Thursday, 23 September 2010

InterRailing for Glampackers

September 16th Split to Zagreb

The Croatian train service is not what you would call state of the art. It may run a direct route to Zagreb, but it takes a lifetime to get there. It just brings things into focus a little about how lucky we are to have comfortable and fast trains.

Still, it was direct, and the countryside was beautiful. Zagreb though, was well worth the wait. Wide boulevards, parks and fountains. There is an old ‘upper' medieval town accessed by steps or a funicular, and a more modern, (modern by medieval standards) ‘lower' town. They told us that the man responsible for Budapest's fine architecture was instrumental in much of Zagreb's lower town development, and it certainly shows. The parks are wide and green, the architecture grand Baroque and you can almost imganie the horse carriages clanging along the streets. What clangs now though are trams, which are free to use in the city centre.
I said on my radio show that Croatia brought us the neck tie, well a Croat also invented the pen, a certain Eduard Penkala and he lived in Zagreb.
We stayed at the sumptuous Regent Esplanade, one of the original Orient Express Hotels where guests stayed the night on their way to Istanbul. They say that civilization begins at the terrace of the Esplanade, and this hotel is truly legendary. Anyone who is anyone has stayed there and today the service is still impeccable and the building an art deco marvel.
Like Split, the prices in Zagreb are very cheap in comparison to the Euro zone, and the food is excellent. This is a city that in my view makes the perfect weekend break. There's that bit of eastern European mystery, it is very safe to walk around, it's great value and nearly everyone speaks English.

Sadly, our 2 nights were over in a trice and we headed on for Hungary, but with great memories of Zagreb. We will return.

Hotel: The Regent Esplanade
Restaurants: Zinfandel's at The Regent and Pod Grickim Topom (top of the funicular)

Interailing for Glampackers

September 14th Pescara to Split

Split. The Diocletian Palace. The Riva. The islands. The sun. The Dalmation coastline is truly spectacular and one that will live long in our memory. We took the overnight Blue Line ferry across from Ancona, which is pretty cool as you go to bed in Italy and wake up in Split. In true glampacking style we had a VIP cabin complete with Jacuzzi and separate lounge, which turned out to be very comfortable. Sadly though, the rest of the ferry was a major disappointment. No credit cards were accepted on board (which would have been fine if they had mentioned it beforehand) and only the self service cafeteria out of the many promised eateries was available to us due to "heavy group numbers". The whole ship had an air of gloomy boredom about it, with the mostly Asian crew doing their best to avoid everyone. We did however get to Split on time and in one piece so it did the job.

Split has a lovely feel about it, a slow relaxed attitude that just lets you luxuriate inside its welcoming embrace. The whole old town is practically an open air museum, with the huge roman Diocletian Palace dominating everything. Once inside the walls, every street is seemingly part of it, with bits of ancient floor, or part of a wall wherever you look. There are even bits of it in office buildings. The palace, once the retirement home of Emperor Dioceles, is a wonderfully preserved example of roman architecture and has been lovingly and painstakingly excavated by the Croatian authorities. Split itself is small enough to walk around and navigation is easy as all the signs are in English as well as Croat. There are lots of little windy streets with umbrella adorned cafes on every corner and plenty of eating options, but The Riva, the café-strung promenade right along the waterfront, is the place where people go to see and be seen. The summer months are hot and there is a real Mediterranean feel about the place, with a strong Italian influence, but without Italian prices! The difference in price is astounding, with a good meal costing only about £25 for two of us. Talking of meals, there are many restaurants in the town, often family run places but the quality can be patchy, so get recommendations. We stayed at the Hotel Park, loved by everyone in Split. It is very close to the old town but also next to a lovely small beach with a great café.

Split is in many ways overshadowed by the more popular Dubrovnik further south, but there's no getting round its appeal. There is the wonderful old town of course, but there's also the beautiful islands too and there are frequent ferries to get you over and back.

We loved Split, and you'll love it too.


Hotel Park

Marjan Hill Café (great views)

Buffet Fife (unglamorous but great food)

Fish Market

The Diocletian Palace

Friday, 17 September 2010

Interailing for Glampackers - September 12th Positano to Pescara

Leaving the Med west coast, and thankfully the bad weather (and mud slides) behind, we drove our car back towards Naples, but continued on a little way to Caserta where we dropped off the car at the station. (It was far better than trying to negotiate the Naples traffic again).
After just one stop at Foggia, we arrived at the Adriatic resort of Pescara in the lovely region of Abruzzo, one of the lesser known regions of Italy but as far as I am concerned a hidden gem, and long may it continue to be so.
Abruzzo is famous throughout Italy for its pure olive oil, fresh saffron, fantastic lentils, sugared almonds and red Montepulciano d'Abruzzo and white Corfinio wines. It’s a spectacular region, on one side there’s the Gran Sasso and the Maiella mountain ranges and on the other, just miles and miles of golden coastline. It’s also probably the cheapest part of Italy with prices some 20% lower than the rest of the country. Pescara is the main resort town and provides the perfect place to base yourself to see all that Abruzzo has to offer.

The Best Western Plaza was a lovely four star hotel very close to the station but also right on the pedestrianised main street leading down to the sea front. It was a gentle 5 minute stroll to the beach where the umbrellas and beds beckoned.

In the quaint mountain town of Bucchianico near Chieti we met olive oil sommelier Francesca Di Nisio, who has an olive oil museum in an old abandoned mill that she had spent years renovating. Learning all about the art of oil making and the difference between good and bad oils was fascinating.
She also produces delicious extra virgin olive oil and wines from her own vineyards in Chieti under the brand name Cantin Arte

The mountains also harbour some historic towns such as L’Aquila so sadly damaged in an earthquake in 2009, Castel de Monte the location for George Clooney’s film The American, and Sulmona, which apart from its impressive roman remains is also the home of the Italian confectionary, almond confetti. These coloured sugar and chocolate coated almonds are made into floral arrangements and used in weddings throughout Italy. Yes you can eat them too!

Pescara is a great place for a weekend break, and we’ll be back one day soon, but for now, it was time to go on to Ancona and catch the overnight ferry across to Croatia.

Best Western Plaza Hotel
Olive Oil Museum
Best apertivo: GTime Bar

Sunday, 12 September 2010

InteRailing for Glampackers

September 9th Naples to Positano

There are no rail links to the Amalfi coast so we hired a car and drove the famous film star route along the beautiful Amalfi coast. Of course, the first obstacle was to negotiate the Naples traffic, which is a true test of driving skill believe me. Scooters fly at you from all directions, and other drivers seem to take no notice of any form of road etiquette. It’s a dog eat dog world and we rose to the challenge unscathed.
Just after the port, the autostrada beckoned and we gleefully accepted with both hands so to speak, and in no time we were out of the city and into the Italian countryside. It’s only a few miles further on past Vesuvius and you’ll get to the turn off for the Amalfi scenic route. It’s about now that the true majesty of the coastline kicks in with jaw dropping scenery just about everywhere you look. The route winds around the coastal cliffs and soon you get to see familiar names: Sorrento, Ravelo, Amalfi and our destination, Positano.
Tucked snugly against the cliff face, Positano rises from the crystal blue sea with properties packed tightly together like a magnet rising up the mountainside. It is truly a glorious sight to behold. Thankfully the narrow road is one way through the town, with hotels and restaurants seemingly perched impossibly against the rock face.
We were staying in the aubergo of Casa Albertina a privately owned hotel high up the bluff with stunning views across the town and the Med below. This is without doubt one of the most romantic places on earth.
The town itself has narrow streets lined with designer shops and restaurants and down at the small beach, the old church still stands proud, oblivious to all the tourist trappings around it.
Yes Positano is very commercial, and expensive, and there is more Prada than Carbonara, but there is no mistaking its charm. The famous coast road is stunning and Amalfi and Ravelo are only a few kilometres away. There are trips to Capri or to the Emerald Grotto, a naturally colourful cave system, but for me a couple of nights were more than enough.
The highlight was lunch at a rustic and traditional restaurant called la Trigliata in the mountain village of Montepesuto just a 10 minute bus ride up and around the cliffs. No menu on offer, just four courses of traditional food with wine, water and coffee all included for €35 and a fabulous view all the way down to Capri to boot. Mama in the kitchen and kids serving, a real family business.


Hotel: Casa Albertina
Restaurant: la Trigliata

InteRailing for Glampackers

September 7th Bologna to Naples

The futuristic Frecciarossa express shot us across Italy 300 miles from the north to the Mediterranean in just under 4 hours stopping only at Florence and Rome and once again we had an easy seat reservation in first class using our InteRail passes and just a nominal €10 reservation fee.

Naples, the birthplace of pizza, is fast, furious and fun and a little over exaggerated on the crime front in my opinion. Yes, there are lots of people and the possibility for petty crime is there for all to see. You just need to be aware, don’t flash around any fancy jewellery and stick to the main streets. In other words, be cautious as you would in any major city. That said, the bay dominated by the towering visage of Vesuvius is simply stunning, and the pizzas are delicious by the way.
The old city is a warren of narrow streets and by day is well worth exploring. There is a church seemingly around every corner. The city stretches upwards into the high bluffs and taking the funicular is an experience, but there’s also an efficient metro system and plenty of cheap buses.
We stayed up high in the embassy district at the Grand Hotel Parker’s, once used by the American army during the war as their HQ. Today it is a five star hotel with a roof terrace offering a fabulous view of the whole Bay.
Naples is the best place to base yourself if you want to visit Pompeii, Vesuvius and Herculaneum. Just a 20 minute train ride away, the famously preserved Roman sites offer an amazing glimpse into how ancient families lived out their lives before Vesuvius exploded and changed their lives forever.
The cities are incredibly preserved even down to the chariot ruts in the stone roads. They both met their demise in different ways, which makes is what makes them so interesting. Pompeii had hot ash and smoke rain down on it whilst Herculaneum was buried in mud ensuring its organic matter like wood was perfectly preserved. They both simply have to be seen. It is well worth buying the services of one of the numerous guides that will build up a group of ten for around €10 each.

Naples is good value by Italian Mediterranean standards and you can eat quite cheaply in many of the local restaurants. Out favourite was Di Matteo, a pizzeria in the old town. No nonsense service and great food, but after 9pm you might be lining up in the street for a while.

InteRailing for Glampackers

September 5th San Remo to Bologna

The journey across to Bologna from the west coast is memorable for two reasons. You get to experience some dramatic mountainous countryside, which is just as well because the journey takes nearly four hours and over 12 stops on the local service to Milan. The old train was packed to the gills with people and luggage including two American vets on their way home from Afghanistan and enjoying a bit of R&R.
However, once you reach Milan, it’s just another hour to Bologna on the new Frecciarossa express.
Bologna. Old and wise. A university since the 11th century. They say Bologna is known for three things. The ‘fat’ people, because of the glorious pasta and rich food, the red brick architecture and similar political affiliations, and finally the ancient seat of knowledge, the University. Then again, petrol heads may just know about the odd nearby car manufacturer or two like Ferrari or Lambourghini
It’s a city that once was contained inside a wall, but now there are just the gates and towers remaining. In fact, Bologna’s own twin towers, (the two ancient towers that sit next to each other in the centre of the city) are a constant reminder of its medieval past. As are the 70 miles of canals that pass under the old streets and buildings, the conduits for merchants coming in from Venice and the Adriatic, not mention the locals who used them as sewers!
Today, you can have a great time exploring the underground canals and we took in a guided tour that took us under the city in rubber dinghies along the ancient walls where roman bridges and Etruscan walls were visible along with the old toilet holes in the tunnel ceilings!
We had a pasta cookery lesson too, in the Secchia Scuola Bolognese run by the famous chef Alessandra Spisni. We learnt to make fresh pasta from just flour and eggs, and shaped it to form tortellini, tortelloni and also tagliatelle, the traditional pasta to mix with bolognese sauce which is just called ragu in Italy. Don’t mention spaghetti in this town!
Bologna’s cobbled streets, churches porticos and palazzos are completely overshadowed by nearby Florence, but a must see if you are in the region. There are no tourist restaurants, you’ll find the locals eating everywhere, but try out the aperitif evening buffets, where for a little extra on your drinks, you can eat as much of the snack buffet food as you like. Or better still, get some fresh food from the daily market vendors on via Pescherie Vecchie and take it into the Torre degli Garisenda for some great local wines. It’s been there since the 11th century, and is full of locals drinking and eating their own brought in food.

Hotel: Porta San Mamolo
Underground Canal tours:
Cookery school: Secchia Scuola Bolognese

Monday, 6 September 2010

InteRailing for Glampackers

September 1st to Nimes

St. Pancras was impressive. Like a grand old lady who’d suddenly rediscovered her youth, she was all decked out in her modern finery but still held a timeless veneer. There was even a splattering of quality merchants to get us in a continental mood. It’s funny, but we’re so conditioned to a lifetime of airport security, that turning up just 40 minutes before we were due to leave is something of a novelty.
The 8.05 Eurostar to Paris whisked us silently away across the channel and by late morning we were in Paris.

Paris has style, elegance and beauty. For us though, it was lunch. A stone’s throw from the Gard de Lyon where our next train awaited, itself a few stops on the Metro from Eurostar’s terminus at the Gard du Nord, we found a small brasserie just opening for the lunchtime crowd. Light food washed down with a glass of wine, of course.

By 4pm we were on the TGV using our interail pass and well and truly deep into France. It only takes just under three hours to get from Paris in the north to Nimes in the south, but there is a world of difference.

The Gard region of Languedoc is a delight and at its centre, Nimes with it’s curious homage to Spain’s bullfighting, sangria and flamenco is pretty special. And there are Roman remains. Not just any old remains mind, but only the best preserved Roman amphitheatre in the world. The gladiators may have long gone, but today, over 20,000 people still go there to watch spectacular events like bullfights or concerts. Lit up at night, the place takes on an almost mystical feel, and I swear, right there, you can almost jump thousands of years into the past Talking of the past, just a half hour drive away is the stunning Pont du Gard, a Roman aqueduct built in 20 BC standing some 160 feet high and over 900 feet long.
Also nearby, the magical Petit Camargue, a marshy world with its free to roam birds, white horses and bulls and the ancient walled city of Ainge Morte and down by the coast, the charming seaside resort of Roi

We had three delightful days here, enjoying the sights and sounds of a region so wonderfully French but curiously Spanish too.

The Royal Hotel
Pont du Gard,

September 4th to San Remo, Italy.

What a day. Traversing the width of the amazing French southern coast from east to west to begin our Italian leg. A quick stop in Avignon to sing the song at the Pont, and a peek at the Papal Palace and then back on the train through Marseilles, Monaco, Cannes, Nice, and finally into Italy at Ventemillia and our overnight stop at San Remo.
The glorious Royal San Remo hotel looks down on the town and the wide blue Med from its lofty perch way up on the cliff, a well deserved rest for weary travellers. Unbridled luxury amid a lovely old town.
Food highlight here, dinner at the wonderfully quirky Taverna a local restaurant run by Natale and Margarhita. Everything fresh, and everything top quality. We ended up drinking together once everybody had left, discussing politics and food, and watching his waiter’s magic tricks. A magical evening then all around.