3 Photos, Tuscany Revealed

Roman Quickie

Prior to a holiday in the Italian countryside, I opted for a few days in the eternally everything city of Rome. Not my first rodeo on the city’s tourist track, I elected to visit some quintessential sites along the well-trodden Appian before scouting the local haunts.

Colosseum

First on the must-see-again list is Vatican City. Regardless of your religious preference, spending a few pleasurable hours seeking out the Masters’ works in painting and sculpture should not be missed. Beauty emanates throughout the museum’s ornate hallways from mosaic floors to gilded ceilings.

School of Athens ~ Raphael

Post-art intoxication, pick a neighbourhood to explore like trendy Tridente. Enjoy a gelato whilst window shopping for the latest fashions on display in the area’s designer boutiques.

Gelateria… stracciatella per favore!

Meander down the stylish Via Condotti towards the crowd-filled Spanish Steps. As evening descends unwind with cocktails and a view at the Hi-Res bar in Hotel Valadier, which could compete with the best of L.A.’s see-and-be-scene. Prosecco darling?

Hi-Res Bar

Before you leave, remember to toss a few coins in Trevi fountain. It’s a must. Oh Rome, you are a feast for my eyes and sweet nectar for my soul.

Fontana di Trevi

London Nightscapes: Parliament, Big Ben, River Thames

London puts on a show for Christmas. We have Trafalgar Square’s giant Norwegian Spruce, the glamorous glitz of Oxford Street bursting with lights, a Winter Wonderland extravaganza in Hyde Park, and various “traditional German” Christmas markets. Multi-cultural Londoners universally wish each other “Happy Christmas” bidding glad tidings and good-will to one and all. When I recently visited the Christmas market held on London’s South Bank, it was one beautiful night in the capital. Here are my seven favourite photos.

~ Season’s Greetings from merry old England 

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Getting Christmas-y in Prague

Germany and Austria reign supreme among Europe’s best traditional Christmas markets, however Prague is consistently a top ten pre-Noël destination in part for its atmosphere, market food, and Bohemian crafts, but more-so for the quaint picturesque city that has been proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ever since I saw Tom Cruise dashing through Prague’s postcard framed streets in the film Mission: Impossible, I planned to visit the city that seemed to have captured an aura of romance, elegance, and beauty of a by-gone era. Prague does not disappoint.

History

The Czech Republic has a variant and tumultuous history for such a young European country. For quasi-historians like myself here is a very brief romp across the centuries. The area known as Bohemia was settled by and named after a Celtic tribe called the Boii. From early Slavic dynasties to the fourteenth century’s Golden Age, Prague developed into an important cultural centre and capital of the Holy Roman Empire. Wars, upheaval, Catholic Church versus Protestant Reformers, and the subsequent 300 years of Austrian-Habsburg Emperors. After World War I Czechoslovakia became an independent country in 1918 however the freedom of this first Republic ended abruptly in 1939 with German occupation. Nazi Protectorate then post-war communist Republic until 1968 when political liberal reforms known as “Prague Spring” (and I thought CNN coined that phrase this year) resulted in Soviet invasion and occupation. Not until 1989’s Velvet Revolution did Czechoslovakia’s dissidents defeat communism and democratic presidential elections followed. After an amicable “Velvet divorce” from Slovakia on 1st January 1993, the Czech Republic was born – the country is not old enough to legally drink alcohol in the US.

Today

Six million tourists a year visit the Czech Republic. According to guidebooks (Lonely Planet’s Encounters by Brett Atkinson was my favourite this trip) Prague has something for everyone – history, culture, art and architecture, music, clubs, and the famous Czech beer. Despite Prague’s recent reputation for a bit of debauchery, wild stag and trashy hen nights courtesy of cheap beer and budget airlines, it is not seedy and being mistaken for a working girl by taking a solo late-night stroll in Wenceslas Square is easily avoided. The four quarters that comprise central Prague each have a distinctive character; the historic Castle District (Hradčany), Lesser Quarter (Malá Strana), Old Town (Staré Město), and New Town (Nové Město). Buildings, bridges, and spires aplenty paint the town Gothic to Baroque, Renaissance to Art Nouveau. Everything is accessible via bus, tram or metro, but provided you have decent walking shoes it is better to wander through the cobblestone streets and explore hidden alleyways on foot.

Prague Christmas Market

Spring and summer are probably stunning and mid-winter with a blanket of snow must be magical but take the city centre– a European Norman Rockwell meets Thomas Kinkade painting– add decorative lights, Christmas trees, festive market faire and you have the charming Christmas markets in Prague. There are two main markets, Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square. King Wenceslas from the Christmas carol, “Good King Wenceslas came out on the feast of Stephen” (oh you know it) was in fact a Duke and a Czech patron saint. Hum that tune for a minute and already you’re in a festive mood. Shops and stalls sell all kinds of local crafts in varying levels of quality as you’d expect. I bought multi-coloured Bohemian crystal wine goblets and several bottles of Becherovka, a bitter-sweet herbal drink served as an aperitif or liqueur. If you like duck or pork based dishes, you are in for a real treat in the Czech Republic; roast pork served with dumplings and red cabbage is a national favourite. I opted for street stall dining; dinner for two cost less than £10.00 at the Old Town Square –including grog and mulled wine. For dessert a tubular sugar-crusted cake called trdelnik or trdlo. This special pastry is made by ever-so-carefully wrapping dough around a long wooden pole or “trdlo” and then roasted golden brown over an open fire. The hot tubes of crispy-outside-soft-inside baked cylinders are then rolled in a mixture of almond, sugar, and cinnamon powder. For an extra ten crown you can have Nutella spread around the inside. Delicious. To end the day, many churches and venues like the Municipal Building host classical concerts during the holiday season. It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.

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Enjoy a little of Prague at home – Have a Pilsner Urquell. Czech’s consume more beer (pivo) per person than any other country. Listen to Mozart and wish for someone to invent time travel. Mozart himself conducted at the premiere of Don Giovanni in 1787 and the legendary Casanova attended. Wish I was there. Be inspired to read or re-read The Trial by Franz Kafka, a Prague hometown literary hero.

Cornwall ~ Britain’s surf capital

I road tripped to Cornwall in September 2010 to surf in Polzeath and dine in Padstow. Just one hour from congested London and you’re driving into countryside and patchworks of variable green fields. Breathing easier and gazing towards evergreen and leafy oak trimmed pastures bespeckled with grazing sheep and cows.

Let me start with this, I lived in Los Angeles for eight years so where else but England would one learn to surf. A short walk from my hillside B&B to the Surf’s Up Surf School van and in minutes I’m screeching myself into a damp-chilled-tightly-fitted-full-body wetsuit like some sort of human sausage link. The staff is friendly, relaxed, and helpful and the group lessons are cheap and cheerful. A few on-land techniques and in no time you’re off to ride the waves. I am not sure if my favourite part of the day was thinking I had hypothermia in my left big toe or the fact that after hours of ingesting sea water, chattering teeth and exhausted muscles, it started to rain, rain hard. We are still in England after all.

Do you know what happens when you mix sand with water? Yes, mud. That constant state of muddy-dirt is my impression of Polzeath beach life. I now understand the concept of Wellingtons aka “wellies” because of course in London they don’t actually make sense. I’ve yet to be in anything ankle-or-more deep inside Regents Park. With pruned, frozen fingers and rain-soaked knotted hair, I nearly quit the surf lesson. When you’re tired and cold at some point you’ve simply had enough. Sheer determination made me stay, and at the bitter end I got-up on the board and rode a wave, dude. I even have photos where I appear to be smiling although I don’t remember doing that even once.

After an amble through Polzeath, I know where the other half lives and what they do; they live in this state of chillaxation. The beach vibes from Polzeath to Padstow are polar-type opposite, much like Venice to Malibu in California.

I cleaned up with a party dress and sea-water mangled hair (hey, it’s a look) for dinner at Padstow’s quintessential restaurant, Rick Stein’s The Seafood Restaurant. I would have eaten anything to be fair after a five hour drive and two and a half hours of mastering or rather being schooled by the Cornwallian waves. From the round stainless steel seafood bar centerpiece of the room, you can watch merry fellow diners and the expert fish preparation while surrounded by cool and bright tones, reflective glass, and sunlit rooms. It is a striking ambiance and work from local artists’ adorns the walls. The early dinner scene on Saturday night hosts a variety of clientele from posh locals to up-market holiday makers. I am seated next to a pig’s foot secured in a vice, attached to the rest of the pig-leg which is “making” prosciutto. The hoof is kind of dirty and scuffed up like it had been running, perhaps. The tasting menu is tempting, and considered despite the wave of exhaustion at only 7:15pm. Instead my thick slate placemat anticipates the full-monty of starter, main, dessert, and coffee to come.To begin, lobster salad with avocado and foie-gras (wait, I’m a vegetarian I internally protest, and it’s very wrong). What to say but holy-h-e-double-el-batman, that melts in your mouth. Halibut is perfection. Can’t say no to strawberry pavlova with crème chantilly and vincotto, yum. An aside yet must mention, Moulton Brown’s Rose Granti soap and lotion is so nice in the loo. Not bothered to leave, so a chat with the chef closes our show. Finally headed back through tiny towns where stone houses have living rooms pushing into the road path; driving towards a destination called blissful sleep.

Twelve hours later and I groggily awaken with unsurprisingly sore arms and injured pinky fingers, more accurately red, raw, shriveled digits. The B&B has a corner-window table to enjoy a beach view with a bit of breakfast and the high octane coffee served in Cornwall. Yesterday surfing on day two seemed impossible and although it is physically possible, the happier course is to avoid being battered by the surf again. Instead a walk on the beach past surf school. A toe-tip dipped in the sea touches morning fresh and arctic cold water; dry and warm decision confirmed. Walking on and thinking, strange how the earth feels like it is moving out from under your feet as the tide sweeps in and out. This feeling is even more surreal when you are pulling against water laden gravity trying to egress the ocean with a long-board in tow. Is the earth itself working against you at odds with your person? This and other pondering followed on a beautiful day in Cornwall while breathing in the sun-rays and stroking the sea air.

Note to self: please buy a beach house.

Now at the end of another British summer, surf’s up dude.

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