Monday 4 December 2017

A few days in Prague

I seem to have travelled to places beginning with ‘P’ this year. Porto and Pisa and last year other parts of Portugal and everyone knows my heavy love affair with Paris … but when wanting a little bit of a break that was cheap and cheerful before Christmas, me and a girlfriend this time chose Prague.
We bagged ourselves a couple of flights with Easyjet and after a laid-back start sipping Bacardi and Cokes (why, oh! why do I only drink these either on holiday or in departures? So refreshing and I gave up on the gin when they only had Gordon’s) at the Aspire Lounge at Manchester Airport, Terminal One. We were soon up, up and away, touching down only an hour and a half later. Maybe the hurricane that was looming sped up the process but it was safe, quick and bump free, just as I like it.

I checked us into Hotel Kavalir, not because it was glamorous or particularly aesthetically pleasing. It was, though, like a jar of Ronseal … it does exactly as it says on the tin; clean, cheap and adequate, with fantastic links into the city centre and also included breakfast (hot and cold choices). My advice would be to request a back room as the trams, albeit being convenient, do run all night and go past the front of the hotel at very regular intervals, which certainly can interfere with a good night’s sleep! Oh! and one thing I cannot stress enough, take an extra pillow!

Considering this was mid to late October, we were blessed on our first few days with unseasonably warm weather. Picture postcard, cloudless skies gave us enviable views across the river and the Charles Bridge. The higher we darted and drifted towards the castle and the changing of the guard (very much recommended) more spectacular sights took our breaths away. My Instagram never looked so pretty!

The architecture of this city is beyond outstanding, it’s like a fairyland everywhere you look. Quirky, Germanic Bavarian-style houses painted in various pastel colours intermixed with contrasting shades of flowers which adorn each and every window. It’s the only city I know that can marry the style of ornate glistening gold buildings with Eastern bloc style structures, coexisting happily despite the utilitarian and uninspiring look of the latter’s façades. And talking of architecture, don’t forget to wander past the Dancing House …. known as Fred and Ginger… designed by the Croatian Czech architect, Valdo Milunic, as you contort your head into various angles, wondering how this thing stays standing.

Prague is a walkable city, although it can be a little hard on the hips and thighs walking up the hills and there are many cobbles but as an alternative, the tram and buses are incredibly good value and run 24 hours a day. If a tour is more your thing, check out the array of old-school Ford’s and Mercedes for sightseeing trips around the city. The latter looking rather like the imposing vehicle Reinhard Heydrich was assassinated in when he ruled Prague with a vice-like grip during the Nazi Occupation.

We spent our days just wandering around this picturesque city (the old town is simply a must) the scenery, looking at that famous big clock and dining on many local specialities such as roasted duck with dumplings and lashings of mash and red cabbage. This made all the more tasty when washed down with an ice-cold pilsner, sat in the sunshine. It’s the only place I know where beer is cheaper than water! Have a small detour down the side streets for more hipster joints with cheaper prices, the burgers here are pretty cool. Also highly recommended is the beautiful Jewish quarter that is awash with pristine cafes and expensive designer labels and has an elegance more akin to Paris than what one would initially expect of Prague. I could have happily maxed a credit card (if I had one) around here and whiled away a very long lunch with the ladies that I’m sure do in this part of the city. Prague also has an array of green and outdoor spaces where you can simply sit and admire the view and people watch (the 90’s are big here) and best doing this with a local delicacy ‘Trdelnik’, a spun pastry that is surprisingly light, caramelised and dusted with sugar and I had mine stuffed with Nutella. Very, very lush!

We scoured the usual shopping joints we are familiar with back home to see if there were any cheap alternatives and some European chains we no longer see in the UK but the vintage scene was surprisingly disappointing compared to other Eastern European destinations. Budapest being my absolute favourite and I’ll write a separate post about that in the next few weeks. Most seem to be more retro than anything else …Levi’s, flannel shirts and the like. And the one I did want to
see, as I’d heard such good things about, Bohemian Retro, was closed on the day I wanted to visit and the hours it was open seemed very erratic. If anyone has any recommendations for second-hand stores, please send me your links. I do, unashamedly, admit that I was a big kid in Hamley’s toy store (the largest in central Europe, no less) riding the carousel and sliding down the giant slide with the same glee as a giddy toddler. As Carrie Bradshaw famously said ‘Shopping is my cardio.’ Well, I’ll say ‘Amen’ to that! … albeit with a drink at the end and in several different cities, naturally.

For night life in Prague I was expecting rowdy stag do’s and drunken teenager’s but we found it to be very alternative and cultured. We got our glad rags on, me in sequin trousers and an acid jazz blazer and my friend in her traditional, sophisticated black palette where we dined on refined fare at one of Prague’s most famous café’s, ‘Slavia’. Here, we sipped on bone dry Czech Riesling, whilst listening to the professional pianist and with views across to the National Theatre. We then made our way a few blocks down to ‘Jazz Republic’, situated in an old school bunker, listening to a fabulous band whilst sipping the freshest and tastiest frozen Mojito’s known to mankind. Prague has a great jazz scene but I thoroughly recommend this place not only for the amazing atmosphere and that you so easily make friends with your neighbours but it’s also free entry and to book a table. Another successful day had come to end and there is nothing quite like seeing Prague at night, either … the old town just looks even more magical in artificial light.

On our second to last day, we once again crossed the famous bridge, heading towards the ‘John Lennon’ wall where daubings of graffiti and neon slogans litter this giant wall where a pilgrimage of young Czech’s would pay homage and write messages about the man who was killed, incredibly, thirty-seven years ago. It really is a peaceful place even when there is a mass of people there. Nearby, the Museum Kampa had a fabulous Manolo Blahnik exhibition on which we happily got ‘Caried’ away with … see what I did there?! Manolo’s father was Czech and this beautiful exhibition showcased some of his most famous designs, all exquisitely handmade with the utmost care and precision. Included in the exhibition were the gowns and fur-trimmed shoes of his designs for the Sophia Coppola film, Marie Antoinette, which I can
thoroughly recommend to all. For our last supper, we dined at an elegant Italian restaurant, which was a very traditional affair with dark wood, traditional, red and white checked tablecloths and very attentive waiters.

A fitting end to a very enjoyable trip.

We flew to Prague with Easyjet. Prices start from £29.99. Hotel Kavalir single rooms start from £30 and include breakfast. Tram return journeys cost an average of 40p (yes, you heard that right!) and a beer will set you back around £2.00. A meal with wine for two will cost around £30. 

Wednesday 8 November 2017

Taberninha do Manel

I like little dimly lit places; I’ve already told you that. The light is flattering and the atmosphere is romantic but slightly melancholic. The décor is usually retro and that’s just how I like it. In Porto, we stumbled across ‘Taberninha do Manel’ as it happened to be conveniently right next to Calem … where, after our tour and an amazing port or two we were in desperate need of ‘FOOODDD’.

Wooden benches are the norm here, so take a seat and enjoy the mood. In fact, wood is everywhere … just check out the wine rack at the bar. The menu has an extremely healthy amount of local tapas, offerings are printed ever so quaintly and there are many to choose from. We dined on a spicy tomato broth of large mussels with silky caramelised onions. I, of course, am a little ashamed to say I made the cardinal sin of drinking this unbelievably delicious sauce straight from the shells. These were the real deal, so plump and fresh. All served in cute little terracotta bowls.

We paired this with a plate of two-year-old prosciutto, which was salty, sweet and delicious and plump, garlicky Portuguese olives trickled with herbs. Then came what was possibly the biggest taste sensation I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing … baked sheep’s cheese, layered on slices of freshly baked cornbread and drizzled with densely rich local honey. Oh, my days! My mouth has been watering at the memory ever since.

Of course, this had to be washed down with some wine. A Douro vintage of course. The best part being that not only were we offered a few free rounds of Port … no rushing you away and the bills don’t come quickly here. When it sadly came time to say farewell to this truly amazing eatery, we were very pleasantly surprised at just how reasonable the cost was.

Taberninha do Manel is located on the 4405-111, Av. de Diogo Leite 308, Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal.and has a beautiful view of Porto just over the Dom Luis bridge. 4 Tapas and a bottle of vintage red came to approximately £35.00.

Thursday 26 October 2017

Picturesque Porto

With my heart and soul completely blown away by the delights of Lisbon, I thought I would take the opportunity to see how Portugal’s second compared to the capital. We arrived in Porto at the start of October, on a blissfully warm day and transferred immediately to our apartment … RS Porto Apartments …just a stone’s throw from Portugal’s oldest hospital, the Santa Maria.

Our accommodation was ideal, in a quiet area of the city away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Life goes by at a slower pace here but with everything, one needs within strolling distance, including a very nice restaurant directly opposite. This eaterie was a hit with the cool kids and we enjoyed the generous portions of freshly grilled chicken on offer. The supermarket, ‘Pingo Doce’ was only a block and a half away and as with many European supermarkets, it was more like a sophisticated deli rather than a clinically clean and uninspiring food store which is typical of most British towns and cities; full of colour, fresh produce and the best bit … very, very cheap booze!

Anyway, I digress. Back to our apartment, which could have come straight out of the pages of IKEA magazine. It was clean, modern and bright, with the added modern conveniences of a dishwasher, coffee machine, electric blinds that offered the full blackout experience (perfect for sleeping) and a very large and plush shower. Once you’ve picked up your cheap booze, there are not one but two balconies to enjoy your nightcap and people watch. After checking in, we decided to wander into the centre of the city … around about 20 minutes’ walk completely downhill in the blazing Portuguese sun. This short walk was interrupted by a pit stop at the local Hard Rock Café for one of their legendary burgers (a tradition I keep in almost every city I visit). This local version was particularly good with caramelized onions steeped in Port wine ... what else would you expect?! With our bellies full and our thirst suitably sated, following a pint of dark Sagres, off we trotted to the river. On our stroll, we passed the Sao Bento railway station (possibly the most beautiful station I’ve come across to date). It’s typical blue and white tiles matching those I had marvelled at in Lisbon, though on a far greater scale. We admired café culture in full swing, with hip Portonians smoking, drinking, laughing and enjoying life to the full. We were also greeted by an epic view of the fabulous Dom Luis I bridge, such a fabulous sight from either side of the Douro. We watched the sun go down in a local bar with a glass of vintage Portuguese red and the river sparkling with the lights of the night, including the neon signs of all the Port distilleries ….Port you usually only buy at Christmas time or see around your Grans! Graham’s, Cockburn’s, Taylor’s, it’s all here. Day 1 had been a delight.

After a blissful sleep and a leisurely breakfast, it was time to explore this fabulous city. Porto is so pretty from any angle but if you’re by the river clearly the higher you go the more you can see. After crossing the most famous of Porto’s bridges, take a turn up the cobbled streets and some steep steps and there is a fabulous sky bar where we enjoyed a custard tart (a local delicacy) and a cold beer. You could happily spend hours here watching the boats, the people, and the architecture. It’s a fabulous little sun trap, too, so don’t forget your hat and your sunglasses!

More happy wandering took place, finding pretty little spots to admire and enjoy, and getting lost in the city down side streets. By the evening, we stumbled across the hip and happening part of Porto’s nightlife which we had obviously come out far too early for! But happy hour had started … hooray! We ended up in ‘Fabrik’, a cool and slick industrial looking bar with dark red lighting, where we enjoyed some cooling Sangria. All the cool cats of Porto would definitely be heading down here on the Rua Galeria de Paris much later when these night owls fill the streets and bunting hangs from window to window. If I was back home this would be Manchester’s Northern Quarter, albeit with much more sunshine. Tonight we fine dined and chose ‘Book’, where the interior references Porto’s literary scene (J K Rowling used to teach English here and the famous bookshop, which presents itself as one of the inspirations behind the Harry Potter books, is a major tourist trap). Inside, ‘Book’ looks like a little independent library and we were treated exceptionally well by the friendly and efficient staff who immediately greeted us with a glass of cold Portuguese fizz. We dined on tuna carpaccio and a sumptuous dish of fresh hake with clams. At the end of the meal, we shared a traditional pudding and were recommended a 12-year-old Port to help wash it down. What an end to another fabulous day in this wonderful city.

Of course, you cannot come to Porto and not have a tour around the distilleries. For the exceptional price of 10 euros you just must visit Calem and have a sample of two different port’s and these are ‘grandmothers’ measures… no namby pamby, measured amounts here. It’s also a fabulously informative tour full of history and a very hands-on experience with different smells and pictures and maps, colours and textures. Who knew one vat could hold 55 thousand litres? And who also knew that Port also can be white and even rose? You learn something new every day!

One of the best things about Porto and indeed, Lisbon, is that you’re close to the sea. On our last day, we ventured down to the beach which took us past some of the plushest and prettiest real estate in the city. Large palatial villas with palm trees and secure, voice activated and key coded gates. There are large spaces of green around here, perfect for a picnic. The sea is choppy but undeniably glorious and a stunning colour as the Atlantic smashes against the rocks. As you walk back towards Porto, the restaurants and beach bars abound along the sand, DJ's play chilled beats and people sip G&T’s all along the oceanfront. Once the sea turns back to the estuary, locals fish and take their boats out to the ocean. Around here the pace of life is chilled and relaxed, the seafood is outstanding and as the sun sets once more on this head-turning city, you feel totally at peace.

I flew to Porto with Ryanair from Liverpool John Lennon Airport. Prices start from just £29.99. My apartment was booked through with RS Porto Apartments price for 4 nights was exceptional value at £211.

Monday 9 October 2017

A Outra Face da Lua

Off a side street, down a cobbled lane where people leisurely sit outside in brightly coloured suits and top hats and languish over cups of strong Portuguese coffee and order a mimosa with their brunch is an amazing little fashion spot called A Outra Face da Lua

Inside are rows and rows of pretty pearls, fascinators, hats, old luggage cases, glam dresses and enviably perfectly presented victory rolled haired staff.  Can you think of a more appropriate place to spend a leisurely long lunch? Who wants to do their vintage shopping with a cocktail? Why I do of course. Once you are perfectly cocktailed and kitted out and looking for your next fix of vintage where do you go? Well right opposite actually as there is another shop just there. 

A Outra Face da Lua R. Assunção 22, 1100-044 Lisboa, Portugal

Viuva Alegre
R. Assunção 56, 1100-571 Lisboa, Portugal
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