Category Archives: Travel Stories

Holland: Return to Haarlem (Rotterdam, & Amsterdam)

The man behind me struggled to open his bottle of drink, knees digging hard into the back of my seat as he strained. ‘Shall we open the smoky bacon or the prawn cocktail?’ his companion asked, whilst rustling away with her grab-bags. Smokey bacon. The crunches and slurps were interspersed with a conversation on whether the pilot might actually be a woman. The consensus, before the slimming world recipes were discussed, was that they couldn’t possibly have a female pilot – because she would have mood swings.

Remind me something for the future – take noise cancelling headphones, even for short flights. Or, alternatively, some kind of appealing snacks laced with sedatives.

From Schiphol – two trains, full – to Haarlem. Lovely, kind and comfortable Haarlem.

Straight out of the station and into the sanctuary of Hotel Lion D’or. Relief. Soft bed, calm tones, clean air, and… what is this? Helma had left me a box of chocolate crayons in my room. Chocolate crayons. Heart eyes.

I chose to have a Tuesday night supermarket dinner – chicken salad, orange, chocomel (Someone had already had a go on my chocomel. Chocolate milk dreams ruined), and get an early night.

I slept well. I’ve been here before (one year and one week ago) and I settled back in nicely. I could live here. Contented hotel room dweller.

Observations on a Wednesday:

Breakfast ring doughnut (with jam inside).
Raining but not raining.
Joyful walking.
Hair clip purchase (in honour of Polly).
Good windows.
Quality pigeons.
Successful meeting (exhibition planning, sticky tape discussions).
Dinner with Ioana in Zandvoort.

On Thursday I took the train to Amsterdam. Last time I was here it was for the Shutter Hub OPEN, I walked past 5&33 Gallery, peeked in the windows at the people installing their exhibition, remembered we’ll be back there with another exhibition, sooner than we know it.

I walked across the city, comfortable with my inner compass, directing me toward my destination, where in just the last half a kilometre I needed my phones map for fine-tuned information. I know Amsterdam better than I know my closest city at home. I could live here – the Netherlands.

I reached the stone steps of LAB111, a cool cinema and restaurant venue, once a pathology laboratory for the university hospital. An art deco delight. We ate sweet potato fries with curry mayonnaise whilst a ginger cat did the rounds of the laps at our table. And then, I gave a talk about photography in the marble-lined former chapel of rest. These are the days.

In the morning we headed over to Rotterdam. Meetings full of excitement and promise, and eggs benedict at La Buvette. To the outskirts of the city to look at empty buildings, and then back to Amsterdam for my evening engagement – a talk at Paper Fetish. Chips and mayonnaise, good chats and hugs.

It was late when we drove out of the city and into the darkness of Amstelveen. Having checked out of the beautiful Hotel Lion d’Or in Haarlem, I’d been booked in at a surprise location.

I was dropped off at my room for the night, in a terraced house owned by Hotel Café Abina. Definitely not a hotel.

Abina hovel was unwelcomingly bleak, with stained carpets, and a stale scent of tobacco. The only thing that settled me was the smell of bread in the street.

In my room, a narrow corridor of two single beds, with a toilet and mouldy shower in the same space, I looked at my watch. Less than 7 hours to daylight. It’ll be fine. I slid the bed in front of the door and ‘slept’ in my clothes. As soon as it was light I was out, wandering the streets, breathing the fresh air, smiling at dogs, queueing for pastries at the French bakery on the corner.

I was relieved when Ioana came to meet me. We drove into Amsterdam and walked through Vondelpark before eating lunch in the sun. She showed me how as a child she would stick blossom petals to her finger nails as ‘nail varnish’, and then we watched two cyclists have an argument – shouting in Dutch, swearing in English. The Dutch swear in English! (I am already part way to speaking the language).

I came home with my brain full, a to-do list as long as my arm, and a great feeling joy and contentment. Lucky to do the work I love.

With the greatest thanks to Hotel Lion d’Or for hosting me for three nights in their beautiful hotel. As always, my opinions are my own (and my excitement over a ring doughnut with jam inside, expressed with absolute understatement).

Mallorca: Mirabo de Valldemossa – A Hillside Finca

We turned off the main road. Up the drive. Nine hairpins to the top.

Mirabo de Valldemossaan old farmhouse, high on the hillside. Lived in for five generations, and now a small family hotel.

We’d had no idea what to expect. It was the most idyllic spot. Every window framed the perfect view of Autumn in Mallorca. Had we not been booked  for dinner at Fera in Palma, we would have just stayed by the window and looked out in awe.

After the peace and quiet of the countryside, and driving the mountain roads for just two days, being in the city seemed a shock. So many cars, so many lights.

At Fera we ate rustic bread with apricot and kimchi aioli, followed by course after course of unusual dishes – Nori rolls with Aberdeen Angus beef tartare and truffle emulsion, corn mousse with pumpkin and crisped corn pieces, re-constituted olive with orange, suckling pig dumplings with Shimeji mushrooms, duck with carrot and yuzu, chocolate pudding with smooth olivey ganache.

Full to the brim. Back to the Finca.

In the morning, at breakfast, we sat across the room from a couple who’d caught the ferry from Germany so that their dog could travel with them. When no one was looking she, a velvety soft Weimaraner, sidled up to Adam and leant heavily against his leg. I think he was secretly pleased.

Everything inside the house was lovely. Furniture, paintings, glass and ceramics, dream Bang & Olufsen speaker. Just lovely.

We wandered outside, yellow leaves falling in the Autumn sun. Palm trees standing tall. Swimming pool bright blue and falsely alluring (I’ll never be fooled again) and the most beautiful and open view across the hills, olive trees and Holme oaks.

And all too soon it was time to get back in the blackcurrant berry of a Fiat 500 hire car, and drive down what must be Mallorca’s only motorway. Back to the airport, back to the other Autumn we’d temporarily retreated from.

Mallorca: Son Brull – A Rural Sanctuary

I brushed the crumbs from the seat, clues of previous passenger’s snack trolley delights. The best thing about the Ryanair flight was the oversized house fly that had hitched a lift and was bombing up and down the aisles, racing between the headrests.

After picking up the blackcurrant berry of a Fiat 500 hire car, and driving down what must be Mallorca’s only motorway, we arrived at Son Brull. A beautiful rural sanctuary on the north of the island.

I’ve been to Mallorca before, accidentally. I told my friend we could do anything she liked for her birthday, she suggested a comedy club, I suggested Eurostar to Paris, she suggested 3 nights in a hotel near Magaluf which was powered by a petrol generator on the roof and had yellowed plastic sheets on the bed. To be fair, those weren’t her search requirements, they were just by-products.

We were shown to our room, a light and airy junior suite. Champagne, oranges and fresh flowers greeted us. Tall shuttered windows with long white linen drapes, high above my head. Washed oak beams and dark concrete floors. A Jacuzzi bath in the corner, and sun hats at the end of the bed. What an absolute dream.

We found our way to the bar and bistro, through the cobbled courtyard of the old monastery, passed the pelargoniums and ferns.

Two enormous olive presses lined the walls either side of the room, and above the large copper bath that would have boiled the olives for their second pressing, a wispy wire sculpture representing steam.

Millstones and big white sofas, like heavy clouds. Good dinner. Nice atmosphere.

The shutters kept the sun out, room pitch black and cool. Outside the window, sunshine and strawberry bushes, palms, and bottlebrush trees with neon fronds.

We took our breakfast on the terrace. Blueberry juice. Eggs benedict. Swimming pool lapping, sparrows darting in for crumbs.

Later, I wandered around, looking at fruit, taking pictures. A woman (from Jersey) stopped to talk to me. Whilst I looked away, she discreetly held up her mobile phone and took a photo of me. Except, it wasn’t discreet, the loud ‘kercher’of the iPhone camera alerted me to it. She didn’t say anything. I didn’t say anything.

Adam and I sat in the shade, listened to goats and to the wind in the leaves. Looked at the mountains.

We drove into the mountains. Zipping around in the little Fiat 500, looking for somewhere to pull in, to take in the views. Adam said, ‘We can stop here if you like?’ and I read the sign, ‘prohibited military zone’. We drove on.

At the top of Es Colomer we stopped, walked up to the viewing point, blown by the warm wind, ate Patatas Fritas at the café Mirador.

In the evening we ate at Son Brull. 365 Restaurant, understated and comfortable. Cobbled floors, white linen, subtle lighting, and on the tables, little wound-wire lamps that looked like they were modelled on potatoes.

Often before a meal I begin to feel a little nervous. I have a strange array of allergies and sometimes it’s hard to get that across. I was once told (in a rather unusual restaurant) that, although allergic, I had to eat the ‘gift of almond’ because it was what the chef wanted.

At 365 I didn’t even need to ask. Every member of staff knew who I was and told me what I could or couldn’t have. It was the most attentive and kind response to allergies that I’ve ever experienced.

Sweet, soft, Cannelloni with duck and dark chanterelle mushroom.
Suckling pig with apricots and sweet Tokaji wine.
Prickly pear and fennel sorbet.

All delicious, but then, dessert.

On my list of things which I wish I could eat again (including rice pudding at Neemrana Fort and Sunday dinner at Nanny and Grandad’s), this incredible dessert.

Pine nuts. Soft pine nut brownies. Tiny, beautiful, dark pine cones soaked in honey, rich with the sweet taste of the Mediterranean forest, like fresh cut wood. Creamy pine nut parfait. Pine infused cream.

This may be the most beautiful dessert I have ever tasted. If woodland fairies exist, then this is what they feed on.

In the morning, after a breakfast of eggs, and fresh fruit, and a lot of wishing it wasn’t time to leave, we packed up our bags and headed west.

More mountain driving. Slender curved roads, hairpins, steep drops. Holme oak trees. Goats crossing. We stopped at lakes, listened to lapping water and bird song. Chased velvety chocolate-brown donkeys.

Around every corner was a view to behold. Warm air and the sense of freedom. We turned off the main road, to our next stop. Up the drive. Nine hairpins to the top.

With the greatest thanks to the team at Son Brull for making this trip possible, for hosting us for two nights, and for the power of Chef Rafael Perelló and his puddings.  As always, my opinions are my own.

Holland: Make It Happen – Rotterdam in 24 Hours

If you know me, you’ll know, I don’t like to rush. I get plenty done, but under the deceptive guise of a tortoise, meandering from distraction to distraction, taking in the details, finding joy in the small things.

There was a time when I would have told you that you can’t get a feel for a place in just 24 hours, but I’ve  proved myself wrong.

Rotterdam is a fascinating city, having been almost completely destroyed in World War II, it has been rebuilt with aplomb and continues to develop and grow with  adventurous modernist architecture.

I walked out of the station, past the sharp angles and high gloss of the tall buildings, and headed to Op het Dak.

This trip, although brief, was to be full. I had several places to be, and things to see, all centred around thoughts on the environment – how we live, and what we do to the earth. I’m in the process of researching for an exhibition on the modern landscape, and Rotterdam gave me food for thought… and food… back to Op het Dak.

Ten minutes from the Central Station is Op het Dak, a simple café serving healthy local food. We ate flowers, hummus and tabbouleh, before exploring their outdoor space – the largest urban roof garden in Europe.

One of the main reasons I was in Rotterdam was to visit the studio of Daan Roosegaarde. It’s not easy to describe what Daan does, but I’d say he’s a socially led artist, thinker, conservationist, and innovator. His projects are brilliant and varied, but to me the best thing is the Smog Free Project – air purifying towers that filter particulates. This ring is full of smog from 1000 m3 of Beijing air.

After a presentation at the Rotterdam Food Garden on De Urbanisten’s new research project, Sponge Garden, we stopped off at Kaapse Maria, where I ate a bowl of olives and drank homemade cherry cola. Nice.

Then we headed to the Kunsthal for the opening of Waterlicht, Daan Roosegaarde’s latest  work. Described as a virtual flood made of LEDs, software and lenses, Waterlicht shows how high the water could reach without human intervention and gives space for thought about rising water levels caused by global warming. I’m interested in the connections between Holland and the drained area I live in, here in the UK, so the idea behind this really resonated with me.

After a brilliant and relaxed dinner at Ayla it was time to retire to the perfumed aircon comfort of The James Hotel. I woke to the 16th floor view over the city, in the distance, the glow of C&A.

I skipped breakfast (The James have a food market where you can buy yourself a mini baguette for one euro) and made my way back to the Kunsthal for a muffin and ginger tea, and to see Stephan Vanfleteren’s Surf Tribe. I couldn’t not – Shutter Hub had listed it in the top exhibitions to see this month. It was brilliant. The photography was amazing, beautifully executed, emotionally relatable, and the scale of the images too, brilliant. But for me, without wanting to sound like an exhibition weirdo, it was the lighting that really made it. Best exhibition lighting I’ve seen.

Have you visited the famous Cube Houses in Rotterdam?  I’d seen so many similar images on Instagram that I just  wasn’t that interested, but, with all the hype, I thought I should have a look – I was pleasantly surprised.

Designed by Piet Blom in 1984 as a kind of village within the city, inspired by the woods –  futuristic tree houses in modernist urbanity. Structurally they’re just bizarre. Like those paper folded fortune-tellers you used to make as kids.

They look like a collage. All snippets of 80s style. Great colour combinations, and a shop offering hair removal services. Why did the ‘influencers’ not show me this on the gram?

I stopped  in Sint Laurenskerk, the church beautifully restored after the war, light glass windows, and chandeliers. On the big bronze doors, (designed by Giacomo Manzu) the distressing scene of war. When the doors are opened, the light floods in and this beautiful dove is revealed.

Heading back to the station I stopped and ate chips at the Markthal, I noticed it looks like a grown-up bouncy castle, made up of luxury apartments and delicious food offerings.

Other things I noticed  in Rotterdam:
A statue of santa holding a butt plug.
Very healthy looking pigeons.

On my way home, in the queue to board my flight, I met a plastic packaging saleswomen. She told me that she did feel sad that the dolphins are dying and the plastic is getting round the necks of turtles, but plastic is environmentally friendly as it’s made out of waste oil, and if we don’t use it our peppers will go off.

I didn’t make it to the Nederland’s Fotomuseum, but there’s so much to see and do in Rotterdam, I don’t have any excuses not to go back.

With the greatest thanks to Rotterdam Partners for making this trip possible. As always, my opinions are my own (and my ability to meet the ‘interesting’ people whilst travelling is something that should be investigated!)

Croatia: Glamping by the Adriatic Sea at Arena One 99 Pomer

I’ve never seen the appeal of camping. Of course, in the past I had to do it, for festival glory, but waking up with a stranger rummaging in your tent, your wallet that you’d used as a tiny pillow missing, or even the majority of your tent missing as the rain pours on your face, are not things I would include on a holiday wish list.

My biggest fear about camping (aside from the above, and maybe the toilet issue) is that I’ll get run over while I sleep. Like really. Camping is hazardous.

On the other hand, I’ve never really understood glamping either, until now.

We flew early from Stansted to Pula, arriving in Pomer, Southern Istria, at Croatia’s first glamping destination, Arena One 99. A selection of 199 cabin-like ‘tents’ on a tree covered hillside, overlooking the Adriatic Sea. Peace and quiet, blue water, blue sky.

Arena One 99 doesn’t allow cars on site (my concerns, eased) so along with our luggage we were delivered to our tents on electric golf carts (unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed to drive). It didn’t take long to settle in. I could live like this. A self-contained space, double bed downstairs, double bed upstairs (a tent with an upstairs?!), a dining table, full kitchen, bathroom (with Elemis toiletries), and a flat screen tele and air-con unit above the bed. There’s even an app you can download and use to request anything else you need. If there’s anything else you need.

Croatia is known for its truffles, extra virgin olive oil, wine and honey, along with the fresh seafood, fish and meats. For lovers of quality, unadulterated food, this is the place. The extra virgin olive oil is like nothing I’ve ever tasted – a peppery hit in the back of the throat, strong and rich, and apparently suggested (for the health benefits) as the first thing you consume in the day.

We drank Medica grappa, a sweet honey liqueur. Strong, but deliciously easy to drink (something to note, before you get carried away!)

After an amazing lunch of chicken with celery and gherkin in a yoghurt sauce, roasted vegetables, fresh seared tuna, cured meats and truffle cheese dipped in honey, we headed to the beach. It took about a minute to get there.

The water was clear, the beach was stony, and I was a wobbling, giggling, whinging weirdo! It’s been a long time since I’ve swum in the sea (2002, Greece, underestimated distance to island from boat, do not want to relive that again) and whilst children charged in and snorkelled nearby, I was still nervous. I did swim, not far, and mostly round in circles, but I swam, and the water was beautiful and healing. (I’m not being a hippy. It did absolute wonders for my eczema).

In the evening we headed over to the Park Plaza Belvedere, in Medulin, for dinner. We tasted some of Croatia’s finest wines: the award winning Kozlovic, a crisp white wine of the golden valley area, and Teran, a dry red wine from the family winery of Franc Arman, which was rich and sooty, unusual, like the dust of an oak fire.

As the rain began to fall and the thunder rumbled in the sky, we moved inside for shelter. The light was a little dim, so I took my meat out in the rain to photograph for you, because I am loyal like that.

We had a wonderful evening, lots of delicious food, and great company. Back at my tent I slept really well, once I’d managed to tune out of the weird repetitive digital alarm-like sound, that I could hear, (and once Lynsey had stopped whatsapping to make sure everyone else could hear it and there wasn’t a bomb about to go off in her tent!)

We ate breakfast in Pula, at the Park Plaza Arena. Rice pudding. Plum dumpling. This is my new life now. Don’t expect me to come home.

In Fazana we boarded a boat for Brijuni Islands National Park. A set of 14 islands, the largest one contains, amongst other things, hotels, a golf course, café, gift shop, museums, a church, Roman ruins, a small safari park, and a dinosaur’s footprint. Visitors get to tour the island on a land train.

Covered in Bay, Myrtle, Strawberry, and Holme Oak trees (the guide described these as ‘like an umbrella, or a mushroom’), the island was former President Tito’s summer residence. A communist leader for 30 years from the end of the second world war, until his death in 1980, Tito used to drive around the island in his Cadillac Eldorado (you can too if you want to pay over £300 for 30 minutes) from his grand house, to his zoo, past his Shetland Ponies, a gift from Queen Elizabeth II, as he smoked cigars in his smart suits and entertained government leaders and film stars alike.

We drove through the park; on the right, some sheep and local goats, on the left, ‘the so cute baby zebra’, and then we reached a stop, for the viewing of Lanka. The lonely elephant. A gift, to Tito and to his elephant Soni, both from Indira Gandhi in the early 1970s. Soni died in 2010, and Lanka, now almost 50 years old, lives alone in a compound on the island. I’d dreamt I might get to see her, to look in her eyes and see she was well, maybe even get a cuddle, but I am full of dreams, and the reality is that when the crowd arrived, and people started calling ‘Lanka, Lanka,’ she retreated and hid behind a wall. As the land train left I saw her come out and watch us drive away.

I asked, and apparently, she’s too old to be moved, crossing the water is too unsafe. Perhaps she’s too old to be sedated? I’ve read that African elephants can live to 60-70 years, and I feel sad to think she might have to spend another 10 or 20 years alone, with nothing of interest to do. I think elephants can feel heartbreak. In the wild, or even in a zoo, she’d have had a herd to comfort her.

Many other animals were given to President Tito as gifts for his collection, and those that died were stuffed and displayed in one of the islands museums. Waste not want not.

We drove past the abandoned zoo, rusty bars on lion and bear enclosures, nature forcing its way through the concrete walls, and past the 4th Century olive tree, split straight down the middle during a storm in the 1980s, still bearing crops every year.

Land train tour over, we headed inside (past the Cadillac Eldorado in its special bus shelter shroud) to view the exhibition of taxidermy, and then Tito’s Museum, a vast collection of images of the President, in dapper dress, always, lavishly entertaining film stars, dignitaries and notable statesman.

In Fazana we ate lunch at Stara Konoba, right on the marina, watching the boats (when we could take our eyes off the puddings).

Back at Arena One 99 we headed uphill to the wellness centre. In amongst the trees we discovered a platform for yoga and meditation, hot tubs and a sauna, and tipis for therapeutic treatments. I opted for an ‘innovative wellness technology’ – a candle massage. My scent of choice? Spearmint. I was slightly apprehensive, I’m often allergic to things, but I needn’t have worried, the combination of the Adriatic Sea salt and the organic candle wax has been the best thing to ever happen to my unhappy skin.

The massage was relaxing, I was just lying there being dozy, listening to the gently repetitive music, when I heard a noise. ‘What was that?!’I thought, with utter surprise. Then I realised what it was. It was Dijana, the therapist, asking me to turn over. I was so zonked out, I’d forgotten she even existed!

An hour later I emerged from the tipi, like a butterfly from a cocoon (or something like that) and headed down to the beach. Whilst the others paddle boarded, (at one point I thought Lynsey might be heading out to sea, never to be seen again) I made friends on the shore with a small dancing crab.

Beachside, we ate dinner. Mushroom panacotta with rich peppery extra virgin olive oil, Ox stroganoff with gnocchi, beef with purée celery and spinach, cheesecake. The sun set, a warm and comforting glow across the horizon.

Over dinner we discussed the strange digital noise we’d all heard the night before. ‘It’s an animal!’ Dario told us, and while I was busy thinking ‘yeah right, nice try!’ he produced an image on his phone of the Sivi Cuk – little owl. This dear little creature makes the most manmade sound, a little ‘beep’ noise, perfectly timed.

That night I listened. Beep… bomp, beep… bomp, beep… bomp – there were two owls talking!

In the morning we headed into Pula to visit the Roman Amphitheatre. It’s the sixth largest in world, and back in the gladiator days it held 23,000 people (and a bunch of lions and panthers). It’s a vast space, built during the 1st Century, and I was amazed to hear that it had actually had a massive roof, made from sails and masts, for use in bad weather. A lot of the seating materials had been dismantled through the ages, but in the 1930s the Italians decided to repair and use the space as a venue, and in the 1950s a film festival started here.

We wandered around the city, admiring the Austrian and Italian architecture, heading for the cool shade when we could find it, then through the Arch of the Sergii and into the old town. We worked our way uphill for a view over the city and the 19th Century Uljanik shipyard, one of the world’s oldest working docks, and where, at night, the cranes are lit up beautifully, in an artwork, Lighting Giants, designed by Dean Skira.

Beside a fountain, in the centre of the town, we ate lunch at Bistro Alighieri, before heading back to Pula, to the park, to the paddleboards and the stony beach.

Our last night in Croatia, we headed over to the yacht club at the Park Plaza Histria, in Pula. Outside, on the terrace, we watched the sun set over the Adriatic Sea. Pastel tones, soft clouds, warm air, no dolphins, not tonight.

Drinks in the city at the Shipyard Pub, a visit to see the Lighting Giants, and then back to our tents. Our last night, too soon.

Not long after I’d drifted off, I was woken by the crack of thunder. Bright lightening flashed through the canvas walls as heavy rain poured down, thunder rumbling across the sky, shaking the ground. And, just above my head, above the canvas roof, in the tree, a little ‘beep… beep’ sought shelter from the storm.

I was a guest of PPHE Hotel Group. With the greatest thanks to Ben Frith, Dario Mijatovic and Arena One 99 for making this trip possible. As always, my opinions are my own (and my ability to eat truffle cheese dipped in honey, a skill I’m willing to perfect).