Category Archives: travel

Critabianca, Cutrofiano

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During the second half of our time in Puglia, we stayed in a farmhouse (“masseria”) in the small town of Cutrofiano.  Set on seven acres and built in the 1700s, Critabianca has been beautifully restored by a delightful family from Torino and opened it’s doors in 2016.

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Throughout Puglia several masserie were built in the 1700s, often by the wealthy and arisocrats.  Over time, many were abandoned.  But with the growth of tourism in Puglia, many have been restored and turned into boutique bed and breakfast accommodation. What I loved about Critabianca was that it felt private and tranquil, yet it is cleverly located making it an easy drive to much of what we wanted to do and see. And Roberto, Roberta, Nicoletta and Alessandro will do everything possible to make sure you have a lovely stay. How gorgeous is the front door!

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The six rooms feel tranquil and luxurious with lovely antique pieces throughout mingling with modern requirements.  You can see hints of the original frescoes on the carefully scraped back walls.  Our family room (note children over 11 years only) was very spacious and comfortable, with a large outdoor terrace. And the pool was great for a refreshing dip after our days of sightseeing and exploring.

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Around the pretty grounds, you’ll find plums and figs, which Roberta turns into gorgeous jams for breakfast, and plenty of olive trees.   Breakfast is served in an outdoor courtyard on beautiful locally made ceramics. As well as making the jam, Roberta sets her own yoghurt, and Roberto is a dab hand at focaccia and cakes. The bread, cheese and eggs are from down the road, and I also had some of the best ricotta I’ve ever tasted. One morning we devoured a juicy melon, and not long after we saw Moussa, the cook, go out to the garden and grab another one.  Yes, the breakfast is about as fresh as it gets.

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Cutrofiano town itself is small, but on Wednesdays there is a good size local market with food, homewares and clothes.   You could put together a nice lunch.  The olive guy, bread and cheese guy were doing a roaring trade, and in another truck the chooks being slowly roasted smelt delicious.

Having seen a taste of beautiful ceramics in Grottaglie, I’d heard that in Cutrofiano town there was a large ceramics studio called Fratelli Coli.  And this is where much of Critabianca’s ceramics at the breakfast table are sourced.  There are huge outdoor pots and lots of beautiful homewares (I tried to take some photos inside but they said no).  We bought some fantastic oversized coffee mugs here, some small trays and the Small People also bought Pomi, the Puglian good luck charm.

We really enjoyed our stay here with this lovely family.

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Critabianca, Cutrofiano http://critabianca.com/en/
Fratelli Coli, Cutrofiano https://www.coliweb.com/en-gb/home

Matera and Alberobello – UNESCO World Heritage sites

A short drive from where we were staying in Monopoli is the town of Alberobello. Alberobello has always fascinated me and been on my visit wish list for a long time.  I’m intrigued by the fact that these unique conical structures, trulli, appeared in this one area and nowhere else in Italy.  You’ll see the occasional trulli (trullo for singular?) in a field somewhere when you are driving around, but Alberobello is a concentrated town of them, with over 1,000 trulli.

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Folklore has it that originally the trulli were built without mortar for the purpose of disassembly when the tax collector came around, as tax had to be paid on permanent structures.  If this is true, then the Italian penchant for tax evasion goes back very far indeed.  These days they are all permanent structures, many turned into shops, some into hotels, though some are still individual homes. I just love the uniqueness and gorgeousness of it.  It was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996.

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We came across the workshop of these two gentlemen who were making small replica trulli by hand.  Some were out of random stone and then painted, but some were made out of actual trulli stone.  One of the Small People was particularly enchanted by Alberobello and used some of his trip pocket money to buy one.  Once home, the trulli were used for a design project assignment he had at school.

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We went in the morning and found it ok – apparently it does get quite busy and crowded from lunchtime onwards.

While in Puglia we also drove to the neighbouring region of Basilicata to visit Matera, another UNESCO World Heritage site.  The drive was about an hour and fifty minutes, allowing for a little confusion from our GPS; she wasn’t having a great day that day. But the roads were good and it was a pleasant drive.  It is fairly inland so was about 8 degrees (Celsius) hotter than the Puglia coast – so again a morning visit is recommended and I was glad that we had set off early. It is also quite hilly and needs a good amount of walking so a fitness test as well as a cultural eye opener.

So what is special about Matera?  After Petra in Jordon, it is believed to be the second longest continuously habited place in the world.  But it’s not only this, it’s the fact that the homes of the town – or rather caves –  were carved into the limestone rock.  The Passion of the Christ and Ben Hur were both filmed here.

The extraordinary church at the top dominates the landscape and a walk up there is inevitable.

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One of the homes had been replicated as per the 1700s.  It was quite fascinating to hear about how they lived; we could certainly learn a thing or two about waste which was hugely frowned upon.  Large families (six or more children was not uncommon) lived in these small spaces, some of them even housing animals, largely horses, which would be a source of warmth in the winter.  The horse excrement would go down a hole, which was also used to create heat.  If a plate cracked, it was repaired rather than thrown out.  And at mealtimes the entire family would eat out of one large platter.  While each family would prepare their own bread dough, it would be taken to a central baking spot for all to be cooked, each family having their own unique stamp so their loaf could be recognised.

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There are also a few churches scattered throughout.

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Throughout the 1900s, Matera was known for extreme poverty and also disease so the government gradually re-housed many of the inhabitants.  Gradually the area was re-generated, and people began to move back in.  Like Alberobello, in the 1990’s it was named a World Heritage site, attracting tourism and helping the area’s revival.

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We really enjoyed both of these special places.

 

Puglia, part 2

Something you’ll see a lot of in Puglia is olive trees.  Everywhere.  Some really young, and some, revealed by their oversized, gnarled,  and intricately twisted trunks, really really old.  The oldest ones, clocking up some 3,000 years, are deemed archaeological monuments.  We passed a sign saying “olivari monumentali” (monumental olives) – I guessed some of those ones were there.  Anyhow, it turns out that Puglia is Italy’s biggest olive oil producer, cranking out some forty percent of the nation’s production, explaining their dominance in the landscape.

Something you’ll also see as you drive around Puglia is a multitude of towns you want to stop at or unusual buildings. “Stop the car!” I’d yell at the marito, which sometimes got a positive result, and sometimes didn’t.  Oh for more time.  So many more places to go back and see.  This little town, from a distance, looked like some kind of Disney fortress holding a princess.  Not as much close up, but I want to see what is behind those walls next time.

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Once we checked out of Don Ferrante in Monopoli, we had a few hours before we were due at our masseria, Critabianca.  I thought it was the perfect opportunity to detour to Grottaglie, a town renowned for it’s ceramics.  The Fasano family, the best known studio, have been in operation since the 1700’s.  There was plenty to like as we wandered from studio to studio, a few little things we bought home and others we bookmarked with photos – they happily ship to Australia.  By the way they all shut down at 1pm for the afternoon siesta, so do come in the morning or after 5pm and stay for dinner.   After a wander we headed to Cutrofiano where our beautiful farmhouse awaited (post on that coming soon!).

The next morning we headed to Grotta Zinzalusa.  The photos here completely understate the magnificence of this rock formation.  You can go in the cave for a wander, or hire an umbrella and chair for a day, or just lay your town on rocks and some did and jump into the sea from there.

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But we were after a sandy beach and headed further to Baia dei Turchi (Bay of the Turks).  You park your car and then walk a few hundred meters through thickish foliage down a narrow path, eventually emerging to a large stretch of sandy beach with a bit of wave.  There are chairs and umbrellas for hire, but a large public stretch if you prefer not to.  Beautifully clean and very enjoyable.

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That night we headed to the nearby small town of Galatina.  Like almost every Italian town, there is a piazza of sorts.  This one has some pretty greenery and lots of benches, where armies of Nonnos were gathered for a post siesta chat.  I came here to try the pasticciotti at Pasticceria Ascalone, the supposed inventor of the treasured Puglian sweet, back in the 1700’s.  And the pasticceria has been owned by the same family all this time, handed down generation after generation.  And it was a damn fine pasticciotto, but my favourite was still the one at the Gran Forno Santa Caterina.

We asked the lady behind the counter where we could head for a pizza, and she sent us to a place nearby called Goji.  I was a little dubious with a name like that, but it was great food with an even better ebullient owner who made us feel so welcome.  The Small People demolished everything.   There were also some expert dough throwing skills on display.

One night we went for a wander in the town of Nardo’, where we ate at a pleasant trattoria who’s name escapes me (and there was a great gelato shop and pasticceria nearby too).  Here I had to have orecchiette with cime di rapa (chicory), a signature dish of the region.  But this one came with some beautiful silky burrata which balanced out the bitterness.

We stopped by Santa Maria di Leuca, the very bottom tip of Puglia.  It’s a pretty little town too with some luxe day beds to spend the day if you like.

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But we were headed to Pescoluse, a lovely stretch of coastline.  It’s a large sandy beach where you can walk and walk quite far out, the water remaining shallow.  We relaxed here quite happily.

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That evening we headed to Otranto, another seaside town.  There is a huge castle and some lovely churches, but the laneways were very crowded and it was the one place I found rather touristy with an overload of gift and food shops and spruikers out the front.  I’m sure there are some good places to eat here but I think you need to do your homework beforehand.

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So we hopped back in the car and headed to the town of Maglie where we stopped at Il Fusticino.  The Small People happily devoured pizza daily, whereas my standard order was whatever fresh seafood pasta was available, not yet over the fact that I could get a pasta with a generous amount of seafood for 10-12 euro.   After dinner we popped in at the pasticceria next door (completing my daily pasticciotto fix) and handed over an embarrassingly small sum of money for four sweets.

I did really like Gallipoli (yes Italy has one too) a charming fishing village.   There was a seafood market here where the fish was so fresh that most of it was still alive.   Plenty of lanes and buildings to wander here, restaurants and cafes and market stalls. We stopped at a hole in the wall which was part deli and part bakery, where several locals were packed in buying stuff to take home for lunch.  We figured it had to be good and squeezed in to get some panzerotti.  So good.

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Lecce, often called “the Florence of the south” was also on our visit list.  Though our time here was shorter than we wanted with the GPS sending us around in dreadful circles.  Near the large piazza you’ll find some Roman style ruins, a castle or two (castles are du jour in Puglia, no town is complete without one), a lovely park, a good bit of shopping, and sweet shop after sweet shop!  The tools made from chocolate were very cool indeed.

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For dinner we went to Trattorie Le Zie.  This was one of those places where the simple appearance of the food totally belies it’s taste.   Absolutely delicious.    I finally ordered a “tiella” which is another local dish of baked mussels, rice and potatoes (I had tried to make thiss before our trip and failed miserably) which was just so flavoursome, I did email them and ask for the recipe but didn’t have any luck.  I must try and make this dish again.

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It was unfortunately at the end of our stay when we discovered the beautiful Melendugno coast.  The stretch here from Sant Andrea to San Foca is gorgeous, which beach after beach and stunning rock formations.   The area around Grotta della Poesia (Poetry Grotto) is particularly beautiful.

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Here you’ll see lots of mad Italians jumping off a cliff several stories high into the grottos (there is a smaller one for the less adventurous!).

More Puglia to come!

Puglia, part 1

Age. History. It surrounds you in the heel of Italy’s “boot”. The stone – on the floors, walls, ceilings, and paths – the castles, the churches. Modern and shiny would look very out of place here.

I’ve wanted to come to Puglia for some time now – the food, the architecture, the food, the beaches, oh and did I mention the food? It delivered on all fronts, and then some. We already know we’re coming back.

And people were so very kind. We have a few Pay It Forwards outstanding. One night when we got a flat tyre, a man and his son, and then a friend, came and helped us and walked away with a wave before we barely had time to thank them. At a beach, when I realised I’d run out of cash and there were no ATM’s nearby, the gentleman at the umbrella counter gave us an umbrella and said not to worry about it. On a pitstop to get the Small People some lunch at a bar in a pretty town, the credit card machine wasn’t working, and the guy behind the bar said no problem, feed the boys, come back and pay me later.

Tourism is a relatively new thing here, really only emerging in the last ten years. And then, most of the tourists seemed to be Italians from other regions – we heard comparatively few foreign voices. I suspect the next then years will be very different, as the word is spreading about this southern jewel.

Tips on visiting Puglia

If you’re thinking about this lovely part of Italy, here are a few tips

– Puglia has two international airports, Bari and Brindisi, which have direct daily flights from several European cities, mostly serviced by discount airlines. British Airways does fly to Bari and Brindisi from Gatwick, but only on certain days. Depending on where you base yourself (see below), it may be more convenient to use one airport or the other to minimise long driving times. We flew into Bari and out of Brindisi.

– If you plan to explore, you will need to hire a car. There are some trains and buses but it will take you a long time to get to sites. The roads are quite good, but some of the speed limits and road signs are shall we say for “guidance” purposes only. Also in many of the towns you cannot park right in the historic centre, so will need to park a few streets away. Where parking is ticketed, it is pretty cheap, €1 an hour or in some cases 60 cents an hour

– Have some mobile data and google maps at the ready. The in car GPS is broadly fine but does not cope well with some of the more rural roads, especially the Strade Provinciale (“provincial roads”) in the bottom half. It would sometimes tell us to turn left into a non existent road or send us down a complete dead end.

– It can be tricky to know where to base yourself if you don’t want to do too much driving. If you opt for instance for pretty Polignano a Mare or Monopoli, then it’s an easy drive to places like Alberobello or Bari, but a hike to places like Lecce and Gallipoli. Likewise if you opt for the coastline down the bottom half, then pack a picnic lunch for Alberobello and surrounds. We solved this by splitting our stay between the “top half” and “bottom half” which worked really well.

– Credit cards are fine, in fact Amex was much more widely excepted than in Australia (and never did I encounter a credit card surcharge like here). You will need some cash for your €1.50 scoop of gelato, or your €1 espresso or for parking meters – I could never get my credit cards to work on parking meters – and for market stalls.

– The afternoon siesta tradition is still in full swing down here so a lot shuts between 1pm and 5pm. Most restaurants don’t open for dinner until 7.30/8.00pm.

– Beaches are either a “spiaggia publica” (public beach) or a Lido (organised beach). At a Lido you pay anywhere up to €30 per day for an umbrella and a chair whether you stay one hour or ten, though down at Pescoluse it was €5 an umbrella and €3 a chair for the whole day. The beaches here aren’t pebbles like much of Italy, they are either sandy or large rock formations.

– There are very few large hotels in Puglia. Accommodation is largely smaller boutique hotels, bed and breakfasts, or “masserie”, old restored farmhouses, typically with six rooms or less (have a look at the lovely one we stayed at here). So if you’re like us an need a family room or two rooms, and you have your eye on a particular place or area in peak season, do book ahead. Some places were booked out six months ahead.

Places to see

Monopoli
This was our base for the first half. What a charming seaside town with a very pretty historic centre, fishing boats, cafes and restaurants, bed and breakfasts and small hotels. It’s a very “house proud” town and the centre is beautifully maintained with lovely potted plants and flowers. In the mornings sometimes there would be a smattering of cigarette buts from those strolling the evening before, and out would come the nonnas with their brooms.

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There is also a small public beach with lovely sparkling water. There was a sandy area but plenty would just sit or lie on the rocks.

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We had some lovely dinners here too after venturing out exploring all day. The best pizza in town was at La Dolce Vita in the piazza with a light crust and excellent cheese. Here I also had an absolutely fantastic pasta dish of squid ink orecchiette with fresh tuna, baby peppers and breadcrumbs, one of the best pasta dishes I’ve ever eaten; once the others on the table tried it, I almost had to fight them for it. Gorgeous fresh seafood too.

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We also really enjoyed Il Guazetto, a small restaurant in one of the smaller streets. My homemade spaghetti with seafood was full of fresh scampi, crab, and prawns and just so tasty. The fritto misto wasn’t far behind.

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At Piazza Palmieri a highlight was the mixed seafood plate. We couldn’t believe what came out for €13. It was huge, and beautifully cooked.

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The pasta dishes were good, but not as good as what we’d had elsewhere.

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At every restaurant when we sat down we would get a basket of taralli, a Puglian munch. Feathery light and crunchy, these were very moreish.

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I loved the bakery in the piazza, Gran Forno Santa Caterina. Lovely biscuits, taralli, focaccia and more.

Now I know Pasticceria Ascalone in Galatina is famous for its pasticciotti, and I tried theirs along with several others, but this bakery’s pasticciotti were my favourite. Their pasta frolla (pastry) had a texture and taste that won me over.

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They also sold deli goods and beer (we couldn’t believe how cheap the beer was, and then we went to the supermarket and saw that you could get a three pack for 1.50. Love those little fresh cubes of yeast, wish we had them here!

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There’s also other entertainment, like the occasional triathlon.

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In one alleyway there was an elderly gentleman’s workshop. Where he was making boats.  I’m not sure where the boats ended up as it wasn’t a shop.  He’d sit at his workbench working by hand, then shuffle over to some hand operated machinery, then shuffle back to his bench.  I wanted to chat to him but he didn’t look keen on interruption!

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Monopoli Accommodation
We stayed at Don Ferrante, a lovely small boutique hotel in the historic centre. They had a great sized family room (though they only take children over age 11) and beautiful stone interiors. There was a dipping pool which was good for a refresh before dinner. There is a rooftop balcony, but they only serve dinner there, breakfast is served in the basement.

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Polignano a Mare
Polignano is a ten or fifteen minute drive from Monopoli and lovely for a wander, or to stay. Like Monopoli, there are no big hotels but small boutique ones and B&Bs. It has a stunning ragged coastline, and like Monopoli a pretty historic town centre. There is a gorgeous cove with a public beach.

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Grotte di Castellana
After a dip in the Polignano beach, we hop back in the car and see the sign for the Grotte di Castellana. We weren’t sure what kind of caves were there but thought we would check it out. There aren’t a lot of people around and the lady at the ticket counter tells us there’s a group leaving in about two minutes for an Italian speaking tour (there are two or three English tours a day). You can’t wander in on your own but only with a guide; there is a shorter one hour walk or the standard 1 hour 45 walk, which is about 3.4 kilometres.

Well, were we blown away. These caves are rather amazing, though hard to get good photos without a top of the line camera I think with the lighting, so my photos don’t reflect just how amazing it was. These formations are believed to be as much as 90 million years old, though the caves were not discovered until 1938. The guide tells us that the stalactites grow one centimetre every 80 years! The extraordinary opening is eerily called “The Graves” but is often referred to as a “natural pantheon”, reflecting the famous Roman building. Don’t miss this if you are in the area.

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Bari
For some reason Bari gets a bad wrap, and you’ll often get told to skip it if you’re heading to Puglia. It may be because of the history of high crime, and I don’t know if it is different at night, but it was perfectly fine during the day and a really lovely waterside city. It of course has a castle, which seems to be a pre-requisite for every town in Puglia, but there’s a good shopping area too with lots of Italian and international brands, and plenty of restaurants and cafes.

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The Small People feel like their go-to Puglia snack, panzerotti, and we see some nice looking ones in a hole in the wall where an old man is standing behind the counter. One of the boys says he feels like arancini and the old guy yells out “Maria, do we have any arancini?”. “We do”, yells back his wife, “give me five and I’ll cook some”. For ten euro we have panzerotti, focaccia and arancini; nourished we continue exploring.

Of course we had to stop by “Nonna Alley” in Arco Alto in the historic area where the Nonnas are making orecchiette and cavatelli at unbelievable speed. Often they are working out in the alley, but it’s quite hot so many of them opt for in doors, and they are quite happy to chat when I stick my head through the door and ask if we can watch for a bit. They sell a lot of what they make to local restaurants, though some of the Nonnas will cook you lunch for whatever you negotiate! While I’m chatting to two of them a man walks in who usually brings them cime di rapa (chicory). They take a look at it and shoo him away, telling him it’s not good enough today. Its very cool to watch and I hope their daughters and granddaughters learn the art (I did try and tell them they should also teach their grandsons but this suggestion got an eye roll).  These women are national treasures!

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More Puglia to come in the next post!

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London

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Did I ever mention that I’m a bit of a rewards points junkie? I accumulate points every chance I can, hoarding them specifically for long haul travel every few years. And here we are, leaving the single digit Sydney winter morning temperatures behind, stepping into an unusual stretch of glorious twenty eight degree blue sky days in central London. “A heat wave” the UK press was calling it.

I hadn’t been to London for some years, and previous trips had been work related. I’d forgotten what the crowds are like. People think Sydney is getting crowded, we have nothing on these throngs. A friend I caught up with who had moved here from Sydney nine months earlier said that the crowds and congestion was one of the most difficult things to get used to.

With such lovely days we mostly walked rather than doing the underground, clocking up some 65km in four days. We saw, we shopped, we ate. But if you’re like The Marito and I, and need to start your day with a coffee, be prepared for some sticker shock. Coffee pricing was a bit of an anomaly. Our morning flat white was typically £4.50 (almost $9 Australian). Whereas you could get a pastry at Selfridges for £2, a takeaway sandwich at Marks and Spencer for as little at £1.30, a tasty ham and cheese baguette for £3.30 or two eggs on toast at a café for £6.50.

Sights and things to do

Tate Modern
One of the wonderful things about London is all the free museums, with a voluntary donation. Only special exhibitions require a paid ticket. I was really looking forward to the Tate Modern (there is also the Tate Britain) and with just cause. Walking around and seeing Dali, Warhol, Picasso, Magritte, Kandinsky and the like was a real privilege. We all loved it.

As is often the case with modern art, it can be controversial and prone to a few WTF moments. The Marito saw a white triangle hanging on the wall and thought it looked like something our builder had cut out at the reno site. And the smear of plaster looked courtesy of our gyprocker. A display on the floor of what looked like a series of poo perhaps was – when I read the description it said it was a reflection of “organic matter”.

It’s a fabulous art museum, don’t miss it.

The British Museum
This was hands down one of the most impressive history museums I have ever been to. Again, free entry. I had organised a “treasure hunt” through THAT Muse (Treasure Hunt At The Museum). The lovely Daisy met us at the entry and gave us a great museum overview and introduction, and then gave us the treasure hunt we had selected and the rules. It was really good fun finding the pieces on our hunt – we paired up in twos, and if there is another family on the hunt at the same time you can compete with them. It was an entertaining way to see the museum. They also do hunts at the V&A and the Louvre.

Hamleys
It’s sad that the iconic FAO Schwartz in New York closed down. Hamleys is the London version and great entertainment – multiple floors of fun, live product demos and cool displays. They have a lot of their own unique branded products as well as major brands. One of the Small People walked away with a giant BB8, who we hauled with us on the rest of our trip. He’s now safely esconced in Australia.

Kensington Gardens
We had a wander through the expansive Kensington Gardens, amused that many Brits not coping with the “heat wave” were lying in the park on towels with half their gear off. You pass all the cottages where the various royals and staff live before getting to Kensington Palace, where you can buy tickets to see a few rooms. On the day we were there it was Princess Diana’s birthday, and people had started putting flowers and tributes.

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Changing of the guard

It is one to tick off in London but it does move rather slowly and if you haven’t read up on how it works you have no idea what’s going on. We went up to the Victoria Monument to see it, which gave us freedom to move around and see the various troupes coming from various directions. I would have loved to have done a Buckingham Palace tour but it is only open for certain weeks of the year.

And here’s London’s nicest (camera shy) policeman – so incredibly polite, and also patient with the hoards of people that were asking him for directions.

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Borough Market
What a wonderful market! There’s a great variety of bread, pastries, fruit, meals to go, and lots of taste testing on offer. You could definitely come for breakfast our lunch. Some days of the week are only a “half market” so do try and catch the full market if you can.

I was really keen to go to Westminster Abbey, but the line was enormous.  If there is a “skip the line” ticket option, go that route.  We also wandered over to Big Ben but that was scaffolded for work, and Trafalgar Square was largely closed off too.  We had also planned a wander to Covent Garden but ran out of time.

The food halls
All the big department stores have food halls, usually in the basement or ground floor, where you can buy groceries but also sandwiches, salads, rotisserie items and ready meals. At the more “everyday” end is Marks and Spencer which we popped into quite a bit at lunch. The Small People, going through a teenage growth spurt, currently have hollow legs. They have almost reverted to newborn status, needing feeding every 2-3 hours, and we would regularly stop in for food on our walkabouts.

The next level up is Selfridges, who’s bakery and chocolate halls are impressive.

But the Harrods food hall is another level entirely, with luxe and incredible displays. At the caviar bar, where not a single seat was free, a quick menu scan showed prices starting at £44 and going up to £790.

Shopping
Oxford Street is a huge shopping strip, a good few kilometres on both sides to occupy you, same with Regent Street. You can also veer off into bits like Molton Lane which has some nice stores. There are all the big name brands you’d expect as well as some great British brands I’m partial to. Shops are generally open from 10am and close at 9pm, except for Sundays where it is more like 12pm to 6pm.

Breakfasts

Duck and Waffle
If you can’t be bothered queuing up for the London Eye, Duck and Waffle on level 40 of the Heron Tower in Bishopgate gives some sweeping views of London. Open 24/7 there is a pretty cool bar and a sit down restaurant, which we tried for breakfast. I had their signature duck & waffle dish and the confit of duck was delicious and indulgent. The Small People’s eggs were very good too, and they said that their first taste of “British sausage” hit the mark. It is a pricey breakfast with the view but also something different. Service was good.

45 Jermyn St
Next to Fortnum and Mason, I loved the interiors of this stylish bar and bistro and think it would be a fun dinner venue. The breakfast, while tasty, was very small and a bit frugal. My wild mushroom omelette was delicious, but came with no toast, and the small people got one small slice of bread each with their scrambled and fried eggs.

Dalloway Terrace
A stone’s throw from the British Museum, where we were headed that morning, Dalloway Terrace which I had heard good things about seemed like the ideal venue. We had a mixed bag experience. Service was all over the place and rather hopeless, but it was probably the best coffee we had. My shakshuka was incredibly delicious and I want to try and replicate it, but the Big Breakfast that the Small People ordered was dry and extremely unappealing, and not really that big for £16.

Daisy Green
Daisy Green is run by Aussies, as the Bondi Breakfast on the menu gives away. Daisy has a few siblings in other parts of London including Scarlett, Timmy and Darcey . It was a tasty and generous breakfast with some good creativity, we all really enjoyed it and certainly would have come back if it wasn’t our last day. We also had our first coffee under £4. Friendly staff.

Dinners

Unintentionally, we seemed to end up in the Soho area every night for dinner. I looked up various places before our trip and saw where I wanted to go, and they all just happened to be in the same area. Like New York’s Soho, there are plenty of choices clustered together.

Pastaio, Soho
I knew we’d be having plenty of pasta in Italy but I’d heard great things about Pastaio. And Steve Parle’s silky handmade strands certainly delivered, with a lovely simplicity that any nonna would approve of. There are also some great prosecco slushies, and my lemon one was very refreshing. It’s in a really fun laneway area, joining Kingly Lane where people were spilled onto sidewalks with a beer and lots of other venues to choose from. There are no bookings here.

Rosa’s Thai, Soho
A relatively cheap and cheerful Thai chain, there are a handful of Rosa’s across parts of London. The marinated pork skewers and the stir fried egglant dish were particularly delicious.

Yuautcha, Soho
This modern Chinese diner with a splash of blue rather than traditional red ticked a lot of boxes. Truly excellent service and really tasty food. We loved every dish.

They also have a very pretty pastry counter which you can eat in or takeaway.

NOPI, Soho
I had to try and Ottolenghi restaurant while I was in London, and booked NOPI sometime in advance since it was a weekend. Loved the fit out of this place with all the brass, and checkout the “hall of mirrors” style bathrooms. The food was delicious, I would love to get my hands on that eggplant recipe which The Marito and I particularly liked. And the twice cooked roast chicken. The only dish we didn’t enjoy was the chickpeas, as the spice overpowered and drowned the ingredients.

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Baked chocolate ganache, plum soil Malt barley ice cream, date fudge and chocolate soil

Accommodation
I had a whole bunch of Hyatt points (refer paragraph 1) from years of staying at Hyatt hotels for work and cashed them in for a few nights at Hyatt Regency The Churchill (otherwise this place is pretty pricey). Fantastic location, a stone’s throw from Selfridges and the Oxford St shopping strip, and the Marble Arch tube station around the corner. Decent sized rooms for central London but tiny bathrooms, if one of us was in there it was already crowded.

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Thanks for having us London! A few shots from around town.  Next up, Puglia.

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Tel Aviv, Israel

After four days in Jerusalem, our next stop was Tel Aviv, city by the sea.  Our meeting schedule here was jam-packed.  We were all inspired and excited by the companies and people we met, but we were all pretty shattered by the end of the trip.  We crammed in an incredible amount in eight days in Israel (plus over 50 hours to get there and back, transit connections are not ideal so be prepared!). There were a few office sandwich and salad meals but we did have some lovely dinners.

One of the people we met was the Mayor of Tel Aviv, Ron Huldai. What a character! 18 years on the job and so full of enthusiasm and love for his city, very big on connecting people and creating community, physically and via their “smart city” technology.

For something different, we had a meal at Spoons in Jaffa, run by Hila Solomon, a private dining experience rather than a restaurant.  Here we heard from six extraordinary women making a difference in different fields from medicine to law to impact investing, while eating some beautiful home style food. Among them was the leading neuroimmunologist Professor Michal Shwartz, whose work on the brain and immune system could have groundbreaking consequences on diseases like Alzheimer’s.

There was also Sivan Borowich Ya’ari, the founder of Innovation Africa, who, by bringing energy to remote villages, has had transformative impact; for instance many medical clinics could not store basic medicines and children’s vaccines because they did not have refrigeration but could once they had electricity, thus having implications for reduction in illnesses.  Energy has also allowed villages to pump water out of the ground, so that children don’t have to spend hours looking for water, and can go to school instead.

This spatchcock dish, with sumac and pomegranate molasses, was a standout.  I have asked Hila for the recipe.

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And this bread was like a cross between a pita and a pancake.  So fluffy!

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My whole life I have disliked Turkish Delight, but that is clearly because I have never tried the real thing. On the left is Turkish Delight and quince cubes. On the right is an Israeli milk pudding called malabi; extremely smooth but on its own it does not have a lot of flavour and definitely needs the extras.

Here is lovely warm Hila.  She divides her time between Tel Aviv and Sydney, and will be doing private dinners in Sydney later this year.

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I thought it was fitting that after a dinner with nearly 50 women, a man did the washing up!

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Between meetings one day, we did a super quick stop at Caesarea (“2000 years of history in five minutes”, joked our guide), a town built by Herod the Great.  There is a lot to see and explore in this sea side town, but we only had time to stop at the amphitheatre, which is now used for very select artist performances.

As I mentioned in my post on Jerusalem, I’ve written about the business aspects of this trip separately, but I will mention one company here because I really like the potential global impact of what they are doing, and, it is food related! TIPA are making compostable food grade packaging.  All those sandwich bags, cracker packets and so on, instead of taking 500 years to decompose, take six months in the TIPA product version.  The founder, Daphna Nissenbaum, founded it after getting frustrated by the amount of plastic waste simply arising from her children’s lunchboxes every day. Here’s a (crushed from my suitcase) sandwich bag I bought home.

TIPA

Now, a lot of us talk the talk on plastic waste, but will we as consumers walk it and  actually pay extra for these kind of products? At the moment, having not achieved scale and manufactured in Germany, the products are more expensive than your 500-years-to-go-away stuff. So let’s see.

We had a couple of meals at Jaffa Port, a seaside port in the Old City of Jaffa, where there are a number of restaurants, cafes, and a few shops.  It’s a pretty stretch.

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One of the meals was at The Old Man and The Sea, which gave the ultimate opportunity for a flat lay shot!

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We stopped in at this bar afterwards, not sure what the deal was with the camel’s head.

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Do also go to the Carmel Markets, full of wonderful food, and the neighbouring craft market.

There are also some pretty boutiques and cafes around the upmarket area of Neve Zedek. We passed a real estate agent and nearly keeled over at some of the apartment and house prices.

One evening we had a meal at the home of a local Muslim woman as part of the Mama program.  By catering for a meal for a group of women, it provides a form economic empowerment. Her home garden was a fertile surbuban oasis full of colour. While here we heard from the extraordinary Dr Orna Berry, who was Israel’s first female Chief Scientist, and was the first sale of an Israeli startup to a large foreign company, in her case to Seimens.

We also went to the Charles Bronfam Auditorium for a performance of The Marriage of Figaro by the Israel Philharmonic

I think we saved the best till last with a meal at Kimmel Restaurant.  The food here was just fantastic, my favourite of the trip. Though the staff told me that the restaurant was closing at the end of June after 25 years, what a shame! However the chef does have two other restaurants, one of which is called Blue Rooster.  I have gotten in contact and asked for a couple of the recipes, see how we go.

During the meal we heard from Emi Palmour, the Director General of the Department of Justice, who is absolutely awesome.  What she has done in the department in terms of achieving diversity and inclusion deserves applause.  She has built a department that is not only diverse from a gender perspective, but also diverse in its ethnic minority groups, age, and disability. There has got to be benefits in a justice department that better reflects the society it is serving.

A few other random Tel Aviv snaps below!

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Jerusalem, Israel

This month I was fortunate to attend a Women Leader’s Trade Mission to Israel, with 40 diverse and fabulous Australian women, organised by the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce; our group spent four days in Jerusalem and four days in Tel Aviv. There to examine and try and understand all things innovation, it was a wonderful opportunity to experience such a complex and fascinating country.  I’ve written on the business aspects of the trip elsewhere, so here I’ll share with you some of the meals (in our 16-18 hour days we had to eat!) and our lightening fast version of sightseeing in between meetings.

With little time to waste, after our early morning flight arrival and a quick freshen up we headed to the Israel Museum.  It’s a fabulous building, and regarded as one of world’s best museums after extensive renovations in 2010. A must for archaeology fans, as it houses some of the world’s oldest pieces.  The 5,000 year old butter churner had me intrigued. (Is dairy allowed in Paleo? We’ve been eating it for a while it seems, Pete Evans). Set on 20 acres, I loved the large corridors and spaciousness and surrounding gardens. Our tour guide, Elana Ben Chaim, was just charming and delightful – grab her if you can!

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That evening for dinner we headed to Kedma, which you arrive at after a stroll through the very pleasant outdoor Mamila Mall.

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The food was delicious, and here we got a taste of the mezze style of dining we would see a lot of over the next eight days.  Vegetables and dairy feature heavily in the diet here, and very little processed or deep fried food. Every eggplant dish we tried throughout the trip was fantastic – I’m not sure if it is the variety of eggplant, the soil, the water, or the cooking technique!  The focus also seems to be more on savoury rather than sweet, with desserts taking a back seat.  I did find that in general red meat tended to be overcooked compared to what we are used to in Australia, though that may be due to kosher style of butchering, so after trying it at a couple of meals I generally skipped it. Besides there were just too many fabulous vegetable dishes to try. The Marito would have a field day in this country.

From Kedma there is also a great view of the city and the night light show against the Western Wall.

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By far the most confronting part of the trip and of life in general was our visit to the Yad Va’shem Holocaust Memorial the following morning.  An imposing and stark building, what you see inside will leave your heart heavy, your face solemn, and make you drag your feet. You can’t take photos inside but what you see will stay with you.

The capacity for unnecessary human evil is fully on display here, and walking on the pavers of the Warsaw Ghetto, seeing the abandoned shoes, the house keys that people took with them thinking that they would return home one day, touching the carriage that took children to Auschwitz, leaves you silent and rather distraught. There are lots of displays and videos but the sensitive and learned guide we had made clear enormity of the suffering of the six million lives lost.  One and a half million of them were children, amongst them newborns, who are honoured and remembered in the separate Children’s Terrace.

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At Yad Va’Shem you will also see Schindler’s List, the list of all the Jewish people Oskar Schindler saved.  Number 123 is man who now lives in Melbourne, who told our guide that his first stop whenever he visits Israel is the Catholic Cemetery to pay his respects at Schindler’s grave.

One fact our guide shared of which I was unaware, as were most of our group, was the heroism of Denmark.  They refused to accede to Hitler’s demands and brand people with stars or treat them differently, and then organised for their safe removal to Sweden. Denmark is the only country that appears in the Avenue of the Righteous.  This is a path that circles the museum which has the names of people from all around the world who risked their lives to save others from Nazi hands.  One of those is a man who now lives in Melbourne, who was honoured in 1991. Another who is honoured is Irena Sendler, a Polish Social worker who saved over 2,000 children.

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We stopped at Nafour Restaurant to recover and for a mezze refuel. It has a nice outdoor courtyard at the back.

From here we went for an unfortunately too short visit of the Old City of Jerusalem. I would have loved more time wandering the cobbled streets, so do leave yourself a good amount of time if you find yourself here.  There were some very interesting looking market stalls and an endless selection of spices.

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The Old City, a UNESCO World heritage site, is divided into quarters – Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Armenian.  In the Christian quarter you’ll come across the Holy Sepulchre.  Inside is the site of the crucifixion of Jesus, where his body was laid to be shrouded, and the site of his tomb.  I sent some photos to the Small People as I walked through and one of them replied “surely that’s not real?”.  You have to make up your own mind.

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If you’re walking through the Old City, particularly in the evening, it is also hard to miss The Dome of the Rock, an Islamic Temple and holy site and one of the world’s oldest examples of Islamic architecture.   At the moment, visitors are not allowed inside, so you can only wander the outer square.

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We also did a breakneck speed stop at the Dead Sea.  It was one on my bucket list! The Earth’s lowest elevation, it is about ten times saltier than your average ocean.  Doesn’t smell the best either and avoid splashing, apparently it tastes even worse.  But yes you do float straight away, it’s a really weird feeling!  Girlies no shaving beforehand, you’ll feel the sting of all that salt! We did give ourselves a good body scrub though, it was a good laugh.

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deadseaOne for ancient history lovers is Masada, the site of Herod the Great’s Fortress.  How on earth did they do that 2,000 years ago? For the fit and those ready to brave the heat, you can climb to the top via stairs, otherwise there is a cable car.

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We had a traditional Sabbath Dinner and heard from  Rabbi Yael Kari, a female Rabbi from the Israel Movement for Reform, a modern form of Judaism.  She was so lovely and serene.  And I’m not sure if all Sabbath dinners are like this, but there was a crazy amount of food, including good old Jewish Penicillin, chicken soup.

One evening after a geopolitical briefing (the geopolitics of Israel will make your head spin) we headed to the Western Wall, a very holy place of prayer for Judaism. At 9.30pm it was very busy.  There are separate sides for men and women; the male side looked quite social, with many men sitting and having a chat, whereas the female side was definitely less so and pure prayer was the order of the day.

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You can wall the full length of the Western Wall in the underground tunnels, very cool, and not one for the claustrophobic.

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Oh I must mention the breakfast at the King David Hotel where we stayed.  One of the best hotel breakfasts ever!  Just loved the salads and the vegetable tarts and pies in particular.

 

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It is a very grand old style hotel, and also a very busy one, I have never seen so many families and children running about in a luxury hotel. I shot took this picture of the foyer early one morning in a rare moment of quiet.

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A few more snaps of Jerusalem below, some from my fantastic fellow travellers.   A truly interesting city and would love to go back and spend more time there.

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