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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).

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.

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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 winter joy in Exmoor

A weekend of stargazing and winter joy 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 

December 6, 2016

Top 10 memorable moments from a Canada road trip

Top 10 memorable moments from a Canada road trip
At the top of Sulphur Mountain, Banff Canada

Zoe and Ali at the top of Sulphur Mountain, Banff

When you go on an RV road trip in Canada, you’re guaranteed a great many memorable moments, whichever part of the country you visit. But when you drive through British Columbia and Alberta via the Rockies from Vancouver to Calgary these moments tumble over each other almost every hour. Here are just a few that stand out, but there were many more …

1. Walking in the desert at Osoyoos

Nk'Mip Desert Cultural Centre - Osoyoos - Canada

Osoyoos Desert – Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre

The heat is the biggest surprise. The sun beats down as we walk though scrubby bushes and stunted trees. The heady scent from a herby shrub wafts past, bringing back vague memories of the wilder parts of Greece. Travel companion Ali is wearing a hat to keep cool as we walk through the desert. Yes, we’re in Canada, not a place you think of as really hot or with a desert, but at Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre we learn about this unique ecology and wildlife, including the Western Rattlesnake and the Cayote. We learn about the Osoyoos Indian Band, who run the Desert Centre and nearby RV Park and admire Smoker Marchand sculptures. It’s fascinating, surprising and very hot.

2.  Eating cherries on the road

Cherries from a farm shop in Okanagan Valley Canada

Cherries at the farm shop

We buy a kilo of big, fat, sweet and oh so very juicy cherries from one of the farm shops along the Okanagan Valley. It’s late spring and the whole area is bursting with fresh fruit and vegetables in this very fertile part of southern Canada. We’ve been told to get the cherries as it’s the best crop for years. We’re on our way to the Rockies but have a long way to go and these deep red globes of delicious goodness keep us going all the way to Revelstoke. Fortunately there is a market and we can stock up again; luckily they last until our first glimpse of the Rockies.

3.  The Pipe Mountain Coaster, Revelstoke

The Pipe Mountain Coaster Revelstoke

Ready, steady, go …

‘Keep off the brake. Don’t be a chicken!’ The words of the bearded Canadian guy in the queue, resound in my ears as I zoom down the sheer drop VERY fast. I desperately want to pull brake, but two things stop me.

  • I’m worried I’m going so fast I’ll tip out
  • I don’t want to be a chicken.

I’m on the Pipe Mountain Coaster in Revelstoke, British Columbia. Riding up in the gondola, the Monashee Mountains and Columbia River spread beneath us. Whizzing down the mountain, I’ve no time to look at the view. Fir trees flick past as the little cart twists, turns and at one point appears to shoot off the edge, accelerating past a ski run on its way down 1.4km of track at up to 26mph. All too soon, I’m at the end, exhilarated and wanting to do again – me no chicken!

4  BBQ at Dutch Lake Resort, Clearwater

BBQ burgers at Dutch Lake Resort Canada - photo zoedawes

Burgers for dinner

The sound of wood chopping has stopped and there’s smoke wafting in through the door of the RV. Ali’s got the BBQ going and I’ve finished preparing the salad and opened a couple of beers. Beef burgers from a local butcher sizzle merrily on the metal rack we’ve just bought from Dutch Lake Resort shop. A couple of guys from the RV next door come over to chat whilst we wait for the burgers to cook. The sun’s setting over the lily-strewn lake and frogs start croaking in the shallows. The tantalizing smell of onions and burgers get the taste buds going. Love eating outdoors in Canada …

5.  The Rockies from the top of Whistler Mountain

The Rockies and Jasper Sky Tram - Whistler Mountain - Canada - photo zoedawes

The Rockies and Jasper Sky Tram

At last I’m here, on top of Whistler Mountain gazing out across the most famous mountains in North America. Their pointed tops ripple across the horizon, perfectly mountainy. Snow glitters in the late afternoon light and a ribbon of river ripples through the wooded valley. A lake of startling blue water glistens and winks upwards. Quirky Jasper town curves alongside the railway track and birds glide on the chilly thermals. Neither words nor photos can do justice to this awesome sight.

6. Relaxing by Medicine Lake

Wild flowers by Medicine Lake in the Rockies - photo zoedawes

Wild flowers by Medicine Lake

The calm waters ripple briefly as a duck floats serenely past. At the end of the lake tower the jaggy peaks of the Rockies, reflected in shimmering symmetry. I drink in the awe-inspiring natural beauty of Medicine Lake in the heart of Jasper National Park, in Alberta. Delicate white and yellow wild flowers bend their dainty heads in the gentle breeze and overhead a large bird wheels its way across the cloud-flecked sky; too far away to see if it’s a bald eagle. A stone lands with a resounding splash to my left and two children giggle; the spell is broken and it’s time to move on and explore more …

7.  Driving the RV along the Icefields Parkway

RV on the Icefields Parkway The Rockies Canada - photo zoedawes

RV on the Icefields Parkway

After hundreds of miles we are finally driving along one of the world’s most spectacular roads, the Icefields Parkway, from Jasper to Banff. Every twist and turn reveals more mountains until we feel completely surrounded. We are running parallel to the Continental Divide from Jasper National Park to Banff National Park stopping off at the Athabasca Falls, Sunwapta Pass, Stutfield and Athabasca Glaciers, Peyto Lake, Wildfowl Lake and Lake Louise.  We see mountain goats, many birds, wild flowers and tourists. It could take us a few hours; it actually takes us all day, every mile a miracle of natural wonder and delight …

8.  The unbelievable blue of Peyto Lake

Peyto Lake Alberta Canada - photo zoedawes

Peyto Lake

You have to see it to believe it …

9. Cocktail at the Banff Springs Hotel

Cocktail on the Terrace Banff Springs Hotel Canada

Cocktail on the Terrace

After all the driving, staying in campgrounds and sightseeing it’s so relaxing to have a Mojito on the terrace of the splendidly luxurious Banff Springs Hotel. With panoramic views of the Bow River and the Rocky Mountains, it’s a suitably fitting place to absorb scenery and reflect on our epic road trip through the Rockies …

10. To boldly go – to Vulcan

RV outside Trekcetera Museum Alberta

RV outside Trekcetera Museum

From the sublime to the … well, not ridiculous, but definitely surreal. Walking into a room with wall-to-wall costumes and artefacts from Star Trek, being shown round by a flamboyant and highly entertaining TV and movie enthusiast, dressed as a 19th C dandy cowboy, is a really quirky contrast to the natural wonders we have seen over the past couple of weeks. The Trekcetera Museum in Vulcan (the town name came first) has the largest collection of Trekkie memorabilia in Canada and we feel vaguely hysterical as we leave to find a bottle of wine for our last night sleeping in our trusty RV. Live long and prosper …

Trekcetera Museum Vulcan

Trekcetera Museum

#ExploreCanada Road Trip

I visited British Columbia as a guest of Explore Canada as part of a Travelator Media campaign, driving the RV from Vancouver to Montreal. Many thanks to Alison Bailey for her unfailing good humour, practical advice and excellent driving. Much gratitude to all the people we met along the way who made it such a memorable trip.

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Read more about our Canada RV road trip:

The Quirky Traveller: History in the Rocky Mountains

Heather on Her Travels: Foodie Adventures – Ontario and Quebec

Travel with Kat: Top 10 things to do in British Columbia

On the Luce: Calgary to Toronto – Unforgettable Moments

December 2, 2016

Historic sights: 48 hours in Rome, Italy

Historic sights: 48 hours in Rome, Italy
The Trevi Fountain - 48 hours in Rome - photo zoedawes

The Trevi Fountain

“It’s like travelling through history… The people are great, they’re very friendly, which makes a difference.” Dany, concierge for Citalia Holidays in Rome, was introducing me to his favourite city, sharing some top tips and insider secrets to help make my 48 hours in Rome a big success.

‘Live’ video of Dany, Citalia Concierge, talking about Rome

I’d never visited Rome before; it had been on my Dream Destination list for decades. Arriving mid-afternoon, I was picked up from the airport and whisked to The Ariston, a chic hotel very close to the railway station in the city centre. Here is my itinerary and suggestions for a truly memorable time in the Eternal City. NB: I didn’t go inside all of the sights so take that  into account in planning.

 48 Hours in Rome

Take a bit of time to get your bearings. If you have a concierge, do use them or whoever is local, to get an idea of what is possible in a short stay. You’ll want to see the main sights, but be realistic. They are simply awe-inspiring and you may want to spend quite a time at each one. There are usually BIG QUEUES so it’s worth doing research and booking tours or tickets in advance. Public transport in Rome is not brilliant; the Metro only has two lines which barely touch the major sites. Trams and buses go all over the city but traffic often slows it down.

Day 1 – late afternoon and evening

Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica - 48 hours in Rome - by zoedawes

Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica

One of Rome’s greatest basilicas, Santa Maria Maggiore, is not far from the station and my hotel, so I walked up to see it. Its nave and splendid mosaics date back to the 5th Century AD. It towers over the busy piazza, and its ceiling is a stupendous gold avenue that showers light into its cavernous interior. There are some beautiful paintings and sculptures and beneath the alter is a crypt with a statue of a Pope and a crystal reliquary said to contain wood from the Holy Crib. St Jerome and the superb Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini are buried here.

Italian Dinner and Rome by Night

A tour of Rome by night gives you a chance to see the city’s magnificent monuments lit up, giving a whole other perspective. I went on Gray Line’s ‘Panoramic Rome Bus Tour by Night with Traditional Dinner‘, with hotel pick-up and guide, Sandra, whose in-depth knowledge and enthusiasm for her city added to the enjoyment of the evening. A small group of us started out with a 3-course meal at Fontana di Venere, a pleasant restaurant in the city centre.

Dinner at Ristorante Fontana di Venere Trastevere Rome

Dinner at Ristorante Fontana di Venere

We were joined by a larger group and went to see the Trevi Fountain, recently revealed in all its refurbished glory. The marble glowed brilliant white and the turquoise water glittered as a steady stream of coins cascaded into its curved basin. Completed in 1762, Taming of the Waters is the theme of the gigantic Trevi Fountain and the statue of Oceanus dominates the scene.

Throwing coins in the Trevi Fountain - 48 hours in Rome - zoedawes

Three coins in the Fountain

Sandra said, “Stand with your back to the fountain. Throw a coin from your right hand over your left shoulder and you’ll return to Rome for sure.” I threw three coins in the fountain, just like in the song, as I had already fallen deeply in love with this city and definitely want to return.

The Colosseum at night - 48 hours in Rome

The Colosseum at night

Then it was on the coach to the Colosseum. It really is breath-taking in size, architecture and historic significance. We drove round it as Sandra gave us its story then walked up to it via the Arch of Constantine. It was wonderful to finally see it. We drove on round many sights and then across the Tiber to Trastevere, where we wandered the narrow streets and enjoyed the friendly, lively atmosphere amongst restaurants, bars, shops and charming buildings.

Trastevere at night - 48 hours in Rome

Trastevere at night

I got back to the Hotel Ariston at 11pm, tired but very happy, having already got a flavour of this magical city.

Day 2 – Morning: Roman Rome

The Colosseum and Horse Sculpture - Rome

The Colosseum and Horse Sculpture

Getting the Metro to the Colosseum means coming out directly opposite – a real WOW moment. Even if you’ve seen it in the evening, it’s still impressive. Pay extra to get a ‘jump the queue’ ticket to avoid the queues or, if time’s limited, walk around it just get a feel for its magnificence. The ticket includes Palatine Hill, where Romulus founded the city and Emperors built their palaces and the Forum, ancient Rome’s centre of temples, basilicas and public spaces. This could take you all morning or afternoon, to really enjoy at your leisure. I got a great view of the Forum from behind the Capitoline Hill, along with a very photogenic seagull!

The Forum - and seagull! Rome in 48 hours

The Forum – and seagull!

From here you can walk through the lovely Piazza del Campidoglio, designed by Michelangelo in 1538, with an impressive statue of Marcus Aurelius overlooking the city below, between two huge statues of Castor and Pollux. the Capitoline Museums house one of Italy’s finest collections of classical sculptures. Again, if you want to visit the museum, make sure you leave plenty of time to enjoy it.

Capitoline Hill from Cordonata Staircase - 48 hours in Rome - zoedawes

Capitoline Hill from Cordonata Staircase

Just round the corner, in Piazza Venezia is Il Vittoriano, or Altare dela Patria. This mish-mash of ornate styles in honour of Victor Emmanuel, first king of united Italy, is home to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and has one of the best views of Rome from the top.

Il Vittoriano - 48 hours in Rome

Il Vittoriano

By now you’re probably hungry and need to refuel for your 48 hours in Rome so head towards Historical Centre and the Pantheon where you’ll find plenty of restaurants and bars. Or do what I did, which was to grab a pizza slice and make my way over the Tiber to Vatican City.

Day 2 – Afternoon: Vatican City

The Vatican City - 48 hours in Rome

Vatican City

Book a tour for the Vatican Museum. It reduces queuing time and there’s so much to see your guide will help you through the fascinating maze of world-class artworks here. Ancient Greek sculptures, Roman statues, priceless votives, intricate tapestries, beautiful mosaics, early maps, religious icons, gilded ceilings, paintings by renowned artists …

Vatican Museum Treasures - 48 hours in Rome

Vatican Museum Treasures

Every room and corridor was crammed with people gazing in awe at the every surface, being gently chivvied along by guides and we only scratched the surface of the Vatican Museum. Finally we came to the Sistine Chapel. It is simply breath-taking. Every inch of the walls and ceiling is covered with colourful frescoes by Michelangelo and his acolytes. We had twenty minutes to take it all in – and, in spite of the crowds, I’d have happily spent all afternoon there.

The Sistine Chapel ceiling - image wikipedia

The Sistine Chapel ceiling

The final part of the tour was to St Peter’s Basilica and, because Pope Francis had declared a Jubilee, we were allowed in through the Holy Door, along with thousands of pilgrims from around the world. At the end of the nave Bernini’s ornate Baldacchino towers above the High Altar. Michelangelo’s Pietà draws the crowds, but every inch of this enormous church demands attention.

Michelangelo's Pieta in St Peter's Basilica - Rome - photo zoedawes

Michelangelo’s Pieta in St Peter’s Basilica

As we left Vatican City I looked back at it lit up and knew I’d have to return another time to spend more time uncovering its cultural treasures.

In the evening you’re spoilt for choice where to eat. I returned to Trastevere, in a quieter corner and had an excellent meal at Le Mani in Pasta. (Read more in article about Food and Drink in Rome.)

Spaghetti Carbonara at Le Mani in Pasta - Trastavere Rome

Spaghetti Carbonara at Le Mani in Pasta

Day 3 – morning: Spanish Steps, Piazza del Popolo and the Pantheon

You’re probably a little tired by this stage in your 48 hours in Rome but there’s still so much to see. There’s the Pantheon, Piazza Novona, Aventine Hill, Castel Del Angelo, more museums, art galleries, shops, restaurants … I got the Metro to the Spanish Steps, which were relatively quiet early on a Sunday Morning. Children played and drank from the quirky boat-shaped fountain, a chestnut seller kept warm over his brazier and horses snorted as they waited for tourists to show round town.

The Spanish Steps - 48 hours in Rome

The Spanish Steps

It’s like Montmartre in Paris at the top of the steps; artists paint popular scenes and cartoonists encourage you to look ridiculous. I wandered off along the path towards the Villa Borghese. There are wonderful views across the city here. I didn’t have time to visit the Villa but went down into Piazza del Popolo just as midday bells rang out across the square from at least three churches …


I walked along Via del Corso past huge churches, fashionable shops and people enjoying the late autumn sun. My final stop on was the Pantheon. Formerly a Roman temple c 126AD, it’s now a church on the site of an earlier temple commissioned by Marcus Agrippa during the reign of Augustus. Sadly I couldn’t go inside as it was time to leave. However, I am most definitely coming back for another Roman Holiday; 48 hours in Rome just isn’t long enough!

The Pantheon - 48 hours in Rome - zoedawes

The Pantheon

Many thanks to Citalia, leading specialist in Italian holidays, who organised this 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.

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48 hours in Rome with The Quirky Traveller

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