Between Covent Garden and the Thames, down Villiers St off the historic Strand awaits Gordon’s Wine Bar. This is London’s oldest wine bar and must be one of the world’s best. Visiting Gordon’s is a unique experience of London’s history. Before becoming a wine bar in 1890, the building was home to Samuel Pepys, and also an illustrious brothel or two. Outside, in Villiers St, the building now has the appearance of a deserted and condemned old building from Dickensian London and is often unrecognised by the most dedicated visitors. The only clue is the dusty original gas-lit lamp above the door, labelled “Gordon’s Wine Bar”. Take the narrow steps down into the unlikely darkness.
The bar has the appearance and feel of a dark basement untouched since Pepys left. Nicotine stained walls of tongue-n-groove boards, history-stained stone floors, and rickety tables and chairs under the low, brick-domed ceiling of the original wine cellars are not retro but original features. Candles light the reticent faces of illicit encounters. The staff are efficient and friendly and pull schooners and beakers of sherry, Madeiras, or port from the barrels stacked behind the bar. Excellent wines are also available by bottle or glass. Recently homemade food has been introduced, and the tables spill out into Watergate Walk to the side. But stay indoors to enjoy the uniqueness and excellence of Gordon’s Wine Bar, and drink deep the history of London.
My favourite subterranean attraction is not actually a cave, or a mine, but the Basilica Cistern, or Yerebatan Sarnici, which is the largest of the myriad of cisterns beneath the streets of Istanbul. This 6th century Byzantine underground chamber can hold 80,000 cubic metres of water, although nowadays visitors walk on a raised platform above the shallow water, and watch carp swimming languidly below. The ceiling is supported by hundreds of soaring marble columns nine metres high, two of which have huge Roman blocks with the carved head of Medusa at their base. Eerie and magical, the cistern feels like an underground cathedral.
A great place to visit to escape the midday heat, and there's also a small cafe.
Chronic ill health led Robert Louis Stevenson, famous author of Kidnapped and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, to embark on a series of voyages around the South Seas. He finally settled along with his family in Western Samoa, where he became a well-loved figure, striding around like a “demented stork” according to one observer. He died in 1894 at the age of 44. It is still possible to visit his house, Vailima, and if you are fit and willing, to labour up the rough hewn path built by devoted Samoans to carry him to rest at the top of an extremely steep hill. When I was there I was alone in that uniquely peaceful spot, with a wonderful view down over the coastal town of Apia.
Carloforte is a former Genoese enclave on the tiny, remote island of San Pietro, off the main island of Sardinia, surrounded by untouched nature and blue sea. Spend the day on a beach of fine sand at 'La Bobba', swimming in crystalline water. Join one of the small boat-tours of the island, or even better hire your own and go diving. In the evening, smarten up for dinner at 'Al Tonno di Corsa', where the speciality is tuna caught with traditional methods. As an appetizer or late-night snack, eat a simple and delicious 'farinata' a Genoese chickpea flat bread sold by the slice from the pizzeria on Corso Tagliafico, the main, palm-lined avenue (by the tourist office/'Pro Loco') and eaten while promenading. The old town is beautiful, constructed on few hills and made up of small lanes winding up steps in between pastel-coloured houses. And the best is getting there! With few tourists around you'll discover a hidden treasure not even many Sardinians go to.
Fly to Cagliari with BA or easyjet, then hire a car or catch a bus to Calasetta, on the neighbouring island of Sant'Antioco (connected to the mainland by a bridge and also worth exploring) then a ferry to Carloforte.
www.sardegnaturismo.it/en/ (select Carbonia-Iglesias province, then Carloforte for a variety of information)
Via Marconi, 47
09014 Carloforte, Cagliari, Sardegna
Google map: bit.ly/p2Ixao
City of Djinns is an historical account of the city of Delhi as told from the author's personal experience of living and traveling through the different areas and enclaves of the metropolis. It is neither a history book nor a travel log, but instead fuses the two genres together to create a compelling portrayal of the city that takes you past the surface layer to an intimate exploration of the crumbling glory and decadence of India's capital.
Russian churches are usually at least picturesque, at most spectacular and this one fits into the former category. It is also probably at the most picturesque location in town, with views across the city and harbour and being adjacent to a memorial lighthouse, set in a small park. The interior is very decorative too, in the Russian Orthodox style with the usual babushka hovering around and making sure all is in order.
Ulitsa Geroev Severomortsev
Upon entering you might think you’ve arrived in a Bavarian hunting lodge – complete with yellowing walls, dim lighting, and a collection of antlers. Actually you’re in the former meeting point for Belgium’s surrealist scene. And yet despite the visits of Magritte, Alechinsky, Scutenaire and Breton, despite the 406 framed portraits and photos, the place does not have the kind of surrealist drawings, poems or doodling that you might have been expecting and certainly hoped for. That is because everything of value was sold, save a few exceptions; and what we have combines donations and founder and art dealer Geert van Bruaene's mix-match collection of objects, including a group of Virgin Marys. Luckily the café was rescued and spared the museum treatment: it is once again the venue for literary salons, poetry readings and much beer drinking. And what is on the walls is certainly worth perusing.
Try and sit at Magritte’s table: solid, wooden and smooth from years of elbow rubbing; although it too is like a school pupil’s desk with no strange etchings to be found. Sneak in here one afternoon to enjoy a strong beer – a spontaneously fermenting lambic, gueuze or kriek would seem an appropriate choice, accompanied by the special house pralines – and before long voices recede into the distance and you find yourself contemplating the mysterious phrases on the walls….. Hmm, perhaps this place is surreal after all!
“Nul ne m’est étranger comme moi-même.”
La Fleur is open every day from 11:00 until Midnight (until 19:00 on Sundays). It’s closed on Mondays, unless there’s some literary event going on.
Rue des Alexiens 55, 1000 Bruxelles
+32(0)2 511 16 59
Google map: bit.ly/kPvion
This place offers a totally unique experience to travellers as it is run by the Gyumed Tantric monks themselves. So the atmosphere is a happy one, the food is delicious but the real secret is that on the top floor is a mini monastery. Buy some local Buddha statues that are made in Nepal and bring them up to the monks and they will fill them with mantras for you and bless them. Creating a take home gift that is second to none in my book! If you are lucky enough to stay at this unique hotel you will be woken up in the morning to the sounds of the monks chanting on the roof top as the morning sun is beginning to peak over the rolling foothills of the Himalayas.
P.O. McLeod Ganj, 176219 Distt. Kangra, Dharamsala (H.P.)
I stumbled upon this little gem of a museum/church/gallery, in the heart of the barrio de Santa Cruz. Entry is free on Sundays from 4pm - 8pm and you can enjoy one of the best preserved typical Seville constructions - patio and fountain. To the left is a small room housing paintings from Sevillano painters, including Velázquez. On the other side of the patio, behind a dark wooden door is the biggest treat, the church. Unlike any other I have entered in Spain, it is decorated with ornate, colourful imagery on the walls and ceiling.
Plaza Venerables, 8
41004 Seville, Spain
+34 954 564 595
Packed from basement to ceiling with artifacts collected over a lifetime, you could spend hours, even days discovering all its treasures. Be sure to search out William Hogarth's An Election and A Rake's Progress.
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