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.
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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.
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Northern Ireland’s scenic Causeway Coast offers windswept golden beaches, ruined castles perched on rocky cliffs and of course what most visitors come to see, the Giant’s Causeway (or is it the Game of Thrones locations?) While I enjoyed all of these, what most impressed me most was the quality of the food. I found artisan producers creating new and interesting products and restaurants dedicated to using the best and freshest local ingredients. And the seafood, oh the seafood! So let me take you on a tour of some the restaurants and dishes I enjoyed in between visiting the Giant’s Causeway, Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge and Mussenden Temple. In Northern Ireland’s 2016 Year of Food and Drink there’s plenty here to make your mouth water.
1. The best of Irish cooking at The Bushmills Inn
I loved eating my way through the menu at the Bushmills Inn where I stayed while exploring Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast. If you want to feel the warmth of Irish hospitality, not to mention the peat fire that burns summer and winter at the entrance, this is the place for you.
The hotel started as a coaching inn and the oldest part of the building that fronts the main road now houses the Gas Bar. Lit by gas lamps the bar has a traditional feel, with red walls and subdued lighting casting a rosy glow. It’s especially atmospheric on a Saturday or Wednesday night when they have an Irish band sitting in the corner, playing all the folk favourites.
Breakfast was served in the oldest part of the restaurant where I sat in one of the wooden booths and enjoyed the thick, juicy slices of Irish smoked salmon with scrambled eggs served on crested china plates.
I was even more impressed when I had dinner in the newer part of the restaurant which is glazed on one side, creating a lighter feel. The hotel is committed to using local produce and the suppliers are listed at the end of the menu, right down to the farm that produces the herbs. Having heard that the beef here was outstanding I chose the Braised Belted Beef with a mustard crust with vegetables and champ, which was meltingly soft having been cooked very slowly ‘sous vide’.
My friend’s Kerry Hill Lamb was also getting oohs and ahs of approval. The dishes were at once sophisticated yet totally Irish and beautifully presented. They have an Innkeeper’s Choice section of the menu that changes regularly and a decent vegetarian selection too. This is the place to treat yourself for a special dinner and a taste of traditional Irish cooking at it’s best.
The Bushmills Inn, 9 Dunluce Road, Bushmills. I ate: Braised Belted Galloway Beef £18.50 and Forest Berry creme brûlée £5.95
2. Seafood on the beach at Harry’s Shack
I’d heard so many great things about Harry’s Shack at Portstewart that I was determined to have lunch there and managed to fit it in between a visit to Mussenden temple and Dunluce castle. (I was on an excellent day tour run by Glenara Elite Travel) This is the sort of beach cafe you find on every other beach in Cornwall although a surprising rarity in Northern Ireland considering the number of unspoiled, golden beaches. I half expected to find Jamie Oliver popping in for lunch with the family.
The ‘Shack’ is an overgrown garden shed set just above the beach, with space to eat outside on picnic tables and plenty of light flooding in. I’d heard that the fish here was outstanding so was surprised that there were so many meaty crowd-pleasers: Beach burger and chips, chicken terrine, Irish chicken and mushroom pie. I certainly wasn’t complaining when my pan fried fish arrived with capers and cockles in a pool of buttery sauce with a bowl of mash to soak it up.
My friend’s fish and chips also looked very good, with the chips in the obligatory metal pail and mushy peas on the side. I was tempted by the cakes on the counter but settled on a single salted caramel macaron to have with my coffee. Harry’s shack is definitely a place I’d head back to. It manages to be both family friendly and please serious food lovers of all ages. Rustic beach style with simple food done very well. Why aren’t all restaurants like this?
Harry’s Shack, 118 Strand Road, Portstewart. We ate: Pan fried fish £15, Fish & Chips £11.
3. A honeycomb ice cream at Ballantoy Harbour
I’d probably have missed Ballantoy harbour, had I not visited as part of my tour with Glenara Elite Travel. It’s as picturesque a place as they come and was used as a Game of Thrones setting for the port of Pyke in the Iron Islands (OK, I admit I had to look that up). Because the road down to the harbour is steep and narrow you won’t find any larger coach parties down there, although I suspect it’s still packed in summer.
As we arrived in the late afternoon, the small tea room on the harbour was closing but we just managed to buy a locally made ice cream to eat at the golden hour. I chose honeycomb flavour which is a local favourite although not much to do with honey, but studded with the kind of burnt sugar honeycomb you find in a Crunchie bar. If you ever get to the Ballycastle Auld Lammas Fair this kind of honeycomb is a local speciality and sold along with Dulse seaweed (but not eaten together!)
4. A lively Saturday night at Ramore in Portrush
Ramore in Portrush is the foodie spot on the Causeway coast where you head for good food and good times at the weekend, a place to put on your high heels and have a laugh. The tall white building overlooks the harbour with the Coast Pizzaria on the ground floor and The Mermaid on the top floor with a sophisticated driftwood and deckchair stripe theme. Ramore has spread sideways to the Harbour Bar next door while the Neptune and Prawn serving Asian inspired dishes is just across the road. None of them is bookable except the Mermaid, which is where I found myself sitting at the cocktail bar for dinner on a Saturday night feeling like a fish out of water amidst the perfectly groomed hair and fashionably bright lipstick.
Things looked up once my Hendricks Southside cocktail with gin, cucumber, mint and elderflower arrived. At least I was in a great spot for people-watching as the cocktails were mixed and shaken before my eyes, expresso martinis decorated with a carefully placed coffee bean, mint and ice being crushed for the Mojitos.
By the time my starter of roast scallops with black pudding and curry cream arrived I was definitely converted. This could possibly be the prettiest dish I’d seen in a long while, with the richness of the scallops and sauce being offset by the sweet sharpness of the redcurrents scattered across the plate.
The roast hake was perfectly cooked, balanced on top of a broth with vegetables and new potatoes but I should have known better than to order the floating brandy snap for desert. Here I had to admit defeat and could only nibble bits of the plate size brandy snap, scrape off a taste of the four different ice creams beneath and try a little of each of the three sauces that came with it. The clatter of glasses and chatter of friends was overwhelming but perfect if you want to party on a Saturday night and probably a little calmer at other times.
Ramore Restaurants, The Harbour, Portrush. I ate in The Mermaid: my cocktail £6.95, starter £5.95, fish £14.95, desert £4.95
5. A drop of Bushmills Whiskey
Of course on the Causeway Coast it’s difficult to get by without a drop of whiskey from the famous Bushmills Whiskey Distillery in Bushmills where I was staying. I’d recommend doing the tour which gives an excellent insight into how the whiskey is made, even though you are walking through a not-particularly-attractive commercial production plant. The fun bit comes at the end when you get to taste a generous slug of the Bushmills whiskey which is included in your ticket. You can take your time sipping it in the cosy cafe area and buy your favourite in the shop, including a personalised bottle of the 12 year old which they sell exclusively at the distillery.
If you are interested in trying a few different whiskeys, you can have a mini tasting of 3 of the whiskeys (£7.50) and chat to the bar staff about the different flavours, or better still book for the tutored tasting which takes place every day at 3pm. You can book for this on its own (£15) or combine with a 2pm distillery tour (£20) and you get to sit at the table in the cafe next to the old copper still and taste your way through 5 of the finest whiskeys, (including the 21 year old which sells for over £100 per bottle).
One of the distillery staff will tell you about each whiskey which are different ages, but also matured in different oak casks that have contained bourbon whiskey, port or madeira, each taking a different flavour from the casks. My favourite was the Bushmills 16 year old with flavours of honey, almonds and vanilla matured on port casks (I looked that up from the tasting sheet but it was delicious). Be sure to arrange someone to drive you back to your hotel after the tasting or better still book in just down the road at the Bushmills Inn so you can walk (stagger?) back and spend the rest of the afternoon snoozing in front of the peat fire.
Bushmills Distillery Tour, 2 Distillery Road, Bushmills. Tour: Adults £7.50 including a taste of one whiskey |Tasting 3 whiskeys after the tour £7.50 | Tutored tasting of 5 whiskeys £15 or £20 including the tour (takes place daily at 3pm and must be booked in advance)
6. A fine Sunday lunch at The French Rooms in Bushmills
While visitors will enjoy the Irish charm of Bushmills Inn, it’s also fun to have a change from oak panelling and peat fires. Practically next door and in complete contrast is the light and airy French Rooms in Bushmills which I tried for Sunday lunch. With a gift shop and deli at the front and a cafe at the back it feels like you’ve stepped into a market for deceptively expensive brocante and vintage finds in Aix-en-Provence.
From the Sunday lunch menu I chose the roll of pork stuffed with apples and raisins, with prettily presented side dishes of carrots, peas with lettuce and both mashed and roast potatoes (always a choice of potatoes in Ireland). In between courses I discovered that there was a lovely, light conservatory room at the back, giving out to a charming courtyard garden.
There is a French connection to the area in the French Hugonots who settled here in the 17th century in search of religious freedom and brought with them their skills in the manufacture of linen, using locally grown flax. This is definitely a place I’d love to return to linger over a coffee with cakes or have a light lunch with a friend.
The French Rooms, 45 Main Street, Bushmills. Open Wednesday to Sunday We ate: Sunday lunch 2 courses £13.65 3 courses £16.65
7. Italian inspiration at Bartali Wine Bar at Portballintrae
On a quiet Sunday evening I ate at Bartali Wine bar overlooking the bay at Portballintrae which was just a short drive from Bushmills. The long whitewashed building with a slate roof looked as if it had been converted from an ancient barn or fisherman’s boathouse, but in fact was only built around 10 years ago. Inside the wooden booths, brick arches and Victorian fireplace might have been from an old pub, but there was also a young, trendy feel to the place, with an emphasis on local produce and craft ales.
The staff were friendly and knowledgeable and told me that this restaurant and its sister restaurants in Belfast are named after Italian champion cyclists, this being the namesake of Gino Bartali, the others being Coppi (named after Fausto Coppi) and il Pirata (named after Marco Pantani) which serve cichetti bar snacks and rustic Italian cuisine. I enjoyed my market fish; sea bream with cabbage, pancetta and gnocchi which had just the right blend of Irish and Italian. I’d recommend Bartalis for lunch after a walk on Portballintrae beach as well as a relaxed dinner and it has a family friendly conservatory too.
Bartali wine bar, 6B Seaport Avenue, Portballintrae. I ate: Market fish £13.50, Passionfruit Panacotta with white chocolate £4.50. They do a set menu 3 courses or 2 courses + glass of wine for £15
8. Meeting the goats at Broughgammon Farm
As I left Bushmills for my drive past the Glens of Antrim I stopped at Broughgammon Farm near Ballycastle. The family that runs the farm are friends and I was meeting up with Becky Cole, who with her husband Charlie has started a business to rear billy goats for meat which they sell at farmer’s markets around Ireland. They run butchery and cookery courses on the farm, have a small farm shop selling their meat and other local products and Becky also has a blog about seasonal living on the farm at Terriers and Tweeds.
Becky told me how they had found their niche after realising that most goats are reared for their milk and the billy goats are slaughtered at birth. For a sustainable approach they buy the male kids and rear them to make cabrito goat meat cuts and sell the famous ‘billyburgers’ at farmer’s markets and country shows, recently branching out into free range rose veal and wild game.
Becky took me to see the goats in their barn where they were full of fun and mischief, nibbling my hand and checking me out with an inquisitive gaze. There’s a whole scene of artisan food producers like Becky and Charlie in Northern Ireland which you can look out for at local markets and in farm shops and delis.
Broughgammon Farm, 50 Straid Road, Ballycastle, BT546NP. The farm shop is open Weds-Sun 10am-5pm closed 1-2 for lunch. Check out the meat boxes that can be delivered anywhere in the UK and the events calendar will tell you at which markets you can find the billy-burgers.
9. The Central Bar in Ballycastle
I’d already visited Ballycastle when I took the ferry across to Rathlin Island but decided to stop there again for lunch before driving down the Glens coast back to Belfast Airport. On a Monday lunchtime many of the shops and restaurants were closed but I settled into a table in front of the fire at The Central Bar, an attractive stone building on the main road through town.
Without looking at the menu I knew I had to order the seafood chowder which had been recommended by Caroline Redmond who runs food tours in Ballycastle. It was a delicious creamy soup with chunks of vegetables, fish and prawns from Mortons fishmonger down at the harbour. On the side were three different breads which are cooked on the premises; a treacle and fennel seed, Guiness wheaten bread and a tomato focaccia. The lunch was a real treat and all I needed to set me up for the drive along the Glens coastal route. The Central Bar uses fresh local ingredients cooked to order and there was something to please everyone from Italian pizza, local seafood, steaks, curry and chicken dishes.
Central Wine Bar, 12 Ann Street, Ballycastle. I ate: Seafood Chowder £9.95.
While you’re in Ballycastle
Ballycastle is one of the main towns on the Causeway Coast and there’s a thriving food scene going on here. I had plenty of recommendations although unfortunately when I visited on a Monday many were closed. Check out the following and let me know what you think;
Morton’s Fish and Chips – Look out for the kiosk beside the Ballycastle harbour which is renowned for the best fish and chips in the area. The family own their own fishing boats and also have a fishmonger selling the fresh fish next door so you can be sure that the fish is ultra-fresh and cooked to order. The locals travel miles to buy their fish and chips here and sit eating it with a view of the harbour. Open weekdays 3pm-8pm, weekends 12-9pm Freshly battered cod from £4.00
Ballycastle Food Markets – There’s a regular food market in Ballycastle where you’ll find plenty of different local artizan food producers. Check out the Naturally North Coast and Glens website for more details.
Caroline Redmond offers food tours in Ballycastle which visit many of the foodie stops mentioned. She also does walking tours of the Causeway coast so check out her Facebook page or contact her by email: [email protected] The Ballycastle walking food tours cost £25
Thyme and Co, 5 Quay Road, Ballycastle – a pretty and airy cafe that uses a lot of local produce. Perfect for breakfast, brunch or a light lunch of Mediterranean tarts and aromatic soups served with crusty breads. Open daily 8.30-4.30 Closed Sunday and Monday
Ursa Minor Bakehouse, 56 Castle Street, Ballycastle, is the place that everyone mentioned to me for bread and cakes and they have a small café too. They make their bread with organic ingredients using traditional methods and supply many local cafes such as Thyme and Co and Harry’s Shack.
The North Coast Smokehouse isn’t open to the public but look out for their smoked fish at markets and local cafes like Thyme and Co and their smoked sea salt at delis and food shops – I also saw it on sale at Belfast airport. Their website has details of stockists.
Causeway Coast Foodie Tours are run by Wendy Gallagher – you can take one of her 6 hour Coast and Country tours by coach to visit a range of different food producers along the Causeway Coast for tastings and food demonstrations. The tours start and end in Colraine and cost £55. Email: [email protected]
Cushendun and Cushendell as you drive down the Glens coast
On my drive south from Ballycastle I passed through the coastal villages of Cushendun and Cushendell. Unfortunately most places were closed on the Monday but I was recommended the following for a place to eat;
Cushendun is a pretty village is managed by the National Trust and has a long beach, picturesque old stone bridge and a shop where you could easily buy a picnic if the weather is fine. Mary McBrides (2 Main Street) is a tiny whitewashed bar right by the bridge and serves good lunches with a fish restaurant upstairs.
Cushendall is a larger village with several cafes and restaurants with the beach a short drive from the centre. I was recommended the fish restaurant above Jonny Joe’s bar – Upstairs @ Joes (23 Mill Street) where they also run a cookery school and Harry’s Restaurant (10-12 Mill Street) which is just across the road, both of which serve local fish and seafood.
10. Afternoon tea at the Glenarm Castle Tea Rooms
My final stop before I reluctantly returned to Belfast airport was the tea room at Glenarm castle which is just off the coastal road and makes a great refreshment stop. You can visit the tearooms even if you don’t want to visit the walled garden and they serve brunch, sandwiches and soup for lunch and tea and cakes. I just had time for a slice of Lady Grey and orange tea loaf washed down with raspberry fruit tea.
The tearoom looks as if it was once a garden building and is all painted wood and pine tables with pretty garden flowers on each table. I wish I’d had time to visit the walled garden which I could glimpse through the archway and just popped out to take a photo before continuing my drive, with the majestic glens and glacial valleys on one side and the sea on the other.
Glenarm Castle: Garden admission £5. I tried herbal tea £1.85 and cake £2.65. They serve a traditional afternoon tea for £10.95 per person.
A golden bonus from Broighter Gold
Everywhere I went I kept spotting bottles of Broighter Gold who produce cold pressed golden rapeseed oil on their farm at Limavady. They also sell a range of salad oils infused with flavours like basil, lemon and chilli and to celebrate Northern Ireland’s 2016 Year of Food and Drink have created a special edition that contains 23 carat flakes of gold for a bit of extra sparkle.
It’s fashionable to use olive oil with abandon in our cooking but this rapeseed oil made me stop and wonder why, when there are delicious and healthy local products like this that are part of our own farming landscape.
I loved my foodie tour of Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast exploring local artisan products, fabulous seafood and outstanding quality meat, all served up in huge portions with a healthy dollop of friendly Irish charm. I hope your mouth is watering too!
Have you any favourite foodie spots from Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast? Do leave me your recommendations in the comments
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. The hotel has a traditional Irish warmth with excellent food and friendly service and the peat fire is always burning to welcome you. If you’re lucky you may find your own country’s flag flying from the tower to greet you!
For guided tours 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.
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.
Caroline Redmond offers food tours in Ballycastle at North Coast Walking Tours and Wendy Gallagher runs Coast and Country food tours at Causeway Coast Foodie Tours. Thanks to both for their food recommendations.
Thanks to the Causeway and Glens Tourism Board for hosting my stay on Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast.
Ah, Costa Brava – fresh green wheat fields, yellow rapeseed edged with poppies and views over the olive trees to the snow capped Pyrenees in the distance. These are the memories that we brought home from our recent short break, staying in a rustic luxury villa with our hire car to explore a new place each day.
Visiting pretty, painted Girona
Our first day was spent in Girona, the regional capital of Costa Brava. I’d visited a couple of times before and was looking forward to showing it to the family. (Read about my last visit to Lloret de Mar) Girona has a similar feel to its big sister Barcelona, but without the crowds of tourists and dare I say a more authentic Catalan flavour (we don’t talk about Spain here). There’s modern shopping if you want it, but I prefer to just wander around the old streets that surround the cathedral, stopping here and there for some people-watching on a café terrace. If you want the postcard shot of Girona, cross the bridge and walk along for a view of the coloured houses that overlook the river.
Lunch on the terrace at Konig
Our lunchtime spot was Konig (Carrer dels Calderers, 16), a well placed café below the Basilica de Sant Feliu with a large terrace overlooking the river where we could bask in the sunshine. They serve good quality local dishes, salads and pasta – nothing too gourmet, but tasty and not too expensive if you are feeding a large group of hungry offspring.
Is this the best gelato in the world?
For desert we fancied an ice cream so I led the troops across the river (admiring pretty painted houses), through the Plaça de la Independència and down the small street to find Rocambolesc (Carrer de Santa Clara, 50). Of course, I knew the gelato would be great, since it is run by the Roca brothers of El Celler de Can Roca fame, a.k.a The best restaurant in the world if you believe these highly prized lists.
The six flavours of ice cream change with the season and come out of the machine in a piped swirl, Mr Whippy style. If you think that six choices may not be enough, even if they include coconut and violet, just look at the endless selection of toppings! The lady who served us reeled off her topping recommendations in just the same way as they recite the dishes when they serve you in Michelin star restaurants. I knew then that we were on to a good thing.
Pastries that ooze with cream at Casa Moner
Right across the street we were tempted into Casa Moner (Carrer de Santa Clara, 45), a local bakery chain that serves artizan breads and pastries. I bought one of their Xuixo signature pastries, a rolly-polly doughnut filled with custard cream, the kind that oozes out the sides and drips down your chin when you take a bite. Beyond the narrow shopfront there was a sizeable cafe area at the back where you could sit to enjoy all the cakes, but sadly that would have to wait for another day.
A trendy cycle cafe at Fabrica
Crossing over the red metal lattice of the Eiffel bridge (made by Gustave Eiffel a few years before he even thought of that tower in Paris) we headed back into the old town, having spotted on the map the old walls that encircle half of Girona. We hoped to find some steps to get up onto the path that leads along the top, but it took a coffee stop at the trendy cycle café, La Fábrica (Carrer de la Llebre, 3) to get directions to the start of the wall.
Walking the walls of Girona
Once up at the top, the path was an easy walk giving us views over the rooftops. We could effortlessly peep into windows below us and snoop on gardens and terraces. The path ran from one end of the old town to the other, with towers along the way where you could climb up for even more expansive views. We walked around 30 minutes to get from one end of the wall to the other and ended up behind the cathedral so I popped in to have a look around.
Majestic Girona Catheral
The cathedral was majestic and tranquil, with towering stone pillars and stained glass lit up by the sun. Photographs were not allowed inside and although many people had their mobile phones out I decided to respect that. Instead I’ll give you a shot of the cathedral cloister which I visited on my way out.
Staying at Mas Gorral with Charming Villas
I think it’s time to tell you something about our villa which was kindly provided by Charming Villas Catalonia. Set in the countryside a short drive from Figures, we were blown away by Mas Gorral. It’s an old farmhouse that has obviously been added to over the years although all in such authentic style that it’s difficult to tell what is centuries old and what is new.
The villa was set on the hillside so we had views over the countryside towards the snow capped Pyrenees and over the nearby village of Pontos, all terracotta roofs and narrow streets that you could just about get a car through.
Inside we had 5 spacious bedrooms with 3 bathrooms between us and a huge dining room and living room that featured natural stonework, colourful walls and antique furnishings. Local painted pottery mixed with Asian pieces, perhaps inspired by the owner’s travels. With quirky artworks, well kept gardens and a (bracingly fresh) pool this was the perfect place for our two families to share.
The Dali Theatre-Museum at Figueres
When in Costa Brava there’s no escaping that giant of 20th Century art, Salvador Dalí who was born just down the road from our villa at Figures. As we drove the hire car into town and circled to find parking I have to admit that Figueres looked unremarkable. We walked towards the red towers topped with white eggs of the museum and luckily got inside just before waves of French school children began to arrive.
The museum was created over 10 years in the old municipal theatre and was Dali’s personal project. He called in his artworks from all over the world and added art installations specially for the museum.
Entering the first couryard that would have been the theatre auditorium we found the Rainy Cadillac topped with a huge breasted and bellied goddess figure. Gold statues like Oscar awards looked down from the walls and a fishing boat was stranded at the top of a column of Michelin tyres – I saw those again at Dali’s house in Port Lligat. On the stage was another artwork the size of a cinema screen and in the niche to one side a nude figure of Dali’s wife Gala with her back turned – except when you cross your eyes or look at it through your camera you realise that it’s a portrait of Abraham Lincoln.
The whole museum was packed full of artworks with that feeling of ‘it’s not quite what it seems’. I did buy the guidebook but didn’t read it until afterwards so it was an enjoyable game to just wander through the rooms, absorbing the impression without overthinking the meaning. At the end of the day it seems to be a projection of Dali’s rich subconsciousness and dreamworld.
Once you have left the main museum, there is the jewellery collection which is included in the same entrance ticket, full of most gorgeous bling. I coveted the ruby lips with pearl teeth and the red ruby heart brooch that has a mechanism inside so it literally beats.
Gala’s Castle at Pubol
After the Dali museum we decided there wasn’t an awful lot more to see in Figueres so we drove back to the villa where the rest of the crew decided to have a relaxing afternoon. Guy and I (OK it was mainly me) wanted a bit more of the Dali fix and so we drove south towards Girona to visit the Castle at Púbol that Dali gave to his wife Gala. It really was a beautiful drive on country roads with little traffic and only the occasional mishap when we inadvertantly drove through one of those old villages where the houses close in and the lanes became so narrow that you worry for your wing mirrors.
This fortified country house or castel was a gift that Dali had promised Gala years before, a place that she could come on her own and relax, where even her husband would have to request written permission to visit her (or so the story goes). Once the museum at Figures was nearly complete the couple were able to start work on the renovations for their new project which was designed to suit Gala’s taste with some of Dali’s surreal art such as the cupboard painted with radiators to disguise the real radiators.
The decoration here was luxurious but the overall effect simpler than the house we would see the next day at Port Lligat where the same amount of furniture was squashed into half the space. This was much more Gala’s retreat where she would come for a few weeks at a time to relax away from all the showmanshop that surrounded her husband.
Gala was an clearly an elegant woman, her hair swept back into a girlish style, which was pinned with a large black velvet bow. Since I used to work in fashion, I loved looking at Gala’s dresses on display upstairs from the 50s and 60s, purchased from designers such as Pierre Cardin and Elsa Schiaparelli. Her dresses show her loved colour, luxurious fabrics and the subtle sparkle of lurex.
Driving tips for Costa Brava with Auto Europe
If you are staying in a villa as we were and want to see something of Costa Brava, you really need a hire car and ours was kindly provided by Auto Europe. The pickup and drop off at Girona airport was painless and we found that the roads easy to navigate, with much less traffic than we are used to in the overcrowded UK. It really made the driving a pleasure to pass fields full of wildflowers and yellow rapeseed edged with poppies. Of course in the high summer by the coast it might get a bit crazy, but away from the coast I suspect that even in high season these country roads are an easy drive.
The only thing I would advise with a hire car is to avoid the centre of older towns and village centres that were not really made for cars. In Girona or Cadaques, we found that when you get close to the centre it’s best to park in the first public car park you see and walk into the old centre. Beware also of the small country villages which normally have a route that goes around them as well as a road that goes through them. The streets can be incredibly narrow, as we found out accidentally on a couple of occasions, so drive around if you can. You can check out my driving tips for Costa Brava in the video below.
The wild Costa Brava at Cadaques
Our final day was blessed with glorious sunshine at Cadaques, an old fishing town that’s now quite a tourist hotspot on the wild and rocky Cap de Creus. You drive on a winding road that snakes up through the unspoiled natural park, and brings you down the other side to Cadaques.
Parking the hire car in the first main car park we saw as we came into town was the right decision as there was little space to pass in the smaller roads close to the beach. We walked around the seafront away from the busiest terrace restaurants and cafes and found a smaller place that had been recommended to me called Enoteca MF. It’s the wine bar and tapas restaurant that’s run by the same family that has a vineyard and winery set above Cadaques called Sa Perafita which you pass on the way into town.
They serve fabulous tapas with the seafood being especially fresh and delicious. We tried a bit of everything including a bottle or two of their Cava and a glass of the local Vermouth which is the fashionable drink of the moment in Catalunya. There was the pan tomat rubbed with tomato and garlic, a plate of local cheeses, red tuna sashimi and a salmon tartare topped with guacamole. We were impressed to see the staff peeling a huge bowl of pink shrimps which were then pulverised to make a shrimp carpaccio. It was enough to melt the heart of the most avid opponent of raw fish.
After lunch we walked up the lane beside the wine bar and in 10 minutes were overlooking the next bay at Port Lligat, a small fishing bay where Dali spent most of the time with his wife Gala. The house was created by knocking together a number of fishing huts and then extending them over the years. Because the individual rooms are so small you need to book timed tickets in advance (in April we were able to get them the day before).
Although there were not many large scale artworks here, Dali’s vision was felt everywhere although the dried yellow ‘everlasting’ flowers were in almost every room, a favourite of Gala’s. Dali’s art studio was one of the largest spaces with light flooding in and an easel that could be moved up and down so that Dali could always paint sitting down on his chair.
We moved from room to room, up a few steps each time since the different cottages were on different levels and emerged on a lovely terrace, with whitewashed stonework, pots of flowering plants and olive trees providing shade. The surprise was that they’d cleverly fitted in a swimming pool on the terrace with a round section and narrow channel for swimming up and down.
Since not all of our group had visited the Dali house, we joined the rest enjoying a drink at the Es Raco d’en Dani Xiringuito at the other end of the beach – another offshoot of the Sa Perafita winery. There was plenty of seafood on the menu and although we stuck to the beers and coffee the waft of grilled octopus was mouthwatering.
Rather reluctantly we walked back over the headland to Cadaques and wandered around the artisan market where we bought olive bread and pastries from the Cas Mona stand that we had seen in Girona.
What a fabulous break we’d had but the next day it was time to return to Girona airport for our flight home. Still we managed a quick trip to the Sunday market at nearby Bascara to buy some salad and rotisserie chicken for lunch on the terrace.
As we basked in the warm sun I think we were all trying to soak it up and take a little piece of Costa Brava sunshine home with us.
Have you been to Costa Brava or Catalunya and if so, what did you enjoy?
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Visitor Information for 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 his wife who run the company are based locally they are able to help with planning your holiday and on hand to sort out any issues.
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.