2 Dec 2010

Onwards and upwards

They say that all good things must come to an end. Personally, I’ve never really understood that. I mean if something is a good thing, shouldn’t it go on an on, for ever?

And yet here I am, in chilly Helsinki, transformed by a thick blanket of snow into a shimmering winter wonderland, getting ready to say goodbye to all of that.

It’s been quite a ride, these last two months. I’ve travelled more widely, intensively and exhaustingly than I have since I backpacked my way across Europe and the Middle East to India back when I was 17.

I’ve been to places I’ve wanted to see for ages, Shanghai’s Bund, Mr. Lloyd-Wright’s Imperial Hotel, Granada’s Alhambra. I’ve met old friends in Hong Kong, Tokyo, New York, Madrid and Carmona and made new ones in Stockholm, Copenhagen and St. Petersburg and Osaka.

I’ve lost my heart on a daily basis to more beautiful people and places than I can remember. I’ve eaten and drunk my fill; okonomiyake, bao buns and reindeer steak, white tea, green tea and red, sparkling wines and languorous red wines. I’ve shivered in howling winds in St. Petersburg, crunched through the snow in Helsinki, basked in the sticky, sub-tropical heat of Hong Kong and floated serenely under starry night skies in hot spring water in Hakone.

It’s been amazing, overwhelming and more than a little surreal. Blasting through time zones and temperature changes at 800 kilometres an hour, 12,000 metres above the earth. I have felt, at times, like an immortal, at others, a 1000 years old. But it is beautiful, and fascinating our world and travelling it is always a privilege.

I hope you have enjoyed my journey and trust that you will forgive me, in retrospect, if I have occasionally (perhaps more than occasionally) rambled on for too long, or indulged in passions that weren’t your own.

My thanks to you all for reading and for commenting. It is always better not to write in a vacuum and your thoughts and insights have often triggered ideas of my own.

My thanks to Finnair for choosing four people they didn’t know from Adam and then putting their global network at their disposal. That was a braver act than any of us, even now, can fully appreciate.

Finally, my thanks to the dedicated, welcoming and yes, slightly crazy crew at Myltton, who dreamed up this magnificent adventure and then sold the idea to Finland’s national carrier.

My hat is off to all of you.

*Here’s to you, Douglas Adams

2 Dec 2010

Let me be very clear, I’m not an apologist for Imperialism.

I understand that at some time or another, everyone’s done it – although these days, a large swathe of the world conveniently forgets that long before the Europeans, the Arabs and the Asians were busy conquering chunks of the world for themselves.

I also understand that however ‘natural’ the progression to empire, it’s a bad habit, a bit like war, that may be part of our collective history but which ought to have absolutely no place in our (more enlightened) future.

I’ll say one thing about them, those Imperials of old did have a habit of leaving some lovely reminders behind.

Part of one especially lovely reminder

Granada’s Alhambra is a case in point. Part of the longest-lived, and by all accounts, the most glorious of all the assorted Muslim kingdoms that flourished in Dark Ages and Medieval Spain, Granada was one of the first places the Muslims conquered and was the very last place they left, a stay that totalled just over 800 years. The Alhambra itself was only built in the last few centuries of Islamic rule but it is, without doubt, one of the most magnificent buildings the Moors ever built.


Naturally, I chose to visit it on one of Granada’s rare days of torrential rain. Andalucia is the wettest province in Spain, a fact of which I was unaware until my recent visit. It does not rain for most of the year, but when it does, it’s diluvial.

While the rain occasionally stopped from time to time, thus permitting the clouds to part briefly, revealing the fresh snowfall on the Sierra Nevada behind the palace, the sky remained a sullen, leaden grey for my entire visit.

It is a testimony to the Alhambra’s magnificence that the weather did not detract from the experience. Room after room of sumptuously decorated rooms, rich with exquisite tiling, delicate wooden screens, elegantly carved Lebanese cedar ceilings and mind-bogglingly elaborate arabesques cast from a mixture of plaster and marble dust and then shaped into arches, doorways, intricate panels of calligraphy and elegant geometries and stalactite-like clusters called muqarnas.

Magical muquarnas

Given that most of the palace’s decorations have been removed – the Alhambra was abandoned for decades and until the early 20th Century, it was possible to purchase bits of it from gypsy squatters, who were happy to strip walls and floors of decorative tiles for the right price – what remains is so over-whelming that the original must have been beyond breath-taking.

And so I wandered, centuries after muezzin ceased his morning call, I wandered and I wondered. Through garden courtyards with geometric watercourses, every bit as functional as the day they first brought water into the palace.

Still running after all these years

Through pavilions adrift on a sea of tapering pillars, petrified forests supporting magnificent domes, whose every inch of which were covered in such a profusion of mouldings that their abundance and intricacy capture – if such a thing is possible – a snapshot of infinity, frozen forever until the end of time.

Look closely and you might just see god

Do not let Alhambra’s unadorned, almost cubist exteriors fool you. There is no modesty here. For those reddish walls, which give the palace its name (it is actually called the Al-Hamra or the Red One in Arabic) conceal interiors so lavish they would make a Caliph blush.

Being more mortal, I did what any self-respecting visitor would do. I threw back my head and gaped in open-mouthed, slack-jawed, wide-eyed wonder at the miracle wrought around me in timber and stone.

Wander in wonder

30 Nov 2010

Where it all happens

When I was growing up in Rio, Wednesday afternoons were a time of anguish and torture. This was when we had ‘art’, multi-disciplinary sessions in which we were encouraged to demonstrate our potential as budding Picassos.

Trouble was, I  might have been budding but I was no Picasso. Give me a writing assignment, and I was in my element. Give me something to draw, a still life, for example, and I was at sea.

Mrs. Pauline, our lovely, if somewhat spaced-out art teacher, clearly agreed.

“Very nice, very good,” was her stock phrase, and she’d coo this encouragingly as she walked the room, surveying the other students’ work.

Stopping behind me, she’d repeat the same phrase but then pause ever so slightly before continuing with  a “what is it?”

As a critique (however unintentional), it was devastating.

“It’s, well, it’s…er…it’s….it’s an apple, Miss.”

“Ohhhh,” she would coo, as my face turned an impressive shade of red – Fireman Red, I believe – “ohhhh yes,” she’d say squinting, “it is, isn’t it?”

Fast-forward 30 years and you will now understand why, when I found myself, one cloudy Hong Kong afternoon, face to face with a blank canvas clutching a paintbrush, my first reaction was to sweat. Profusely.

Uhoh. Now what?

“Oh, that happens to lots of people,” Louis explained breezily, “I’ve seen a man come in with his wife, practically in tears because he didn’t want to have to paint, but as soon as they start, they quickly forget all their fears.”

Louis Headley (full disclosure: we have been friends since we both taught English in Japan, many centuries ago) is an architect and one half of Artjamming, a Hong Kong-based company that has been helping the world (or at least Central) to express themselves since 2000.

Betty, having just seen what I’d painted….

His partner in crime is fellow architect, Betty Chueng, who first got the idea of painting as entertainment (yes, they do call it paintertainment) as a way to unwind after she moved back to Hong Kong from Toronto and discovered that in the vertical city, there’s lots to do, but even relaxing sometimes feels like work.

“I suddenly realised how much I missed painting, which I did a lot as a child, and I thought that it would be really fun to get a bunch of friends together and just paint.”

And so she did. Her first event was more like a dinner party. People brought their own paint and weren’t allowed to use ‘traditional’ tools, like brushes. Hands. Leaves. Forks, yes. But no brushes. And it was so much fun that before she knew it, Betty had organised so many painting parties, that she was running out of space to hold them.

And so Artjamming® (the trademark is officially theirs) began.

Do you think they’re trying to tell me something?

Today, Betty and Louis run 2.5 shops in Hong Kong (the .5 is a pop-up shop that moonlights around the city) and cater to people from all walks of life/ the only thing most of them have in common is that most of them haven’t done anything artistic since they were children.

“I think they enjoy it because its really fun, we took the capital “A” out of art,” Betty explains, saying that even when she turned Artjamming into a business, it was more as an excuse to “just do stuff”.

So how does one Artjam? Easy really. Turn up, choose your canvas, pick a brush, pour some paint and start painting. There’s no guidance (though Artjamming staff will give you tips, suggestions and show you different painting techniques, if you require), no criticism (or if there is, it’s only from your fellow painters) and best of all (for me) no Mrs. Pauline asking you what it is you’ve just painted.

“We give people what they need,” says Louis. “Some need guidance, some need us to encourage them, to tell them yes, they can do it, others just want the space to create or want us to be cheerleaders from time to time.”

“I can’t tell you how many of our paintings have ended up on the walls of cafes and restaurants around here,” Betty adds, “I still see them sometimes as I walk around.”

The concept itself has been duplicated all over the world, usually by people who first tried it out in Hong Kong and while she might not know it, when Drew Barrymore and her friends held an Artjamming session in Hollywood a couple of years back, it was Betty and Louis’ concept she was enjoying.

“It’s been our blessing and our curse,” says Betty, who says that she actually likes the fact that her idea has proved so popular, others are copying it. “It was a surprise of course, we never thought people would copy such a small business, we’re not the Buddha Bar, or something like that.”

Tools of the trade

If it seems like a simple, even obvious idea, it is. But where Artjamming differs from just getting together and having a paint, is in its set-up. Custom canvases, custom paints and a fixed time to create a masterpiece and then at the end of it all, you leave everything – paints, brushes and apron – to be tidied away for you. Then you can either come back, once the paint’s dried, to pick up your picture or have it unmounted and sent to you instead.

The artiss at work

And so I did and I discovered that Art(jamming) is enchanting. There’s no satisfaction quite like creating your own painting.

More? Less?

Not that it was easy, mind. After staring at my canvas for hours and then wanting to stop after I’d applied a single layer of yellow and a couple of white circles (Less is More, you know), a gentle nudge from Betty had me covering the rest of my canvas in colours and splodges until finally, I discovered that I didn’t really want to stop. At all. Luckily, this is when Louis prevailed.

But then at Artjamming, you don’t have to stop. If you’ve finished one painting sooner than expected, you can start on another. Or you can just kick back, relax and watch the other painters work safe in the knowledge that while you may never be a Picasso, you’ll still have something to hang on your wall. And you will, you know, because even if it’s ugly, really ugly, it’s yours. All yours.

Very nice.

Very good.

What is it?


123 Wellington Street

Tel: +852 2541 8816

30 Nov 2010

I think they mean “Here, There, All Over the Place”

1. Advertise your flights between two destinations as starting from €39.

2. Charge from €69 and up.

3. Build a bug into your online booking system so that having finished the process of booking, when your customer clicks on ‘continue’, they get a pop-up notice asking them if they want to buy insurance and when they click ‘ok’, have the pop-up message keep popping up – forever – so that the booking can’t be made, forcing your customer to call your hotline instead.

4. Charge a premium rate for the hotline. Force the customer to listen to an outrageously long recorded message telling them that their calls may be recorded for ‘quality control’ before finally connecting them. Once you do connect them, get the customer’s departure destination wrong. Several times.

5. Complete the booking. Charge an extra €10 for the ‘privilege’ of booking through an actual human. Then also charge an extra €8.50 ‘handling fee’ for payments made using a credit card.

6. Ask, repeatedly, if the customer ‘wouldn’t like to buy flight insurance’. Not only is it really reassuring, it also lets your customers know that while they are paying less for their flight, you are determined to wring as much money out of them as possible in every other way.

7. Be completely unable to make the credit card payment go through. Offer to try again. Fail.

8. Inform the customer that it’s OK because they can “pay at the airport” but because neither the website nor the hotline could actually process their payment, they’ll need to turn up 2 hours before the flight to purchase the ticket.

9. Charge the singularly outrageous sum of €38 for a 15 minute call to your utterly useless hotline. A 15 minute domestic call, that is.

10. Force the customer to turn up at a local airport, with few facilities and absolutely no queues, 2 hours early to complete purchase formalities that take less than 2 minutes, just so they can sit around and twiddle their thumbs for two hours.

11. Delay your flight but don’t tell passengers why or what is happening.

12. Ask passengers to line up for boarding 10 minutes before the original, scheduled departure time.

13. Keep them waiting for 20 minutes before announcing, indirectly and with no apology, that the plane they are supposed to be taking off on to their destination has only just landed.

14. Process passengers anyway and then shunt them into a tiny waiting room. Finally, 30 minutes after they were supposed to have taken off, invite them to walk across the tarmac to the plane.

15. Attempt to make passengers forget your shoddy service by announcing that Barcelona has just ‘scored its second goal’ and with the listless promise that one day, they might get to fly on the Jade Jagger-designed “lounge in the sky” plane – which will only make your grumpy, tired passengers think that what they really could have done with is a “lounge on the ground”.

28 Nov 2010

Spain is awash with pretty villages and lovely towns, of that I have absolutely no doubt. But could Carmona, an Andalucian town in the province of Seville, be the prettiest of them all? According to its tourist board, Carmona consistently figures in the national top ten for towns that have retained their traditional charm, so perhaps there’s something to the sentiment.

I can’t claim to have undertaken any kind of serious research into the matter but I can honestly say that after a day of wandering around that if Carmona isn’t the prettiest little town in Spain, it’s definitely one of them.

Why? Well, mostly because Carmona is perfectly preserved. It hasn’t been pickled in aspic, nor is it one of those museum towns, you find increasingly around the world, places that look lovely but don’t really function. Carmona is a living, breathing town, it’s just that its inhabitants have chosen to keep their town looking the way it always has, presumably because it suits their lifestyle.

Naturally, there are modern additions, but they have been made in a way that updates Carmona without altering its character and even the newer developments on its fringes – this is, or was until recently, a bit of a boom town – take the town’s existing character into consideration. As a result, Carmona’s narrow, winding streets lined with immaculately whitewashed courtyard homes, with their decorative iron grilles and imposing carved wooden doorways, seems barely to have changed in centuries.

Carmona’s charms, as well as its prime location on the route from Seville to Cordoba and Granada, mean that it attracts tourists. This explains, in part, the profusion of small restaurants, cafés and bodegas, each of which demand that one pause to knock back a glass of manzanilla and maybe indulge in a well-cured slice two of caña de lomo, before heading back out to explore town. I say in part, because they are clearly popular with Carmonites, as well.

There’s a lot to see. Medieval churches, chapels and nunneries, old Arab fortifications and vestiges of Carmona’s Roman past, including a beautifully-preserved ceremonial gateway, a lovely mosaic uncovered in the 1920’s that’s on display in the courtyard of the town hall and one of the largest Roman necropoles discovered outside of Italy.

I have to admit, I fell in love. A couple of truly radically new buildings, a la Herzog and deMeuron or Zaha Hadid, would only make it lovelier, but as it stands, Carmona is that perfect Andalusian blend of the Ancient World, the Middle East and Medieval Europe.

Homes with gorgeously tiled façades.

Graceful archways leading into lush garden courtyards. A square local residents still refer to as the Forum, which it was, back when Carmona was called Carmo and this was one of the wealthiest provinces of the Roman Empire.

It’s a palimpsest of cultures read as easily in its churches, with their Roman columns, Visigoth brickwork, visibly North African minarets turned belfries and delicate post-Andalos Mozarabic tile work, as it is in the way the Carmonites live; their snack-like tapas/mezze meals (which allow you to sample many different flavours in a single meal) their post-lunch siestas (which allow you to sleep away the worst of the summer heat) and their second ‘morning’ of the day, when you rise, post-siesta, shower, put on some perfume, slip into your nicest clothes and then head out, into the night, to shop, eat, drink and, yes, why not, dance until dawn.

28 Nov 2010

For a small town, Carmona has plenty of places to stay. The town itself has at least a half dozen hotels of various descriptions, many of which tend towards the luxurious.

It’s even home to one of Spain’s Paradores, a collection of rather exclusive state-owned castles, monasteries and historic homes that have been turned into luxurious hotels. The one in Carmona, the Alcazar del Rey Don Pedro, was originally an old Arab fortress. It stands on a hilltop overlooking the town and commands fantastic views of the rolling farmland that for millennia has made Carmona’s fortunes.

The Parador is pleasant enough but it is large and, well, a little impersonal so if you are looking for somewhere a little more intimate, try the Casa de Carmona.

This is down in the town itself, not far from Carmona’s Roman gate and just a hop and skip from most of the other historic sights. It was built in 1561 and for most of its history, it was a private home and belonged to one family, the Briones-Quintanillas of Seville.

Since 1987, it’s been the property Felipe Guardiola, a distant relative of the Briones-Quintanillas. When he purchased the house, Mr. Guardiola spent four years restoring it to its original glory and in 1991, re-opened the Casa as a luxury hotel.

The Casa has 33 rooms, most of which are arranged around the central, plant-filled courtyard. Each of them are decorated differently and while the Casa doesn’t offer true 5-star luxury, at least not for the moment, what it does offer is more interesting; the chance to experience life as it was lived by Spain’s aristocratic families.

There’s a small pool and the former stable has been converted into a lovely dining room. What makes the Casa more than just another hotel though are several book-filled drawing rooms, decorated with family portraits, antiques, slightly overstuffed furniture and, in one case, an aging billiard table.

These serve as places to read, relax or perhaps socialise with other guests before or after dinner, lending the Casa something of the feel of a private club.

There’s even a bar – dubbed the Bar of Honesty – where you pour your own drinks and let the hotel know afterwards how many you’ve had.

Plaza de Lasso 1, Carmona

+34 954 191 000

27 Nov 2010

A double-dare?

Ever since I was proscribed too many steroids as a child, and thus made my entry into the world of the well-padded, I’ve enjoyed what might be called a hate-hate relationship with bathroom scales.

Judging by this machine, somewhat ironically lodged in one corner of Seville’s famous La Campana patisserie, so did our forefathers.  Perhaps to sweeten the blow, it once offered those who dared step on its base plate the chance to find out what their future held.

What would you have asked?

What will I be when I grow up? Will I my love affairs be noteworthy? How long will I live? Will I win the lottery? Questions we’ve probably all asked and which, for the very reasonable amount of 10 céntimos, the bruja and her black cat, once answered in the window at the top of the scale.

Today, the coin slot is taped up and the bruja is silent. Perhaps this is because with the advent of the Euro, those céntimos are quite difficult to come by. Or is it be because she told one customer too many that they’d not only eaten far too many sweets but that their love affairs, lamentably, were unlikely to become legends?

27 Nov 2010

Memories of old Ishbiliya

Back when Seville was called Ishbiliya and it was the call to prayer and not the church bells that rang out from the top of La Giralda, the city was blessed with a considerable number of Arab baths, or hammams.

During the centuries that followed the Catholic ReconquistaIshbiliya became Seville in 1248 – the hammams began to disappear and by the 17th Century, the last one was gone.

Fast-forward 300 years and Seville has begun to revive at least one aspect of its former Islamic existence. Down a narrow side-street in the neighbourhood of Santa Cruz, you can once again steam clean, just as Ishbiliya’s Arabs (and before them, Hispalis’ Romans) did for millennia.

The place to go is the Aire de Sevilla, a very contemporary hammam that occupies a 16th Century palace built, according to the brochure, by a “Viceroy from the Indies”.

The open-aire courtyard

The Aire sprawls over four floors of the palace and resembles a cross between a public bath and a boutique hotel – low lighting, elegantly black-clad staff and gentle, instrumental music – and offers a number of different bathing experiences.

The saltwater bath © Aire de Sevilla

There’s a warm saltwater pool, a warm freshwater Hydro-massage pool and a large freshwater pool (effectively, the Tepidarium, for you Classicists out there), which is located in the old reception hall.

The Caldarium and Frigidarium are tucked at the back

© Aire de Sevilla

This is best saved for last as here, you swim under carved wooden ceilings and you can also spend a while simmering in a separate heated bath (the Caldarium) and cooling off in the cold water plunge pool (the Frigidarum) adjacent. This is guaranteed to get the pulse racing. Additionally, there’s a eucalyptus-scented steam bath and a relaxation room, where massages and assorted spa treatments are administered.

Visits must be reserved in advance – this can be done online or over the phone –  and are restricted to 90 minutes, in order to ensure that the bath never gets overcrowded.

When you emerge, steamed, cleaned and pummelled into submission, end your visit with a glass of sweet mint tea, a perfect and perfectly old-school way to re-enter reality.

25 Nov 2010

Eat on your feet at San Miguel

One of the consequences of the various food revolutions that have swept Europe and the world in the last 10 or 15 years – organic food, Slow Food, the Locavore movement – has been the rise and rise of farmer’s markets.

Spain is no exception and while the country’s most famous farmer’s market is probably the sprawling La Boqueria in Barcelona, Madrid provides its own answer in the form of the Mercado San Miguel, a hop, skip and jump away from the Plaza Mayor in the middle of the old city.

Though smaller than it’s Catalonian counterpart, the San Miguel offers plenty to sink your teeth into, from freshly-foraged mushrooms and assorted seafoods, to local cheeses and regional wines, trays of mouth-watering pastries, slabs of air-cured hams and dizzying arrays of pickles, amongst them, a cornucopia of olives, prepared in more ways than you’ve probably ever seen in your life.


More than just a place to pick up luxury goods, the Mercado is also a great place to grab a bite to eat, whether tapas and tortillas at one of its bars, or something more substantial at one of the many restaurants that line the streets around the market.

A cava a day keeps the doctor away

It’s open from 10 in the morning until 2 in the morning, making it perfect for brunch, lunch, dinner and a pre-bed snack. Come at the weekend and you’ll find yourself check to jowl with Madrilenos of every stripe, as well as half the city’s tourists, knocking back glasses of cava, tinto de verano (red wine and sparkling water/lemonade) and solos (short, sharp shots of caffeine, much like an espresso), while nibbling on bocadillos (finger food) from all over Spain.

24 Nov 2010

Seen from without, L.Hardy is an exercise in discretion. Indeed, were you to walk casually along the Carrera de San Jeronimo, one of the smaller streets leading off the Puerta del Sol, you would probably pass by without a second glance. However, to do so, would be a mistake.

Push through the doors, into the crowded café/patisserie on the first floor and you are instantly transported to another age, to the world of frock coats and feather hats, the manners and the mores of Madrid when it was still an Imperial capital.

The creation of Emilio Huguenin, a Franco-Swiss chef and restauranteur, L.Hardy first opened its doors in 1839 and it has been feeding hungry Madrilenos ever since. In 1885, the restaurant got its first and only makeover, courtesy of Rafael Guerrero, an interior decorator formerly in the employ of Eugenie, the Spanish consort of Napoleon III, France’s last Emperor. Apart from the introduction of electricity and (of course) modern kitchen appliances, L.Hardly hasn’t changed since.

Bet some of these people have been coming here since they were children

An old-school croissant warmer

The ground floor café, with its 19th century light fixtures, decorative cast iron pillars, dark wood panelling and rows of delicate wine glasses and champagne flutes arranged on silver trays in front of the massive ornate gilt frame mirror at the far end of the room, is a delight but gives little indication of the splendour that lies above.

Cognac with your coffee, señor?

Here, up a narrow flight of stairs, you’ll find a series of dining rooms, some intended for private dining, others for (marginally) more public use. There’s the White Room, the Japanese Room and the Elizabethan room, each decorated in the style of the day and each preserved as they were the day they were created.

Don’t forget your top hat and cane

Low-lit and cosy, their wallpaper and curtains darkened by centuries of (cigar) smoke – the restaurant has long been a favourite of Madrid’s moneyed classes, as well as its writers and politicians – and parquet floors worn smooth by the passage of generations of feet, the dining rooms wear their patina of age with grace.

Crisp and starched. And that’s just the clientele.

The darkness of the walls is brilliantly offset by the crisp whiteness of the table linens, the small posies of brightly coloured flowers, the silvery glint of the tablewear and the gentle yellow glow of lamplight reflected by the ornately framed mirrors on each wall.

As you sit, drinking in the details – the red candles, the green marble fireplace, the richly patterned wallpaper – a translation takes place. The rumble of traffic subsides, the electric light softens, becoming more like the glow of a gas lamp and as you hear the faint echo of diners long past, you find yourself, like L.Hardy itself, adrift on the sea of Time.

Japanese? Chinese? Let’s just call it ‘Oriental’, shall we?

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