More sights and flavours of Krakow

Although my stay in Krakow was fairly brief, and seemed even more so with two trips out of   the city to visit the Wieliczka Salt Mine and Auschwitz-Birkenau, there was still time to get a good flavour of the city. There’s lots to see and plenty of good food in Krakow. You can read about our great night at the Copernicus by clicking here.

On our final night we headed to the city’s main square. Rynek Glowny dates back to the 13th century and covers over 9 acres, making it one of the largest medieval town squares in Europe. It’s surrounded by stylish townhouses and dominated by the Cloth Hall which was originally a hub of trading. You’ll also see the Town Hall Tower and two churches, including the beautiful Gothic towers of St Mary’s Basilica.

Krakow: Rynek Glowny

The towers dominate the skyline of this grand square

All commercial activity took place in this square and it was where regal ceremonies were held as well as public executions. Now it’s the place to head for that all-important souvenir shopping, to taste some local street food and to find a wide selection of bars and restaurants. It’s a stylish square and there’s plenty of entertainment on offer in the evenings with buskers and traditional dancers, as well as lots of traditional wares for sale.

After a pleasant meander, our final destination was the stylish Szara Ges. A modern space offering great views of the square’s grandeur and delicious contemporary Polish food.

As the logo hints at, their speciality is goose, so I couldn’t resist the foie gras. Not just any old foie gras though, ice cream made from foie gras and served with macerated figs and cherries and Tokaj grape jelly. Some wonderfully soft and sweet brioche completed the dish perfectly. I feel I’m going to be searching for foie gras ice cream for a long time now, trouble is I’m really not sure how many places I’m going to be able to find it in.

Krakow: Szara Ges

Inventive and tasty foie gras ice cream to start with

The second starter enjoyed by our group involved beetroot. Well, there would have to be a beetroot option, we are in Poland after all. My brother Frank (who I’ve mentioned before has always had a strong dislike of beetroot…until now) actually ordered it. So much has Poland made him fall in love with the humble beet! It was described as goat’s cheese, baked pepper marmalade and beet leaves in beet ash. Looks beautiful and he was still talking about how wonderful it tasted days later.

Krakow: Szara Ges

The vibrancy of beets and their ash

I ordered another starter as my main course – a handy trick when you’re on a eating holiday. The gravlax was macerated in salt and served with homemade creme fraiche and dill and topped with crisp, peppery radishes. A beautifully dense piece of fish packed with flavour and spiciness.

Krakow: Szara Ges

Sweet and spicy gravlax

The beef fillet was served with goose potato tagliatelle – more of that goose theme – with the crispy shreds of potatoes fried in that most delicious of all fat, and a green peppercorn sauce.

Krakow: Szara Ges

Beef fillet nestles under crispy potato

The cod fillet mignon was grilled and served with zucchini puree and crayfish. A delicate fish dish to savour.

Krakow: Szara Ges

Grilled cod with a delightful sauce

And of course, there would have to be a duck dish. The duck in Poland comes highly recommended by me! Served beautifully rare it came with cauliflower and liquified foie gras. Fabulous.

Krakow: Szara Ges

The tenderest of duck dishes with liquid foie gras

After dinner while we were pondering dessert we sampled a couple of vodkas on recommendation of our lovely waiter.

Krakow: Szara Ges

When in Poland…drink vodka

This dessert was called Copernicus. Nicolaus Copernicus was a Polish scholar who formulated a model of the universe that placed the sun at the centre of the universe rather than the sun – a somewhat radical theory at the time. His father was from Krakow. And this dish portrays the sun at the centre with the other planets orbiting around it.

Zsara Ges: dessert

The beautifully yellow and chocolate dessert

Eating at Szara Ges was a lovely experience. The service was welcoming and expert without being too overwhelming and it was perfect to be in the heart of all the night time activity.

Szarages is at Rynek Glowny 17, in Krakow’s main square.

Dining Squares

Rynek Glowny is lined with bars and restaurants on all sides serving a mix of Polish, Italian and eclectic dishes. I enjoyed this delicious duck breast with cherry sauce, apple and roast potatoes.

Krakow: Rynek Glowny

Duck is a Polish speciality

You’ll find plenty of Polish delicacies in the bustling market in the centre of the square.

Krakow: Rynek Glowny

Exotic-looking sheeps cheese

We loved these deliciously smoky cheese bites cooked on the grill with bacon. It’s called Oscypek and is made in the mountains where it’s cured in hot smoke for up to 14 days. It’s seriously smoky with a tasty, unique flavour.

Krakow: Rynek Glowny

Polish Oscypek – smoked mountain cheese

And then there’s the square in the Kazimierz, the Old Jewish Quarter, again offering a range of places to enjoy food and beverages. We tasted the delicious local dumplings (pierogi) served with a creamy sauce.

Krakow: Kazimierz

More dumpling delight – and a creamy sauce

If you want to do a tour of the city in what I would describe as a golf buggy, there are plenty available for hire in both squares. They all come with a recorded, informative commentary. It’s a fun way to see the three main historic areas – the Old Town, Kazimierz (the Old Jewish Quarter) and the Krakow Ghetto where Schindler’s factory is.

And another thing

You can’t go to Krakow and not visit the Wieliczka Salt Mines. Just half an hour’s drive away they are an absolute wonder. You climb down hundreds of stairs and meander through a world of salt – it needs to be seen to be believed. There’s a large ballroom area where the chandeliers are made of salt crystals, beautifully lit underground lakes, salt statues and an explanation of how everything worked in the days when salt was an expensive commodity and it was prestigious (and well paid) to work here. One of the best strangely unusual things I’ve ever done, if that makes any sense at all.

Krakow: Wuekuczja Salt Mine

Stunning salt chandeliers

Where to stay

We stayed at the Metropolitan Boutique Hotel which is a five minute walk from Kazimierz and less than 15 to Rynek Glowny. It’s a modern hotel with beautifully comfortable rooms, a cosy dining room where you have your delicious breakfast spread and a lovely little courtyard.

The dining room turns into their Fab Fusion restaurant at night where you can enjoy an interesting selection of dishes with a mix of Italian, Asian and Polish flavours.

We organised all our excursions through the hotel. The service was fantastic, helpful, efficient and friendly. Everyone really made an effort to make us feel immediately at home. Which we did!

Oh and there’s a Biedronka opposite (it means ladybird in Polish, they have the cutest logo) – and it’s a supermarket. Always handy.

The Metropolitan is at ul Berka Jaseluricza 19, Krakow

Travel: What to eat in Warsaw

Today I’m continuing my exploration of Poland by tasting the food of Warsaw. But first some history.

The area covered by modern Warsaw has been inhabited for at least 1,400 years. The city has had rather a tumultuous history from the Great Northern War of 1702 to occupation and uprising during World War II and a long period of communist rule.

After the Second World War, when the Nazis slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Warsaw Jews, they literally demolished the city. In 1945 most of Warsaw lay in ruins. The Soviets proclaimed the Polish People’s Republic and the city was rebuilt in a modern style.

All this means that Warsaw has an amazingly diverse architecture. From the charm and colour of the old town to the squareness and rather grand greyness of the Communist era – those communists certainly built things big!

Widespread anger and unrest hit Poland in the early 1980s with protests over food shortages and the prices of goods and the trade union Solidarity was established. By early 1989 an agreement was made to hold elections and an anti-communist government was established.

Poland entered the European Union in 2004 and is now in a period of prosperity. You can see this in Warsaw’s wide streets, bustling restaurant life and new, shiny financial district. It’s a great city to roam – with lots of green spaces, good shopping and a mind-boggling array of eateries in what is a relatively small area.

To help with the decision making, I decided to start my Polish culinary quest by joining Eat Polska for a food tour. A fabulous way to explore the city as well as tasting plenty of traditional dishes and learning their history. We visited four establishments and tasted a real variety of dishes. There was a good walk between most of the stops which was great as I really did discover more about the city while also walking off some of those calories.

Kaman Lwowska

Our first stop was a cosy, traditional Polish place – the sort of place I could see myself settling down for a lovely long lunch.

I’d seen this dish on several menus already in my short time in Warsaw but hadn’t had the courage to order it. It’s delicious! Bread served with lard and fermented gherkin and a chilled shot of local vodka which we were told to “scull”. This is a match made in heaven – nothing complicated but somehow sublimely tasty with a lovely mix of textures. My mouth’s actually watering remembering it.

Warsaw: lard

Lard and fermented gherkin

Warsaw: vodka

Perfectly chilled local vodka

Warsaw: lard

Spread and ready to eat

There’s a lot of soup enjoyed in Polish cuisine. We tasted the red borscht which is a clear, beautifully sweet beetroot soup served with uszko dumping. It’s traditionally served on Christmas Eve, its vibrant pinkness perfect for a celebration.

We also tasted the cucumber soup – made with grated sour pickled cucumbers and potato and served hot which was unexpected and also delicious.Warsaw: cucumber soup

Cucumber soup…and it’s served warm

Solec 44

Solec 44 is a trendy gastro-pub sort of place in an up-and-coming area of the city. I loved the modern, minimalist interior and the shelves containing huge bottles of pickled everything and a wide selection of board games.

We were there to sample a meat selection. Sausages are huge in Poland – actually, they’re normal size but there’s a massive range of them to try. And very good they all are too. Quality cheeses are more of a recent development and today we tucked into a great charcuterie board. We tried three types of sausage, smoked fatback and four types of cheese. All very tasty, especially the pieprzowka (black pepper sausage).

Warsaw: charcuterie

Gotta love a charcuterie board

Bibenda

Time for a meander back towards the centre of the city and Bibenda which serves a mix of traditional and modern polish dishes. Pork is very popular and served in many, many ways. Today’s tenderloin was cooked with a cinnamon mustard glaze, lemon fennel puree, carrot, coriander, orange zest, cinnamon popcorn and mint powder. The meat was so packed with flavour and all the elements perfectly complemented each other.

Warsaw: pork tenderloin

Exotically inventive pork tenderloin

And then there was this vegetarian dish made of broad beans, zucchini, tomato, onion, garlic, spicy mole sauce, avocado, Korycinski cheese and grilled spring onions. Sort of like an exotic kind of ratatouille topped with loads of creamy avo.

The place also has a fabulous cocktail list and serves a wide range of beers. You could certainly  linger.

Warsaw: vegetarian

An amazing vegetarian selection

Wedel

Wedel is a family business dating back to the 1890s and it sells chocolate in many shapes and forms. There’s literally chocolate in the air. And today we were sampling their legendary bittersweet drinking chocolate. Somewhere between milk chocolate and dark chocolate on the tasting scale, the luscious conception was thick, rich and sweet – one of the most indulgent drinks I’ve ever had. And what a beautiful shop – seriously, I challenge anyone to walk out without buying something.

Warsaw: hot chocolate

Lusciously rich hot chocolate

The Eat Polska Food Tour was a wonderful way to learn more about Polish food – something I had limited knowledge of – and find my bearings in the country’s capital. Our guide Eliza was so knowledgeable – not only about the food but also the complicated history of her country. A really fun and educational way to spend an afternoon. Oh, and tasty, too.

Where else to eat

I loved Warsaw’s Old Town with its colourful ancient buildings, cobbled streets and opportunities for al fresco drinking and dining. The beautiful main square has a couple of restaurants so on our first lunch we went in to Krolewski. I’m guessing this is one of the places all the tourists eat – something of an obvious choice. But we didn’t regret it, the food was lovely and the service great. And I did love sitting in the mains square.

The menu offers all those traditional Polish dishes that you’ve read about including a range of classic soups, duck, pork and beef dishes and those little Polish bundles – pierogi (dumplings). You can even get all of the meats on one plate called a Royal Platter – literally a tower of chops, steaks and sausages. The Poles are certainly somewhat carnivorous.

My first taste of pierogi were these Russian-style dumplings stuffed with cheese, potato and fried onion. Amazingly tasty little bundles. I’m going to have to find somewhere in London to get my pierogi fix.

Warsaw: pierogi

Satisfying pierogi stuffed with potato, onion and cheese

Duck is also a staple and we tucked into the Polish-style roasted duck with apples served in cherry sauce with potatoes and beetroot. I love beetroot but even if you don’t, a trip to Poland will convert you – they know how to do beetroot here. The duck was flavoursome and moist, and the cherry sauce surprisingly zesty, served with perfectly cooked potatoes. A hearty dish for sure. Like a lot of Polish cuisine – you’re not going to go hungry that’s for sure.

Warsaw: duck

Flavoursome duck with cherry sauce and beetroot

Warsaw: steak tartare

Design your own steak tartare

Just across the road from our hotel was a lovely little spot called Bohemia. The perfect choice for a late dinner after our evening tour of the city. Steak tartare crops up on many a Polish menu and as it’s one of my favourite dishes I had to go for it. Love the presentation and the addition of a fresh garlic clove and enjoyed mixing it up to create the right flavour just for me.

There’s plenty of beer to savour and Poland has a flourishing craft beer scene – there are around a hundred breweries in Poland. The three most popular local beers are Zywiec, Okoum and Tyskie. I became partial to a chilled Zywiec. There are plenty of options for beer tasting in the beautiful streets of the Old Town.

Warsaw: beer

Cheers from the Old Town

There are lemonade carts dotted around the city and fresh lemonade is sold all over. They look cute but the lemonade we tried from the cart was a little insipid with the juice of half a lemon, water and a spoonful of sugar. Shop-bought lemonade seemed to have more flavour with extra juice and fresh herbs added. All very refreshing either way.

Lemonade in the park

We also enjoyed coffee and a light breakfast at to Lubie cafe, again in the Old Town. My Local Breakfast included smoked cold meat, cheese, a tasty bowl of ham and egg spread and tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers served with bread rolls. They also had an extensive tea menu and lovely coffee.

A fresh and tasty breakfast with all my favourites

Where to stay

We stayed at the Westin Warsaw. It was situated about a 20-minute walk from the main sights but I do like a bit of a meander, so that suited me. The rooms were spacious and comfortable with good mini bar and tea and coffee facilities. And the service was fantastic with plenty of help organising tours and recommending the best options.

You can find out more about food tours in Warsaw at www.eatpolskacom

Copernicus in Krakow for Polish royal cuisine

Today I’m taking you to Poland. To Krakow to be specific. Krakow is the second largest and one of the oldest cities in Poland, dating back to the 7th century. It sits on the Vistula River and  has a well-preserved Jewish Quarter and a stunning Old Town centred around the grand Rynek Glowny (market square).

After the invasion of Poland at the start of World War II Krakow became the capital of Germany’s General Government. In 1941 the Jewish population were forced into a walled area which became known as the Krakow Ghetto and from there they were mainly sent to German extermination camps like nearby Auschwitz (more of which later, yes, I went there and it will always stay with me – an experience I think everyone should have).

There were around 60,000 Jews in Krakow at the start of the war and only 2,000 survived it. Now there are around 1,000 Jewish inhabitants of the city, with about 200 identifying themselves as members of the Jewish community. The Jewish Quarter is charming and there are still seven synagogues there that you can visit.

Across the river is Oskar Schindler’s enamelware plant where he selected employees from the ghetto to work – saving them from the camps. Steven Spielberg told this amazing story in his film Schindler’s List. Roman Polanski is a survivor of the Krakow ghetto, which he luckily escaped from as a small boy.

There’s so much history to absorb as you roam the streets of Krakow. A lot of tragedy, a lot of terrible tales and I could feel it. It’s a sombre experience hearing about mans inhumanity to man.

Having said that it’s a great city to walk around with myriad bars and restaurants to eat at and the locals are some of the most welcoming people I’ve met. So once we’d absorbed as  much history as we could and taken in the sights it was time for dinner.

We headed for the fabulous Copernicus restaurant which is in the Copernicus Hotel – close to the beautiful Wawel Castle. The food is based on Polish royal cuisine, with traditional recipes being taken a creative step into the 21st century.

The restaurant is cosy and intimate and the whole evening was an absolutely wonderful experience. We picked the five-course chef’s tasting menu which we were guided through by our delightful waiter – who even helped me choose some lovely Polish wine. We could have gone seven or even 12 courses – for 12 he advised allowing at least four hours and we weren’t sure we were prepared for that much of a banquet.

Two of the dishes were standard and we had to choose the other three which made it all very manageable. To start this delightful beetroot tartar served with pumpkin and blackberries. They know what to do with their beetroot in Poland – even my brother Frank who admitted to hating the beets before his visit there soon became a fan. A beautifully colourful plate that was bursting with flavour.

Copernicus: beetroot

Beetroot tartar with pumpkin and blackberries

For the second course there was a choice of four. First up this salad of grilled tuna served with avocado, zucchini and pomegranates. A real tasty work of art.

Copernicus: salad

The luscious and colourful tuna salad

The roasted bacon – which was kind of like a belly of pork – came with pear and spring onion mustard. What a wonderful combination – and who’d have thought of using pears to make mustard. Genius.

Copernicus: bacon

Bacon paired with pear mustard

Pierogi (dumplings) can be found everywhere on Polish menus – and very nice they are too. But these were in a league of their own stuffed with tomatoes onion and cider marmalade and served with dry-cured neck.

Copernicus: dumplings

Truly superior Polish dumplings

Copernicus: Sorrel soup

Exotic sorrel soup with caviar

The next communal course was the deliciously exotic sorrel cream soup. Served with a new potato in pride of place in the centre, topped with sturgeon caviar. Can’t say I’ve ever eaten sorrel cream soup, but I definitely plan to again.

The main course also offered four choices. The duck was served with a foie gras terrine, quince jam and kohlrabi. Duck is big in Polish cuisine and I ate it several times on this trip – with great satisfaction.

Copernicus: duck

Duck and foie gras terrine

Copernicus: trout

Brown trout on the creamiest of risotto

The brown trout was served atop a creamy lemon-spiced risotto. Perfectly cooked fish and a melt-in-the-mouth risotto.

I chose the veal dish which was a real masterpiece. Served with sweetbreads, green peas and marinated nasturtiums, this is one of the most luscious dishes I’ve eaten in some time. The perfect balance of flavours and textures and richness. Yum!

Copernicus: veal

Perfectly cooked veal with the richness of sweetbreads

Okay, so when you’ve committed to five courses you simply have to do it. It wasn’t a struggle to be honest – the restaurant got the portion size just right – even though some little added extras were included along the way. There’s was still a little room for something sweet. Apricots were served with cardamom chocolate and lemon meringue. Delicate and tangy.

Copernicus: apricot pudding

The flavours of apricots and cardamoms

Or there was cottage cheese served with mirabelle plums and sea buckthorn sorbet. It tasted as good as it looks!

Copernicus: plum dessert

Plum flavours and sea buckthorn sorbet

I went for the cheese plate and it’s one of the best I’ve had for some time (again!) – the selection from hard, goats and properly stinky (in a very good way!) were served with the most amazing onion and pear mustard.

Copernicus: Cheese

A truly fabulous cheese plate

After such a fabulous dinner we felt we simply had to finish the evening with a vodka! Well, when in Poland… Our waiter recommended which one (it’s a complicated thing choosing vodka here) and served it up chilled in these beautifully dainty little glasses. We were so happy!

Copernicus: vodka

When in Poland…drink vodka

Today’s price point

Our five-course chef’s tasting menu cost 180PLN (approximately £38.50) – drinks not included.

The Winnica Turnau Solaris ’15 (white wine) cost 139PLN (approx £29).

The Winnica Turnau Cabernet ’15 (red wine) cost 149PLN (approx £31).

Copernicus is on Kanonicza Street – Krakow’s oldest street – which winds up to the Castle.

 

Travel: The delights of Alicante

The area around Alicante is said to have been inhabited for over 7000 years. In more recent times it’s become a major tourist destination with serious development in the 1950s and 1960s resulting in large buildings and complexes springing up throughout the city.

This means Alicante is the perfect example of a concrete jungle. High rises dominate the skyline (and not in a particularly attractive way) and on first sight it doesn’t seem like the prettiest of holiday destinations. It would be easy to dismiss the city as place not to visit in Spain. But you’d be wrong. Well, they do say you should never judge a book by its cover and as soon as you start looking a little deeper into the soul of Alicante you’ll be surprised to find many beauties.

While those buildings can’t be unbuilt, a lot of effort has been made to add beauty with the myriad flowers and trees. Jacarandas, bougainvilleas and hibiscus abound (gotta love those exotic names) and there are palm trees everywhere. Of course, as you’re in Spain, the sky is always blue – different colours of blue for different times of day – the sea is warm and clear, the food is wonderful and there’s a warm Spanish welcome. Because this is a truly Spanish city where simple food is perfectly prepared using the best of local ingredients, prices are great value and you’ll need a bit of Spanish to get by.

Alicante’s Playa San Juan

We stayed in the San Juan Beach area. And my first realisation that Alicante wasn’t what it initially seemed was the sight of the stunning beach. I mean really stunning. Huge, with white sand and mountains in the background. And that fabulous Spanish tradition alongside it – the promenade. Lined with restaurants and bars, the beautifully paved area in the shade of palm trees was busy all times of day with families and friends enjoying their daily amble.

Alicante: San Juan Beach

The white sandy beach with blue sea and sky

There are so many restaurants along this stretch of sandy sunniness that it’s hard to choose where to eat. As luck would have it we picked the perfect breakfast spot on our first morning. One of my favourite breakfast treats ever is pan con tomato, lightly toasted bread served with what is basically mashed up tomato and olive oil. It’s amazing how good it tastes. Today’s offering also came with a generous portion of jamon – so that’s even better. And here’s the best thing of all – this delicious breakfast, including a glass of fresh orange juice and a coffee set us back the sum of €1.80 each. No that is not a typo. €3.60 for two filling and deliciously Spanish breakfasts at 100 Montaditos right on the beach. Seriously, does life get better than that? Breakfast certainly doesn’t.

Alicante: desayuno

The best-value breakfast ever, yes ever

Alicante: San Juan promenade

They do know how to do a promenade in Spain

Lunch along the promenade also offered a range of traditional Spanish tapas dishes. Like this Russian salad (ensalada Russa) which crops up on menus everywhere I go in Spain. You can read more about this dish and try out my recipe for it by clicking here. I’ve sampled some different versions recently so think I will be redoing my own recipe soon.

Alicante: Russian salad

The ever-present Russian Salad

Playa San Juan is also the perfect place for sundowners. Especially if you’re a fan of giant gin and tonics like these.

Alicante: gin & tonics

Huge g&ts beachside while pondering our dinner destination

We meandered the streets absorbing the evening sun and the pleasant babble of Spanish voices, checking out menus while we decided where to go for dinner. One of my favourite ways of spending time! Our choice was Los Charros, a charming-looking establishment on a side street up from the beach. And what a good choice it turned out to be. We started off by sharing this delicious concoction of eggs, prawns and mushrooms with a touch of garlic.

Alicante: egg, prawn and mushroom starter

Scrambled eggs with earthy mushrooms and sweet prawns

For mains we decided on lamb and goat chops respectively – simply served grilled with some lovely wild garlic and more accompaniments than we expected, including a salad, crispy fired potatoes and padron peppers and a large dish of tempura-style vegetables. All served with a smile.

Alicante: goat chops

Tasty little chops with a fresh salad

Alicante: crispy potatoes

Love the sweetness of Spanish potatoes and these were beautifully crisp

We sat outside on the lovely terrace – something we always do when we can. I think it comes from living in the Northern hemisphere. Dining alfresco is always a treat. The tapas bar inside was bustling with locals and filled with laughter.

On our second night in Alicante we were highly tempted to go back to Los Charros. But as we were only there for two nights it seemed boring so instead we chose El Mayoral for dinner, which is on the San Juan promenade. The menu was extensive and we were having decision-making hiccups. Until we saw what the couple on the next table were tucking into, a delicious seafood soup. So we ordered the same – langoustines, prawns, mussels, the softest of calamari and fresh hake in a lovely saffron-flavoured broth.

Alicante: seafood soup

Seafood soup to share – the perfect start to dinner

A Spanish classic for mains – roast suckling pig served with perfect chips and slivers of crispy fried onions.

 

Alicante: suckling pig

Love the suckling pig in Spain, they know their pork!

We finished our wine after dinner alongside the beach watching the sky develop through stages of blue until it reached this stunning indigo colour with the last light of the day.

Alicante: indigo sky

Post-dinner drinks under an indigo sky

Touring on Alicante’s tram

As hard as it was to drag ourselves away from the comfort and joy of San Juan Beach we decided we had to do some exploring. So we got on the tram heading for the Old Town and the harbour. Such a lovely way to travel and to see more of the city and all for €1.45 for what was about a 35-minute journey. We passed a lot of concrete along the way and emerged into a buzzing metropolis. The main road down from the station, Ramble de Mendoza Lunez, leads down to the beach. If you’re looking for shopping opportunities take a slow walk down as there’s plenty on offer here.

Alicante: the tram

Travelling by tram is such a pleasure

Strolling around Alicante harbour

As you start getting close to the water there’s another palm-lined promenade to stroll along.

Alicante: promenade in town

More promenading opportunities in the shade of palm trees

There’s a sparkling harbour filled with stylish boats – and even a pirate ship.

Alicante: harbour

More shades of blue in Alicante harbour

Lunch in Alicante’s Old Town

After some waterside strolling we headed into the Old Town for lunch. With the feel of ancient Spain and beautiful old buildings to view, there were also plenty of restaurant choices to explore.

Alicante: Old Town

Alfresco restaurants abound in Alicante’s Old Town

Greetings of hola, buenos días lead us to a table at La Taberna San Pascual where we tucked into delightful albondigas (meatballs) and croquettes, accompanied by some delicious Spanish rose.

Alicante: lunch in Old Town

Lunch in shades of pinks and reds

Alicante: La Taberna San Pascual

The charmingly rustic La Taberna San Pascual

We finished off lunch with a charming mini-mug of the local liquor – all complimentary of course. How I love complimentary local liquor.

Alicante: local liquor

Chilled mini drinks to complete a perfect lunch

So that was Alicante, a place can see myself visiting again and again and one I’d definitely recommend for a Spanish fix. Just make sure you see past the concrete.

We stayed at the Holiday Inn San Juan which was a short walk from the promenade and the beach. Though basic, the hotel was comfortable and welcoming and has a lovely pool area for lazy afternoons.

 

 

Loving the island life: hiking on the Isle of Wight

Today’s journey involves a train and a boat. My two favourite forms of transport so that’s a great  start. We’re heading to the Isle of Wight, the largest island in England which is set in the English Channel four miles off the Hampshire coast.

The ferry from Portsmouth took us across the Solent – a journey of 20 minutes towards island life and a weekend of hiking and relaxing. The island’s been a holiday destination since Victorian times – Queen Victoria built her much-loved summer residence Osborne House here and often came to visit with her family. It was also made popular by poets Swinburne and Tennyson.

In more recent times it’s become famous for hosting music festivals including the Isle of Wight Festival and Bestival. In 1970 Jimi Hendrix headlined and the festival attracted around 700,000 people – truly massive for the island with a population of only around 100,000. I can only imagine the chaos.

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Sailing away from Portsmouth and its striking Spinnaker Tower

It’s amazing how crossing water – even on a short journey – makes you feel like you’ve arrived in a different world. A world that its residents are very proud of. And rightly so, as I soon discovered a beautifully peaceful island with plenty of history to absorb and sights to see.

Our final destination, a scenic drive from Ryde to the westerly side of the island, is Freshwater Bay House, a historic seaside Country House dating from the 1790s. It’s set on the cliff top with great views over the bay it’s named after.

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Looking back across the bay to our home for the weekend

Freshwater Bay House is home to HF Holidays, a leading walking and activity holiday company. They’ve been going for over 100 years, so they really know their stuff and we were soon settled in and ready to find out where our hiking boots could take us.

After dinner (more of which later) our guides took us through the walks available for the next day so we could make our choices. There were three options, divided by difficulty, so you could pick the one just right for you – it is your holiday after all.

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The golden sunrise across the bay

An early start and a hearty breakfast and we were ready to set off.

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A fabulous plate of Eggs Benedict

Our first walk (in a group of 10) was guided by Martin. It was a comfortable ramble along wide, grass-cushioned paths, through wooded tracks and winding coastal paths.

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Ready for hiking with my comfy new HiTech boots

Our pace definitely got the blood pumping but I loved that there was always plenty of time to absorb the stunning, ever-changing views of countryside and sea – and to stop and take pictures (or laugh at the cows who posed so beautifully). I must have taken hundreds of them. Here’s a taster of our journey which took us from Freshwater Bay to The Needles and back via the towering Tennyson Monument.

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Charming St Agnes Church is the only thatched church on the island

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Sea views through the silhouetted cows

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Love the signs along the way

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The multicoloured cliffs of Alum Bay

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A perfect view of The Needles through the lookout at The Old Battery

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Perfect forest pathways to amble along

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Shades of blues and greens as we head for home

All that fresh air and energy expended makes me very hungry. So it’s great news that the food at Freshwater Bay House is fantastic. The three courses menu offers dishes made using a lot of local products and with plenty of gluten-free options.

Farming is an important part of Isle of Wight life with plenty of sheep and cows everywhere. And it has a milder climate than the rest of the UK (with more sun) which makes for a longer growing season. Main crops are tomatoes, cucumbers and garlic – and there are even two vineyards.

I always look for Isle of Wight tomatoes in the supermarket – they’re so packed with flavour. So I was delighted with this starter. A colourful array of my favourite of fruits, with the yellow one stuffed with a deliciously silken asparagus mousse. Another thing on my “must learn how to make” list.

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Tomatoes in all shapes and colours

The fish dishes were particularly great, including lobster, mussels and sole.

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Local lobster with a mussel broth

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Sweet sole on a bed of risotto

Always partial to a cheese platter, I did my duty and tried the local delights. And took a particular liking to the Gallybagger (I know, weird name for a cheese) which is cheddar-like and extremely tasty.

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A delightful platter of local cheese to finish

On our second day we decided to do a self-guided walk. All it takes is a visit to the Discovery Room to plan your adventure. Once you’ve chosen your route you take the detailed laminated instructions, complete with photographs, detailed directions and suggestions of what to do along the way. With that and the great signage along the way, it’s impossible to get lost. Very impressive. We headed for the nearby town of Yarmouth.

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All pathways are clearly marked and numbers

Enjoying very different scenery from the day before, we meandered through fields heading inland to the stunning Yar Estuary. I loved the myriad birdlife and peace and serenity on a beautiful, sunny autumn Sunday morning.

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The beautiful Yar Estuary teeming with birdlife

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Finding our way through the forest

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The welcoming sight of boats as we approached the harbour

This was my first visit to the Isle of Wight and it was something of a revelation. More beautiful than I’d imagined with many paths to walk, views to take in and local lore to discuss. We were asked if we were from “the North island”, to which I didn’t know the answer. Turns out the answer’s yes – it’s the rest of the UK – the Isle of Wight is known by locals as the South island.

A fabulous place to get away from it all, live the bucolic lifestyle for a while and recharge the batteries. My new island paradise to escape to.

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Getting back to nature and communing with sheep

I was a guest of HF Holidays on this weekend.

They organise all-in experiences with food and activities included. Breakfasts are hearty and delicious, tasty three-course dinners are made using local ingredients. Every evening you choose your sandwich filling for packed lunch the next day and raid the snack room for extras to keep your energy levels up while you’re walking. The snack room is quite a sight to behold!

Guides are friendly and knowledgable and eat meals with you. It’s very much a communal experience, an easy way to make new friends with plenty of me-time, too.

As well as walking HF Holidays also offer a range of leisure activities and cultural tours around the UK and in Europe.

hfholidays.co.uk

 

Where to stay in Malton, Yorkshire: The Talbot Hotel

Continuing my series on Where to Stay on your travels, today we’re taking a mini break, heading north from London to Malton, Yorkshire.

The Talbot Hotel was originally built in the early 17th century as a hunting lodge and has traded as an inn since 1740. It was completely restored in 2011. Here’s why you should stay there.

The location

Set in the heart of the historic market town of Malton with its myriad shops and great food, it’s also only 10 miles from the North York Moors and 18 miles from the city of York. I love that you get the mix of country living – fresh air, peace and open spaces – as well as a bustling little town with great food shopping and a cookery school. Read more about what I saw in Malton here.

The views

Quintessentially English with green, rolling countryside as far as the eye can see. The hotel is set on a hill so you get a wonderful perspective on your surroundings and the rural world around you.

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Yes, it really was this green, the English countryside at its best

The rooms

The beautifully decorated rooms are generous in size with a large, extremely comfortable bed, desk, separate seating area and lovely ensuite. I particularly loved the huge shower and its striking black and white tiles.

There’s a kettle and a range of coffee and tea including a lot of herbal brews – a refreshing cup of tea in the comfort of your room is always welcome.

Oh and the wi-fi’s really good – fast and reliable.

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The breakfast

One of the absolute best things about staying in a hotel has to be breakfast time. I’m not usually much of a breakfast eater. I know, it’s the most important meal of the day, I just can’t manage it – unless I’m in a hotel, that is, and options are literally presented to me on a plate.

There’s a buffet offering of fruit, cereal and pastries and a menu of delights, too. The first morning I tucked into poached eggs and avocado on toast – heavenly.

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I love the combo of avocado and egg

On morning two I wrestled with my choices, ultimately abandoning one of my favourite breakfast treats – eggs benedict – for the delights of a full English. Thought I’d better sample the local bacon, sausage and black pudding and I wasn’t disappointed. I liked the fact that it wasn’t stupidly huge like they sometimes are and I managed to polish off the whole plate.

Okay, I admit it, I must be a breakfast eater, just not if I’m making it myself.

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The full English Talbot-style

The Cookery School

Not only can you shop for and eat amazing food in Malton, you can learn how to cook it too. The Malton Cookery School is allied to the hotel and is just down the road. We did a Yorkshire lamb workshop, which you can read about here. There’s a wide range of courses all held in a kitchen with fantastic facilities and knowledgeable, professional teachers. A really fun and educational way to spend a morning and you’ll come away inspired with new ideas to try at home. I promise.

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The spacious kitchen is a pleasure to work in

The Wentworth Restaurant

We had a delightful dinner in the hotel’s Wentworth restaurant (there’s also the more informal Malton Brasserie which I didn’t have the chance to try out). The menu showcases local products and offered some intriguing choices.

Like this cheese and pickle starter. Smoked Ribblesdale mousse was served with pickled golden vegetables and mustard granola. One of the prettiest starters in a long time and great in flavour, too, with its soft cheesiness, crispy veg and crunchy granola.

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A different take on a classic English combo

I opted for some local scallops which were served with pork belly, black pudding, carrot and blood orange. I’ve experienced the scallop/black pudding thing before and it’s quite amazingly good. The small slivers of pork belly were tender and flavoursome and the carrot puree sweet and delicious.

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Scallop heaven partnered with black pudding

The fish main course option was roast North Sea halibut which was served with mussels, braised fennel, Jeera (cumin) sauce and coconut. The sweetest of fish with an elegant and subtle cumin-flavoured coconut sauce.

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Fish with a touch of the Asian flavours

As we’d spent the morning cooking and eating lamb I had a rare desire for a vegetarian dinner. Lucky for me there was the perfect dish on the menu. The fried potato gnocchi came with woodland mushrooms, peas and broad beans and a silken truffle cream sauce. The little towers of gnocchi were beautifully browned and slightly crispy – just the way I like them, and the pea, bean and pea shoot added greenness and sweetness. The perfect dinner dish after a meat-filled day.

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A delightful plate of indulgent gnocchi

Tonight we were going big – so dessert was on the cards. The options were too good to resist. The Valrhona Manjari chocolate marquise came with cherries in kirsch, cherry sorbet and pistachios. The perfect pudding in shades of purple.

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Who could resist this chocolate/cherry combination

Being not much of a dessert person I took on the responsibility of trying the local cheeses with this substantial artisan selection served with yummy sloe berry chutney, poached grapes and biscuits. All good stuff – and as for the poached grapes.

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Yorkshire is definitely for cheese lovers

The service 

From the warm and efficient welcome at reception to the friendly greetings and smiles from staff, great dinner service and the chatty barman in the cosy bar, everyone is clearly doing their best to make sure you’re happy. And they seem to be enjoying it too.

I felt at home at The Talbot from the moment I walked through the door. It has a warmth and comfort about it and is the perfect base for exploring this beautiful and delicious part of Yorkshire.

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Looking up towards the lovely hotel