The joys of 2015: the experiences that made my year

Travel adventures abounded for me in 2015. Yes, I know how fortunate I am. It was a year full of amazing journeys, discovering new countries and revisiting old ones on three continents. Here are some of my favourite bits.

March

My Blue Train odyssey

It’s always been my dream to experience one of the world’s great train journeys. And this trip from Cape Town to Pretoria lived up to every expectation. Top quality service, amazing food, the comfiest of cabins and of course the ever-changing scenery on a journey through the majesty of South Africa. 27-hours of pure magic.

Find out more about The Blue Train by clicking here.

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The stylish Blue Train leaves the Mother City, heading north

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The Blue Train has arguably the best breakfast menu in the world…and also the best eggs Benedict

June

A spontaneous short break to Barcelona

One of my favourite cities in the world, Barcelona has everything going for it. Amazing architecture, friendly people, great shopping, a huge beach, endless bars and restaurants serving amazing food and wine. And this trip was even better as it was a last-minute booking, an escape from a chilly grey London to the energy and blueness of a fabulous Spanish city.

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Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, the most stunning unfinished building in the world

And of course there’s the Boqueria, probably the best food market in the world – I know I should calm down with the superlatives. I reckon I could spend a whole holiday in here alone, with the mission of tasting something from every stall – a challenge I’d embrace whole heartedly.

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One of the tempting tapas bars in La Boqueria

July

I embarked on a cruise around Northern Europe with my brother Ray, nephew Zak and niece Maxi. And our mascot Sigmund (the toy baboon, reflecting our African roots) who we took everywhere with us. It was a real adventure, visiting new countries like Estonia and Finland and starting off in wonderful Copenhagen where we spent a few days. There were three real standout experiences in a wonderful fortnight where we made new friends and discovered new lands.

Discovering the beauty of Copenhagen

This charming Scandinavian city was a revelation. Truly fabulous restaurants – we devoured course after course at the Michelin-starred Studio. We also shopped up a storm, caught up with old friends, ambled around picturesque Nyhaven and took in all the tourist sights. And the cherry on the top was that Elton John was playing in the world-famous Tivoli Gardens – and we got tickets. What more can I say?

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One of many amazing and delicious courses we tucked into at Studio

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The very little mermaid (she’s very beautiful, too), with our travelling companion Sigmund

Marvelling at St Petersburg

I hate the phrase bucket list – maybe it’s because (if I had one) I’m sure it would go on forever and be way too intimidating to tackle. Having said that I think St Petersburg should on everyone’s…from the grandeur of the Hermitage, the sheer scale and amazing design of the city, the majestic buildings and the somewhat brutal history. Oh and the caviar. When in Russia!

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The Church on the Spilled Blood has to be the most stunning church I’ve ever visited

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Sampling caviar with Zak and Maxine, and Sigmund of course

Sailing down the Thames through Tower Bridge

The cruise ended in London, I mean right in the centre of London – we sailed down the Thames with the city’s landmarks getting closer and closer until Tower Bridge opened up to let us through. I’ve lived in London most of my life and truly love the place. When the crowds lining the river cheered us through I had tears in my eyes. We spent our final night on the river overlooking Tower Bridge, The Shard and the Tower of London. Just perfect.

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The unique view of London’s landmarks from the River Thames

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The beautiful lights of Tower Bridge at night seen from our ship

August

Loving the beachlife (and everything else) in sun-drenched Spain.

I visit La Manga in Spain every year and explore more and more of this versatile region each time. It seems there’s always something new to discover. The markets with their fabulous fresh produce and bargainous clothes, bags, shoes and jewellery, the many beaches lined with restaurants and bars serving delicious Spanish fare, the welcoming people and the sunshine and blue skies, how I love those Spanish skies.

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Early morning on the beach in Cabo de Palos, heavenly!

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A break from sun worshipping and swimming for a chilled Rose

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The purple light of a summer night in Spain

September

At the end of September I embarked on another cruise. This time starting in Rhodes in Greece and sailing around the island of Symi before heading into Turkey. Our eight-berth Turkish gulet, the Muhtesem A was a joy to live on for a week in harmony with nature with endless seas and skies of blue. There were two highlights in a week of chilled-out happiness.

Our beautiful boat in the blues of Greece

Our beautiful boat in the blues of Greece

Absorbing the delights of  dreamlike Symi Harbour

My love affair with Greece continues. On the island of Symi you inhale the wild herbs at every step and the panoramas are endless. A hike to the top of the hill at sunset finished with my first taste of Retsina, a trip to the local herb man to stock up (of course) and a feeling of joy at this picturesque town.

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Our boat berthed in Symi Harbour, picture perfect

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I couldn’t leave Symi without buying plenty of herbs from the charming Stavros

Sleeping under the Turkish stars.

Our idyllic days began with yoga and continued with absorbing the ever-changing landscapes, swimming in the crystal clear sea and eating delicious local food. They turned into starlit nights where I clambered on top of the boat, wrapped in a fluffy blanket and slept tight under the stars, waking to the sunrise, the bleating goats on shore and the early morning bread delivery by boat. A once-in-a-lifetime experience – one I hope to repeat!

You can find out more about Mediterranean Fitness Voyages by clicking here.

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Perfect pinks and blues get the day off to the best start

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The bread man turns up just after dawn with freshly baked goods

October

Living the beach life Thai-style in Koh Samui

Another of my favourite places, the islands of Thailand call me back again and again – well I am a beach baby, after all. The Land of Smiles is the ultimate place to re-energise with warm, crystal-clear waters, laid back shopping days, beautiful scenery wherever you look, the myriad of fruit shakes and cocktails and all those tasty Thai dishes…I ate seafood every day in many different styles and it’s all such great value. Thailand rocks.

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Welcome to Koh Samui with a cocktail on the beach

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My favourite Thai salad – spicy green papaya with prawns. Yum!

Well, what a year. Happy new year to you all, wishing you lots of adventures in 2016. As one of my favourite sayings goes: “Travel is the only thing you pay for that makes you richer.” How true is that?

Where is the best place you went in 2015? Where should I go next? I’d love you to inspire me with your travelling tales.

Barcelona’s fabulous food market: La Boqueria

So today I’m taking you back to Barcelona to what is probably my favourite bit of a city with so many fabulous parts to it. And you won’t be surprised to hear it involves food! The Mercat de Saint Josep de la Boqueria is possibly the best food market in the world. Well, I’ve not been to a better one and it’s certainly hard to imagine a more magical place packed with tantalising sights and smells.

First mentions of a market here were in 1271 but it wasn’t until 1840 that it was officially agreed to build the structure for what exists today. It’s huge, selling every kind of produce you could desire – fruit, vegetables, meat, seafood, offal, olives and preserves, fish, poultry, game, eggs, wine, oils…and there are several tempting-looking bars inside, too.

From the moment I spied (and smelled) the legs of jamon at the entrance I was entranced! The market buzzes with tourists exclaiming over Spanish delights and gasping at some of the other sights (the offal stall doesn’t go down well with most) and locals simply doing their shopping for the day. Here’s some of my favourite stalls in foodie shopping heaven.

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There’s plenty of jamon to taste…I need one of these in my kitchen at home

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This fruit stand doesn’t look real, but it is

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The beautiful seafood bar, love that it’s all displayed in mini boats

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Wild mushrooms to delight, so many of them to choose from!

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One of several bars to quench your thirst at

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Fresh fried fish anyone?

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Even the vegetables are beautiful, love these lettuces

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Bar Central has plenty of food to tempt you

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And of course there are olives, done so many ways

Take time to meander through and buy yourself a picnic, then climb the hill to Gaudi’s Parc Guell to devour your feast. Now that’s a real Barcelona day for me.

You’ll find La Boqueria on Las Ramblas, close to Liceu, Barcelona’s Opera House.

 

Travel: The joys of beautiful Barcelona

One of the many joys of living in London is that you are so close to so many other wonderful places. And it’s easy and can be cheap to get there (though this bit is never guaranteed). Sitting in our kitchen one chilly June evening, bemoaning the fact that the British summer still hadn’t bothered to turn up, I idly started googling last minute breaks. Next thing you know we’ve booked to go to Barcelona two days later for a fantastically cheap two-night break. Hooray!

So it’s time to share some of my favourite bits of this great city with you.

We stayed close to the stunning Sagrada Familia. The most beautiful unfinished building in the world, this amazing temple was started on in 1882 and Antoni Gaudi, the greatest architect Barcelona has ever seen, spent over 40 years on it until his death in 1926. On the subject of this incredibly slow construction he is said to have remarked: “My client is not in a hurry.” Less than a quarter of it was complete when he died.

Many others have been involved in this gargantuan project since. Based on early 20th century building techniques, the building work was expected to go on for hundreds of years but recent computer-aided design technology has sped up the construction significantly. Thank goodness for that.

It is hoped it will be complete by 2026 which is the centenary of Gaudi’s death. I have to say it didn’t look anywhere near finished to me with cranes towering over it, but it does take your breath away…every time it comes into sight. Could be my favourite building in the world. I’ve got to see it finished!

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The Sagrada Familia through the flowers

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There’s amazing sculptured detail on this part of the newer construction

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Rioja and the Sagrada Familia – two favourites

You can see Gaudi’s genius scattered all around the city like the fabulous Casa Mia (how I’d love to live there!), Casa Calvet and Casa Batllo with its beautiful inlaid ceramics. Casa Mia is more of a sculpture than a building really and is nicknamed Pedrera which means the stone quarry.

The amazing design of Casa Mia

The amazing design of Casa Mia

Casa Batllo stands proudly on Passeig Gracia

Casa Batllo stands proudly on Passeig Gracia

And then there’s Parc Guell at the top of the city, you even have to take outside escalators to get up there. A park like no other, with ceramics to wow, striking buildings and magnificent views over the city towards the sea. So much to marvel at.

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Barcelona blues: looking out from Parc Guell towards the sea

I could go on about Gaudi for hours and architecture isn’t really my thing – I find his creations mesmerising. But I’d better move on…

The focal point of the city is Las Ramblas where you simply have to amble. But beware, Barcelona is full of optical illusions, the whole city has a touch of the Gaudi’s about it, if you know what I mean. The paving is flat, not curved as it looks here, but try telling that to your senses. Weird and slightly dizzy-making.

This wide pedestrianised area is lined with market stalls and cafes and the famous food market La Boqueria is on one side. The best food market in the world? Well, it’s jaw dropping – so much so I have to do a separate blog on it (no surprise there), so watch this space.

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Take in the sights on Las Ramblas

To one side, the fascinating Gothic Quarter with its maze of narrow, winding streets beckons you in. It’s such a contrast to the expansiveness of Las Ramblas and so many of the boulevards of Barcelona. Medieval Barcelona and subsequent buildings have been built on top of Barcino which was founded in 15BC. The original city was only a second-rate outpost covering just 10 hectares. It’s a fascinating place to wander and imagine times gone by with hidden courtyards, Roman remains and lots of spots to stop for refreshment – and no traffic. Barcelona is a big, bustling city so it’s a relief to escape from those automobiles for a while.

The contrast that is the Gothic Quarter

The contrast that is the Gothic Quarter

If you really want to escape, there’s always the beach. Sounds like paradise to me – a city buzz beside the beach. You can see Frank Gehry’s Whale in the background here, another artistic marvel in town.

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Soak up the sun on Barcelona’s beaches

Here it is close up at sunset, taken from the terrace of Arola where we went for dinner (more of that later).

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Frank Gehry’s amazing whale

There are plenty of other open spaces and parks to relax in and explore, including the amazing hill of Montjuic which rises above the city near the port. The port area is huge and packed with restaurants. And the shopping is really good (Spain is the birthplace of Zara and Mango after all). A must visit is the legendary Spanish department store El Corte Ingles which is close to Las Ramblas. And of course it is home to current European Champions FC Barcelona – a tour of the Nou Camp has to be on the agenda for football fans.

It’s easy to get around Barcelona. There’s an efficient metro, a plentiful bus service and yellow taxis everywhere. Keep your eyes open for their ranks which are dotted around the city. It’s also a great town to walk – there’s something exciting around every corner (no shortage of photo opportunities) – and a cafe or bar every 20 metres (or so it seems), so walks can be punctuated by regular stops. Or try something different – like these little GoCars which we saw speeding alongside Las Ramblas.

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Grab a GoCar to explore the city

Restaurants and bars abound and range from the very top end (Michelin starred and pricey) to cosy locals where your wallet’s hardly dented. And there’s the inevitable tourist rip off lying in wait. These beers on Las Ramblas may have been giant but they cost €20…in a city where beer is cheap! Having said that, they take some drinking and we did sit and people-watch for ages so perhaps they were value?? We also managed to get nabbed by probably the most expensive G&Ts in Barcelona, this time in the shadow of the Sagrada Familia. Just something to be aware of.

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Giant beers at giant prices

I get Barcelona, it energises me – everything about it. The animated hum of voices, the skyward gazing at fabulous architecture, the alfresco pavement cafe lifestyle, the friendly people, the inevitably blue sky, the beach, the shopping and of course the food, all that fabulous food  – but more of that later.

This is just a taster of what Barcelona has to offer. If you’re going to the city and have any questions about it, where to stay and what to do, please get in touch and I will try to help.

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The latest Spaniard in town: Bilbao Berria

I’m a lover of all things Spanish as you will know if you’re a regular reader! So when I heard of a Spanish newcomer in London I couldn’t wait to give it a go.

Bilbao Berria’s mission is to capture the flavours of Northern Spain. Its big brother, which opened in Barcelona in 1999, was created by two Basques and a Catalan (there’s also one in Bilbao). The London offering comes from them and is headed up by the winner of MasterChef The Professionals in 2011, Ash Mair, whose cooking is heavily influenced by Spanish flavours, though he’s Australian.

The restaurant has a lovely, warming and welcoming feel. The bar beckons you in with rows of tempting pintxos on the countertop. These tasty little snacks are basically a combination of ingredients held together with a skewer that can be eaten in a mouthful or two, so no need for cutlery. The perfect place for an after-work glass of Cava and a snack.

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A delicious array of pintxos to tuck into

The restaurant downstairs is wonderfully contemporary and cosy with an open kitchen. The menu offers up plenty of favourites for a tapas feast.

I’m loving Spanish cheese these days and this board offering a selection of delectable quesos with walnuts, grapes, dried figs and quince paste was the perfect start.

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What a good way to start a meal…with a platter of cheese

The Cecina de Leon reserve “Garrote”, wind-dried cured beef from Leon had that magical melt-in-the-mouth quality that Spanish meats so often and irresistibily does. I can taste it now in my head and would have taken a boxful home with no hesitation!

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How I love cured Spanish meat, they’re in a class of their own

The most perfect of tortillas, served warm with a beautifully runny centre. And with bread…bring on the carbs.

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A classic Spanish delicacy, simple tortilla

And here we have some pimientos de padron, quickly sauteed and sprinkled with maldon salt. They’re tasty and juicy and the occasional one is properly hot, so beware!

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You’ll find lubina on most menus in Spain, it’s a beautifully sweet fish. Here the wild sea bass is served with another Spanish classic, piquillo peppers and paprika vinaigrette.

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If you’re a fan of anchovies, I’d also highly recommend the boquerones – marinated Cantabrian anchovies with a pickled garlic dressing. My first experience with pickled garlic, a totally delicious one.

Welcome to London Bilbao Berria, I’m happy to see the food of Spain spreading through our awesome city.

Bilboa Berria is at 2 Regent Street, SW1

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