Saturday, October 27, 2007

In Praise of Sciacchetra

Now back in London, Gary and Lorraine share their new affection for one of Italy's rarest wines.

Been to Tuscany? Probably. If you have, you’re certainly no stranger to that wonderful fortified dessert wine served after most meals, Vino santo (or often, vin’ santo). A lighter and more mellow digestif than a heavy port or thick sauternes, vin’ santo is the perfect finish for a typical 6 course Tuscan repast.

But wait—there is something better! From the salt-washed hillsides of the Cinqueterre comes a truly astounding experience, which is simply not available anywhere else in the world. Sciacchetera (pronounced shock-a-TRA) is the result of leaving three local varieties of grapes on the vine until they are literally raisins, and then fermenting that intensely concentrated fruit using a unique method handed down through the generations. The only place it is produced is in the AOC of the Cinqueterre, those 5 towns dotted along the Ligurian Sea, each with a year round population of less than 1000. Vines are grown on the steep hillsides facing the sea and the sunset, giving them what are arguably the best views of grapes anywhere in the world. Vineyards are perched on these terraces, held back by thousands of miles of dry stone walls (more stonework than in the Great Wall of China).

This late harvest method creates intense flavours of honey and herbs with just a hint of tartness in a wine that is typically light amber to peach in colour. Try it with the local gorgonzola and you will be in heaven, or go all the way to the sweet side and dip your cantuccini (dried sweet almond cake) in it, just as the Tuscans do with their vin’ Santo. At 18% alcohol, Scciacchetera is not something to take lightly—you’ll enjoy it more if you have a walk, rather than a drive home afterwards. And of course, don’t be surprised at the price. Highly concentrated late harvest wine created with an ancient artisanal method on steep hillsides has its price—you’ll seldom get away at under €10 for a glass at a restaurant, and buying a small (500 ml) bottle of the aged stuff at the local enoteca could easily set you back €100 or more.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Isola Palmaria - Go for the Views

Those intrepid travellers, Gary and Lorraine, are still hard at it in Italy, hiking, eating and reporting on how to get the best out of the Ligurian coast with No Crowds.

The biggest island in Liguria, Isola Palmaria, which site just 100 meters off the tip of the rocky peninsula that ends at Porto Venere, is scarcely mentioned in the tourist guides. While Porto Venere is certainly on the tourist maps, often recommended as the ideal jumping off place from which to tour the Cinqueterre to the north, the island and its two small cousins, Tino and Tinetto, are usually glossed over. Getting there is simply a matter of approaching one of the water taxi services in the harbour and asking for a ride over. The taxis operate in typical Italian mode—they have a published schedule, but actually will take you whenever you want to go. They have a set price, but the thinking behind the pricing is elusive--€ 1.50 one way, € 4.00 round trip.

Arriving on the rocky beach which faces the port, we turned left (southeast) and worked our way along the shore to the tiny alleyway next to the island’s one business establishment, an excellent restaurant. Wandering through the small parking lot containing the island’s half dozen motorized vehicles, we stopped briefly at the map and tourist guide kiosk (the entire island is a national park). Moving on to the southerly hiking trail, it became clear why the island doesn’t rate much of a Fodor’s entry. The trails were not particularly kept up (although happily free of litter), and the island overall had a feel of a depreciating outpost from the last war, where the main purpose of the roads and trails was to gain access to machine gun nests and bunkers. Which of course, is exactly the case (little known fact: “The Guns of Navarone” was largely filmed on Tinetto).

After another 15 minutes, we were confronted with the reason why Palmaria should be featured in the guides. The entire island, it turns out, constitutes the best seats in the house from which to enjoy the drama that is the Ligurian coastline. As we rose quickly along the steep mountainous ridge toward the island’s summit, we were rewarded with a serious of glorious views, each with more perspective than the one before. The entire Bay of Poets (named originally for Lord Byron who once swam across it) was laid out in front of us. From south along the coastline to the busy harbours of La Spezia and Porto Venere, to the steep marble bluffs that lead north to the Cinqueterre, the effect was breathtaking. As we climbed, we realized over and over again that the only other way to get such a complete and lofty view would be to charter a helicopter!

Reaching the summit (or as close as we could get to it, owing to the fenced enclosure around the mountaintop weather and reconnaissance station), we had a chance to enjoy the view to Tino and Tinetto and the open Mediterranean beyond. On a previous occasion, my companion had taken the trail down to this far shore, and reported an excellent and deserted beach where the water in October was nippy, but refreshing.

We took the steepest path back down (with plenty of signposts to warn us), and were rewarded with a new set of views. We were also happy to find ropes, fences and guardrails to give us some amount of confidence. As we threaded our way along the very lip of the 200m cliffs on the ocean side, we had the occasional unsettling experience of looking directly down into a colourful local fishing boat. To the north, the huge headlands were in sharp relief, and blended in to the ancient fortification at Porto Venere, where rock and building seem to come together so well that you stop and wonder whether the fort and church of San Pietro might just have been the result of some geological upheaval millions of years ago. The town of Porto Venere that faced us, with it’s multicoloured vertical houses and active promenade along the water was clearly a more recent addition, however

As we neared the base of the mountain, we happened upon a small group of the island’s stunted mountain goats—they’re about terrier-sized. While they wouldn’t let us approach them directly, they were certainly not afraid of us, and gave us a demonstration of how they walk up an essentially sheer cliff without putting a foot wrong. Very impressive. After that, it remained only for us to make our way south along the shore to the dock, where our taxi driver was waiting to return us to the mainland. On our hike, on a sunny Sunday afternoon in early October (when hundreds are hiking the Cinqueterre trails daily), we had not seen another soul.

Isola Palmaria, La Spezia, Italy,9.84202
Photo by Gary and Lorraine

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Trattoria dal Billy - Getting out of the Scrum in the Cinque Terre

My friend Sandy (Mr Soul City for you regular readers) has been after me for ages to get contributions for NoCrowds from my well travelled family and acquaintances. “Well Sandy”, I keep telling him, “they just don’t send me stuff. What am I supposed to do?” “Try blackmail” he advised.

And just when I thought that the idea of creating a community of like-minded travellers was going nowhere, into my mailbox drops this wonderful post from Gary and Lorraine, from the Cinque Terre in Northern Italy. By way of introduction, while most of us dream about someday paying off the mortgage and seeing the world, these two have been living the dream while managing to hold down jobs, raise children and yes, pay off the mortgage. That is why I am particularly proud to offer this review of a great NoCrowds destination from two admirable nomads who I didn’t even blackmail.

Trattoria dal Billy

Manarola is a tiny place nestled on the Mediteranean and practically clinging to the steep escarpment that rises out of the water up into the lesser alps that sit behind this section of the Italian Riviera. It is town number two in the cinqueterre, the 5 lovely staircase-encrusted towns that have spent most of their lives cut off from land based access to the rest of the world. Tourism has definitely come to Manarola, as hourly ferries and the putt-putt local train that winds impossibly through ledges and tunnels disgorge plenty of visitors into the town center, where olive oil shops, basil shops and wine stores stocking sciacchetera, the local dessert wine, abound.

The restaurants on the main gallery through town are packed at lunchtime, but the hardy walker has a wonderful alternative. Perched high on the southern cliff that forms half of the town, a tiny place with the improbable name of Trattoria dal Billy clings to a tenuous foothold almost directly above the town square. With a lovely indoor dining room, but a truly spectacular terrace that boasts 6 – count em 6 – tables, you will find yourself in culinary heaven, literally looking down on the mere mortals crowding into the pizzerias in the center of town. Just a word to the wise—if you’re there in the summer when the crowds are, try to get there by 1:00 which is the very beginning of the lunch hour, otherwise those tables may well have been taken for the duration.

My companion and I decided to start with the antipasto de mare, a combination of cold calamari and incredible lemoned anchovies with warm polpe (octopus) and the most incredibly seasoned vongole (tiny clams) you might ever eat. We weren’t sure how this magic was woven with olive oil, butter, garlic, and fennel, but it served not only the clams but a fair amount of dipping of bread. A very serviceable bottle of Billy’s own vino bianco di Tavola was a perfect accompaniment. Following this, we chose to share the grilled sea bass, sold by the gram. A mere 320 grams later, we were more than impressed with the chef’s ability to perfectly cook this delicate fish to perfection, and finished every mouth-watering morsel.

Sitting back and enjoying the view after the satisfying repast, we enquired after the postres. With our espresso, Billy recommended what he called “something with milk and eggs and cheese and fragole, which was in fact a unique and light cheesecake with the tiniest strawberries I’ve ever seen as a topping. However, enquiries about after dinner drinks brought disappointing results. The sciacchetera, he agreed was magnificent..but he had none. Limoncino? Wonderful way to end the meal. Unfortunately, he had finished the last of it himself last night. We settled for the grappa and happily finished our coffees before heading back onto the cinqueterre trail.

Trattoria dal Billy
Via A. Rollandi 122
Manarola, La Spezia
Photo of Trattoria dal Billy (circled) by Gary and Lorraine.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Gravetye Manor - Where Luxury Meets Value for Lunch

I have been sitting at my desk, staring at the bill for lunch at Gravetye Manor and trying to decide what to say about our experience there last Saturday. I could say that the stone mansion, built in 1598 is lovely, that the gardens, created by one of the greatest gardeners of all times are even lovelier. I could say that once you drive up the mile long driveway the concerns of modern life seem far away and all of this would be true. But the most memorable thing about our recent lunch at Gravetye Manor was that we left thinking it was a great experience and a good deal. At a one star Michelin restaurant in a Relais and Chateaux property, in a place where we least expected to find value, we had a wonderful lunch, arguably a perfect lunch, for a fair price. In the twelve years that I have lived in Britain, I’ve never said that before.

So what made this lunch perfect and why do I consider £81.56 to be great value? For American readers, I know, I know, £81.56 represents $163.12 which is a monstrous amount of money to spend for lunch but you’re just going to have to go to your exchange rate “happy place” and take my word for it that this is a good deal.

As for Gravetye, lets begin with the setting. In the pantheon of English gardeners, William Robinson (1838 – 1935) looms large as the pioneer of the natural English garden movement. Gravetye was Robinson’s home for more than 50 years and as the Gravetye marketing bumf correctly states, “the variety and charm of the arrangements of trees and shrubs, the landscaping and the layout of the different types of garden at Gravetye is still his creation and memorial.” There are few settings for any hotel or restaurant that are quite as lovely as this one.

Moving on to the service, it was both expert and attentive. After suffering for so long from the well meaning but untrained army of young Eastern Europeans who are the engine of London’s hospitality juggernaut, it was blissful to slip back into the hands of proud, skilful professionals who take their direction from Mark Raffan, the Chef de Cuisine and Director, who trained at both Gravetye and with the Roux brothers at Le Gavroche and who was once the personal chef of the late King Hussein of Jordan.

As for the food, it was creative without being fussy, beautifully presented and delicious but what made it great value was this: the 3-course Table d’Hotel lunch for £23 which we both chose. To accompany our three courses, the highlight of which was an excellent English iteration of a bouillabaisse with a variety of fish from the south coast, we chose a reasonable £23 Chateau Hourbanon 1997 Medoc. After lunch, we had coffee in one of the oak panelled sitting rooms, followed by a walk in the justifiably famous gardens.

According to Andrew Harper’s Hideaway Report which gave Gravetye a lifetime achievement award in 2006, “this timeless Elizabethan stone manse was Britain’s first luxury country house hotel, and nearly 50 years later, it still ranks among the very best of its genre.” Bearing in mind that you can spend much, much more at Gravetye than we did, I really appreciated the fact that we were able to have a fabulous experience at one of Europe’s premier hotels without breaking the bank and without being made to feel that we were anything less than very important guests. We’ll be back.

Gravetye Manor
Near East Grinstead
West Sussex RH19 4LJ
Tel: 44 (0)1342 810567
Fax: 44(0)1342 810080

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Vita and the School Interview

I’ve always thought that visiting gardens was for nice grannies who were members of horticultural societies. The whole business of wandering around looking at plants seemed a quaint pastime, but not really my thing. I certainly would not consider driving 1 ½ hours out of London to visit a garden, but Eloise was interviewing at a school near Sissinghurst, and even I knew that Sissinghurst was one of premier gardens of England, created in the 1930s by Sir Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West. Always fascinated by unusual aristocratic lifestyles and anything to do with the Bloomsbury group, I thought it would be really fun to visit the home of the woman who inspired Virginia Woof to write Orlando. Jeff was convinced we were in for another “namby pamby chic lit” experience but I told him that after Sissinghurst we would head for Gravetye Manor, a country house hotel with an impressive reputation and a Michelin one star restaurant. That improved his mood considerably.

Things got off to a promising start when the lady parking cars at Sissinghurst wanted to have an in-depth conversation about my Hermes scarf. I was wearing my best one in the hope of improving Eloise’s chances of getting into “the school of her choice” although Jeff is convinced that what I wear will have absolutely no impact on Eloise’s school admissions but I’m not so sure. As luck would have it, the car park attendant had the latest Hermes catalogue to hand and we were able to review her favourites and mine. By now, the cars were backing up behind us and Jeff was looking really worried that we would move on to shoes and handbags.

Once inside Sissinghurst Castle, which is a collection of remnants from a 15th century manor, we headed immediately for the central red-brick tower which dominates the garden, climbing straight to the top for the glorious views over the Kent countryside. On the way down the steep circular staircase, we stopped at Vita Sackville-West’s incredibly romantic study where she wrote many of her poems, novels and weekly gardening columns which I found hugely inspiring. Back outside, we wandered around the various garden areas which are arranged like a series of outdoor rooms, soaking in the atmosphere and revelling in the fine weather. Neither Jeff nor I can tell an exotic species from a garden weed but you do not need to know anything about gardening to appreciate the amazing aesthetic vision of Sissinghurst’s creators. The gardens are, in a word, sublime.

After the gardens, we headed for the library which looked exactly as you would hope, somewhat gloomy filled with old rugs, old furniture and lots and lots of books. Jeff was delighted to find that the information about the library had been translated into Catalan and began questioning the nice volunteer about the National Trust’s interest in supporting separatist movements which only goes to prove that this wonderful property has something for everyone.

Soon it was time to leave for the promised one star lunch. As was the case with Blenheim Palace, our last school interview outing, I left Sissinghurst with a long reading list which included revisiting Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (I was too young the first time), Sackville-West’s own writings and her son’s account of his parents’ relationship, Portrait of a Marriage, which was first published in 1973. That one garden could inspire such an outbreak of reading speaks volumes about the magical world-within-a-world that was created by two such supremely talented and unusual individuals. As we left Sissinghurst, I gave a thought to how Eloise was doing down the road. Who knows, thanks to her diligence and my scarves, we just might be back. I hope so.

Practical Information about visiting Sissinghurst:

Sissinghurst is run by the National Trust which oversees more than 300 historic homes and gardens. Even if you are only visiting the UK for a week or two, it could easily pay to become a member of this organisation. By my calculation, if you visit as few as four National Trust properties, a membership already saves you money and you are helping a very good cause. Memberships can be purchased on the National Trust website or at the first property you visit.

Although Sissinghurst was not busy on the day we visited in early October, it remains the most heavily visited garden in England and to protect the garden and the visitors experience, on busy days, the National Trust limits the number of tickets sold and those tickets are timed. Therefore, it pays to call ahead to find out what you are up against. On the website, the point is made that the garden is at its quietest in the late afternoon.

Sissinghurst can be reached from London by taking a train from Charing Cross to Staplehurst Station in Kent and at certain times, the National Trust runs a special link from the station to the property. Check the website for details.

Near Cranbrook, Kent TN172AB
Tel: 01580 710700

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The Best of Claude

Claude called last night and mentioned that he had been on NoCrowds but could not find himself.
You might have thought he was having an existential moment but actually it was a reasonable thing for him to say considering how often I have told this charismatic Frenchman that he was one of my main sources of NoCrowds inspiration.

Since the references were all buried in the archives, I promised to send him the links to the stories where his uncompromising attitude and good advice had been mentioned but after producing the list I thought, wow, these are some of my favourite posts, some dating as far back as June 2005. Why not produce a “Best of Claude” list for everyone to enjoy?

And so, I did:

Late Nights in London Museums

Jardin d’Acclimatation

Beyond Airports

And here are contributions from Claude’s wife, Fanny.

No Romantic Life with Gustave Moreau

The Museum of Romantic Life

I had so much fun looking through the archives that I'm glad I didn't mention to Claude to try the search function for NoCrowds which can be found on the upper left hand corner of the site but even if you are not looking for yourself, it's an easy way to find what you need.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Harrods - A Timeless Tourist Trap

I’ve said it before, I don’t like Harrods anymore. I don’t like the current owner who displays a Madame Tussaud waxwork of himself in the Man’s Shop. I don’t like his creepy security guards who enforce the store’s dress code and tell you how to carry your handbag. I don’t like the tasteless Diana and Dodi Memorial on the lower ground floor. With that said, I was in the neighbourhood yesterday and thought it would be fun to drop in on Harrod’s exhibition “Timeless Luxury”, a celebration of the backstories of the world’s most iconic brands. How, for example, officers in World War I would commission Aquascutum, the inventor of the waterproof wool coat, to make coats with deep pockets for ammunition, ergo the name “trench coat” or how Louis Vuitton got his start packing trunks for Napoleon. Well, that sounded interesting.

When I arrived, I was directed to the Harrods Story Exhibition where I learned some amazingly cools things, like the fact that the store embalmed Sigmund Freud, delivered a baby elephant to Ronald Reagan and once employed Dave Prowse, the original Darth Vader, as a fitness instructor. There was an enthusiastic archivist on hand to answer questions. So far, so good, but I felt so sad to have missed the Harrods they were talking about, the eccentric, interesting and admirable Harrods that delivered a crocodile to Noel Coward, and daily fresh herring to Alfred Hitchcock in Hollywood, that would hire you an ambulance complete with a trained nurse or teach etiquette to debutantes. I kept asking myself how the Harrods of yesteryear, the one with class and esprit could have ended up as such a soulless temple of ueber-consumption, more Las Vegas than London.

But what about the brands? To tell you the truth, I only made it through part of the Baccarat Exhibition (very nice) when I started to get what I would describe as a Harrods' headache – too many people, silly prices and sillier rules. Here are some of the things that I missed:

The Ferragamo Exhibition - shoes worn by movie stars and royalty since the 1920s – (Sounded good, shoes are always interesting)

Valentino Exhibition – the vintage Valentino gown that was the inspiration for Julia Roberts Oscar dress (who cares?)

Turnbull & Asser Exhibition – Pieces worn by Rupert Evans and Mick Fleetwood (who?) and patterns of Winston Churchill, Laurence Olivier, Charlie Chaplin and Sean Connery (had potential)

The Little Black Dress Exhibition – featuring Versace’s safety pin show stopper made famous by Liz Hurley (haven’t these people seen Breakfast at Tiffanys? Now that was a ‘little black dress’!)

I’m really not sorry to have missed these exhibits, or Aerin Lauder’s Fragrance debut or the launch of Van Cleff & Arpels children’s collection (I could give up right here and become a Bolshevik) but what I am sorry to have missed is the Harrods that was more interested in pleasing the Royal Family than Kylie Minogue. Almost every visitor to London makes a pilgrimage to Harrods and to be fair, the food halls are fun to wander through, there are lots of nice overpriced places to eat and the toy department is far better than Hamleys. But if you are looking for that great old store – reader, it is gone. What’s left, as they say in the Michelin Guides, is not worth the detour.