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BEST OF 2016: MY FAVOURITES

January 1, 2017
City Turtle 2016

2016 was another busy year of travel.  I enjoyed a record number of European city breaks (Rome, Prague, Bologna, Istanbul, Marbella, Paris, Amsterdam) and a few brilliant longer trips to Miami, New York, Hvar, Andalucia and Mexico.  Hopefully all my blogs have been useful for those travelling to these destinations.

Here are my favourites of 2016:

Most Spectacular Hotel: Hotel Esencia, Mexico

I promise I’ll stop banging on about this hotel, but this boutique design hotel stands out for me as one of the best places I have ever stayed.  Its stretch of beach is so peaceful, the sand so white and the sea gloriously turquoise. The rooms are white washed, minimalist and super comfortable.  Morning yoga is the best way to start the day there, followed by a delicious healthy breakfast.  It’s no wonder Conde Nast voted it as one of 2016’s best hotels.

Esencia, Mexico

Runner up: Finca Cortesin (and I shockingly still have not written a blog about this place).  Hands down one of Europe’s most beautiful properties, high in the hills 30 minutes from Marbella, with sea and mountain views.  The interiors are so elegant, the swimming pools vast and the spa to die for.

Finca Cortesin, Spain

Favourite new discovery: South East Sicily

A week of exploring all the Baroque-rich towns and cities of South Eastern Sicily is such a treat.  Each of the towns, from Ragusa to Modica to Note are all so individual, with good restaurants, a few fun bars, and lots of pretty streets to explore.  Our seafood lunch at Taverna Cialoma in Marzamemi was one of the big highlights of our trip.  And we learnt that the very underestimated city Catania is also worth a stop.

Ragusa, Sicily

Favourite new London restaurant: Foley’s

With so many restaurant openings in London this year, it’s hard to pick a favourite.  But everything from the divine alfresco bar (with the best Espresso Martinis), to a menu where you literally want to eat every dish (and we did), to the friendly, helpful staff, meant that Foley’s wins the 2016 prize.  A place I know I’ll return to, again and again.

Foleys, FItzrovia

Runner up: The Ninth and Clipstone.  Both of these relatively new openings in London have a lot in common: excellent food, reasonable pricing and great atmosphere.  The Pain Perdu at the Ninth is the best pudding I’ve had this year.

The Ninth, Fitzrovia

Favourite Bar – International: The Living Room, at the Faena, Miami

Wow, the new(ish) Faena hotel in Miami is a true showstopper, rich in colour and gold and opulence.  And walking into its main bar, The Living Room, is like stepping into Gatsby’s 1920s.  I loved every moment of being in this crazy, vibrant, colourful place, where you don’t know where to look or which cocktail to pick from their indulgent menu.  The Faena’s restaurant Pao was also a highlight of my visit.

Photo credit: https://luxuriavacations.com/destinations/usa/faena-hotel-miami-beach

Runner up:  The Bar at the Baccarat Hotel, New York. This hotel is so fantastically blingy, as of course you’d expect considering the owners.  It’s a stunning hotel (the rooms are far more toned down than the public areas), but the bar really stood out.  It’s always packed with very glamorous people, the cocktails are fantastic and the interiors are fabulous.

Photo credit Baccarat Hotels

Favourite English Countryside retreat: Foxhill Manor, the Cotswolds

The Cotswolds is one of my favourite areas of England; the countryside is so breathtakingly beautiful here and the villages are all so picturesque, with so many pretty Cotswold stone cottages, lovely cafes and restaurants and fantastic country walks.  So staying at the exclusive five star Foxhill Manor (Dormy House’s sister property) was one of the highlights of 2016, the ultimate country house hotel.  The food was amazing here, our suite the size of my house in London, and the views of the Cotswolds out of this world.

Foxhill Manor, Cotswolds

Favourite Restaurant – International: Quintonil, Mexico City

Chosen not because it’s voted as the 12th best restaurant in the world, but purely because it was a magical experience, and I’ve never had Mexican food like it.  It’s incredible value for money, and the amuse bouches we had here were some of the best I’ve had.  That said, its Mexico City competitor Pujol deserves a mention too, also for its creative food and noteworthy tasting menu.

Quintonil, Mexico City

Runners up:  This is such a tough one, as I have eaten at some seriously wonderful restaurants this year.  Still, if I had to choose, I loved Marzapane in Rome because it is was so different, so modern and so un-Roman.  At the same time, Sansho’s tasting menu in Prague was exceptional, and fantastic value.  And last but not least, Dalmatino in Hvar, Croatia was unexpected and their squid ink truffle gnocchi mind-blowing.

Marzapane, Rome

Favourite beach: Tulum, Mexico

Who knew Mexico’s Riviera Maya had such incredible beaches?  The beach at Tulum is possibly the most perfect beach I’ve been on.  Lined with palm trees and eco hotels (no building is higher than the tallest palm tree), white powdery sand and warm welcoming turquoise waves, it really is a paradise beach.  Plus, it stretches on and on, and makes for the best walk at sunset, Margarita in hand.  Especially the beach at Nomade (photo below) was phenomenal.

Tulum, Mexico

Runners up: Dubovica Beach on Hvar, Croatia and South Beach, Miami.  These two beaches couldn’t be more different, but each has it’s own bit of wow.  Dubovica beach is small, pebbled and one of the prettiest European beaches I’ve seen.  It has a lovely beach bar too and it’s generally not too full of tourists.  South Beach Miami is of course heaving with people, but that doesn’t stop it from being ‘wow’ in its own way.  It’s one of the most fun beaches I’ve been to, great for people watching, with so much going on.

Dubovica Beach, HvarMiami Beach

Favourite Afternoon tea: Petersham Nurseries

I don’t know how I only managed to visit this heavenly place until so recently, but I fell head over heals for Petersham Nurseries.  Even on a cold (but beautiful) winter afternoon the Cafe was so warm and cosy, the cakes so delicious and the selection of teas ideal.  I can’t wait to return in the spring and the summer.

Photo Credit: http://friendlynettle.com/day-petersham-nurseries-%E2%99%A5/

Favourite city break: Prague

People warned me that yes, the city is beautiful, but it’s touristy and the food isn’t good.  Well, yes, I’d agree that’s it’s busy, but it’s hard to avoid tourists these days.  And, after all, I’m one too.  But I’d disagree that you can’t eat well.  One of my favourite restaurants of the year, Sansho, was here.  Plus Field was excellent too, as was CottoCrudo at the Four Seasons.  There’s lots to do and see, and it’s incredibly affordable too.  Win win.

a-prague-top-ten-sights

Runner up was Bologna, with so much charm and beauty, and excellent Italian food and wine.  Our experience at Drogheria della Rosa was absolutely one of the most memorable of 2016.

Drogheria della Rossa, Bologna

And what has 2017 got in store for me?  Definitely more European city breaks, with Rome and Stockholm already booked, a trip back to Andalucia and Italy this summer for sure, and Mallorca in September.  I’d also really like to return to Vienna, explore Porto and maybe go to some of the Greek islands…  Let’s see where 2017 takes me!

Andalucia, Spain

Rooftop bar at EME Cathedral Hotel, Seville

June 18, 2015
EME Cathedral Hotel, Seville

Seville is one of my favourite cities in Spain.  It’s easy to get around, breathtakingly beautiful, and covered in brightly coloured tiles.  I love it.  While I am still to find my favourite restaurant there, I did manage to find a bar with incredible views and a great vibe.

I don’t usually head for hotel bars when I’m in a new city, but we were recommended this by a local and so we went for it.  The EME Cathedral Hotel is Seville’s trendiest five star hotel, with a fantastic location in the centre of the city, and which takes up twelve beautiful traditional townhouses.

Its rooftop bar and restaurant, with its almost translucent alabaster bar serving strong cocktails (we did wait a while to get these), is where you’ll find a mixture of wealthy locals and tourists in the know.  The view of the Cathedral is second to none, so stunning even drunk partygoers will appreciate it.  This is place where you can certainly party until the early hours, though you’ll have to fight for a table and be patient at the bar.

EME Cathedral Hotel

Calle Alemanes, 27

Andalucia, Blog, Spain

Ronda, Andalucia

July 19, 2014

Those who aren’t that familiar with Spain will probably never have heard of Ronda.  But those who know and love Andalucia, will know that Ronda is a town of understated beauty, balancing perilously on the top of the Tajo canyon, which splits the town in two.  Puente Nuevo (the ‘New Bridge’) spans the canyon, towering 120 metres above the canyon floor. It is by far the highest and most dramatic bridge I have seen.  A bridge with a dark history, from which enemies have thrown each other countless times and which Hemingway (who spent time in Ronda) documents in his book ‘For whom the bell tolls’ (the town in which is claimed to be based on Ronda).

Puente Nueve Ronda

PUENTE NUEVO RONDA

I’ve been to Ronda three times now, but only this time did I truly appreciate it for what it was worth. Previously, we would drive into town for a good meal of local tapas and too much Rioja, and then drive back to the stunning villa where a group of us stay, one lucky week a year, courtesy of family Wyndham.

This year I came to Ronda three times – once for food shopping and a wander, once for dinner on the main square (and no wandering, just more of that Rioja) and the last time for lunch and a stroll around the canyon, which revealed the most breathtaking views of the surrounding mountainous landscape.

Ronda

Ronda is really a town to get lost in, to admire the simple whitewashed houses, windowsills spilling with colourful flowers, narrow winding cobbled streets lit by pretty lanterns and lovely shaded squares.  I’ve never really noticed or been affected by whatever tourism Ronda might attract.

RondaRonda

But be prepared – yes this is a town with the most sensational views because of its high location, but this also means there are plenty of ups and downs and a lot of steps.  In the heat which clings to Andalucia, this can at times be trying.  Still, Ronda remains one of my favourite places in Spain.  One to return to again, and to discover a new part. But always to marvel at the view, which, time and time again, remains something quite awe inspiring.

Ronda

TO SEE

Ronda’s three Bridges

Puente Nuevo (‘New Bridge’), Puente Romano (‘Roman Bridge’) and Puente Viejo (‘Old Bridge’).  They all span the canyon and from which you get the most phenomenal views.  Those afraid of heights are not advised to look down. The bridges themselves have their own history and are worthwhile reading about before you go.

Puente Nueve Ronda

The views and the walks

The views are what Ronda are famous for and the more you walk around the town, the more varied the views will be.  There are so many lovely squares and cute alleyways to explore, you can easily spend the day getting lost here, once in a while stopping to take in a new view.

Ronda

Ronda

Ronda

IMG_0709

Plaza de toros de Ronda – The Bull Ring

Ronda prides itself on having the oldest bullfighting ring in Spain. Built in 1784 int he Neoclassical style, by the same architect who built the Puente Nuevo.  It is definitely worth a visit.

Plaza de toros de Ronda

TO EAT

Almocabar €€ – for an authentic Spanish dinner

C/Ruedo Alameda,

5 Barrio San Francisco, Ronda

+952 875977

I’ve had dinner at this cute and very traditional restaurant three times now.  While it looks fairly basic, this is truly an authentic place, much-loved by locals and unknown to tourists.  The food is very Andalucian, nothing fancy, but well cooked and good value. Some dishes are better than others; I’d strongly recommend the Iberico ham, egg and truffle or the squid with truffle as a starter, while for mains I would recommend the duck or the lamb.  They always make an effort with the presentation.  While the food can take a while to come (we are usually a table of 12+, so it is understandable), I think the staff are very friendly here and really make an effort to make sure you’re happy.  We usually sit outside on the small square overlooking the Almocabar Moorish Gate to the old town, but this year we sat inside because it got chilly.  It’s also worth coming here for their famous ‘Gin Tonics’, ask for the one in the glass ‘goblet’ with berries.  Delicious.

NB Book ahead and this place is always heaving.

Almocabar, Ronda

SQUID WITH TRUFFLE

Almocabar, Ronda

IBERICO HAM, EGG & TRUFFLE

Carmen la de Ronda for a perfect tapas lunch

Plaza Duquesa de Parcent, nº 10, 29400, Ronda,

952 87 87 35

This is one of my favourite lunch places in Ronda.  I love coming here and eating on the beautiful Plaza Duquesa de Parcent, where we have had many languid lunches, shaded under large umbrellas.  The tapas here is excellent – a wide selection of dishes, from Iberico ham, to wonderful risottos and octopus.  Despite always eating and drinking to our hearts’ content, we have never paid more than about €30 per person. Book in advance as you don’t want to end up at a table inside (which is small and quite cramped).

Ronda

PLAZA DUQUESA DE PARCENT

De Locas Tapas € – for refined tapas with an international twist

Arquitecto Pons Sorolla 7, 29400

+34 951 08 37 72

We came here for lunch for the first time this summer, with rave reviews from our host’s parents.  We were not disappointed.  This tiny restaurant looks fairly nondescript from the outside,  but has a charming terrace in the shade of the old city walls.  The owner (we weren’t sure if he was, but he was charming any way) spoke fluent English (makes a change in Spain) and recommended a vast selection of beautifully presented tapas.  If you’re looking for typically Spanish tapas, don’t come here.  We really enjoyed the fois gras with passion fruit ice cream, the mussles with rice in a light tomato sauce, the mint chicken and the carpaccio.  The only down side?  No locals to be seen, only tourists.  This, I found out later, was because it is actually number 1 on Trip Advisor.  So that’s what you get.  Definitely book in advance.

De Los Tapas, Ronda

Ronda

THE VIEWS OF THE CHURCH OF THE HOLY SPIRIT FROM THE RESTAURANT

De Locas TapasDe Locas TapasDe Locas Tapas

TO STAY

The Parador Hotel, Ronda

Plaza de España, s/n, 29400 Ronda

+34 952 87 75 00

I’d stay here for its location alone.  This four star hotel, formerly the Town Hall, is situated right next to the Puente Nuevo Bridge, on the edge of the Tajo Canyon, so most of the guests rooms have a stunning view across the canyon.  Apart from the views and the good location, there is also a lovely swimming pool which is great for a cooling swim after a day of sightseeing.

Parador Hotel, Ronda

Parador Hotel, Ronda

TO PARTY

Ronda is not a real party place.  But if you are looking for a place to drink and dance, head towards Marbella and Puerto Benus (about 1.5 hours drive).  Nikki Beach Marbella is the perfect place for some beach time and a day party.  Don’t head here if you’re travel on a shoestring though!

Nikki Beach Marbella

Nikki Beach Marbella

Nikki Beach Marbella

Nikki Beach Marbella

 

Andalucia, Blog, Spain

Alhambra, Granada

September 29, 2012

Earlier on this month, twenty ‘young professionals’ took over the stunning rustic property of La Jarilla, in the hills of Andalucia.  In the middle of no where, surrounded only by vineyards, olive trees and the beautiful rocky hills and with not another house in sight, we spend a week to remember.  So much so that a neighbouring village could actually hear us.  We enjoyed the sun, the pool, the tennis court, played games, ate well and, of course, drank copious amounts of whatever we could get our hands on.  A typical holiday I suppose.  And it was brilliant.

La Jarilla

La Jarilla

Thankfully our debaucherous, relaxed week of doing nothing and slowly but surely killing ourselves took a turn for the better towards the end.  My friend Vita and I decided that since it’s not every day you’re in Andalucia, so close to Granada and the incredible World Heritage site of Alhambra, we should actually put some clothes on and enjoy some culture.  And so we did.  Of the twenty, by some miracle we persuaded thirteen to pile into boiling cars and drive up the windy roads of Andalucia to the beautiful city of Granada.

None of us knew anything about the Alhambra, and of course the wise idea of reading up about it BEFORE we went never actually materialised.  So when we got there I headed straight for the over-priced tourist shop and bought the ‘official guide’ to ‘The Alhambra and the Generalife’.  So I became the (pretty poor) tour guide,  ushering the group from palace to kasbah to garden and trying to explain a few things on the way.

Strolling through the gardens

Strolling through the gardens

More garden

Stunning gardens

For those that don’t know what Alhambra is, it means ‘the red one’, or less the literally, ‘the red fortress’ in Arabic.  It was built in the in the early 13th Century by the Nasrid dynasty, the last Muslims to rule over the Iberian Peninsula.  Instead of just one palace, which I thought was going to be the case, the Alhambra is actually a ‘palace-city’.  It’s huge.  You can spend a week walking around and still not have seen it all.  Apart from a few breath-taking palaces there is a vast expanse of garden; the most beautiful in my opinion is the area called the ‘Generalife’ which was the country estate commissioned by Muhammad II at the end of the 13th century.

Generalife gardens

Generalife gardens

The palace itself there is wonderful, but it is the land around it, the ‘market garden’, which really stands out.  It is incredibly peaceful and thus understandable that this is where the Nasrid sultanates came when they wanted to rest.  Much of the gardens are shaded and the ‘Water Stairway’ is a true highlight, with railings consisting of a short wall with small channels on top through which water flows.   It is romantic and idyllic.

Generalife Palace

Generalife Palace

While much of Alhambra is clearly built in an Islamic style, with the characteristic arches, marble and mosaics, one palace looks out of place.  A huge Renaissance palace stands in the centre of the compound – built by the Catholic Emperor Charles V during the early 16th century, by which time the Muslims had lost their power  in Spain and had relinquished their cherished Alhambra to their enemy.  The palace looks like it should be in Rome.

Charles V Palace

Charles V Palace, it looks like you could be in Rome

It was never finished during Charles V’s life, and was only completed in the 20th century.  It is impressive, vast and dominating, which was exactly what Charles V had in mind.  In his eyes, the reason he chose the Alhambra to build his residence in was to ‘express the triumph of Christianity over Island’.  Charles V kept all the ancient Islamic structures in place to serve as a counterpoint to the size and style of the new palace.   The courtyard is massive, the centre point of the palace, which had many different cultural uses over the centuries – from theatrical shows to bullfights.   There are also a few museums in the upper galleries, one the Fine Arts Museum of Granada and one which is my favourite and has a charming ensemble of Joaquin Sorolla’s paintings of the Alhambra and Granada.

The courtyard, Charles V Palace, Alhambra

The courtyard

Sorolla's Alhambra

Sorolla’s Alhambra

After about 2 and a half hours of wondering around we headed towards the exit where I sat down in the shade and flicked through my guide book.  I’d loved what I had seen but felt like something was missing.  I’d seen some beautiful palaces but nothing which really stood out.  Suddenly I came to a few photos of the interior of a few beautiful palaces I was sure we had not seen.  After a quick read I shamefully realised that we had missed out the thing to see – the Nasrid palaces and the seat of the sultanate’s court.  The pride and joy of the Nasrid rulers.  I couldn’t believe that we had been so close to leaving Alhambra without having seen the main spectacle.  And so we trundled back into the vast compound, past the medina and joined the long 7pm queue to see what we hoped was worth waiting for.

I am so glad we went back.  And I am so glad I saw those photos in the guidebook.  Because the Nasrid Palaces are truly spectacular.  The simple walled compound look plain and ordinary from the outside and the fact that they are tucked away behind Charles V Renaissance Palace was another reason why we just completely missed it.  But the palaces which lie within the walls are breathtaking.  There are three independent – though connected – areas: Palacia del Mexuar (the oldest), Palacio de Comares and Palacio de los Leones and they are all completed different.

Palacio de Mexuar

Palacio de Mexuar’s colourful tiles

Palacio de Comares

Palacio de Comares, from which you can see Charles V Renaissance Palace behind it

The ornamentation is so delicate, so stunning that it is hard to describe.  Photos will do it some, but not full, justice.  You really need to see it for yourself.  I was really moved by what I saw, and despite the presence of other tourists, felt a peace and tranquility come over me as I admired the ornate ceilings, the courtyards and the oratories.  I felt like I was in an oasis, especially in the Partal area, which reminded me a bit of a Tuscan garden.  I think perhaps this is what the Sultans must have felt – a chance to get away from everything and relax.

Palacio de los Leones

Palacio de los Leones: my favourite palace.  This fountain, the ‘Fuente de los Leones’, is the most famous fountain in all of the Alhambra

Palacio de los Leones, unbelievable ceilings

Palacio de los Leones’ unbelievable star-shaped Mocarabe ceilings

Exquisite plasterwork of the walls

Exquisite plasterwork of the walls

 

Views of the garden from the palace converted into the Christian Royal Palace

Views of the garden from the palace converted into the Christian Royal Palace

Patio de Lindaraja

Patio de Lindaraja

Palacio del Portico del Partal

Palacio del Portico del Partal in the beautiful Partal gardens – as the sun was setting.

It was a long day.  But so worthwhile and I know everyone felt that.  Something I highly recommend doing is combining a day of sight-seeing at Alhambra with dinner in Granada.  While we sadly did not get to spend much time there it looked like a beautiful and vibrant city, so I am sure it’s worth spending at least a few days there.  We had to make do with dinner on one of the busy and fun streets.  The tapas restaurant we chose was not outstanding, but it was the only place which could seat 13 people on one table.   Apparently Bodehas Espadafor and Los Diamantes are both amazing though.  I will simply have to go back again to see for myself…

VIew of Granada

VIew of Granada, from the Kasbah in the Alhambra

Tickets to the Alhambra are best bought ahead of your visit to avoid them being sold out.  They are easily bought online (http://www.ticketmaster.es/nav/landings/en/mucho_mas/entradas_alhambra/index.html – go for the general daytime visit) for €14.  

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