Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast must be one of the most scenic drives in the world, with a rugged, unspoiled coastline and a coastal road that runs within sight of the sea.
I reckon that you need at least three days to tour this lovely coastline. One day to see the Giant’s Causeway and the other attractions of the northern coastline. Another to taste a drop of whiskey at the famous Bushmills distillery and sleep it off at the Bushmills Inn (no driving required). On the final day you can drive down the stunning Glens coast between Ballycastle and Belfast. A perfect long weekend you might say!
The star of the coast – The Giant’s Causeway
So here’s the star of Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast; the Giant’s Causeway. Since the 1830s tourists have been coming here to see this wonder of nature, with hexagonal basalt columns, formed 66 million years ago when a lava flow cooled and cracked. Over time, the sea and weather eroded the columns into the iconic rock formations you see today.
Well that’s what the geologists will tell you! But of course the locals know that the Causeway was created by the giant Finn McCool, when he threw rocks into the sea to pick a fight with the Scottish giant who was taunting him from across the water. If you stand on the causeway you’ll see the chimneys of Finn McCool’s house rising from the cliff.
To tell me the stories of the causeway, I had an excellent local guide in Mark Rodgers who is part of the Purdy family that can trace their ancestry back to the survivors of the ship Girona, part of the Spanish Armada wrecked on the Causeway in 1588.
We passed the stone that marks when the Causeway became Ireland’s first World Heritage Site in 1986, while down the path we passed through the windy gap where a sudden gust of wind can easily blow your hat off. Mark pointed out the small harbour where local fisherman would pull up their boats during the summer salmon fishing season, but once tourists started arriving would row them around the headland to see the Great Sea Cave.
Before the 1960s when the National Trust took over the management of the Causeway, a few local families ran souvenir and tea shops for visitors alongside this path. Now all that has gone and the Causeway has been restored to its natural state, with a new National Trust Visitor Centre much further up the hill.
We passed what I would have taken for a puddle in the rock, which Mark explained was a well, fed by a natural spring. In the past ladies would stop to take a drink from the well, then would go and sit on the Causeway in the wishing chair, a natural seat in the rock, and wish for a husband. Of course for fun I took a seat but luckily I already have a wonderful husband so I didn’t need to wish for any other.
The pony and traps that once transported visitors down to the Causeway have been replaced by a mini bus (£1 each way) and we took it back up to the visitor centre again. It’s worth being aware that there is no charge to walk down to the Giant’s Causeway on the public right of way that leads through the arch by the car park. However, if you want to use the National Trust car park, see the exhibition in the visitor centre and use their facilities, the charge is £9 per adult, £4.50 per child, or £22 per family. As an alternative you can arrive by public transport or park in the car park by the small train that runs from Bushmills for £6.
So now we have visited the star attraction of Northern Ireland’s north coast, what else is there to see? Well a surprising amount as it turns out, especially if you have a car to get around. (Check out Alamo Car hire if you need a rental car)
So lets start at…..
Mussenden temple on the edge of the clifftop
You may have seen photos of Mussenden Temple, an elegant Palladian building perched on the edge of the cliff, which you can spot from Downhill beach below. It was actually a library and summer house for the great house of Downhill Demesne which is now only a shell, as it burnt down in 1851 and was subsequently dismantled in the 1940s.
The temple was built by the Earl Bishop Frederick Hervey in honour of his favourite niece, Frideswide Mussenden, and there was originally space to drive a horse and carriage around it. As it’s now perched precariously on the cliff edge, perhaps you should visit while you can, although it’s only open for special events like weddings.
The property is managed by the National Trust and from the car park you can walk through the walled garden and see the ice house and dovecote before exploring the ruins of the mansion and walking to the clifftop to photograph the temple.
A little further down the road is Hezlett House, which you can visit with the same ticket. This thatched 17th century cottage is furnished as it would have been a century ago, with store rooms under the roof beams and tiny bedrooms set behind the cosy parlour furnished in Victorian style.
Downhill Demesne and Hezlett House, near Castlerock. Open 10-5, every day in summer and some days in spring/ autumn. Adults £4.50 or free to National Trust members
A stop for the view over Whiterocks Beach
As you drive along the coast road there’s a viewpoint where you can stop overlooking Whiterocks beach with a sign that tells you about the coastal park. From here, enjoy the views towards the seaside town of Portrush, the rocky islands known as the Skerries and the limestone cliffs where kittiwakes and guillemots nest. I love the wide, windswept beaches and dramatic seascapes on this part of Northern Ireland’s coast and a little further on you’ll arrive at ….
Dunluce Castle perched on the cliff
Dunluce Castle looks as if it might just topple off the edge of the cliff and into the sea to the pounding waves below. But wait… apparently a bit of the manor house did fall off the the cliff in the 18th century and you can now see the hole with iron bars across it. Even if you don’t want to live life on the edge, the castle does make a great photograph, the ultimate picturesque ruin.
At the ticket office there’s an interesting display about the castle’s history and a video playing in the exhibition room opposite. The castle was the stronghold of the MacDonnells who were the leading family along the Antrim and Glens coast and it was the base for their power struggles with other Irish clans as well as the English crown. The splendid Jacobean manor house which you can see the shell of was built by Randall McDonnell in 1620 and was the lavish seat of the Earls of Antrim.
The curious part of the story is that on this windswept cliff top was a town which has been partly excavated. It was established in 1608 with the support of King James I to house Scottish settlers who were encouraged to come to establish greater support for the English crown. But by the 1680s the town had been abandoned. I can imagine how the clifftop location, might have been a little too exposed even for the hardy Scotts and Irish.
Where to stay – Bushmills Inn
If you want a base to explore Northern Ireland’s Causeway coast by car, I highly recommend the charming Bushmills Inn, where you can guarantee that a warm Irish welcome will await you. If you are coming from afar, they may even fly your country’s flag from the tower to greet you, as they have a flag room which contains the flags of every nation in the world.
Even if you don’t stay at Bushmills Inn, be sure to stop by in the evening for a drink in their Gas Bar which is lit by the soft glow of gas lamps and has live music on Saturdays and Wednesdays. There’s a peat fire burning every day at the reception where all the guests (including me) love to be photographed since it just embodies all that is warm and welcoming about an Irish bar.
The hotel started life in the 18th century as a coaching inn (that’s the part where you’ll find the Gas Bar) but they’ve since built an extension at the back, and now have 41 rooms. It’s difficult to tell where the old ends and the new begins, since the stonework and whitewashed walls run throughout. I had a luxurious four poster bed and a huge bathroom with roll-top bath overlooking the River Bush flowing behind the hotel, with the same pure water that’s used to make the Bushmills Whisky at the distillery just down the road. The restaurant is excellent too – the kind of place where you’d come for a special treat, and specialises in modern Irish dishes that use the best produce from farms and fisherman of the North Antrim coast.
The Bushmills Inn, 9 Dunluce Road, Bushmills.
Dark Hedges – a location for Games of Thrones
If you’re driving up through the area around Bushmills, you might want to take a detour to see one of the best known Game of Thrones filming locations in the area, known as Dark Hedges. The avenue of beech trees have an eery, twisted look and were used in Season 2 when Arya Stark travels down the King’s Road to escape from Kings Landing, dressed as a boy.
The trees were planted as the driveway for the Georgian Mansion of Georgehill House, which is now a hotel where you can stop for a coffee. Although it looks like a quiet country lane, it was difficult to get a decent photograph of the trees, for all the cars driving up and down and the people walking through – pesky tourists!
Fishing boats in Ballintoy harbour
Let’s continue our drive along the coastal road, but before you get to the Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge, take a detour down the narrow, winding road that leads to Ballintoy Harbour, another Game of Thrones location. I caught it in the late afternoon when it was looking very pretty with a small boathouse at the harbour entrance and rugged rocks with the sea spray breaking over them. On the other side of the car park are some sea caves that are fun to explore and a small beach. Enjoy a wander then stop for a cake or an ice cream at the small cafe, before driving on to…
Carrick-A-Rede Rope bridge
Yikes, from all the photos I’d seen this looked like one scary rope bridge. I worried about whether I’d even be able to a take any photos at all – one false move and my iphone might be knocked from my hand and plunge into the sea below.
The original bridge was made by salmon fishermen, who used it to get across the gap between the headland and the small island so that they could get better access to the salmon that swam past here each summer to the rivers on the north coast. On the island you can see the shed of their small fishery which is open on certain days. Judging by the old photographs, the rope bridge was a lot more perilous in those days, with just a rope on one side to steady yourself. Those daring tightrope-walking fisherman thought nothing of balancing themselves and all their gear to cross over the bridge.
Well, back to these days and it’s really not that bad. You may need to queue to take your turn to cross the bridge with a warden monitoring progress and telling you when to go. “Don’t worry”, he quipped, “we haven’t lost anyone yet … this month”. When it’s your turn, you descend the wooden steps and then cross over, just don’t look down and in a couple of minutes you are across. Even though it was quite windy, the bridge was surprisingly stable. I had a little look around on the other side and then turned around to come back. The best views are to be had if you walk a bit further beyond the bridge and look back towards it where you can see people crossing.
Despite the National Trust ticket booth that blocks your path, you don’t need to pay to walk along the coastal path to the Carrick-A-Rede bridge. You only need to buy a ticket if you want to cross the bridge itself, so if it’s just the view you are after, walk boldly on through past the kiosk. Adults £5.90 to cross the bridge. Just a little further along the coast you’ll find…
Boats in Ballycastle harbour
Ballycastle is one of the larger towns on the Antrim coast, a market town with a harbour and proper high street with lots of shops, restaurants and bars. It’s also become something of a foodie hub for this part of the coast, with many great food producers based nearby and regular Farmer’s markets at the weekend. You can even do a walking food tour of Ballycastle with Caroline Redmond of North Coast Walking Tours. For more information on all the great foodie places check out my article: 10 fab Foodie stops on Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast. If you have a bit more time to spare it’s worth taking a day to…..
Catch the ferry to Rathlin Island
From Ballycastle harbour, the ferry runs around every hour across the Sea of Moyle to Rathlin Island, which takes 25-45 mins depending on which ferry you catch. I was only on the island for half a day so unfortunately wasn’t able to take the RSPB bus to the western tip of the island to see the seabird centre and puffin nesting sites. I did spend an hour or so walking around the harbour where seals were basking in the sunshine outside the Breakwater studio which sold artwork and gifts. I wandered around the bay to take a look at the old Kelp store where seaweed was once burnt to make fertiliser, and if I’d had more time I’d have walked to see one of the lighthouses.
Rathlin Ferry from Ballycastle Harbour: Runs hourly, Adult £12 return, Child £6 return. Booking advisable in high season – can be booked online.
Driving to Torr Head on the Causeway Coast
From Ballycastle I spent my final day driving back to Belfast on what must be one of the most stunning coastal routes in the world, past the Glens of Antrim. The coastal route is well signposted but just outside Ballycastle you can take a detour off the main route along the cliffs by Torr Head. The road passed through open fields where sheep graze with the land dropping steeply down to the sea.
The views were so spectacular that I couldn’t resist stopping at every possible viewpoint to take photos, attracting the attention of a few friendly sheep. After a while I had to start lecturing myself; “this is the very last place I’ll stop” as I was in danger of running out of time to see anything else on the coast. Still I pressed on until I reached…
Cushenden on the Glens Coast
The pretty village of Cushenden, managed by the National Trust, has a perfectly placed carpark beside the old stone bridge, directly overlooking the beach. On a sunny day, this would be a wonderful place to have a walk on the beach with a picnic from the village shop or a stop for lunch at Mary McBride’s bar where they have a restaurant upstairs. There are two sad stories that you might hear associated with Cushenden, one involving a sailor who never came home and his sweetheart who died of a broken heart, the other involving a goat who is commemorated in a statue … but I’ll leave you to find out more when you visit. From here I drove on south towards….
Where Cushenden is a picture postcard kind of place, Cushendell is more of a real, working town, with shops and restaurants on the main street that you’ll drive through. The beach is another 10 minutes down the road with a separate parking area next to the golf club which is a good starting point for walks along the coast. There wasn’t too much to keep me here so I continued on the coastal road….
Driving past the Glens of Antrim
The drive between Cushendell and Glenarm and beyond was truly stunning, passing by the Glens of Antrim, with plenty of opportunities to detour off for woodland walks and waterfalls. The Glens are the deep valleys carved by glaciers millions of years ago, making for a spectacular drive with the sea on one side of the road and the slopes of the Glens rising steeply up on the other. Sadly, as my flight home was calling me, I didn’t have time for any waterfalls photos, but just enjoyed the drive and the scenery with a stop at …..
Glenarm Castle for afternoon tea
The tearoom at Glenarm castle was a perfect place to stop before heading back to Belfast Airport to drop off my hire car and fly home to Bristol. The castle is home to the Earls of Antrim and only occasionally open to the public, but there’s a lovely walled garden and a tea-room where you can go even if you’re not visiting the garden. Much as I’d have liked to explore the walled gardens, I just had time for a cup of tea and slice of home-made cake in the pretty tea room with a glimpse of the garden through the archway. From here it was on to Larne and the fast road back to Belfast International Airport.
It had been a most spectacular weekend driving along Northern Ireland’s Causeway and Glens coastline, and having my hire car enabled me to make the most of my long weekend to see as much as possible.
If you are planning a trip to Northern Ireland, check out Alamo Car Hire for a car rental that you can pick up at the airport and take the scenic route around Northern Ireland’s beautiful coastline.
More things to enjoy in Ireland
Visitor Information for visiting Ireland’s Causeway Coast
Heather stayed at The Bushmills Inn in Bushmills which is a luxury 4 star hotel that is close to all the major things to see such as The Giant’s Causeway and the Bushmills Whiskey Distillery.
My extremely knowledgeable guide for the Giant’s Causeway and other local attractions was Mark Rodgers of Dalriada Kingdom Tours who fed me with local tales of fishing families and mythical giants.
If you prefer to have a break from the driving, I recommend Glenara Elite Travel who operate tours in a comfortable mini-bus that enables you to easily see all the attractions of the Causeway Coast in one day. They run regular day tours that cost £35 per person.
This article was brought to you in partnership with Alamo Car Hire. Thanks to the Causeway and Glens Tourism Board for hosting my stay on Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast.
Menorca is the smallest and calmest of the Balearic islands, a haven for lovers of understated luxury. It’s a place that doesn’t like to boast too much about its charms, but is full of history, fashion and great food. If you’re flying in to Menorca, or visiting on a cruise, why not take a day or so to explore Mahón, the elegant capital of the island. For those who enjoy mellow old buildings, stylish shopping and lazy seafood lunches by the port, here are the ingredients for your perfect day in Mahón.
A boat tour around the harbour
Start your day in Mahón with a relaxing 1 hour boat tour around the harbour, to dip into the naval history of the area. Because of the city’s deep harbour and strategic position in the Mediterranean, the British dominated the island for much of the 18th century and have especially left their stamp on Mahón. Buy your ticket at the kiosk at the bottom of the steps close to the cruise terminal and take your seat on the top deck for the best view, although you can retreat downstairs if it’s a bit too windy. As you pass the main sites of interest, there’s a commentary in several different languages including English.
Now if you ask me for every detail of the harbour history it’s a bit hazy as I was taking too many photos, but to start with we passed by some of the swanky villas where the wealthy folk of Mahón live. We passed the English Arsenal, painted red as was the custom for military buildings, and further on Quarantine Island with a hospital where those with infectious diseases were treated. I imagine that those who went in wondered whether they would ever emerge alive. Near the harbour entrance, the water got quite choppy as we passed briefly to the open sea. As soon as we turned around the water calmed again, and we returned past Cales Font, the pretty harbour of Es Castell which was the 18th century British garrison town.
The harbour boat tour is run by 2 main operators, the Yellow Catamaran and the Don Juan Catamaran which cost around €12 per adult (cheaper if you book online). Between them they run every half an hour throughout the day, selling drinks and snacks on board.
Elegant buildings overlook the harbour
Back on dry land, let’s climb up those white flights of steps to start to explore Mahón properly. As you near the top, look up to your right to see the elegant Art Nouveau facade of Casa Mercadel and up on your left there are plenty of viewpoints where you can have a drink with a view over the port. To your immediate left are two huge trees with roots like an elephant foot which are a well known landmark.
The elegant Casa Mercadel was one of the homes owned by a noble Menorcan family and was built in on the site of an ancient castle that overlooked the harbour, now housing a cultural centre.
A mid-morning snack at the fish market?
In Placa d’Espanya at the top of the steps, you’ll find the Mercat del Peix or fish market with all the lovely fresh fish on sale until 2pm (closed Sunday and Monday).
The bright red prawns and spiny lobster are used to make the lobster caldereta and other seafood dishes that you can order at restaurants along the seafront. Despite all the groups of tourists trooping through to take photos, the stall holders were very good humoured and relaxed.
Tapas with a glass of wine
Walking past the fish you’ll come around to the other side of the market with stalls selling tapas, snacks and drinks. If you’re ready for a mid-morning break, this is the place to grab a drink and a snack, sitting at one of the stools inside or tables outside in the courtyard. On a Saturday lunchtime the place was buzzing with locals meeting their friends for a glass of wine and a chat.
The tapas typically cost between €1 and €3 and you can just point at whatever takes your fancy. I loved all the glistening olives and the appetising slices of bread topped with onions, peppers and anchovies. There was also a stall selling tasty seafood croquettes so I had to try a few of those as well, including one that was black with squid ink.
A little further up the square next to the fish market is the Carmelite cloisters which has been converted to a covered market selling everything from fruit and veg to shoes and local food specialities. Worth knowing that there’s a public WC here as I didn’t find one anywhere else in the old town.
Dip into the history of Mahon at Ca n’Oliver
If you’d enjoy visiting historic houses, pay a visit to Centre d’Art I d’Historia Hernandez Sanz at Ca n’Oliver, a mansion which belonged to one of the most powerful families of Mahon in the 18th and 19th centuries. This gorgeous house now houses the Hernandez Sanz collection of artworks which are on display over several floors around the ornate wrought iron staircase with a painted fresco to impress you in the lobby.
The paintings, maps and displays give insights into the British legacy on Menorca as well as the Oliver family who made their money as merchants in the Mediterranean and supplied the military in Mahón. I especially enjoyed the painted ceilings with religious and classical scenes in many of the rooms, designed to show the wealth and taste of the family who lived here.
Centre d’Art I d’Historia Hernandez Sanz at Ca n’Oliver, Anuncivay Street 2. Open daily except Monday 10-1.30pm and on Thursday, Friday, Saturday also 6-8pm.
The Museum of Menorca in Mahon
Another fascinating place to visit is the Museum of Menorca in the old Franciscan monastery which was built in the baroque style at the end of the 17th century but confiscated in 1835. The Museum was closed for renovation when I visited but I was still able to see the beautifully preserved cloisters and visit an interesting exhibition about the Talayotic culture on Menorca explaining the background of some of the stone burial chambers and settlements I’d seen in different parts of the island.
Normally you can also see rooms which cover the history of Menorca from the earliest times, through the 18th century when the island was occupied variously by the English, French and Spanish, to the 20th century when the industries of shoe and jewellery making replaced shipbuilding.
Museum of Menorca, Avinguda Doctor Guardia, Open daily 10am – 2pm and some evenings. Closed Mondays. Normally €2.40 but free during renovation.
A leisurely lunch by the Port
By around 1.30 the shops and museums will be starting to close so it’s time to find somewhere to have a leisurely lunch. Of course there are plenty of bars and cafes in the old town but a great alternative is to walk back down to the main port area where you’ll find a string of bars and restaurants overlooking the marina.
Settle in to a table with a view of the harbour, so you can people-watch from behind your designer sunglasses and oggle a few of those expensive boats. Most restaurants have a well-priced set menu at lunchtime that includes 3 courses, wine and bread with both seafood and meat options. We really enjoyed La Minerva (Carrer Moll de Llevant, 87) which has a nice terrace and tried their Arroz, a cross between soup and risotto with rice and seafood in a rich sauce, which is what Menorcan families like to eat on a Sunday.
A wander around the old town streets
After lunch most of the shops will be shut until around 4.30pm, so it’s a good time to wander around the streets of the old town while they are less crowded and admire the mellow stone buildings. Turn your back on the fish market and walk up towards Placa de la Constitucia to see the Town Hall of Mahón with the clock presented by the English Governor, Richard Kane.
In the square is a bar called Boinder, named after the Menorcan term for the overhanging bay windows which you’ll see in many of the older houses around town. They are a legacy of the English, along with sash windows, door latches and highly polished brass door knockers. I have quite a collection of door-knocker photos!
From here follow Carrer Isabel II which runs parallel to the port and look out for the narrow passages between the houses that lead to viewpoints over the port. There are three that I found, the final one being at the end of the street where you’ll reach the Museum of Menorca.
The influence of the British on Mahon
On the right hand side as you walk up Carrer Isabel II is the impressive Governor’s Residence, which was adopted by British Governor Richard Kane in 1722 when he moved the island’s capital from Cuitadella to Mahón. Although Cuitadella had been the ancient capital of the island, he found it too inconvenient to travel back and forth from one end of the island to the other, since the English fleet was based in Mahon.
From the town hall, another interesting street to explore is Carrer de Sant Roc with some of the oldest houses owned by the noble families of Menorca leading to the gateway of Sant Roc which was once part of the city wall. The metal bands on the ground near the tower mark the line of where the city wall once stood. The gate overlooks a pleasant square, Plaça Bastio with café terraces and a children’s playground in the centre, so if you have children you’ll be able to sit with a drink and watch them play happily (at least that’s the theory).
A girl can never have too many shoes
Once the shops open later in the afternoon, it could be time do some souvenir shopping along the main shopping street of Carrer Hannover. Menorca has become a centre of quality shoe production and as we know a girl can never have too many shoes! The Avarca sandals that you’ll see in almost every shop were originally made with soles of old tyres but are now a high fashion item with many sparkly and colourful variations. Also look out for Pretty Ballerinas, a high fashion brand that is based on the island – their main shop is in the port area.
Don’t go home until you’ve tried the cheese!
You can’t go home without trying the traditional Mahón-Menorca cheese which has a protected designation so it can only be made with milk from the island. The taste varies depending on how long the cheese has been matured and you’ll tell the artizan cheeses by the wrinkles made by the cloths in which they are wrapped. Around town there are quite a few shops that will let you have a taste before you buy and one of the best is Autentic, a deli shop on Plaça de s’Esplanada which has a good range of cheese, sausages and other produce of Menorca such as honey and flavoured liqueurs.
Is it time for a drink yet?
At some point in the day you will want to taste some of the local gin which was another happy British introduction. In the past there were many distilleries on Menorca to keep the sailors satisfied, but now only Xoriguer remains. They have several shops around town but a good place to try their gin is in the main distillery on the harbourfront near the cruise terminal. Through the glass windows you can see the stills in operation and you are free to taste a range of the different gins and flavoured liqueurs that they produce and sell here.
The local way with gin is to mix it with fizzy lemonade to make a Pomada, deceptively refreshing in the summer and served in vaste quantities at all the fiestas on Menorca. You might want to try it as an aperitif in one of the bars once you’ve finished your shopping.
Dinner at Es Castells
Of course there are plenty of places to eat in Mahón, but for a change of scene why not take a 10 minute taxi ride to Es Castell where there are lots of restaurants around the pretty harbour of Cales Fonts. Take some time to look aound the town square which was once a parade ground, with the red painted military buildings, before settling into a table at whichever restaurant takes your fancy.
Time for bed at Hotel Artiem Capri
Having enjoyed the sunset and fresh seafood for dinner, a taxi will return you to your hotel in Mahón. I stayed at the very pleasant Hotel Capri close to Plaça de s’Esplanada and a 15 minute walk from the port. My room was spacious and modern and there is a lovely rooftop pool (which sadly I was too busy sightseeing to try out). The hotel is part of the Artiem Hotel group which has many excellent hotels around the island including the Hotel Artiem Audax in Cala Galdana where I also enjoyed staying.
Wherever you stay I hope you have a perfectly restful end to your perfect day in Mahón!
Hotel Artiem Capri, Caller San Esteban, 8, Mahón, Menorca.
Compare prices and book hotels in Mahón on my Hotels Booking page powered by Hotels Combined.
Have you visited Mahón or Menorca? What were your favourite Menorcan moments?
Visitor Information for Menorca and Mahon
If you need a guide to show you the sites of Mahon and Menorca, I can highly recommend Luis Amella of Menorca Guides
Thanks to Menorca Tourism for hosting my stay in Menorca, in a project in partnership with Spain Tourism, Menorca Tourism and Travelator Media
“I could lie here and look at those mountains for hours” said Guy, as he sank into the easy chair in the corner of our bedroom. From Mas Gorral, our villa in Costa Brava, we could look over the countryside to the Pyrenees, the rising sun lighting up the teracotta rooftiles and the mellow stone of the farmhouses in the distance. The small town of Pontos lay below us, with birds chirping and a view of the pine forest where we never did manage to go for a walk. These are the memories that you bring back from a holiday and turn over in your mind when it’s raining in Bristol!
We were staying at Mas Gorral through Charming Villas Catalonia, a company that specialises in luxury villas that are full of character, in the Costa Brava region of Catalunya. Richard and Sara who run the company are based nearby in Besalu and give the villas a personal touch, helping you choose the villa that suits your needs and are on hand to sort out any issues that arise.
I hope you enjoy the video below about Mas Gorral with Charming Villas Catalonia
Rustic Chic in our Costa Brava Villa
Our five bedroom villa, Mas Gorral was an old rambling farmhouse that easily accommodated our party of nine, made up of our family as well as Guy’s sister and family. I enjoyed imagining the history of this place, how rooms had been added to over the years, to suit the needs and ambitions of various owners. With everything built of local stone, bound together by ochre mortar, teracotta roof tiles and green creepers clothing the walls, it was difficult to tell what was original and what was modern.
Inside the theme was rustic chic, with mottled plaster walls left natural in places, in others painted creams and yellows. Exposed beams held up the ceiling with stone sinks in the kitchen and three bathrooms. Every room was huge, with imposing antique armoires and chests of drawers to match the scale of the house.
Quirky artwork and furnishings
From the eclectic furnishings I imagined that the owners had travelled far and wide; a black Chinese laquer cupboard, a carved Asian wooden chest and a large leather topped desk that wouldn’t be out of place in an English gentleman’s library. The quirky feel continued in the bold, colourful artworks – verging on the surreal, and inspired perhaps by Salvador Dali who was born just down the road in Figueres.
On the landing a larger-than-life lady in an aviator’s helmet, surrounded by startled cherubs; is she kissing one of them or trying eat it? The long legs of a woman diving into a hat were propped near the kitchen and in the dining room we are greeted by the back of a reclining woman with ripples of creamy flesh.
A bracing swim in the pool
On the green lawn below the house, our swimming pool overlooked the valley and the forest. Being from England we are determined to make the most of every ray of sunshine and the girls were dressed as if for the hottest of August days in skimpy tops, loose flowing skirts and strappy sandals. They lay on the sunloungers ignoring the tramontana wind but after a while were forced to retreat to a more sheltered spot on the upper terrace.
We gathered around the pool daring each other to go in. A toe dipped in the water told us it was not going to be warm, it was April after all! My son took a plunge and dive bombed in, splashing everyone else. Then the girls followed, surfacing from the cold water, eyes wide with the shock. A brisk couple of lengths and they ran back inside for a hot shower!
Lunch on the sunny terrace
In the entrance hall hung a row of straw hats, waiting to be borrowed for a snooze in the sun or a walk around the garden. Although it was only April, the sun shone for us and we took full advantage of the warmth for lunches al fresco on the sheltered terrace. Feeling the sun on your back in the springtime when there’s still blossom on the fruit trees and wildflowers in the fields is one of the pleasures of being in Costa Brava.
After a day of walking the town walls in Girona, a seaside jaunt to Cadaques or a Dali inspired visit to Figueres we’d return to Mas Gorral to loll around on the white cotton sofas in the barn-like sitting room. Our hire car from Auto Europe was despatched to the local supermarket to return with mountains of food and all the cousins decided what we would eat and cooked it together.
Time for dinner at the long table
Later books would be cleared from the long wooden table where the girls had been working on university assignments and the table was laid for dinner. During the day we’d tried the local specialities; dreamy ice cream from Rocambolesc in Girona, seafood tapas and local wine at Enoteca MF in Cadaques. But in the evening we’d fall back on our home-cooked favourites, chicken kebabs barbecued on the terrace or mountains of meatballs and pasta.
On our last evening, however we took inspiration from the staff at Enoteca MF in Cadaques who we saw peeling a huge pile of red shrimps which were pulverised to make a shrimp carpaccio. In our version it was seafood linguine but the cousins pitched in to peel all the prawns from the supermarket.
Wine and cards in front of the fire
After a candle-lit dinner around the huge table, the fire was lit to take away the evening chill and we sat around playing cards and drinking local wine. The house became a backdrop for family conversations, catching up on news, planning bright futures. The card games were fircely contested, but at the end it’s not about the winning or losing but about the time we spend together. With our children flying the nest to carve their own paths in the world, these memories of time spent together become ever more precious.
All too soon it was time to leave our lovely villa at Mas Gorral. The views over the garden are still there, the teracotta roofs of Pontas below the house and the snow capped Pyrenees in the distance, waiting for the next guest.
As we reluctantly handed back the keys to Richard and drove to the airport past fields of yellow rapeseed scattered with poppies, the sun on the terrace was still warm in our memory. We’d had a chance to catch up, to cook together and splash in the pool. We’d recharged and soaked up the sunshine and made some memories to take home. Isn’t that what holidays are all about?
Have you any favourite holidays memories of spending time with your family? I’d love to hear them in the comments.
More memories from Costa Brava
Plan your stay in Costa Brava
Thanks to Charming Villas Catalonia for providing our villa Mas Gorral near Figueres. Charming Villas specialise in luxury and character villas in Catalonia from rustic villas in the countryside to modern coastal villas. They have over 80 villas to choose from and as Richard and Sara who run the company are based locally they are able to help with planning your holiday and on hand to sort out any issues.
Mas Gorral has 5 double bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, plenty of living space, a terrace, large garden and swimming pool. You can rent Mas Gorral through Charming Villas with rental rates starting in May at €2500 per week, rising to €3750 per week in high season. As Mas Gorral is in a rural location, we recommend that you hire a car to get around.
Thanks to Auto Europe for providing our hire car for exploring Costa Brava. Auto Europe work with 20,000 car rental locations in 180 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, as well as North and South America.
If you’re looking for the authentic Caribbean experience, I can recommend a visit to St Kitts, one half of the island federation of St Kitts and Nevis. The fields that once grew sugar cane are lush and undeveloped while the island capital of Basseterre has a laid back and slightly scruffy charm. Yet if you know where to look there are plenty of places to delight the stylish traveller. If you enjoy great design, delicious local food and places that are stylish without being stuffy, read on my recommendations on St Kitts.
Stylish shopping in St Kitts
The Gallery on the square
I loved The Gallery on the Square in Basseterre, where I was tempted by beautifully designed gifts by local artists. Set on the north side of Independence Square, you’ll easily spot it from the colourful paintwork and shutters. It’s one of the oldest houses on the square, and was owned by one family since it was built, until artist Rosey Cameron Smith bought it in 1978 and opened it as an art gallery.
Rosey is known for her large, colourful paintings with scenes from life on St Kitts, featuring the vervet monkeys, vibrant carnival figures and abstract views of the island. She’s brought together the work of many other artists; pottery by Dale Kelley, glass plaques by Calvin Delpeche and scarves by Kate Spencer, another well known St Kitts artist.
While the walls are covered with larger pieces, there are plenty of affordable watercolours, small prints, gift cards and glassware, to bring home a stylish souvenir of St Kitts. I couldn’t resist treating myself to a large, flowing scarf with abstract designs by Kate Spencer, which doubles up as a beach wrap.
Stylish places to stay on St Kitts
Caribbean hospitality at Rockhaven B&B
I loved the colourful Caribbean vibe at Rockhaven bed & breakfast, a private home with just two bedrooms set on the hill above Frigates Bay near Basseterre. The owner, Judith Blake showed me to my room, with an ornate carved wooden bed and cheerful flowery curtains and bedcover. Judith and her husband lived in Canada for many years and when they returned to spend time in St Kitts, Judith told me she wanted to create a vibrant Caribbean feel, choosing a bright pink for the sitting room, and sunshine yellow for her kitchen. With dark hardwood floors, rattan mats and colourful paintings on the wall it all works to make a harmonious whole that’s both elegant and homely.
I took breakfast on the covered terrace, with the breeze rustling through the palms and a view of the Atlantic breakers. My delicious fresh fruit salad and spicy eggs with a chappati were served on colourful painted china with madras checked mats using the yellow, red and green St Kitts check. Set on the top of a hill, Rockhaven bed and breakfast has beautiful views in both directions, although you will need a car to get around if you’re staying there, as there are no shops or restaurants close by. Rockhaven is ideal for independent travellers who want a stylish base to return to after a day out exploring St Kitts.
Colourful contemporary style in Basseterre – Ocean Terrace Inn
If you’re looking for a stylish hotel in Basseterre, I recommend Ocean Terrace Inn which has recently gone through a refurbishment and re-opened with spacious, contemporary style bedrooms. The hotel is set on the side of the hill looking towards the port with the green slopes of Mount Liamuiga beyond. On the lower level are the landscaped gardens and pool area with colourful shrubs and enticing pools and waterfalls with plenty of sun loungers. In the evening try the hotel’s Fisherman’s Wharf restaurant which is set just across the road and overlooks the waterfront. As the name suggests, they specialise in seafood such as grilled snapper or Mahi Mahi and I really enjoyed my lobster with a ginger and lemon butter sauce. Read my full review of Ocean Terrace Inn
Atmospheric plantation style at Ottleys’ Plantation Inn
For old style luxury, Ottley’s Plantation Inn was my favourite hotel on St Kitts and I stayed in one of the cottages set in immaculately tended gardens around the Great House. In my charming bedroom with dark wood furniture, flowered bedspread and plantation shutters I felt like a heroine in Gone with the wind and could throw open the shutters in the morning to look across the gardens towards the ocean. The property borders the rainforest and there are walks through the grounds where you can spot the vervet monkeys with a pretty little spa cabin tucked away in the trees. The inn feels very tranquil and private although you are just a short drive from Basseterre but you’ll need to hire a car or taxi for the days you want to go sightseeing around St Kitts.
Luxury on the beach – coming soon at Park Hyatt St Kitts
Look out for the new Park Hyatt Hotel that is opening in late 2016 on the south-east peninsula on one of the most beautiful beaches overlooking the sister island of Nevis. I had a look around the site when I was there and although it was far from complete I could see that this could be perfect for the stylish traveller looking for a luxurious hotel right on the beach in St Kitts.
Stylish Places to visit on St Kitts
The batik at Romney Manor and Caribelle Batik
I enjoyed visiting Romney Manor, the site of the plantation owner’s house for the nearby Wingfield Estate, which is also worth a look around to see the ruins of the old sugar plantation and rum distillery. Up on the hill above the estate are the lush gardens surrounding the manor with a majestic 400 year old Saman tree spreading its wide branches over the lawn.
Inside the manor house is Caribelle Batik, where I watched the ladies demonstrating how the batik is made, in a painstaking process of painting the wax design and dying the cloth many time in different colours. Outside the batik cloths were left to dry in the breeze in what must be the most photogenic washing line in the Caribbean. After taking a look in the shop, I relaxed with a fruit punch on the terrace looking down on the plantation just as the overseer would have done, to keep check on the activities of the sugar mill.
The canons at Brimstone Fortress
Our minibus wound up the narrow road through stone gateways just wide enough for one car, finally reaching the fortress at the top of Brimstone Hill. The fort is a UNESCO world heritage site which dates back to the 18th century when the English and French were fighting to control the sugar-rich islands of the Caribbean. There are plenty of different parts of the fort to see, but the best bit was climbing up to the stone citadel, where canons pointed in all directions, guarding the coastline with stunning views across the island.
Fairview Great House
This is an easy stop when you’re visiting the historic attractions of St Kitts as it’s on the same road as Romney Manor and Brimstone Fortress as you drive out of Basseterre. It’s an 18th century plantation house, where you can see the dining room table set with antique silver and the bedroom with the four poster bed where Prince Charles stayed when the house was a hotel. There are lovely botanic gardens too, surrounding the house with flowering plants and shady trees and they sometimes host rum tastings as part of a guided tour.
Stylish places to eat in St Kitts
The Gallery Cafe
For coffee and cakes in Basseterre: head to The Gallery Cafe on the north side of Independence Square. I loved this small cafe at the back of the art gallery featuring the work of local artists, that’s run by the painter Rosey Cameron Smith. Her daughter Leah bakes the cakes and cookies while her boyfriend fishes for the wahoo which is smoked and served on a bagel with a spinkling of paprika – utterly delicious.
There’s a charming garden at the back where you can sit in the shade with a glass of freshly pressed juice or a coffee, as if you’d just popped in to a friend’s house for a chat.
For an organic vegetarian lunch and fresh pressed juices: stop at Ital Creations on By Pass Road road near the airport. The food trailer is open throughout the day to buy a bottle of juice and sit in the shade eating a baked veggie wrap with salad and hummus. While your thick green Moringa smoothie is being prepared, wander around the small organic farm run by Judah Fari and his wife Yayah where they grow papaya and pineapple, salad plants and the medicinal herbs used to make bush teas and flavour their dishes.
The Kitchen at Belle Mont Farm
For an elegant lunch of small dishes: call in at Belle Mont farm, the luxurious hotel built on the slopes of Mount Liamuiga in the northern part of St Kitts. Parking your car, you’ll be taken up in the electric buggy that winds on a narrow path through the forest to The Kitchen where lunch is eaten in the open sided dining room with views down to the sea.
The menu is made up of small plates, each designed to be a taster of local produce from the 400 acre organic farm and from the sea. I tried the lobster salad, almost too pretty to eat with artfully strewn herbs and dots of passionfruit and sorrel sauce, and the tasty ginger, pumpkin and spinach soup. You may not leave full to bursting but your taste buds will be tingling.
For drinks and bites on the black volcanic beach: stop at Arthur’s that is also part of the Belle Mont Farm development. It’s a stylish beach bar that was only just open when I stopped by, but the setting was lovely, on a black volcanic beach where the fishermen pull up their boats. The menu is based on traditional beach bar dishes such as conch fritters, grilled lobster and Mahi Mahi rillettes for elegant but casual dining at lunchtime and in the evening.
For cocktails at sunset to a cool Reggae beat: you can’t beat Salt Plage for a drink as the sun goes down. This trendy beach bar is part of the Christophe Harbour development with a deck beside the water and a jetty that also has comfortable seating to snuggle up for a romantic evening a deux. They serve drinks and cocktails every evening as well as small plates of favourite dishes such as coconut shrimp, chicken wings and market fish with garlic butter and island herbs. There’s often a DJ or live reggae music which really adds to the atmosphere as the sun sets and the coloured lights on the jetty reflect in the water lapping below.
Reggae Beach Bar
For lobster and a beer on the beach: try Reggae Beach Bar on Cockleshell Beach which serves drinks and food all day and into the evening. It’s a great place to base yourself for a day on the beach with plenty of sun loungers for hire (although they may get crowded when there are a few cruise ships in port) and the watersports hire next door. This is a local’s favourite, where you can try all the typical seafood dishes such as conch chowder and grilled lobster, with the sand between your toes.
Boozie’s on the beach
For a beach bar to relax with friends: try Boozie’s on the beach at St Frigate’s Bay strip. “The Strip” is a favourite area for locals and visitors in the evening when all that bars along the beach are open for live music, food and drinks. The menu features well cooked hearty Caribbean favourites and there’s a sports bar atmosphere with flags and number plates that happy customers have sent from around the world. This is the place to crack open a bottle of Carib beer or order a ‘Ting with a sting’ and relax with friends.
Delicious street food on St Kitts
As you wander around Basseterre you’ll find plenty of street food vendors, especially at lunchtime when they cater to office workers and on a Friday and Saturday when the locals like to buy jerk chicken and pork or grilled fish to take home for dinner. It’s not always obvious what’s offer but be adventurous and ask the vendor to show you what’s cooking under the metal covers. You may find the traditional St Kitts favourites like salt fish and Johnny cakes or goat water, which sounds disgusting but is actually a tasty stew.
Stylish places to relax on St Kitts
If you need a place to unwind and relax for the day, try Palm Court Gardens which is a favourite for cruise guests in Basseterre. The gardens are beautifully kept, there’s an infinity pool with views over the bay and you can swing in a hammock and buy lunch and snacks in the small cafe. To add to the charms there’s a vintage Rolls Royce parked in the drive, a children’s playground if you have little ones and a workshop where they make beautiful shell jewellery and ornaments that are sold in the shop.
A cool rainforest walk on St Kitts
Over a third of St Kitts is covered with rainforest, especially on the slopes of Mount Liamuiga, which you can climb for an adventurous day trek. For something a bit gentler I went for a forest walk from the Wingfield Estate with expert guide O’Neil Mulraine who learned about the plants and wildlife from his grandfather. We took the easy forest trail alongside a trickling stream as O’Neil pointed out the different trees of the forest such as the African tulip with vibrant orange flowers that was often used for shade on plantations and a tree trunk with needle sharp spines that the monkeys will climb, but only if they are desperate! Overhead we could hear both the cries of the vervet monkeys and the shrieks of the people as they whizzed by on the zipline above our heads.
Begin and end your visit to St Kitts in style at YU Lounge
On my arrival at the airport I was treated to the VIP service that’s available through YU Lounge which can be booked individually or used by business class passengers for some airlines. As I walked down the steps of the plane a car was waiting to whisk me the short distance to the private YU Lounge terminal where I could relax while the staff took care of immigration formalities and retrieved my luggage. I lounged around on the rattan sofas while nibbling some delicious canapés and sipping a cooling drink, thinking that I could get used to the millionaire lifestyle!
While St Kitts has been an unspoiled corner of the Caribbean, there are plenty of new developments that are putting it on the map for the stylish traveller. The Christophe Harbour marina, new luxury Park Hyatt Hotel and Kittitian Hill organic farm and hotel that are all nearing completion will soon provide even more to enjoy for the stylish traveller. Perhaps it’s time to start planning your relaxed but stylish holiday in St Kitts?
Have you been to St Kitts and if so did you discover any stylish places to eat or stay?
Visitor Information for St Kitts
To plan your visit to St Kitts check out the tourism board website at www.stkittstourism.kn or follow their social media channels: Twitter @StKittsTourism | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | Pinterest |
British Airways flies to St Kitts from London Gatwick twice a week on Saturdays and Wednesdays with the flight going on to nearby Antigua. There are regular ferries every day to Nevis, with a journey time of 45 minutes from Basseterre, making it easy to plan a combined stay on both islands.
To start and end your holiday on St Kitts in style, the YU Lounge offers a private terminal at the airport. A private car will meet you from the plane and whisk you to the luxurious lounge where snacks and drinks are available. While you are waiting your luggage will be picked up and you’ll be cleared through security by the YU Lounge staff.
Thanks to St Kitts Tourism for hosting Heather’s visit to St Kitts.
Discover Russia as a destination for art and literature lovers as Audley Travel country specialist Nick shares some of his cultural highlights from his travels to Moscow, St Petersburg and the Golden Ring.
This year is the official UK-Russia Year of Language and Literature – and with the recent BBC adaptation of War and Peace bringing Tolstoy’s famous novel to life, it’s a great time to visit Russia.
Although reading Tolstoy’s words on the page or watching his stories on TV from the comfort of your sofa may seem vivid, nothing compares to experiencing the real-life settings, or seeing the places that inspired and influenced him.
Russia has undergone extreme political and social change over the past few centuries, and the highlight of any trip is the chance to witness this complex history at first hand. One of the other reasons I love Russia is that it has always publicly celebrated and upheld its rich artistic and literary heritage.
For example, on the streets of St Petersburg and Moscow you’ll see a lot of publicity for performances of Chekhov. He’s perhaps the best-known Russian playwright outside the motherland, but it shows that works such as Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard are still popular.
The Bolshoi and Mariinsky ballet corps are feted around the world but still enjoy great acclaim among native audiences (and if you can’t catch a performance on your visit, I’d recommend taking a backstage tour of the Bolshoi or Mariinsky theatres).
Russia is also home to some world-renowned collections of art, notably in the Hermitage in St Petersburg.
Discover the collections of the Hermitage in St Petersburg
While Moscow is Russia’s political and economic fulcrum, St Petersburg is seen as the capital of culture, built by Peter the Great in the style of European cities such as Venice and Amsterdam.
To get the best views of the city and a sense of its layout, my advice is to climb to the top of St Isaac’s Cathedral on a clear day, or visit the Bellevue Brasserie at the Kempinski Hotel for a panoramic perspective that includes St Isaac’s itself.
Having said that, one of the best ways to see St Petersburg’s many churches, cathedrals, and imposing baroque and neoclassical architecture is from the water on one of the boats that skim the city’s 33 canals.
Art enthusiasts will enjoy the Hermitage, one of the world’s largest collections of fine art. The museum is housed in the Winter Palace, a former residence of the tsars situated in the heart of St Petersburg.
You may have spotted its distinctive mint-green and gold façade in the BBC’s recent adaptation of War and Peace. Pause as you climb the grandiose staircase – there’s no better moment to appreciate the opulence of imperial Russia.
I recommend telling your guide which historical period interests you, or asking for his or her personal preferences, as you won’t be able to cover the whole collection. It’s said that if you were to spend one minute in front of every piece on display in the whole of the Hermitage, it would take an entire year.
I loved studying original paintings by Rembrandt and Da Vinci, but if your tastes are more modern, head to the part of the Hermitage called the General Staff Building which houses Impressionist and Postmodern collections, including several works by Monet, Van Gogh and Picasso.
I was struck by the haunting black and white photos on display in many of the Hermitage’s galleries. They show the bare walls and empty rooms of the building during the Nazi invasion, when many pieces were sent to Siberia to be saved from possible destruction.
Trace the footsteps of Dostoevsky and other famous Russian writers
St Petersburg wears its literary legacy with pride: if you look carefully at the buildings (and can read a little Russian) you’ll see they are peppered with monuments and plaques to Russian poets and novelists.
Many writers’ homes have been made into state museums. One of the most intriguing is Lolita author Nabokov’s apartment, which offers a glimpse of the communal living style of the Soviet period.
The apartment of poet Alexander Pushkin is close to Palace Square and the Hermitage, and easy to visit en route. It’s no exaggeration to say that Russians venerate Pushkin and he’s deeply etched onto the nation’s hearts. On my last visit to St Petersburg, my guide Galina spontaneously launched into a recital of one of his poems as we walked the gardens of the Summer Palace.
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s memorabilia-crammed apartment in St Petersburg’s Vladimirsky district has been preserved in exactly the same condition as it was on the day he died, slumped over his writing desk mid-composition (the apartment’s clock remains frozen at the hour of his death).
Venturing beyond the apartment, it’s possible to retrace his and his characters’ footsteps around the city, from the Peter and Paul Fortress where Dostoevsky was incarcerated and almost executed to St Vladimir’s Cathedral where he would pray.
I like simply tramping the busy intersections and streets around Catherine Canal and Sennaya Square. This is where the action of The Idiot and Crime and Punishment takes place, and where the latter novel’s protagonist, Raskolnikov, famously battles his tortured conscience.
The city’s main thoroughfare, Nevsky Prospekt, was even the subject of a short story by Nikolai Gogol, in which he described the mercurial nature of the street at night.
Dedicated bibliophiles can browse the shelves of the city’s most famous bookshop, Dom Knigi, which occupies an Art Nouveau building on Nevsky Prospekt. Then continue in the footsteps of St Petersburg’s writers by stopping for coffee at Pushkin and Dostoevsky’s former haunt, the Literary Café.
Relive War and Peace in Catherine’s Palace
I remember the first time I walked into Catherine’s Palace, the summer residence of Catherine the Great, which is located just outside St Petersburg in Tsarskoye Selo (renamed under communist rule as ‘Pushkin Village’).
I stood in the centre of the vast ballroom encased in gold and mirrors, and at that moment it really did feel like I was stepping into the shoes of a character from War and Peace: Catherine’s Palace was, after all, the real-life setting of the Tsar’s ball in the novel.
The mosaics that encrust the walls of the Amber Room (not the originals, which were allegedly lost during the German occupation) are a reminder of the wealth and grandeur of 19th century Russian aristocrats. It’s a gilded world that Tolstoy portrays so acutely in War and Peace and Anna Karenina.
See Fabergé eggs in the Kremlin’s Armoury and Russian sacred art
Moving from St Petersburg to Moscow, there’s no better place to start than in Red Square (the name has no connection to the red bricks that were once whitewashed, nor to the red of the communist regime).
It’s a fascinating yet sobering place: as you stand outside the Kremlin and look towards the bright onion-shaped domes of St Basil’s Cathedral, you can’t help but reflect how this very square has witnessed some dramatic political upheavals.
The Kremlin complex is extensive, but the most striking objects d’art are in the Armoury – intricately decorated and sometimes jewelled Fabergé eggs that the tsar and tsarina would exchange at Easter, along with many other artefacts, such as a coronation gown worn by Catherine the Great.
The Tretyakov Gallery is excellent for seeing how Russian art has developed over time, and for the chance to study some of the most important pre-revolutionary sacred art in Russia.
The highlight of the collection is the Holy Trinity by Andrei Rublyov – an icon (a sacred painting on wood that often features as part of a screen in Orthodox churches) that was considered so glorious its creator was effectively beatified.
Travel on the metro… and quote Shakespeare
Moscow’s underground metro acts as a time machine, transporting you not only to your destination but back to the USSR. Many of the stations are home to original Soviet statues, monuments and mosaics – in fact, the first time I ever took the metro in Moscow I ended up intentionally missing my stop just so I could spend more time going round and gaping at the decor of each station.
I especially like the Prospekt Mira Station for its lavish floral designs that are meant to evoke the Botanical Gardens of Moscow State University. The recently opened Dostoyekskaya Station is worth viewing for its murals depicting passages from Dostoevsky’s novels (including a murder scene that invited some controversy when it was first unveiled).
This year, look out for the special carriages decorated with Shakespeare quotations and characters in honour of the UK-Russia Year of Language and Literature and the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death.
Get a glimpse of rural Russia at Suzdal and visit Tolstoy’s estate
I fell in love with the Russian countryside when I lived and worked in Kaluga, three hours south of Moscow. Anyone who is really interested in Tolstoy should try to see something of rural Russia, since it’s a theme he explores so passionately through the character of Levin in Anna Karenina.
At Suzdal, one of the main villages of the Golden Ring northeast of Moscow, you can look out over rolling green fields and rivers before visiting the Museum of Peasant Life and Wooden Architecture. It gives an insight to a bygone agrarian way of life.
Tolstoy’s connection to and interest in agricultural life is apparent if you visit the estate where he was born and lived for most of his adulthood, writing in his characteristic cramped style, which his wife Sofia would then copy out neatly by night. Yasnaya Polyana (‘Bright Glade’) makes for a peaceful, if long, day trip from Moscow (it’s about a six-hour round drive). Yet it’s a wonderful retreat from urban bustle.
Tolstoy’s possessions and his extensive library are on display, and I suggest taking time to explore the grounds. You can see the pond where the writer would ice skate in winter and swim in summer, and the fields where he would work alongside labourers during the harvest season in order to better depict peasant life and farming on the page.
His grave, situated in a quiet dell, has no headstone – save for the bunches of wildflowers that are customarily left by newly married couples and admirers of his work.
Visit Audley Travel to help plan your trip to see Moscow, St Petersburg and the Golden Ring in Russia
Nick Slater is a Russia Specialist for Audley Travel. Audley trips don’t come off the shelf – they’re tailor-made down to the finest detail. When planning a trip with us, you will speak to a destination specialist who has either lived or travelled extensively within the country or region that you are visiting. They will create a bespoke trip based on your tastes, interests and budget and with an absolute commitment to providing quality travel experiences.
This article was brought to you in partnership with Audley Travel