Monday, 4 April 2016

Rockin' it in the Med!

Traditional architecture in Malta and Gozo seems dominated by balconies. They are fascinating.

We were pleasantly surprised by the nice beaches to be found. Many years ago, friends who returned fom Malta had enjoyed their visits but gave the impression that it was little more than a rock full of concrete - how wrong that image is!

We were based on Gozo and spent only one day on Malta but saw enough to think that we may return for a proper visit. Gozo is small enough to tour in a couple of days (we spend a good couple of hours at the splendid Citadel and visited a couple of beaches just to take in the views) so unless you want to chill, Malta has significantly more to do.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Living the Mediterranean Lifestyle

Years ago, we rented a villa in Javea and wanted to buy it or something similar. We still haven't!

It was September 1997 and some friends had recently bought a holiday home on a resort in Javea; we met up a couple of times and enjoyed al fresco dining on balmy evenings. Those same friends have upgraded to a villa now and have retired there. We are still living and working in the UK. Opportunity missed?

We are planning a lifestyle change in 2017, when our son completes his degree, and we are still looking at properties around the Mediterranean. Prices fall into two camps: those we can afford as a holiday home and those we can afford if we sell our house in the UK.  This presents us with a dilemma as we obviously prefer the nicer properties but we are not ready to move lock, stock and barrel.

We have some other friends who have made the decision to move to Denia next year and have contracted to buy a brand new 'designer villa' from a local (Denia) building company. The villas are minimalist and look fantastic! They seem spacious and well-planned with almost as many bathrooms as bedrooms and loads of glass for plenty of winter sunshine. Prices start from around £200k including pool, which is amazing value but considerably more than we can spare for a holiday home. (I wonder if there's a discount if you don't have a pool? Although I guess you'll need one if you want rental income.)

for sale in Denia, Spain

Spain offers the best weather and is probably the cheapest of the European Mediterranean locations. An agency in Puerto Banus claimed that the winter climate in that area is the mildest and therefore best of all, especially compared with their near neighbour, Portugal (not strictly Med but Atlantic) which is slightly more expensive but offers incentives for retirees. Italy can be expensive but much of its coastline is rocky. The South of France is very expensive near the coast, especially the Côte d'Azur / Provence, and the winters are colder and can last longer than in the Costa Blanca / Costa del Sol. The Canaries offer the warmest winter climate and my aunt, who lives near Malaga, often visits Tenerife for winter sunshine!

In general, all Mediterranean shores are warmer than Britain but it isn't just the weather that is attractive. The lifestyle seems less busy and the Mediterranean diet is hailed as very healthy, despite the abundance of cheaply produced local wines.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

A Villa on The Amalfi Coast

It was the end of a damp August in Britain. We had been working long hours and needed a break before the next onslaught...

Our Easter break was a week in France, which was cold and damp, so we decided on Italy - biscotti, pasta, pizza, coffee, wine, zabaglione and more. The Amalfi Coast looked nice so we decided to rent somewhere for a couple of weeks.

Skipping ahead, we arrived yesterday (as I write this bit), following a very early start, on a cramped but otherwise pleasant flight. On leaving the airport building in Napoli, the Italian experience began with a flagrant disregard for adequate signage. We found the courtesy bus stop for car hire customers but, as we waited, the disorderly queue and accompanying luggage reached a size that would not be accommodated by the next mini-bus. With only a small case and a piece of hand-luggage each and, having discovered the whereabouts of the car hire depot just 700 metres around the corner, we decided to walk - a much needed exercise after 3 hours of cramped seating.

It looked like chaos. Numerous people waiting inside and outside the various car hire companies' booths. We dutifully took our ticket, number 67, and looked up to see that customer number 28 was being served. Hmmm. Abandoning the crowded airless conditions inside the offices, there followed a two hour wait in the 28°c heat outside, with very little shade and too few seats for the waiting bums. We did find a drinks vending machine, though, and this avoided dehydration.

Finally, we were on our way in one of the ugliest cars on the planet, a Citröen Cactus. We thought it would be nice to travel the coastal route rather than the motorway. It took forever but it was an interesting experience so we're glad we did, and realised that the words 'chaos' and 'Italy' are inter-changeable. All the roads in Napoli and towards Sorrento are in need of repair or being repaired; it reminded me of being on the Simpson's ride in Universal Studios! It was great fun: jiggly on the road surface, swervy round the bends, people, traffic, etc. - and challenging (we're probably all glad that I wasn't driving!) - and we arrived at our destination village square where we were met by the agent, a lovely friendly young lady who gave us 'welcome' kisses and led us to the rental house.

Gaining entry to the drive required a little cartoon-style magic. We had to fold in the wing mirrors and take a deep breath to squeeze past and, at first, the car's 1.2 litre engine wouldn't grip the gravel so we dropped back to get a run up and - oops - scraped the bumper (although virtually unnoticeable and yes, of course we had paid extra for CDW insurance - this is Italy)! We made it to the top of the drive where we were greeted by the gardener (owner) Alberto who was friendly, courteous and eager to be as helpful as possible.

Alberto now lives in Napoli because his children were bored of village life so, this year, he decided to rent out his beautiful home in Termini. The location is fantastic! It overlooks the Mediterranean Sea and the Isle of Capri. It is a very short stroll to the village where there are more shops than expected, including a well stocked mini-market with fresh produce, a pharmacy, an ice cream / café bar, two restaurants, a hotel plus a shop selling attractive ceramics. We also saw a place advertising free tasting of a local lemon liqueur and, apparently, there is a restaurant in the nearby town of St Agate that boasts 3 Michelin stars.

Alberto walked us through his garden, giving us permission to help ourselves from the abundant lemon trees, fig trees, apples, pears and red and green sweet grapes during our stay. There were also grapefruit and pomegranates not yet ready to pick, plus olive trees, cherry, some berries and hazelnut (I think). There is a small overground pool near the terrace, hammocks under the shade of trees, a sunny lawned area and, in the garden shed, outdoor games - archery, tennis, putting, etc.. On the terrace is a large dining table under a gazebo, surrounded by an outdoor kitchen with sink, pizza oven and large barbecue. Fresh basil was growing in a pot on the worktop.

From the outside, the house is compact and neither attractive nor unattractive but quite pleasant and nicer than most of the village buildings which, typical of the area, look run down externally. There is a self-contained studio apartment on the lower ground level where Alberto keeps his personal belongings and which he also uses as an art studio. An amateur artist working in oils, he paints for pleasure and has developed his own unique style which, as with most amateur artists, he is quite dissatisfied! Some of his works are displayed in the house.

So, finally, into the house! The large terrace merges with a covered, sheltered terrace with direct access to the main living area. Inside, on this upper ground level is the triple aspect lounge/diner with views over the garden and also the Isle of Capri, the kitchen, a bathroom and stairs leading to the two bedrooms (one with en-suite) and the upper terrace.

This is the incredible view from our patio!

Day 3
It's overcast today. There is a cooling breeze which means that a shirt is required over a T-shirt. Not to worry, the forecast is sunny for the next 5 days then another day like today then sunny again. Pretty perfect weather really.

We've stayed in a number of rental properties and this offers among the best in terms of quality finishing and all 'mod cons': heating/air-con, double glazing with integrated bug screens and wooden shutters, quality hob, oven, fridge-freezer, dish-washer, washing machine in the en-suite, newly finished quality bathrooms and quality fitted wardrobes and drawers, providing more than adequate storage. Not only has the owner provided all you could possibly need in terms of crockery, cutlery, pots and pans, utensils and more but also an abundance of consumables: soap, shower gel, shampoo, toilet rolls, kitchen rolls, cleaning items, spare batteries, etc.. There is also wifi, hifi, satellite TV, a DVD player, hair dryer, books and cookery books (in Italian). The only thing I can think of that we haven't found yet are kitchen scales - and something else that isn't here (that I forgot to pack) is my travel set of watercolour paints... Worth a complaint to the owner? Only joking, of course!

Today, we plan to collect a few lemons, squeeze the juice and add sugar water to make some old fashioned lemonade. We are deciding what to have for dinner later, maybe a giant seafood risotto on the barbecue.

Day 5
Because we are enjoying a relaxing time in our holiday home and also the difficulty of leaving and returning through the narrow and winding drive, we haven't been out and about much. Today, we tried to visit Positano but cars were parked 2km before we reached the town and we were in a stream of traffic shunting nose to tail through the narrow streets which were filled with pedestrians. It seemed a pretty place but maybe September is still too early to avoid crowds, perhaps mid-October might be a little more sane.

On the way back, we picked up some groceries and headed home. There was a car parked where we normally take our run-up to the drive so we were not quite parallel as we entered, resulting in slight damage to the near side rear wheel arch, bumper, light casing and pride. Following a tiring day, it's homemade burgers, fries and salad this evening. Last night we had a barbecue and the night before was seafood risotto.

Week 2

At the weekend, we mostly "chilled" around the property: using the pool, honing archery skills, making fresh lemonade, etc.. We began our second week with a visit to Sorrento which was reasonably easy to drive to and find space in a car park just outside the old city wall. Whilst we were ambling along one of the quieter pavements, glancing in the shops, we were accosted from behind by a small young woman, less than than 5ft tall, who elbowed her way, very forcefully, between two of us, rather than go round (there was plenty of room) then, when I involuntarily laughed out loud at this odd behaviour, she turned round to gesticulate rudely! I laughed again, oops!

We spent the afternoon walking around the lively town, down the many steps to the marina and up again to the even more lively town as evening descended; really interesting. We ate in one of the restaurants that, unfortunately, served mediocre food but had a pianist to enhance the ambiance. I heard a couple of English accents, dozens of Americans in Sorrento.

Tuesday's weather was cloudy with some rain, as promised so we made a lemon tart. We have a fantastic view of the Isle of Capri from our holiday home so, on Wednesday, we decided to pop over to the island for a spot of lunch - and we are so glad that we did! We drove to 'our' car park in Sorrento and took the lift down to sea level where we boarded the ferry. We landed at the lively port, wandered around and had a pleasant lunch. Then we took the funicular to the main town centre, situated on a ridge so that there were easterly views towards the Italian mainland and westerly views across the Med., perfect for beautiful sunsets.

Capri is stunning!

We've glimpsed some up-market locations around the world but Capri is my favourite. At the top of the funicular, we took in the view down to the port and across to where we were staying, then turned around to enter the inner streets of Capri centre through a charming 'bijou' square with restaurants, some boutiques and, in the corner, a small church. The square has several exits which lead to a labyrinth of pedestrianised streets, lined with more designer boutiques than I've ever seen in one place. Luxury hotels are discreetly nestled and, at the top of the ridge, a few restaurants (with very silly menu prices) dominate - surely for the diners to experience stunning sunsets. The place oozes quality and style in a romantic setting. The tranquillity of virtually no traffic, save for small electric utility vehicles, was in stark contrast to the general noise and hubbub so typical of Italy.

We tried some granita di limone (a cross between sorbet and slush puppy) and it was very refreshing so, yesterday, we collected a few lemons and made our own. The difference between heaven and hell? About 5 degrees. I went swimming last night - not in the pool but in bed, yuk! The really warm daytime temperatures of 27C have risen to 32C in the shade and even the nights are hotter than a typical English summer's day. This has affected our plans to be tourists on alternate days as Pompeii is reputed to be extremely hot with very little shade, so we gave it a miss and stayed around the house and pool instead. I even found myself harbouring a short yearning for home (near London) which is apparently wet and cold-ish at the moment - a thought I know that I'll regret in a couple of days' time, when we are on our way back!

Meanwhile, it's 8.30 in the morning and here we sit, on the patio in the shade with a slight breeze, sipping coffee. Bliss!


In future, I shall try not too complain too much about the M25 and England's road system because, compared with Italy, it's fine. Leaving before 7.30, it took two hours of intense driving in Monday morning traffic just to reach the motorway but, from then on, it was easy - straight into a car return bay, processed immediately, and onto a waiting bus for the couple of minutes 'wild ride' to the airport terminal.

Luton Airport

Welcome to England: dull grey skies, drizzly rain and a stink of old cigarette smoke. Yuk! Is this the sight and smell that greets tourists on arrival? What a dump! People hanging around the exit doors, smoking, trying to shelter from the rain, creating an unpleasant billowing stench for others to push though - and so many old cigarette butts on the ground that giant rivulets of floating debris were swirling around people's feet, many of them in open sandals. Too late to turn round and fly away from here?


So what did we manage without? We couldn't find an iron or ironing board (but we rarely iron our clothes, as we dry them carefully), no hand whisk but we managed with a fork and wooden spoon, no rolling pin but we used a bottle to roll out the pâté sucre, no measuring jug but we estimated! The wifi signal strength was pitiful but worked for simpler apps, just not interactive ones or video. Not too bad though as this was a holiday away from the stress of business emails and such!

The ten day forecast into October for the London area is excellent, around 17C/18C!

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Exploring Provence in Classic Style - Hire a Retro VW Camper!

We love France and we usually drive there then spend the week recovering before driving back so we wondered about a fly-drive-caravanette holiday. We've not actually done this but the idea of hiring a fully refurbished-like-new retro VW campervan for a short holiday break and going as we please, without having to dash back to base each night, is very appealing for a late Spring break!

Holiday hire - VW Campervan - France

Classic VW Campervan
There seems to be good availability from SunHatFrance who have recently bought two retro VW Campers* to hire out for self-drive holidays. We used the company years ago and self-catered in their holiday home in Provence so we're thinking about exploring a little further around the South of France, without having to plan too far ahead or panicking about booking hotels and paying extortionate rates.

Places to visit when touring the South of France

Verdon Gorge, Provence
For example, a photo on the SunHat website shows the Verdon Gorge - which looks amazing - but we've never been there! They also wax lyrical about other places, such as Aix-en-Provence, which I'm also desperate to visit. I'm sure they won't mind that I've 'borrowed' a couple of photos from their website.

The newly refurbished campervans are said to sleep 4 so we expect it to be better for just two of us, with plenty of storage for clothing and food supplies. Cost-wise, it's similar to a 3* hotel but you save on not having to eat out every night and paying €25 for a bottle wine that costs €5 in the supermarché. Flights can actually be cheaper than petrol + motorway tolls and will take far less time, especially if you have to start your journey from the North of England/Wales or Scotland. MPG (or LPK) may be dearer - not sure - will have to ask.

It sounds quite exciting just writing about it! My parents had an old VW caravanette and it was really easy to drive, once you got used to the fact that there was no bonnet in front of your face! Here is the link if you want to explore the idea: campervan holiday in the French Riviera.

*No longer available to hire but static caravans for family holiays are.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

In and around Cape Town, South Africa

It's a long, expensive, overnight flight from Britain to South Africa but it's worth it, now and then, for a change of scenery, change of weather and a change of pace. Cape Town is in a similar time zone to the UK and their seasons are opposite to ours which makes it ideal to visit during Britain's autumn or winter months.

Apartments near VA Waterfront, Cape Town, SA
We stayed in the heart of Cape Town, between the business centre and the marina. The vibrant V&A Waterfront was a leisurely five minute stroll along the canal (shown in the picture) past the aquarium, the craft centre, the dry dock and the food court with its variety of delicious meals and snacks.

The V&A Waterfront has everything: restaurants offering global cuisine, an up-market shopping mall, local gifts and crafts, entertainment, supermarkets, etc. Service was always with a smile.

V&A is named after Victoria, the British Queen, and Alfred, her son.

Outside of Cape Town, there are pleasant nearby drives offering a variety of scenery along the Atlantic coast, Indian ocean and inland through the wine regions. You may see whales, ostriches, penguins and a variety of other animals on your travels.

Finally, when you return home and open the credit card statement, you realise what great value the holiday was!

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

St Pancras - not really famous and no match for Luton Airport.

Terry meets Julie at Waterloo Sation every Friday night, Harry Potter met the Weasleys at King's Cross to go to Hogwarts, Paddington Bear was found at one of the other stations but not, definitely not, St Pancras.
image of London station
St Pancras station was chosen as the gateway to Europe and £millions were spent expanding and upgrading it, much of the architecture is award-winning, some of the integrated ideas are innovative as well as functional.

As a traveller, clutching my executive class ticket and weekend luggage, I arrived at check-in/passport control - a bit busy but it only took ten minutes to reach the front of the queue. Then the awakening... where were all those spacious areas so prevalent in photographs on the internet? The waiting area was one enormous sardine can! There were very few seats and from what I could see, they were all uncomfortable stone-like structures. That was the moment of realisation - airport departure lounges are not so bad after all, even Luton.

That said, the train journey knocked spots off most flights. I would rather travel to Paris or Brussels using this mode of transport than most commercial flights - and the stations are in the heart of each city, not a few miles outside.

So, never mind not being literarily famous (yet) St Pancras, just get those soft seats installed and sort out the crowd issues. Thanks.