Mrs G. and I are just back from Mykonos, part of the Cyclades group of islands that pepper the Southern Aegean Sea about 100 miles south east of Athens. But enough geography.
Like so many Mediterranean Greek islands it was invaded by Romans, Venetians and Ottomans all of whom left numerous cultural and archaeological graffiti before heading off to plunder somewhere else. Fully restored to Greek ownership, the streets are now thankfully back to Cerulean blue and white.
More recently, it’s become a tourist honeypot with cruise liners paying £50k for a one-night mooring. Each day, their numerous overloaded tenders plough over to the quayside looking like Albanian refugee boats bristling with selfie-sticks. They disgorge flocks of currency-laden day-trippers who quickly become prey to the patient yet adept local restaurant hustlers.
Mykonos town is a maze of tiny cobbled streetlets barely two selfie-sticks wide. Maps exist but are unhelpful due to the irregularity and similarity of every corner. Invaders, I was told, found the town impossible to attack for this very reason. Today, between a cacophony of jewelry shops there’s big-brand shopping and super-fine dining at sky-high prices – think Bond Street, shrunk in a hot wash. With selfie sticks…
But it’s a pretty island; offering more photo-opportunities than a royal wedding. The sunsets are heroic, the beaches are clean and the locals are genuinely very welcoming. Food-wise we found and loved Kounelas a courtyard fish restaurant in central Mykonos town (choose your own fish from the kitchen) and Kiki’s Taverna in the more remote North of the island, no power, no light or broadband, just a fire pit with sizzling chicken and unfeasibly big pork chops plus a salad bar all overseen the big man and owner Vasilis who gives you free booze until a table becomes available.
If you’re on a budget go to Paragas, the fishnchips end of the island with 25 euro sunbeds and a few nervous nudists. Pale and probably from Sheffield, they glower at you until you take your kit off. If you’re loaded then go to Panormos and after hiring your bed for the day at 90 euros, shop in Principote where I was offered a pair of sunglasses for 600 euros. No thanks.
Visit in May (sea cold) or September (sea warm) to avoid the crowds and enjoy Mikonos for three days max then catch a ferry to nearby Ikaria, Paros or Naxos to become an island hopper and broaden your Cyclades knowledge.
How come Belgians aren’t fat?
Bruges, Belgium’s medieval jewel, “Venice of the North”, is home to a thousand chocolate shops, too many famous artists to mention and Wally de Backer, better known as the pop star, er, Gotye. (no, nor have I). Here, when you are tired of chocolate, you eat chips, mayo, waffles, cream, egg nog (Advocaat), drink copious amounts of Trappist Beer (around 6-14% alcohol) or a bewildering variety of locally made Gins, Vodkas and weirder spirits.
We stayed in The Dukes’ Palace, super-central, flawless 5* Gaff. Actually, most of the multiple hotels and BnBs are super-central; you can walk from one side of town to the other in about half an hour.
Bruges is small, pretty, ancient, friendly, free of crime, with confusingly planned cobbled streets connecting the many churches and squares all of which are delicately lit at night.
Art: we stood in awe before Hieronymus Bosch’s Last Judgement, a kind of Dali-esque depiction of both Heaven and Hell and we admired one of the finest collections of Bruge’s own welshman Frank Brangwyn. God: We genuflected before the Blood of Christ himself in the Basilica. Food: we ate at Patrick Devos (fabulous and expensive) and Poules Moules (fun and cheap) and drank Brugse Zot beer (6%) with three brothers from Leeds whilst watching Scotland beat Wales at rugby in Delaney’s Irish Bar.
It’s hard to find fault with this lovely little town only 3 hours away by Eurostar (via Brussels). But like the taxi driver said, watch out for cyclists and above all the horse-drawn carriages who could all use an visit to driving school.
Last week I visited La Colombe D’or, a beautiful little Hotel in the hilltop fortress town of St Paul de Vence, half an hour north of Nice on the Cote D’Azur. Lucky old me.
It’s a unique place; quaint, gorgeous and special with history in every nook and cranny. Outside, fat-boughed fig-trees shade the worn stone floors and tall, clipped Cyprus stand guard by the pool. Inside hang paintings by an army of famous French artists and sculptors: Picasso (he paid for his stay with two pictures) Leger, Chagall, Matisse and many others. It’s artisan chic.
It’s also a paradox; poor furniture, small, basic rooms (although comfortable) and a menu that has remained unchanged since the year dot would send most Hotels to the bottom of the league. But Colombe D’or (that’s Golden Dove not Golden Column, stupid) is a haunt for celebs (Kate Moss and Roger Moor are regulars) and the adman community who have built its reputation over many, many decades and probably will for many decades to come.
Service is brusque and waiters perform impossible pirouettes through narrow corridors and between tables. The food is good without being amazing (go to Les Terraillers in nearby Biot for that) but still the people return. I spoke to one guest who was on his 45th visit. Cannes Festival-goers flock there for respite and multiple bottles of the Provençale rose wine Minuty.
As we kick back by the jade-green pool after a long, lazy lunch in the shaded dining yard, all at once it’s 1931 and I glimpse the ghost of founder Paul Roux and his wife Baptistine negotiating a bar bill with Pablo Picasso…
I can’t believe it’s taken me 58 years to discover Rome. Bursting with history, fashion and restaurants, it’s a magnet for geeks, trend-setters and foodies alike. Most towns can offer history but nowhere is it so evident as in Rome. It’s all around you. I saw chunks of Roman masonry stacked away in an old stone arch (itself probably as old) counting the centuries while patiently awaiting a place in the catalogs of the next generation of tired archaeologists.
The town is big enough to offer huge variety (the backstreets of Trastevere vs. opulence of The Vatican) yet small enough to be largely navigable by foot. We walked from The Bee Fountain in Piazza Barberini (1625) to the Colosseum (AD 72) via the relatively modern (1925) but no less impressive Altare Della Patria – two millennia in less than an hour. Warpspeed.
The top-line attractions however are victims of their own popularity and can be mobbed by selfie-stick wielding turisti and a swarm of multi-lingual, self-appointed VIP guides whose ecclesiastical knowledge could be written on a bible marker. Premium “skip the line” tickets are available which are a good idea, but like Easyjet early-boarding they attract the wrong type of tourists and earn scorn from the 3-hour queue-ers. No doubt soon there will be skip the skip-the-line tickets and skiptheskiptheskiptheskiptheline tickets too – I could go on.
Italy’s economic position is shaky and it’s future is uncertain but Rome seems healthy enough with plenty of premium retail going on. We sampled a little of it with a cocktail on the roof terrace of The Sofitel Hotel whose sunset views over The Spanish Steps and Villa Borghese are pretty much unsurpassed. Then we ate Truffles and lobster at Ad Hoc in Via di Ripetti. I can only hope that the exorbitant cost of these luxuries staves off the Italians’ fiscal collapse for a little longer.
An island of two halves, we just spent 10 days in the half (well, 65%) which is Greek Cyprus. We were hosted by Greek Cypriot and firm friend Stavros and his lovely wife Maroulla in Larnaca but with a loaned Honda plus a free beach villa we got to see a lot from the glamorous Anassa hotel in Latchi in the West to the listening posts of Cape Grecko and fleshpots of Agia Napa in the East via the Turkish front line in Nicosia.
Sharing a holiday in Cyprus with a native is a unique experience. One is as obliged to learn the history. Stav fought for independence and was wounded in 1974 and we saw his village (Kythrea) from the border as we stood on a bunker in Nicosia to view it. We felt his pain.
Cypriots are friendly; each citizen has a thousand cousins all of whom will invite you to dinner. A barby for a Cypriot involves a whole sheep and a Fish Meze will feed a small platoon for a week. Eating is obligatory at all times.
Cloudless blue skies bore a fierce sun and running conditions were not ideal as midday temp was around 40 degrees every day but I managed one early morning sortie (temp a cool 27 degrees at 6.30am) which took in a Venetian aqueduct and a bamboo forest skirting a massive salt lake. http://www.mapmyrun.com/routes/view/132811263
There was much talk of property and many Cypriots (those that can) buy or inherit plots for themselves or their children. Land and property prices have soared since the troubles but the rental market is in the doldrums. Cyprus has some amazing beaches (many of the best ones in the Turkish North) and if you take the trouble to go inland to the mountains you can ski in winter on Troodos Mountain or pick cherries there in spring.
When you’ve explored a little history inland check out top hotels Anassa in Latchi and Grecian Park at Konnos Beach near Protaras. Shop in Nicosia but never at midday. Eat Koulouri bread and fish meze at Zephyros in Larnaca. Drink Keo beer followed by Zivania and party till dawn at Agia Napa. Smile and say “Yasas” a lot.