Riley’s Fish Shack, Tynemouth

Riley’s Fish Shack, Tynemouth

Although it’s been a while since I lived in the North East, we do still get to experience it when we visit family. It’s become a bit of a tradition that we do a bracing post-Christmas walk, usually on the coast, and this year was no exception. On the day after Boxing Day, we headed to Tynemouth. The weather was as we expected – windy, cold and drizzly. But that didn’t stop people being on King Edward’s Beach, under the imposing priory.

Riley's Fish Shack, Tynemouth, England

The Priory, Tynemouth, England

We decided that the weather was just perfect for a fish lunch. This being the hardy north east, where a blustery wind from Scandinavia doesn’t stop things – you just adapt and do them differently – Riley’s Fish Shack was open, and a very long queue starting to form. If you’ve not heard about this place, where have you been? Snuggling in under the cliffs – if you don’t peer over the Edwardian railings at the top, you’ll miss it – is the most wonderful eatery, we swear you’ll ever encounter. Constructed from two open-fronted shipping containers, this is steampunk heaven. With fish. The best, freshest fish you can imagine.

Riley's Fish Shack Menu, Tynemouth, England

Riley’s Fish Shack Menu

The menu is simple. It consists of what fresh fish they have, at the time you arrive. When it runs out, it runs out. Everything is sourced locally – I mean, how could you source from anywhere else other than the North Sea, when it’s literally lapping around the containers? There’s always a buzz in the queue – and there is *always* a queue as this place is beyond popular – about what’s on the menu. Listen to what other people are drooling over, because if they’re in the queue ahead of you, they’re watching their fish being prepped and cooked. We knew on our last visit that the Goan Monkfish Curry and the Monkfish Tail Kebabs were dead certs – more of the food later, but wowsers!

If you like your interiors to be pristine, with bookable tables and table service etc, this may not be for you. But, if you like quirky surroundings, where you sometimes need to table-share with strangers, and be warmed up with throws and by woodburners, this place is probably right up your street. There is bench-like seating at the front, overlooking the beach and three or four larger tables inside, behind glass doors. For the super-hardy – of which there were many on this very brisk December day – there are groups of canvas deckchairs, around a number of firepits on the beach itself. So, plenty of seating options, but you need to be prepared to be flexible as you might not get exactly where you want.

Riley's Fish Shack, Tynemouth, England

Looking out to Denmark from Riley’s Fish Shack, Tynemouth

Riley's Fish Shack, Tynemouth, England

As you can see, it was a cold day, so we were very lucky to grab a table indoors, with a woodburner in a little nook, at the end of it. Although we did have to share it, as you can see…

Riley's Fish Shack, Tynemouth, England

I think the interior has been really well thought out – very industrial and very raw, with some beautiful touches to soften the edges. Just like its surroundings.

Riley's Fish Shack, Tynemouth, England

Riley's Fish Shack Tynemouth, England

Riley's Fish Shack, Tynemouth, England

King Edward’s Bay, Tynemouth

Deck chairs and fire pits, King Edward's Bay, Tynemouth

Deck chairs and fire pits, King Edward’s Bay, Tynemouth

But, what about the food?

Well, let’s say, we’re on the same page as Jay Rayner and GQ Magazine on this one. The menu, on the day we visited, was extensive –  sea food wraps, mackerel, cod, monkfish, kebabs, lobster, squid and side dishes such as Brussel Sprouts (it was still Christmas!), garlic potatoes and breads. The choice was amazing, but monkfish can never be resisted, so the curry and the kebabs were ordered. With drinks, the bill came to £48, so not cheap, BUT the portions were huge! The chunks of monkfish were plentiful and succulent in the Goan Curry and this dish came with jasmine rice and a very large flatbread. Be aware, though, this dish comes with a kick…

Goan Monkfish Curry : Riley's Fish Shack, Tynemouth

Goan Monkfish Curry : Riley’s Fish Shack, Tynemouth

The monkfish tail kebab dish was equally as huge. Again, big, fat, succulent chunks of fish accompanied by salad, rice, flatbreads and lovely garlicky potatoes with relishes.

Monkfish Tail Kebabs, Riley's Fish Shack, Tynemouth

Monkfish Tail Kebabs, Riley’s Fish Shack, Tynemouth

Over Christmas we travelled from Istria in northern Croatia, through Italy, Austria, Germany and France on our way to and from England. And, without a shadow of a doubt, our meal at Riley’s Fish Shack was miles ahead of anything else we ate in the various restaurants we visited, on our trip. We cannot recommend this little slice of culinary heaven enough. Just don’t forget your hat & scarf!

Photograph: Alex Telfer/The Observer

Photograph: Alex Telfer/The Observer

Image : https://rileysfishshack.com

Image : https://rileysfishshack.com

 

The Frescoes of Draguć, Istria

The Frescoes of Draguć, Istria

In northern Istria, is the small village of Draguć, somewhere I’d never heard of, let alone been to, until this summer. That’s the beauty of Istria. It’s a small peninsula and so I guess that once people who visit have been to the big-hitters – Rovinj, Porec, Pula, Motovun, Grožnjan, Rabac, Opatija – they might think they’ve “done” Istria. Not at all. The surface hasn’t even been scratched. There’s no denying the places mentioned above are stunning and all are well worth a visit, if not an extended stay. But sometimes, it’s the little towns and villages, high up in the hills, or tucked away on winding coastal roads, that are the real jewels in the crown.

In the summer we were driving back from the eastern coast towards Pazin, and saw in the distance, a village perched at the top of a hill. We see lots of these and you can’t stop at them all, but my eagle-eyed sister felt there was something a bit special about this one and so did a quick Google search – resulting in the car being turned around.

When we arrived, although it was the height of summer, it wasn’t thronged with tourists. A few people were wandering around, snapping away at the historic buildings, the Croatian cats curled up in planters, or stretched out on the cobbles, the painted shutters etc. All was quiet – and very, very beautiful. We’d read on Google about the House of Frescoes and were intrigued. Although it wasn’t quite what we’d imagined when we visited it – we thought it would literally be a house, full of frescoes – it was very informative and led to us stumbling upon something so spectacular that I still can’t believe we got up, so close and personal, to it.

The House of Frescoes was opened in the old school building in Draguć, a combined project of the Istrian Region, the Cerovlje Municipality, the Italian Veneto Region and the Croatian Ministry of Culture. They all recognized the importance of mural painting in Istria, a specific phenomenon of cultural heritage whose preservation and presentation requires significant effort and particular expertise. Although there is much more to the building, we were fascinated by the virtual tour of the churches in Istria, which were covered in ancient frescoes, quite a number being in the Draguć area. These churches, for obvious reasons, aren’t open to the general public as a matter of course, but you can have a guided tour, free of charge. Imagine that back in the UK – free of charge! And this was how we got to see inside the Church of St Roc, built at the beginning of the 16th century.

The entrance to the Church of St Roc, Draguć, Istria

The interior is completely decorated with frescoes, painted between  1529 and 1537 by  a local painter, Anthony from Padova – not Padova in Italy but Kašćerga, a small village you can see from the church door if looking out across the lake. Before our guide arrived we could only peer at the frescoes through the bars on the windows – and this was awesome enough. Once inside, our minds were blown!

The church is tiny – another small group had joined us, and with twelve of us inside, it was quite packed. So, for somewhere so small, to be covered from floor to ceiling in frescoes, was something else…

The Frescoes of the Church of St Roc, Draguć, Istria

The Frescoes of the Church of St Roc, Draguć, Istria

The Frescoes of the Church of St Roc, Draguć, Istria

The Frescoes of the Church of St Roc, Draguć, Istria

The Frescoes of the Church of St Roc, Draguć, Istria

The Frescoes of the Church of St Roc, Draguć, Istria

The fact that these ancient works of art are just there – no roping off, not behind glass, no photography restrictions, completely accessible to the public – is incredible. There is such a feeling of trust and a desire to share these masterpieces with people, and I think this instils in people a sense of responsibility and utmost respect.

This tiny church in a very small, hilltop village in the Istrian countryside could so easily be overlooked – so I guess the message is, get off the main roads and explore. Take those roads which look as if they might up in someone’s farmyard. They often do, but just as often, they end up somewhere like Draguć.

This village is less than 30kms from our village, and there are many, many more like it, all waiting to be discovered. If you have a sense of adventure and want a life more peaceful, but still withing striking distance of every amenity you could ever need, as well as two international borders in less than 40 minutes – Slovenia and Italy – have a look at this website. As we’re hoping to sell our beautiful home, so that we can begin on our next renovation project, not too far away. In fact, if you bought this house, we could be neighbours…

 

Roxanich Wine & Heritage Hotel, Motovun, Istria

Roxanich Wine & Heritage Hotel, Motovun, Istria

Whenever we filled up the car in the garage in Motovun, we always used to say how beautiful the derelict building opposite, was. It was a huge structure, but had been clearly been abandoned some years ago. But was still an impressive structure. We imagined winning the lottery and buying it and redeveloping it and restoring it to what would have been its former glory.

And then one day, the diggers moved in and demolition started. Of course, I had to know who had bought it and what it was going to be, because someone, somewhere, had thwarted my plans!

However, I was delighted when I found out that it was actually being restored and would become the Roxanich Heritage and Wine Hotel. If you want to find out more about this amazing renovation and the thinking and concept behind it, it’s all on the official website. It opened in April of this year, and on one of our petrol fill-up  trips, I popped across the road, to see what I could find out. And, oh my word, it was absolutely astonishing – and bearing in mind I only saw the reception and bar area, it still was enough to make me realise that we had to stay here.

Fast forward to August and friends came to stay with us and we did indeed have a night with them, in Roxanich, and I think I am still reeling at how bold and inventive and unique this restoration is. Partly financed by the European Union – we are delighted to now be living in a country which still embraces this union – winemaker Mladen Rozanic has created something very, very special. As well as the hotel accommodation, a restaurant and a wine shop, Roxanich produces its own wines, stored safe and deep in the cellars, snugly fitting inside the landscape, under the hotel. Although definitely not cheap, as you would expect for something of this standard, it’s one of those places that you owe it to yourself to experience. Even if just once. From the moment you enter – and, if you arrive by car, there’s a bit of a James Bond car lift, to take you down into the car park – to the moment you leave, everything is just perfect. A real top notch hotel, which will only serve to increase to reputation of beautiful Motovun.

The reception area sets the tone for the rest of the hotel. The barrel vaulted ceiling, the white painted brickwork, the tiled floor, the exquisite furnishings – plus floor to ceiling glass doors, leading out to a huge terrace, overlooking an infinity pool and beyond, rolling vineyards, the River Mirna and the surrounding hills. But nothing really prepares you for the rooms. Although perhaps the golden lift should give you a clue…

Our room was a deluxe double room, designed for families – and I can honestly say I have never stayed in such an unusual, eye-popping room! But, let’s start with the bathroom. Large enough if you did book this as a family room, with a huge walk in shower – and decorated in a very elegant pale pink and powder blue colour scheme. Very pretty.

But the the room… Blimey, the room! This is the view from the calm and relaxing blue and pink bathroom, looking out onto a psychedelic scene.

But, don’t let this word put you off – because it works. It really does work. Bold and vibrant wallpaper. A four poster bed (padded, Chesterfield style leather), with a mirrored ceiling, with a bed on top, with a ladder to the side, really is the centrepiece. Something this spectacular really can’t be anything else!

We genuinely thought we’d either never sleep or have crazy dreams – but, the bed itself was so super-comfy that it was a dream sleep. Our room had views right across the Mirna Valley and if we squinted, we could also see Oprtalj, our nearest town, so how fabulous to have something so design-led, so close to home.

The rest of the hotel is just as jaw-dropping. We ate dinner on the terrace, which has panoramic, sweeping views across the valley. The views were delicious enough, but the food actually topped the views! No photos, unfortunately, as everything was tucked into immediately!

The attention to detail is carried through to every single public area. To get a feel for this uber-stylish hotel – and don’t forget, it’s located inland, at the foot of a hill, topped by a medieval town, so not in one of the snazzy Istrian coastal resorts – I snapped away. Hopefully, what I got will give a good indication of just how delicious Roxanich is…

Gold Metro Tiles. Can I just repeat? Gold. Metro.Tiles...

Gold Metro Tiles. Can I just repeat? Gold. Metro.Tiles…

The Cigar Room

The Cigar Room

The Wine Room

The Wine Room

The Bar

The Bar

Communal Relaxing Area

Communal Relaxing Area

Where we live is quite rural. We get to our house by driving up a big hill, with a winding road and some quite hairpin bends. Sometimes, we can feel as if we are quite remote and far away from places which are super-stylish. No longer! Now that we can be at Roxanich in under 20 minutes, we feel so privileged that this is literally on our Istrian doorstep.

 

 

Treviso, Italy

Treviso, Italy

Amanda and Steve, friends who come and visit us from Manchester, usually fly into Treviso, north of Venice, spend a couple of days there and then hop on the train to Trieste where we pick them up. They keep telling us that we must visit Treviso, because we’d love it. Additionally, my sister and family visited a friend of theirs who was living in the city – and she has also told me about this wonderful city and how she’s always surprised, given our love of all things Italy, that we’ve never been there.

It’s easy to get to from our base in northern Istria, as the SS14 (we tend to try and avoid the motorway as it’s, well – mad…) runs straight to Venice, so it’s just a turn off before hitting the canals. But that’s been the issue so far – every time we’re on this road, we’re either heading to Venice with friends or meeting them, or going further west to Verona or Brescia or Bergamo. Or, back to the UK. So the turn off to Treviso is never really convenient – until this weekend.

Amanda and Steve were flying out for a short break with family and they invited us over, to join them. We always get excited at the fact that we can do this now. Just get in the car and drive and meet friends in another country. It’s what we always dreamed – and it’s now happening!

We left our home in Istria at 11am and taking the more scenic route, and we were parked up in Treviso at 3pm. Just driving through the centre of the walled medieval town blew us away, because it wasn’t at all what we expected. I’m not sure what we expected, but it wasn’t what we found. With its Venetian walls, and red bricked buildings, and many bridges over the river, and winding alleyways with tall, overhanging, balconied buildings, it is very much like Venice. But it’s also like Padua and Cesena and Bologna – but with a feeling of real identity. It’s really difficult to describe – it’s like lots of Italian cities, but like none at all.

Our apartment, Rialto 13, was situated just off Piazza dei Signori, so very central. It was on the fourth floor of a very old building, so no lift – just lots of stone steps. But, once inside it was a haven of modernity – a really, really well equipped separate kitchen which would be perfect if you were staying more than one night, a large bathroom with a washing machine (again, a plus point for longer staying guests) and a big bedroom, which was very tastefully furnished.

The Blue Apartment, Rialto 13, Treviso

Our overnight trip was unfortunately all too short on this occasion. We had a date with IKEA, the following day – and unlike when we lived in West Didsbury, it’s now not as easy as popping over to Ashton or Warrington. From Treviso our choices were east to Padua or west, and back homewards, to Villesse, just outside of Trieste. So we had to hotfoot it through Treviso to get back to Villesse – but not before we’d savoured some of the some amazing sights that the city has to offer. Enough for me to have already been looking at a return trip…

Treviso, Italy

Treviso, Italy

Treviso, Italy

Treviso, Italy

Treviso, Italy

Treviso, Italy

Treviso, Italy

Treviso, Italy

Treviso, Italy

Treviso, Italy

Hotel Navis, Opatija Riviera, Croatia

Hotel Navis, Opatija Riviera, Croatia

What a treat, a day and night away at Hotel Navis, in Opatija, is. Built into a cliff-face, and with all rooms overlooking the sea, it is situated between Rijeka and Volosko, on Preluk Bay – and for us, not too far away from our home in Istria. We spotted the hotel on one of our first drives back from Rijeka when we moved here, and vowed that we’d investigate it – which we did recently, with friends who were visiting from England. The hotel is very cleverly designed. From the road, only the sign can be seen. A steep drive takes you down to the entrance and the reception and it is only when you get out of your car, that you really appreciate how beautiful it is. Glass walls form the shell of the hotel on the reception level, creating such a feeling of light and space, and bright pops of furnishing colour add to the overall wow factor…

Hotel Navis, Opatija

Hotel Navis, Opatija

We’d arrived quite early, much earlier than the check-in time, and our rooms were still being prepared. How lovely then to be greeted by one of the owners, who chatted to us about the hotel and the gorgeous Opatija Riviera – and who also brought us complimentary pink fizz, whilst we waited. Not a bad way to begin a Tuesday 😉 It was almost a shame when we told our rooms were ready, as we weren’t quite ready to leave the little terrace above the private beach…

Hotel Navis, Opatija

All rooms have balconies and all face the sea. We had a room on the first floor – Room 101 – and our friends had a similar room, on the fourth floor. You can’t miss your room – super-sized room numbers guide you easily, along the corridors. If you like your decor to be neutral, Hotel Navis may not tick your boxes, but we loved the bold colours and designs, and especially the purple, black and red patina walls, the famous coloured concrete Venetian technique.

When we stay somewhere, my rule of thumb is that I want it to be at least as nice as where I live – otherwise I could stay at home. Often, though, our expectations are exceeded – and they certainly were at Hotel Navis.

Rooms have been meticulously designed in this hotel. Dark concrete walls contrast with the floor to ceiling glass doors which slide back, to reveal a balcony and sweeping views across the bay. Our room was perfectly positioned, just above the little pebbled private beach. Rather then sunbeds, this beach has big squishy beanbags which look super comfy – so comfortable that even when some quite unexpected waves rolled in, literally no-one moved. Although that could also have been to do with the waves providing some respite from the searing heat.

Hotel Navis, Opatija

Hotel Navis, Opatija

Minimalist accessories and furnishings give the room an uncluttered, spacious feel…

Hotel Navis, Opatija

Hotel Navis, Opatija

Hotel Navis, Opatija

Hotel Navis, Opatija

The bathrooms are also a delight. As well as L’Occitane toiletries – a class act – and big fluffy towels and robes and slippers, most rooms have a bath, as well as a shower. And, given that we have tiniest bath ever, anywhere that has a big one, gets a massive thumbs up from us.

The attention to detail continues in the hotel corridors and stairways. Huge glass and concrete planters and vases, filled with greenery (and wine corks), dominate corners and add real interest to what would otherwise be dead space. The dark colours continue – but the hotel is not dark, simply because of the expanse of glass, which reflects the sunlight and the turquoise sea.

Hotel Navis, Opatija

The hotel has, as well as the cute little private beach, a spa and treatment area, and a large sun terrace with a pool and a very stylish bar. It was a luxurious treat to just lounge around the pool, sunbathing and interspersing this with swimming in the sea. The location is so peaceful – nothing beats being able to lie in the sun and just watch boats bobbing about on the water.

Breakfast is amazing. I think it’s probably one of the best breakfasts we’ve experienced, simply because of the range and choice. As well as the location of the restaurant, which literally overhangs the water.

Hotel Navis, Opatija

As well as an extensive cold buffet – with cheeses, meats, breads, fruit, youghurts, cereal, croissants, cakes – there is also a cooked breakfast menu, with so much choice. The consensus amongst us was that we had all made the perfect choices – the lightest, fluffiest omelettes, and poached eggs with avocado and the other with truffles. Breakfast is available until 11am, and with check out until midday, it meant that we could enjoy a long, leisurely start to the day. Although perhaps not as leisurely as those who were opting for the Prosecco with breakfast. Think we missed a trick there 😉

The location of this architect designed hotel really is quite stunning – situated where it is, clinging to the rocks below a road which snakes around the Opatija Riviera, it is very remiscent of the Amalfi Coast. Although without the hoardes of tourists, coaches and back to back traffic, which makes it all the more special.

Got to be honest and say it definitely wasn’t the cheapest hotel we’ve ever stayed in – but you certainly get what you pay for. And as a treat, it was absolutely perfect. Just perfect…

 

Petit Sant Miquel, Mallorca

Petit Sant Miquel, Mallorca

Petit Sant Miquel, Mallorca

After spending time on the western side of Mallorca, we decided to explore the eastern side of the island and found a gem of a hotel, called Petit Sant Miquel in the very pretty and very traditional village of Calonge. Renovated and opened in August 2018 by a Mallorcan couple, it is the epitome of relaxation in contemporary and very stylish surroundings. We stayed right at the beginning of the season, which for us was fabulous, as it meant that we literally had this small, but  perfectly formed, boutique hotel almost to ourselves.

Petit Sant Miquel, Mallorca

The interior of the hotel is spotlessly clean and well thought out, design wise. Furnishings and accessories are subtle and stylish, in the colour tones we love – blues, greys and whites with natural touches. The ever-present Spanish floor tiles are much in evidence and as ever, just very beautiful. We stayed two nights and chose to have breakfast outside, in the internal courtyard, because the weather was gorgeous – just like the courtyard, in fact. As with the interior, the exterior just oozes calmness and effortless style. The owners certainly have good eyes for design detail. Marble topped tables, olive trees, lanterns, candles, palette planters and well thought out lighting all create an environment where it’s impossible not to feel completely chilled out. Breakfast is simple but again, well thought out – there are the usual cold cured meats and cheeses and breads and pastries and juices but these are all of a very high standard. We didn’t check, but wouldn’t be surprised if everything was sourced locally. Eggs, to your taste, can also be prepared – always a nice touch.

Petit Sant Miquel, Mallorca

Petit Sant Miquel, Mallorca

The hotel also operates an Honesty Bar, with very reasonably priced wines and beers and snacks – and the lit up courtyard is a perfect place to enjoy a drink at the end of the night.

Petit Sant Miquel, Mallorca

Petit Sant Miquel, Mallorca

So, to our room. Well, it’s no surprise it was rather gorgeous. Not huge in size, but the space had clearly been really well considered. With a big double bed, a very sizeable (and very pretty vintage vanilla coloured) wardroble and a table and chair, it had everything you would need for a short stay. The toilet and walk in shower were housed in separate areas within the room, divided by opaque glass – the rainhead shower was powerful and the cubicle was spacious. This gets a big tick from me, as there’s nothing worse bathroom-wise, than a cramped shower area. But the best thing of all – always a bonus if you want a relaxing experience – was the free standing bath. Utter luxury, especially when travelling…

Petit Sant Miquel, Mallorca

We also had a tiny little balcony (although still with two sun chairs and a table) overlooking the courtyard – and it did look as if all rooms overlooking this area had a balcony too.

But perhaps our favourite part of Petit Sant Miquel, and what originally caught our eye online when we were booking, was the rooftop terrace, with views overlooking the rooftops of Calonge, the mountains and the shimmering sea. We spent quite a lot of time on this balcony and because no-one else was using it at the same time, we had it all to ourselves. That meant no fighting over the great big sunbed, with billowing side panels. And it also meant that we had the gorgeous plunge pool to ourselves. It was absolute heaven, soaking up the sun, with a cold bottle of dry Spanish white wine…

The hotel is located in a sleepy (at least when we were there in mid-May) village, although it does benefit from two superb restaurants. Restaurant Bona Taula is a traditional Mallorcan restaurant, specialising in meat and fish. The menu never changes – it doesn’t have to as it is excellent. We had a tapas style meal of whitebait, padron peppers, cheese and potatoes, followed by the most delicious Creme Catalan I’ve ever tasted.

And the second restaurant we tried, and thoroughly loved, was Pizzeria Nou which served amazing pizzas. We ate outside in the vine and honeysuckle and wisteria covered courtyard which was just so pretty. Great food, excellent wine and wonderful service. Both restaurants are highly recommended.

We definitely think we found a bit of a gem when we discovered Petit Sant Miquel, and although we definitely preferred the west side of Mallorca to the east, next time we visit, we will be making a return to this lovely boutique hotel. (This is NOT a sponsored or paid for post. Simply our experience of our visit).

 

Retail Therapy in Marrakech

Retail Therapy in Marrakech

Marrakech is up there as one of the craziest, loudest, most colourful, chaotic, beautiful, exhausting and intriguing cities we’ve ever visited. Hot and dusty (even in January when we’ve visited), it’s somewhere that we only do for a couple of days before escaping to the calmness of the coast, and the gorgeous Essaouira. You can never be bored in Marrakech – it’s a non-stop feast for every sense. And, if you like shopping, and your normal retail therapy haunts are on sedate high streets or out of town shopping centres, you’ll need to brace yourself!

Souk Shopping

A souk is a traditional marketplace. Historically, the souks of Marrakesh were divided into retail areas for particular goods such as leather, carpets, metalwork and pottery, and these divisions still roughly exist but now with significant overlap. Many of the souks sell items like carpets and rugs, traditional Muslim attire, leather bags, belts and lanterns. Haggling is still a very important part of trade in the souks – some people are very adept as this, and I really admire them, but I find it very difficult and uncomfortable. This is definitely something I need to get better at!

One of the largest souks is Souk Semmarine, which sells everything from brightly coloured bejewelled sandals and slippers and leather pouffes to jewellery and kaftans. Even without resorting to haggling, prices are more than affordable, as a tourist – which, again, is why I think the price which is asked, is more often than not, for me, a fair price. Especially when you look at the craftsmanship and feel the quality. And, look at those colours. Eye-popping!

Leather goods in the souk

In the Souk…

A number of souks contains stalls which specialize in foodstuffs – big, fat, juicy, bright yellow lemons, vibrant red chillis, olives, and aromatic, fresh mint. A must for the Moroccan tea which you will be determined to make every day back home. Our Moroccan tea kick lasted approximately a day, I think. But how pretty…

Moroccan Rose Petal Tea

Moroccan Rose Petal Tea

The Marrakech Tanneries

However, it’s just not the souks where you can shop, shop, shop. If you have a strong constitution – in more ways than one – then head out to the outskirts and visit The Tanneries. The main leather tanneries are located in the Bab Debbagh quarter, which is quite difficult to navigate as it’s largely a maze of alleyways. This is where you need to completely have your wits about you. You will be immediately identified as a tourist and you will be approached by a “helpful” local, who will offer to show you the way, and probably offer you a free guide of the tanneries. If you are in this situation, it’ll now be very difficult to extricate yourself from it, because these faux guides are experts at what they do. It can be very intimidating, as they can be very pushy – and they often work in small teams so as soon as you think you’ve shaken one off, another will appear from around the corner. There are terrible reviews on Trip Advisor about the Tanneries – so our advice would be to read them, read other reviews, read about the Tanneries themselves and decide BEFORE you set off (probably on foot), if this excursion is for you. As I say, you need to have a strong constitution to deal with the “guides” – AND be prepared to hand over money for their efforts. About 30-40 dirhams (approx £3 by today’s rates) should suffice – but do not underestimate how persistent (and how many in number) these guides can be. We experienced all of this – and it was definitely a very unnerving (OK, at times, downright scary) experience, BUT with hindsight, it’s something I’m glad we did. I don’t think I’ll ever feel the need to do it again, but our experience did ultimately turn out to be a positive one.

So, you’ve survived the onslaught of the guides and you’ve reached The Tanneries. You’ll know you’ve been getting closer by the smell. Some reviews really focus on this, and as I remember, it was pretty horrible, but not gut-wrenching. What was worse for me, was what the Tanneries looked like and the visible working conditions. Workers tend to be young, and they are often immersed in these enormous pools, separating the skins, soaking them in various vats filled with quicklime and water to begin the treatment process, before placing them in other vats to strengthen the leather. The stench comes from the treatment process – search on it if you really want to know what it involves – and as a visitor, you will be given a sprig of mint, to hold to your nose. You do have to prepared for this experience, as it’s definitely not for the faint-hearted.

We knew exactly what we wanted if we were going to make a purchase and we had a very determined attitude that we would NOT be pushed or co-erced into doing something we did not want to do. We had also done some research and had found out that within the Tanneries, there was a co-operative, which seemed to operate along much more ethical lines and so we knew this was the one we wanted to visit. It wasn’t easy avoiding being railroaded into other shops, but we were focused on getting to where we wanted to go. And, when we arrived, what an oasis of calm! No hassling, no demonstrations of carpets being rolled out in front of us, no rushing around. Instead, a lovely guy who welcomed us and explained about the co-operative – profits ploughed back into the Berber communities where the workers came from. Men and women (no children as far as I can remember) working in clean and peaceful conditions.

Now, I am not stupid. I am well aware that this could all have been an orchestrated front, and that behind the scenes, conditions were pretty deplorable. And, although we didn’t get the unasked for theatrical carpet/rug display, once we explained what we wanted, we did get a version of it. We didn’t feel any sense of hard-selling or pressure, but rugs that we hadn’t described were brought out for us to look at. However, when we identified the ones we weren’t interested in, they were taken away. And then, the one that we had been visioning, appeared…

I think we managed not to reveal our cards too quickly, but this was definitely the stand out rug. It was priced more highly than most of the others we looked at, but we inspected it very closely and it was really high quality. We were told it was an original Berber rug, probably about 80 years old, and that minor repairs would be done if we decided to purchase it.

Because of the size and weight of it, we could not take it back with us, as we had only had hand luggage. We were also not prepared to pay cash, and even with a written receipt, run the risk of it not being sent to us. This part of the process was the most protracted as we wanted absolute assurances about payment and delivery. We were shown a big hand written ledger, with details of previous purchasers. No bank details were recorded in this book, but delivery addresses (many to the UK) were there, along with thank you letters and notes and cards which we were advised had been sent by people who had received their goods. A card machine was available for transactions, and the guy explained how the rug would be sent to us, back in the UK. Probably to seal the deal, he also offered us a chocolate brown leather pouffe, which we could have taken away there and then. Again, if were cynical, we might have thought that however nice this was, once we’d paid for the rug, he could have just ciphoned off the money, having placated us with a leather pouffe, which was a fraction of the cost of the rug, and we’d maybe never see the rug again. However, gut instinct was telling both us it would be OK – and having also seen his records of postage proof from the post office, we decided to go for it. We asked for the pouffe to be included in the delivery, and as we weren’t actually leaving with anything on the day, he gave us both a little leather coin purse, each. Both still used today to keep our euros separate from our kunas. We knew we’d have to pay tax on the parcel once it arrived in the UK, so we asked if he could post a week later, knowing that we’d definitely be back in England. He told us the day he would post it and the day it should arrive. And, off we went…

Of course, doubts did creep in. Had we been stupid? Had we been ripped off? Was the co-operative a front for something more dodgy? Were our card details safe? Would our bank account be bled dry? We could have driven ourselves mad, but we decided that for sanity’s sake, we had to accept what we’d done and that we had researched and probed and asked for documentation etc, so hopefully all would be OK.

And, guess what? It was! On the day he had said it would arrive, we got a phone call to say we had a parcel from Morocco but that we must pay the tax before it was released to us. Once done, it was delivered – and we had our beautiful Berber rug. True to his word, every bit of repair work which had been identified had been done, and the chocolate brown leather pouffe was also in the parcel.

Hotel Grand Wiesler, Graz, Austria

Hotel Grand Wiesler, Graz, Austria

Sometimes, you see somewhere online and you just have to go. No matter what. This happened recently when I discovered the website for the Hotel Grand Wiesler, in Graz, in the Styria region of southern Austria. When we lived in Manchester, the thought of seeing a hotel online, in another country, and planning a spontaneous trip, would have been fairly unthinkable, given that we’d have had to have found flights, hired a car and generally have taken a lot more time to do the trip. But now, we can just get in the car and drive – and that’s what we did recently.

In just over three hours, from leaving our house in northern Istria, we were checking into Hotel Grand Wiesler, on the banks of the River Mur, in Graz. The website gave us an idea of what the hotel would be like – it’s a stylish website and ticked all of our We Are Life Design boxes. Recently refurbished, the building was originally five separate guesthouses which were bought by Carl Wiesler in 1870 and turned into one hotel. It’s still a very grand building, with an imposing entrance, but not at all stuffy. In fact, it’s very contemporary and extremely quirky in places. There are apparently 102 rooms, but it seems very small and boutique-like and we definitely didn’t feel as if we were sharing the space with lots and lots of other guests. High ceilings and large open spaces give the impression of plenty of space and so even when we had drinks in the bar, and ate in the restaurant on the Saturday evening, we felt that we had space to breathe and soak up the surroundings. This is the hotel entrance, with  “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” by Austrian artist, Clemens Hollerer.

The Speisessal Restaurant, which is open to the public, and clearly a popular place to dine, is a real visual feast, with bold artworks and installations. When we checked out on Sunday, the Soul Brunch was in full swing, with a DJ on the decks playing some very laid back afternoon tunes. Food, by the way, is exceptionally good – and definitely not overpriced.

Our room, on the first floor, overlooked the street behind the hotel – and what a pretty street it was too. Gorgeous shops including a florist and furniture & interiors and very interesting looking bars and restaurants, with much outdoor seating (rooms have double glazed windows so sound is not an issue) lined the street, and above, residential apartments. The pistachio coloured buildings are very old and very grand, and so for a nosey person like me, it was a thrill to be able to almost peek into them, when dusk started to fall and lamps were lit…

Our room was in the Independent Comfort category and it’s safe to say, it was large. With two huge windows, the room was flooded with light – blackout blinds ensure that no early morning rays waken you too early, though. The bed was super comfortable, and again, probably given the size of the room, very big, with gorgeous white bedding. Furniture is pretty simple – mostly white washed wood, again giving the room a very airy and spacious feel. It had everything you’d need for a short stay – fridge, safe, hanging area for clothes, a low cupboard with drawers, plenty of good lighting options (lamps and dimmers) and sockets and excellent wi-fi. The toilet was in a separate (very) small room, with a hand-painted Mexican Talavera sink sitting on a concrete plinth just outside. A very large walk in shower – and very, very powerful – was partitioned off by glass bricks and perspex door. This could be off-putting if you wanted to shower in privacy, but the size of the shower meant you could be behind the glass bricks and therefore obscured.

Although possibly not to everyone’s taste, one of the features I really liked, was the deliberately exposed plaster in places on the walls. This does seem to be a feature in all of the rooms, and works really well, against the minimalist furnishing and largely white plasterwork.

There are seven different categories of rooms in the hotel, ranging from Tiny Independent to Grand Suite. (Montage images : Booking.Com)

Secure parking is available in a public car park, at Griesgasse 10, which is conveniently located right behind the hotel – the guest rate is €15 per day, and tickets are issued at reception and paid for on check-out. Another bonus is that the hotel also includes a sauna, outdoor area, workout equipment and an Arabian tea room. The wellness areas is open daily from 7am-9pm and the sauna is open from 5pm-9pm, but you can use the wellness area outside of these hours, by prior arrangement with reception. Bathrobes and towels are available.

And, if your criteria for staying somewhere, is knowing that a few famous names have also stayed there, then Hotel Grand Wiesler is definitely the one for you – Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Rolling Stones, David Guetta, Marianne Faithfull, Billy Idol, Joe Cocker, Deep Purple and the Dalai Lama to name but a few.

The Backstreets of Bergamo

The Backstreets of Bergamo

Bergamo, located west of Milan, in the region of Lombardy, is beautiful. Often overlooked for the more glitzy (and possibly more brash) Milan, it has everything. There is the lower, more modern town (Citta Bassa) – although, as well as your retail therapy kicks, you can still soak up the history of the town. Wide thoroughfares are home to a host of familiar shops and stores – Benetton, Zara, Coin etc – as well as churches, grand residences now converted into boutique style hotels, theatres, museums, elaborate government buildings, and many, many coffee shops, bars and restaurants. Like many Italian towns, it also has a fortified upper town, Citta Alta, reached either by a very pleasant walk uphill or by the easier Funicular, which is great if you want expansive views of Bergamo and way, way beyond, to the snowy peaks further north.

Citta Alta is a walled town in its own rights – more than 4kms of walls, built by the Venetians. A couple of days of leisurely strolling and you’ll be familiar with Piazza Vecchia, the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, next to it the Cappella Colleoni, and next to it, The Baptistry. You’ll walk through the impressive entrance to Citta Alta at some point – Porta San Giacomo. You’ll also inevitably walk along the main cobbled thoroughfare – Via Bartolomeo Colleoni, from Piazza Vecchia to the arch which takes you to Piazza della Cittadella and beyond to the next funicular, up to the upper upper part of Bergamo – San Vigilio.

But, you also need to take the time to look up and look around you – because as well as the more obvious beautiful sights, you’ll start to see some real hidden treasures…

Vineria Cozzi, Citta Alta, Bergamo

City Walls Topiary : Citta Alta, Bergamo

Religious iconography – make sure you look up as these pieces of artwork are all over Citta Alta, Bergamo…

Original exposed frescoes under the eaves, Citta Alta, Bergamo

I love these huge, wooden doors, with the tiny door and the big wrought iron knocker, Citta Alta, Bergamo

This wall is on a back street, in Citta Alta – just look at what has been revealed as the plaster & render falls off…

Letter box : Citta Alta, Bergamo

Gorgeous Juliet Balconies, above eye/street level. Always look up! Citta Alta, Bergamo.

Gothic glory… Citta Alta, Bergamo

Even in restaurants, you need to look up!

Through a doorway in Citta Alta and this…

More exposed frescoes : Citta Alta, Bergamo

One of Bergamo’s many, many churches : San Vigilio

Hope you’ll agree that Bergamo is pretty special – and if you’ve not been before, that maybe we’ve inspired you to investigate it, especially as it’s the perfect destination for a weekend break. Previously, we used to catch a later afternoon flight out on a Friday from Manchester and return early evening Sunday. The airport is only about 6kms from the city, so you can really squeeze out every single minute!

Maribor, Slovenia

Maribor, Slovenia

Maribor is Slovenia’s second largest city, but that doesn’t mean it’s big, by any stretch of the imagination. Up until now, we’ve overlooked it, in favour of the capital, Ljubljana, whose appeal is immediate. It’s beautiful, full of well restored and well maintained historical buildings, with a winding river, fringed with weeping willows and a fairytale castle on top of the hill, looking down on the red roof tops of the old town. But, we decided to stop over in Maribor last weekend (Sunday evening) on our way back from Graz, in Austria. Although in two different countries, the two cities are only about half an hour from each other, so we arrived in good time in Maribor, hoping to get out and about and explore the city. Unfortunately, Sunday was grey and cold, unlike the previous day in Graz, which had been very spring-like – warm and sunny. The weather obviously didn’t help, but the outskirts of the city were a bit on the grim side. Very down trodden, and with definite reminders of the austerity of the not too distant past. We did wonder if we’d made the right decision, and whether we should just head home – but we’d made a booking and decided to give Maribor a go…

4 Flats, Slomškov trg 11, Maribor, Slovenia

4 Flats, Slomškov trg 11, Maribor, Slovenia

We booked an apartment online, and were delighted to find it was located in the above building (our apartment was the one on the bottom right, with the two big windows). 4 Flats is just what it says – four converted apartments, off a communal entranceway. However, before getting into the apartments, you have to go through the arched doorway, just to the left of the tree. The door is ancient – and could be described as delapidated, BUT it became immediately clear, once through the doorway, that this was a building with real history, and hence the doors…

Internal courtyard : 4 Flats, Maribor  Internal courtyard : 4 Flats, Maribor

Internal courtyard : 4 Flats, Maribor

Look at those walls! If these were in England, they’d probably be being preserved by English Heritage, but these are the communal entrance way, behind the great big delapidated wooden doors. There’s a cobbled accessway, and once the exterior doors are opened wide, residents drive their cars through here, to park in the internal courtyard. Amazing that a building like this, is just, well – there…

Our apartment was actually fab – quite minimalist, but all the right colours for me! Plus, lots of the original features had been retained, including the huge windows – which had an inner frame of double glazing, so absolutely no noise when they were closed.

Two of the other apartments were obviously not booked, and the doors were open, so I did have a bit of a nosey – and can confirm that the images on Booking.Com are completely accurate. All very lovely and well renovated.

It’s worth mentioning that there are parking bays all around the little park just outside the flats – and it’s free on a Sunday. (Payment – very inexpensive – begins at 8am Monday morning). Just across the park, with a view from our apartment windows, is the Slovene National Theatre, with performances of drama, opera, and ballet annually attracting the country’s largest theatrical audiences. We saw the audience leaving after the Sunday evening performance and it’s very clear that the Slovenes like to dress up for the theatre. Very grand, indeed!

The owner of the apartments met us and tried very helpfully to suggest where we could eat on a Sunday evening – although he did struggle, by his own admission, as many places, at this time of year, are closed on a Sunday evening. Nothing for it, then, but to get out and exploring Maribor. The historical centre is very small – and very, very, very old. You can really imagine what life must have been life in medieval times, as many of the buildings are literally teetering on the brink of collapse. We did spot one for sale, so if anyone fancies a bijou residence in Maribor, hit us up and we’ll get the details to you.

Narrow cobbled streets, like the one above, lead off one of the main sqaures – Glavni Trg – down to the Drava River, and the area of Lent. It did look as if the bars which line the river would be lovely in the summer, with plenty of evidence of outdoor seating, terraces and umbrellas already being put out, but it was a bit chilly – even with blankets – outside The Piranha Cocktail Bureau. The logo led us to this very stylish bar…

The interior is very striking, including backlit wall of bottles of spirits and liquers, and furnishings with lots of accents of black. I think I was most impressed by the toilets – scrupulously clean, and everything high gloss black. No photos unfortunately, as I still find it too weird to take photos of loos 😉 We were lucky too, to get a very pink sunset – much welcome after the gloomy afternoon.

Just next to Piranha Cocktail Bureau – and this has been verified by The Guiness Book of Records – is Stara Trta, the world’s oldest vine, growing outside an old medieval house called Hiša Stare Trte, also known as The Old Vine House.

We did eventually find somewhere to eat – Ancora, an Italian restaurant. Suffice it was a pretty surreal experience, but I’ll leave that there.

Monday morning was bright and sunny, so we took the opportunity before heading off, to scoot around the historical centre. One lap of about 30 minutes and you’re done, but there are some sights really worth seeing, especially if you look up, above the street level shop fronts, which are mostly fairly dreary. But look above street level, and this is what you’re greeted with…

Glavni Trg, Maribor’s second largest square

Also in Main Square is The Plague Column. Erected in 1743 to replace an older version, this monument commemorates the end of the plague, which killed over one third of the city’s inhabitants between 1680-81. The large monument, designed by Jožef Štraub, dominates Glavni Trg (the main square) and features a golden Virgin Mary on top of an eight metre column surrounded by six saints. It’s really very, very impressive!

So, what did we actually think of Maribor? To be honest, I’m still a bit undecided. There’s a definite palpable sense of history, and parts of the old historical centre are undoubtedly beautiful. It doesn’t have the sassiness of Ljubljana, or the coastal aspect of Koper. But, there’s something about it. It’s raw and a bit rough around the edges and feels like it’s not quite in 2019. It feels like a city that has a bit of catching up to do. However, when it does, I think that Maribor will be somewhere that should be on your destination wish-list. Until then, if you love history, you will like Maribor. And, if you need a new hat, you’ll definitely like it…