Category Archives: Travel Stories

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).

Belgium: Things to Love in Leuven

Often we celebrate midsummer with friends, and food, and long cold drinks in the sun, and bonfire leaping into the early hours (whilst Adam wows everyone with his sitar playing of Guns N’Roses greatest hits). This year was different. We spent the longest day driving across country, via ferry, up into the north of Belgium, to Grobbendonk – our pit stop in preparation for the following day, and one of the best named places I’ve ever come across (although I do worry that if you say it three times fast some kind of scary gnome might appear in the mirror).

It’s been years since we’ve driven to Europe together. The last time must have been when we got as far as Stuttgart and our car blew up. (I was gutted to leave those airhorns behind!) Sometimes the easiest thing to do is to fly, and other times you just have to get in your car and take it with you, fill it with stuff, and head off on an adventure to a beautiful European city, via one of the best metal festivals in the world, Graspop Metal Meeting.

At breakfast we people-watched, guessing made-up band names and admiring tour t-shirts and long hair. One man had the golden locks of a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, turns out he was the drummer for L7.

The day was a mixture of awesome and bizarre (as every day should be). Bizarre – Galactic Empire playing the theme from Star Wars (Imperial March, I had to look that up on Wookieepedia). Awesome – Killswitch Engage, our absolute favourites, the reason we were there. And then Iron Maiden.

After detours for roadworks and detours for detours, we arrived late in the night (early in the morning) in the city of Leuven, the only car driving up the winding streets to the Pentahotel. Silence. A glittery gold nodding-dog swayed it’s head up and down. Sleep.

In the morning, still tired from the night before, we slowly wandered up the road to St Peters Church on Grote Markt, with dozens of market stalls streaming out in different directions. Artisan foods, flowers, antiques, a taxidermy pygmy goat. Something for everyone.

Inside the church: empty glass cabinets with dust marks outlining shapes of items previously displayed, paintings, sculpture, artefacts, and a vast and incredible carved oak pulpit depicting Norbert of Xanten falling from a horse.

David Bowie’s Let’s Dance floated through the air from outside, the soundtrack to The Last Supper, the famous painting by Dirk Bouts, (it’s Jesus in 15th century Leuven, innit).

We stepped back outside and into the longest day celebrations. The market place was bustling and full of fun. A bee in a carriage rode by, flanked by stilt wearing sunflowers, then mechanical contraptions, like wind-up tin toys, space travelling rockets, 20 feet from the ground, with sweet doll faced people piloting them. A tiny car filled with goldfish drove through the streets. It was wonderfully surreal. There was some kind of hair dressing display. Trimmed tumbleweeds scattered by.

At Domus Café, with the brewery onsite, we ate mushrooms on toast and watched people pass.

Apparently they used to think the name Leuven meant ‘forest bog’, but then they realised it meant ‘beloved’. Easy mistake to make. 

We arrived at ten to three for the daily tour of  the Town Hall. I watched a man fold his carrier bag neatly, taking great care to remove all the creases and turn it triangle into triangle, before zipping it neatly away. Adam leaned on things and tried not to fall asleep.

If you’re into your gothic architecture, then you’ll probably know Leuven Town Hall as one of the best in the world. It’s an absolute sight to behold, covered in 236 statues, tall and with lace-like edges. In Belgium, if you marry, it has to be in a town hall, so it’s here in the middle room of the three ornate salons that this happens. I was most interested in the carpets, and what was in that fridge in the corner of the abundantly ornate third room.

In the evening we went for dinner at Zarza. A long established restaurant in the city, aiming to reinvent themselves as a gastronomic destination, they’ve a lovely bright garden room at the back of the building, and a great selection of beers, which they pair with the menu.

An amuse bouche of quinoa and cucumber, and radish, pimento and black olive crumble. Paletta ham, tomato, puffed black quinoa, fine frisee & marinated tomato. Delicious stew of white asparagus and sea lavender with a plump poached egg and croutons. Normandie beef with polenta croquettes, asparagus and mushrooms. Belgian strawberries with elderflower and yuzu, and a strawberry ice-cream pop.

Apparently Leuven’s Oude Markt has the longest ‘bar counter’ in Europe, full of pubs and bars and terraces. However tempting that sounded, we were totally zonked, full of food, and ready for bed.

On Sunday morning we walked through the quiet streets, across the town to Hortus Botanicus Lovaniensis, the oldest botanical garden in Belgium. Created 1783 by the University for its students of medicine, the garden is home to around 800 different plant species. I would live in the Palm House if they’d let me.

Unfortunately the Anatomical Amphitheatre over the road was closed, and we needed to head off before it opened that afternoon, but we still had time to stop off for an ice-cream treat at ‘T Galetje and watch a club-foot pigeon jogging about.

Leuven was a real surprise. A compact and beautiful historical city, famous for its university and less than half an hour drive from Brussels, it was the perfect place for a peaceful weekend. We didn’t do nearly half enough though, so we’ll just have to go back!

Next time we’ll get to the anatomical amphitheatre, visit the stunning University Library and climb the tower for the city views, we’ll take the Stella Artois tour, have lunch at Foodcourt De Smidse, and visit taxidermy shop Animaux Speciaux, and I think we’ll go back to Domus for more mushroom toast.

Travel Notes:

Pentahotel Rooms from €60. Really central and very quiet at night. Breakfast was too busy though.

Zarza Dinner for two at Zarza was around €150. There are lots of other great food options that are more affordable though, it’s Belgium, they know food!

ILUVLeuven ticket €16 gets you access to the University Tower and Library, M Museum, The Treasury of the Church of Saint Peter and Leuven Town Hall (every day at 3pm). You can buy tickets from the Tourist Office or online at

We were guests of Visit Leuven. With the greatest thanks to Visit Flanders for making this trip possible, and Visit Leuven for hosting us in their beautiful city. As always, my opinions are my own (and my ability to seek out disabled pigeons, unfaltering).

Holland: Sweet Dreams in Cheese Valley

‘And this is the Rockefeller Centre, and this is the Empire State Building,’  the lady in the next seat told me, as we trundled down the runway, ‘And this is the view from the Statue of Liberty, and this is the hotel, and this is the rubbish outside the hotel in the morning, and this… look!’ she exclaimed as she zoomed in on the clear plastic bin bags, shuffling back and forth on the screen, ‘That’s our rubbish, in there! That bag!’
I was, of course, enthralled.

I’m getting used to travelling alone. I am happy with my own company. I am happy talking to strangers. I feel pleased that I can drive–train–train–fly–train–train, to another city, in another country, and meet up with a bunch of other people who are equally as interested in all the things as I am.

In Gouda’s Unique restaurant I sat at the end of a long table, surrounded by fabulous Italians. I soon found myself speaking fluently, sharing knowledge and chatting about wine. That’s not true. I just kept saying ‘Tutti Biscotti’ and ‘Buono buono’ whilst smiling in between mouthfuls. Luckily, they all spoke great English and were willing to do so, for my sake (and theirs).

Gazpacho. Steak tartar. Risotto with Chicken of the Woods mushroom and Madeira jus. Dutch beef with asparagus. Apple tarte tatin with basil ice cream. Only five courses. Eyes bulging.

I’ve never eaten Chicken of the Woods, to be honest, I didn’t know it was edible. The texture of chicken, but it’s a mushroom – some sylvan trickery right there. It used to grow from a tree trunk in our garden, and when it looked ripe to spore I would walk past with my breath held, just in case. Had I known it would make a delicious dinner I would have gone at it with a knife and fork.

I realised that I really was living the dream when I reached my hotel room and found a wheel of cheese, a packet of stroop waffles, and an informative cheese factsheet on my bed.

We stayed at the Best Western Plus City Hotel Gouda, next to the former gas and light factory, with the river in front. Lining the corridors, outside each room, was a large photograph of a local scene. I thought mine was of a toilet. Turns out it was actually a basin from the 17th Century fish market. And those sedatives on my bed? Complimentary mints.

My peaceful slumber was interspersed with mushroom night sweats and dreams of yellow gold. Should have had those mints.

We walked through the city, taking in the grachts (not canals!) and making our way, via a small house with a panther-like cat called Freddie, to the Kamphuisen siroop wafel factory.

Through a hidden door in a room at the back of the shop, we discovered the factory.

Climbing the spiral staircase, we watched the conveyor belt from above. Double baked waffles with sticky caramel syrup clip-clopped their way past below. Downstairs we could collect a hot, fresh waffle. There was a slide to take you straight to them.

Throwing myself down a chute in a food factory has never seemed quite sensible to me, (I’ve seen Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) so I took the stairs.

The smell of warm waffle wafted.

In the centre of Gouda, opposite the magnificent Town Hall, is De Goudse Waag. What was once the Weigh House for all the cheese of Gouda, is now a centre for cheese tasting, cheese buying, and cheese museum-ing (You’re right, I didn’t think that one through).

We rummaged round the museum, marvelling at the frames full of fascinating (and often quite amusing) cheese labels, and ate cheeses of different ages – young cheeses just four weeks old, and old cheese that had been matured for two years or more. Good cheese. None of that springy rubbery supermarket stuff you might have been misled to believe was Dutch cheese.

Cheese Valley is a small region in an area known as the Green Heart of Holland, covering four towns and cities, each with its own cheese history and traditions. Bodegraven-Reeuwijk, Gouda, Krimpenerwaard, and Woerden.

They call their Gouda cheese ‘yellow gold’. For centuries these cheeses were made in the region and traded in Gouda city. Not made there, just traded there.

In and out of the courtyards of the hofjes, peering in windows at beautiful homes, finding cats and roses. Maybe this story should have been entitled ‘Cats and Cheese’? In fact, I’d be happy to dedicate an entire website to that, or my life.

Leaving Gouda we drove alongside the green covered canal, a crow flew, same speed, beside my window for a while. It was magic. Gliding past neat houses and lush fields, Grandmaster Flash, it’s like a jungle sometimes, playing quietly on the radio.

We squeezed through the narrow streets and arrived at De Munt, a restaurant located in an old bank in Bodegraven. We were welcomed with plates of local cheese, served traditionally with mustard, and trays of drinks. At first, I thought we would need to choose a drink each, but no, all five glasses were for me. Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, a couple of different Leffe beers and a very grapefruity double beer from the local brewery, de Molen.

Then came the fondue. I’ve never had fondue before, ever.

Everything was local, top quality, easy to source, and delicious to eat. Goose with strawberries and raspberry vinegar. Crayfish with local beef. Beef with tomato and herbs. Chips with truffle mayo. Cheese fondue and bread. I repeat, cheese fondue and bread!

Gratefully clutching cones of award-winning full-fat vanilla ice cream in hand, we continued on to the brewery (what kind of dream world is this that I am living in?)

Brouwerij de Molen is one of the top 100 breweries in the world (and number one in The Netherlands) making 20 regular craft beers, and over 1000 variations – they like to experiment, and they’re good at it!

Back on the road, and a short trip down narrow lanes with steep banks dropping away, down to the dykes and the fields, goats and cows, we arrived at De Twee Hoeven.

Milking 180 cows each day, this fourth-generation farm produces 150,000 kilos of cheese every year. We toured the farm, saw the cheese making facilities, the big salt water baths that the cheeses are dropped into, the stores and then, the cows. It was coming up to 5pm and the ladies were wandering in from the fields for milking time. Everything was immaculately clean, spacious and genuinely top-notch, but I couldn’t help but think it was like a cattle work camp, with the best conditions though, and how horrible some dairy farming methods are in other parts of the world.

A cow licked my elbow and I thought my day was made, until I discovered a pile of cats, and had my second fondue of the day. Second fondue of my life. The dream!

Making room for more food, which is not so hard to do when it’s delicious (and I do think all the good cheese acted as a digestif) we spent the evening at De Florijn in Nieuwerbrug, on the Rhine.

The restaurant has been awarded the Michelin Bib Gourmand for nine years in a row. Chef Brenda de Graaf greeted us with a delicious, and in many ways, rather unusual, menu.

Broad beans with egg yolk and courgette. Local beef with caper berry and sunflower seeds. Asparagus panna cotta with tarragon meringue, apple and watercress. Turnip top soup with tomato. Lamb with white asparagus and peas. And a dessert of rhubarb – sorbet, ice cream, mousse, macaron.

I don’t think I’ve had a savoury panna cotta before, certainly not with asparagus and meringue. On the first mouthful I was disturbed – my brain knew the consistency and said it should be sweet, not savoury. I persisted, my brain learnt something new.

Everything was great, but the dessert was greatest.

When I woke up it was Grass Cheese Day.

Excited, I rushed down to meet the others. After a short walk around Woerden, taking in the Mill de Windhond (windhond means greyhound) with it’s paper bags of pancake flour for sale, and the 100 year old Reypenaer cheese warehouse, on our way, we arrived at the Cheese Experience Centre.

We were greeted by the mayor of Woerden and watched a film about cheese. Grass Cheese Day is all about celebrating the start of a new cheese season. In the spring the cows are let out into the lush green meadows to feed on the fresh grass, the first cheese made with this milk is the Grass Cheese.

Woerden’s first farmers market was held in 1410 and is famous for its regional products. The cheeses arrive on tractors, and on Grass Cheese Day, the dignitaries and visitors arrive in horse drawn carriages.

Climbing up into a traditional carriage, drawn by two horses, we became cheese guests on parade. Through the streets, behind the band, waving at passers-by and cheering children, a line of carriages behind us, and somewhere, a massive 150 kilo cheese to be auctioned off for charity.

Four men wrestled the cheese beast onto the stage, the crowd went wild, press camera-flashes firing, the band playing on. There was even a special cheese song. Someone told me the lyrics said ‘on your breast, cheese tastes best on your breast’. I’ve google translated it. Bread not breast.

“The cheese the cheese, everything is smooth
Nothing is better on your bread
He is keen on big people
Everyone praises the cheese on the cheese
Hooray, you are full fat”

There was also something about a magic wand taking care of the peasant women, but I forget. It was one of the most surreal experiences of my life, and I just went with it, embraced it, and thought about the cheese, and the waffles.

I was watching the auction (and managing to keep my arms from flailing high in biding motion), the show, the old-fashioned traditions, the heritage, costumes and community. Apart from a few signs of modernity (like the camera in my hand) this could have been any year, any era.

A familiarly sweet smell wafted in the air, I looked round, Joel appeared behind me, can of Red Bull in hand. ‘Supermarket,’ he said, shrugging his shoulders. Illusion broken, we wandered the market stalls, rows of cheeses and smiling faces. A bull having its bottom washed, a man making clogs. My cheese allowance didn’t quite reach to the €15,200 of the charity mega cheese, but Joel lent me five euros for some ginger cheese and I was content.

We ate a quick lunch in Van Rossum, a converted arsenaal, now a hotel with a welcoming and relaxed bar and restaurant – open kitchen, big oak beams and excellent decor. Salad with roasted carrots and Blue de Grave cheese. Perfect entrecote. Gutted I had to leave before the strawberry madeleines came out.

I rushed to my train, and it seemed like it was no time at all before I was sitting  on the flight home, the woman next to me chatting away, drinking her own bottle of pink wine and talking me through her bag-full of sweet smelling roses from the Amsterdam flower markets.

All I could wonder was, when the alarm goes off in the morning, will it be Grass Cheese Day all over again?

With the greatest thanks to Visit Holland and Cheese Valley for making this trip possible. As always, my opinions are my own (and my ability to eat cheese is unsurpassed).

France: From the City to the Hills – Grenoble & Vienne

I’d never really thought of Grenoble as a spring/summer destination. To me Grenoble, the capital of the Alps, meant ski, ski, ski. Apparently to Adam’s friend Nigel it meant the risk of nuclear irradiation. Chernobyl mate, that’s Chernobyl.

One, two, three… minutes – the approximate time it took to get off the plane, through passport control, and pick my bag up off the carousel. The airport was empty. Empty.

During the winter 350,000 passengers make their way through Grenoble airport, I’m guessing it will get somewhat busier with the new summer flights offer (Ryanair £9.99 each way, 3 times per week – and the reason we were there) but I was totally surprised by it all (and slightly worried I was in a re-make of The Langoliers).

After dropping our things at the hotel we headed out for dinner, walking between the modern apartment buildings and down through Victor Hugo Square with its renaissance facades, palms, orange and chestnut trees.

 We were off to Restaurant Chez le Per’Gras, a 5th generation, 120 year old restaurant, situated in the Bastille, high above the city. There seemed to be three popular ways to get there – to drive, to run, or to take the cable car.

Grenoble’s cable car was one of the first in the world, built in 1934 it’s a real must-see for the experience as well as the view.

263 metres high, hanging in the air in a 1976 Plexiglas and aluminium bauble, I wondered if I really did need a dinner after all.

Turns out fate had the same idea about my dinner needs – the restaurant really struggled to cater for my allergies. Still, I could have been content with just the incredible views. As the sky turned pink over the mountains, I savoured my leaves of Little Gem.

Darkness fell and we took the cable car ride down into the city, gliding towards the sparkling lights, and headed towards a cocktail bar for a Chartreuse Mule (made from Chartreuse, lime and ginger beer). Chartreuse is the famous ‘green liqueur of health’ created by monks of the region, the recipe dating back to 1605 and made from more than 130 plants.

In the morning we took a street art tour. For the past few years Grenoble has held a Street Art Festival in the summer. Artists from around the world volunteer their time to create the works of art and help put the city on the cultural map. We walked the streets, turning each corner to see something new, from basic tags to massive murals: Antony Lister’s Mime, the amazing Nevercrew’s Ordering Machine, RNST’s la Fille du Printemps, and a 70 metre long mural showing the history of graffiti font on the wall of la Piscine Jean Bron.

We ended our trail at le chat of Christian Guemy, then rushed to the Fromagerie Les Alpages to meet Bernard Mure-Ravaud, Guinness World Record holder and chief cheese geezer.

So much cheese. So many eyes bulging with delight. I can’t eat the squishy cheese, but I was very happy to take double helpings of sweet and nutty tasting Comte, made from the summer milk of cows who spend the season eating sweet herbs in the mountains. Apparently, in October there’s a week-long festival in the street where they bring the cows down from the mountains and parade them, now that’s got to be worth seeing!

We ate an amazing lunch at L’Epicurien: local sausage salad with onion confit, perfectly cooked entrecote with pepper sauce and dauphinoise potatoes, macarons and sorbet. Proper traditional French cuisine in a friendly and welcoming restaurant. It was Lucy’s birthday and this felt like a really joyful celebration.

There are 23 museums in the city. With only a couple of hours to spare we legged-it round Grenoble’s top-notch Museum of Art, getting a whistle stop tour of some of the best art from 13th Century to the modern day. Rubens, Canaletto, Gainsborough, Renoir, Gauguin, Pissarro, Modigliani, Picasso, Monet, Miro, Caulder, Klee, Arp, Matisse… the list goes on. I was particularly taken by Thomas Couture’s portrait of Madamoiselle Florentine de l’Opera.

Although the museum was founded in 1798, the current building was built 1994 and has some amazing spaces, some left empty-walled, giving the sense of immense and valuable space.

There was a huge amount I missed, most disappointingly the Caro (I tried to sell one of those at auction once) and George Rickery Conversation mobile – I’ve been mesmerised by his work before at the Kroller Muller Museum in the Netherlands.

Onwards, from the city into the hills, to the beautiful vineyard of Domaine Corps de Loup (body of the wolf!), in the hillsides of Cote-Rotie and Condrieu.

I’ve never been to a vineyard before, but this was exactly what I’d imagined it would be, apart from the big ol’ dog, I’d not accounted for him.

In the cellars we tasted wine. I tried to describe the flavours. I’ve not mastered my vocabulary yet, but when ‘it’s like a papery leathery Indian emporium, all rich and dusty,’ becomes an acceptable description, I’ll be totally ready for my new wine swigging pastime.

Our next stop was the city of Vienne, and dinner at Muse. The restaurant doesn’t have a website, you might struggle to find them online, but if you’re going to Vienne please don’t miss out.

I could have eaten several more bowls of the amazing green asparagus and smoked duck vichyssoise. It’s not often I eat something so delicious that it stays in my thoughts for days after. There was that rice pudding in Neemrana, and that chai latte in Copenhagen, and now this soup, all added to my ‘when I get a teleportation device’ list. The rabbit risotto was also really good – really French, really local.

After a drink outside the roman temple we headed back to the hotel. Lynsey instructed John on the shoe buffing machine, (he seemed hesitant, but in the morning he was very pleased with his shiny shoes) and we all headed off to bed.

Next morning, we took our lives in our hands and boarded the frantic jazz tram for a trip to the chapel on the hilltop and through the city streets.

As the recorded commentary told us ‘Vienne is nicknamed little Rome’ (at volume level eight, the driver told us, he was training his friend to be in charge of the volume controls) we wound our way up the narrow road, grabbing a glimpse of a cemetery, to the top, for the view.

From Mont Pipit we had a panoramic view over the city – the red tiled roofs, bridges and towers, the weird long boats that bring cruises of American and German tourists, and the Roman amphitheatre which had been rebuilt in 1930s and has hosted the famous jazz festival since 1981.

All of a sudden, the tram started to pull off. We looked at each other with concern, ‘Get on!’ We charged, every man for himself, leaping and clambering through the open doors. We gasped and sighed with relief, glad we’d not been abandoned on the top of a mountain and left to find our own way down. Then the driver walked by, he was training his friend to turn the tram around. We weren’t going anywhere.

When the tram did get going again, we headed down the narrow roads and circled the Roman Pyramid, taking a double trip round the roundabout, past the temple and the Cathedral St Maurice. Children waved at us as we rode by in our caterpillar-like bus tram, an old lady asked if she could hitch a ride and I was tempted to drag her in, her shopping bags looked interesting.

Our final destination (luckily without the tram) was Phillipe Bruneton’s tea and pancake house, in the hills of Pilat Regional Natural Park.

In the kitchen the air was heavy with the scent of raspberry, intense and rewarding after the long and windy drive through the mountainous countryside.

I was more than ready for pancakes, but that wasn’t to be, my hunger was to be satiated by some taste testing and a bit of flavour guessing – peach and verbena, apricot and lavender, geranium and cherry, pomme tarte tatin. Sweet sticky spoonful’s of award winning confiture.

With a taste for jam and a particular desperation for fresh raspberries our journey was almost over.  Luckily there was a sunshiny caesar salad lunch stop at the Bar et Gourmet in Condrieu.

Remember when I said the airport was quiet? It was, and you know what that means? More time for security checks, frisking and generous prodding. This might be a selling point for some people!

After being patted down for the third time and prodded hard in the stomach (I’m not hiding anything round my middle, that’s just my body!) I was spun round. I felt the air on my back, my dress had been lifted up and then… no!… leggings pulled down, not all the way, but enough to provide a partial moon and white out. There’d be no chance people didn’t see, I’m pale and round, they’d be naturally drawn to the glowing bright whiteness of skin that’s not normally exposed. My eyes caught those of the girl queuing behind me, ‘I’m sorry’she mouthed, with a look of concern. ‘You’re next!’ I replied as I was spun back round and pointed back towards my bags. After packing my things away and finding my passport on the floor, it was time to join my travel buddies for the short flight home. Phew!

I had great time exploring Grenoble and Vienne, and I’m already planning a trip back for cheese, honey, markets and museums, but next time,  I think I’ll wear an all-in-one to travel home in!

With the greatest thanks to Grenoble Alpes Isere Airport, Grenoble Tourism, Vienne Condrieu Tourism and Heaven Publicity for making this trip possible. As always, my opinions are my own.

Holland: Adventures in Haarlem

The other week Polly and I took a trip to Haarlem, wandered the streets, saw blossom and cats and beautiful window displays. We ate croquettes and tapas and things we probably shouldn’t have eaten. We bought souvenirs from the second-hand market and postcards from everywhere we went, and a very kind man gave me a tea towel. What a dream.

I’m glad I make notes and take photos of everything, because really, some days when half of my face has swollen up and I’ve accidentally smashed my exhaust pipe off on a pot hole, it’s a joy to be reminded of how lucky I really am.

Everything looks lovely in the Spring. Blossom, sunshine, baby chicks, even the sight of the airport information screen showing a three hour delay, once your bleary early-morning eyes have managed to focus on it, of course.

The reason, the man in the queue said, was that there was ‘too much wind in Amsterdam’, and of course I sniggered, like the child I am, until I remembered that’s where I was heading. Somehow the wind issue was overcome, the flight was brought forward, and in no time at all I was clutching a bar of Tony’s Chocolonely and waiting for Polly at Schiphol airport.

A quick train ride from Schiphol to Amsterdam Slotterdijk, a change and on to Haarlem, and we were straight out of the station and across the square to our hotel – the Hotel Lion d’Or.

I’ve stayed in their sister hotel, the Nova in Amsterdam, it was the ideal city location for me when I was reviewing at Unseen last year, and when they invited me to visit their hotel in Haarlem I didn’t even take a breath before I said yes, yes please!

What’s the first thing you do when you arrive somewhere new? I usually check out the carpets and look for ginger drinks.

Polly and I ate apple and cinnamon pie (I drank ginger tea) in the bright and spacious bar with dark blue walls and green velvet sofas. Gold trimmed china in the reception desk, pictures and plants, big leafed and small. It was all very lovely.

We found our way to Teyler’s Museum. Purpose built in 1794, the building itself is incredibly beautiful both in its architecture and its interiors. The cabinetry and cases are stand-alone stunning, not to mention the actual artefacts.

Rocks and shells, fossils and bones. Scientific instruments made of brass and wood, coins and medals, and books – an incredible collection of historic volumes, and prints and sketches, and all the paintings too. (Like The Legend by Cornelis Kruseman – that little face).

A rather magnificent couple of hours enjoyed in the oldest museum in the Netherlands.

We wandered around the streets finding our way quite easily, saving a map in our minds, remembering where we’d seen nice shop windows and places to go back to. Canals and bicycles. Haarlem is like a more open, scaled down, less populated Amsterdam. I pulled faces at a baby in a tea shop. Polly rewarded me with an old 50¢ photograph of a stranger with nice hair in a charming bookshop, Antiquariaat Hovingh.

In the evening we ate a tapas dinner at El Pincho. Right on the corner of the Grote Markt. Bistec Salteado, Chorizo Asado and Patatas Bravas, followed by a weighty baked cheesecake. We watched the world go by as the bright sun went down behind the pointy roof tops.

I was relieved to sleep so well. I never know how I will fare on the first night in a new place. It was quiet, amazingly quiet. And, (without wanting to sound like a weirdo) I didn’t feel compelled to wedge a chair up against my door before dozing off. Result.

I ate a doughnut for breakfast. Polly had fruit, so it was pretty balanced.

We were heading up to the Grote Markt to meet a man called Walter, probably talking about cats that look like owls, when we heard the beeeeeeeeeep of a bus and then SMACK! It drove straight into a woman on her bike. ‘Oh shit!’ A little dog popped up out of the basket, the bike lying in the middle of the road, the woman lying still on it, a puddle of blood around her head, one leg moving in peddling motion, going nowhere. It was surreal. Poor Polly thought she was dead. ‘I am sorry I am English. Stop trying to move her!’ I commanded, apologetically.

The police came, then a paramedic, then an ambulance. The area was taped off. The woman was bandaged up and loaded onto a stretcher, rushed away. The little dog was looked after by a policeman who had the same hair style. I gave a statement and my card (which I normally think is fun, but in these circumstances ‘I’m Karen Harvey, I do good things’ seemed a bit stupid) and then we carried on, to Walter.

Walter has been leading guided tours since 1990. That’s proper vintage. Haarlem has around 1200 listed buildings, so I guess it takes a good few years to become an expert.

Speed walking after Walter, with his black beret and pointy umbrella, we looped through the streets and lanes, passed the ornate looking Meat Market, and the less decorated Fish Market, into a church and out passed the Hofjes, through pocket parks to look back up at the church tower and it’s crowning onion, and then, after a story about the miracle of Haarlem and ‘a nun bleeding wine from her tit’ (Walter’s words, not mine), we were delivered to the Corrie ten Boom House.

If it weren’t for Polly I wouldn’t have gone to the Corrie ten Boom House. It’s not that I don’t care about the holocaust, it’s just that sometimes I care too much and I don’t want to have to deal with those emotions if I don’t have to.

The story of Corrie ten Boom was horrifying, heartening and empowering. Corrie and her family sheltered around 800 people during the Nazi occupation of the Second World War.

One day the Gestapo stormed the house, they arrested the ten Boom’s and stayed for 47 hours. When they eventually left, those hidden behind the false wall in Corrie’s bedroom escaped to safety. In prison Corrie received a letter, written on the back of the stamp were the words, ‘All the watches in your closet are safe’.

She was released from prison after four months due to an administration error. A week later all the women of her age were killed in gas chambers, around 90 thousand of them.

Corrie returned home and opened her doors to the mentally disabled who were in hiding. After the war she created a rehabilitation centre for anyone who needed it, and then spent the rest of her life travelling the world preaching. She died aged 91, on her birthday.

You really need to discover the full story for yourself, I can’t even begin to explain it or express how it will make you feel.

In stark contrast, crashing back to the modern day, we sat amongst plants, MacBooks and almond milk lattes at Native Café and ate cheese toasties.

At the Frans Hals Museum fabulous floral arrangements in purpose made vessels dressed each room to celebrate the ‘Museum in Bloom’. During the Golden Age (17th Century) Haarlem was the centre of the tulip trade, and Frans Hals was one of the most innovative and famous painters of that time.

A delight to see was Sara’s Dollhouse. A scaled version of an 18th Century home, a miniature museum of life. It’s quite magnificent.

We hobbled over to Jopenkerk (okay, I hobbled, Polly skipped) the brewery and bar built in a historic church that came close to demolition before Jopen came along in 2010 and saved it.

Polly had been invited to try the High Beer (like High Tea, but with beer, obvs) and I was allowed to observe with a soft drink. #beerallergy

Three beers, six accompanying plates. I watched Polly wrestle with her steak tartare and sip her way through to the Koyt beer. Made to an original recipe from 1407 Jopen Koyt is brewed with herbs, specifically Bog Myrtle. I had to have a taste.

Legend has it that, to avoid its hallucinogenic properties, Bog Myrtle can only be picked at full moon by nude witches. You learn something new every day.

I was hungry and Polly had researched an award-winning hotdog for me, so we headed to Thrill Grill. Whilst hotdogs with shredded carrots and hard buns don’t win any prizes from me (I felt like I’d fallen into the remnants of a day-old summer barbecue buffet) on the way there we happened on a pile of books being given for free outside an old Hofje. I picked up a lovely old 1930s hymn book. It’s all in Dutch, but I’ll give it a go.

Gratitude for somewhere safe and comfortable to sleep at the end of the day. I thought about the lady on her bike, about Corrie ten Boom, about the power that each person has within them – if they only choose to use it. And then I went to sleep.

Another day, another doughnut.

We walked the long way, following the river and then winding through picturesque streets, to the Grote Markt, and St Bavokerk.

The 30 metre tall organ has 5068 pipes and the floors are made completely of grave stones, about 1500 of them, covered in famous and interesting names: Frans Hals, Pieter Teyler, Hofie van Noblet… hmmm, that’d be a good name for a cat.

Lunch at the Grand Cafe Brinkmann (which is apparently a bit of an institution and known for its impeccable service. Seems we went on a bad day) and then more of a wander through the streets of interesting independent shops, before arriving at the ice-cream parlour we’d been eyeing up since our arrival in the city.

Not far from the station, and our hotel, we discovered Het Dolhuys, an experimental museum of psychiatry with an emphasis on experiences.

The medieval building, once an institution for lepers and lunatics, is now a place of education and reflection. In terms of interaction, communication and display excellence, this has to be one of the best museums I’ve visited.

One of the first rooms we reached was full of old laundry cupboards, each door we opened revealed items relating to a person, and an audio recording of them telling their own mental health story. Even though we couldn’t understand the language we still picked up so much of the persons emotion in the tone of their voice (and then we read the information booklet).

It’s here that you can see some of the very few remaining  isolation chambers, ‘Dolcellen’, that were used in the 16th Century to lock up those who were seen as busy or aggressive lunatics. The interior of the cell was dark and cold with a thick outer door and a barred inner door. The only furnishings; a wooden crib and a poepdoos (poo box). The only light and air came from a small hatch at the top of the chamber, and the only warmth in the depths of winter was from heated stones that were placed inside. As if life wasn’t already hard enough for those poor people.

The museum is a brilliant reminder of how far studies in psychiatry have come, and how much we still need to do to support and understand mental health and wellbeing.

In the evening we ate with Marcel at Bij Tholen. White asparagus croquette with parsley sauce. Was this the best croquette I’ve ever eaten? It might well have been. Send more croquettes and I’ll tell you.

Bij Tholen has a seasonal menu serving mostly Mediterranean and Dutch food, but every few days they like to add in a special and the changing menu reflects what’s local and available. Indian lamb Korma with a coriander and garlic naan it was then!

I took a woman’s birthday photo and stroked a ginger dog before we headed off into the night, full of food and cheer.

Poor Polly was really ill in the night. Whilst I cancelled our plans for the day Polly managed a few sips of peppermint tea and some tiny crumbs of bread. The hotel team were lovely, they were genuinely concerned for her, and even though we were due to check out, they said she could just stay in the room as long as she needed to.

Polly took an earlier flight home, I headed into Amsterdam to look at a gallery for Shutter Hub, and just like that our Haarlem adventure was over, for now.

Check out my souvenirs!

Lucky postcard, 50¢ photo of woman with good hair, squirrel fork from the secondhand market, 1930s Dutch hymn book, Sara’s Dolls’ House book from Frans Hals museum, and a bottle of legendary Jopen Koyt!

With the greatest thanks to Visit Holland and Haarlem Marketing for supporting this trip, and to Hotel Lion d’Or for hosting Polly and I for three nights in their wonderful hotel. As always, my opinions are my own.