In the shadow of the Alps


Rhône-Alpes is a region
 not only overlooked by the French Alps, it’s also often overlooked by tourists and travellers.

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I have a reoccurring dream. No, I’m not naked at work, falling, being chased by wild dogs, or shooting ridiculously slow bullets. (Actually that last one I seem to have often, but that’s beside the point.)

In this dream I’m wandering through a medieval village, it’s crumbling walls surrounded by fields of scarlet poppies. A river runs through its centre and old men sit in silence, hand rolled fags hanging from the corner of their mouths, eyes squinting from the smoke, their fishing lines dangling in hope. There’s a market on and the church bells chime, hastening the step of the locals seeking the freshest bread, cheese and berries. Suddenly a glamorous southern belle starts talking to me in rapid French, and her dog lunges at me and licks me in the face. Amid the slobbering I realise I’m at home and it’s actually my labrador trying to rouse me because she wants a walk, and I snap out of my fantasy, but that’s OK, I’ll return again soon enough.

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There’s just something about central and southern France, and for those prepared to look beyond the allure of Bourgogne, the Loire Valley or Dordogne regions, Rhône-Alpes serves up everything you would expect, and all that you could wish for.

And so here we are again.

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We base ourselves in the southern most department of Drôme, near the town of Dieulefit, about half way between Lyon and Marseilles. This part of Rhône-Alpes is quite rural, yet close enough to the charm of Saint-Rémy and Aix-en-Provence, and the glitz of the Cote D’Azur so as to not feel isolated. The towns are small, the mountains close and cathedrals plentiful. There are more castles and châteaux per square kilometre than just about anywhere on earth, each providing a close view of the next, and a distant view of more beyond.

After a hair-raising trip along a one way hilly rural road that I, to this day, blame on our baffled GPS, we find our accommodation in Truinas – a stone farmhouse now converted into three cottages draped in roses and vines, overlooked by a stunning springwater pool. Meals and drinks on the deck watching both sunrise and sunset over Le Drome valley won’t be forgotten in a hurry.

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The roads and rivers continually wind, not satisfied with the tedium of straight lines, and our days are spent exploring, absorbing history, meeting and becoming acquainted with locals and travellers alike. The pursuit of produce is perpetual, and our evenings pass as such times with great friends and good wine should – filled with music, conversation and laughter.

Between expeditions to Nyons, Valreas and Salle-sous-Bois, we explore hilltop castles, forests of green and sample local specialities. The area is littered with comparatively affordable farmhouses and cottages in various states of need, and our eyes scour the windows of every real estate agent, while our minds needlessly whir with the logistics of currency conversion, plastering and plumbing.

Our host Jane’s knowledge of the region is superb and we cant seem to put a foot wrong following her wonderful scribblings, left in a variety of locations, like clues in some sort of gastronomic treasure hunt.

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Our visit culminates in an unforgettable afternoon at a recommended restaurant (by both our host and the Michelin guide) in Vesc – Chez mon Jules – which serves up Rhône-Alpes on a plate: quirky, fresh, classy and decadent.

Run by a delightful couple who chose this rustic lifestyle over their previous Parisian existence, Chez mon Jules is exactly what we’re looking for to round off our week. Jules sources the best produce from local growers and works his magic in the small kitchen, whilst Alexandra serves and makes conversation (and jewellery!).

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Lunch resembles a small specials list, with a mere two choices per dish. We start with a devine cold zucchini soup with a creamy foam (my first time!), and baguettes as fresh and light as the mountain air. Superb slow roasted pork belly on mash with seasonal vegetables follows, accompanied by some well chosen local wine. Chocolate soufflé with a dark ale rounds the meal off perfectly, yet we linger on the deck for hours, absorbing our surrounds, each of us procrastinating our inevitable departure.

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Soon enough it’s time for an afternoon coffee and apertif, Alexandra spins her favourite Amy Winehouse record, and we are once again seduced by the coziness of this establishment and our hosts undeniable charm.

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Finally we return to base, there’s neither time nor room for another meal, so we satisfy ourselves with a final glass of wine on the balcony while the sun sets in slow motion on the mountain scene before us.

On our final morning Jane’s farewell resembles her greeting – like we’re old friends – and we reluctantly leave to meet our next adventure.

Ate: Chez Mon Jules, Vesc. Details and bookings >>
Stayed
: Salivet & La Sousto, Truinas, Drôme (Rhône Valley – Alps, France) Book >>

East London: Regent’s Canal

 

Many of London’s millions of annual visitors are returnees who can’t resist this great human magnet. For an original experience to compliment the usual stops at Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, and Madam Tussauds, the seven kilometre eastern section of Regent’s Canal is a chance to view London with a fresh set of eyes.

Built in the early 1800s to link the northern waterways of London with the river Thames, vessels traversed London’s intricate system of canals carrying supplies such as timber, stone and coal for much of the next 150 years. By the 1960s however, increases in rail and road transport saw the canal’s importance as a carrier of freight evaporate. Neglected and ignored by all but the most rusted-on locals, the canals have been reinvigorated over recent years, attracting new residents, businesses and tourists, each looking to tap into the buzz of a growing hub of activity.

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Unlike the more fashionable western part of the canal running through Kings Cross, Camden, and Regent’s Park, the appeal of the eastern passage lies not in the gleaming new apartment and office blocks that shadow it, but in the authenticity of its street art, grungy cafés and scores of colourful houseboats. Where pollution, rubbish and weeds once ruled, this part of the canal has become an important everyday space for exercise, relaxation, self-expression and commuting.

Today there are three ways to experience Regent’s Canal; on foot, by bike, in a water craft – or by a combination of the three. If you’re staying in central London, bikes can be hired at many locations across the city. If you don’t fancy the hair-raising ride through inner-London to reach the canal, multiple buses will take you to Angel Islington, close to several docking stations for the convenient hire and return of your bike.

The return trip is easily achieved in a day, and whether your vice is coffee, cake, shopping or beer, the canal’s activities cater to all.

FOOD

There are many cafés along and near the canal’s banks; some serve coffee, tea and cake only, while others boast a full kitchen run by industry notables. Respected food writer Lori DeMori is the co-author of several Italian cookbooks, and opened Towpath (36 De Beauvoir Crescent, N15, near Whitmore Rd. bridge) four years ago to capture some of the commuter traffic. The café has since become a destination in itself. “We lived opposite and saw the number of people starting to use the canal” she said. “We thought, hey there’s an empty space there right on the water that we could convert.” Although seasonal (DeMori splits winter between Asia and Italy) fans now flock daily for the reliable coffee, decedent cheese toasties and evening activities, including spit-roasts, hearty rustic quiches, and pasta specials; often accompanied by musicians and mulled wine.

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With a reputation as one of the leaders of the East End food movement, the exterior of Bistrotheque (23-27 Wadeson St, E2) could pass for a rubber factory or shoe warehouse, but concealed within is a culinary treasure from top to bottom. Downstairs is the moody private bar where they will host your function and happily serve you fabulously expensive cocktails or the best in craft beer. Upstairs you’ll find an appealing, open white space, interesting menu choices, and quality service with that touch of playfulness that only the best restaurants seem to pull-off. Enjoy brunch/lunch or dinner while a hung-over pianist shakes out the cobwebs with some slow Henry Mancini show tunes, before snapping to attention and belting out Amy Winehouses’ Rehab with a sudden burst of energy. The braised pork cheeks and duck fat chips will be remembered long after you’ve summoned the will to work them off.

There are many pubs along the route, but like elsewhere in the Empire, the number of places you can still order a good old toad-in-the-hole or smoked haddock is diminishing rapidly. The secret to British pub food lies in the history and atmosphere of the establishment itself – when else would visitors attempt to eat anything as disgusting sounding as black pudding, tripe or kidney pie if not without a pint of ale in an English pub?

‘Gastro pub’ The Narrowboat (119 St Peters Street, N1) has an extensive British inspired menu and serves brunch from 11am, then lunch and dinner daily. Sunday lunch is popular and booking is advisable. Plenty of worthy cask ales (unfiltered and unpasteurised) are available to try while looking out over the canal’s activities below.

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The Rosemary Branch (Rosemary Gardens, Southgate Rd, N1) is a great stop for a Czech beer, simple meal or if you’re passing by late afternoon or evening, an upstairs show in the theatre. The live music and off-beat productions are as popular with locals as the famous Sunday roasts. During Saturday’s Broadway Market, The Dove (24-28 Broadway Market, E8) is teeming with life but it’s still worth a stop for a Belgian ale or hearty stew. On a cold day you’ll find lots of little spaces to relax inside, even better if you can get a table outside in the sun from which to observe the passing human traffic. The Palm Tree (127 Grove Rd, E3) is conveniently situated on the banks of the canal at Mile End. Enjoy a game of darts and one of the regularly rotated ‘guest’ beers.

TOURS

A lazy afternoon houseboat cruise is an outstanding way to breathe in the ambience of the canal and its surroundings. Duck your head as you pass under low bridges, and avoid seduction by the boat’s cry of freedom. Many a casual daytrip has ended in an exchange of ownership papers. Royden Mayfield, an ‘Aussie-Kiwi’ on an extended visit to the UK to be close to family was one such case. “My wife and I hired a houseboat for a month, just to see what it was like” he recalled. “One day the thing wouldn’t start, and a helpful local boat owner came to the rescue. We admired his custom built craft, and by day’s end, we’d bought it!”

If that sounds like too great a commitment for you, the London Canal Museum (12-13 New Wharf Road, N1 www.canalmuseum.org.uk) operate short trips, while the Bow Boat Company (Bow Lock, Gillender St, E3 www.bowboatcompany.com) offers half day, full day or custom tours.

For a unique perspective, London Kayak Tours (www.londonkayaktours.co.uk) will team you up with a British Canoe Union instructor, and guide you through the canal’s maze with a paddle, and a glass of bubbles.

If you prefer to keep your feet firmly planted on land, London Walks (www.walks.com) offer ‘Islington to Mile End’ walking tours with a knowledgeable local who will highlight points of interest, such as the locks and moorings, and give insight into the waterway’s history.

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SUGGESTED ROUTE

From City road, Duncan Terrace Gardens is a logical starting point. Head eastward along the northern shore of the canal, noting the combination of towering council flats, warehouses and high-rise residences. Waterfowl of various size and colour will follow, and converge if you display any sign of offering a nibble.

This stretch of the canal features plenty of street art, and although his ongoing feud with the followers of the graffiti artist known as ‘King Robbo’ usually results in his pieces being swiftly defaced, Banksy’s art has been known to grace the canal’s walls and undersides of bridges.

Although easy to miss, within a minute or two you will come across The Pumphouse Café, tucked neatly in the cavernous old lock station building opposite City Rd Basin, serving a range of hot beverages and treats.

Check out the art in the Proud Archivist (2-10 Hertford Road, N1), a bright space just off the Kingsland Rd specialising in brunch, dinner, coffee and cocktails. Recent exhibitions included the fabulous Gathering Storm – The Album Art of Storm Thorgerson, featuring artwork that ensured the familiar cover images of Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, Peter Gabriel and Led Zeppelin LPs have been laser etched into our consciousness.

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Foodie heaven Broadway Market is on every Saturday from 9am until 5pm – although some cafes open earlier – and there are usually several coffee stands, as well as multiple options for bread, pastries and cheese. For those who fancy something more substantial, choose from a plate of spicy dahl, German sausage with sauerkraut, or piping hot roast hog roll.

Work off morning tea or lunch with a lap or two of the scenic Victoria Park, or if you’re still in need of sustenance, enjoy an organic juice, hot tea, or veggie fry up on sourdough from the Pavilion Café while you feed the ducks.

Whether its summer or winter, at this point in your journey you’re bound to be thirsty. If you somehow managed to resist the charm of The Crown (223 Grove Road, E3) as you passed, nip into The Palm Tree for a British bitter and classic London pub experience.

Continue along the path as it meanders south towards the Thames, discovering the Ecology Park in Mile End Park, followed by the Terraced Garden and fountain of nearby Millennium Park.

By now you’re either spent of energy or full of beer, so it’s time to return along the path, or jump on either the tube at Mile End, or one of many buses that will take you to central London along Mile End Road. If you have a London bike to return, there are two docking stations within a hundred metres.

GETTING THERE

Regent’s Canal east can be accessed from Angel Islington, – a short trip from central London via the Tube, buses 73 and 30 from Marble Arch, 38 from Piccadilly or 341 from the Strand.

STAYING THERE

The Hilton Islington is within close walking distance of Regent’s Canal. Rooms start at $250 a night. www.hilton.com

BIKE HIRE

There are hundreds of hire and deposit stations across inner London. You will need a credit or debit card to receive a bicycle release code. Up to four bikes can be hired at once. Access is £2 per hire, and trips under 30 minutes are free. A three hour hire will cost £15, and six hours will set you back £35.  See www.tfl.gov.uk/roadusers/cycling for more information.

Some observations from the mother of all lands

 

It’s not you, it’s me

So who among us is guilty of trying to return to a certain time, place or ‘feel’, in an attempt to recreate a special moment?

In recent years I’ve had underwhelming re-acquaintances with Montreal, Kuala Lumpur, Orlando and Dubai to name a few, all of which took the gloss off my original memories of those cities. Actually I don’t think I could ever have been less impressed by Dubai.

Yet the UK (and London in particular) never disappoints. I can’t quite employ such superlatives such as ‘warmth’ and ‘comfort’ – its too bloody cold here for that – but there is always something magical about a how-long-will-it-last British summer, the smell of lubricant and engine oil as the gears of the Tube’s escalators turn endlessly, an ‘iffy’ kebab on the way home following a sneaky pint, and the sight of rubbish blowing across pedestrian crossings on any given High Street.

It just feels like coming home.

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A paddle in ‘The Serpentine’ at Hyde Park

A golden age of travel

Modern travel is a gift, so easily taken for granted, yet clearly an opportunity to be cherished and valued.

Think about it.

If you agree with accepted scientific opinion that we are thousands of years into an ‘organised’ human civilisation – since caves and trees made way to houses, farming and governance – then we of the 21st century really are just a minute speck on the timeline of human life. Halfway along that timeline, a visit to the neighbours’ tar pit was as far as most people would ever manage; it wasn’t that long ago when horse and carriage was the only means of transport when legs and feet wouldn’t cut it, and boat’s were for the gentry.

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“Nobody knows… who they were, or… what they were doing”

So consider the current era of affordable inter-continental airfare, bullet trains, and buses with toilets. Marry the means with even minimal desire and we can journey to the farthest reaches of the planet within a day or two, not withstanding flight delays, stubborn donkeys and the odd dodgy prawn pizza.

There may well be a day when humans travel to Alpha Centauri in the blink of an eye, and in turn, those travellers will look back at our time and scoff at our poverty, waste, carbon consumption and general lack of evolution. Hard to argue when you consider so many of us think Today Tonight is news, Big Brother is quality entertainment, and Tony Abbot should be Prime Minister.

Yet here we all are on this very day, presiding over the greatest advancements in our species’ history.

Until, of course, tomorrow becomes the ‘present’.

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We know this local street art is not BANKSY – it hasn’t been defaced.

 

Eat Stay Love – London

London is such a wonderfully massive city, a collection of distinct neighbourhoods and  cultures, busy people in the act of arriving, settling, or just passing through from all corners of the empire and beyond.

It is equal parts paella, jambalaya and bouillabaisse, with a splat of bubble and squeak, but to fully understand its palate you must visit a range of eateries: the trendy lunch spot owned by the celebrity chef who approaches gastronomy like he might experiments in a laboratory; the garish franchise so familiar yet totally at odds with the ancient city streets; the good old local pub with 300 years of stale smoke and ale breathing from the floorboards; and the bustling workers’ cafe serving “meat and three veg”.

In each you will mix with locals and fellow travellers, for London is the world’s transit lounge. There are cities I love equally, but arriving here at any time still feels like home.

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“Fi’ paand, Fi’ paand – Oi! Wo’ you lookin’ a’?” Can you get any more London than the
Sunday flower market on Columbia road
?

Ottolenghi, Islington

Oh my, if only I lived around the corner from Ottolenghi.
Walking in, the senses are greeted by plates piled high with yummy treats – cup cakes, chocolate brownies, schnitzels, salads and more.

The menu is creative and whether for breakfast/brunch, lunch or later, its one of those places where everything seems like a good thing to order, but there’s never any second guessing once your dish hits the table. So much so I had to take away a whole pile of boxes for later.

If Ottolenghi was my local, the man would need to widen the door to accommodate me before too long.

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I’ll call ahead to Ottolenghi and save a table!

Bistroteque, East End

With a reputation as one of the leaders of the East Ends’ food movement, the exterior of Bistroteque could easily pass for a rubber factory or shoe warehouse, but housed within is a culinary gem from top to bottom.

Downstairs is the moody bar where they will happily serve you fabulously expensive cocktails and peculiar bottled beer.
Upstairs, fine dining – a superb selection of champagne and wine, and quality service with that touch of playfulness that only the best restaurants seem to pull-off whilst somehow remaining on the right side of pretentious.

My pork belly is rich and succulent, yet the crackling has got that crunch I’d been praying wouldn’t be compromised in the process of achieving perfection. Not that I needed a vegetable, but potatoes cooked in duck fat are at best, heavenly, at worst, well, seemed like a good idea at the time.

Equally enjoyable is a sunny brunch of eggs benedict while a hung-over pianist knocks out a slow and soulful Amy Winehouse number, before snapping to attention and belting out “Rehab” with a sudden energy that serves to remind, yet celebrate the life that was lost just the day before.

If you can, just go.

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Houseboats on Regents canal – Bistroteque beckons beyond

Posini’s

An icy breeze blows us through the door of this nondescript cafe, nestled among the quaint pubs, hairdressers, architects and fashion outlets of Soho. Our wish list is short. If we leave at the very least warmed by a basic yet hearty meal, and still have a few pounds in our pocket, then our visit will have been a success.

Clearly we’re not locals, this a workers cafe – the British equivalent of a greasy spoon – but no one bats an eyelid. It’s London of the 21st century, everyone’s from somewhere else.

The menu is simple but just what we need – toasted sandwiches, soup, and pie floaters all washed down with a hot cup of tea.

Suddenly we’re ready to face the cold of the Oxford Street and its’ pre-Christmas rush.

The Coal Hole

Like everywhere else in the Empire, the number of places in London you can order a good old Toad-in-the-hole is swiftly diminishing. But  it’s great pub food – when else would you attempt to eat anything as disgusting as black pudding, tripe or kidney pie than when you are partially inebriated?

For the uninitiated, and readers with better taste, it’s important to understand that gloomy old Blighty has traditionally knocked out dishes that are, by name and sight, designed to disgust any potential diners. A result of “making do” and 20 years of war rations, this collection of stodgy sounding, artery calcifying slop, ensured the words “gastronomy” and “Britain” have remained mutually exclusive until the recent culinary revolution of the naughties. Understandable when there’s more mouths to feed than food to go around – no point making food appealing when there’s not enough for everyone.

As such, there’s really no point writing about the details of a “local” like the Coal Hole. Reviewing one is like reviewing them all. The food is hot ‘n’ hearty but hardly classy, and as long as the beer flows, no one will notice.

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What is it? Ah doesn’t matter – we have beer!

Leon

Leon is a London institution. Across a dozen locations each day they serve thousands of Londoners a Mediterranean style of wraps, sandwiches, soups, rice and salads.

For a franchise, each Leon actually feels like a standalone cafe – everything within, from the waft of Moroccan spices to the sunny, framed family photos, take you back to a time and place when young boys jumped from cliffs into warm waters all day, it was OK to wear mustard coloured swimming trunks, and the women all looked like Nana Mouskouri.

I can’t wait to return.