Palma de Mallorca.

8 Jul

BornIt could be argued that when your fellow passengers on your departing flight consist mostly of drunk, raucous women that it is perhaps indicative of what to expect once you arrive at your chosen destination. Well such was the case on a recent trip to the Balearic island of Mallorca that I was beginning to wonder if I had made the right choice for a few days of winter sun.
But once through baggage claim the drunken din of my travel companions finally starts to fade as they head off in the direction of one of the islands more well known resorts and we jump into a taxi for the short trip to the island’s capital Palma.
Admittedly on my only previous trip to the island I was myself clambering onto a coach and heading off for two weeks on a package holiday with my family. But that was 25 years ago when my expectations from a holiday mostly involved ice cream and water parks. One of my abiding memories from that trip however was from a days excursion to Mallorcas largest city and one of the reasons why I decided to return and see if it actually is the cosmopolitan city of my fuzzy, yet fond, recollection.
Arriving at our hotel my adult encounter with the city was already living up to that of my childhood and this would turn out to be the first of many surprises this city would throw up. The Hotel Jaime lll is what is known as an art hotel these days, a bronze canoe taking pride of place smack bang in the centre of the lobby, ferocious looking ceramic dogs wearing brightly crocheted jumpsuits keeping watch at the door and what seems to be one of the fibreglass sharks from Jaws looming over the library. It could all appear a tad pretentious were it not for the very friendly welcome at reception. Restaurant recommendations and room key secured it was time to chill out on the spacious balcony, guide-book in hand and enjoy the view overlooking the city and the mediterranean beyond.Dog

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Waking to unseasonably warm weather is exactly why so many of us enjoy winter getaways, somehow you are just that extra bit more appreciative of it when you are guaranteed it is pouring down with rain at home.
Palma is a surprisingly large city but easily discovered on foot all the same and our hotel was perfectly located a 10 minute stroll from one of its main thoroughfares Passeig Born. A wide and very pretty tree-lined boulevard with many shops and cafes this is a good spot to enjoy a coffee and start to get a feel for the city. From here it is only a short distance to many of the city’s popular attractions. The Gothic cathedral of Santa Maria of Palma, or La Seu as most cathedrals are known in Catalan, is just a few minutes stroll away. Now I’m not normally one for visiting places of worship when travelling but over the years I have come to appreciate that once you make the effort they rarely fail to deliver. This La Seu is definitely no exception. Once famed for having its image reflected in the ocean these days that claim is supported by a man made lake built on reclaimed land to halt the effects of erosion sacrificing it to the water.La Seu ext. It is a magnificently imposing structure from the moment you approach and the interior doesn’t disappoint. It’s massive circular stained glass windows bath everything they touch in the most vivid, striking colours. The vast floors remind me of the dance floor from Saturday Night Fever and while I supress the urge to bust a move I wonder if perhaps Irish Cathedrals might be that bit more popular if the sun were to turn up on occasion.La Seu

Another one of Palmas impressive Gothic buildings is the nearby La Llotja in the neighbourhood of La Llonja. A former exchange from the citys days as a maritime trading centre the building now houses temporary art exhibitions. If there are no shows on when you visit then unfortunately you will find it closed.Llonja However, if this happens to be the case the ornately decorated exterior is worth checking out alone and the Plaza on which is it situated is dotted with tables from the surrounding tapas bars which make it a perfect choice for some lunch and a spot of people watching. La Llonja is a colourful, bohemian district which is home to many bars and restaurants and its narrow medieval streets are where you will find some of the quirkier shops and cafes. Come nightfall the area is also a great destination for dinner and down the streets that lead off the square are where you will find some of the city’s livelier bars and restaurants. We returned here for dinner ourselves that evening to the widely recommended La Boveda at Boteria 3. The atmosphere was traditional, the wine excellent and the service fantastic. The large, hairy boiled piece of cow cheek atop my white bean stew not so much but I am assured that for some this is to be savoured. Seeking something a little stronger to wash my meal down with we came across a sign pointing down an alley toward what claimed to be the best cocktail bar in the world. Admiring their confidence we decided to check it out. If you ever find yourself in Palma looking for a cocktail then Harry’s should be easy enough to remember. I am yet to visit a city that doesn’t have a cocktail bar with the same name. Now I’m no cocktail afficiando but the drinks were great and the manager Federico knows his music as well as his alcoholic concoctions which makes for a great way to round off an evening in my eyes.
As we were only there for the best part of three days the next day we opted for the trusty hop on hop off city bus. Normally I find these tours are a great way for finding your bearings in a city whilst ticking off some of the ‘must-see’ sights without spending your days pounding the pavements. However on in Palma, which is largely made up of narrow pedestrianised streets, you may be better off doing just that. Still, the tour did throw up one or two interesting sights for those with a quirkier sense of exploration. A purpose built walled village containing replicas of all of Spain’s grandest buildings? Sure why not. For a small entry fee, around €6, you can wander the streets of Poble Espanyol and get to see such buildings as Granada’s Alhambra Palace or El Greco’s Toledo home and all conveniently positioned within a suburban neighbourhood. Weird and kind of fun but I would of course recommend visiting these cities themselves.
One stop that is worth hopping off at is the museum of modern and contemporary art Es Baluard. As you would expect the core of the works of those by Spanish artists, the highlight of which being a permanent exhibition dedicated to Joan Miro and there is another of Picasso’s ceramics that would please any art lover.
With the previous nights cow cheek incident still triggering slight waves of nausea we decided this time to take our hotel up on one of their recommendations and found our way to Tast, a neighbourhood favourite specialising in pinchos and tapas. Bustling with locals we took stools at the wide marble bar from where we proceeded to tdevour numerous dishes including tempura paprika sausage, cod fritters with honey and garlic and mini hamburgers. Last nights choice of restaurant may have appealed to a more sophisticated palette than mine but tonight we ate like proper Mallorcans. Palma food

Having had very few plans or expectations before setting off for Palma on our last morning we realised that we had completely neglected to visit one of the cities beaches.
This says a lot about the city as up until now we had been far too busy enjoying ourselves and as a result had completely bypassed what is for some the main lure of this beautiful island. But we had no swimming shorts or towels with us. Remember that old saying of always wearing clean underwear in case you are involved in an accident? Well it was the middle of winter and God knows how long until we would get to swim in the ocean again so I declared this to be at least a minor emergency. Fortunately my shorts could pass for swimwear from a distance but more importantly there were few people on the beach so I didn’t get to return any of the many surprises that this exciting city has treated me to over the past three days.Beach So after my second visit to Palma De Mallorca would I be back? Absolutely. But next time I’ll remember to pack my shorts.

Aer Lingus fly to Palma from  Dublin, visit http://www.aerlingus.com

Rooms at the Hotel Jaime III start from €296 for a city view room with breakfast based on two sharing.

http://www.hmjaimeiii.com

This article was first published in the Irish Mail on Sunday on March 31 2013.

Port Grimaud, Côte d’Azur.

1 Jul

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Sitting in the warmth of the evening sun overlooking Port Grimaud on Frances cote d’Azur whilst watching the yachts coming in to moor for the evening and with a cold beer in hand, I couldn’t help but think how idyllic a way to spend an hour on a late summers evening this was. It made me appreciate how all is good in the world and life is really not that shabby at all. Except, as in life, things were not really that straightforward.
In fact the reason I was there at all was to take a long, hard look at all that was wrong with my life and learn the techniques that would help me to improve those areas with which I felt dissatisfied and that I hoped to change.
The man who was going to help me achieve these somewhat herculean life changes was chartered psychologist and personal development specialist Graham Price. Over the course of a week in his waterside villa he would endow me with all the tools I would need to live a life free of worry and regret and become the person I had always wished to be.
I must be honest that as I took another sip from my beer and felt the cool breeze on my face I couldn’t help but think that I was already the person I wanted to be.
But I have always believed that there is room for improvement in everyones life and if you were to say that there was none in yours I’m not sure I would believe you. So, cynisism firmly put to one side, I had jumped at the opportunity to take part and was ready to embrace the experience with an open mind.
First up was meeting my fellow participants which turned out to be a slightly covert operation at Nice airport involving subtle methods of identification, think blind date without the red carnation in my lapel. Any fears I may have had about the types of people who sign up for such a course where allayed during the 90 minute drive along the coast and I could start to relax and allow myself to realise the week might just turn out to be fun too.IMG_0858
The week would consist of two one and a half hour training sessions, one after breakfast and another each evening before dinner. The time in between could be spent either at your own leisure or by taking up yachtsman Grahams very kind offer of sailing lessons on his beautiful 50ft boat. The port was purpose built on reclaimed marshland in the 1960s by French architect Francois Spoerry and is often described as a mini Venice with its many channels and bridges. A keen sailor himself, Spoerry designed the town with sailing in mind and many of the properties are the second homes of wealthy yacht owners from across Europe.
The atmosphere amongst the group was relaxed on our first morning and it turned out that not content with turning our lives around in the space of 7 days everybody was also up for taking on this seemingly highly skilled sport and giving it a go.
The title of the course was The Power to Choose and after a delicious Continental breakfast on the terrace is was time to get down to some learning. The thing that became apparent quite quickly on was that the week was going to be a lot more relaxed than I had first anticipated which was a welcomed realisation. It was also a hugely beneficial way of taking the information Graham was giving us on board. If I am being honest I had slightly anticipated a sort of Psychologists couch enviroment but all lessons were very informal and felt almost like a friendly discussion. I had been afraid that I would be expected to indulge in an outpouring of all my life’s disappointments and failures but thankfully this wasn’t to be the case. Instead Graham encouraged an open discussion on generally shared experiences and offered us the tools that in his experience have successfully and continually helped himself and those who take part in his many courses.
Focussing on everyday thought processes and how we deal with them you slowly begin to realise that some of these thoughts have gradually become second nature and overtime even create obstacles to how you see others and yourself. As suggested by the course title if you can learn how to put these lessons into practice then you can choose to change many things about your life which you are unhappy with. Smoking cessation, weight loss and even how to reconcile relationships are amongst many of the issues that can be dealt with at either of Graham’s London clinics or here in France. And as easy as that our first exercise is over. Graham turns out to be very enjoyable company and puts the group at ease with this beginning to the week. That wasn’t so bad after all. And neither is the rest of the weeks training. As the time is largly spent on discussion it would be quite difficult to give a blow by blow account of everything that we learn over the seven days of training. But as the week progresses we learn how to improve our confidence, how to deal with negative or uncomfortable feelings and how to generally take control of our lives in a way that benefits us most. We are also shown how to combat all feelings of worry in our lives and promised that now we will be able to eradicate it forever. A fairly lofty claim I hear you say? But Graham assures us that worry is an emotion he has not experienced in almost thirty years now that he has the techniques to deal with it.
I must admit that with this announcement I could feel my earlier cynicisms ears stand on end. However I am not going to give in and remain focussed on my goals. That’s the thing with this type of trip. As displayed by my companions it is very brave to acknowledge that there are areas in your life that you are perhaps not fulfilling to their potential and to seek out and commit to such a holiday I feel is to be commended and unless you are willing to embrace the situation fully then what’s the point?
And yes I did say holiday. I wouldn’t want anybody reading this to think that it’s all introspective learning and heartfelt confessions because it most certainly isn’t.
Some of my spare time was spent on the beautiful beach a ten minute stroll from the villa or drinking coffee and taking in the atmosphere at the weekly market in the ports main square. Pt. GrimaudI even managed to become a surprisingly proficient sailor on our daily trips to the nearby towns of St. Tropez and St. Maxime where we would moor the yacht and explore the surroundings either solo or with the group. Some evenings after dinner were spent on the terrace drinking rose, unlimited during our stay from Grahams cave, and chatting late into the night. After one night we even decided to have a later start and the next days training took place onboard the yacht in the glorious sunshine. We dropped anchor off the coast of St. Tropez and discussion took place over a lunch of local cheeses and meats whilst dipping in and out of the water to cool down.
There is a lot to get your head around and at times you can end up feeling a little drained mentally but fortunately the beautiful setting and the physicality of the sailing offer the perfect counter balance. Together they also offer a winning combination for a great holiday.DSC02726
Can I say that the trip changed my life? Not really but perhaps my personal goals were minor. The course does exactly what it promises to do by providing you with the information that you will need to initiate and maintain change. The rest I’m afraid is up to you. So whilst my life is still recognisable to those who know me there is definitely a lot I have taken away with me which I remain commited to putting into practice everyday. I am not always successful but nobodys perfect right? And at the very least if anyone out there needs a skipper for their beautiful yacht then I’m your man.

* Seminars conducted by Graham Price cover:

Developement training for organisations and individuals.

Guaranteed smoking cessation and weight loss.

Cognative behavior therapy, hypnotherapy and more.

* Trips to Port Grimaud take place monthly during the Summer months and also during the year at regular dates. The next trip is scheduled for March 28 2013. See www.abicord.com for further details, prices etc.

This article was first published in the Irish Mail on Sunday on January 20 2013.

Budapest

24 Jun

20130412-181459.jpgAs supportive as I was of the Gathering initiative I still came to the decision that this year I was going to get the hell out Dublin for New Years Eve. Many of the close friends who I have traditionally spent the evening with had already beaten me to it and left. So, free of sentiment those of us that remained decided to seize the opportunity and go and spend it somewhere else. So which cities throw a good party? As expected a search for the top cities in which to see in the New Year threw up its fair share of predictable suggestions. With neither the time or finances to visit New York, Sydney or Rio de Janeiro there was only one other real contender that kept popping up, Budapest. Having visited Budapest once before and loved it I was still a little surprised to see it mentioned again and again but my arm was sufficiently twisted. Any excuse to return really.

It’s funny how even the mundane airport experiences become exciting again when travelling on the last day of the year. I am not a big fan of Christmas or airports but this trip was already starting to be a fun. Quick and efficient service in the restaurant, (everybody has somewhere to get to), short boarding queues and four emergency rows between the four of us? Happy New Year all.

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We arrived at our apartment on Raday Ucta and were met with the keys by Giovanni who looks after arrivals for the apartments owner. An extremely friendly and helpful guy he showed us everything we needed to know about the place and a lot of other information such as where to eat, new year opening hours and a number for a taxi which he assured us would cost no more than a few euros wherever we went in the city. The apartment was situated on the fourth floor of a typical Budapest block but it’s interior was anything but. Whilst it retained its historic feeling with parquet flooring, stained glass dividing doors and stuccoed ceilings there was also underfloor heating, marbled showers and the biggest 3-D tv I have ever seen, glasses included. One bedroom comes with a very deep bath behind frosted glass doors which, like the shower in the other room, comes with continuously changing mood lighting. The kitchen is fully equipped right down to a selection of coffees for the nespresso machine. The street itself is renowned as a ‘restaurant mile’ of sorts and has massive signage adorned with cutlery at either end to attract tourists. But with the clock ticking and our stomachs rumbling we ignored this fact and Giovannis advice and headed straight to the restaurant next door. Big mistake. In fairness I’m pretty sure it’s typical of the quality of service to be found of any gastronomical tourist trap, 31st of december or not but what’s not fair is being served medallions of pork passed off as duck. Once more I got the feeling that the thoughts of those working in the service industry on this day of the year are elsewhere. Nevertheless it was our mistake and one I suggest you don’t repeat. There are great little places on Raday Utca for a beer and a bite but far more awaits you if you look beyond.

A short distance away on Ferenczy Istvan we decided to spend midnight in Csendes bar. A historic feeling place its reminiscent of a pre-war speakeasy, high ceilings with small tables decorated with odd bits of cloth, chandeliers and a very strange collection of paintings and graffiti adorning the walls. We settled into a few beers followed by some very warming honey schnapps. These little babies worked a treat as outside it was freezing. Inside though it was very cozy yet there seemed to be very little going on for 11:45p.m on New Years Eve. Then as midnight approached there was a countdown from ten to… the Hungarian National anthem. As we sat back down in our seats many of the other people there seemed to leave. Not quite the same as the usual celebrations in Dublin, the strike of midnight seemed to signal the end of the evening for some. It had been a long enough day anyway so with a couple more schnapps under our belt it was time to brave the cold and head home for the evening.bar1

The next morning on our quest for breakfast we once again found ourselves at the mercy of the holidays and options were few. It’s probably best to skip the details and focus on what the city did have to offer us that day but all I will say is that our first meal of the day consisted of a cup of instant soup and ‘warm’ sandwiches. A five minute walk from the apartment will bring you to Fovam Square which is home to the magnificent Great Market Hall. Home to three storeys of stalls selling everything from foie gras and saffron to fresh meat, fruit, coffee and traditional Hungarian crafts the market is a must-see if only to take in the sheer scale of the building and enjoy the atmosphere. It is also a great place for an informal spot of lunch but, alas, not on a Bank Holiday.

From here we strolled along the beautiful Liberty Bridge and across the Danube to the Buda side of the city. The bridge leaves you at the foot of Gellert Hill which offers fantastic views across the city as enjoyed by Budapest’s own statue of Liberty. Beware, the guidebooks describe the walk to the top as gentle but from my experience it is anything but.bridge

Also at the foot of the hill is the Gellert Hotel which is home to one of the citys many thermal baths. As with my previous visit the outdoor baths were closed but still there was a long queue to gain access on this very cold day so I guess people are only after the ones indoor at this time of year. From here you can catch a tram along the Danube for two stops until you reach the Castle Hill Funicular. For about €2 it will take you to the top of the hill in no time and is a far gentler way of reaching the summit.

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The Castle District atop of the hill is home to the Matthias Church and the Fisherman’s Bastion. Originally built in 1015 the current incarnation was constructed in the late Gothic style and extensively restored in the late 19th century. The exterior of the church is really beautiful with a very eye catching array of multicoloured tile layed out in a diamond pattern on its roof. In fact it is so beautiful, and cold, that we feel no real need to go inside. Besides, the area around the church itself has lots of picturesque sights but it’s quickly getting dark and one of the best reasons to visit the district is the magnificent Fisherman’s Bastian and the stunning views it offers of the Pest part of the city. Named after the guild of fishermen who defended this stretch of the city walls during the Middle Ages the Bastion comprimises seven towers dotted along a covered terrace facing Eastward across the Danube toward the impressive Parliment building and Pest beyond. The Disneyesque terrace also offers a great view of perhaps the city’s most famous river crossing the Chain Bridge. A fairly impressive structure the bridge consists of two piers supporting the chains which suspend the road bed itself and actually allows for minimal movement, quite advanced engineering for 1849. In the bitter cold and fading light of the first day of the year however all i can really focus on beyond the twinkling lights of the bridge are those decorating the massive Christmas tree outside the Four Seasons Budapest which is located directly at the opposite end. As with my previous trip to the Castle District the Four Seasons provides the perfect spot for a relaxing cocktail or two after a day walking around the city. Housed in an Art Deco building that was once home to the Gresham Life Insurance Company this really is one of the most beautiful and luxurious hotels I have ever been in even if it is just the lobby bar. The prices do determine that you won’t spend a full evening in the sumptuous surroundings but as somewhere to take the weight off for an hour or two you really can’t beat it.

4seasonsHoping to start our gastronomic new year off on the right foot we take the unusual step of making a reservation with a restaurant we read about in our inflight magazine. I say unusual as when travelling I much prefer exploring a city off my own bat. However, with the mercury continuing to plummet and last nights meal still an acute reminder of what can happen when you don’t do any homework we booked a cab to take us to Cafe Kor. The menu is traditional Hungarian with a twist but whatever you order the menu is unlikely to leave you disappointed. The majority of main courses can be ordered as a starter at a much reduced price and seeing as there were so many delicious sounding dishes on offer I opted for two starters, roasted goat’s cheese and a goose liver pate with cognac. The price may have been reduced but the portions certainly didn’t appear to be. We ended up sharing all of the starters as they looked so good, and there was so much. The list of Hungarian wines was also fantastic and a perfect accompaniment to our meal including a shared dessert of pancakes filled with plum jam, poppy seeds and fresh cream. For four people with a few beers and a couple of bottles of wine our bill came to around €40 a head. If you ever pay a visit just make sure you call ahead to make a reservation. Cafe Kor is very popular with both tourists and locals but thankfully the latter, along with the staff, ensures that the place retains a friendly, neighbourhood feel. It turns out a friend had recommended Cafe Kor ahead of my last visit. I didn’t manage to make it on that occasion but having eventually enjoyed this fantastic restaurant i will definitely be back next time.

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Thermal Baths BudapestOf course no trip to Budapest would be complete without a visit to one of its many famous thermal baths. After the Gellart the Rudas baths are one of the most centrally located at the foot of Castle Hill but if travelling as part of a couple the only mixed sex days are Saturday and Sunday. There is an stone octagonal central pool with four smaller surrounding pools of various temperatures all speckled with coloured light from the Ottoman era dome above. On this occasion we opted to try the Szechenyi baths in the City Park close to Heroes Square. Szechenyi baths are those that feature in most of the guidebooks often with pictures of Hungarian men playing chess on floating boards in the steaming water as snow falls. What better way to shake off the previous evenings excesses in this fierce cold. It can be a little confusing trying to figure out how and where to get changed but once you do there are 15 pools in total to choose from with the three larger ones situated outside. Heres a little tip if you visit, bring flip flops. Whilst it is to be expected that all the baths will stink a little due to the sulphur element in the waters I guess it is also to be expected in a public bath of this size that there will also be a certain amount of hair and belly button fluff on the floors. But don’t let this put you off because it is definitely worth it once you have hot footed it through the icy winds to finally submerge yourself in the hot waters.

The tram ride back into the city centre is a good opportunity to stop off and visit the House of Terror museum. The museum was founded to commemorate those who suffered under the fascist and communist regimes during the 20th century. During the country’s at times brutal history victims of those regimes were regularly interrogated, tortured and killed in the building and its permanent exhibition serves as a very grim but reminder of what these people had to endure. Dark as it is its a thought provoking and worthwhile way to get to grips with the country’s complicated and brutal past.

Defying the temptation to return to Cafe Kor the following evening we instead chose to go with the other restaurant recommendation we had left up our sleeve. Ruben is conveniently located on Magyar Utca close to the apartment and whilst it would be difficult to beat our meal from the previous evening the food here is still excellent. The Hungarian fare in Ruben is far more traditional with roast goose and rabbit featuring heavily but with lots of other dishes to suit most palettes. Slightly more expensive than Cafe Kor yet reasonable by Irish standards, our meal is a more than satisfactory conclusion to a great few days in this wonderful city. Plus it is just a stones throw from Csendes where we began our weekend and a perfect place to wrap it up. So until next time, farewell Budapest, hello Vienna!

Both Aer Lingus and Ryanair offer direct flights to Budapest, see http://www.aerlingus.com or http://www.ryanair.com

Awake to Istanbul

17 Jun

AWAKE TO ISTANBUL


I’m going to go slightly arse about elbow with this one and use my first published travel piece as my first post which you can read here: istanbul

What you don’t get to read about in the main piece is how friendly the people of this city are, how fantastic the local food is and how, should you choose, most bars are more than willing to stay open as long as you’r up for indulging in the tasty and affordable Turkish beers and some banter with the locals!

A brilliantly diverse and exotic city which is definitely worth a visit if you haven’t already been.

This article was first published in the Irish Mail on Sunday on March 18 2012.

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