Swedish Greetings Snowy-Stockholm: Travels with my Mother

Stockholm makes frequent appearances on best-Christmas-market lists, and rightly so. Part of the Scandinavian peninsula, Sweden’s capital city is just 2.5 hours from London. The City of Stockholm floats on fourteen islands where Lake Mälaren meets the Baltic Sea.

My Top Five Stockholm:

Skansen — A vast open-air museum showcasing Swedish life and culture through the ages. Some attractions include 150 historical buildings, botanical gardens, fairgrounds, animal habitats, restaurants and shops, festival stages and in December a Christmas market.

Stadshuset (City Hall) — Take a stroll in the courtyard and gardens, and gaze at the symbolic three golden crowns (Tre Kronor) atop the Tower; climb to the top for stunning old-city views. A guided-tour is only way to visit the interior rooms of the imposing red-bricked landmark to see the Golden Hall, Prince’s Gallery and the Blue Hall which is the venue for the Nobel Prize banquet. Stadshuskällaren, the cellar restaurant, serves classic Swedish dishes.

Gamla Stan (Old Town) — Comprised of four islands, amble along medieval cobblestone streets, chock-full of beautiful old buildings, churches, boutiques and galleries. Try to find Mårten Trotzigs Gränd, the city’s narrowest street, a mere 90 cm (35 inches). On to the Royal Palace for changing of the Royal Guard; do see the Royal Chapel and ornate Royal Apartments displaying jewelled treasures, tapestries, paintings and furniture. Don’t miss the Houses of Parliament and Nobel Museum. Final stop, Stortorget (Old Square) has a traditional Christmas market; warm-up with a kanelbulle (cinnamon bun) and some glögg (mulled wine).

Drottningholm Palace — On the outskirts of the city, this palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the permanent residence of the royal family. The stunning grounds and royal rooms are open to the public. From May to October, you can arrive via steamship departing from Stadshusbron (City Hall Bridge).

Stockholm Archipelago (Skärgård) — Around 30,000 islands and islets are best enjoyed like a true Stockholm-er in summer for boating, kayaking hiking and camping.

Where to Stay: If you can, reserve a room at the luxurious Grand Hôtel Stockholm, centrally located, perfectly situated on the waterfront. After a day in the city, unwind at the Spa, a Nordic Bath complete with plunge pool or ice bucket shower – to boost your immune system, a steam sauna with stone reclining-benches and granite footstools, a waterfall jacuzzi and a cozy fireplace in the relaxation room. Have a drink at Cadier Bar or savour a Michelin-starred dinner at Mathias Dahlgren’s Matbaren or Matsalen; the food is divine. Nobel Prize winners (laureates) always stay at the Grand Hotel, and on December 10th the lobby is filled with very intelligent men and women in gowns, tails and sashes.

Nobel Day – 10th of December

Nobel Prize Ceremony

Nobel Prize Ceremony

The Nobel Prize is the legacy of Sweden’s Alfred Nobel, a chemist, engineer, inventor and entrepreneur who was born on 21 October 1833 and died on 10 December 1896. On Nobel Day in Sweden and Norway, prizes are awarded to “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” In the Stockholm Concert Hall, Nobel Prizes are awarded in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, and Literature; the ceremony is followed by a gala banquet at City Hall. The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded in Oslo City Hall.

Walking near the hotel on a bitingly-chilly morning, I was mentally contemplating the rest of the day’s program, working out timings and considering dinner options; my intention was to seek input on the choices.

Me [absent-mindedly]: Do you want to….  Do you want to…. Do you want to….

Mother: Do you want to… finish that sentence?!

God Jul (Merry Christmas)! #Sweden

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With love, from Russia: Moscow

Arbatskaya districtThe Russian Federation, the world’s largest nation, is not the easiest or simplest destination. Exhibit One. You probably need a visa, that’s a pain. The application includes strange, although I am sure very important, questions like Do you have specialised skills relating to explosives, nuclear matter, biological or chemical substances. Really? What kind of traveler says yes to that. You must also obtain an invitation (known as a visa support letter) and once you arrive you must register your visa within 7 days, fortunately most hotels will do this for you. Exhibit Two. We (the West) are fighting and posturing with Mother Russia in various overt and subtle ways. The Director of America’s CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), John Brennan, has recently said, ”Russia is a country that will pursue its national interests frequently to the detriment of the interests of the peoples of the countries wherein it operates.” Couldn’t the same be said of Western countries protecting their own national interests or justifying actions “in the interest of national security.” Fine I’ll say it, President Vladimir Putin is a bully. But to quote the Oracle from Matrix Re-Loaded: What do all men with power want? More power. Personally, I doubt President Putin is angling for world domination, and former Empires and leaders in the Free World should probably consider, fact and absolute truth are a matter of perspective. Exhibit Three. The challenges of trying to learn and decipher the Cyrillic alphabet plus Russians are not known for exuding welcoming warmth, and Muscovites in the country’s capital are no exception.

Difficulties aside, Moscow is a paradoxically just-like and the exact opposite of any European capital-city and appealing to connoisseurs of history, culture and avant-garde entertainment:

The Kremlin: Once the citadel of Tsars and the former headquarters of the Soviet Union, the fortified complex is the current residence of the Russian President. Inside the walled gates and towers, find sprawling grounds, Palaces where affairs of state are held and beautiful churches around Cathedral Square each one uniquely and richly decorated with stunning frescoes and iconostasis of prophets and angels. The Tsars of Russia were crowned here. The State Armoury Museum houses the imperial collection of decorative and applied art. Walk through time as you contemplate Fabergé eggs and royal regalia like majestic carriages, crowns, thrones and dresses of the aristocracy. In the dazzling rooms of the State Diamond Fund vast arrays of jewelled treasures including the Orlov Diamond taken from an Indian temple that adorns the sceptre of Catherine the Great and the massive Shah Diamond.

Red Square: The immense plaza adjacent to the Kremlin, its name does not refer to Communism; the word for red in Russian is krasnyy which once meant beautiful. Enter through Resurrection Gate to experience the majestic public arena – home to Kazan Cathedral, Russia’s largest department store, Gosudarstvennyy universalnyy magazin abbreviated to ГУМ or GUM lavishly decorated with marble floors and a glass-roof showcasing high-end boutiques, the colourful onion domes and stunning interiors of St. Basil’s Cathedral, the Lenin Mausoleum enshrining the embalmed body of the first Soviet leader, Vladimir Lenin, with nearby graves of Joseph Stalin and Leonid Brezhnev along the Kremlin wall and the State Historical Museum.

Arbatskaya District: This district derives its name from a Mongol word “Arbat” meaning suburb. Moscow has more than 80 museums, the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Arbatskaya displays pieces from antiquity to 19th century. Pop next door to unexpected gem, the Gallery of 19th and 20th Century European and American Art if you fancy a bit of Van Gogh, Renoir, Cézanne, Gauguin, Matisse or Picasso. On the northern bank of the Moskva River, Cathedral of Christ The Saviour is the tallest Orthodox Christian church in the world with massive iconic interiors and enchanting views of the city from the gilded dome.

Tverskaya District: On the grand shopping boulevard Tverskaya Ulitsa, reminiscent of Fifth Avenue, check out the famous grocery store at No. 14, Yeliseyevsky Food Hall, to satisfy your caviar wishes and vodka dreams beneath the ornate chandeliers and stained glass windows. Attend a performance at the famous Bolshoi opera house and ballet stages. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera “The Tsar’s Bride” is based on Ivan the Terrible and other historical figures; spoiler alert, everyone dies, or goes crazy or goes to prison. Harsh and un-optimistic, yet mesmerizing which sort of sums up Russia. Post-theatre, dine like an aristocrat at Café Pushkin, serving traditional Russian dishes in an elegant 18th century mansion.

Don’t miss Moscow’s famous metro stations, the most beautiful and interesting are artistic monuments with elaborate designs, crystal chandeliers and miniature mosaics.

Whether or not you know your Romanovs from your Bolsheviks, Russian history is fascinating and complex. Oppression, revolution, empires and Oligarchs; part depressing, part romantic, and perhaps why Russia remains difficult yet intriguing and captivating.

Until next time.

Za zdo-ro-vye! / За здоровье! / To your health (cheers!)

Dasvidaniya / до свидания / Good-bye 

exclusive White Rabbit restaurant, Matryoshka doll

dining at White Rabbit, with Matryoshka doll

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marrakesh, Morocco: Travels with my Mother

Easy to embark on city-break from London to Marrakech, flight time 3 hours 20 minutes.

However easy is a relative term when I travel with my Mother. Traveling together, I am the chief travel agent, procurement officer, tour-guide, day-planner, personal assistant and valet. My services include obtaining visas, arranging transfers and even packing luggage. Two responsibilities for my dear Mom, being ready on-time for departure and preparing her handbag of personal items. Getting a taxi from my house to Victoria Station was the first leg of our journey to Morocco. Minutes before we arrived to Victoria I asked, as more of an aside comment, “are your meds in your purse?” Blank stare. Reply, “no they are on your kitchen counter.” Although I believed we are over-prescribed in general on medications like Lipitor and Lisinopril, you can’t just stop cold turkey. So our lovely cab driver turned around and drove us back and forth. One hour and £100 later, we returned to Victoria, waited for an Express Train to Gatwick Airport and unsurprisingly missed the baggage drop deadline. British Airways could fly us the next day, but suggested booking online with Easy Jet. Moments later we were confirmed ticket holders for Easy Jet’s afternoon departure and had five hours to review the morning’s fiasco.

Me: We’re missing half a day in Marrakech.
Mother: Yes but this airport is so nice.
Me: I had to buy two one-way flights, plus the cab.
Mother: Who cares, it’s only money.
Me: Uh-huh, my money.
Mother. Exactly (cue cheeky smile).

Onwards to Marrakech.

Although there are many charming riads (large traditional houses built around a central courtyard, often converted into hotels), I definitely recommend the regal palace-hotel, Hotel La Mamounia, located inside the walled gates of the old city. Possibly the best hotel in North Africa, richly decorated using traditional Moroccan motifs, horseshoe arches and intricate geometric-patterns with bold colours.

Also within the old city, or medina (meaning “town” in Arabic):

Plaza Djemaa El-Fna, a bustling open market by day that transforms into a hot-spot of restaurants and entertainment by night. Watch and experience true Moroccan life in this square which was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Koutoubia Mosque, named the “Booksellers’ Mosque” because manuscripts used to be sold around it. With its distinctive pink minaret, the mosque is the city’s oldest building dating from the 12th century. Like most mosques in Morocco, closed to non-Muslims.

The Souk or marketplace, spread over narrow and winding alleys, is arranged by type of goods or crafts sold. Some specialities of Morocco include carpets, leather goods, slippers (babouches), Berber jewellery, decorative metal lanterns (known as fanous) and Argan oil. Argan trees only grow in southwestern Morocco, and the oil extracted from the olive-like fruit is used in beauty treatments and cooking.

As we were walking along the quiet back streets, we passed a couple entering the modest and inconspicuous door to their home. This French couple from Lyon lived in Morocco for five years, I know this because our French speaking Moroccan guide asked them if we could see inside their house. It was lovely with a fountain in the interior courtyard and vibrant blue and yellow floral design patterns. I can imagine if strangers invited themselves into my house in London! Hospitality in Morocco is a matter of tradition and honour which makes the country very welcoming to visitors.

French couple's house!

house of a very nice French couple!

Excursions:

From Marrakesh, you can trek the High Atlas Mountains or race across the Great Sahara. We choose a day-excursion to Asni, a Berber village near the Atlas Mountains just 60 kilometres south of Marrakesh. With your local Berber guide walk along the foothills among pine, oak, juniper trees and gaze at the mountain splendour. Mount Toubkal is the highest peak in the Atlas Mountains and in North Africa. Although the non-nomadic Berber tribes rely on agriculture, tourism also plays a large part in their micro-economy. We purchased a year’s supply of Argan oil products from a village shop where my Mom asked the shop assistant, using sign language, to use the ladies’ room. My Mother proceeded into the corner cubicle, closed the door and seconds later her head peaked out and her hand motioned for me to “come here!” No way. But I did, and I watched her negotiate the tiny empty room and contemplate the squat toilet, a ceramic ground-level opening with foot pedestals. “You’re going to need to hold my bag.” Always a shock those toilets, but she did great. Cue hand sanitizer.

We rushed back to our car through the maze of vendors encouraging us to pause and bargain. As we breezed by a meat-seller’s stall, he was hanging slabs and flanks above a neatly arranged rows of chops. Bearing in mind Morocco is a primarily Muslim country, they don’t eat the pig. Randomly, as she trotted past, my Mom yells to this man, “is that pork”? Cue quizzical look.

Kasbah Tamadot

Kasbah Tamadot

On the drive back to Marrakesh, we stopped for lunch and traditional mint tea at the beautiful Kasbah Tamadot; many opt to stay longer at this hotel-oasis owned by Sir Richard Branson.

And so ended my Marrakesh weekend in Morocco, the diverse, fascinating and visually stunning country in the northwestern corner of Africa. Our journey home was blissfully uneventful.

“If you have only one day to spend in Morocco, spend it in Marrakesh.” ~ Winston Churchill

Vatican City (Città del Vaticano): Travels with my Mother

Confessions of a delinquent travel writer.

I have been traveling a lot which is quite possibly the only marginally acceptable excuse for neglecting my writing. And confessions are appropriate, as this post recounts Vatican City and travels with my Mother.

Arriving in Rome, the Eternal City evokes memories of the past mingled with a present-day chaotic vibrancy that imprints on you every time you visit. However this trip was more Rome adjacent as my uber-Catholic Mother marshalled us on daily excursions to Vatican City, yes daily, and size does not matter to the smallest sovereign state in the world, the mighty HQ of Roman Catholicism.

St. Peter’s Square: The plaza directly in front of the basilica can hold crowds of up to 400,000 people. Designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini to illustrate the extended arms of Mother Church embracing the world, at the centre of elliptical-shaped square is an Egyptian obelisk flanked by two granite fountains. The massive semi-circular Tuscan colonnades, formed by four rows of Doric columns that optically converge into one when viewed from the foci (look for the marble disks in the cobblestones), are testament to Bernini’s architectural and geometric wizardry. The sculptor and his students also created 140 statues of popes, martyrs, evangelists and other religious figures that stand on top of the plaza. Sense the grander, wealth and power of the Church if you enter from Via Della Conciliazione, the wide avenue running from the River Tiber to St Peter’s Square.

St. Peters Basilica: With capacity for 60,000 worshipers, the basilica is bursting with thousands of pieces of art, including Michelangelo’s Pietà and Bernini’s four-posted, solid bronze canopy over the main altar. You will not find a single painting though, only mosaics, images created by arranging tiny pieces of glass. For a 360 degree view of St. Peter’s Square and the city of Rome, climb the 551 steps to the top of the cupola (dome) designed by Michelangelo. Don’t forget to descend into the grottoes, the vast underground crypt housing tombs of many popes including John Paul II.

Of course my Mom wanted to attend Mass, offered at many alters in the basilica, and celebrated in various languages including Latin. We opted for an Italian mass at the Alter of Saint Joseph.

The Vatican Museum: The museum is enormous with plenty to offer lovers of art, sculpture and history – Egyptian mummies, Etruscan bronzes, classical statuary and modern paintings. The collection is displayed in 54 galleries and along ornate hallways and corridors. Do not miss the Gallery of Maps with 40 topographical maps of Italy showcasing the art of cartography, or Raphael’s frescos, commissioned as wall decoration for the Papal Apartments, particularly the School of Athens depicting the greatest thinkers of antiquity. And then the Sistine Chapel, home to Creation ceiling and the Last Judgement altar wall, where the College of Cardinals gather and new Popes are made. Personally I prefer landscape art and nature scenes but a few man-made achievements you must see with your own eyes. Whether you label it genetic-genius or God-given talent, the frescoes of Renaissance master Michelangelo that adorn the Sistine Chapel make that list.

Pope Francis: Assuming the Pope is in residence, visitors may opt for Sunday’s Papal Blessing or Wednesday’s Papal Audience, both are free although the later requires tickets. On Pope-day, enter the Square with match-level security, anticipation heightens, chanting begins, “Padre! Padre!” until, from his private apartment, the curtains flutter and the Pope emerges. He opens with a greeting in multiple languages, and upon hearing your own “good morning,” more frenzied cheering. Hysteria befitting a pop star, the Holy Father carries on in Italian with the crowd drinking in every word, until he closes with the Angelus prayer and a blessing. You do not need to be Catholic to appreciate the experience, although if you are devout like my Mother, you may go delirious with joy.

Where to stay: One of the best hotels in Rome, Hassler Roma is located at the top of the Spanish Steps offering luxurious accommodations, 5-star service, beautiful rooftop views and a Michelin-star restaurant, Imago. Your own inner sanctum in the heart of the city; I do not want to stay anywhere else.

We did manage one evening stroll around Rome, and the obligatory coin into Trevi Fountain to ensure our return.

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Me: Take my picture? Mom: Ok [all photo bursts!].

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walking along Tiber River

That’s all for now, Ciao!

 

For the love of motorcycles, joy-riding England

first time bikerDo you have any mental defects? Wait, what? That question was asked and answered when I hired a motorcycle in London. Something we’d all like to inquire during the course of our day, such a time-saving query. I’d never ridden a motorcycle. Bikes are dangerous. In fact, bikes rarely capture my imagination unless there are two people riding. Then I may wonder who they are, where they’re going and why they don’t have a car. So here’s what happened. I had a friend in town who’s pretty much Zen-and-the-Art-of-Motorcycles. He suggested a ride to the coast, and since he has the required license which is an absolute prerequisite, I agreed.

open roadAs a novice biker, I’m compelled to relay some first impressions. Beware: either everyone around you is oblivious to your presence and therefore trying to kill you, or they are genuinely curious about what type of person is riding. Hope for the later, assume the former. Sunshine and warm days are preferable. On a motorcycle, you are at the mercy and whim of the weather. Closer to nature than usual. Feeling the glorious elements, without the deceptive safety barrier and comfort of a metal frame. You and the road, not a metaphor. Going fifty miles per hour feels like the wind is playfully trying to unseat you. Sixty-four and the bike is fighting the air, unclear if you’re being thrust backwards or hurled toward your destination. Why do those cars have their wipers going, is it raining? Can’t feel it. Can’t see either. Seventy-three miles per hour and the wind is gently but firmly punching your shoulders in rhythmic cadence, left, right, left. Every muscle is ready, awareness levels on high alert. Fatigue reminds you to rest, replenish your fuel-levels and maybe take the opportunity to investigate your locale.

ready to ride

Turns out, motorcycles are cool; they can take you to another world or offer a new perspective on this one. Off the motorways, beyond the A-roads, that’s where you find the extraordinary. The British Isles are beautiful, especially the countryside. Picturesque, quaint, charming. Inns and pubs, pastures and fields, plus endless opportunities to follow the little brown signs that indicate an attraction of some description. A road trip to Brighton turned into a stop-over in Bognor Regis. That is the beauty of the open road and having only an intention in mind.

My fluid itinerary started in Wandsworth hiring a Suzuki from About Town, taking some refreshment in Surrey at The Cock Inn Pub & Dining and then onwards to the walks and views of the National Trust’s Box Hill. Not just a scene location in Jane Austen’s Emma, Box Hill is a summit of the North Downs, a ridge of chalk hills in southeast England that stretch from Farnham in Surrey to the White Cliffs of Dover in Kent.

Box Hill

Carefully traverse the aptly named Zig Zag Road and cruise toward Denbies Wine Estate or Summer’s Place Auction Ltd, an auction house specialising in garden statuary and natural history. Don’t miss the pretty market town and civil parish of Arundel, situated in a steep valley in West Sussex. With an immense castle and lovely shops, Arundel offers an ideal setting for some respite.

Some may scoff at Bognor Regis, a traditional seaside town but the reasonably priced, no-frills restaurant in the Navigator Hotel is welcoming and surprisingly lively, and nothing compares to sunrise on the coast.

Moral of my story: Travel your path anew. Drive a different route to work, walk or cycle, take the train. Abandon your routine. Avoid the familiar. Experience the world in a way that’s unusual for you, and love the journey.

biker chick

 

 

 

 

 

Shall we summer on the Côte d’Azur?

Some Good LifeThe southeast coast of Provence on the Mediterranean Sea, known as the Côte d’Azur, is teaming with resorts and beaches from Bandol to Menton. The most glamorous stretch of the French Riviera extends to the Italian border and includes Monaco, Nice, Cannes and Saint-Tropez. Hire a car, rent a yacht, settle into a villa or bounce from town to town. Let me show you.

Thank you to our friends at Heliport de Monaco.

Heliport de Monaco

A taste of Provence, sweet France

Fly from London to Marseille in less than 2 hours and land in Provence, the idyllic southeast corner of France that is home to artists, lavender fields, lush vineyards, divine cheeses and relaxing sun-spashed days that define joie de vivre.

Only leave Marseille, the bustling port city Alexandre Dumas called “the meeting place of the entire world” after you’ve sampled the bouillabaisse, a regional classic, seafood stew. On to Aix-en-Provence, and stay in the 5-star Le Pigonnet located in the city centre.

Whilst in Aix-en-Provence (abbreviated to Aix, pronounced ‘X’), meander through century old streets in this colourful university town. Weekend markets, fashionable cafés and for art-lovers, follow in the footsteps of Aix-native Paul Cézanne for whom “art is a revelation of an exquisite sensitivity.”   

Just 15 minutes north of Aix, the remotely-situated Bastide La Valentine is a six-bedroom stoned-built house in the district of Puyricard, an ideal base for outings in the Provençal countryside. 

Wineries: If you only have time for one, visit Mas De La Dame or “the women’s farmhouse” which is managed by sister-team Caroline Missoffe and Anne Poniatowski and has produced wines and olive oils for four generations. Seductive, inviting and steeped in history – Nostradamus, Van Gogh and Simone de Beauvoir have connections to this picturesque vineyard. Also nearby – an estate worked by the Négrel family since 1813, Mas De Cadenet derives its name from the word “cade” a local juniper-like shrub. These winegrowers produce vintages under the prestigious AOC-appellation, Sainte Victoire. For an ultra-modern organic winery, Château la Coste practices biodynamic principles of agriculture; the vineyard has a wine shop, bookshop and several cafés. 

Perched Villages: Located mainly in the Lubéron region, villages-perchés are hilltop towns that were built around castles during the Middles Ages. Gordes is one of the prettiest and most popular villages.

One last stop before returning to Marseille, the port town of Cassis, nestled into limestone hills on the southern coast, known for excellent seafood and AOC white wine.

A taste, a glimpse, a fraction of a sliver of the region. I’ll soon be wanting more. Reminiscent of Peter Mayle’s bestseller, A Year In Provence, that would be a lovely start.