Tuesday, November 22, 2011


For the past years we’ve been visiting London in November. There’s something comforting about the chill of its dampness mixed with its anticipation of festivity that appeals. The windows of Harrods http://www.harrods.com/ epitomise the season and are always dressed thematically.  In the present miserable economic climate, there’s something joyous about walking around the dozen or so of them admiring the blatant consumerism they portray. This year they’re even more lavish than usual, bursting with Swarovski laden images.

As always we stay in the Rembrandt Hotel www.sarova.com/rembrandt. I recommend to upgrade to an executive room; otherwise the bedroom accommodation can be very spare. Nice lounge area with loads of newspapers, fresh fruit on tap and great snacks. The hotel is handily sited about 7 minutes walk from the tube from Heathrow Airport to Kensington, and is opposite the Victoria & Albert Museum http://www.vam.ac.uk/ . The nice girl on the help desk helps me track down one of Irish designer Eileen Gray’s www.patriciaoreilly.net/eileengray lacquer screens in Room 74 on the Third Floor.

On our first evening we eat in The Good Earth on Brompton Road - superb traditional Chinese food. Set menu around £40. As the weather is gloriously and unseasonably warm, next morning we take an open top bus tour of London – The Original Tour http://www.theoriginaltour.com/, operating for more than 60 years, with language commentaries and live guides – very helpful too, they are. The buses stop at various points throughout the city and it’s a hop on hop off service, the price of £22 covering two days plus a cruise along the Thames as far as Greenwich. Landmarks from the river include the OXO building, famous because of the way it got around the ban on advertising; Shakespeare’s reconstructed theatre; the squat shape of the Gerkin. London Eye (huge and scary), and the Shard, most impressive of all in its gleaming facade, though still under construction.

The Classic Spectacular playing at the Albert Hall http://www.royalalberthall.com/  is our event of the trip, and it doesn’t disappoint. The mainly British audience who appear ultra-conservative give a new meaning to rampant patriotism as they sing and wave the Union Jacks flags that come with the programmes. I particularly enjoyed Grieg’s Morning from Peer Gynt, and the fun of the Can Can performed by the dancers with gusto along the aisles.

Saturday afternoon the streets are packed with shoppers. That evening we eat in the calm peace of Brown’s Hotel www.brownshotel.com. Opened in 1937, it is London’s first hotel, where Kipling wrote ‘The Jungle Book’, where author Agatha Christie hid out and from where Alexander Graham Bell made the first telephone call. The award winning HIX restaurant’s a la carte menu specialises in game, great wines and an English cheese board – understated English luxury all the way, though a far from understated bill!

All in all a good few days - forgetting the three-hour delay in Heathrow on the way back due to fog, but full marks to Aer Lingus for constantl updates as we queued, food vouchers and delightful stewardesses on the return journey.

Friday, November 4, 2011



This year is the 60th anniversary of Wexford’ Festival Opera http://www.wexfordopera.com/. We’ve been going for several years. It’s nice to support our own. We’re quick to do operas in foreign cities – saw The Bartered Bride in Berlin recently and it was a battered production!

Hand on heart I have to say this year Wexford surpassed itself with superb productions. We saw two of the three main offerings. One of the delights of the operas performed in Wexford is that they have been rescued from obscurity. Maria by Roman Statkowski, set in Poland is a political love story done in modern costume and using multi media. It’s passionate, dour and it works magically. La Coeur de Célimène by Ambroise Thomas, first performed in 1855, is French and frothily delicious with glorious costumes. Surprisingly given its brilliant writing, witty dialogues and well-crafted ensembles, it faded into obscurity – some say because of the way it portrays women’s attitudes to men.

As always we stayed and dined in the excellent White’s Hotel http://www.whitesofwexford.ie/: it’s comfortable, with a great spa and swimming pool, central to shops, the opera house and within an easy walk of the harbour. As well as which Whites is host to several of the many other recitals and performances that take place throughout the festival, and has comprehensive art works in the lobby and first floor.

I enjoy shopping when I’m on holiday. Of old and suffering from problem feet, I know of Shoe Style International (http://www.shoestyleinternational.com/) and am a fan of their Hispanitas brand, as much as the staff who bend over backwards to help and ensure comfort. I discovered The Silk Connection, brainchild of Betty Maher-Caulfield (http://www.thesilkconnection,net/) who has turned her passion for travel into a business. From the Far East she’s handpicked pure silk blouses, jackets, underwear and bedding.

On offer in 2012 Le Roi Malgre Lui by Emanuel Chabrier; A Village Romeo and Juliet by Frederick Delius and Francesca de Rimini by Saverio Mercadante.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


Train from Dublin (Heuston) to Killarney, change at Mallow. Grateful don‘t have to cross over tracks – a nightmare operation going up those steps with heavy bags, and a moody lift that's reluctant to rise.

The Malton Hotel (previously the Great Southern) (http://www.themalton.com/) is as fabulously old worldly as ever – richly corniched ceilings, luxurious carpets, lavish brocade curtains, antiques and sink-into chairs and sofas, not forgetting delightful staff. We’ve room 301 again – more than a room it’s a suite complete with lobby and dressing room – all rich fabrics and comfortable sofas. And the flower arrangements we’ve always admired are the work of Mary O’Shea. We come on her dropping cubes of ice onto the compost of a large exotic leaved plant in the lobby. ‘Why the ice?’ we ask. She explains that unlike water it will not drain through but melt slowly, moisturising the plant. A handy tip for our 30+ houseplants.

In Dublin we were enthusiastic about “swimming at least twice a day,” but end up not even visiting the leisure centre, despite great offers of various beauty treatments. Breakfast being one of my favourite meals, I’m in my element with all the fresh fruit, homemade breads and as well as the usual Irish fry-up which I ignore, going for The Malton Poached Eggs – on toasted baps, smeared with tomato relish and topped with hollandaise sauce. Fish chowder is a must for lunch – creamy beyond belief with chunks of fish. We usually settle for dinner in the hotel – table d’hote c. €28, with great fresh local seasonal fish and visually sculpted desserts, and, I hear, a mean Merlot.

There is so much going on in Killarney but on this occasion we settled for:
St. Mary’s Cathedral, designed by Pugin, opened in 1855, served as a famine hospital and shelter during the 1840s. The best of Gothic, with reverential soaring sandstone peaks. A redwood tree near the western doorway marks a mass children’s grave from the Famine.
Franciscan Friary, also designed by Pugin, 3 altars in ornate Flemish style.
Town, A church foundation from the 6th century, house settlement dating from 1500s. Warrens of Lanes – many cobbled, looking as through they’re centuries old - are one of the town’s best features: Bridewell/Green/Pond/Back Lanes.
Mrs Courtney’s Tea Rooms (http://www.misscourtneys.com/) dates back to 1909. It’s a must to visit for lovers of nostalgia – homemade treats include lemon drizzle cake, apple tart, scones, chocolate cakes, as well as a variety of savoury foods. Food is served on gloriously mis-matched chine on embroidered cloths; tea is of the leaved variety, comes complete with strainer and sugar is in lumps in bowls, complete with tongs.
Quills Shop with branches throughout Kerry, for cashmere sweaters less than half original price.
Mr McGuire’s Olde Sweetshop in
College Street
for old fashioned sweets in old fashioned jars. Great selection of Peggy’s Leg, Bull’s Eyes, Satin Cushions et al.
Killarney National Park – ‘what better way to explore the Park than on a bike,’ we were full of enthusiasm. Rent-a-Bike, the O’Sullivan family owned chain of shops have been going since the 1970s. ‘How much for 2 bikes for an hour?’ I ask, thinking of a body unfamiliar with a cycle for some 17 years. ‘€10 and I’m open until six.’ I decline to test cycle and take the helmet insisted on, duly adjusted to my size and strapped under my chin. Husband sets off like Roche; bike and I will walk until we reach the Park. Inside one of the main entrance gates I try and try, but no matter how hard I can’t get my balance. ‘Cycling is not something you forget,’ mutters husband holding onto the seat while I try again. Two women approach, stop and ask how are we? and what’s up? I explain. ‘Give it back,’ says the smallest, ‘you’ll end up breaking a bone.’ I persevere for a little longer but without success and finally take her advice. Nice Mr O’Sullivan is not surprised to see me return.
And I return to walk the Park, peacefully, on my own, meeting and chatting to all sorts of other walkers, while husband cycles to his heart’s content.
Congrats to Killarney Bookshop  (http://www.killarneybookshop.ie/) – shortlisted for Bord Gais Energy Bookshop of the Year.

All in all, a great few days that feel like much longer…

Tuesday, October 11, 2011



A bird’s eye view captured over a weekend cannot do justice to any place and this of necessity is a snapshot judgement. What’s to like or dislike in Berlin? Well… there’s the sensation that the true heart of Berlin has been torn out to be replaced with huge – huge being operative word in Berlin – everything is huge: buildings, streets, plates of food, huge skyscrapers surrounding vast plazas: detailed granite paving and the 1000s of trees lining the streets in some way combat the city’s sterility.

The city is crammed with spectacular historical landmarks.

The main sights are:
  • Berliner Dom, main cathedral;
  • Reichstag (parliament building), built late 18th century to house German parliament, set on fire 1933 by Nazi supporters, bombed by Allies;
  • Victory Column, standing at 69 metres, built 1873 to commemorate military achievements;
  • Kaiser Wilhelm Church built 1880s;
  • Olympic Stadium, built specifically for 1936 Olympics;
  • Charlottenburg Palace, a Prussian monument and reminder of the imperial days of Berlin. It was build by Sophie Charlotte and King Friedrich 1 in late 1600s. She gives a new meanting to party girl as the plaace became famous for her parties which could go on for weeks, and it was where the phrase ‘stinking rich’ was coined, as at that time water touching the body was considered dangerous, so the partygoers used perfumes and powder liberally; also around the same time women aimed for waists no larger than the circumference of a grapefruit, achieved by tightly corseting little girls as young as 5 years!   
  • Topography of Terror – location of Gestapo and SS headquarters during Nazi rein
  • Jewish Museum.

Brandenburg Gate, one of Berlin’s iconic monuments with over two hundred years of history. A former symbol of the divided city, it drew visitors who used to climb an observation platform in order to get a glimpse of the world behind the Iron Curtain, on the other side of the barren “death-strip” which separated east from west Berlin.
While we’re in Pariser Plats (Paris Square, names after the city)  a cream Cadillac pulls up and a bridal party dismounts, plus photographer who lies on the cobblestones to get those memorable shots.

Checkpoint Charlie: Interestingly the name is based on the phonetic alphabet the Helmstedt checkpoint was called Alpha, Dreilinden Checkpoint Bravo and the checkpoint at Friedrichstrasse got the name Charlie. The main function of the checkpoint was to register and inform members of the Western Military Forces before entering East Berlin.
            Today it’s crowded with tourists – bus loads pulling up every few minutes. The story of Berlin’s division is commemorated with powerful black and white posters around the walls, and a series of stalls sell the usual tat. While we’re there a kilted man plays ‘Amazing Grace’ on his bagpipes; giggling girls, wearing the soldiers’ caps, are being photographed with the ‘military’. ‘Not one of those served in the American army,’ sniffs Gabriella.
            After the War East Berliners were paid one voucher for each three hours they put into clearing the rubble of bombed out buildings; 100 vouchers entitled them to be entered into a draw for ownership of an apartment.
Tiergarten: At 1 sq mile it’s the largest park in Berlin; home of Berlin Zoo from 1844; decimated during WW2 when Berliners cut down trees for firewood and grew potatoes and tobacco.

We’re on an Opera Break with The Travel Department, staying in the Ramada Hotel in Prager Platz, 10779. Good facilities, spacious bedrooms with great featherweight duvets and pillows and complimentary water and two small packets of peanuts. How nice, we think. Wrong about the peanuts! At checkout we’re asked to either return or pay. We return them, only – surprise, surprise to find them included in our luggage on reaching home!

Our rep Daniella has 24 years experience as a guide and is a mine of information on history of Berlin, and generous with sharing it. She was brought up in West Berlin and, despite the general consensus, says it never felt like a prison. On our 2-hour buss tour throughout the site she shoots facts, statistics, memories at us until we have a feeling for the place we’re spending a weekend.

The Bartered Bride is playing on one of Berlin’s three opera houses, although the general consensus with Berliners is that city can’t afford three opera houses – no more than they could three airports – one has already closed, leaving two and by 2012, there will only be one airport which can be best described as basically functional with nary a marble floor in sight! Back to the opera, taking place in Komische Oper which specialises in putting on comic operas and operettas. The outside of the building has been restored in hideous modern but inside has kept its ambience, although as with so much else of Berlin, it’s just too big – the stairs, the bar area and even its corridors defy cultural intimacy. It’s an economical production which doesn’t translate into modern, but Smetana’s music is glorious

Wonderful fruits, pastries, particularly the apple-based ones, breads, coffee, wines and beers, as well as apple juices and perch-pike fish simply grilled is a dish to die for. Lots of veal and beef which I found too smothered in darkly glutinous sauces and, but that’s personal. First night we step a round the corner from hotel to San Marino Italian restaurant; good fare – bruschetta and pasta costing about a third less than in Ireland; breakfasts in hotel: huge selection of fresh seasonal fruit; local breads; yogurts; scrambled eggs; bacon; sausages; cheeses; pancakes – great exactly what you want to set you up for a day’s sightseeing.
            Most memorable coffee experience is Sets Café on Schluterstrasse for coffee on Sunday morning, haunt of the young and beautiful. As well as great coffee and charming staff, it’s the place to sit and watch and see post-War Berlin at its best. The girls are long, lithe and gorgeously dressed in designer casuals – camels, tans, navys, greys and blacks – boots, suedes, furs – there’s hardly a ‘pop of colour’ as fashionistas refer to it. They favour tight pony-tails, red nails and discreet make-up. Their men are equally well turned out – Armani and well behaved dogs on splendidly coloured and jewelled leads being stock favourites.

The KaDeWe on Wittenberg Platz is the big and most talked about store in the city - in size its 8 floors are the equivalent size of 9 football pitches. It stocks everything you could think of, and things that are unimaginable – such as fried ants in chocolate! Visit its ground floor Luxury Boulevard for designer clothes; as well as which there are high street clothes, models of exclusive cars, toys, stationery, and has a great food hall, though not comparable to London’s Fortum and Mason – you name it, I reckon it has it.
            The really exclusive shopping area – Chanel, Louis Vitton, Bogetta, Saint Laurent are along Kurfurstendamm’s wide tree-lined street, with small glass outside cages displaying some of their more tempting goods. Here, mostly, casual in neutral colours is king. As expected prices are astronomical: trousers in the region of €1000; bulky sweaters and huge totes – gorgeous leather and suede -  around the same price.

Taxis are relatively inexpensive, about half the price of Dublin’s charges. We set out on Saturday evening for 6.30 mass in St Ludovic’s church, about a 15 minute balmy walk from the hotel. The ceremony goes on for well over an hour and when we come out, it’s not only pouring rain but we’ve exited from a different door and are totally disorientated. ‘A taxi’, we say, and duly hail one only to discover that we don’t have the hotel address and there are several Ramada hotels in Berlin. The woman driver uses SatNav and only navigates by street name and building number. She turns off the meter while we cogitate, eventually husband gets a map from a nearby hotel and shows her area of our hotel, which she duly finds. Motto: Do not leave hotel in a strange city without full address!!

Saturday, October 1, 2011


I wouldn't be an expert on markets or a fan, as I find they are so often filled with tat and rubbish - I've done markets in India, The Canaries, Spain, Portugal, not forgetting a few Irish. With the exception in Ireland of the Friday's market in Listowel, Co Kerry - during Writers' Week - I haven't been impressed.
But the markets on the Cote are something else.
Nice has markets most days. The flower market is understandably gorgeous - a riot of blooms and colours and specemins, and the food market equally interesting, but on Monday mornings if you're in the area make for the Antique Market.
On previous occasions, I have been utterly enchanted with the jewellery on offer - gold, silver, modern and antique. Last year I picked up art deco earrings and great eggcups. This year I drooled over a Spoke dinner service, almost intact, for the €200 mark. I presume it's still there.
The market was more crowded than I'd seen it: a huge percentage of tourists, Americans, wandering loudly around, picking up this, commenting on that and buying very little; European holidaymakers like ourselves, as interested in getting a bargain as we are at enjoying the atmosphere and wondering at the amount of work that goes into stocking and maintaining the stalls; and locals with doe-eyed children hanging out of them.
It's the little things that capture the imagination: on a stand with military memorbilia and decidedly military-looking stallholders sits a small dog with a lolling tongue and a laughing expression. Beside him is propped up a notice which reads in English: Beware. Dog Bites.
A few miles along the coast Villefranche-sur-mer is also a town or village? of markets. Three times a week along the main street there a food market - amazing selections of cheeses, local seasonal vegetables and fruit - currently peaches and nectaries on at their best; herbs; all sorts of favouring peppers; spices and breads, as well as in a poetable oven baked on-the-spot onion tarts - have to be tasted to be believed.
Down towards the harbour, on the days when the cruise ships call, the market sells handbags, costume jewellery, table cloths, table mats, napkins, as well as crystals and posters depicting Hollywood's golden era. There are bargains to be had, the quality of merchandise is good and there's a great buzz around the place.

Saturday, September 24, 2011


Wander around old town's narrow cobbled streets: despite it being Sunday many shops open, althought as with Villefranche many small one-owner businesses appear to have closed since we were last here. The atmosphere is gently buzzy - young people with lots of shopping; old people enjoying being out: elderly men chasing onerous small coffees, their younger counterparts putting the world to rights over long beers; gaggles of young girls, all short skirts, long golden legs and laughter.

Down at the seafront -Promenade Anglaise we stop for coffee, sitting outside one of the many, indistinguishable cages that line the pavement.

Later we eat at Restaurant Franchin on rue Masseney, a stones throw, around a few corners and down a few streets from the Hotel Windsor. Restaurant has an atmosphere of elegant art deco, those wonderful old tiles on floor, series of posters lining the walls, amazing wrought-iron entrance porch and corniche'd ceiling . It is run by the indominatable Madame Florence. A dynamo of energy with a 'Chanel' bob, a bright smile and who operates as a tornado of perfection. We eat: husband: onion soup, Crevettes of prawns and monkfish and glass of house White, finishing with an espresso; I've fish soup - love mustard mayonnaise and grated Parmesan that is part of this soup, Crevettes too,carafe water and green tea. Bill: €89.70 - no service charge.

Anyone who loves shops should visit Galeries Lafayette on avenue Jean Medecin - four floors of clothing for men, women and children, as well as a wonderful household section, and a restaurant which is bright, airy and spacious and serves the best lunch in Nice. Sample the salmon and spinach quiche and I guarantee you won't taste better.

If you like Italian food, La Baie d'Amalfi on rue Deloye serves the best.  It's decor is pleasingly golden, the service friendly. We had Taglioni Rocher and Spaghettata Pecher with a green salad, as well as one extraordinarily pleasant coupe.


We spent a week in Villefranche on the Riviera last year, and liked it and our hotel so much that we returned again, and found the experience even more enjoyable second time around.

The family-run Hotel Versailles, is just a few hundred yards down a hill to the town. It has a bus stop outside - the number 100 runs every 15 minutes to and from Nice and the number 81 cuts into the hinterland - it seems you can go up and down the glorious Cote for €1 a time.

The Hotel Versailles is cut into the cliff face with reception and dining area, as well as bedrooms looking out to the constantly azure bay. We opted for the same room again: number 104 is large, wooden floored with a huge bed and all mod cons. It's expensive but after finishing the first draft of my latest book, it was a glorious and much appreciated luxury.

We woke each morning to a streaky pink sunrise, and wondering if a cruise boat had arrived during the night. This year there were only two during our 6-day stay. Last year there was at least one a day, sometimes three. It'a subtle sign of the recessionary times, as were the number of the small shops in teh town that had ceased trading or were opening for reduced hours.

We breakfasted in hotel - vista across bay is gorgeous as are local cheeses, seasonal fruit - totally divine peaches, nectarines and melons. As we were slap in the middle of a heat wave we spent time at the pool as well as wandering and climbing the narrow streets, which date back to the 14th century when it was peopled by pirates and desired by kings. Once of the sights is the Chapelle de Saint Pierre, once a store for fishermen's nets but since being decorated with ghotly biblical scenes by Jean Cocteau in the 1950s is now a tourist attraction.

If you're wandering around the town a good buy is cotton - shirts, dresses, shorts and trousers in the finest of fine Egyptian cotton. Top quality cotton shirts cost around €49. Markets are held regularly - the market up the town concentrates on foodstuffs: local cheeses, fruit, herbs, breads, whereas the market around the harbour is aimed at capturing the lucrative cruise-ship market, and sells loads of inexpensive but attractive jewelery; leather goods, and general bric-a-brac, but of particular note are the wonderful cotton bags, designed and made by the stall owner who employs 3 people.

The culinary delights of harbour eating lured us each evening, despite the menu up town being considerably cheaper. We watched the sunset change from golden to rose and then streaked violet as we ordered and ate in the warm dusk, watching the ribs ferry in passengers from the privately owned cruisers that anchored a little way out. The girls, all golden and long-limbed put on their heels as they left their little boats.

The tables line the water's edge and each restaurant has its own colour-schemed theme. Travestere serves a bit of everything from fish to pizza but its speciality is a particularly delightful main of veal with creamed mushrooms, as well as pleasant service and good local wines and cheeses.

Commanding an excellent spot on the quay of Villefranche since 1938, la Mère Germaine is part of the fabric of the port The restaurant is haunt of celebrities who roll up in Rolls Royces, Porsches and Lamborginis or are ferried in from their cruisers by the restaurant motor boat. The night we were there a large party dominated with laughter and comraderie, not to mention their unusual taste in dress - trilby hats and tweed capes in the sweltering heat. They departed in two chauffeur-driven Bentleys after being kissed on both cheeks by Monsieur Halap, grandson of Germaine Halap, founder. We chose the set menu at €42 a head: crab cakes/fish soup to start; we both had prawn curry - the best we've ever eaten and finished off with trio of creme brules in coffee, chocolate and natural flavours. Excellent from start to finish.

Les Corsaires, a few steps from the Welcome Hotel, the hotel frequentd by Jean Cocteau, was our only culinary disappointment. The food and service left a lot to be desired: the duck was half raw, although 'well done' was requested; the soup was cold and the service not only abomable but bordering on rudeness.

Nice: Hotel Windsor

Arrived in Nice is afternoon primarily transported by the number 81 bus which on Sundays runs hourly along the Cote coastline - during the week it's half-hourly. For a fare of €1 each we landed in centre Nice, took tram for 2stops (€1 each). Got off at Massena, walked the 10 minutes to Hotel Windsor, sited on the gloriously named rue Dalpozzo.

It should be noted that last year as we were not familiar with efficiency of Cote transport we paid a taxi fare of €60+ for same journey.

We've stayed in the Windsor on many occasions. It's well located in the cobble-streeted old town, and is an architectural gem with wonderful stucco work and a tree-filled garden.

The hotel is run by the Redolfis family, all six play prominent roles ensuring guests comfort. We love it's zany, creative ambiance from lobby and bar artwork and daft slogans: 'Art is Alone', 'Sale Egoiste', 'The Importance of No Importance' and 'Pour au Contraire' to mention but a few, and which are for sale - to the mirrored lift with it's angel riding on a rocket and spookily voiced countdown from 8 to 0 and promise of 'lift-off' on upwards journey - downwards is blessedly silent! As well as individually named themed rooms.

We're on the second floor in Vecchio with Venetian mural in shades of eau de nil, corner jaccuzzi and long, shuttered window looking out over gardens with lemon trees, aviary, swimming pool and sun loungers where breakfast is served. The hotel breakfast has little to recommend it: the fruit is past sell-by, not to mention eat by-date; the bacon, sausages and scrambled egg cold and unattractive, bread of poor quality and not a croissant in sight, and as for the coffee!! We discovered a small bakery down the street where the croissants are fresh and warm and the coffee nectar-like.