Derry – a city break for history buffs

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“We didn’t know how bad we’d had it until we had peace,” said Chris Quigley as we took a detour. Chris was booked to take me to the airport. He convinced me to take a detour that would be worth it. The car slowed down and stopped atop Eskaheen View and I knew Chris was right. Derry spanned below me under a crystal blue December sky. The sun sparkled across River Foyle as it ribboned its way past Derry’s landmarks. From up here the city was breathtaking. Read on to find out why Derry is a city break for history buffs.

Derry is the Northern Irish city that came to the attention of the world on 5th October 1968. A single television camera captured police attacking a peaceful demonstration and broadcast it to the world. It was the first time the Unionist government’s abuse of power against a nationalist (mainly Catholic) working class community had been witnessed. This single incident changed the course of Northern Irish history. Support for the civil rights movement surged and some reforms by the government followed but the tide had turned. In January 1969 the first no go area was declared and the defiant slogan You Are Now Entering Free Derry appeared on a gable wall in the Bogside. Today, the wall is a tourist attraction, the community is in healing and Derry is indeed, free.

As with most cities that experience long periods of civil unrest Derry’s narrative hovers around the conflict. However, we’d do well to remember that this city has a history which predates the recent conflict. With 1500 years worth of stories to retell and the only completely intact 17th century city walls in all of Ireland it’s a place waiting to be discovered. Little wonder then it was the inaugural UK City of Culture in 2013. With a wild, rugged coastline, fine dining and a rich cultural heritage all under a flight time of one hour and 25 minutes we cannot afford to miss Derry.

IMG_2244.jpg Gorgeous Penthouse Room at City Hotel Derry

Where to stay: City Hotel Derry’s location is perfect for exploring, eating and drinking and is within a few minutes to the city walls, craft village and Peace Bridge. There is a bar and restaurant on the ground floor. The bar is open late and serves food until 11pm. 

Ship Quay Hotel: This grade 11 listed building has been converted to a boutique hotel with remarkable results. It’s perfectly located for exploring the city and also within walking distance from restaurants, bars and shopping. Their restaurant is exceptional and popular for Sunday brunch.

Foyle’s Hotel: Chef Brian McDermott has transformed this 1819 hotel to a 16 room modern boutique hotel like no other. Most rooms boast sea views over Lough Foyle. The hotel is located in Moville which is around 30 minutes drive from the centre of Derry.

IMG_9553 Bread and butter pudding at Ship Quay Hotel, Derry.

Where to eat and drink: Soda & Starch serves up a menu of Irish produce transformed into international dishes. You can experience Thai broth mussels with Guinness wheaten bread or slow roasted Moroccan lamb on flat bread. Soda & Starch is located within the Craft Village. It’s a perfect place for grabbing lunch during the day or an early evening meal.

Walled City Brewery: Walk across the Peace Bridge over River Foyle and arrive at the delightful Walled City Brewery. As the name suggests craft beer is brewed on the premises. The restaurant is slick and modern. The food is sumptuous. Wild boar terrine, turf-smoked salmon and spiced mulled pear with cheese are all on the menu as pintxos. Venison, slow braised beef cheeks and Donegal salmon mains are to die for. Pièce de résistance? Bourbon poached pears with ginger ice cream and pistachio brittle for dessert.

Browns Restaurant: There are two Browns restaurants in Derry: Browns Bonds Hill and Browns In Town. The latter is conveniently located within ten minutes of the city centre by cab. If I haven’t yet mentioned it – fish and sea food is exceptional in Derry. Browns serves a wonderful baked scallop and stuffed red mullet. Their Guinness bread served with Eglinton butter is simply worth crossing the city for. This is unmissable fine dining.

The Foyle Hotel Wine Bar & Eatery: Chef Brian McDermott’s Foyle Hotel offers what I can only describe as a wholesome dining experience. Its wine bar and eatery has won Georgina Campbell’s New Comer of the Year award and recommended as Best in Ireland McKenna’s Guides. Expect locally sourced mussels cooked in buttermilk, hearty venison cottage pie and apple crumble like no other. Utterly delicious local food.

White shop front with flower crowns and blue bicycle parked outside Craft Village, Derry

Things to do: City Tours offers insightful guided tours along the city walls. In just over an hour I learnt of Derry’s 1500 years of history from the sixth century through Bloody Sunday to the present day. As a huge fan of guided walking tours I couldn’t recommend this highly enough.

Craft Village: This delightful reconstructed 18th century street is home to artisan shops, local designers and plenty of places to eat and drink. It’s right in the heart of the town and a great place to shop for souvenirs and support local craftspeople. There is an array of craft boutiques ranging from Irish dancing supplies to hand-made crockery and cup cakes. What’s not to love?

Museum of Free Derry: Ireland’s civil rights movement is best understood at the Museum of Free Derry. The building stands precisely where the most pivotal moments occured.  The surrounding area is also home to murals painted by Bogside Artists and honour the struggle and subsequent peace that it achieved. The museum is run by volunteers who either lived through the conflict or descendants of ones who lost their lives.

Wild Atlantic Way: The drive along 2500 kilometres of a ferocious Atlantic coast was the highlight of my trip. Adventure seeker or not this rugged coastline will leave you breathless. Dotted with fishing villages, light houses, dramatic deep cliffs and pebbled beaches it’s the wild Ireland of your dreams.

I was a guest of Visit Derry and received complimentary first class travel on Stansted Express. Opinions expressed are all my own. For more information on Derry visit: www.visitderry.com

Why Basel, Switzerland should be on your radar

If anyone were to whisper, Switzerland in my ear there are a few things which may run through my mind: blue lakes, snow-capped mountains, astonishing scenery. It’s the picture-perfect destination one cannot forget. Switzerland, of course, is all of these things. However, there are also the big cities filled with culture, cuisine and history. Basel, for example, with transport links to UK and Europe, is the perfect city break. With quaint neighbourhoods, beautiful architecture and connection to art it’s the underrated Swiss city we all need to visit in 2019. Here are a few handy tips to know before you visit Basel, Switzerland:

  1. Basel is the culture capital of Switzerland and has 40 museums in an area of 37 square kilometres.
  2. Given the city’s proximity to the borders of France and Germany the food influences here are wonderful. From high end dining options to an array of international cuisine the city deserves an honourable mention for its food.
  3. Basel SBB train station is Europe’s busiest international border train station linking the city to domestic destinations as well as Italy, Germany and France.
  4. All public transport within Basel is free for visitors. Yep, that’s trains, trams and buses for anyone staying in the city for one night or more.
  5. A city pass known as Basel Card can be collected at the reception of every hotel and offers 50% discounted admission to museums, Basel Zoo and Theatre Basel amongst others.
  6. Tourists also have free guest wifi in the city’s wifi network.

Where to spend the perfect weekend in Basel, Switzerland

Carpeted ornate staircase of Les Trois Rois five star hotel

Where to stay: Hotel Krafft Basel is where I stayed and loved. Their river view rooms are all you could wish for. As the hotel sits on the bank of the Rhine there are undisturbed views. The gleaming green water carries boats and swimmers across Basel in all weather and you’ll be privy to it from the balcony of your room. The location couldn’t be more perfect for a short stay. It’s within walking distance from the Old Town and tram stops. This utterly beautiful hotel was awarded the City Historic Hotel Award (2017) by Historic Hotels of Europe.

Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois is part of The Leading Hotels of the World and is as magnificent as you can imagine. It too stands on the bank of the Rhine as it has done since 1681. As you can expect from a heritage hotel the rooms are lavishly decorated and the service is faultless. There is a restaurant and bar open to all and you do not need to be a guest of the hotel. However, I recommend reserving your table at the restaurant as preference is given to hotel guests.

Where to eat

Volkshaus Basel is an easily accessible French brasserie and bar serving great classic dishes with seasonal produce. The extensive menu covers anything from foie gras terrine to sirloin steak and fries with an impressive wine list. There is also a beautiful courtyard and beer garden to enjoy in the summer months in particular. Please note that Volkshaus is closed on Sundays.

Nomad Eatery, as the name suggests, serves breakfast, brunch and dinner with travellers in mind. You can enjoy a menu of world cuisine and great cocktails. The menu changes weekly to keep things exciting. Breakfast is served daily from 7am and dinner until 11pm.

Walliser Kanne is a great place to enjoy a refined Swiss dining experience. The restaurant is located in the Old City of Basel and serves Swiss classics of cheese fondue, raclette and Wiener schnitzel. The menu is accompanied by an incredible wine list including the best of Swiss, Italian, Spanish and French wines. Please note that Walliser Kanne is also closed on Sundays and public holidays.

People seated around cosy bar of Les Trois Rois five star hotel

Where to drink

Bar Rouge sits 105 meters above the city offering panoramic views as the sun goes down. With an impressive cocktail list, bar menu of light snacks and late opening until 4am this is a great place to enjoy the city’s night life.

Consum is the cosy, atmospheric wine bar attached to hotel Krafft Basel. With live music on selected days and an authentic tavern feel it’s the place for a quick drink. A menu curated for light drinking offers cured meats and cheeses with over 100 labels of wine. The bar is popular with locals and gets packed very quickly so get there early or be prepared to wait for a table.

Les Trois Rois Bar offers the ultimate drinking experience in a five star setting and impeccable service. Enjoy a refined whisky or smooth cocktail overlooking the Rhine in a lavish setting here. It was awarded the Swiss Bar of the Year in 2015 and is also the winner of the Mixology Bar Award in the same year. You’ll be in good hands.

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Things to do

Take a guided walking tour – I highly recommend a guided walking tour of the city to really get under its skin. Basel is rich in history and is home to Switzerland’s oldest university, an Old Town and a labyrinth of old canals which make for a rich heritage. Cities with old ports often have the most interesting history connected to trading routes and Basel is certainly one. Both group tours and private tours are available and I couldn’t recommend my private tour enough. I learned that Basel’s wealth, in the past, came from the most unlikely commodity. Take the Old Town Tour and find out more.

Fondation Beyeler – No visit to Basel is complete without visiting at least two of its utterly impressive museums and art galleries. Switzerland is a traditional society and many shops and restaurants are closed on Sundays making it the perfect day to visit museums which remain open throughout the year. Fondation Beyeler was my favourite and I was lucky enough to view the spectacular Balthus exhibition during my visit. With an equally impressive calendar of Picasso, Rudolf Stingel and an autumn exhibition of Resonating Spaces it’s an unmissable experience.

Kunstmuseum Basel – If you only have time for one museum in Basel I recommend Kunstmuseum. It’s Basel’s fine art offering and will astonish you as it did me. From the current exhibition of Fuseli (until 17th February 2019) to Monet, Van Gogh and Matisse the museum is a joy. They were my best hours spent in Basel.

Theatre Basel – Make Theatre Basel the highlight of your stay by watching one of its productions. I watched the ballet Carmen and was wowed by the energetic and passionate performance. It was a wonderful way to immerse myself in the cultural capital of Switzerland and the perfect end to my stay.

I was a guest of Basel Tourism. All opinions expressed are my own. Find out more at: www.basel.com

Castello Del Nero Hotel and Spa – Review

October is my favourite time of year to visit Italy. The weather is milder, the air cooler and this year I was going to Tuscany. I was a guest of Castello Del Nero Hotel and Spa in Tavarnelle Val de Pesa. I’d been longing to be here for almost a year and counted down the days as a child would towards Christmas. Read on for my review of this heritage hotel and spa.

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History

12th century Florence, a private family chapel, a grand Italian garden and an estate spanning the horizon of the famed rolling hills of Tuscany. This is the setting of magnificent Castello Del Nero Hotel and Spa. To walk through its doors is to become a part of its illustrious history. It’s the story of two Florentine aristocratic families who lived, breathed, loved and left their legacies behind: Del Nero and Torrigiani.

Wherever you may find yourself on this 750 acre, elegant estate you’ll be but a breath away from its rich past. Vaulted ceilings, original frescoes and raging fireplaces yearning to bestow the heritage of its ancestors. As it was for me, for you too, it will be futile to resist the draw of Castello Del Nero’s history. You will simply surrender to it.

The Hotel

This castle of noblemen, which has evolved into its new life as a luxurious hotel, is extraordinary. 50 rooms and suites span across the castle and farm buildings. The nobleman’s floor offers its most exclusive suite, named after Sir James Galway, with unparalleled views from a private terrace. The terrace dates back to the origins of the castle; a rare addition indicating that this has always been a safe haven.

The rooms and suites with original frescoes have been painstakingly restored under the guidance of the Italian Fine Arts Commission. Walls are painted with marble dust mixed paint making them soft as silk to the touch. Roll top baths sit on stone floors ready to be filled with the warm lather of lavender, sage and salt which fill the air with the scent of the surrounding hills.

It is little wonder then that Castello Del Nero Hotel and Spa has an array of awards and accolades won over the last 11 years celebrating its heritage, cuisine and spa. Needless to say that this hotel is part of the prestigious collection curated under The Leading Hotels of the World.

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Accommodation

Each room or suite in the castle is unique making every stay a new experience for returning patrons. 12 suites have hand-carved four poster double beds, inspired by an original, found in a stable during renovation. Silky white monogrammed sheets and pillows contribute to the best sleep you could possibly imagine.

My suite consisted of a separate living and dining room, double bedroom and a bathroom twice as spacious as the bedroom. Neutral soft mint against white accents highlighted with flecks of gold made for a breathlessly serene space which I didn’t want to tear myself away from. Deep, soft towels and the ethereal feeling of simply being in a castle is one I can only describe as my most enchanting experience this year.

At the end of each evening a discreet turn-down service, the silence of the hills and the warm luxury of my suite effortlessly disconnected me from the outside world. I sunk in to my bed and a restful night of sleep on both nights of my visit.

Facilities

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Dining

Michelin-starred La Torre Restaurant, under the stewardship of  Executive Chef Giovanni Luca Di Pirro, serves a magnificent menu consisting of seasonal produce; some grown on the estate by the Chef himself. Breakfast is always served at La Torre with the unforgettable view of cypress trees and hills being gently caressed by a morning sun. I sat mesmerised by the view longer than I’d thought possible.

La Taverna poolside restaurant remains open from midday until 18.00 serving a relaxed menu of pizza and sandwiches as well as main dishes of fish and meat. My lasagna with beef ragout served here was wonderful with a distinctly Tuscan flavour recognisable by chunks of soft meat cooked in herbs. When you dine here don’t miss the Torta della Nonna which translates to grandmother’s cake. It’s served with custard cream and fior di panna ice cream; Italian home-cooking at its best.

Head to The Bar, after dinner for a night cap, which serves Champagne, cocktails and an array of wines from the castle’s own cellar which boasts over 1000 labels. The Bar is set in what was the original kitchen of the castle. The sinks, hearth and food lifts which serviced the noble floor remain perfectly preserved from its heyday.

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Spa

In keeping with Florentine tradition the castle offers an indulgent spa with ESPA treatments and plunge pool. The relaxed treatment rooms offer signature experiences of facial and body treatments as well as massages. A holistic approach to wellness offers hot stone massage and rejuvenating natural therapies. If you wish simply to experience the plunge pool or sauna you are required to wear swimwear.

Pool and tennis courts

The open-air pool sits in the garden beneath the hotel’s vast terrace. Set amongst the olive groves it’s 25 meters of gleaming warm water served by pool staff. Two tennis courts which are flood-lit for the evening are supplied with rackets and balls. Should you wish to book private lessons this is also possible and maybe arranged with the concierge.

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The Estate

Legend has it that Marquise Teresa Del Nero commissioned a path through cypress trees allowing her a shaded, private route to the woodland next to the castle. The path remains to this day should you choose to follow in the Marquise’s footsteps. It’s a beautiful, gentle walk and far less challenging than the other hiking routes around the estate.

On a final note, I must add, that the castle produces its own wine and extra virgin olive oil. They are used in the restaurant’s kitchen as well as the spa’s signature treatments. As of this year it has also harvested honey from its own hives. The unmistakable lavender notes in the honey is a fitting addition to its repertoire of fine food and wine.

Tuscany has remained one of the most captivating regions of Italy since time immemorial. Castello Del Nero only reinforces this allure. It sits nestled in a picture-perfect landscape only 25 kilometres from historic Florence, 35 kilometres from Siena and 20 kilometres from San Gimignano. The hotel has a free shuttle service on alternate days to Siena and Florence which can be pre-booked via the concierge service. Add to this mix informed staff, most of whom have remained with the hotel since the beginning, with unparalleled local knowledge and a passion for the castle’s heritage and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better experience in Tuscany. I travelled alone and not for a moment did I feel it. It felt as though I’d returned home albeit a rather more magnificent one than I could remember.

 

 

I was a guest of Castello Del Nero Hotel and Spa. Opinions expressed are my own. Enjoy a festive three night’s New Year’s Eve stay package from €740 per night. For more information visit: www.castellodelnero.com

 

 

Ten ways Lithuania will stir your wanderlust

With over a third of its land covered in forests, a culture deeply rooted in Paganism and a history of resistance Lithuania offers the most discerning traveller a rich travel experience. From foraged fine food to imposing street art here are ten ways Lithuania will stir your wanderlust.

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Cold War history

It would be foolish to visit a Baltic state and ignore its past. The Cold War Museum, in a former missile base, in Plokščiai, is a poignant reminder of a dark age within our lifetime. The underground bunker was built by 10,000 Estonian soldiers in the rural village in a cloak of silence. Four R12 nuclear missiles, in heavily guarded vaults, placed here were aimed at Norway, Great Britain, Spain, West Germany and Turkey with the targets changing every three to four years. The museum offers a sobering insight and a reminder of the pointlessness of war.

Curonian Spit

The Curonian Spit, extends 60km south of the town of Klaipeda down to the Russian border of Kaliningrad. It’s a long sand-dune separating the Curonian Lagoon from the Baltic Sea coast. The dunes here are amongst the highest drifting in Europe with an average height of 35 kiometers.  Pine forests and the Baltic sea coast as well as the dunes offer magnificent scenery that will take your breath away. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site shared by both nations.

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European Capital of Culture (2022) – Kaunas

It would be fair to say that Kaunas is the cultural capital of Lithuania. After all, it has been named the European Capital of Culture for 2022. In its more recent history the city has embraced street artists; buildings are adorned with impressive street art both in style and scale. To enjoy Kaunas it’s important to walk the streets; spot the pink elephant of love painted in honour of an unassuming Deima + Arwnas scribble left on the wall by a passer-by.

For a less pleasing experience there is also the Museum of Devils which displays hundreds of devil figurines, dolls and statuettes collected by Lithuanian painter Antanas Žmuidzinavičius between 1876 and 1966. It’s a fitting homage to Lithuania’s Pagan past. However, fear not as the displays are rather less scary than quirky.

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Fine food movement

Lithuanian culture pivots around seasonal foraging. The new generation of chefs have taken this tradition and worked marvels in fine dining restaurants. Amandus Restaurant, in the Old Town, is at the forefront of all that is good. It was here that I experienced beetroot bread with citrus butter; something I cannot forget. Regular produce such as lamb, porcini mushrooms and goats’ cheese transformed by innovative molecular gastronomy made Amandus an exceptional dining experience.

Hill of Crosses

Arrive in Šiauliai to experience the enigmatic Hill of Crosses. The first crosses were placed here as an act of rebellion in 1836. An uprising against the Russian tsar had resulted in the slaughter of the local population. Lithuanians placed crosses in the former hill fort, after the confrontation, to remember the dead. During Soviet occupation, between 1944 – 1990, the regime bulldozed over the site at least three times. But Lithuanians travelled here to show allegiance to their identity. It is estimated that the hill has over 10,000 crosses left by generations. Unsurprisingly, it has evolved into a place of significance among Catholics and even been visited by Pope John Paul ll.

Hill of Witches

Folklore features heavily all over Lithuania. The Hill of Witches en route to Nida is an outdoor sculpture gallery near Juodkrante. Around 80 wooden characters linked to folklore are carved in the forest retelling stories of love, mythology and witch-craft. It’s a chilling yet curious place but worth a visit to appreciate the country’s deep connections to Paganism. The gallery takes less than 30 minutes to explore making the hill an exciting addition to a road trip.

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Nida

Nida is the impossibly charming fishing village you must not leave Lithuania without visiting. German writer Thomas Mann was so smitten by the village that he kept a cottage here. Life centres around its port and marina. Brightly painted wooden houses with white picket fences, quiet leafy streets, beautifully low-key cafes and mere 2,385 residents will leave a stamp on your heart.

Head out for your fish supper around 6pm when local restaurants smoke their catch of the day. Sit around communal tables and enjoy the spirit of Nida. It’s wonderful hospitality and friendly locals will enchant you with stories of folklore and legends late in to the night.

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Trakai Island Castle

28 kilometers west of the capital Vilnius is the historic city of Trakai famous for its lake resort. Lake Galvé is home to Trakai Island on which sits a terracotta-hued 14th century castle. Trakai Island Castle, in the past, has fallen in to disrepair a fair few times. However, between 1946 and 1961 a major reconstruction project restored it to its former glory. A hot air balloon ride over Trakai’s 200 lakes, forests and castle offers mesmerising views and is the best way to appreciate its natural beauty.

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Villa Dubgiris

Further north west in the district of Mazeikiai is Villa Dubgiris; a hunting lodge and sprawling estate complete with its own lake, woods and luxury accommodation. The two-storey restaurant serves a menu of mainly game, mushrooms and seasonal vegetables as well as an invigorating breakfast. A lake, boat house, bicycle rental and fishing offer a wonderful all-round outdoor experience. Inside, a spa and bathhouse on the premises is an opulent escape of tranquility rivalling the outdoors. You will need at least two nights here to really appreciate it.

Vilnius the capital city

If you only have a weekend in Lithuania Vilnius makes for a great short city break. It’s small in size and easy to navigate with a fine mix of culture and food. Cathedral Square and its distinctive bell tower are its most popular attractions. Another is the Church of St. Casimir; the oldest baroque building in the capital. The Old Town has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994. Take a walk down to Užupis. It’s a labyrinth of cobbled lanes with a bohemian feel, artisan coffee shops and bakeries. The Old Town, in particular, makes for a wonderfully romantic get-away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was a guest of the Lithuanian State Department of Tourism. All opinions expressed are my own. For more information visit www.lithuania.it