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Monthly Archives: July 2017

Travel to Moscow

The name Moscow is used synonymously with the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin, yet the city is so much more than a political city and has plenty to offer visitors.

The beating heart of Russia is a global commercial hub, a cosmopolitan metropolis with 1,000 years of history and more than 10 million inhabitants. It boasts some of the finest hotels in the world, iconic buildings, rich cultural sites, and fine restaurants, so whether you are just passing through in transit, or have a day at leisure between business meetings, be sure to make the most of the most impressive capital city between London and Beijing.

Unlike its sister city St Petersburg, the Venice of the north, few foreign visitors think of coming to Moscow. The Cold War memories of a cold, grey city still linger, but in 2017 they couldn’t be further from reality. Now is the time to immerse yourself in everything Moscow has to off

In Moscow, location is everything, and you can’t do better than to stay at the Ritz-Carlton Moscow (read our review), a stone’s throw away from Red Square. An historic hotel where the decor is inspired by the decadence of Imperial Russia, you’ll live like a Tsar in this palace. Superior guest rooms start from £225 at the weekends, and whether you’re treating yourself to fine dining in Novikov Restaurant, relaxing in the spa, or soaking up the stunning views of Red Square from the rooftop O2 Lounge, you’re not going to want to leave

Must Visit

The Kremlin is Moscow’s fortress and it is the city’s cultural centrepiece as much as a political institution. Inside the vast fortified compound you will find three cathedrals, the Patriarch’s Palace, a church and the bell tower of Ivan the Great, and together these buildings are the holiest sites of Russian Orthodoxy — Moscow’s Vatican, if you like. Exquisite religious frescoes decorate the walls, incense drifts in the air, and every now and then it is possible to hear the sound of devotional plainsong. Here too is the Armoury Chamber with its extraordinary collection of state regalia, gold and silver plate, and jewels. Prepare to stand entranced by the craftsmanship and the wealth, the shear number and variety of sublime artefacts.

Must Drink

Forget the stereotypes: Moscow has so much more to offer than vodka, though if that is your tipple of choice, you’ll certainly be in for a treat. The city’s best mixologists are to be found in the O2 Lounge on the rooftop of the Ritz Carlton hotel. Dress to impress so you fit right in, and as you stand on the terrace gazing across the city, you’ll never forget the sight of St Basil’s Cathedral lit up at night.

Must Shop

Catherine II commissioned the Italian architect Giacomo Quarenghi to build her a neoclassical trade centre after the 1812 fire in Moscow. Today the complex is the GUM Department Store, and you should come here as much to appreciate the impressive metal and glass vaulted ceiling as for the designer stores. The delicatessen displays put even Fortnum and Mason’s to shame, and the shoe and handbag selections may well prompt hysteria.

Must Eat

The Radisson Royal has a flotilla of ice breaker yachts, and every evening you can step aboard for a dinner cruise afloat on the Moskva River. The gourmet menu includes fresh seafood platters, and the hot smoked sturgeon is undoubtedly a culinary highlight.

For authentic contemporary Russian cuisine, prepared with seasonal, organic ingredients from local farms, go to LavkaLavka. Think of it as Moscow’s answer to River Cottage. Our absolutely favourite dish on the menu is the beetroot spelt with porcini mushrooms, though the duck breast with stewed plums, honey, and ginger is also a highlight for your tastebuds.

Must See The View

The 540m high Ostankino TV Tower was the tallest free-standing building in the world until the completion of the CN Tower in 1976. Built to mark the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution, this iconic structure is a masterpiece of Soviet engineering and unexpectedly beautiful when it is lit up in many colours at night. The observation deck is open daily until 21.00 and on a clear day you can see right across the city in every direction

Travel in Andorra

If you have never been to Andorra, and perhaps can’t even place it on a map, you’ve missed a trick. It’s time to improve your geography, and to add another country to your list.

Andorra is one of Europe’s micro-states, tucked into the border between France and Spain. Part of Europe but not the EU, it was traditionally considered as a tax haven, but in recent years the economy has diversified away from agriculture and banking to embrace major developments in tourism.

Mountains and lakes, historic buildings and museums, quaint villages and year-round opportunities for outdoor activities abound, and with easy access via airports in Barcelona and Toulouse, Andorra is indisputably one of Europe’s best kept secrets. On arrival all you need to do is sit back, with a glass of duty free champagne in hand, and plan what you want to do.

Must visit

You come to Andorra for the mountains. The country has a stunning mountainous landscape – the average elevation is 1,996m – and whilst skiers and snowboarders flock here in the winter to make use of the snow, the natural geography makes it a superb summertime destination too.Once the snow melts, the ski slopes of Grandvalira become the highest golf course in Europe; the Soldeu Bike Park has more than 100 km of free-ride, cross-country, endure and slope style routes; you can camp by the side of glacier-fed streams; and there are numerous walking trails, all with picturesque picnic stops.

There are 13 Via Ferrata routes, which combine trekking and rock climbing, and for an unforgettable experience, you can even scramble these routes at night! Beginners should try the Creu de Noral or Sugudet from Ordino; but if you’re a serious climber and want something to get your teeth into, the Canal del Grau from Canillo is said to be fiendishly difficult.

Must eat

Andorra was, until very recently, a predominantly agrarian society, and so locally-sourced meats and vegetables feature highly on most restaurant menus. The cuisine is akin to that in neighbouring Catalonia, but possibly a little more hearty. At L’Enoteca, a traditional restaurant in Andorra La Vella, the capital of Andorra, typically Andorran dishes on the menu include duck breast with pear and Muscat reduction, pork cheeks with crayfish, and Iberian pork in spices.

Although rarely exported, Andorra also produces some of its own wines. The wineries to look out for are Borda Sabaté 1944, Casa Auvinyà, and Celler Mas Berenguer. Remember that there’s no duty on alcohol in Andorra, so you can afford to drink unusually fine wines.

Must chill

Andorra’s geography means that thermal springs naturally occur across the country, and people have certainly bathed in them for hundreds of years.

In Andorra La Vella you’ll find Caldea, which is the largest thermal bath complex in Europe. The water comes up from below the ground at a 68ºC, and then is cooled to a variety of temperatures for the different pools. In addition to jacuzzis and saunas, there are also bubble beds and warm marble slates, Indo-Roman baths, and a divine-smelling pool with fresh grapefruits bobbing about on the surface.

The baths are open late into the evening, making Caldea the perfect place to retreat to soothe your tired muscles and warm up your extremities after a long day skiing on the piste or climbing mountains.

Must see

In and around Canillo are a dozen historic religious sites, which collectively form the Canillo Cultural Circuit. You can see them all by car or, if you have time, it is well worth walking between them, as though you were a pilgrim.

Highlights of the circuit include the Church of Sant Joan de Caselles, a Romanesque church dating from the 11th century; the Creu dels set braços, a strange seven-armed cross whose eighth, missing arm is said to represent a local boy stolen by the devil; and the Basilica Sanctuary of Nostra Senyora de Meritxell, with open cloisters, an ancient chapel, and sculptures of Andorra’s seven patron saints.

Schlosshotel (and ski resort)

The five-star wellness Schlosshotel Fiss in the Austrian Tyrol may well be an example of alpine luxury at its finest. It is located on a sunny plateau high above the Tyrolean Inn Valley, around 1,400 metres above sea-level and framed by the mighty 3000-metre Samnaun mountains and the Ötztal Alps which looks gorgeous all year round. And, it is the only hotel directly on the slopes in Fiss.

During the winter months Fiss comes into its own as a ski resort. The area is blessed with snow for around eight months of the year and when snowfall is lean, the 212km of ski slopes are topped up with artificial snow. Those staying at the hotel have the wonderful ski-in and ski-out access to the slopes.

Who for

All levels of skiers will love this ski resort and its stunning scenery of pristine woodlands and immaculate glaciers. The Schlosshotel Fiss has ski-in and ski-out access to the 2,820m of slopes across the Serfaus-Fiss-Ladis ski region.

The resort is perfect for families even when there are big age differences between the children. An impressive 125,000 square metres is reserved exclusively for children and teenagers interested in learning how to ski or snowboard. The ski schools and kindergartens deploy state-of-the-art training methods such as the “Snow-V” which makes learning how to ski far easier.
Kids train n the Snow V

On top of this, Shloss Hotel Fiss has a kindergarten where children are supervised and entertained all day or for just a few hours, while their parents devote their energies to winter sports or to exploring the splendid surroundings on foot.

Accommodation
Schlosshotel Fiss, Amethyst suite

The Schloss Hotel Fiss has 270 light and spacious en-suite rooms. Each room has oak floors, carved wood and golden ornaments, with plenty of local character. They are checked twice a day, by staff who extremely focused on detail and who will offer to change linens and bedding twice a day if required.

Food and Drink

For generations Fiss has been a land of farmers. When tourism developed family businesses flourished and did well serving the demand of holidaymakers while maintaining farming traditions producing meat and dairy production. The dishes on the menu introduce local specialities with international cuisine, for instance you will be able enjoy marinated Thai grass fed Fiss beef with a schnitzel or delicate sushi followed by a local veal cooked in white wine and garnished with alpine herbs and berries. Meanwhile the kids have their own menus with a hot children’s buffet and an ice cream station.

In the evenings, adults can relax in the bar over their favourite tipple, with live music soothing away the day. Or go shopping for designer goods in the hotel shop. Cigar smoker can have time out in the cigar room.

Facilities

The hotel has its own in-house ski-hire shop and cable cars just outside.

Inside, there’s the splendid 5,000sqm spa reached via a stylish wellness lounge. It’s an ideal place to soothe the muscles after a day on the slopes.

Schlosshotel Fiss, Spa wellness lounge

The “Aquamonte”, a mini indoor water world has a 250m long swim-in-swim-out pool and an outdoor section with two whirlpools with views over the slopes.

Schlosshotel Fiss, Waterworld AquaMonte, in-out pool

The positioning means that even when taking a sauna you will be looking at the stunning valley beyond. Their beer infused sauna works well at releasing muscle tensions and relaxes the mind.

This hotel is designed to be family friendly and it really shows. Its spa is divided in two areas, for children and adults, with special treatments for children such as a TuttiFrutti or chocolate peeling. There’s also an indoor children’s cinema and a games room and their own waterpark.

Resort facilities

Spacious and comfortable cable car lifts commute from valley to valley and to slopes that range from positively gentle to seriously steep. The 460-hectare skiing area is suitable for all kinds of winter sports: beginners, leisure skiers, freestylers and pros can swoop down mogul pistes, carving and racing tracks, fun areas and free-ride tracks. The 68 lift systems take them up to the summits in no time.

Rail adventure in North Wales

The seaside town of Llandudno is my base, a pretty town with a mish mash of elegant Victorian and Edwardian architecture and pleasant scenery. It stretches out from the foot of the Great Orme, a huge chunk of limestone that curves around the town. It surges up from the sea and towards the seafront and its wide ribbon of sandy beach and an even wider promenade with a war memorial obelisk as its landmark.

Caernarfon to Beddgeert – Welsh Highland Railway

My first rail adventure starts in Caernarfon where I alight the delightful narrow gauge Welsh Highland Railway train. The line was built in 1923 but economically it was derailed soon after. After 70 years in the sidings, it was pulled back into service by a group of railway enthusiasts.
Engine 87 on Welsh Highland Railways

The locomotive is engine 87 and as I watch the steam funnel out it leaves a dreamy nostalgia in its wake. So it’s surprising that the vintage styled wood-decked carriages are in fact no more than 20 years old, and some just a couple of months old. A modern kitchen serves sandwiches and of course Welsh rarebit (a version of cheese on toast) and a tea trolley does the rounds.

The journey passes through Caernafon Bay and the Lley Peninsuala, the old slate quarries and once at Bryn Gloch the Snowdonia National Park unfolds beyond. The valley narrows dramatically as we pass between mountains Moel Eilio and Mynydd Mawr.

Now it’s all alpine views and tumbling waterfalls towards Rhyd Ddu. Soon we climb to the summit of the line at Pitts Head and soon after the train begins its descent zig-zagging all the way down the hillside to Beddgelert. The top speed is 25mph so there’s time savour and digest what my eyes are devouring.
Welsh Highland railway

The entire length of the line is 25 miles all the way to Porthmadog, but I was disembarking at Beddgeert to make my way to Portmeirion.

Portmeiron Village

Those of a certain age will remember the cult series The Prisoner. Actor Patrick Mcgoohan, aka No. 6, was regularly chased (there were 17 episodes) by a balloon each time he tried to escape
Portmerion (c) Portmeirion Ltd

The 70-acre Italianate Portmeiron Village was created out of the fantastical imagination of architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis. Anything that caught his fancy on his travels ended up here. Even the odd relic from film sets.

No-one lives at the holiday complex; it’s all hotels, eateries, a beach and 19 miles of footpaths through lush greenery. It took him 50 years to complete yet this unusual man never spent a night here – he was simply showing off his skills.

Turns out Prince Edward and Mrs Simpson stayed in the Peacock suite in the hotel, Brian Epstein stayed in Gate House and Jules Holland loved the 2-bed Unicorn building so much he made a replica in his garden. There’s also the Bristol Colonnade where the Welsh choir often sings.

Porthmadog to Blaenau – The Festiniog Railway

The Festiniog Railway Company is the oldest surviving railway company in the world. It opened in 1836 to take slate from the quarries of Blaenau Ffestiniog to Porthmadog for export around the globe. But nothing lasts forever and it’s raison d’etre disappeared when the quarries closed down. So again it was down to the rail enthusiasts (bless them) to revive it in 1945 as a tourist attraction.

The engine is the Merddin Emrys named after a Welsh wizard. It’s a push-me pull-you Double Fairlie that pulls us up to Minfford and then Penrhyn offering brilliant alpine views across the valley down the Dwyryd Estuary to Harlech Castle. Every station we stopped at reminded me of those I had seen in episodes of Thomas the Tank Engine with my toddler. It was beyond quaint.

As we climb, a rugged landscape unfolds through the Snowdonia National Park passing woods and dips before doing a extraordinary loop-the-loop at the Dduallt Spiral.

Llangollen to Corwen and back – Llangollen Railway

This was once a British Rail line but closed in 1968. Restored in 1975 by enthusiasts it is the only standard gauge heritage railway in North Wales. The locomotive, a restored 80072, was built in 1953 and the train’s carriages look the part in upholstered red velvet seats and dark wood panelling. It was all very civilized so taking a tea of scones and jam served on a white linen table cloth seems the right thing to do.

Llangollen and a horse drawn boat

Llangollen is a pretty but eccentric ancient town. There are 3,000 inhabitants and some most unusual shops from a Wiccan store to a taxidermy studio with stuffed animals for sale – I know. Looking up at an isolated hill I could see the eerie ruins of Castell Dinas Bran (Crow Castle).
Horse drawn boat on River Dee

The highlight though is the Horse drawn boat trips. Boats are pulled by a shire horse with a rope and these slow motion trips along the River Dee last around 30 minutes, enough time to zone out and enjoy the serenity.