Clinging to the southern tip of the Malaysian peninsula, the island nation of Singapore is probably most famous for its signature cocktail – the Singapore Sling.
It is also where passengers stop over to stretch their legs on the ‘Kangaroo Route’ flight between Europe and Australia. And the name Singapore (a.k.a The Lion City) conjures up images of towering skyscrapers and an ultra-modern city.
Read the full article by Alannah Eames, published in The Sunday Times, May 12, 2013.
Home to one of Italy’s most popular football clubs, host of the 2006 Winter Olympics, and the headquarters of big Italian brands like Lavazza, Ferrero, Martini, Fiat, Lancia and Alfa Romeo, the North Italian city of Turin is surprisingly down-to-earth with a friendly laid-back charm and vibe.
If you’re thinking of a city break to Italy, you’ll probably consider Milan or Rome before Turin (Torino) would spring to mind. Yet, this North Italian city, tucked into the base of the Alps, is well worth a visit, at any time of the year.
Beating the winter blues
It’s January and the trees are bare; the locals – people and dogs alike – are stuffed into thick winter jackets, and everyone’s knocking back espresso shots or enjoying a hearty Piedmontese dish with friends or family. Fiat 500s are parked everywhere, even across zebra crossings. On the horizon loom the Italian Alps.
The first thing you’ll notice approaching Turin is that it’s not as flashy, brash, expensive or fast-paced as Milan; and nowhere near as touristic as Rome. The architecture’s also different. It’s a pot-pourri of baroque, rococo, neo-classical and Art Nouveau buildings with plenty of piazzas and monuments bearing witness to the city’s rich aristocratic heritage thrown in for good measure.
The Taurini, an ancient Celto-Ligurian Alpine people, were the first residents of this strategic city. Located on the River Po, in the region of Piedmont, Turin was under Roman and Charlemagne rule before Emmanuel Philibert (aka Iron Head) made it the seat of the Duchy of Savoy in 1563. Turin was part of the French Empire for several years and, when Italy was reunified, became its first capital city from 1861 until 1865 when the capital was moved to Florence and then to Rome. During the industrialisation epoch, Turin grew rapidly, before the impact and aftermath of two world wars put the brakes on its development. It was heavily bombed during the Second World War as its automotive industry was churning out defense vehicles instead of passenger cars. After the war, the city and its automotive industry were rebuilt and, today, Turin forms part of Italy’s most important industrial triangle which covers Milan, Turin and Genoa; its population has grown to around two million, half of which live within the city limits.
Like other Italian cities, Turin boasts its fair share of piazzas, each individual yet all with stunning architecture, cosy cafes and steeped in history. Piazza Vittorio Veneto is the largest baroque square in Europe and there you’ll find Porto di Savona, a local restaurant with Piedmontese specialities. Make sure you try bagna càuda, a local hot dip which is a bit like fondue but made from garlic, olive oil, anchovies and butter, spread over roasted vegetables such as peppers or artichoke, and some local dishes with chestnuts or truffle, both popular ingredients in this region. Together with the bars and clubs dotted along the River Po, the Piazza Vittorio, as the locals call it, is supposedly the mecca of Turin nightlife.
Breeding ground for aristocracy and great minds alike
During the days when Turin was home to the House of Savoy, Italy’s royal family, it flourished as a cultural centre, attracting many famous Italian writers, poets and thinkers. Not surprisingly, today it hosts some of Italy’s best and oldest universities; more surprising is the fact that its Museo Egizio has one of the largest collections of Egyptian artifacts outside of Cairo while the Museum of Oriental Art houses one of the most important Asian art collections in Italy. If it’s local history you’re after, check out the Royal Library, Valentino Castle, or the Palatine Towers which are among the best preserved Roman remains in northern Italy. The Mole Antonelliana, which was originally designed to be a Jewish synagogue, now houses the National Museum of Cinema, believed to be the tallest museum in the world at 167 metres; it’s also one of the most popular museums in the city. Turin is often considered the birthplace of Italian cinema; the first Italian screening took place in the city in 1896.
Hotbed for footie and wheels
Cars and football are both synonymous with Turin, often called “the Detroit of Italy” and even if you’re not a motor junkie or a football freak, you can’t miss two of the best tourist attractions in the city: the Museo dell’ Automobilia and the new Juventus stadium. (By the way, the locals tend to support Torino F.C. while Juventus is a bigger hit elsewhere in Italy.)
The Automobile Museum is housed in a stunning modern building and contains beautifully restored vintage cars (also from other European car producers), Formula One racing cars including Ferraris (of course, we’re in Italy!) and much-loved classics like the original Fiat 500 and Fiat 600. You’ll get a great insight into how cars adapted to societal and cultural developments.
It might cost EUR 18 to take a tour of the Juventus Stadium and Museum, but this state-of-the-art stadium which opened in 2011 is worth every penny of it. So, if there are no live matches playing during your visit, at least take the tour to capture some Italian football fever.
And, if you are a chocoholic, don’t miss the CioccolaTò, a two-week chocolate festival in March run by some of the large Piedmontese chocolate producers like Caffarel, Streglio and Venchi. After overdosing on chocolate, head into the Alps, less than an hour away for some hiking or skiing, depending on the season.
So, don’t brush Turin off as an industrial powerhouse, far off the beaten tourist track. Yes, it’s one of Italy’s most important economic centres, home to some of the country’s best known companies, but, trust me, 48 hours in Turin in January is not enough, I’m heading back in the spring for another heady dose of Piedmontese culture and cuisine. It’s a city which is relatively good value for money, where locals are friendly and welcoming to tourists and which still somehow seems slightly ‘undiscovered’.
Not to be missed
Historical tram 7: ride an 8-km, one-hour circuit around the city in this vintage tram. There’s no commentary but during the EUR 1.50 ride you can get a taste of the city’s architecture.
Museo dell’automobile de Torino: to get to grips with Italy’s automotive history.
Juventus Stadium: discover just why this is one of Italy’s most loved football clubs.
Museo Egizio: if you’ve never made it to Cairo, this is the largest collection of Egyptian art and history outside of Egypt.
Floris House: quaint aristocratic ambiance in this store/villa/dining room on Via Cavour for afternoon tea or a late lunch
Piedmontese cuisine: mix with the locals at Porto di Savona on the Piazza Vittorio.
Italian dinner: at Ristorante Giovanni on Via Gioberti where you can enjoy regional and national cuisine served up in an intimate romantic atmosphere with great Italian hospitality.
Shaken not stirred: enjoy a martini in one of the city’s grand bars. After all, this is where the glamorous drink originated.
Although it’s not one of Europe’s main capitals, Edinburgh gives the likes of London and Paris a run for their money. The no-nonsense, down-to-earth Scottish capital, soaked in Celtic mythology and home to some of the world’s best whisky distilleries, has bred and inspired some of the world’s most famous authors, actors, politicians and engineers.
Ask most people if they know anything about Lyon and they will probably give you a blank stare and mumble something about “plenty of wine and cheese” and move on quickly to the next subject. With a population of around two million, Lyon is the third largest city in France and often considered one of its most important, and wealthiest, economic centres.
Yet, it is very much overshadowed internationally by its better known big brothers – Paris which, as the capital, lures tourists by the millions each year, and Marseilles, which is the starting place for many visitors headed to the Mediterranean coast.
So what does Lyon have to offer visitors? Well, if it’s French culture you are after, this is probably as authentic as it gets. International tourists – bar a handful of golden oldies who disembark from the Rhône river cruise boats, food afficionados who are in the know about the city’s rich culinary heritage and some Asians who pass through on a group tour – are few and far between.
Click here to read the full article published in The Sunday Times of Malta.
Start in Lisbon
Often called “City of the Explorers”, flanked by the Atlantic Ocean and one of the world’s most historic cities, Lisbon is the perfect gateway to Portugal. And there’s no better place than the Bairro Alto old district to sample freshly caught bacalhau (cod). Salted, smoked or grilled, it’s often said that the Portuguese can serve their favorite fish in more than 365 ways, one for each day of the year.
Seafood has been a staple of Portuguese cuisine for centuries. Often simply served with olive oil and white wine vinegar, they sometimes fire shrimp or chicken up with spices like peri peri (small chilli peppers). Wash down fresh sardines, octopus, lobster or sea bass with delicious local wines in the lively Docas area at the Santo Amaro docks.
North to Porto
From Lisbon head north to Porto, Portugal’s second city, world-renowned for its port wine and UNESCO-protected old town. After trying out the port wine cellars on the Gaia hilltop, head downtown for a traditional dish of tripas à moda do Porto (tripe with white beans). This has been an important local dish since the 14th century when the locals had little else to eat. After a stroll along the beach in the Foz district, try Porto’s most popular ‘sandwich’ snack, a Francesinha (Frenchie).
If time permits, take the train from Porto’s old São Bento station to Pocinho which passes through the spectacular Douro Valley, complete with vineyards, tunnels and bridges. Don’t miss Régua’s old station, once the most important in the region.
Wake up in Madrid
Head back to Lisbon and hop on the overnight train to Madrid. Around ten hours later, wake up refreshed to explore the Spanish capital, as famous for its history, culture and architecture as its food. The city attracts people from all over Spain, so it’s a good place to try out Spanish dishes from the Basque, Andalusian and Galician regions. Besides its traditional meat stews, Madrid is also the place to try the popular tortilla de patatas (potato omelette). Leave some space for churros dipped in hot chocolate sauce.
Tapas in Barcelona
Two and a half hours later disembark the AVE high-speed train in the vibrant city of Barcelona. Perched between the mountains and sea, and home to Gaudi’s architectural masterpieces, Barcelona is a cultural hotbed. Get a taste of its heady nightlife and trendy restaurant scene by taking a tapas tour or visiting the city’s cava (sparkling wine) bars.
Trace the Mediterranean coast around to France, and you’ll come to the unpretentious town of Sète. One of the country’s major fishing ports and home to mussel and oyster fields, try local specialities like moules farcies (stuffed mussels) at one of the restaurants on the Canal Royal.
A stone’s throw from Sète lies Montpellier, fast becoming one of the most popular cities in France for visitors. Spend a day at a cooking school learning how to prepare local dishes like bouillabaisse (fish soup), washed down with some local wines.
The two-hour TGV train journey from Montpellier winds through the Rhône valley, one of France’s most famous wine-growing regions, before reaching Lyon, France’s third largest city. An old Roman city, Lyon has been put on the world cuisine map thanks to Paul Bocuse after whom the prestigious Bocuse d’Or award is named and its proximity to the Beaujolais and the Côtes du Rhône wine regions. Enjoy a hearty Lyonnais meal with delicacies like tête de veau (calf head) and andouillette (intestines) in a local bistro (bouchon) on the touristic Rue Mercière.
En route to Paris, stop off in Dijon, the heart of France’s mustard industry, and capital of the Burgundy region. Once you arrive in the French capital, grab a bottle of champagne and watch the sunset from the Sacré-Coeur hilltop.
Located on the west coast of Ireland, and bordered on three sides by the Atlantic Ocean, Connemara which means ‘descendants of the sea’ in Gaelic, is one of the most beautiful regions in Ireland. Or, as Irish playwright Oscar Wilde put it: “Connemara is a savage beauty”.
It’s a magnet for everyone,from Americans retracing their ancestral roots and adrenaline junkies drawn to its excellent windsurfing spots, to overly-enthusiastic European cyclists, and others, like us, trying to escape the sweltering summer heat of southern Europe.
What is it about Connemara that leaves every visitor spellbound? Simple. It’s the Ireland that everyone dreams of and sees in the postcards – the luscious green landscape and the carefree life.
Click here to read the full article published in The Sunday Times of Malta.
If you are thinking of relaxing and unwinding, Ireland might not be the first place that springs to mind. But weather aside, the country has some state-of-the-art spas, a natural warmth and stunning scenery that will put even the most stressed-out souls back in touch with their inner self.
Reconnect and recharge - head for Monart Spa
Located in Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, in the “sunny” southeast of Ireland, Monart Spa frequently tops lists of the world’s best spas in magazines like Forbes and Condé Nast.
As you drive up the narrow, windy, potholed and well signposted road to Monart, passing green fields where cows lazily graze, you might wonder where on earth you are going. But once you enter Monart’s driveway, admiring its beautifully landscaped gardens, and the gate closes behind you, you’ll take a deep breath and realize you’ve just left the outside world behind you.
The original 18th-century Georgian house – which is used as the reception today – was built for Nathaniel Cookman, a close friend of Britain’s King George I, who inherited 6,000 acres of land in Ireland and decided to make Monart his home. Today this historic country manor-style estate has been tastefully converted into a hotel and spa set on 119 acres of land with a clever architectural juxtaposition of old and new combining stone, glass, greenery and wood for a perfect karma.
The hotel makes an ideal weekend escape. Or if you fancy a quick recharge session, you can book yourself in for a day spa package which includes access to the thermal suite and a two-course healthy and wholesome lunch at the Spa Café. The only problem is that by the time you have enjoyed an aquarobics class in the stunning hydropool, a session in the sanarium and caldarium, a quick stint in the salt grotto and a stroll through the Kneipp cure pool, then dozed for a while with a book, the day is over before you know it. As you’re there, you’re sure to be sidetracked by the extensive spa menu which includes hamman and dry floatation experiences plus an impressive list of body wraps from the detoxifying seaweed and green coffee choices to the more exotic Moroccan Cocoon one. Yet, for me, what made Monart Spa all the bit more special were the stunning views of the gardens – and even of the resident horses – from every corner of the thermal suite through the large glass windows.
If you fancy treating yourself just a bit more, finish off with their fabulous Afternoon Tea which is one of the best in the region and combines a traditional experience with a bit of a modern twist, and, which at just EUR 21 per person, won’t break the bank. Their Guinness & treacle homemade bread is particularly delicious. And instead of going for the more conservative Earl Grey or Darjeeling teas, opt for the Oolong tea, a green/black tea renowned in China for its anti-aging properties.
Go West – relaxation and action in Delphi
If you’ve got time and really want to escape far away from modern-day life, Delphi Mountain Resort is a great choice. Tucked away into Connemara on the west coast of Ireland, this eco-friendly lodge combines the best of relaxation and adrenalin activities. On their website, they promise “A place where you can rejuvenate, rebalance and be inspired” and after three days there I can agree! If it’s the great outdoors you are after, you can choose from a huge range of activities including hill-walking, orienteering, archery, surfing, snorkeling, kayaking and even raft building. If you’re looking for something more cultural, Delphi is a good base from which to explore Connemara and attractions like Leenane (where many a Hollywood classic has been filmed), the charming town of Clifden, Connemara National Park and the magnificent Kylemore Abbey.
After a day in the soft Irish drizzle and to ease your aching bones, you can enjoy a seaweed bath, Eminence organic facial or spend a few hours in the exclusive thermal suite – voted one of Condé Nast Johansen’s best spas for 2012 – where you can unwind in the hydrotherapy pool and steam room or warm up in the sauna. You can snooze with a fleece blanket enjoying a cup of their special Delphi tea enjoying a 360-degree view of the stunning landscape through the wide glass windows.
And the day doesn’t end there. Dinner is a gastronomic experience, a heady concoction of local ingredients and sharing some similarities with the popular contemporary Five Flies restaurant (one of my personal favorites) in Capetown, South Africa, where the chef has worked.
The best thing about Delphi Mountain Resort is that there are no TVs in the room to remind you of the never-ending Euro debt crisis; you’ll be hard pressed to find a signal for your cell phone, and there’s only Wifi in certain public areas.
Both Monart Spa and Delphi Mountain Resort are fantastic and therapeutic experiences where you can really escape from it all. Friendly staff, a nice ambience, good food, stunning surroundings and an original list of treatments, what more can you ask for!