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July 28, 2017

Experience the nostalgic pleasure of steam train railways around North Wales

Experience the nostalgic pleasure of steam train railways around North Wales

Four steam trains in three days – what a treat. I was on on a very special trip to experience the delights of North Wales Heritage railways, sampling itineraries from specialist railway tour operators Great Rail Journeys and Rail Discoveries.

Ffestiniog Railway

Ffestiniog Railway steam train Merddin Emrys

Engine driver Paul on Merddin Emrys

The heat is overwhelming. There’s a smell of coal dust, hot metal and sea-salt. Steam hisses and a seagull squawks overhead. Adults ready their cameras, children giggle with excitement and the sense of anticipation builds. “Keep right in to the side there and watch that pipe; it’s boiling hot and will give you a nasty burn if you touch it.” Engine driver Paul ensures I’m ensconced in my tiny corner of the cabin, gives a brief nod to stoker Andrew, a piercing whistle shrieks across the river estuary out to sea, there’s a chuff-chuffing from the steam train and we are on our way.

View from inside Ffestiniog Raliway steam engine cab

View from inside Ffestiniog Raliway steam engine cab

I’m on the very splendid Merddin Emrys, a push-me pull-you Double Fairlie locomotive built in 1879, on the  Ffestiniog Railway, fulfilling a life-long dream to travel on the footplate of a steam train. The Festiniog Railway Company, in North Wales, is the oldest surviving railway company in the world. It opened in 1836 to take slate from the quarries of Blaenau Ffestiniog to Porthmadog for export around the globe. We used to holiday in nearby Llandudno and I remember seeing the little train chugging along the track and wishing we could go on it … and now I’m finally here.

Minffordd Station - Ffestiniog Railway steam train - photo Zoe Dawes

Minffordd Station

The train slowly gathers speed as we pass fields of sheep and quaint cottages. People wave as we rumble through Boston Lodge and cows stop grazing to gaze at us as we steam by. At Minffordd, where we pass another steam train going in the opposite direction, I have to leave the engine and join the other passengers in one of the lovely old wooden carriages. We slowly start the steep climb into the mountains where the scenery becomes wilder through the glorious Snowdonia National Park. Sunlight glimmers through wooded groves and we disappear into a tunnel before doing a loop-the-loop at the Dduallt Spiral.

Ffestiniog Railway Bara Brith and Welsh Cakes

Bara Brith and Welsh Cakes

Afternoon tea arrives; a plate of local Welsh Cakes and Bara Brith (fruit loaf) are most welcome. Against railway rules I put my head out of carriage window and watch the steam train puff its way round the curve of the narrow-gauge track. The sight and sound of this sturdy little engine brings back many memories of childhood and a world where time seemed to go at a much slower pace. We arrive at Blaenau Ffestiniog Station and we have a quick look at the brand new, very luxurious, Pullman Observation Carriage, with beautiful wood panelling and maps of the railway route carved onto the tables. On the platform we watch as Paul and Andrew jump on top of the engine to check it and fill it with water.

Steam train at Blaenau Ffestiniog

With its twin funnels and gleaming red livery,  Merddin Emrys is a fine example of a Victorian steam train and I feel privileged to have spent some time in its company.

Welsh Highland Railway

Welsh Highland Railway steam train

Welsh Highland Railway steam train

We had started the day in castle-dominated Caernarvon, boarding the Welsh Highland Railway, UK’s longest heritage railway, that took us inland, past the foot of Snowdon and on to the pretty village of Beddgelert. Our train was pulled by a mighty fine black locomotive, NG/G16 No.87, built in 1937, originally used in South Africa and rebuilt in the Ffestiniog Railway’s own Boston Lodge Works. En route we got superb views out towards the Lleyn Peninsula, beside old slate mines and tiny railway stations, past lakes emerging from steamy windows, near rushing waterfalls and on up into the mountains.

Lake View from Welsh Highland Railway steam train North Wales

View from our railway carriage

Clare, our very informative host from Ffestiniog Railway Company, outlined our route on the map and gave us some facts and figures about the company and its rolling stock. Well-equipped walkers got off at one of the halts to hike up Wales’ highest peak.

Welsh Highland Railway route

Welsh Highland Railway route

As we crossed the impressive Glan-yr-afon Viaduct I gazed up towards the summit of Snowdon, shrouded in mist. This stretch of the track is one of the steepest gradients in Britain, 1-40 and we snaked our way back down through the forest toward Beddgelert, Snowdon playing hide and seek along the way.

Welsh Highland Railway steam train Snowdonia - North Wales

Welsh Highland Railway steam train

As we disembarked in Beddgelert, the rain arrived, not so unusual in this part of Wales. However, by the time we’d got our coach to the quirky village of Portmeirion it had stopped and the sun was peaking out again.

Llangollen Railway

Llangollen Railway Station and 80072 steam train

Llangollen Railway Station and Steam engine 80072

The following day we headed off into the valleys for a ride on the Llangollen Railway, the only standard-gauge heritage railway in Wales. As with many other railway lines, this was originally built for the mining industry, but Llangollen has been a tourist destination for many years. It’s a very attractive town on the River Dee and the railway is its biggest attraction. The quaint Station Building sets the scene with old suitcases piled on the platform and uniformed guards, drivers and other staff bustling about making sure everyone gets aboard in time for departure. We had a reserved carriage all to ourselves again, with scones, jam and cream laid out on crisp white linen – very civilized. The velvet-upholstered seats and lacquered wood panelling all conspired to give that feeling of nostalgia for rail travel in stylish luxury.

Llangollen Railway reserved carriage North Wales

Reserved Carriage

We were being pulled by beautifully restored locomotive 80072, built in Brighton in 1953 to run on the south coast, but left to rot for many years after the Beeching cuts of the 1965, which is when the Llangollen Railway also closed for main-line travel. There are few transport sounds more evocative than the huffing of an engine as it builds up steam on its way out of a station. We got that experience a number of times as there were a three stops along the line, which runs beside the sparkling River Dee, to Corwen. The return journey was equally delightful and everyone thoroughly enjoyed our very special steam train journey.

Llangollen Railway steam train -photo Zoe Dawes

Llangollen Railway steam train

After lunch we went on a leisurely glide along the Langollen Canal on a horse-drawn boat – perfect end to a perfect day.

Snowdon Mountain Railway

Wyddfa steam engine Snowdon Mountain Railway - photo Zoe Dawes

Wyddfa

On our final morning we set off early to get the 9.30am Snowdon Mountain Railway steam train from Llanberis Up the Mountain. We went up and down in glorious sunshine, pushed up by Wyddfa, a Swiss-built engine from 1893, driven by Paul and stoker Robert. It was a truly epic journey – watch out for the story in another article …

Top of Snowdon with Mountain Railway train North Wales - photo Zoe Dawes

Top of Snowdon with Mountain Railway train

Great Rail Journeys and Rail Discoveries Steam Train Tours

I travelled to North Wales courtesy of Great Rail Journeys and Rail Discoveries. Our group stayed in Llandudno at the very comfortable Dunoon Hotel, with superb food in charming surroundings. We also had an excellent Italian meal at the Wildwood Restaurant in the town centre.

Dunoon Hotel Llandudno

Our group at Dunoon Hotel

Great Rail Journeys Railways & Castles of Wales Tour includes a stay at the award-winning Dunoon Hotel, journeys on the Welsh Highland, Ffestiniog and Snowdon Mountain Railways, and excursions to Portmeirion Village and Caernarfon and Conwy Castles. GRJ Independent can also tailor make holidays to the region for those wishing to travel to Wales on an individual basis Save up to £30pp when booking on or before 15th August 2017.More details Railways and Castles of Wales.

Rail Discoveries Railways of Wales Tour includes a stay at the Kensington Hotel, journeys on the Welsh Highland, Ffestiniog and Llangollen Railways, a horse-drawn boat trip on the Llangollen Canal, and excursions to Portmeirion Village and Caernarfon Castle. Save up to £30pp when booking on or before 15th August 2017. More details Railways of Wales.

Andrew and Paul on the Ffestiniog Railway steam train - photo Zoe Dawes

Andrew and Paul on the Ffestiniog Railway

Love Narrow-Gauge Railways? Read my review of Small Island by Little Train – a narrow-gauge adventure by Chris Arnot.

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North Wales Steam Railways

 

July 1, 2017

Canada 150: celebrating this magnificent country’s history and culture in Ottawa

Canada 150: celebrating this magnificent country’s history and culture in Ottawa
Ottawa Canada 150 - photo zoe dawes

Ottawa celebrates Canada 150

Happy Birthday to you

Happy Birthday to you

Happy Birthday dear Canada

Happy Birthday to you!

Maple Leaf platter Canada 150

Beautiful wooden Maple Leaf Platter seen in Ottawa Craft Store

On 1st July, 1867 Confederation united the country’s first three provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Canada (including Ontario and Quebec) into a federation known as the Dominion of Canada. Now, a hundred and fifty years later, the country is celebrating that date with a year long party of events and commemorative memorabilia. I recently spent a week in the capital, Ottawa, where the whole city was en fete and getting ready for Canada 150 in colourful style.

Aberdeen Pavilion Lansdowne Park Ottawa Canada 150

Aberdeen Pavilion at Lansdowne Park, Ottawa

I will be writing about my trip in more detail later, but in the meantime, here are a few images from Ottawa that sum up the beauty, diversity and history of Canada.

Images of Canada 150

Queen Victoria

Portrait of Queen Victoria in Ottawa Parliament Canada 150

Portrait of Queen Victoria in Ottawa Parliament

This glorious portrait of Queen Victoria hangs in Canada’s Parliament Building, reminder of the country’s strong ties to Great Britain and its historic past. On a tour our guide told us it was her favourite painting there and that no-one knows who painted it. The portrait has survived numerous disasters including fire so it’s clearly a survivor.

Canadian Parliament

The Parliament Building with Peace Tower Ottawa Canada 150

The Parliament Building with Peace Tower

Parliament Hill is the focus of the main Canada 150 party held on July 1st, as well as the annual Canada Day celebrations. When I visited, there was a great deal of work being done in preparation for the big day, as well as a lot of renovation work. It’s a meeting point for locals and visitors who enjoy walking round Parliament Hill as well as relaxing on the lawn. NB. From 2018 the main Parliament Building will be closed for at least 10 years for total refurbishment, so get there soon if you want to have a look round!

Aninshinabe Scout

Statue of 'Anishinabe Scout' by Hamilton MacCarthy overlooking Parliament Hill Ottawa Canada 150 - photo Zoe Dawes

Statue of ‘Anishinabe Scout’ by Hamilton MacCarthy

This wonderful statue of the ‘Anishinabe Scout’ was made by Hamilton MacCarthy in 1918. It stands opposite Parliament Hill overlooking the Rideau Canal and Ottawa River. It represents the First Nations people who helped in the development of Canada. All round the city there are many excellent sculptures, some dating back to the 19th century and others very contemporary.

The Canadian Museum of History

Canadian Museum of History Ottawa Canada 150 - photo Zoe Dawes

This is the stunning Main Hall in Canada Museum of History. The museum is actually in the city of Gatineau, over the river from Ottawa, but feels very much a part of the capital. The lower floor has a large collection of First Nations totems and many artefacts telling the story of the people who lived in this country well before the first travellers arrived. Unfortunately, the renowned Canadian History Hall was closed in preparation for the Canada 150 opening on July 1st but I am sure it is fascinating.

National Gallery of Canada

Maman and the National Gallery of Canada Ottawa - photo Zoe Dawes

Maman and the National Gallery of Canada

A ginormous spider lurks in front of the National Gallery of Canada, quirky monument to the country’s artistic spirit. Towering 30feet above the street, Maman, was made by Louise Bourgois from steel and marble. Inside the beautiful glass museum is a comprehensive collection of Canadian artworks. ‘The National Gallery of Canada strives to provide Canadians with a sense of identity and pride in Canada’s rich visual arts heritage and to make art accessible to all.’ I especially enjoyed the Indigenous Art Galleries, where intricate antler carvings are beautifully displayed next to simple images of wildlife and people.

Maple Syrup

Maple Syrup Stall Lansdowne Market Ottawa - Canada 150

Maple Syrup Stall Lansdowne Market

One of the most famous products of Canada is maple syrup. The Maple Leaf features on the Canadian Flag and the trees can be found all over Ottawa as well as in many other parts of the country. I learnt all about maple syryp production at Fulton’s Pancake House and Sugar Bush, a couple of hours’ drive from the capital. (More on that trip in another article.) There are shops selling this luscioous syrup all over the city and at Lansdowne Park Market I found a stall not only selling it but also explaining the changes in labelling that have recently been brought in.

Obama Cookies

Obama Cookies in Le Moulin de Provence Ottawa Canada 150 - photo Zoe Dawes

Obama Cookies in Le Moulin de Provence

So what has Barack Obama got to do with Canada 150? Well, when he was USA President he visited Ottawa and called into the Moulin de Provence bakery in downtown Byward Market. He bought one of their iced maple leaf cookies. The bakery was very savvy in its marketing them as ‘Obama Cookies’ and now every visitor to city has to try one of these iconic biscuits. Of course, I bought one in a commemorative tin to bring home.

The Rideau Canal and Chateau Laurier

The Rideau Canal and Chateau Laurier Ottawa Canada 150 - photo Zoe Dawes

The Rideau Canal and Chateau Laurier

One of the greatest Canadian engineering feats of the 19th century, the Rideau Canal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, flows through Ontario, finally cascading out into the Ottawa River. Constructed to aid British military operations against a possible American invasion, it was opened in 1832 and is 22km long. It’s the oldest continuously operated canal system in North America and the name comes from the French for ‘curtain’ due to its appearance in the lock system in front of the Chateau Laurier. This famous hotel opened in the early 20th century and was another of the railway hotels that spread across Canada as the trains brought the modern world to this enormous country. I can highly recommend the cocktails in Zoe’s Bar!

Celebrate Canada 150

I travelled to Canada with Air Transat courtesy of Destination Canada with a group of 13 other fab UK travel bloggers visiting 14 cities in celebration of Canada 150. I stayed at the very cool Andaz Ottawa in Byward Market. Many thanks to everyone at Ottawa Tourism and the lovely Canadians for making me so welcome.

If you enjoyed this celebration of Canada’s birthday do share it with others and leave a comment at the end of the post. If you have any tips or stories about Canada, please share those too!

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Canada 150 Ottawa

 

January 31, 2017

Perth Harbour: discover Aboriginal traditions in Western Australia

Perth Harbour: discover Aboriginal traditions in Western Australia
Go Cultural Tour Walter Perth Harbour W Australia - photo zoe dawes

Walter McGuire

Welcome to the land of the Nyungar People. Where we stand today would have originally been the river …” Walter McGuire greeted us in the language of his ancestors at Elizabeth Quay on the shores of Perth Harbour. Walter is a traditional owner of Nyungar Boodja (country), including the Whadjuk lands on which Perth city now stands. He runs GoCultural Tours and he was giving our group a talk on the history of the Nyungar (Noongar) people of Western Australia, their Dreamtime stories and how they lived in days gone by.

Go Cultural Perth

www.gocultural.co.au

Walter sang an Aboriginal song, clacking together two boomerangs to create a hypnotic rhythm. In the past, a welcome ceremony could have taken days or even weeks. “The boomerang (kali or kylie) would traditionally have been made from mulga or Black Wattle. They were used for hunting, killing kangaroos and sometimes fighting. The ones you throw away and don’t come back are … sticks.” Walter and his partner Meg daubed a mark of white clay on our foreheads and explained how this would be used in ceremonies and also in artwork found in caves around Australia.

Ochre welcome mark - Noongar Perth

Nyungar welcome mark

On the ground lay a kangaroo skin, on top of which was a basket full of intriguing objects. Walter and Meg proceeded to tell us about each one, and their significance to Nyungar everyday life. Wilgi (red and yellow ochre) was obtained from a site now occupied by Perth Railway Station and was used in all kinds of Aboriginal ceremonies as well as traded with peoples to the east of Australia, possibly as far as Uluru.

Nyungar objects Perth Australia

Nyungar objects

Walter passed round a curious piece of wood with a shiny, many layered surface; it looked as if it had been highly lacquered. “This is balga (xanthorrhoea). Nyungar people would use the spike of the plant as part of spear shaft and the resin is also used as an adhesive in spear-making. It can fix leaks, for example in a coolamon.” I’d come across a coolamon before, on a Bush Tucker Walk in the Northern Territory. It’s a curved container used to carry water, fruit, nuts, even babies, and is often decorated with attractive etched markings. A shaggy piece of bark, known as bibool (Swamp Paperbark) would be used as roofing for a mia-mia (shelter) or as a torch. Its bark has a high oil content. A fascinating insight into a totally different way of life, utilising every bit of nature around.

Go Cultural Tour Perth WA

Sitting on the grass overlooking Perth Harbour, learning about Nyungar culture in spring sunshine from a knowledgeable elder, was a real privilege. Walter’s passion for his people’s heritage came over in everything he said. He spoke of the ‘Era of the White Man’ when James Stirling set up the Swan River Colony in the 1820s, which developed into vibrant Perth, the way his people were treated in the early days, getting the vote in 1967 and the pride he felt in his being the only ‘mob’ to be recognised as traditional owners of the city.

Walter modelling a kangaroo skin Perth Australia

Walter modelling a kangaroo skin

Finally we walked along the quay to a giant silver bird, wings outstretched pointing out across Perth Harbour. Called First Contact, it was created by Noongar (Nyangar) artist, Laurel Nannup. “First Contact is inspired by the Noongar people’s first visions of European settlers, whose distant sailing ships looking like floating birds bearing the white-faced spirits of their ancestors.” Walter picked up his boomerangs and sang a song of farewell, a fitting end to a fascinating tour.

First Contact - silver bird sculpture - Perth Harbour WA - photo zoe dawes

‘First Contact’ Perth Harbour

Nyungar Aboriginal Greeting by Walter McGuire – Perth


I travelled to Perth, Fremantle, Rottnest Island and Margaret River courtesy of Tourism Western Australia #justanotherdayinWA. It was a memorable trip with some amazing experiences unique to this part of the world.

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January 28, 2017

Dunster by Candlelight on a winter’s eve in Exmoor

Dunster by Candlelight on a winter’s eve in Exmoor

Dunster by Candlelight - medieval village in Somerset on the edge of Exmoor

The giant stag, carried aloft on strong shoulders, glows an unearthly white. Cowled figures carrying candles walk silently past. Lords and ladies dressed in rich flowing garb stride proudly past. Children carrying lanterns are shepherded down along the road. A musician plays a tin whistle as the procession wends its way past hundreds of people lining the streets of the medieval Dunster. Every shop is brightly lit and there’s a carnival atmosphere, mixed with a sense of awe.  It’s the 30th anniversary of Dunster by Candlelight, a weekend of festivities and general merry-making that attracts visitors from around the UK and overseas.

Dunster at night Exmoor - photo zoedawes

Dunster at night

Dunster is in Somerset on the edge of Exmoor National Park in south west England. The village developed over the centuries around Dunster Castle which dates back to the 11th c. Mentioned in the Domesday Book, the castle was in the Luttrell family for hundreds of years; it’s now owned by the National Trust. The wool and cloth trade brought wealth to the area and the octagonal 17th c Yarn Market still stands in the heart of the village. Nowadays, Dunster is famous for being one of the best-preserved medieval villages in England. I’d never been before, so to see it during the Dunster by Candlelight festival was a real treat.

Dunster by Candlelight town and Castle Exmoor

Dunster by Candlelight

Buses shuttle visitors from nearby towns; I got on at seaside resort Minehead overlooking the Bristol Channel. I follow the procession from its starting point at Dunster Steep near the car park.  Villagers dress up as nobility and peasants, carrying racks of candles in jars or playing instruments. Two stilt walkers tower over us, one dressed as the devil with very realistic horns. We wend our way along the High Street past the Yarn Market towards the castle, lording it over us on a hill above the village. Turning off along Church Street we pass St George’s Church, where a choir sings Christmas carols. In a walled garden a man wielding a chain-saw is carving an eagle out of a tree trunk.

Dunster Wood Cutter

Along West Street we are entertained by a band of energetic drummers and candlelit Fire Spinners twirling and swirling. Collecting boxes are shaken and filled by generous onlookers. ‘The heart of Candlelight focuses on raising funds for St Margaret’s Hospice, which provides so much comfort for those who so need it’, writes Chairman Andy Fay in the excellent Dunster by Candlelight programme leaflet. Father Christmas waves as we walk by.

Dunster Father Christmas

The procession ends at the 17th c Water Mill, where the miller is milling by candlelight. The mill still produces flour and has a popular Tea Room. The stag is gently removed from its plinth and the racks of candles are laid down. There’s a general air of merriment and relief. The following eve, Saturday, the villagers will be doing it all again, but for now they can relax and enjoy the rest of the evening’s events.

Dunster Castle

I make my way up to Dunster Castle, focal point for the village, brightly lit and enticing with the smell of BBQ sausages and burgers. The Stables have been converted into a Christmas Market, selling local food and drink and handmade gifts. People jostle each other to get a better look at the tasty treats on sale. I’m tempted by tiny Christmas Cakes, some very moreish-looking frosted baeks and jars of home-made preserves. I finally choose chocolate dogs and a bottle of Spiced Somerset Chaider.

Dunster Castle Christmas Market products

Inside the castle the Quantock Musical Theatre Choir is entertaining an appreciative audience in the Drawing Room. In each of the ground floor rooms an enormous Christmas Tree, beautifully decorated, adds a festive note to its historic contents. It feels as if the Luttrell family have invited us in to help them celebrate a very special Victorian Christmas.

Dunster Castle Christmas Exmoor

Back in the town I head off to the old Tithe Barn, where a man with a python round his neck is scaring and enthralling the audience in equal measure. Beside the path I find Ian Mabbutt and Seb Jay with a large telescope pointed up into the winter sky. Ian runs West Withy Farm Holiday Cottages, where I am staying whilst in Exmoor. Seb, a noted astronomer, runs Dark Sky Telescope Hire. “Exmoor is a great place for stargazing; it’s Europe’s first International Dark Sky Reserve. Once you get out of the populated areas, the stars take your breath away.”  Later that evening, back at West Withy Farm, Seb gives a master class in the skies above us.

Dunster Christmas Bauble

Dunster Christmas Shop lures me in with its charming display. Among the Santas, bells, elves and snowmen I see a pretty bauble with a hand-painted scene of Dunster; perfect souvenir of my visit. (More on the Dunster Christmas Bauble here.) In the street outside a man with a marked resemblance to Harpo Marx is playing a piano whilst another man juggles fire and plays a harmonica on top of it. The audience are laughing delightedly at their antics; it sums up the joyful spirit you find at Dunster by Candlelight. One day I will return to see Dunster by Daylight …

Dunster by Candlelight street artists - Exmoor - photo zoe dawes

Many thanks to Visit Exmoor for hosting my weekend, and to Ian and Lorena of West Withy Farm for their warm welcome, hospitality and invaluable advice on what to see in this beautiful area in south west England.

Read more: A winter weekend in Exmoor

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January 21, 2017

Top 10 Tips for Food and Drink in Rome

Top 10 Tips for Food and Drink in Rome
La Renella Bakery in Trastevere Rome - photo zoe dawes

La Renella Bakery in Trastevere

Food and Italy; they go together like cheese and wine. With a culinary heritage going back centuries, Italians pride themselves on their knowledge and love of good food and drink. Rome’s historic sights attract visitors from around the world but the way to its heart is through its food and drink. Here are my top tips for making the most of Rome’s foodie scene.

Eating out in Rome

1.  Ask a Roman

Rome Restaurant L'Arcano

Ristorante L’Arcano

Rule Number One is always ‘Ask a Local’. Of course, you can use websites, blog posts, guide books and people who have visited but to discover the best places to eat and drink in Rome ask a Roman. It may be the hotel receptionist, someone you meet in a cafe or a friend of a friend. I got excellent tips from Citalia Rome Concierge Dany, who loves his city with a passion and was able to give me some very useful insider foodie tips. They included suggestions places for quick snacks, traditional meals, fine dining, good wines and local markets.

2. Try street food including ‘pizza al taglio’

Pizzarium Bonci Rome - photo Carlo Pesacane

Pizzarium Bonci – photo Carlo Pesacane

Pizza is Italy’s most famous export and Rome is renowned for the quality of its wood-fired pizzas. Search out the ‘hole in the wall’ pizzerias to try ‘pizza al taglio (a slice of pizza)  You can find these pizzerias all over the city. Da Remo (Piazza Santa Maria), Pizzarium Bonci (Via della Meloria) and La Boccacia in Trastevere come highly recommended. Eat on the hoof or sitting beside one of the historic sights.

Pepy's Bar Pizzeria Rome

Pepy’s Bar

I got a tasty artichoke and mushroom pizza to take-away from Pepy’s Bar on the Piazza Berberini. Their sandwiches are works of art. Other street food includes delicious pastries and pies; check out La Renella, one of Rome’s oldest bakeries, founded in 1848 (see photo above.)

3. Explore Trastevere by night

Papa Re Restaurant, Trastevere

Papa Re Restaurant

The narrow streets of Trastevere (across the Tiber) are crammed with excellent bars, cafes and restaurants. It’s difficult to get a bad meal here but rule of thumb says the more Italians there are and less tourists, the better the restaurant will be. Down a tiny lane away from the main area, I saw about 20 people (looking Italian) waiting patiently for a simple restaurant called da Enzo to open.. That’s a good sign. Wandering about in the early eve, I found a tiny bar buzzing with lively chat, serving a good selection of anti-pasti and simple main courses.

Aperol Spritz in Trastevere Bar, Rome

Aperol Spritz in Trastevere

I sat outside with an aperitif, Aperol Spritz (prosecco and Aperol), a dish a VERY fresh pistachios and watched the world go by. I can’t remember its name, but it was just round the corner from Le Mani in Pasta which is on Via dei Genovese (see Tip 4).

Rome at Night

4. Eat like a Roman

Artichokes in Trastevere Rome - photo zoe dawes

Artichokes

Seems obvious but so many people go abroad and then look for food they have back home. Search out Rome specialities like carciofi (artichokes) cooked in various ways, saltimbocca (veal escalope), gnocchi (potato dumplings), bucatini all’amatriciana (tomato-based sauce with pancetta, chilli and cheese) and suppli (fried rice balls coated in breadcrumbs with cheese or other filling) similar to arancini found in other parts of Italy. Freshly baked Italian bread such as focaccia with goat’s cheese is a simple treat.

Italian food in Rome - collage zoe dawes

Italian Food

5. Understand the Italian menu

Le Mani in Pasta menu Rome

Le Mani in Pasta menu (English translation)

The majority of restaurants in Rome will have menus in English but it is worth understanding the different courses. Antipasti (starter) may include cured meats, cheese, bruschetta (toasted bread with toppings), olives. Primi (first course) is usually a pasta dish or soup. Be warned, this may fill you up so much you won’t have space for Secondi (second course). This consists of either fish, meat, chicken and more commonly nowadays, a vegetarian option.

Fontana di Venere dinner Rome

Fontana di Venere dinner

Contorni are vegetable or salad dishes. Dolci is dessert, which could be tiramisu (coffee and cream), gelato or maybe panne cotta (cooked cream). Finally you may have a Caffè (coffee) or Digestivi (liquor such as grappa or limoncello) or both. Lunch is from around 12 noon – 2.30pm and dinner from 8pm – 11pm. (Adapted from Walks of Italy How to Read an Italian Menu.)

6. Eat well in in a Trattoria

Chef cooking spaghetti carbonara at 'Le Mani in Pasta' Trastevere Rome

Chef cooking spaghetti carbonara at ‘Le Mani in Pasta’

If you want simple food, served with (usually) friendly service, look for a trattoria, or osteria. These traditional restaurants, usually family-run, can be found all over Rome, but especially in Trastevere. They often have tables outside and offer a decent range of ‘home-made’ dishes and wines. The Menu de Dia, is good value, with a basic choice of starter, main and often dessert, plus a drink included in the price. One of the best meals I have ever eaten was at Le Mani in Pasta a stylish osteria in Trastevere. (See menu above.) The starter was sublime: bresaola (cured beef) with soft, creamy buffalo mozzarella and grapefruit slices. The sharpness of the fruit cut through the cheese and, despite it being such a large plate, I ate every divine mouthful.

Bresaola, mozarella and grapefruit - Le main in pasta restaurant, Rome - photo zoe dawes

Bresaola, mozarella and grapefruit

The waiter recommended house speciality spaghetti carbonara; I watched the chef cooking it through the kitchen window. It was glossily rich and went very well with Le Rubie, the house red from Lazio region. (See photo of spaghetti carbonara dish here) For dessert I had a refreshing lemon sorbet and finished off with an espresso.

7. Visit one of Rome’s markets

Cheese counter at Farmers Market Rome

Cheese counter at Farmers Market

One of the best ways to get a flavour of Rome is to wander round one if its markets. Here you will see the Romans doing one of their favourite things; debating which is the best meats, cheese, vegetables, fruit, flowers, wine, pasta, pulses, olive oil and flowers to take enjoy at home. Campo de’ Fiori is the best known, but for a quieter experience, try Circo Massimo Mercato di Campagna Amica (Circus Maximus Farmer’s Market.)

8. When in Rome – eat gelato

Pistachio Gelato in Rome Italy The Quirky Traveller

Enjoying my pistachio gelato in Rome

Italy has the best ice-cream in the world. Well, to be accurate, gelato is not ice-cream. It has a lower fat content but more sugar with fruit or nut flavourings . So when in Rome, eat gelato. Virtually every street in the main tourist areas of the city have a gelateria (ice-cream parlour) and it’s difficult to get a bad one. The best-known is Giolitti (Via degli Uffici del Vicario), a 19th c café near the Pantheon. One of my favourite flavours is pistachio; go for the sludgy green, not bright green, as it will be natural not artificially coloured.

9. Avoid the worst pizza in Rome

Rome's worst pizza at L'Ottagona

Rome’s worst pizza at L’Ottagona

A tip from Dany, the Citalia concierge; avoid cafes, bars, restaurants and shops right next to the famous sights like the Colosseum, the Parthenon and the Forum. Common sense, yes, but let this be a warning to you. I was joining a Grey Line tour of the Vatican City and we met beside cafe bar L’Ottagono, in Piazza del Risorgimento. I’d not eaten so for speed, even though Dany had told me to avoid it, I ordered a pizza. Don’t. It was as bad as it looks here; overcooked, flabby, salty ham and stringy cheese …

10. Shop for food and drink souvenirs

Panetteria Romana in Rome Italy

Panetteria Romana

Take home a flavour of Rome (import regulations permitting!) from one of the many foodie shops, delicatessens or wineries in Rome. Olive oil, fresh herbs, cheese, olives and pasta are all easy to pack and will remind you of Rome. Lazio region wines include some very good whites, including Orvieto and Trebbiano d’Abruzzo and reds from such as SangioveseMontepulciano and Merlot grapes. I brought back a rope of garlic bulbs and some fragrant rose-flavoured biscuits from the market and crunchy almond biscotti from Paneterria Romana in Trastevere. Delicious flavours from a tasty weekend in Rome …

Italian delicatessen Rome

Italian delicatessen Rome

Many thanks to Citalia, leading specialist in Italian holidays, who organised 48 hours in Rome weekend. They earned the title of ‘Best Tour Operator to the Italian Peninsula for six consecutive years. The Citalia team are friendly, expert and knowledgeable in all things Italian and have local concierges in each destination for personal recommendations, advice and help with day trips, car hire, or restaurant bookings. For more information visit the Citalia Rome page. This trip was a Travelator Media world-wide campaign. Find out more about Travelator Media here.

I do hope you have enjoyed this taste of Rome – leave a comment here and if you have any tips for where else to eat in Rome I’d love to know.

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Top 10 Food and Drink Tips - Rome Italy

January 9, 2017

Top food and drink in Fremantle, Western Australia

Top food and drink in Fremantle, Western Australia
Sail and Anchor beers Fremantle

Sail and Anchor beers

For a small city, Fremantle, on the coast of Western Australia, punches well above its weight in terms of great places to eat, drink and have fun. Not only does it have a great many excellent bars, restaurants and cafes, there are a number of micro-breweries, bakeries, delicatessens and quirky foodie outlets to suit all tastes. Many of them are housed in heritage buildings, for Fremantle is one of Australia’s oldest cities with a busy working port and a vibrant, creative heart.

Attic Cafe – Bannister Street

Attic Cafe Fremantle Western Australia

Attic Cafe

One of the best cafes in town, the Attic Cafe, opposite the Hougoumont Hotel in Bannister Street is a great place for breakfast, coffee or take-away. They have a tasty selection of freshly made pies, fritters wraps, salads and rolls, including honey roast pumpkin and salt beef. For breakfast you could choose baked oats with berry compote, smashed avocado with lime, feta and quinoa or more exotic Shakshouka; eggs poached in a Tunisian style sauce with white cheese. I had perfectly cooked scrambled eggs with olive oil, greens and sourdough bread. Their cakes are to die for …

Attic Cafe food Fremantle Western Australia

Attic Cafe food

A night out in Fremantle

Pakenham Street Fremantle at night

Pakenham Street

I stayed in Fremantle for two nights and loved its attractive architecture, lively vibe and youthful outlook. Rusty Creighton, Two Feet and a Heartbeat Tours, font of local knowledge, not just on food and drink, but just about every aspect of Fremantle culture, history and people, took a group of us on a historical night tour. We started off at our hotel, the Hougoumont, named after a 19th c ship which was the last vessel to transport convicts to Australia. Their names and crimes are listed on the hotel wall.

Hougoumont Hotel Fremantle

Hougoumont Hotel

After crisp-baked pizza and a drink we set off along the main street, lined with beautiful buildings dating back to the 19th century, very old by Australian standards.

The National Hotel – High Street

The Boxing Kangaroo - Swan Lager - National Hotel - Fremantle - photo zoe dawes

The Boxing Kangaroo

Rusty pointed out a mural of a kangaroo wearing boxing gloves, holding a can of Swan Lager. “The Swan Brewery has closed but the Boxing Kangaroo became the symbol of America’s Cup win in 1983, as it was used on a team flag. The original flag is now in the Western Australia Museum in Freo.” It’s on the side of the National Hotel, another famous Fremantle institution. It’s been a hotel since 1886 and has intricate wrought iron balconies.

The National Hotel in Fremantle

The National Hotel

There’s a lively bar and popular restaurant, serving decent pub grub, including good value steak and chips. We’d eaten there the night before, in the upstairs dining room. Downstairs there was a group playing covers of popular songs with impromptu dancing round the tables. A door decorated with orange and red stained glass flames commemorates a serious fire in 1975.

Bread in Common – Pakenham Street

Bread in Common Fremantle

Bread in Common display

The smell of freshly baked bread wafted all around as we entered the bakery. But this was not just any bakery, this was Bread in Common, a bakery with restaurant, bar, delicatessen counter and vegetable garden attached. Actually the vegetable garden is a couple of raised beds in the street in front of the 1898 Listed Building, growing a very healthy display of lettuces, herbs and other fresh produce. From Hansel and Gretel, the two massive wood-fired ovens, come a wide variety of breads, made using the freshest ingredients including different flours, sourdough, fruits and spices.

Bread in Common Bakery and Restaurant Fremantle

Bread in Common

We watched as the bustling open kitchen prepared meals and admired the excellent wines displayed above the bar. House specialties include roasted pork belly with fermented kohlrabi, pear, radish and mustard, and salmon with baby peppers, kale and pineapple vinegar.

Fremantle Markets – South Terrace & Henderson Street

Fremantle Market

Fremantle Market

Within a purpose-built market hall, erected in 1897, are a collection of markets, including fresh fruit and veg, clothes, cooked food and household goods. You can buy enormous Indian samosas, admire beautifully carved melons, papayas and apples, buy a big, knobbly custard apple or try a guaranteed hangover cure. A ‘Stunned Emu‘ advertises quirky magnets and other souvenirs. I can highly recommend Small Batch flavoured chocolate bars.

Fremantle Market goods

Downtown Fremantle

From the market we headed off down-town, along South Terrace towards the sea. We passed cosy wine bars, noisy pubs, cool cafes and cosmopolitan restaurants serving food from around the globe. People were queuing good-naturedly to get inside Metropolis nightclub and nearby Salt and Anchor was heaving with beer-lovers quaffing over 20 Aussie and international craft beers on tap and many more bottled beers. On the pavement a street artist played jazz and Latin tunes on his electric organ and a couple we’re doing a salsa. We crossed the Esplanade and passed the skate park; my son would be very impressed with its contemporary design. At Fishing Boat Harbour is one of Fremantle’s most famous eateries, Little Creatures.

Little Creatures Brewery – Fishing Boat Harbour

Little Creatures Brewery bicycle Fremantle Western Australia

Little Creatures Bar

Entering the brewery, housed in a converted boathouse, the noise and delicious smell of food hit us full on. We made our way past the enormous metal cyclinders of brewing beers and rows of trestle tables and found a table at the back of the restaurant area. Upstairs more tables line a narrow corridor which has an eclectic collection of local modern art. It’s a fascinating place, attracting a mix of all ages who come for the excellent beer (their Pale Ale and seasonal beers are most popular), wood-fired pizzas, sharing platters and hearty mains such as slow-cooked brisket.

Little Creatures Brewery Fremantle Western Australia

We ordered a whole load of plates including pumpkin and mushroom pizzas, kangaroo and tomato chutney, marinated octopus, veggie nachos, sticky lamb ribs and sea-salty fresh oysters. It was a real feast of colourful, well-cooked food, great flavours and generous portions. We drank vast quantities of their beer and excellent wines whilst Rusty regaled us with fascinating stories ending the evening feeling very merry and full of Freo joie de vivre …

Cheers from Little Creatures in Fremantle Western Australia

Cheers from ‘Little Creatures’ in Fremantle

That morning we’d got the ferry from Fremantle to Rottnest Island and spent the day there. Read about my search for the quirky quokka of Rottnest Island here.

Rottnest Island Bus - Western Australia

Rottnest Island Bus

I travelled to Perth, Fremantle, Rottnest Island and Margaret River courtesy of Tourism Western Australia #justanotherdayinWA. I’d like to thank everyone, including my fellow bloggers, involved in making this such a memorable trip.

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Fremantle Food & Drink

 

December 13, 2016

A weekend of stargazing and sight-seeing in Exmoor

A weekend of stargazing and sight-seeing in Exmoor
Exmoor Blagdon_Cross_Startrails - image darkskytelescopehire.co.uk

Star Trails; Exmoor – image darkskytelescopehire.co.uk

“Starry, starry night …” Don McLean and Vincent Van Gogh would love Exmoor at night. I have NEVER seen such a star-studded sky in the UK, as the one I saw whilst staying at West Withy Farm Holiday Cottages. On arrival on the edge of Exmoor, the night sky took my breath away. Ablaze with a myriad of sparkling lights, it looked as if a child had thrown a huge bag of glitter up into the darkness.  It was almost impossible to make out familiar constellations such as The Plough and Orion because they were embedded within so many others. The Milky Way arched overhead in a whirling mass. With virtually 360° visibility in this area and very little human habitation, it’s not surprising that Exmoor was named Europe’s first Dark Sky Reserve.

Stargazing in Exmoor

Telescope in Upton Cottage - West Withy Farm Exmoor

Telescope in Upton Cottage

Ian, owner of West Withy Farm, showed me round Upton Cottage, a converted haybarn, which sleeps 5 in homely comfort. In the lounge a large telescope sat waiting to be used; you can hire it by the day here and the garden has a plinth on which to use it. On the second night, astronomer Seb Jay of Dark Sky Telescope Hire came over to give a talk on astronomy and the skies overhead. It was cloudy so we didn’t use the telescope, but he had a ‘live-sky’ programme on his laptop to show the constellations, asteroids and planets that had been so clear the night before. It was a fascinating evening and I learnt a great deal about our amazing universe …

Exmoor star gazing with Seb Jay

Astronomer Seb Jay

Over the weekend I visited a number of interesting places in Exmoor: here are a few highlights.

Dulverton, Exford and Simonsbath

Exmoor signpost in Exford - image zoedawes

Signpost in Exford

The pretty village of Dulverton has got a number of independent retailers, including boutiques and antique shops, plus a good variety of pubs, cafes and restaurants. I had dinner at Woods Bar and Restaurant; a warm ,welcoming place, combining a pub atmosphere with quality dining. Owner Paddy is passionate about seasonal local food, sourcing much of it off his own farm, and wine; he has over 400 to choose from. (It’s been National Wine Pub of the Year for 5 years running.) I can highly recommend the confit of lamb shoulder; meltingly delicious.

Dinner at Woods Dulverton Exmoor

Confit Shoulder of Northcombe Lamb

The next day I set off to explore more of Exmoor, going through a number of quaint villages with thatched roofs and attractive pubs. At the White Horse Inn by the bridge in Exford a horse and rider trotted by as Christmas decorations were being put up.

Exford and river Exe Exmoor

Exford

In Simonsbath, a tiny hamlet, the smell of sawdust filled the air as a young man cut up logs beside the River Barle. The moor spread out all around as I headed towards the coast and two of Exmoor’s most well-known towns.

Lynton and Lynmouth

Lynmouth Exmoor - photo zoedawes

Lynmouth and Cliff Railway

I remember visiting Lynmouth with family on a hot, sunny day a few years ago. It was really busy and delightful. In winter the museum, chippie and souvenir shops may be closed but you can wander along the jetty overlooking  the river mouth and get a real feel for its historic and literary past. In the early 19th C the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley stayed here briefly with his young wife, Harriet. The Rising Sun Hotel is a picturesque sight with its thatched roof and excellent position overlooking the boat-bobbing harbour. Above the excellent Exmoor National Park Visitor Centre is the Pavilion Dining Room with great views over the Bristol Channel.

Lyton Town Hall Exmoor

Lynton Town Hall

The Cliff Railway, open between February and mid-November, connects Lynmouth to Lynton. It fits the ‘eco-traveller’ remit as its two carriages use the weight of water to pull them up and down. Lynton has a genteel Victorian air with some decent touristy shops and a splendid Town Hall, somewhat larger and fancier than you’d expect in such a small town. Not far away is the Valley of Rocks, a fairy-tale collection of rocky towers and hillocks with a splendid cliff-walk. It’s exhilarating and uncrowded in the winter months.

Porlock

Porlock Exmoor

Porlock

Apparently Coleridge was interrupted in the composition of his epic opium-induced poem Kubla Khan, by a ‘person from Porlock‘. On the day I visited, the people of Porlock were more intent on getting ready for Christmas, than visiting poets. It’s the heart of Lorna Doone country, as the local hotel indicates, and Porlock Bay Oysters are in great demand. They are the first Pacific Oyster site in England & Wales to achieve the top A classification. Sadly none were available when I was there; a good reason to go back.

Dunster

Dunster by Candlelight Exmoor - image zoedawes

Dunster by Candlelight

Possibly the most famous festival in Exmoor, Dunster by Candlelight is a glorious event held over two evenings in the run-up to Christmas. The medieval town opens its doors to visitors from around the world. The shops are brightly-lit, candles decorate the streets, performers entertain the crowds and a procession of costumed revellers carries a stag shoulder-high, accompanied by musicians and enthusiastic participants. I got the Park and Ride from nearby Minehead and spent a magical few hours watching the fun, wandering round the shops and enjoying carol-singing in Dunster Castle.

Read more about Dunster by Candlelight here

Exmoor Ponies

Exmoor ponies at Foreland Point - image zoedawes

Exmoor ponies

No visit to Exmoor would be complete without seeing the hardy Exmoor Ponies. Living all over Exmoor National Park, there are particular places you’re more likely to find them. I saw them on Haddon Hill, overlooking Wimbleball Lake and also at National Trust Foreland Point, on the rolling moorland road between Lynmouth and Porlock. They roam freely across the moors, but are not truly wild, being owned and looked after by various people. You can get fairly close but don’t try to touch them. In winter their thick coats give them extra protection against all weathers. Exmoor also has herds of wild red deer and plenty more interesting wildlife.

Exmoor National Park Visitor Centre

Exmoor National Park

Many thanks to Visit Exmoor for hosting my weekend, and to Ian and Lorena of West Withy Farm for their warm welcome, hospitality and invaluable advice on what to see in this beautiful area in south west England. Check out their website for details of stargazing weekends – a whole new world could open up for you …

Quirky Travel Guide to West Withy Farm 

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