The travel destinations I have liked most have had two things in common; good food and drink, and dramatic landscape. For me, these are the two essentials that not only ensure an enjoyable trip, but also make me want to return again and again.
Thus far in my life, no country has consistently epitomised those two qualities more than Italy, and one trip there in particular stands out for me as an exemplar.
During the late 1970’s and early 1980’s I was fortunate enough to ski Christmas and New Year at the Italian Alpine resort of Courmayeur. And although the skiing itself was not particularly challenging, this was more than compensated for by Courmayeur’s spectacular location at the foot of Western Europe’s tallest mountain, Mont Blanc (Monte Bianco) and the hearty, local Valdostana cuisine. Days spent skiing through landscape straight out of a Martini commercial, followed by evenings dining on rich chamois stews washed down with copious amounts of black-red Nebbiolo wines made for exceedingly happy times.
Then, in 1981, I had an Italian girlfriend from a village near Cremona, only a three-hour drive from Courmayeur, and so decided to take a few days off from skiing to visit her.
She, in turn took me to her family apartment on the shores of Lake Garda where we spent an idyllic 48 hours where, among other wonderful things, I had my first taste of genuine Italian home cooking. But even more special than the food was the fact that we had the magisterial lake, and its enchanting winter light all to ourselves.
Fortunately I had my camera with me for both parts of what transpired as a trip of two deeply contrasting parts. The pictures presented here are digitally enhanced, sepia-filtered examples of some of the photographs I took then, designed to emulate my memories of a special time…
As a rule I avoid posting travel diary-type articles on the hoof. For one thing, I don’t think I’m particularly good at it. In journalistic terms I’ve always been more of an opinion piece writer than a roving reporter. However, the piece I was preparing for this particular post has gone the way of the defunct memory stick I’ve just thrown into the trash and so I was forced, just this once, into doing something spontaneous.
Fortunately I just happen to be based for these last few days in a place perfectly suited to spontaneous outbursts of all types; pictorial, literary and just about any other format one cares to imagine. For, if constant change, municipal renewal and incessant architectural upheaval are the mothers of urban reinvention, then Tel Aviv must surely rank as a grand civic matriarch.
As a regular periodic visitor to Israel’s cultural and commercial first city for the past fifty years my mind’s eye (not to mention my various cameras) has become a kind of time-lapse observer of Tel Aviv’s astonishing physical evolution. And while this is not the place to attempt a full description of that development (it requires a long book) I have over the three years or so of this blog attempted to give at least an occasional impression – in words and pictures – of what I’ve witnessed and continue to see.
Because this addition to that “series” is so unplanned (I didn’t even bring a camera on the trip and had to rely on my iPhone for the images), I’m hoping that in its own small, colourful way it will more faithfully transmit some of the atmosphere of this amazing coastal city.
These pictures are all taken from rooftop breakfast decks of our otherwise unremarkable little downtown hotel. I think they offer a distinct, technicolor and interestingly optimistic Tel Aviv tableaux…
In April of 1973 I became 13 and was subsequently bar mitzvahed (yes, it is a verb in the Anglo-Jewish vernacular) . The event itself was typical of most traditional bar mitzvah celebrations, and followed the orthodox coming-of-age for boys format in most respects. This included all the usual suspects vis-à-vis the presents I received – except for one wonderful surprise gift. Unbeknownst to me, my mum and uncle (her brother) had planned a five day visit to the Lake District especially arranged around two of my passions; of landscape photography, and far more importantly, an abnormally precocious love of gastronomy.
Since my first visit to France three years before I had developed an unusually sophisticated palette in a juvenile, so much so, that it formed almost as important a part of my early teenage years as more typical factors such as a parallel ever-growing fascination with members of the opposite sex.
Many reading this now, especially non-British readers might be surprised that my mum and my uncle didn’t take me back to France, or to Italy or Spain, or just about anywhere in the world beyond the British Isles – if not for the photography element of the trip, certainly for the cuisine component. And while it is undeniable that in that dark long-ago of 1973, a full decade before the reawakening of fine British gastronomy, good British food was hard to find, there did exist a few pioneering outposts of fabulous British cooking.
Of all the pioneers manning these few gourmet mission stations none played a more heroic role in the resurrection of fine English fayre than the formidable Francis Coulson at his famous Sharrow Bay Hotel on the shores of Lake Ullswater in Cumbria, in north western England. Since 1948, ably assisted by his life-partner, Brian Sack, he reminded the British of the fact that their countryside and its surrounding waters comprised a national food larder as rich as any on the planet. Furthermore, he devoted his life to demonstrating exactly how to make the best culinary use of that copious store cupboard.
When mum took me to Sharrow Bay in 1973, Coulson was in his pomp, both in regards to his international reputation and the output from his hotel kitchen, and thus I was one privileged bar mitzvah boy! Not that the my rabbi back in north London would have approved, but to this day, my first taste of a Cumberland sausage, in the heart of Cumbria, at our first breakfast remains one of the many abiding and formative food memories of those fantastic five days. Manx kippers, and fried duck eggs were other breakfast wonders but after days walking along the lake shore and up and down the local fells it was the suppers that really sent me into bouts of ecstasy. “I’ll never forget” is possibly the ultimate cliché, but I can’t think of any other way to phrase my first experience of British game in the form of Coulson’s famous roast grouse, and the intense redcurrant jelly accompaniment. Other gamey wonders included saddle of hare and the finest venison stew I was ever to taste – at least up till now, and as for the Herdwick lamb chops and the trout, fresh from the lake itself cooked to perfection. And then the steamed puddings – simply the lightest, most unctuous, most well-crafted puddings in the universe. And I could go on, and on.
But oh, I almost forgot! There was also the photography, and while sadly for you, I can’t share the experience of the Sharrow Bay’s phenomenal kitchen, I can at least reveal something of the stunning scenery in which it sits. I’ve rendered these ancient images (originally taken on my trusty old Canonet 28) in a watercolour style, which I believe faithfully captures the dramatic beauty and changeability of the Ullswater environment.
In the mean time, anyone reading this with a curiosity for traditional British food at its finest or the majestic wonder of Lake Ullswater and its surrounding countryside, could do a lot worse than saving up for a few days at the Sharrow Bay – the best Bar Mitvah gift or any gift for that matter, ever!
One of the things I’ve really been enjoying here in Sweden is playing with all my new toys, including my aforementioned fabulous slide scanner. It’s main purpose is to get my years of artwork digitally recorded and logged, but it’s also helping me rediscover thousands of my old general photos.
Between 1977 and 1991 I visited Israel about a dozen times and I never went there without at least half a dozen rolls of high quality slide film.∗ The pictures included here (presented in no particular order) cover most of those seventeen years and present a portrait of a diverse and multi-textured little nation.
∗Cameras used: Canonet 28 and Nikon FE / Film used: Kodak Ektachrome and Agfachrome.
Given the amount of travel related material I present here, it might come as a surprise to regular followers of this site, that for about ten years, from the late 80’s to the late 90’s I suffered from a suddenly acquired, debilitating fear of flying.
Debilitating for about the first seven or eight years, to be accurate, as I gradually cured myself of the affliction over the final two or three years with a combination of judiciously applied strong alcohol and the advent of budget airlines – specifically easyJet. But thanks to that magical cocktail of Jack Daniels blended with Stelios Haji-Ioannou’s heroically mundane approach to commercial air-travel (a story for another post perhaps) I thankfully managed to rediscover my inner Frank Sinatra. However, unluckily for us, the height of my phobia coincided with our move to southern Spain.
If the move had been the total success we had originally anticipated then my fear of flying wouldn’t have been thrown into such sharp relief, but because of constant need to migrate, firstly to northern France, and then later, back to the UK, things became tricky.
For a period of about three years we had to make the journey, firstly from Malaga to Boulogne and then from Malaga to London, between six and twelve times annually. And, while some of these journeys anyway necessitated the need for a car journey, most of them would have been quicker, cheaper and easier by plane. But, as there was no way I could fly, and short of Dido giving me the Mr “T” Novocaine treatment (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DaJOeLuUD94), this meant that for all of those dozens of trips, we had to drive.
More often than not, and especially towards the end of the period, when “getting there” had become the sole objective, we would stick to the main roads and cover the route in as little as two and a half days (our record was 18 hours – Malaga to London – 1400 miles – door-to-door), but on occasion we would make a small vacation out of a drive, and take some significant detours, in France and/or Spain.
The images presented here are from some of those early excursions compiled into one virtual tour. Their yellowed, grainy texture reflect golden memories of the beauty and the unsurpassed variety (in Europe at least) of the French landscape; in this case from the Pyrenees in the south, to the beaches on Normandy in the north, via Provence and the Auvergne. It’s amusing to consider now, that if it had not been for my fear of flying I might not have got to visit some of these extraordinary places…
Standing a loved one or a friend, or even an animal before a fabulous vista is a cultural staple of the holiday snapper. For me, apart from the “I/we was/were there” element, the juxtaposing of a human and or animal before vastness simultaneously humanises and accentuates the majesty of the given panorama. Painters have been doing the same thing since the days of the great Dutch and British landscape painters of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, from Van Ruisdael to Caspar David Friedrich.
Presented here are sadly no Friedrich’s, but this set of enhanced-photos from all my years of travel do nevertheless express something of that dramatic relationship between “us” and the landscapes we move within…
This dates back to the late 70’s when my old mate Simon and I drove around Cork and Kerry in his old orange Datsun. This is Simon peering over the edge at Slea Head near Dingle on the Kerry coast (famous for being the location for the movie Ryan’s Daughter)…
Taken around 1981, this is the summit of Mount Gilboa. The field of boulders could seem to bear witness to the power of David’s curse in his great lament for the fallen Saul and Jonathan that nothing should ever grow upon the mountain’s slopes again…
I thought that a lifetime of watching movies and TV series based in New York would have prepared me for my first visit to Central Park. But all the Kojak, all the Law and Order and all the Sex in the City in the universe could not have anticipated the blizzard of January 2016 and its magical transforming effect.
So, instead of a stroll through one of the world’s most famous urban “green” spaces, we found ourselves trecking through a pristine winter landscape.
Fortunately, unlike the evening before when I had left my camera in the hotel (see previous post “The Big White Apple”), this time I was prepared and here are some of the results…
Life’s a funny old thing, full of unexpected twists and turns. For instance, who knew just a few years ago, that the city of Little Rock, Arkansas would become one of my most regular travel destinations?
But unexpected things like that can happen to you when Little Rock ends up as your in-laws’ home town (how that came to pass is another story altogether).
And, as it happens, and contrary to nearly everything I’d been led to expect from its hillbilly caricature, Little Rock turned out to be an agreeable and welcoming town.
Bisected north from south by the Arkansas River, the city is unusually contained by American standards, surrounded as it is on most sides by wooded hills. The downtown area is on a reassuringly human scale for European sensibilities, and fairly pleasant to stroll around. The Arkansas State Capitol building (a virtual, smaller replica of the Capitol in DC) and the Old State House are both highly photogenic, and with its river walks, river market, excellent Historic Arkansas Museum and the Clinton Library, there’s enough to keep the average traveller interested for a day or two. Moreover, easy road access to the stunning Ouachita Forest and Lake, not to mention the nearby Hot Springs resort ensures that there’s plenty on offer for lovers of the American big outdoors.
And if all this weren’t sufficient reason for visiting then I should also mention that Little Rock has a rather special hotel; The Capital…
Ask the average Brit to name an iconic American hotel / city synonymy, the one that they would probably first think of would be the Waldorf Astoria / New York City. Asked to name another, they could then suggest the Beverly Hills / Los Angeles. If they were more than usually informed they would even be able to list a few more, such as the Biltmore / Miami, the Monteleone / New Orleans or the del Coronado / San Diego (of Some Like it Hot fame).
In fact just about every US city, large and small, from Spokane in the north to El Paso in the south has an iconic hotel that reflects the spirit, texture, and the history of the host town.
And as it turns out, Little Rock is no different.
Entering the Capital Hotel is the epitome of that cliché, entering a different world. More Claridges than Dorchester (for the benefit of my British readers), it’s an oasis of 19th century, understated grandness and subtle, tasteful decor. From its colonnaded, high ceilinged foyer to its immaculately appointed rooms and suites, the Capital offers an exceptionally comfortable experience embellished by flawlessly competent and courteous service.
In fact, the service at the Capital is worthy of special mention, for it somehow pulls off genuine southern charm without being gushing or over-the-top. So much of north American Hotel and restaurant service these days, and not merely in the South , is so intensely “friendly” and overly attentive, to non-Americans at least, it often feels more like your being dared or challenged not to have a good time. But, under the skilled guidance of its genial and dapper manager, Michael Chaffin, the staff at the Capital, exude the kind of confidence and assuredness that guarantees those fortunate enough to stay there the feeling of being sincerely valued and cared for.
Like all great American Hotels the Capital takes its restaurant and particularly its bars very seriously. So, it’s hardly a surprise that its main bar — the stylish-yet-business-like Capital Bar and Grill — is the place to be seen for anyone who is anyone in Little Rock; from brunching politicians to lunching celebrities to cocktail sipping businessmen and women. A solid, reasonably-priced menu of both typical, and not-so-typical bar snacks and entrees, plus a well-stocked bar, all contained within a relaxed, informal ambiance (often enhanced by a live jazz trio) make the bar a must-visit, even for non-guests of the hotel.
One Eleven at the Capital constitutes the hotel’s main restaurant and doubles up in the morning as the breakfast dining room. It also has its own, beautifully elegant bar manned by seriously skilled and intuitive bartenders whose cocktails are simply fabulous. (They even stock Lillet Blonde aperitif for those brave enough to try an authentic Vespa (a la Casino Royale).
Formally known as Ashley’s, the recently re-vamped restaurant itself now has a Michelin decorated French chef whose menu reflects a noble intention to bring his native expertise to local raw materials. And for the most part he succeeds brilliantly — the shrimp (prawns) and grits for example were an orgasmic revelation and worth a trip to Little Rock all on their own. However, even where the dishes don’t quite attain this kind of sublime perfection, everything we sampled was at the very least, delicious and perfectly cooked. Moreover, the Capital has a vast cellar, stocked with plenty of fine wines to match the quality of the food.
All in all then, a stay at the Capital Hotel — even if only for one night — is an experience worth saving for and sufficient reason in itself to visit Little Rock.
When I started this blog the only thing I ever meant to advertise was my own books. But, our experiences over the past few years at the Capital have been so pleasurable that I felt it was about time I let the world know about this southern gem of a hotel.
This is almost totally true except for the fact that the lady cutting my hair had two girlfriends in the salon with her and for much of the time my head was compressed by three sets of boobs rather than just merely one as they passed the time of day over my poor noggin!
The “salon” was situated in our local pueblo blanco, where, back in the 90’s “men were men” and never entered – let alone got their hair cut in such a “feminine” establishment. Thus, the hairdresser’s surprise and thrill at getting her hands on a head like mine was extreme.
Fortunately, Dido took pity on me and immediately raced me down to our local town on the coast for a remedial styling…
This episode also occurred during our 1993 move trip down to Spain in a 2 Michelin Star establishment in the French Pyrenees. There are just two “slight” exaggerations in this strip: Firstly; we didn’t really exchange places with Aura – as much as wanted to, and secondly; all the chef actually gave to Aura was merely a plate of duck carpaccio followed by sauteed calves liver in butter. There’s also one priceless thing which I failed to get across in this strip, and that was the horrified expressions of the mostly American patrons at the neighbouring tables!
And a PS: Aura really did often eat reclining, true to her ancient Roman heritage…
Fr. Justin Belitz OFM is the founder of the Franciscan Hermitage and author of "Success: Full Living," "Success: Full Thinking," & "Success: Full Relating." His teachings incorporate spirituality, science, and art for personal growth and development.