One marathon a year has been my target for the past few years; and last weekend was Venice marathon turn. The scenic run easily makes it to the most beautiful in my ranking. A memorable way to see Venice, a unique experience, however not one for great times, mostly due to the 14 bridges at the end, and if you are anything like me, the “OMG this is unreal” moment on Piazza San Marco will make you loose another few seconds, just gazing in disbelief!!! Continue reading Venice, the magic marathon
You can hear the rain pounding on the window and if you’re anything like me, your next thought is: when do I get to see the sun again? I could tell you to jet-off to Hawaii for the weekend, it would spare me a post but eyyy… maybe next year.
So were to go for a winter-sun quick fix? Continue reading Where should I go for a short winter-sun break?
Sicily is one of those places that just tick all the “romantic weekend” boxes in my book: the perfect weather, the abundant food, the powerful wines, the awe-inspiring views, the crystal clear water…
I’m just back from an otherworldly weekend to celebrate friends’ wedding, and as the excellent Italian blog Memorie di una Vagina puts it: “last weekend I went to a wedding in Sicily where I understood that Sicily is just like an excellent lover: as soon as you leave it, you want to go back and make love”
“Lo scorso weekend sono stata a un matrimonio in Sicilia e ho capito che la Sicilia è come un amante eccellente: appena se n’è andato hai voglia di rivederlo e di rifarci all’amore.” (translation is mine)
She’s absolutely right. When are we back again?
Sea side photos are mostly taken from the Capotaormina Atahotel where we had a fantastic relaxing time. Views are mixed, as a sea person, I just really enjoyed the view and multiple beach accesses, the sunset in the overflow swimming pool…that being said, some prefer being up the hills in the village to grasp more of the local atmosphere. (The Metropole was highly recommended by friends)
Views from the Greek theatre are spectacular, it can be either visited in the daylight, or rather, to see it alive, check performances organised in the evening during the summer season. From up there one has a wonderful view on the bay, the town and the volcano; a friend even managed to attend a performance where the opera music was “accessorizing” a stunning sunset and a lava eruption in the background…
With a car, it’s also possible to drive up to Castelmola and watch the bay from even higher up. The little village is smaller and less touristy but nevertheless fantastically picturesque.
Next time? (yes because there will be) other friends decided to cut the beach time short and go hiking up the Etna volcano, which sounds quite tough but worth it; although it would depend on the level of activity of the volcano as well I guess.
Now let’s get back to diet after the rather insane amount of food we just feast on if you please…
I was born in Normandy, and many years after having left the homeland for overseas pastures, it’s easy to forget how beautiful it all is. I enjoyed re-discovering the magical Mont St Michel, and sharing the experience.
Fun facts and history
The Mont is first and foremost known for its sacred and religious aspect, and the spectacular Abbey crowning it. As history puts it, in 709 the Archangel Michael appeared to a bishop and ordered him to build a sanctuary on the Mont.
With a thousand years of history, many legends, stories and poems have been writen about the Mont. Here is one, written by my absolute favourite Normand author, Guy de Maupassant; his legend of the quarrel between the devil and St Michel, is a delight:
Saint Michael watches over Lower Normandy, Saint Michael, the radiant and victorious angel, the sword-carrier, the hero of Heaven, the victorious, the conqueror of Satan.
But this is how the Lower Normandy peasant, cunning, deceitful and tricky, understands and tells of the struggle between the great saint and the devil.
(read the full legend in English here).
I saw a lot of journalist and blogs getting this wrong: the Mont St Michel is in Normandy, and it’s always been. When the Archangel alledgedly appeared in 709, under Charlemagne, the Mont was already belonging to the diocese of Avranche, Normandy. And more importantly, the Abbey was consequently built by Normand Benedictine monks in 966, at the request of the Duke of Normandy, and has been run by them ever since!
A couple more for the pub quiz:
– In 1067, the monastery of Mont-Saint-Michel gave its support to duke William of Normandy in his claim to the throne of England. It was rewarded with properties and grounds on the English side of the Channel, including a small island off the southwestern coast of Cornwall which was modeled after the Mount and became a Norman priory named St Michael’s Mount of Penzance.
– Repeatedly assaulted by the English during the Hundred Years’ War, the mount always resisted thanks to its state-of-the-art fortifications. The small island prospered as a pilgrimage destination until the 16th century.
– During the French revolution in 1792, when the church properties got seized, the Abbey was transformed into a prison.
– the Mont currently counts 43 inhabitants, mostly monks!
Do’s and don’ts
- The best season to travel there is surely late spring or summer, but even then, the weather can be very variable throughout the day so do dress in layers and pack a trench or waterproof rain coat.
- you’ll walk a lot and climb many stairs, that being said, it’s all on roads / path, so flats or light trainers are a safe choice
- The car park is a bit of a tourist trap and I had been well advised to avoid it, that’s how we stayed in a modest and lovely b&b where we could park (for free) and walk over to the Mont in 10min. This one next door also looked just as good, maybe more suited for longer stays.
- Remember that hotels on the Mont are expensive and don’t actually enjoy the view…
- Nothing has changed much since Victor Hugo was there either: I would still recommend to go for a nice meal on the mainland for the island is rather touristy and you might find “rotten fish in the middle of the sea” as he described.
- be aware that restaurants will close early in the evening (last order 9.30pm in most places). We stayed until sunset and pretty much had to skip dinner…
- do cross the bay, walking or on horseback…it’s recommended to do it with a guide as it can get dangerous
- do visit the Abbey, for the first time I had the chance to follow the evening path, lit for the summer…around 8/9pm is ideal as the sunset falls on the cloister…magical. Info here and there
For the foodies…
The Mont sits at the border between Brittany and Normandy and as a result you will find a lot of regional delicacies from both sides of the river.
I have previously confessed on this blog my love for cider (the sparkling alcoholic apple based beverage), and this time I even brought back home some Pommeau (aperitif based on cider and Calvados liquor). Enjoyed best with a caramel crêpe….yum
But the true local delicacy is the salt march lamb, called in French “agneau de pré-salés”. Because the area enjoys some of the strongest tides in the world, pastures sometimes get covered and soaked in sea water. The little lambs therefore graze in high salt content environment, giving the meat a distinctive (but not salty) flavour. It is a very refined dish that you may only find in high end restaurants, and normally only from end of June until Christmas.
Victor Hugo to his daughter Adele:
“J’étais hier au Mont-Saint-Michel. Ici, il faudrait entasser les superlatifs d’admiration, comme les hommes ont entassé les édifices sur les rochers et comme la nature a entassé les rochers sur les édifices. Mais j’aime mieux commencer platement par te dire, mon Adèle, que j’y ai fait un affreux déjeuner. Une vieille aubergiste bistre a trouvé moyen de me faire manger du poisson pourri au milieu de la mer. Et puis, comme on est sur la lisière de la Bretagne et de la Normandie, la malpropreté y est horrible, composée qu’elle est de la crasse normande et de la saleté bretonne qui se superposent à ce précieux point d’intersection.”
Around and away
We came from London via the ferry boat and my friend drafted the following itinerary for us with her favourite beaches and areas on the coast. Feel free to use it:
Another way to do it would be to start from Caen (accessible by train from Paris or by ferry boat) and combine your visit with the D-Day beaches and the WW2 memorial museum. For convenience I do recommend to rent a car from Caen or Cherbourg onward.
Note that FlyBe has also opened a London Southend / Caen line a few months ago.
Other resources and useful links:
Normandy Tourism website – well done and in English
Video on the Unesco website
Less than 2h away from London, this itinerary is the promise of a romantic countryside weekend, in SO British fashion; Prince Charles’ secluded lifestyle, glorious British architecture and scenic bike rides, on your doorstep. “Visit England ” is an advertisement you’re likely to have encountered if you commute in London; a serious push has recently been given to tourism in England and I can only emphasise their message after a picturesque weekend on the road navigating between Alice in Wonderland’s manor house, tea with Mr Darcy and magic tricks in New College cloister – I’ll break the suspense, I have not succeeded in changing my friends into a ferret – yet.
The May Day bank holiday weekend provided us with the perfect occasion, 3 / 4 days is ideal for a relaxing weekend away from the city. Be ready to step into a tale, you may find yourself taking notes or sketching houses!
It’s not one to plan on a shoestring though, England remains expensive and the cosy feeling of those places calls for boutique hotels and nice B&B. I would recommend renting a convertible car, packing fluffy jumpers and fine lingerie and heading out for a romantic escape.
If Bath has that strangely familiar feeling to it, it must be due to the amount of costume movies filmed there! Actually it’s quite fun to follow the tourism office’s movie map around town.
The city was built by the Romans around three natural hot mineral springs, that were the basis for the infamous therms. Bath’s status as a World Heritage Site was bestowed in recognition of its magnificent Georgian architecture.
The spa is a new built but the rooftop swimming pool nicely overlooks the old town and its green surrounding. The water springs out at 44 degrees and is then cooled down to 33, for comfort. We happily bubbled in for a good part of the afternoon until twilight. They accept no booking on Saturdays and I was told the queue can get a bit long (although we only waited for 15min), also last thing, take your flip flops.
I was longing for the high Tea in Jane Austen’s tea room but how disappointed was I when I got declined access for I had not booked…grrr. Next time.
We followed the Lonely Planet recommendation and went for dinner to The Circus and were not disappointed – book in advance, it’s busy.
Whether you want to walk, cycle or ride across this string of charming villages, it’s an ideal countryside postcard-perfect day amongst lambs, strolling from one charming pub to the next inviting inn.
Downton Abbey fans can hop by Bampton, I hear the Manor is even available for visit on certain days of the year but that should be planned well in advance.
Or followers of the Royals can move towards Tetbury, pay respect to Charles & Camilla‘s cottage in Highgrove.
My favourite village of all was probably Upper and Lower Slaughter with its mellow-stone manor houses from another time, undulating woods, formal gardens and parkland overlooking lake and sheep-grazed fields by a peaceful and unspoilt village, away from main roads…fab.
Sone gem hotels can be found along the way such as the Lord of the Manor with its Michelin-star restaurant…to celebrate an occasion or just stop for a beer.
for bicycle-riders, the Guardian published this useful little map, inspired by the escape route book: ” My favourite bike ride – the Cotswolds”
By now you must be sick of me saying “it’s such a fantastic place”, reminding me of films, books and oozing of royalty and history figures but really..but look at that. Churchill wasn’t born there for no reason.
Our visit was short and the enchanting gardens are huge! The good news is that day passes are convertible into annual passes for free so I’ll probably be back on sunny weekends this summer.
I don’t think I need to introduce Oxford. It actually seem I was the only Londoner left to visit the student-packed city. With over 22 thousands students from over a hundred different countries, split over 38 colleges….a quarter of its population are students!
We stayed at the Four Pillars and although I have nothing bad to say about it at all, but there’s such a large choice of nice and quirky accommodations in Oxford … way too enticing:
the refurbished cells of the Malmaison prison, ok the gardens are beautiful but personally I didn’t quite get the attraction though.
during the holidays, one can rent a dorm room and pretend they’re Harry Potter for the night (careful some can actually get expensive!)
Ok I won’t go on and on about fantastic secluded college courtyards, but if it was to do again, I’d go for the Mad Hatter high tea in Christ Church College, sitting in the Great Hall next to the dedicated stained glass window must be just unbelievable…and yum. (only available on certain Tuesdays….)
Films & books
The Duchess – or Keira Knighley in the role of the 18th Century socialite, Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, partly filmed in Bath and the surroundings. Sadly still modern.
Northanger Abbey – Jane Austin’s first book. I got my hand on a nice and free audiobook version but really I was after a version read by local actors, that would screams Oxfordshire, let me know!! (like this version of Alice in Wonderland for example)
I used a the new version of google map to plan my trip that I then amended once back; click on the thumbnail below to use it.
and now tell me, is it just me who feels like the Countess of Dowager is going to come out of one of those little churches anytime?
hurrah we passed Valentines’s time and its lot of heart-shape Krispy creme and 50-stomething bearded men holding balloons (dear please please no), but fact is, London is rather romantic, ALL YEAR ROUND!! a couple of ideas for a long weekend
this article is a follow up on the summer version of this post
# 1 : Brunch, Afternoon High-Tea and GastroPub dinner – indulge with comfort food
When the weather goes chilly a cosy warm up is de rigueur, my favourite afternoon tea award goes to the Sketch : a very stylish, Michelin-star place, with a large collection of flavoured teas and lovely finger food….what else do you need?
Alternative options: recover from any hangover after a long and boozy night out with The breakfast club brunch, that now counts 5 locations, the Smith of Smithfield (and their Spitalfield sister that will reopen in March) , or the Hawksmoor full English breakfast where you can easily feed a young elephant .
There’s quite a few fabulous chimney warmed cosy gastro-pubs in London where you can watch the snowfall (or the rain poor but it sounds less glam), Time Out is always there to help.
#2: Culture, Music and other things to do
For guaranteed brownie points with a girl, you could check out what’s on at the Royal Albert hall or the the Royal Opera; with a little bit of organisation and advance-booking you could bag a top quality performance at relatively affordable prices. Tip: for best value, pick any of the amphitheatre seats, they all have quality views.
Alternative options: Jazz night & dinner at Rooney Scotts in Soho, ballet at the English National Opera, modern dance at the Sadler’s Well in Angel
Ice-skating in a magical location is slightly cliché but still, a rather cool date, you’ll fall, laugh, and warm up with a hot-chocolate after-wile. From November to January, pre-book at the styli Sommerset house (central) , the classic Tower of London (East) or the west-based Natural History Museum, and avoid the crowds of the Winter Wonderland fair.
London is simply beautiful by itself and in the winter, when sunset comes early you could take advantage of a dry day if any, to go walking around. From Sloane square to South Bank for example, watching the sunset on Embankment bridge.
#3 : No romantic weekend without some cuddling
My favourite cinema in the whole world goes to the Aubin, THE Shoreditch based maxi-hipster cuddly place. Faaaaaaaa-bulous Sundays.
Alternative options: The Electric cinema – get the front row double beds. Or for a different kind of cinema experience, pretty unique to London, you could check what’s on at the Future Cinema, even though I think they’re recently become way too steep.
#4: Do things together will bring you closer
Fine, Sauna and Spa are a little bit cheesy as a romantic time for two, but yet it’s a marvellous. Always check out what’s on offers before you book. I recently tried those 2 and it was fantastic. at the Chelsea Club, ask for a Japanese bath. The St Pancras hotel spa has luxurious”journeys to …”, I don’t know if I came out of there “firm, purified, enlivened, from the nape of the neck to the tips of my toes” but definitely came out of there with numb legs.
Why not learn something new? like how to make a cocktail, a.k.a. a socially acceptable way to have cocktails on a Saturday mid-afternoon. I have no problem with that. The London Cocktail club have a good beginner overview course, but that lacks a little bit of hand-on practise. Someone’s whispering to my ear that Harvey Nicholls’ bar actually has great master-classes.
#5: the WOW factor
how could would it be to go Start gazing at the Royal Observatory, on the meridian zero? get on their mailing list or keep checking the website for new event
For other good views of the city you can try the National Portrait gallery Restaurant with a view after, you could plan it following an exhibition, after the Thursdays / Fridays late opening.
and the 2nd part of the evening? I would favour a speakeasy type of place over a club. You two can chat over a delicious Manhattan (sorry! meant London dry gin!). The Savoy’s Beaufort Bar has basically invented London cocktails, with their signature over-the-top impeccable service; however my favourite remains the Calloh Callay at the heart of Shoreditch for their unbeatable friendly atmosphere (booking essential Thursday-Saturday).
London can be quite romantic. Those of us who have the privilege to live here sometimes forget…. a foreign friend of mine recently asked me for help organizing a romantic weekend for two…a few ideas below
My top 5 things to do on a summery weekend in London with your special someone:
# 1: Brunch, Pimm’s o’clock and al-fresco dinners – beware, British food included!
On a sunny Sunday afternoon for a jug of Pimm’s, The Dicken’s inn on St Katherine’s docks is my favourite place. It’s got a nice terrace and you could include a stopover in your stroll along the marina and the Thames hand in hand…West side of London, the Ship Inn is also a good alternative place to sip along the river, but less easy to reach by common transport.
Feeling trendier? Put on your hipster shirt and over-sized shades, go have a lunch at the boundary rooftop. Don’t be afraid, there is a little bit of queuing on sunny days to do but it’s worth it. On Sundays only, the nearby Flower Market is open until about 4pm; then carry on to Brick Lane (ladies -if you have something for vintage items, this is paradise land) you could keep on partying until late.
Another sunny afternoon “so British” option is to throw a little garden party and high tea at the castle, as you do… The Orangerie of Kensington Palace opens in the summer for a flurry of scones and clotted cream in the park. Princess Diana enjoyed it, you will too!
#2: Culture, Music and other things to do
Summer days bring plenty of music festivals, sport and cultural event with them : Wimbledon in July, British Summer Music Festival, LoveBox, Shoreditch Festivals, BBC Proms…I would recommend checking the Time Out website for the list of current event, it’s the easiest to navigate through.
The Somerset house is a spectacular 18th century building on the Thames bank, it host 51 fountains in the summer, outdoor cinema session, a gorgeous art gallery with a large impressionism private collection (The Courtauld Gallerie)
Another nice outdoor cinema session would be the rooftop at the Queen of Hoxton
Shakespeare’s Globe theatre , stand up tickets are cheap and even the seated one are not quite comfortable but you will get a top quality performance in the exact replica of the original theatre which is frankly unique. You can bring your own nibbles or finish with diner at the Swan next door with a stunning view on the Millenium bridge and St Paul’s (ask for a window table)
#3: markets and parks
London has more green space than any other capital, let’s enjoy it!
The Kew Gardens are the Royal Botanic Gardens; no, England is not only the home of perfectly mown green lawn!
tip from a reader (thanks!): go to the Kew garden by ferry boat,starting from Westminster peer, it takes about 1h -ish, depending on the tide. A must on a sunny day
Explore the summer roundhouse beach in Camden. It’s the closest thing to a city beach. You could also hop on a train and go kite surfing in Camber Sands or strolling on the Brigton peer but that’s off topic.
#4: do stuff together will bring you closer…they say
Go doing things together, go running and enjoy London – proven that it’ll make your couple last longer. Why not try?
Go jogging: any park is good, try and finish with the run by Parliament hill or Primrose (easier) for a nice view, cross Waterloo bridge; or my absolute favourite, finish your run with a coffee at the Towpath or at the Pavilion café.
For non runners, you could also take Barclays bikes or get on a boat on the canal and finish with a walk in Camden.
Swimming outdoor in lidos: London fields lido has the advantage of being in a park where barbecues are authorised and next to the lovely Broadway market. Tooting bec is a second lovely option but a bit further.
More ideas? why don’t you discover London’s monuments or night life through a lens and participate in a photo walking course? there are plenty on sales on Groupon or Time Out generally. For sports fan, London is a great place to enjoy cricket, rugby and football matches
#5: the WOW factor
We had a discussion with friends about good first date places for Londoners, and those places definitely don’t make it to our top-first-date list; but if you’re a tourist, are planning to propose, or for a splash it out factor, you could book a capsule in the London Eye (This advice shouldn’t apply to Londoners in any circumstance, please), or a table at the vertigo, or sushi samba if you’ve been planning your trip for a good 3 month in advance (or you could just show up at the bar without booking, just avoid Friday / Saturday night crowds).
For other good views of the city you could check out the recently open Oblix at the Shard, I haven’t tasted it yet but was told the food is decent.
Finally? Go party! put those sky-high heels and mini skirt to use and head out to the Kensington Roof Garden; don’t be surprised, clubs in London close at 3am but I would recommend going a bit earlier that what you may be used to (aim for 1030pm / 11pm). Enjoy.
something to (re-)read before leaving? Harry Potter, yes it’s modern pop culture, and it really puts me in the mood for exploring the “secret” London (I’m still looking for Diagon alley, I’ll let you know when I get there)
a film to watch before leaving? yes, in the context of that post, it has to be Notting Hill, but no, that doesn’t give you a free pass to make silly pictures at my tube stop in the evening (just joking…or maybe not)
in your headphones? it’s a romantic post so I’m going to say Adele, but also The Beatles and Ed Sheeran (cauz he’s got cute freckles). Britain’s pop music is the best, not to be confused with Britain’s cuisine.
all of the above on a map:
More resources: with those 3, you should have it covered
Just booked two week in Tuscany in June! after a time-consuming benchmarking exercise comparing different language schools in Firenze, Milano, Roma etc etc, I finally opted for Viareggio. For the past few years, I have enjoyed participating in the LSE summer language classes, it’s a nice way to meet people and to get a serious kick-start to a new language. But this year, after having followed the Italian Cultural Institute weekend courses, I felt like I deserved a treat: a new language yes, but while enjoying the sun, beach-runs, & local wines….that’s about as good as language-acquisition gets!
I have a love & hate relationship with languages, as a teenager, the first holidays I worked the whole summer to finance was a full time Spanish immersion in Barcelona; when I arrived in London, I signed up straight away for speech improvement classes; and generally, the more I travel and work surrounded by people coming from various horizons, the more I want to learn to speak to them in their native speech. But speaking languages is at the same time extremely gratifying and unbearably frustrating. As fluent as one will become, it’s a never-ending process, what’s worse: one has to constantly fight against their own memory, which is – perversely – trying to off-load and forget as much as it can…
a friend recently told me his 10 years-retired mum, despite her career as an English teacher, couldn’t speak to his American wife, for she has forgotten most of it! Can’t blame the Brits for hating languages….
PS: for Italian-as-a-second-language speakers, any easy good audio-books to recommend? (pls not Harry Potter)