (nearly) open air restaurant is an almost organic part of the environment. As the light is waning, clouds part and the most magnificent sunset unfolds before our us.  Luckily I snap a few photos before the pink sun completely disappears.

Nantucket Lighthouse on the west of the island
Nantucket Lighthouse on the west of the island

 

Galley Beach Restaurant began life as a clam shack on Cliffside Beach in 1958 and has been owned and run by the same family ever since.  The off white décor, with just a hint of nautical, is inviting and place appropriate.  The see-through plastic hanging coverings keep the wind out but let the light and sunshine in.  Comfy wicker type chairs and hurricane lamps top the tables.  Shell decorations and natural fabrics in the restaurant continue the outdoor feel.  Many people choose to eat outside if the weather is suitable but we decide to stay in as there is already an autumn chill in the air.

Dining Room at night ©GalleyBeachRestaurant
Dining Room at night ©GalleyBeachRestaurant

David Silva, the current owner, happens to be on hand to help us select a good wine.  My companion is having Filet Mignon but I am interested in trying the fresh coastal cuisine and so ordered the cod filet with leek puree.  We decide to try a white wine.  The Starry Night, 2010 Russian River Chardonnay is lovely and light (my companion’s choice) but when I try out the Bourgogne, I am sold straight away.  The 2011 Michelot is exquisite with a fragrant bouquet and full bodied flavour.

Neil Ferguson is executive chef and his menus are influenced by local flavours and seafood which  include European touches like truffle oil, foiegras and brioche.  His early training was in England but then he spent a year in Burgundy at Marc Meneau‘s three-Michelin star L’Esperance.  There was a further year at the three-Michelin star L’Arpege in Paris with Alain Passard, a mentor he holds in high regard.  These influences are evident in his cooking.

Fresh salad ©GalleyBeachRestaurant
Fresh salad ©GalleyBeachRestaurant

I dig into the rest of the meal in earnest, starting with a staple of this region, New England clam chowder.  Very creamy and incredibly delicious.  My companion’s Roasted Beet Root Salad was made up of Strachiatella cheese, orange segments, mache and lemon-fennel puree. Unique, fresh and tasty.

Cod Filet at Galley Beach Restaurant
Cod Filet – image Galley Beach Restaurant

By now the restaurant is full and buzzing.  Our main courses are just as good as the appetizers.  The Filet Mignon is exquisite and perfectly cooked.  My cod fillet is firm, fresh yet tender as well.  The leek puree and fingerling potatoes are a perfect accompaniment and the truffled vinagarette adds a bit of something extra in the dusky flavour department.

 

Strawberry Cheesecake at Galley Beach Restaurant
Strawberry Cheesecake at Galley Beach Restaurant

 

But perhaps my favourite dish of the night was the scrummy Strawberry Shortcake Crumble.  The rich shortcake was just the right size portion to end the meal and the fresh ice cream and gorgeous strawberries set it off beautifully. Decadent is the proper word to describe this treat.

Fine dining is all the rage on Nantucket and there are many eateries to choose from, but this tucked away gem needs to be tried.  It stands on its own as a gastronomic delight.

Click here for information about Galley Beach
Click here for further information about Nantucket and New England

Istanbul First Impression: Sights, Sounds and Colours

My first visit to Istanbul is a breath-taking experience. For all the right reasons.

Fountains in front of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul
Fountains in front of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul

Sailing up the Sea of Marmara in the early morning light, the verdant hills of the Sultanahmet start sliding into view.  I squint against the brightness and scan the horizon with intent.  Then it appears. The glistening dome of the Blue Mosque catches my eye and I experience a quick intake of breath.  Though it doesn’t look as blue as I imagined, it is a striking and awe-inspiring structure even from this distance.  Quickly, all sorts of minarets and spires come into sight reaching up beseechingly to the sky.  It is not long before the Golden Horn is before us spilling out into the sea.  More of the city appears as we get closer and closer to our dock.

Blue Mosque and Sultanahmet from the Sea of Marmara.
Hagia Sofia and Sultanahmet from the Sea of Marmara.

 

The European side of Istanbul is where the old town and historic buildings lie.  The Hagia Sofia and Blue Mosque are virtually all within yards of each other with the Grand Bazaar less than a mile away.  The Sultanahmet attracts tourists by their thousands, if not millions.  I cannot wait to get my walking shoes on and explore this enchanting city.

 
On approach to the Golden Horn, an enormous Turkish flag.
On approach to the Golden Horn, an enormous Turkish flag.

 

The Bosphorus suspension bridge between Europe and Asia
The Bosphorus suspension bridge between Europe and Asia

And soon the incredible Bosphorus Suspension Bridge is in sight, with its striking design based on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.  To think this one structure connects the European and Asian continents has captured the imagination of the world.

We disembark to start our Istanbul adventure. Strolling through the non-descript Karaköy neighbourhood with its office blocks and utilitarian shops, we soon reach the old Galata Bridge that spans the Golden Horn.  Water now comes into view and we begin to traverse the bridge.  Lining the edges are local fisherman – I look down and can clearly see dozens and dozens of jelly fish, their iridescent shapes spookily floating about in the clear water.

 

Fisherman on Galata Bridge © pymphotography
Fisherman on Galata Bridge © pymphotography

 

As soon as we are midway across, we notice stairs going down to another, lower level.  Just above the water is another section of the bridge.  Here there are restaurants and tea houses getting ready for their first customers.  We settle in and have a Turkish tea.

Emerging back up to the road level, we make our way past the buckets of bait and fishing lines towards the Eminönü section of town.  This bustling recreational zone near the water is full of families buying treats and walking along the promenade and enjoying the cool yet sunny morning.

Colourful goods for sale in Grand Bazaar
Colourful goods for sale in the Grand Bazaar

As we walk up the hill towards the Fatih district, we pass vast numbers of stationers and wedding invitation shops.  Soon signs appear to direct us to the Grand Bazaar.

Entrance to the Grand Bazaar
Entrance to the Grand Bazaar

I don’t think anything can quite prepare you for this incredible structure with its ancient warren of walkways and wonderful shops.  Building began in 1455 at the beginning of the reign of the Ottoman Empire after the defeat of Constantinople .  They say that the rituals around bartering began at the same time as the construction of the bazaar and are still thriving to this day.

Entrance to Grand Bazaar © panoramio.com
Entrance to Grand Bazaar © panoramio.com

We have arrived quite early, so the bazaar is bustling but not too busy.  I am amazed at how wide the main isle is the takes you through the centre of this shopping mecca.  The designs and décor above our heads are striking and colourful.  And, of course, there are dozens and dozens of pashmina, souvenir and jewellery shops. There are upmarket luggage, watch and leather outlets as well.  I even spot children’s toy shops and eateries offering Turkish snacks.

 

Pashminas in Kapali Carsi
Pashminas in Kapali Carsi

 

I will be buying pashminas today for various relatives who have asked for them.  I make my first attempt at bargaining, to the amusement of my husband.  There is astonishment from the vendor as I offer half of the price he is quoting.  I move on to the next shop as my husband is giggling at my efforts.  This does not stand me in good stead with the vendor.

Ceiling of the Grand Bazaar
Ceiling of the Grand Bazaar

 

We approach another shop and I am soon ushered inside by a friendly attendant. I quickly discover that there are many suitable shawls and scarves here.  Once hubby and I start discussing the various options for different people (with the salesman dutifully pulling out shawls for us to look at) I know my bartering position won’t be very strong.  I have shown too much interest!

But we happily part with our money on finding three pashminas which are just the colours needed.

It is soon time to have a bit of lunch.  I leave the bazaar not having experienced it thoroughly or having done nearly enough shopping.   But we soon discover a local restaurant that makes the best spicy lentil soup I have ever tasted.  The waiter seems very impressed when we attempt a few words in Turkish.  Everyone is pleased!

Turkish food.
Turkish food.

There will be another blog about our discoveries in Sultanahmet and also a previous cookery experience in Kuşadasi.  Watch this space!

I travelled on the ship Azamara Quest on an Eastern Mediterranean itinerary.

A Quantum leap takes place in cruising

A quantum leap in cruising will take place when RCCL’s Quantum of the Seas launches this autumn.

Being lucky enough to get a sneak preview of the new ship, Quantum of the Seas, at the Meyer Werft shipyard in Papenburg was something I wouldn’t necessarily have expected.  The new SMART ship technology might have been something that was under wraps (and if it all does work – and my money is on it working – it will make a real ‘splash’).  But perhaps even more entertaining was getting the opportunity to speak to Richard Fain, the CEO of the cruise line, himself.

Richard Fain, Chairman and CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, leads our tour of Quantum of the Seas
Richard Fain, Chairman and CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, leads our tour of Quantum of the Seas

To get the low down from the man at the top about all this new SMART technology on board was pretty special.

But as Richard also said, “Boys like their toys and this is one big toy I get to enjoy”.

Richard enjoys the dodgem car at the new Sea Plex
Richard enjoys the dodgem car at the new Sea Plex

Richard also explained that bookings are on the increase for the cruise line, with Quantum of the Seas and the next ship in line to be launched, Anthem of the Seas,  already securing 150,000 reservations.

The new SMART technology is all about a unique partnership with a company that makes masts for mobile phones named O3B (the other 3 billion – presumably those who do not .  Only this company has now branched out into satellites.  In total, there will be eight satellites that will give Quantum of the Seas, and then the entire fleet, virtually unlimited bandwidth for use by crew, passengers and the ship.

What does this mean?

  • Luggage can be tracked with your smart phone
  • Shows, speciality restaurants, spa treatments can be booked on line with your Cruise Planner
  • Documentation is all organised on-line so no check in queues when boarding.  Passengers can upload their own security photo, and receive digital boarding confirmations
  • Cabin doors will be opened with a wrist band. RFID WOWband wristbands, which require only a simple tap to quickly navigate the ship, make onboard purchases and serve as the room key
  • Two70° is a multi-level hang-out which will have virtual bands and musicians, as well as 270-degree panoramic sea views.

But some of the touches I like are, for instance, the virtual balconies designed for all the 375 inside state rooms.  They really do look realistic but are projected images from cameras based around the ship.  Cool!

Is it the Bahamas?  No, its a virtual balcony for an inside stateroom
Is it the Bahamas? No, its a virtual balcony for an inside stateroom

 

And, just for fun, they will have North Star.  This apparatus looks like a glass pod extracted from the London Eye and then put on a huge mechanical arm.  The pod will suspend guests 300 ft. above the ship and even out over the ocean.  Can’t wait to try that one!

Quantum of the Seas with North Star arm protruding
Quantum of the Seas with North Star arm protruding

 

Digital sculpture suspended from the ceiling
Digital sculpture suspended from the ceiling

And the first sky diving experience at sea, RipCord by ifly, is going to be a real hit with children and adventurous adults.  These simulators are already operating in Orlando but Quantum of the Seas will be the first ship to have anything like this.

Josh explaining the new RipCord by ifly sky dive simulator
Josh explaining the new RipCord by ifly sky dive simulator
The RipCord by ifly tube is ready for skydivers
The RipCord by ifly tube is ready for skydivers

 

But maybe the best idea of all is to have robotic bartenders at a Bionic Bar.  I didn’t get to see this feature but I can only imagine it will be a great addition to this Bionic ship!

Bionic Bar with Robot bartenders. Image provided by RCCL
Bionic Bar with Robot bartenders. Image provided by RCCL

With SMART Technology,  Bionic Bartenders, Virtual Musicians, bandwidth that allows you to stream your favourite films on your lap top, there will be a whole lot of on board tech going on.

To book go on line or contact your travel agent: Royal Caribbean Cruise Line

 

 

The Rib Room serves it up spicy

Gleneagles and the Rib Room have something in common. The Ryder Cup.  

The spicy 'Suarez' was invented during the World Cup
The spicy ‘Suarez’ was invented during the World Cup

Although Gleneagles has the real deal, the Rib Room in Knightsbridge is not far behind with its very own Ryder Cup cocktail.  Currently under wraps, all will be revealed in a few days time.

I have never been to the Rib Room in the Jumeirah Hotel on Sloane Street. This time of year there are mainly wealthy middle easterners inhabiting the exclusive shops of this neighbourhood and a fair few of those are staying at this very nice hotel.

A barman at the Rib Room doing his thing
A barman at the Rib Room doing his thing

As I plop down in the cool darkened space, I have a quick look around. Glamorous but understated décor in dark wood, the Rib Room has an elegant dining area and has an astonishingly long bar.  The serving staff are impeccably dressed and assist me immediately.  In fact, it is such a beautiful day, I decide to move outdoors.  So far, so good.

This is the dessert plate being served at the Rib Room. Decadent.
This is the dessert plate being served at the Rib Room. Decadent.

Before trying something from the Rib Room’s wine list, I decide to slurp on a Suarez (created to go along with the World Cup festivities in June).  Meaty and spicy (with a ‘bite’?) I imagine it reflects this football player quite well!  A great drink for first thing in the morning…as an option other than a Bloody Mary.

Rib Room - bar - gin 01

Moving on, I tried the Rib Room’s wonderful Viognier which is a reasonable £8 a glass.  It had a delightful bouquet and was a smooth, creamy yet fruity white.  It was hard to make a choice from their list of over four hundred and fifty wines and champagnes on offer.

Cool cocktails at the Rib Room.
Cool cocktails at the Rib Room.

The Rib Room also has dozens of gin and bitters combinations and quite a few themed drinks as well.  The Drinking with Dickens includes the following offerings in honour of Mr Dickens visit to the U.S. in 1842 where he tried the American Invention:

Poison of choice at £15
While you wait Martin Miller’s Gin, Earl Grey syrup, Yellow Chartreuse. Made to make lose track of time. Served up
Help yourself Appleton Rum, Damson Gin, Crème de Cacao, Chocolate Bitters, Lemon Juice & Egg White. Tempting and refreshing rum sour twist. Served on the rocks
For love o’ liquor Patron XO Coffee, Baileys, Galliano, Coconut Cream. A creamy after-dinner indulgence. Served up
Just one more Bacardi White, Peach Liquor, Lemon Juice, Fresh Grapes and Sauvignon Blanc A sophisticated peach scented aperitif. Served up
The Venus Bombay Gin, Deviation Sweet Wine, Jasmine Tea, Elderflower Cordial, Peach Bitters A winning composition to stimulate the senses. Served up

One of my party tried the Adnam’s Cooper gin with lavender bitters on the rocks.  Very fragrant and you could definitely taste the lavender.  A bit like drinking perfume.  Slightly pricey at £16 but at least it is different.  I also tried one of the virgin cocktails; the Scented Cranberry Martini with
Cranberry juice, vanilla, citrus, orange flower water.  Simple and refreshing on a hot, summers’ day.

We also had the dessert platter.  Utterly divine!

The Rib Room Bar opening hours are:
11am to 12.30am (Mon-Sat)
12pm to 10.30pm (Sun & Bank Holidays)

The Rib Room Bar & Restaurant, Jumeirah Carlton Tower, Cadogan Place, London, SW1X 9PY

 

 

Sao Joao, Porto and the Do’uro River

Sao Joao fireworks in Porto from the Do'uro River.
Sao Joao fireworks in Porto from the Do’uro River.

“Look!” I shriek.  “The fireworks are flowing over the bridge like water!”  Bang, kerpow, splash!  This pyrotechnic display is not only colourful but very, very loud.

I had never seen such a spectacular fireworks display as the one I experienced in Porto to celebrate the festival of Sao Joao.  I couldn’t have had a better view point than being on board the MS Infante D’Enrique river vessel on the Do’uro River, jostling alongside all sorts of other fishing boats.

Do'uro River at night.
Do’uro River at night.

I was sailing with tour operator CroisiEurope on the Do’uro River 8 day itinerary and, by chance, the cruise began on the day of the famous St. John the Baptist Festival (23 June).  The festivities start at sundown with locals setting up long tables for sardine and pork dinners…all washed down with beer or wine.  It is an old medieval festival that has been going on for six hundred years but the partying is bang up to date…including massive tents with singers and bands lining the banks of the river.  And all ending with an enormous firework display.

View from the Mateus House in Vila Real
View from the Mateus House in Vila Real

Porto is a spectacular city during the day as well as at night, boasting ancient neighbourhoods full of narrow streets juxtaposed with enormous monuments, castles and cathedrals.  Cross over the spectacular Ponte D. Luis I (bridge) to the other side of the river for wineries and eateries, all offering the very famous Port wine made from the varietals that have been produced here for centuries.  In fact, the Do’uro River Valley, is the oldest wine appellation in the entire world.  And the city of Porto, along with the terraced vineyards all along the river were named an UNESCO world heritage site in 1996.

View from the Do'uro River
View from the Do’uro River

Two of the favourite places we visited along the Do’uro River was the Mateus House and Vila Real.  Vila Real is tiny, but interesting, and was the seat of a region that had many palatial manor houses. The manicured, landscaped gardens of the Mateus House were some of the more beautiful I have seen.  The orchards and vineyards were wonderful as well.

Two new friends, Cushla and Paul from New Zealand, exploring the manicured gardens of Mateus House
Two new friends, Cushla and Paul from New Zealand, exploring the manicured gardens of Mateus House

While in Vila Real my husband and I tried a pastry made from egg yolk in the shape of a rooster’s comb! I think it was named ovos moles.  Many of the country’s typical pastries were created in the monasteries during the Medieval period by nuns and monks and sold as a means of supplementing their incomes. The main ingredient for these pastries was egg yolks. Is it true that the medieval nuns used vast quantities of egg whites to stiffen their habits? If true, and not just myth, they may have then developed endless dessert recipes to use all those surplus yolks. The names of these desserts are usually related to monastic life or to the Catholic faith such as barriga de freira (nun’s belly), papos de anjo (angel’s chests), and toucinho do céu (bacon from heaven).

ovos moles, a dessert created and exclusively sold in Vila Real
ovos moles, a dessert created and exclusively sold in Vila Real

 

River cruise ship Infant D'Enrique
River cruise ship Infant D’Enrique

But the terraced vineyards are spectacular to view as you travel up the river.  I would thoroughly recommend a Do’uro River cruise especially for those with any interest in wine and history.

The River Do'uro
The River Do’uro

For more information www.visitportugal.com

To learn more about CroisiEurope river cruises visit www.croisieurope.co.uk