Category Archives: Holidays, weekends away, city breaks

A weekend in Berlin


Berlin is one of those places that everyone said was amazing, and I always wanted to go, but never got round to it. So back in summer, we hatched a plan for a girls’ party weekend and booked for November. Turns out that unbeknownst to me at the time, I was actually pregnant, so I was five months gone by the time we got there. So it was less “oonst oonst”, more “oooof can I have a waffle”, but still a fantastic place to visit.

There are lots of reasons to go – incredible art galleries and museums, amazing nightlife, great shopping and restaurants, and a truckload of history. Imagine a capital city without a finance district, not brimming with lawyers and bankers, but artists and musicians, and you get a very cool city like Berlin. Add to that people are friendly, everything is great value, and you can still smoke in bars (not so great for those who are 5 months pregnant) and you have the perfect long weekend.

We can’t claim to have even scratched the surface of what’s on offer, but here’s some tips on places to visit:

1. The Holocaust Memorial

I can’t put my finger on why this is so perfect, in fact no-one I’ve spoken to can, but it just is. It’s somehow magnificent and powerful and subtle and moving and I have no idea why. Round the corner from the Brandenburg Gate, I could spend a long time wandering amongst it all.

Jewish memorial

2. Views from the Reichstag

You can get a lift up to the roof and look from the top of its glass dome for an amazing view over Berlin (it’s free), but it’s also a beautiful building. You should also have a look at the Roma gypsy memorial in the Tiergarden nearby.

3. Wander round the Scheunenviertel (Barn Quarter)

This is one of Berlin’s oldest and most quirky areas and if you wander around slowly, you can find gorgeous courtyards, rambling alleyways, painted houses, shops, cafes and galleries. It reminded me of the roads between Spitalfields and Brick Lane – once a run down area, now filled with art, shops and cafes. We also saw an unbelievable number of cool-looking galleries all along the nearby Auguststraße.


4. Eat curry wurst, have a German meat and cheese fest, and try Berlin’s restaurant scene in Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg

Anyone who eats meat and cheese in such great quantities, including first thing in the morning, has my vote.  We ate fantastic German food in Oderquelle on Oderberger Street and loved the cheap buffet breakfasts in the nearby cafes on Sundays.  I also loved the relaxed vibe and lovely pan-Asian food at Toca Rouge  on Tör strasse in Mitte.


5. Visit the retro vintage clothes shops and record shops in Prenzlauer Berg

I was delighted to find the original vinyl of “Ferry Cross the Mersey” as well as vintage shops selling amazing clothes, shoes and bags – shops that were museums in themselves.



6. Check out the flea market on Sundays in the Mauerpark

Apparently the king of Berlin fleamarkets, it was sadly closed when we were there but still served a mean currywurst.


7. People-watching and whisky drinking in Berlin’s bars

We liked Café Schwarzsauer in Prenzlauer and Melody Nelson cocktail bar on Novalisstrasse in Mitte. Great music, cool people, smoky as hell. Made me wish I’d gone a decade ago…

8. Visit the Jewish Museum and Museum Island

The Jewish museum is housed in an amazing building and is huge, charting German Jewish history from the beginning and focusing on the Third Reich, with sculptures and a lovely café. You should also see the Berlin wall museum at the Potsdamer Platz, and Checkpoint Charlie, but sadly we didn’t have time.

You could also spend a day, if you weren’t distracted by waffles and gluhwein and winter markets, visiting Berlin’s Museumsinsel (Museum Island). It’s a small island in the Spree river which is a UNESCO site in itself as well as the venue for 5 museums , the most famous being the Pergamon museum, but also the Neues Museum, Altes Museum, National Gallery and Bodemuseum.

9. Head to Berlin’s clubs

Sadly I missed out on this being the size of a baby elephant, but I would definitely want to go back and try one of Berlin’s great clubs. The most famous is Berghain, and there’s also Kater Holzig, Wilde Renate, and Chalet.

We flew Easyjet from around £60 each way.

Cycling To Work Month 5 – The Next Generation

Goodbye old friend (yes I KNOW…)

And so farewell Trek Allant, beloved first London bicycle, Princess of bikes, lost to the gods of thievery and opportunism. Goodbye be-wicker’d holder of baguettes; cushioner of bottom; straightener of back. You left me in your prime, just as I was getting to know you even better. I shall miss your retro green sunshine in my life, your air of coolness and Victorian propriety. You were like cycling on a very comfy sofa. You matched my outfits and made my bum look smaller. I hope your new owner (having found you at the back of Clapham Junction perhaps, or on Brick Lane) appreciates you as much as I did, and will love you just as much.

Hellooooo sailor

But it was time to move on and so with a heavy heart I managed to find you, oh Specialized Vita Sport, replacement only in insurance terminology* but not in nature. Lighter of body, thinner of wheel, you made me cycle home bloody fast tonight, wind in my hair, smile on my lips, sweat on my forehead. Overtaker of all that come before me (unless they are quite fit). You are likely to hurt me less when I fall over looking for a dropped glove. I can see you and I together, commuting from Brixton to Tottenham Court Road; from London to Surrey and Kent; hell even from London to Paris or Brighton or bloody Dakar. You are the next generation, the next stage of my cycling life, a practical, sporty bag of fun. You make me want to wear lycra and go camping. What did I hum all the way home? Isn’t She Lovely by Stevie Wonder. You and I are going to be brilliant together, I just know it.**

I should also say Cycle Surgery were just brilliant in advising me on bikes and kitting it out, and I’ve joined the wonderful London Cycling Campaign – as well as doing brilliant things for road safety and looking after cyclists, membership is only £32 a year and gives you 10% off bikes and accessories in most major cycle shops. I got more than my membership money back buying my bike – well worth it!

* less excess, and accessories, and a bunch of other stuff I didn’t realise I’d signed up for when I took the policy out

** apart from the little incident today when I thought I’d also lost you but then worked out I’d actually tied you up to a different bike rack a few metres down the street

A week in San Sebastian, Spain

San Sebastian (or Donostia in Basque) is a foodies heaven – nestling in the bosom of the north eastern Basque coast of Spain, it is famous for its surfing and its pinxtos bars (tapas-like plates of food served on slices of baguette). The Chef – a familiar face in San Sebastian, having been six times or so already – and I spent a week there over Easter and it was an amazing experience. Here’s some ideas of things to do if you are planning a trip there – Easyjet flies to Bilbao for around £150 return so its a great cheapie holiday option.

1. The Old Town and its pinxtos bars

Oh pinxtos how I miss you. Most venues in the Old Town have bars filled with pinxtos – crab and prawn mayonnaise, octopus and squid, beef cheek and seared liver, jamon and manchego. All absolutely delicious and really cheap at around 1-2 euros each. The basques don’t suffer fools gladly so you may find they won’t offer much information on how to order, but it goes like this: ask for a plate (plato), stick as much pinxtos as you want on it, and pay at the end – they will either have taken a note of what you have or you can tell them how many you took. You can also order hot pinxtos like calamari or polpo or foie which will be brought out to you quickly. Remember if there is any fish on the bar to check if it is cooked or not before shoving it in your gob, or you may look like an arse. Also make sure you try the vino tinto, the cider and txakoli – a fizzy wine they pour from a great height – see below. You should also check out Constitution Square in the Old Town which is a sun trap (my sunburnt chest is a testament to that) and great for a coffee, and has wierd numbers above its doors – apparently from bull-fighting where spectators booked number to get a view, and not from, ahem, whoring as we thought it might be.

My favourite places were:

Cafe Gandarias 

This is the best all round pinxtos bar in my humble opinion, where we headed for breakfast of vino tinto and foie, lunch of polpo and cider, and dinner of crab and jamon and cerveza. Also has a great restaurant at the back for sit down dinner, which served us amazing suckling pig and steak and fried cepes.

La Cuchara de San Telmo

A lively, lovely bar which is chocka every night and which serves beautiful hot tapas. We tried the polpo, the foie, beef’s cheeks, baked goat’s cheese, and pretty much everything else on the menu and it was uniformly brilliant. Takes a while to get served as its so busy but persevere, push in, and enjoy the wonderful food.

2. The surf beach

It wasn’t really hot enough for surfing when we were there, although I’ve encountered crazy Basque surfers in other parts of the world and sure enough they were out there roughing the cold and wind. Also near the surf beach is the gorgeous conference centre and also a couple of brilliant award-winning pinxtos places (again!) – we tried Bergara Bar which was fantastic, a bit more family-oriented and the most pretty pinxtos we’d tried – they take their pinxtos very seriously, entering into competititions, and the plates they gave us were lovingly produced (see below) – the food was incredible.

3. The new town and the playa de la concho

The new town has a feel of Biarritz or Nice to it but imho is a bit meh after the higgledy piggledy fun and chaos of the narrow streets of the Old Town. However there the gorgeous shell beach which stretches along its banks which is perfect for sunbathing and admiring the view over the Old Town. Water is mucho frio but great for cooling down after the sweatiness of the Old Town.

4. Visiting a cider house

This was one of the best fun nights oot we had, thanks to the bonkers Basque tradition of visiting Sidrerias (the Guardian has a good list of the best ones here) and eating wonderful food while getting cider straight out the barrel into your glass (a lot ending up on the floor). We took a 10 euro cab out of town into the hills around San Sebastian to visit the Petritegi cider house – one of the biggest and most popular.  Its worth going alone for the fun of pouring your own cider, but also for the yummy food – a set meal cost about 25 euros each with all cider included, starters, cheese, and the most amazing steak I’ve ever had in Europe (see below).

5. The harbour

The harbour is perfect for lazy walks and people watching – the Basques appear to be follicly infatuated with both the mullet and the rat’s tail and there were some wonderful examples of both to be seen. It is also filled with seafood and fish restos where you can sit outside and admire the haircuts. We found a great one and ordered sardines and fish soup followed by a whole hake which was perfectly and simply fried in butter and garlic.

6. Walk up to see Jesus

The statue obvs. It stands arms outstretched over the town on Mount Urgull like a poor man’s Christo Redentor. The walk up there is leisurely and extremely pretty – overlooking the Altantic and with a lovely view over the playa de la concho.  You actually do need to do a walk after all the food and booze you’ll be plying yourself with but make sure you wear elasticated trousers and take plenty of breaks. You may as well have a few pinxtos at the end to reward yourself.

You can see all the HPL’s food photos from the trip here – be warned though do NOT look at them when hungry 🙂

Food porn from The Kitchin (and the Sheep’s Heid), Edinburgh

Its about this time of the year when the warmth of Spring makes me go a little hyper, and two lovely words pop into my head: MINI BREAK. I’m currently planning weekends away to Brussels, Vienna and back to Edinburgh for the festival, which, if you haven’t been before, is absolutely brilliant. The atmosphere is electric, the whole city’s on holiday, and you can see some amazing street performances, theatre, comedians and music. You can also drink until 5am pretty regularly. I’ve already done a post on things to do in Edinburgh here, and if you’re thinking of going up for the festival, I’d definitely recommend lunch or dinner at The Kitchin while you’re there (although if you click the link beware the AWFUL musac on their website, my only criticism -reminds me of a cheap spa in Tooting).

Anyway The Kitchin won the Observer Food Monthly best restaurant award in October 2010 and it deserves it – the food was pretty much perfect. Lunch was a little rushed – they asked for our dessert orders at the start which is always a shame because you never know how you’re going to feel after your main – but only because there is a 1.5 hour turnaround on tables (boo but understandable – its only small). But the whole experience – from the crudites and blue cheese dressing to snack on with your cocktail to the gorgeous petits fours at the end – was professional and inventive. They almost overdid it on the fussing – at one point we had about 7 different waiters round our table doing something or other – but it was expertly done. For example, the wine waiter made our bottle of wine last throughout the meal in a way I couldn’t have.

Here’s some piccies of the food. I got a very nice email from a pro photographer recently who informed me that all my photos are a little yellowish and was my camera perhaps on the wrong setting. Ahem. Yes I think it was although these ones seem to be OK:

Amuse bouche of mussel soup – bloody lovely. Also like the Braveheart chain mail style table mats

My starter of seafood ravioli in lobster bisque – very rich and full

The Chef had lamb sweetbreads in a garlic puree – he liked mucho (didn’t talk much through this course)

My main of Skate – now just LOOK at that, seriously – work of art of what?!  The fish was lovely and tender and light but I’m afraid I was a little bleurghed out by the reddish rawness of some of the meat

The Chef had pork belly (bien sur) and it was wonderful apparently

Pistachio souffle with pistachio ice cream (PERFECT) and cheese to finish

And then some petits fours to end.

As you can see, it really was a gastro marathon, with quite incredible flavours and textures and ingredients. The cost? Well, nae cheap obviously – I seem to have lost the receipt but I seem to recall it was around £75 each, but well worth it and I meal I won’t forget for a long time. And like any Michelin-starred restaurant, you are treated like royalty – in fact we got a friendly hello from both Tom and Michaela when we arrived. Definitely a destination for any festival-going food lover.

Also do check out the Sheep’s Heid in Duddingston (above), right by Arthur’s Seat if you fancy a lovely walk. It’s the oldest pub in Scotland (circa 1300s), with a gorgeous cosy pub serving real ales, a 1950s skittle alley, and a decent restaurant serving haggis and sausage mash and similar. 

The Kitchin on Urbanspoon

Escape To The Country

This is the HPL and friends somewhere in the Peak District wearing brand new (largely unworn since) “rural” outfits and running incongruously across a field, most probably to find a pub

Let’s face it, even though we all love London, life can sometimes get a little hectic – the commute, the long working hours, the over-filled diary – and we need to take a break. Certainly if I haven’t left for a few months I can get a little stressed and, well, narky, and yearn for a good long country walk or even better a good short circular country walk with a brilliant old pub in the middle. Sadly, the days of the 99p budget airline weekend in Carcassone is well and truly fini and, as several leading economics have recently commented – we’re all bloody skint, so we need to find places closer to home and fairly cheap to get our fresh air and slice of rural calm. Of course you can schlep to Brighton or Bristol or Bath or Henley or similar, but here’s some other nice places I’ve been to recently, or am planning to go soon, that you might want to try:

1. Bray, Berkshire

Or anywhere along the Thames belt really – from London to Oxfordshire – is great for nice little riverside pubs and cycle rides. Windsor is incredibly pretty and only about a 45 minute train from Paddington or you can drive it in just over an hour. Bray is of course famous for the Fat Duck, and if you have a spare £300 then you might want to try a tasting menu there. But you can also pop along to the Riverside Brasserie in the marina, which is right by the Thames, with ducks and swans and all that, and food from Blumenthal’s sous chef. The Times was doing a voucher for 2 courses for £10 when I went with my Aunt, we ate some great food and lovely wine and it was incredibly peaceful. No wave music and dry ice though. You could also check out Cliveden and the lovely village of Taplow – where my beautiful granny is buried.

2. Whistable, Kent

Another hour’s drive will take you daaahn to Margate or to lovely Whitstable with its shore front seafood cafes and stalls and its cute little painted huts and pebble beach. Perfect for an ice cream and a stroll along the beach and a wistful glance at the snogging teenagers will make you wish you’d grown up there. Or you could take your bike on the train to Canterbury and cycle to Whistable for lunch.

3. The Royal Oak, Bishopstone, Wiltshire

Just under a 2 hour drive from London and a hop skip and a jump from the big horse thing and Stonehenge is this lovely little village, home to Helen Browning’s organic pig farm and pub The Royal Oak. We ate the most wonderful veal roast and pork terrine washed down with a lovely bottle of Malbec. Worth the drive?  If you added in a walk and a stay at one of their £25 rooms then most definitely.  

4. Saffron Waldon, Essex

Yes its true, Essex *is* actually beautiful although I might avoid Billericay if I were you. You can head to the cute Stansted Montfichet with its 12th century Norman castle. Or you could wander around the beautiful Saffron Walden thought to be one of the nicest towns in Essex. You could visit Audley End House and check out Jamie Oliver’s parents’ pub The Cricketers in Clavering. Oh and it’s obviously super cheap to get to Stansted from there if you are doing a cheapie budget airline flight.

5. Shere, Surrey

This is that cute little village featured in The Holiday and Bridget Jones’ Diary. It’s all tudor cottages and swans and ye olde tea shoppe and its very very cute. The Rookery Nook (see! cute!) has lovely looking rooms right in the village or we stayed at the lovely Lockhust Hatch Farm for a mere £65 a night which is a 15 minute drive away (or quite a bit longer if you get lost, repeatedly). The nearest train station is Guildford (30 minutes from Waterloo) or it takes about 1 hour to drive from South West London. Note Guildford doesn’t “do” Oyster darlings.

And Surrey-ites are bloody lucky when it comes to food, which was utterly wonderful when we were there.  We had amazing pub grub and great service at Shere’s The William Bray, nice simple food like scampi, chips and mushy peas at The William IV just outside, and one of the best roasts and certainly the best cheese table I’ve seen in a while at Forest Green’s The Parrot. The only disapointment was Shere’s Kingham’s which was a little overpriced.

We didn’t just eat – oh no. We went for a walk and (literally) stumbled upon Leith Hill near Dorking which we learned is the highest point in South East England and one where you have an amazing vista that looks across the rolling hills and over the English Channel. Of course, we went on a really misty day so we saw fuck all. Oh well. There’s also Box Hill from Jane Austen glamorous picnic fame.

A long weekend in Vienna

So why should you go to Vienna? Here’s some good reasons:

  • One of your best friends lives out there and you are dying for non-stop gossip
  • It is two hours by from London (Easyjet, BA and Austrian Airlines)
  • It’s an intriguing mix of East meets West – settled in the bosom of central Europe with the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia as neighbours and a hint of elegant Prague about it; and also the Eastern front of Western Europe with Parisien-looking streets and cafes
  • Schnitzel
  • Lots of nearby mountains for skiing and trekking and mountain biking; and drinking wine or hot chocolate in hill-top cafes (or Jaeger bombs at the Crazy Kangaroo – good for picking up prospective husbands apparently)
  • Beer cellars, kegs and jugs

  • Amazingly grand Austro-Hungarian buildings hinting at a very opulent past
  • Home to Falco’s Rock Me Amadeus, Heeeeey He-ey Baby (Ooh Aah), soft rock, 80s hits and brass bands
  • Cool nightlife at the Museum Quartier and the Naschmarkt
  • Grand old coffee houses with high ceilings, chandeliers, women in fur and pearls, and CAKE (sachertorte and strudel and a million other varieties)
  • Fabulous wine (most of which is not exported) at incredible prices – think EUR 2,50 for a lovely glass of Riesling.

  • You can still smoke in bars! And restaurants! Although the HPL does not condone this for medical reasons!
  • It’s compact enough that you can walk all round the centre, and drive from one side to the other in only 20 minutes

It’s a lovely weekend away – romantic and impressive and easy to get round, with great food and wine.  If you had longer you could head West to the Alps or to visit the incredible Salzburg with it’s Mozart and Sound of Music tours (guess which one I did). Anyway, here’s some ideas of things to do if you fancy a weekend away there:

1. Wander round the centre to take in the Natural History Museum, the Vienna Opera House (I’m sure going to the opera here would be an amazing experience), the Hofburg castle and the unusual St Stephen’s Cathedral.

2. See a show or take a tour at the Spanish horse riding school, housed in a stunning building. 

3. Visit a grand old coffee house – I went to the Cafe Central with its marvellous ceilings and old-fashioned waitresses –  and eat one of the stunning cakes. Sehr typical is the sachertorte (chocolate and orange cake) or eat lunch too and try the soup and schnitzel.

4. Wander or cycle along the banks of the Danube.

5. Visit the stunning Natural History Museum (see below) and climb onto it’s roof for a better view of the City.

6. Drink champagne or cocktails at the Onyx bar (see below), with a fantastic view of St Stephen’s Cathedral behind you – beautiful people, babies, dogs in handbags, cigarettes and sunsets.

7. Head to Grinzing, where all the vineyards are (see below), and climb the hill behind Vienna (in amongst the wald) to take in a gorgeous view of the City, have a coffee at Au Himmel (see bottom photo below) and finish up with some lovely wine or home-brewed beer at a local heurige (wine tavern). We had some nice wine at Figls.

8. Try some street food and on Saturdays rummage around for antiques from a stall at the cool Naschmarkt.

9. Visit the museums and galleries (especially the Leopold Museum) in the Museums Quartier and stay for the great nightlife afterwards. We had a lovely meal at Glacis Beisl which was a cool little place with a lovely garden and great Austrian food.

10. Visit the gorgeous Schloss Shoenbrunn , with its manicured gardens and stunning view over Vienna (see below). And try a champagne brunch at the lovely cafe on the hilltop.

A big thank you to the gorgeous Lady B for being my guide – I’ll be back in Summer missus! xxx

A guide to Argentina in 2-and-a-bit weeks

No, I’m not writing this now to piss you off. I’m writing this guide because I know at least two people who are off to Argie (I hate this abbreviation too but quicker to write it like this) in December / January and I promised, sorry.

Anyway, if you, like me, were worried that your backpacking days are over; or you regret never travelling in South America but think because you only get 25 days holiday a year it’s not worth it, the good news is that 2 weeks is plenty to see a decent amount of Argentina. I saw a lot and never felt rushed (which might have something to do with the relaxing night buses). And you can backpack it or do it in style – travel is easy, fun and friendly and you can go from posh restaurants to hostels and back. Here’s some ideas of what to do (and I’ve also written about Argie hospitality and steaks here,  Argie food here and travelling  on  your own here):

1. Buenos Aires

Like everyone, I stayed in Palermo, the Notting Hill / NY West Village of BA. Filled with cool graffiti and art galleries, great restaurants, bars and pavement cafes, it also has amazing clothes boutiques so make sure your bag is only half filled when you arrive. I stayed in a mixed 4-bed dorm in Palermo Hostel Suites which was brilliant – they book trips and tours and buses and meeting people was as easy as “Hi I’m [insert name], do you fancy a beer?”. I keep banging on about it, but eat steak at Palermo’s La Cabrera for an incredible feast to introduce you to Argentina. If you go and have the cash, the Home hotel looks amazing.

Head to La Boca to watch Tango at a pavement cafe eating a giant steak (see photo above), admire the colourful houses and take in a football game (but avoid if you are claustrophobic or have tummy issues – no doors on the loos). It’s very touristy but worth a look and don’t wander down sidestreets, I met people who had been mugged. The Sunday market in San Telmo is huge and fantastic with brilliant leather bags and hats and streetside tango. You have to see the Plaza de Mayo and if I had more time I wanted to check out the Eva Peron museum, the Jardins Japonaises and the Recoleta Cemetery where Eva is buried.

2. Iguazu

I was going to head to the beaches of Uruguay (especially Puerto del Diablo) but it wasn’t hot enough in November and to be honest I wanted a tan, so I took an overnight bus from BA (with free dinner, reclining beds, wine and a film) to near the Paraguay and Brazil borders to see the Iguazu waterfalls. Now before I went up there, I had the rather patronising thought that yeah yeah its a waterfall, I’ve SEEN frickin’ waterfalls before. But these are truly amazing – huge, vast, stunningly beautiful – you really should go. You should see them from the Argentina side to get up close, and the Brazil side to see the vastness of the whole area.

You can stay in the town of Puerto Iguazu but I stayed about 5 kms outside at a 6-bed dorm at the Hostel Inn – noteable for its amazing pool and poolside bar but the food and dorms weren’t that great. Remember it’s HOT and HUMID up there (30 degrees at about 8am) so a pool is a lovely luxury. I grabbed the roadside bus to both sides (7 pesos to Argentina and 85 pesos or so to Brazil) and took half a day at each (yes not a lot but its so rammed with people that I couldn’t sit and marvel and started getting impatient). Thanks to Still Travelling Sarah, I found a great restaurant which I think is called Terra in Puerto Iguazu, a few doors downhill from the bus station, which does caipirissima cocktails and Asian fusion food (honestly you’ll sicken of steak after a while) and the nearby Timbo Iguazu shop which sells hand-made clothes and jewellery including some beautiful pale pink rodocrosita stones, speciality of Argentina.

3. Mendoza

From Iguazu, I utterly cocked up on geography / common sense and got an overnight bus back to BA followed by another overnight bus to Mendoza. This was stupid – you can go direct (but 24 hours to Mendoza) or via Cordoba. Or just don’t be a tight arsed Scot FFS and fly.

So Mendoza is right by the Chilean border with the snow-capped Andes in the middle and is awe-inspiringly beautiful. It has the San Martin park in the centre with a river running through it which could be in Oxford, its so calm and peaceful. And it has desert outside where you can gallop Argentinian horses in the sand (see photo below). It has hot springs. But better than all of this, it has wineries (bodegas) where they make the most amazing Malbec, and Syrah, and lots of other wines. And like anywhere that produces wine this means it is relaxed and gastronomic and green and lovely. The wine industry is fairly new so it’s not as “rock up and open a bottle” as Hunter or Napa Valleys – you need to call up and book ahead. I stayed in a 4-bed dorm at the Mendoza Inn (friendly and central on the Aristides street by all the bars, but a bit of an oonst oonst party place) and I did the hostel’s own cycle wine tour and it was a bit rubbish – far better to organise and do it yourself. We went to see the wonderful Carmelo Patti, Alta Vista (photo above) and La Guarde bodegas and the wine was just wonderful. The Tempus Alta bodega also has a gorgeous rooftop wine terrace. You can also do great wine tastings at the Vines of Mendoza in Mendoza itself. As a treat, you should try a coffee or beer (or high tea!) at the Park Hyatt hotel overlooking the Plaza Independencia or a steak at Azafran. Again if you have the cash, definitely check out Francis Mallman (Argie’s most famous chef) and his restaurant 1884 – set in a beautiful bodega just outside Mendoza’s centre, it’s a real treat.

Aristides has some great shops – especially La Matera for authentic leather belts – and there’s other good boutiques on Sermiento and 9 de julio, and a market in the Plaza Independencia. The Raices jewellery store just off the main square was lovely too.

4. Bariloche

Yes you guessed it, I took an overnight bus from Mendoza to Bariloche in the Lake District of Patagonia. But this time there was bus bingo and champagne, hurrah, although it was my third bus playing the Bounty Hunter, sigh. I stayed at the Hostel Patanuk which had the perfect view – overlooking the stunning lake with snowcapped mountains behind. Bariloche is wierd – with it’s chalets, fondues and touts flogging photos with a St Bernard dog, you could sort of be in Switzerland.

But there are two things you must do – you must go galloping on horseback through the Patagonian forest to the lake and then up the mountains. I rode with Hugo from Tom Wesley stables and he got me galloping like a pro – even though I’d last ridden when I was about 9 and horses scare me a bit. They will do an asado (BBQ) if you do a full day trek. You must also hire a bike and do the circuito chico – a fairly up and down cycle ride past amazing views. It will take you between 4 and 8 hours to do, depending on how much you stop and if you decide you can’t be arsed cycling and push your bike up the hills instead, ahem. Finally, Bariloche is famous for it’s lamb, trout and venison, I liked La Marca for lamb brochettes, and La Esquina for coffee and dulche de leche alfajores, and you must have a bife de chorizo at El Boliche de Alberto.

Funnily enough, after my two weeks of overnight buses and slumming it in hostels, I decided to treat myself to a flight from Bariloche back to BA and a night in a lovely boutique hotel in Palermo. Only my flight was cancelled so I had to take a 5 hour bus to another town and wait in the airport until 5am to fly. So I got to my nice hotel at 6.30am only to pay an astronomical sum for 3 hours of my head touching the pillow. There is a lesson there, somewhere.

On travelling alone and roughing it

I had a long, sleepless bus journey from Mendoza to Bariloche – sat next to the bogs, awoken by my fellow pasajeros frequent toilet trips and the pungent smell of bleach, smelling salts and recycled poo. The hostel then put me in an 8-man dorm with 7 blokes. How lucky! you might say. Well no, 7 stinky snoring grunting blokes [although see update below], one of whom was cleaning his feet with his pen knife when I came in and two who bowled in drunk at 4am, the smallest proceeding to barf loudly shortly thereafter. I got a top bunk – I who have terrible vertigo and once cried when trying to get down a friend`s rickety attic stairs when hungover. Every time I got off my bed I narrowly missed my lower bunkmate´s head (although it was he of the feet-cleaning so I didn`t try too hard).

The champers didn`t quite make up for the bog smell

Your worst nightmare? Perhaps. Travelling alone can suck, especially in your thirties. I have had bad experiences before – like the three days I spent in Pushkar crawling to the toilet on my hands and knees with Dehli belly and without a companion to bring me water, only cured by a colonic massage by an old Indian woman.

But a bad experience is still an experience, and is often a story you tell again and again, embellish, make your friends laugh with. My friends just love the India poo story, especially when told in intimate detail over dinner. These experiences can teach you about yourself, like I know that I`m pretty tough, but I also cry very easily when shouted at. And they make you appreciate the good things more – a warm shower after a long bus trip, the first time your supper doesn`t flood directly out your bottom (sorry!), or even being able to move to the lower bunk (hurrah!). Life`s simple pleasures become better.

I have friends who say they`d never travel alone but I`d still say it can be fantastic. I travelled alone in India and again on a round-the-world trip and met some fantastic people, many of whom have remained friends, some who have visited me in London and I even went to a wedding of an Essex boy I met in Hanoi who I travelled half-way across the world with.

Fact is, if you`re in your thirties or forties and single and have an urge to backpack round South America, it is more likely than not that your friends don`t have the time or money, or want to travel in a different way to you. In this case you have little choice unless you want to give up your dream. I say be brave and go alone.

The benefits far outweigh the crappy bits. Without a friend to hide behind, you meet a ton of people – and if you`re backpacking and in hostels it`s likely that you will meet people from all walks of life, from different countries, who will inspire you. In this Argentina trip alone, I`ve met a number of brilliant people who I know I`ll see again and who have made me think about the way I live in London in a different light. And dining alone can be great – you can people watch, observe the world around you and think about things harder and deeper than you have for ages. It helps if you enjoy your own company of course. You have no-one`s timetable to stick to but your own. For example, I MAY be in a place where you are supposed to do lots of treks but I MAY have decided to have some wine over lunch and then a snooze and then a manicure instead. Which is FINE. I`m a big fan of hanging out when I travel – not that I`m lazy but because I think you get to really understand the vibe of a place, how the people live, and not tick it off as a place you`ve “done” because you did three different tours. And also I`m a bit lazy.

Treating self to a nice lunch at the Park Hyatt in Mendoza – not too shabby

Here`s some tips if you are planning to travel alone:

  • Don`t feel ashamed if you find yourself dining alone. Think of yourself as a fabulous, mysterious stranger and don`t hide your head in a book.
  • Take your time over dinner, don`t rush to eat and leave. Have that second glass of wine, watch the world go by.
  • Of course you want to share your thoughts and experiences – best way is when you meet new friends, but when you are alone, try not to go on the internet too much, try to disconnect – a diary is brilliant.
  • Everyone here seems to have a laptop (I remember when there wasn`t even internet when you went travelling blah blah) but if you have your nose in a book or a laptop you give off real “leave me alone” vibes. Put it down, grab a beer and make friends.
  • If you´re a woman travelling alone, you may be preyed on by sleazy men (yes I`m looking at you, Juan the car mechanic from Buenos Aires). One of the great things about travelling alone is being open to exciting romances but if you aren`t interested it`s totally your prerogative to be a bit pushy and let them know.  

I`m also a big fan of roughing it. I make decent money in London and I like the occasional long weekend in a nice hotel. But the problem with that is that money and materiality is so evident in some of these places, so you never really get out of the endless rat race of earning and spending your money. I really like the freedom of living with only two changes of clothes, both slightly dirty, in a place where everyone is skint and money doesn`t count, so you concentrate more on the things that DO count – like meeting people, and learning about a new place, and thinking about life. I find I do that better somehow wearing grubby old clothes in a hostel with other grubby people. The other thing is that in a posh hotel there is often a real distance between guest and staff, whereas in a hostel you are more on a level with the people that work there – you chat and drink together – which means that you find out more about the place you are visiting. That`s not to say I`m a total tight-arse – I`m spending money on the occasional lovely dinner (La Cabrera in Buenos Aires and Francis Mallman in Mendoza – more later), shopping and I`m staying in a lovely boutique hotel on my last night, where I shall be reading my book with a “do not disturb” sign on. And of course there are times when you are a couple when you just don´t want to speak to anyone else, especially if you are busy and don`t see much of each other. Sigh. OK so maybe I`m just a little jealous :)…

UPDATE: Ok so turns out the remaining non-drunken stinky boys weren´t so bad, in fact one was a very nice Aussie law student who taught me about rock climbing and Scott´s expedition to the antartic and sperm whales. And who also might read this post soon hence the update :). Although I stand by my statement that dorms full of beer-laden boys do stink, sorry.

Steak in Buenos Aires and thoughts on hospitality

This is a tale of two cities. It begins in London, on the lift to the Picadilly Line in Covent Garden. There was I, be-hooded and backpacked, contemplating my solo trip to Argentina. On walked a well-spoken man in a suit who started by shouting “can you move down” (there was plenty of room) and then for good measure “and stop being such fucking tourists“. I noted with pleasure that the tourists at the front werent listening but I, looking like a fucking tourist myself, took the brunt of his anger as he squished me into the wall. What a terrible day he must have had to act like such a wanker, I thought, but what a miserable git – has he never been a tourist himself?

Soon after that I saw a young Chinese woman in the tube asking for “terminal four” repeatedly and being told by an eye-rolling woman (who got off at Knightsbridge) that she had no idea what she was saying. Everyone seemed to be looking at their feet but I managed to step in to help before the woman burst into tears – Ive been there before somewhere foreign on my own and lost and scared – and to give Londoners their due, others stepped in to help too. Which proved hard as her knowledge of English didnt really extend further than “terminal four” (which I have sympathy with – Im currently touring Argentina with only the words “una botella de vino tinto por favor” for company).

I didnt fret too much – as you know I believe in karma so I know that the universe will be depositing one of its short and curlies in besuited man and posh womans dinner any time soon. And karma shined its face on me too, as a payback for the lift-squashage. A woman in buddhist robes gave up her seat for me on the plane as my headset wasnt working, and will presumably achieve more favourable reincarnation as a result of missing out on Twilight Eclipse.

And the good karma continued for me – I was taken out in Buenos Aires by Yanina and Mathias with whom I share only a tenuous connection, being a friend of a friend of a friend. And yet they took me out on my first night in Buenos Aires to Palermos La Cabrera, one of BAs best steakhouses, for a night of delicious steak and wine courtesy of Altos Las Hormigas – the malbec made in the vineyard for whom my friend Aileen works, who I am visiting next week. Everything they say about Argentinian steak is true – it is perfectly cooked, tender and mouth-wateringly delicious. I will try to figure out why by my next post when I will have tried some Mendoza asados. The wine was also wonderful – deep and spicy as if made by red ants (and available in Londres at Waitrose and other posh wine places). It was our noche de las hormigas and I had a wonderful time. I was touched at the warmth and kindness shown to me by these almost-strangers especially in light of the tourist-bashing Id seen in London. The people of Argentina seem to share a warmth and kindness that makes travelling here fantastically easy and fun. Although they eat bloody late (dinner doesnt start until 10pm earliest and on my first jet-lagged night we didnt sit down at our table until midnight). UPDATE: I realise this paragraph doesnt make much sense unless I explain that Hormigas means ants in English. There are little ants on the wine bottle – cute.

I also managed to panic when ordering in La Boca and ordered the giant steak below. It was the bife de chorizo and really meant for 2 people (man next to me ordered 1/2) but I was too ashamed to show Id made a mistake so bravely ate 3/4 of it myself. And now want only pasta for the next couple of days. But it was lovely too.

Im now in Iguazu, in a hostel with a pool and swimming in the sun, but on the top bed of a crowded dorm bunk bed in a hostel with terrible music and a happy hour. So you cant have everything. I got here through the kindness of an old man who helped me – having the wrong ticket and there at the wrong time – to get the right bus. Remember its the Olympics in London soon so we will be flooded with touristas. So I make a pledge now to be nicer, to help people looking lost, and not to suddenly find my navel fascinating when someone asks for help.

Please note I have been unable to find the apostrophe on this Argentinian keyboard, I have not lost all ability to spell.

A weekend in Paris part II

The HPL has already written about nice things to do in Paris here. But Lady B’s hen weekend in Gay Paree was so fun, I thought I’d do an update about the great places we went to, just in case you’re planning weekends there with friends over the summer months:

1. Breakfast at Coquelicot, 24 rue des Abbesses, Paris 18th

In the heart of beautiful Montmarte is this gorgeous, busy little patisserie and cafe which serves big bowls of coffee (perfect for the morning after the night before), delicious baguettes and brioche, freshly squeezed orange juice and lovely butter, jam and honey.  I would have the breads/jam/coffee breakfast over the hot, which was served rather cold (probably due to how busy it was).  Best to book in advance for large groups.  After your gigantic brekkie, you can walk up the hill to the Place des Tertes to get your portrait painted, and the Sacre Coeur.

2. Glammed-up dinner at Delaville Cafe, 34 Boulevard de Bonne Nouvelle, 75010 Paris

This place was recommended by a friend living in Paree and was fantastic for a big group although I’d also go back for a romantico dinner.  Great music, cool interior and lovely food (and also, perhaps more importantly, happy to accomodate 12 angels and 1 devil and numerous requests for more wine).  A really fun, relaxed, yummy night out – I had the gambas tempura with marinated mango and seaweed, veal with creamy polenta, and a delicious tiramisu – highly recommended.

3. Lunch at Le Chinon, 49 rue des abesses, 75018 Paris

This is what I call a croque madame – le perfect hangover cure – nom nom nom nom.  Great bistro food and nice outdoor seating perfect for watching the bobo (bourgeois boheme) beautiful people of Montmartre.  Good Sancerre apparently too. 

4. Cocktails at Georges,  Pompidou Centre, Place Georges Pompidou, 75004 Paris 

The view over Paris from the top of the Pompidou is great, the journey up there on futuristic escalators outside the building is fun, and you can eat or drink outside on the terrace.  If you can see past the impossibly beautiful and rather snooty staff, Georges is a fantastic place for a cocktail (try L’Amour or the Bellini for around 15 euros each) although the food is a lot less mind-blowing than the view.  Very Sex and the City and a lovely treat.

5.  A lazy dinner at Heureux Comme Alexandre, 2 Impasse Berthaud, 75003 Paris

15 euros each for an “a volonte” meat or cheese fondue with all-you-can-eat roast potatoes and salad, washed down with delicious 15 euro bottles of Bordeaux.  Relaxed, cosy and very very tasty – just watch out for the spitting oil on the meat fondue and sorry to our lovely waiter for being rather “lively” on a Sunday evening!