Tuesday, 22 July 2014

A French country market in Monpazier, Dordogne

Nothing beats a stroll around a French market. Everywhere you look there are stalls and tables heaped with fresh, local produce, which is frequently passed over to you on little bits of bread for you to have a nibble. 

The market in Monpazier (in the Dordogne) is held every Thursday morning, in the medieval square adorned with sandy stone arches and vines. 

There's everything you could need for a French picnic. Hundreds of types of saussicons, from hazlenut, mushroom and boar to our favourite, the Herbes de Provence, known in our villa as the grassy sausage. Mmmmm. Grassy saussage...

I asked various stallholders in broken Franglish if it was OK to take back on the plane, and they all said that it was... but I was once robbed of a heap of Chrorizo coming back from Sardinia, so I only took what could be fully wrapped and sealed.

The produce stalls were full of richly coloured fruit and veg which puts the supermarkets at home to shame.

And all the while, a group of musicians played in the sunshine.

After picking up some lunch supplies and accidentally eating fois gras, I spotted the glory stall of any French market...

And it would be rude not to. With Nutella, mais oui. 

My kind of town.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Afternoon tea at the Westbury Hotel, Dublin


There are some meals which are more about the ritual than anything else. The kind that take hours to work your way through, as plate after plate of delicate little treats are brought out to you. Afternoon tea is one of those experiences. 

Last weekend, I spent the night in the sumptuous Westbury Hotel in Dublin. On Sunday afternoon, I went to indulge in their afternoon tea, along with my friend Sam. Sam's leaving soon, heading to the other side of the world to be with the hobbits that are somehow BETTER THAN ALL OF US. This was our last hurrah, or our last for a while, at least. 

So what better way to say "In a while, crocodile" than a ladies afternoon for the ladies that we most definitely are?

I'll start with a picture of the room, exactly where we were perched. 

The Gallery itself is a beautiful space, with wide, cream sofas and a highly valued and impressive selection of art. But the window seats are the best, for both the people watching and the plush, turquoise seats. 

We kicked things off with a glass of Moet. Just because. 

Then it was time to select our tea. There was a hugely varied selection on the menu, and I went for the Lapsang Souchong, because I'd never tried it before, and because I like the Colin Hay song in which he sings about it.  

Our tea sommelier (my term, not theirs) said it was his favourite, but a real smoky, rich number which can be a little much for some. Not for me! I loved it. And smoky is the word - it tastes like sitting around a bonfire with some cowboys. But you're not eating beans from a can, oh no. You're eating these...

The sandwiches are, of course, the first plate to be delivered. As the carnivore, I had...

Truffled chicken on a brioche bun
Free range egg and chive mayonnaise on milk pan
Honey baked Limerick ham, whiskey mustard relish on malt harvest
Oak smoked Salmon and Crab with lemon aioli on malt harvest

The veggie at the back had a tomato and cucumber sandwich, a quinoa wrap, the same egg and chive mix and a smoked applewood cheese. She also had my egg mayonnaise because bleugh.

The salmon and crab mixture was amazing, though the malt harvest was a bit too soda-y for my taste. The chicken and truffle was a close second.

After a breather and a top up of tea, the pre-dessert was brought out, much to our glee. Pre-dessert? I've never heard of such a thing! And the dessert world is my world. It turned out to be a little palate cleanser of sorts, but instead of cleansing, its aim was to get your taste buds ready for something sweet (eh, I've never needed help in that department)

I didn't grab a picture, but I can tell you that it was a miniature white chocolate custard dessert, with a little chocolate cookie on top. It was good, but I was more excited about the tower that was coming soon...


This was the showstopper I was waiting for. Now, I didn't write down the exact desserts, but I can have a good crack at describing them. There was a tiny chocolate eclair (which, as my usual favourite, I saved until last). It was filled with a chocolate and raspberry cream, rather than the usual plain, which was a delight. There were a number of hidden fruits in these cakes, something which I love, as it cuts through the saccharine sweetness of some cake. In the little pistachio fella, there was a succulent cherry at the bottom of the light sponge, as well as the glistening one on top. I'm a sucker for anything with a glazed cherry. When I was a kid, my grandma used to keep a tub of glacie cherries in the cupboard, so I could dip into them when I visited. Mmmm. 

There was an orangey, tarty flan thing (my descriptions are failing me, but it was Sam's favourite) and an amazing mousse, which was my favourite of the entire tea. The air-like chocolate mousse was on a thick base of what tasted like chocolate covered cornflakes mixed with caramel, and it was DIVINE. 

Finally, there was a miniature fruit tart, which came on a thick base of shortcrust pastry and creme patissiere. 

As well as the huge selection of teas, there were coffees (which I can vouch for from previous visits) and a NUTELLA HOT CHOCOLATE. I've never wanted something so much in my life, but I had also rarely been as full before. You think that nibbling on little sandwiches and cakes wouldn't fill you up as much as it did, but we had to roll ourselves out a couple of hours later. So instead I switched to a jasmine pearl tea, and promised to try the nutella one on a day when I hadn't consumed half of a bakery. 

The traditional afternoon tea costs €42 per person, or €48 with a glass of champagne. It's not cheap, but it's also not something that you'd be doing every week. If you have a special occasion coming up, then it's a fabulous spot to celebrate in style.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Santillana del Mar, the Spanish town which time forgot

The town of Santillana del Mar is, to be quite blunt, a bit of a liar. It's neither a saint, nor flat (illana) nor by the sea. What it is, is really quite stunning. A protected little village where only local cars can drive the cobbled streets, dotted with cider and chocolate shops. It's small, apparently rammed with tourists in the morning or high season, and popular with American visitors, who feel as though they're in a film set.

We arrived late in the afternoon, when the last of the day trippers were emptying out and heading back to the car park. They made their way over the crooked streets and made the most of the dying sun with a few last pictures. Some couldn't make their way without clinging onto each other, lest the cobbled streets collapse in and leave them drowning without the touch of their lover. Others stood behind them, taking pictures and rolling their eyes.

The little shops started to close up for the day. Bars of chocolate were laid out in every conceivable flavour, from lavender to sea salt.

The shutters were drawn, the buses departed and the town was officially its own once more.

Residents peeked over their balconies to check the lay of the land, before heading down to the bar and catching up over a sidre.

We were free to amble around the empty streets, poking our heads into tiny shops, gazing at the church and checking out the various menus.

As the sun set, we checked into an amazing little guesthouse, which deserves a post all to itself, before diving into a hefty steak at the Parador on the main square and sinking into bed.

Santillana del Mar is about 30km from Santander Airport, and a wonderful village to let time run away from you. Perfect for a sleepy stolen weekend.

See more about the region at http://www.turismodecantabria.com/inicio

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

What you need to know about mobile boarding passes with Ryanair

How many times have you raced through a European city, scrambling to find an internet cafe who will let you print out a boarding pass? Or have you reached the check in desk at an airport only to realise your boarding pass is safely tucked away at home?

As part of their new, user friendly approach, Ryanair have just launched their new app and mobile boarding passes. Available on iPhones and Android (suck it, Blackberry users), the app will let you book tickets and buy extras, check in and create a boarding pass that will be scanned at the airport, exactly the same way a paper one would be.

As Aer Lingus pointed out earlier today, you've been able to do this with them for three years (I had no idea)

So what does this mean for you, and how does it make your life easier?

The Major Plus
As you must know, you need to check in with Ryanair online, in advance of your flight. Their new (irritating) seat allocation service means that you can only check in seven days in advance of your flight if you don't want to pay for a seat. If you're happy to pay (starting at €5) then you can check in up to 30 days in advance.

If your trip is seven days or more, this has meant that life is incredibly difficult if you don't want to pay for a seat. This is because you'd need to check in while you're away, and find a printer to get your boarding pass.

Confused yet?

Basically, this new app is a lifesaver if you're in this position. Just use it to check in seven days prior to your flight, and your boarding pass will be saved on your phone and ready to scan at the airport.

You'll also be able to reprint a boarding pass up to two hours before your flight, if you lose your phone or run out of power. You can also save multiple passes, if you're travelling with family.

The Drawbacks
Not all airports are signed up to the scheme. The following cannot accept the Ryanair mobile boarding passes...

Rome Ciampino

You must also be an EU national to avail of the scheme.

It almost goes without saying, but you'll need to have a charged smartphone for this to work. If you're heading to the airport and running out of juice, you could be in trouble. Also, remember that your passes are checked at various stages - at security, at the gate, on the plane and even sometimes upon landing. So a fully charged phone is your best bet. I doubt they'll be too keen to let you crouch down with a charger for a few minutes at the gate.

Aer Lingus offers much of the same service, though only 30 airports allow the mobile passes through (Dublin does, Knock doesn't) - see the airports that allow it here.


Sunday, 13 July 2014

The best sunscreen you'll ever use

Somehow, this was the best picture of the bunch. It's not great.

I've always believed that if you suffer one bad sunburn in your life, you will do everything in your power to never let it happen again.

Mine happened in San Diego, in 2003. We had gone to the beach for the day, and by the time we navigated the city bus, the sky was cloudy and overcast. It was still pretty warm though, so we spread out on our towels and relaxed. A few times, I took a dip in the sea, only to be savaged by the waves, which pulled me under every few seconds. We half-heartedly threw a bit of spf15 on, without bothering to reapply.

When we headed back to the city later on, we went to the mall opposite our hostel (we were 18 - this trip was filled with malls, Jamba Juice and excitement over hot butter on tap at the cinema). We were in American Eagle when a shop assistant brushed my inch of exposed belly (see: 2003) and said

"Whoa! You got a bit of colour there!"

I looked in the mirror and saw that my flesh had turned an eerie shade of maroon. I looked at my friend, who seemed to be getting redder by the second.


That night was spent lying wide awake on a bunk bed, trying not to move an inch, lest the sheets rub our agonised skin. I think we both threw up that night. Maybe even in the bathroom of Moose McGillycuddy's.

A few days later, in LA, I was seriously worried that I had permanently damaged by skin, which was blistering on my chest and becoming Jordan-style pigmented on my cheeks. A pharmacist didn't share my concern, but sold me some vitamin e oil. There was a picture of Noah Wyle on the wall.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that once you get burned like that, you're not to keen on it happening again.

Of course, I'm only human. And a pink/white toned one at that, who blushes and burns with ferocity. I'm diligent with sunscreen, but sometimes a burn slips through the net.

This year, I wanted to try the pinnacle of 'once a day' sunscreens, p20. Unlike other so-called once a day applications, this stays put for 8 hours, including 80 minutes in the water. I lose my mind when I see a sunscreen that claims to be waterproof, only to say in the small print that it must be reapplied once you've been in the water. People don't read the small print, they just read the front. Not cool.

Using p20 isn't as easy as dashing it on while you're on a sun lounger. It has to be applied dutifully all over, and then dry for 20 minutes inside. This means that you have to flap around naked for a while - no sitting down, no dressing. If you're on holiday with people uncomfortable with nudity, you're out of luck.

But once you're dry, you're done. Protected for the day. Obviously, you're not going to boil yourself in the midday sun (between 11am - 2pm) but if you apply it correctly, you won't burn.

I used the spf30 in the Caribbean, and didn't burn. I will say this - the higher spf versions all come in spray form, which I hate. Most of it misses your body, and you can't keep track of how much you're using. The spf20 I used in France, where the temperatures pushed 29c some days. And I didn't burn.

I also have super sensitive skin, and didn't suffer at all with it. There's a bit of a chemically/alcohol smell off of it, but it fades as soon as it's dry. It's also great under make up - it's often used on film sets because it doesn't have a shine, and works as a great base for foundation.

The only downside? It is expensive. But so is most sunscreen, and because you're not constantly reapplying, you don't get through as much. One 100ml bottle lasted me around 5 days on average. Which brings me to another highlight - the 100ml bottles go through your hand luggage liquids allowance. Hurrah! If you want the bigger bottles, buy in the duty free section of most airports.

I also landed on a bit of a bargain - while whizzing through Primark in Liverpool, I spotted the range by the till for £6.60 a bottle. In Boots, it's usually around the €14 mark. You can also buy online at www.lookfantastic.com.

The range comes in spf 15, 20, 30 and 50. Only the 20 comes in liquid form, which I preferred. But there's nothing stopping you from unscrewing the spray lid or decanting into another bottle.

I can safely say it's the only sunscreen I'll ever use again.

See: www.p20.co.uk

Monday, 16 June 2014

Feeding elephants and giraffes at Cabárceno Nature Park, Cantabria

I know that I compare a lot of things to Jurassic Park. Pretty much any volcanic tropical isle I see leaves me humming the theme tune. But what if you combine the same rugged terrain, but add huge, rather dinosaur-like animals to it? And jump into a jeep to see them all roam the land?

Well, you get so close to the movie that I might as well be a greased up Jeff Goldblum.

Cabárceno Nature Park is spread out over a huge amount of rocky, mountainous land. Once a major area for iron mining, the 750 hectares are now filled with a wide variety of animals from all over the world, all cared for by passionate environmentalists. Conservation and education is the name of the game here, and the land is free for you to explore by car, bike or foot.

I was lucky enough to go as part of their new "Visit Wild" programme, which allows visitors to get up close and personal with the animals. We started with the elephants.

Just look at all the fabulous land they get to call their own...

One poor little bugger was left behind, due to an aggressive alpha female who cannot stand seeing her with the herd. Once the others have been out for a while, she's allowed to sneak around and play as well. Until then, it was breakfast time...

It obviously wouldn't make too much sense for, say, lions and deer to be sharing the same field. But animals that would usually play nice in the wild are all kept together. Here is a herd of antelope with their elephant neighbours.

Next up - brown bears. We switched from our jeep to a land rover, complete with a man in the back packing two guns. Just in case.

The entrance was very Jurassic Park indeed. The first land rover went in ahead of us, securely locked behind a double gate. Once they were through, we followed. Nervously.

The keepers ahead of us threw out the meat and oranges for the bears, who leapt upon it all, thankfully ignoring us.

It was quite the sight to behold, but I was pretty glad when we made our exit. I was also tickled pink when I realised that Patrick, who was sat in front of me, hadn't shut his door properly at the start, and was effectively one bump in the road away from being bear food.

We went on to see rhinos, zebras and a whole host of other creatures, but I was most excited about the giraffes...

They really are the most beautiful creatures.

The final visit of the day was to the gorilla enclosure, where we met a woman who was so in love with her animals her face lit up when she told us all about them.

This is Nicky, the silver back king of the pack.

He has two gorilla lady friends, both with a littleun in tow. There's also an older female, but he sees her more as a mother. Nicky was rescued from a circus, and had only known human life. She helped him adjust to life as a 'proper' gorilla.

The babies were, hands down, the cutest monkeys I've ever seen. Swinging from the ropes, climbing up their mums and never leaving their side, they both eventually cuddled in for naps. And everyone breathed a huge sigh of adoration.

Gorillas are fascinating creatures, socially. A silver back can have more than one partner, and they all live together in harmony. Apparently, a female will only become pregnant once she is settled in a pack and completely trusts the male. She stays with her baby for around four years, breastfeeding for all of that time, and never lets the baby leave her side.



Regular entry into the park costs from €18 for an adult, and €12 for a child. Visitors on a regular ticket are self guided, and see the animals from more of a distance. The Visit Wild day ticket costs €160pp for a group of 4, up to €200pp for a group of two. Children are half the price.

You're accompanied by a park expert for the entire duration of the trip, and get closer than you could ever imagine to the animals, with the chance to feed most of them. There's also a fantastic lunch included in the park's restaurant, overlooking the giraffe field. The visit lasts around 7 hours.

The park is around 15km from Santander.

See: www.cantur.com/inicio


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