A collection of 500 year old thatched cottages, set around a cobbled farmyard, Red Doors Farm in Devon has all the chocolate box charm that you’d wish for in a holiday cottage. However, we’ve learned from past experience that a centuries-old thatched cottage, picturesque though it may be, does not always mean warmth and comfort. Thank goodness the owners Gill and Adrian seem to have that cracked, with Byre Cottage where we stayed being kept at a cosy constant temperature by the biomass wood-pellet fired boiler.
Our stay was arranged through Premier Cottages who specialise in luxury holidays cottages and this one certainly lived up to expectations. Having arrived in darkness on a Friday night from Bristol, we wake up to glorious views of the Blackdown Hills and spot the red doors of all the cottages that seem to epitomise the cheerful spirit of the place.
In the morning while the boys are cooking the bacon and eggs, Gill offers to show me around and tells me their story. She and Adrian gave up busy jobs in London to follow their dream of a calmer life in the country and took over the holiday cottage business of Red Doors Farm three years ago. “If we’d realised how much work it would be, we probably wouldn’t have taken it on!” Gill told me, since they have gradually worked through all of the six cottages, renovating them one by one.
I hope you enjoy my video below of our weekend at Red Doors Farm
Our cosy cottage at Red Doors Farm
Furnishings have been upgraded, bathrooms modernised and now all the cottages meet Visit England’s exacting 5 star Gold Standard. Although Red Doors Farm is very popular with young families, it seems there’s a cottage for everyone down on the farm. The Swallows Loft is a one bedroom apartment on two floors with stylish mezzanine kitchen, luxurious modern bathroom and a four poster bed with an “Out of Africa” look, which suits professional couples looking for a relaxing country break. Meanwhile Holly Cottage is popular with older couples, or couples with a baby, since it’s all on one level with a terrace overlooking the croquet lawn, perfect to sit with your sundowner admiring the views of the Blackdown Hills.
We’re staying in Byre which is a 3 bedroom cottage, sleeping 6 people in comfort, a spacious master bedroom for me and Guy and two twin bedrooms for my teenage son and two friends to spread out. No queues for the bathrooms either, since there’s a family bathroom upstairs and a shower room downstairs. We really can’t fault the cosy furnishings, well equipped farmhouse style kitchen and best of all the log burning stove in the sitting room. Since all men seem to love stoking up a real fire, and Guy is no exception, this is something we always love to see in a country cottage and we make the most of it with a fire in the evenings.
Feeding the goats at Red Doors Farm
Saturday morning is crisp but sunny with winter-blue skies and views over farmland to the valley beyond. Across the lawn is the swimming pool in a separate building for those (relatively) early morning swims which quickly become a favourite with our teenage boys. After breakfast and the swim we’ve arranged to meet Adrian and Gill for the 10.30 morning ritual of feeding the animals.
For younger guests the farm keeps guinea pigs and rabbits in the covered play area but our teenagers are more interested in the goats, Charlie and Dora. “These are the most spoiled goats in Devon”, Gill tells me, since they have their own heated shed, decking walkways so their feet don’t get wet on the grass and a climbing frame which comes into its own at feeding time.
Once Charlie and Dora have enjoyed their breakfast it’s time for the Muscovy ducks to have theirs in the next field. The ducks all have names beginning with D; there’s Dick, the alpha male of the group and Daisy, although we joke that Dyson might be a better name based on the speed at which they vacuum up the grain we hold out to feed them.
Hunting for ammonites at Lyme Regis
Feeding time over, we decide to make the most of the glorious winter sunshine and drive the 25 minutes to Lyme Regis, the heart of the Jurassic Coast. Last time I was here with my blogging friend Barbara Weibel who is a rock hound and fossil lover if ever there was one and am determined to show the boys the ammonite pavement that we visited together.
Lyme Regis is a holiday town that I am continually drawn back to, having just the right balance of Jane Austen charm and fish’n’chips holiday fun, as well as being one of the top places on the Jurassic coast to find fossils. From the harbour, locally known as The Cobb, we walk along the rocky beach, with cliffs looming above us. The cliff face reveals the layers of sedimentary rock that were built up in pre-historic times containing the fossils, especially ammonites for which the beach is famous. “Don’t get to close” I call to the others, since there are frequent and dangerous rockfalls from the cliffs, especially after storms, revealing new fossils that have been trapped in the rock.
We clamber awkwardly over the boulders and squish through the black mud until we reach the ammonite pavement, a flat plate of rock where millions of years ago a shoal of ammonites settled on the bottom and were pressed down for eternity. Now at low tide you can see numerous little coils in the bare rock and spot them pressed into larger rocks along the beach. The local fossil hunters are to be seen tapping at the rocks with small hammers, splitting them open to reveal the ammonites trapped inside. As I walk, my eyes scan the pebbles that crunch under my feet and then suddenly I spot it, an ammonite on a smooth round pebble just lying there!
A walk on the Cobb at Lyme Regis
We walk back to The Cobb where a broad wall casts a protective arm around the harbour and the colourful fishing boats are lying on their sides at low tide. It’s fun to walk along the broad top of The Cobb wall although the stone pavement slopes like a tipsy sailor towards the sea to catch out the unwary. It’s a steep drop on both sides and our friend tells us that their dog once fell off and rolled down the wall but luckily survived with nothing broken.
The stormchasers might emulate Meryl Streep with swirling cloak in the film The French Lieutenant’s woman, standing on the end of The Cobb looking out to sea, although it’s not advisable or even allowed. Walking along to the end of the wall there are store houses for the fishing boats and we get the feel that this is still a thriving fishing community with plenty of notices advertising fishing trips and the blue and green nets piled up along the quayside. The notice above the door promises that ‘The Gods do not subtract from the allotted span of mens lives the hours spent in fishing”.
Back on the quay, we check out the local fishmonger’s where I can’t resist buying some fresh squid while the boys browse in the second hand bookshop next door. Later that evening I fry it up in butter to eat with some of the orange, pepper and chilli chutney that we found in our welcome pack, although the boys turn their noses up at it. Guy has already drunk the bottles of Otter Bitter and Norcott’s Somerset cider without giving me a look-in but we all enjoy the local chocolate fudge and award winning ice cream that we bought from the freezer in the games room, made just across the valley. The fire is stoked up and the boys have a noisy monopoly game in progress, just as it should be.
A climb to Dumpdon Hill Fort
Sunday morning and we take a last chance to explore some of the countryside around Red Doors Farm. Armed with instruction found in the Games Room, we walk up the lane towards the Dumpdon Hill Fort, an iron age fort which takes us on a steep and muddy climb up from the road. From the flat area of the top we can survey the many shades of green making a patchwork quilt of fields, then we turn back towards the farm and with rosy cheeks and lungs full of fresh air ready for our drive back to Bristol.
- The high quality furnishings and amenities with attention to detail and everything you need on the farm (even ice cream and meals in the freezer!)
- The cheerful and helpful approach of Gill and Adrian who live on site.
- Feeding the goats and ducks was a fun experience, even for our teens!
- Lovely to have an indoor swimming pool on site and we made full use of it.
- The beautiful Devon countryside and short drive to the coast at Lyme Regis or Sidmouth.
What you need to know;
- The setting is quite rural so you do need a car and we didn’t find any shops within walking distance.
- The free wifi is provided through a mobile in each cottage and you’ll need to give your credit card details as a deposit.
Booking at Red Doors Farm
Red Doors Farm have six luxury holiday cottages which sleep between 2 and 8 people, in the Blackdown Hills of Devon, set in beautiful countryside and only 30 minutes drive from Lyme Regis and the Jurassic Coast. A week’s stay in Byre Cottage at Red Doors Farm for up to six people starts from £775 and a short break starts from £540. Book Red Doors Farm through Premier Cottages here
Premier Cottages‘ collection features almost 1,000 four and five-star self-catering cottages across the UK. Properties range from small, romantic boltholes to large family-friendly country estates. The collection includes pet-friendly accommodation. It also offers the widest range of accessible properties in the UK and many properties have onsite facilities like swimming pools, gyms, spas, indoor games rooms and children’s play areas.
Follow Premier Cottages and Red Doors on their Social Media channels below;
Premier Cottages: Website | Twitter @premiercottages | Facebook | Google+ | Pinterest | YouTube
Red Door Farm: Website | Twitter @reddoorsfarm | Facebook
You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey
What a night for a drive down to Devon! With rain pelting down on the windscreen and leaves blowing across the road, any thoughts we had of stopping at a country pub on the way were abandoned in the hope of just arriving safely at the Moorland Garden Hotel.
We’ve arrived at the Moorland Garden Hotel!
Just north of Plymouth we turned off the main road and down a secluded drive to reach the gates of the hotel, a long two-storey building with all the bedrooms overlooking the lawned gardens. Parking the car and running inside to escape the downpour, we were soothed by the warm welcome at reception and the sounds of music and celebration coming from the room at the other end of the corridor. This being rural Devon, the Young Farmers’ annual dinner dance was in full swing with lads in DJs and lasses in full-on evening glamour and tottering heels, wandering in and out of the bar, not a wellie or barbour jacket to be seen.
I hope you enjoy my video below of the Moorland Garden Hotel
Harking back to the hotel’s glamourous heyday
The hotel was built in the 1930s, originally named the Moorland Links Hotel because of the nearby golf club and enjoyed a glamourous reputation in its heyday, attracting celebrities such as David Niven and Rex Harrison. With a large ballroom complete with sprung dance floor and resident orchestra, guests flocked to attend tea dances and balls, while in the 1940s the hotel was popular with army and naval officers stationed at nearby Plymouth. In 2011 the hotel was bought by the current owners Brian and Sonia Meaden who have gradually put the hotel through a complete refurbishment of the 44 bedrooms and public areas. While the swimming pool and tennis courts of the 1930s are no longer there, the hotel has taken on a new character as a welcoming place for guests wanting to combine the wild walks of Dartmoor with the Waterfront attractions of the Ocean City of Plymouth. To celebrate its 80th anniversary this year, the hotel has been drawing on its heritage, with a 1940s themed tea dance, Agatha Christie inspired afternoon teas and summer picnics in the wildflower meadow that adjoins the gardens.
Relaxing the Dartmoor Bar and Lounge
Having left the cases in our bedroom (more about that later) we settled into the comfortable Dartmoor lounge for a warming bowl of haddock and sweetcorn chowder and chilli Exe river mussels from the bar menu. The decor was cosy and traditional with some modern touches and looked as if it had benefited from the recent refurbishment with an inviting air of fresh paint and new carpets. We settled into the oversized patchwork armchairs by the fireplace, which would be a favourite spot in winter when the fire is lit, admiring the striped tapestry, brocade and velvet fabrics with gilt mirrors and glowing red glass lamps. The walls were covered with artistic photos of Dartmoor, reminding us of the wild landscapes, granite tors and mossy covered river boulders that we had explored on previous visits to Devon. In one corner was a desk covered with useful information leaflets of local attractions and on the shelves were games and jigsaws to while away an autumn evening.
The adjoining Dartmoor bar had been similarly refurbished with plenty of comfortable seating areas, leather sofas and velvet banquettes by the wall. The wild landscapes of nearby Dartmoor were referenced in the black and white photos of moorland miniature ponies and twisted oaks, with metal stag heads on the wall and stag motifs on the cushions. Guy was keen to try a pint of the Dartmoor Best ale although we discovered from the barman that it actually comes from St Austell in Cornwall.
Settling into the Lily of the Valley Suite
After recovering from our windswept Friday night drive, we were able to enjoy our spacious Lily of the Valley Suite on the first floor, where home-made biscuits had been laid out for us. All the rooms in the hotel have been individually redecorated with the help of West Country designer Nadine Judd, drawing on a garden theme to bring the natural beauty of the moor into the hotel. Like all the bedrooms, ours overlooked the garden and so when we awoke we had delightful views over the lawns and down to the Tamar valley beyond.
I had a peep in a few of the other bedrooms and found the decorative style was colourful and modern, often using patterned feature walls, bright floral prints and striking pieces of furniture. Our Lily of the Valley suite took up the fresh floral theme, with leaf green walls, pretty cream linen curtains with a delicate floral sprig and a feature wall covered with hand-printed lily of the valley paper on a dark background. We sat eating our warm biscuits on the green crushed velvet sofa with pastel floral cushions and flicked through the books and magazines that had been thoughtfully left under the glass of the coffee table. The overall effect was very pleasing although there was the odd item that seemed more high street than high end – a metal garden chair at the desk and a strange IKEA style metal shelf on the wall beside the bed. The en suite bathroom was clean and fresh with pale grey tiles and a shower above the bath although I suspect that this was one of the few remaining bathrooms in the hotel that was due for refurbishment, since I saw other rooms with more modern bathrooms.
Elegant Dining in the Wildflower Restaurant
On Saturday night we planned to eat in the Wildflower restaurant, having heard great things about the restaurant which won a Gold in the 2013 West Country Taste of the West awards and was named Best Restaurant in the South West. The Head Chef, Bruce Cole has been at the hotel for 18 months now and has created new menus that feature locally sourced and seasonal produce from nearby farms and food producers. After dinner we had a chance to chat with Bruce and he told us “When I arrived much of the food came from the freezer and the menu changed twice a year. Now everything is freshly made including the bread and pastries, we use the best local produce and we change the menu every 4 to 6 weeks with the seasons”
The Wildflower restaurant has large French windows that overlook the gardens which open in summer leading out onto the terrace. There is an elegant silver and turquoise theme with patterned turquoise velvet chairs, silver leaf wall decorations and a striking private dining area with silver and turquoise floral wallpaper and silver mirrors. I’d love to visit the restaurant in summer to enjoy a cream tea overlooking the gardens or to be there in September when the hotel hosts the Delicious Drake’s trail that ends on those lawns.
We had invited a friend who lives in Plymouth to join us for dinner and we were all wow’ed by the dishes which were beautifully presented and above all delicious. I started with a crab mille feille, a soft crab pate piled into a tower with crispy biscuits and a piquant mango garnish. To follow I ordered the sliced breast of duck which was well cooked with a ring of crispy fat, served with vegetables and a prune puree that gave a fruity piquancy. My desert was a perfectly creamy crème brullee with a crisp caramel topping and ball of lemon sorbet in a brandy snap basket. Guy tried a board of delicious West Country cheeses and our friend had the Langage Farm lemon and lime sorbet on a creamy jelly with pretty edible pansies. I thought that the three course dinner which included coffee was incredible value at £28.95 considering the elegant surroundings, friendly and attentive service and of course the delicious food.
The next morning we were back at our window table for breakfast to enjoy the garden views in daylight and of course I had to have the English cooked breakfast while Guy ordered a kipper from the breakfast menu. There was the usual range of hot toast with jam and marmalade, croissants, fruit and yoghurts, a choice of packet cereals, although the selection was fairly limited and I thought the breakfast didn’t quite live up to the magnificence of the dinner the previous evening.
You can get married here too!
After the Young Farmers’ party on Friday night I noticed that the ballroom was being laid out for a wedding on Saturday and went to have a nose around while the staff were setting out the tables. The large Crystal room at the far end of the hotel is on two levels, the first of which was being set out with chairs for the marriage ceremony while the ballroom area was arranged with tables for the dinner-dance that followed. The room lived up to its name, with sparkling chandeliers and mirrors, and would be the perfect setting for a summer wedding when guests can walk out onto the lawn. In the gardens I spotted the wrought iron rose arbour which was designed and made by local blacksmith Matt Dingle and is popular for wedding photos or even for the wedding ceremony itself. Although the wedding reception was in full swing on the Saturday night when we were dining in the Wildflower restaurant, I was impressed that the staff managed to keep everything running very smoothly, accommodating both groups of guests, although I probably wouldn’t want to be sleeping in the bedrooms immediately above the ballroom when a major event like this is being held in the hotel.
The morning market at Tavistock
On Saturday morning we ventured out from the Moorland Garden Hotel to explore the nearby market town of Tavistock, which sits on the western edge of Dartmoor. The town became prosperous in the Middle Ages from the wool trade and was one of the “Stannary Towns” around Dartmoor that controlled the local tin mining that took place on the moor.
In front of the impressive stone Guildhall we chatted to the owner of the fruit and veg stall and wandered through the covered craft market. Through an archway we found the Pannier Market, a historic covered market that was given its charter 900 years ago and houses an eclectic mix of different stalls that change daily, with antiques, crafts and daily necessities. On the Saturday it seemed to be a bustling general market of everything you could hope to find in a Devon town, from birdseed to fishing bait, tweed hats to moleskin trousers and country fudge to old books and antique costume jewellery.
Around the courtyard that enclosed the Pannier market there were a number of small specialist shops, including de la Torre’s selling a huge variety of olives and Mediterranean foods like houmous, olive oils and jars of condiments. Right next door was the Country Cheese shop where the staff were only too happy to let us try a sliver of this or that before we decided which of the many West Country cheeses to buy, deliberating between the delightfully named Miss Muffett, Tilly Whim and other Devon specialities.
The Garden House at Buckland Monachorum
On the way back from Tavistock that afternoon we stopped in at The Garden House, a privately owned gardens in a secluded Devon valley, set around a Georgian vicarage. The garden was bought in the 1940s by Lionel and Katharine Fortescue who moved to live in the vicarage and started planting the 10 acres of garden which was further developed in the 1960s by head gardener Keith Wiley who introduced the naturalistic landscapes of the cottage garden, wildflower meadow and Acer glade.
Walking past the house where I made a mental note of the tea-room, we started our tour of the garden at the small lake where the water lilies and sculptural gunnera made a picturesque setting with the half submerged blue rowing boat that was moored to the bank, but not going anywhere. Most beautiful at the end of summer was the walled garden where the long herbaceous borders were filled with hostas turning to yellow and decaying brown, with fraying silver thistles and the bright spots of dahlias blazing pink and pumpkin orange. In the middle of the walled garden was a small stone thatched cottage, perhaps the gardner’s cottage making a backdrop for the dusty pink hydrangeas and pink penstomen.
At the furthest end of the garden we enjoyed the rhododendron walk which was now full of autumn colour with golden maples and acers lighting up the dark rhododendron foliage. The path led us gradually up hill through the Acer glade beside a small stream trickling over shale which had been cut into the grassy bank. Having completed the circuit of the garden we hurried back to the tea-room in the house before it closed, to have a Devon Cream tea and a slice of home-made fruit cake. Please note the Garden House is now closed for the winter and will re-open again in March.
Buckland Abbey, home of Sir Frances Drake and a Rembrandt self-portrait
On Sunday before we headed for home, we drove the short distance to Buckland Abbey, a medieval abbey which later became home to the Elizabethan sailor, Sir Francis Drake and is now run by the National Trust. We spent a few hours here, enjoying the great barn, medieval house, the Rembrandt exhibition and had lunch at the cafe before driving back to Bristol, although it would be very easy to stay a whole day here if the weather was fine. Read about our visit to Buckland Abbey.
The Cistercian Abbey was founded here in the 13th century, but after Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, the abbey was sold to Sir Richard Grenville who demolished some of the monastic buildings and converted it to a family home. In 1582 Sir Francis Drake bought the property with the proceeds of his bucaneering raids on the Spanish fleet in the Americas and it remained in the hands of his heirs until earlier this century. This year Buckland was in the news due the Rembrandt Portrait which came to Buckland Abbey in 2010 and after a 2 year investigation by art experts has now been confirmed as a genuine painting by the master himself. We enjoyed looking around the special Rembrandt exhibition within the house showing the portrait and details of all the ways they had confirmed it was genuine, as well as other museum exhibits such as Drake’s Drum which accompanied him on his voyages and is said to sound when England is in danger.
There are no shortage of things to see in this part of Devon and another time we might enjoy a walk up to one of the Tors on the moor or drive into Plymouth where the waterfront is being developed with new restaurants and museums. If you’re looking for a comfortable and welcoming hotel with an excellent restaurant to use as a base for exploring the area I’d certainly recommend the Moorland Garden Hotel and would love to come back in summer to enjoy the gardens and sit out on the terrace, perhaps enjoying a Devon cream tea.
The Moorland Garden Hotel, Yelverton, Devon. Rooms for a weekend stay range from £100-125 based on B & B for 2 people sharing or £125-155 for a suite. Check the hotel website for information on special breaks such as 3 nights for the price of 2, Sunday night stays or breaks that include dinner and afternoon tea. Dogs are welcome in the hotel and can stay in certain rooms. My tip would be to check whether there is a wedding or function taking place in the hotel when you book and if so request a room at the opposite end of the hotel where you won’t be disturbed.
You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey
“We want you to help the world dream about Greece”, the Minister of Tourism, Olga Kefalogianni told us at the opening night party for the TBEX travel bloggers conference in Athen. The city had opened its arms wide to welcome over 500 travel bloggers attending the conference so that we could help change perceptions about what Greece has to offer. In the opening speeches the Mayor of Athens, Giorgos Kaminis told us “We felt that during the economic crisis we were treated unfairly by the mainstream media and so we wanted to invite you bloggers to see Athens for yourselves and tell the real stories of our city.”
Greece has been through some tough times in the last couple of years fillng the newspapers with reports of strikes and public protests. During the crisis the government was forced to take drastic measures to balance the books and pensioners, students and families alike struggled to make ends meet. But in Athens last week we could feel a new energy as Greece leaves the worst behind and looks to the future. Local tourism businesses had come together to show us their best side and at the opening party restaurants and food businesses wow’ed us with a feast of Greek cuisine and enterprise.
A showcase of Greek gastronomy at the TBEX opening night party
Arriving at the Technopolis cultural centre it took me a very, very long time to extract myself from the main hall where stands of food and drink producers tempted me with tastes from all the regions of Greece. From Stremmenos I tasted my way through the naturally matured proscutio and salamis from the pine forests of Central Greece, washed down with Verve natural juices in blends of apple, celery, melon and ginger from Farmer’s Republic. I sipped Greek wines from Papaioannou Wines and nibbled a plate of miniature hot dogs from local restaurant ManhManh who offer Greek regional dishes with a modern twist. Another local Athens restaurant Aleria was serving a creamy, nutty Halva mousse to die for and I was given a bag of traditional Loukoum sweets made by Nedim, perfumed with rosewater, coated with coconut and dripping with syrup. I took them back to my hotel room and looking for a late night snack I’m ashamed to say that I couldn’t resist eating the whole bag.
During the day I had taken the Athens Food Tour with Big Olive City Walks, a new business run by young Athenian entrepreneurs including the founder, Yannis and architecture expert, Nikos who fed us historical snippets during our walk.
Greek pastries and yoghurt at Stani Dairy bar
The gastronomic walking tour started back to front with the deserts first, although of course the Greeks tend to eat their yoghurt and honey in the morning for breakfast and their cakes in the afternoon when guests come visiting. At Stani, a family run dairy cafe just off Omonia square, tubs of creamy Greek yoghurt were piled in the chiller cabinet and jars of honey stacked on the shelves of cream painted cabinets transported from some Greek grandmother’s kitchen.
Plates of sweet treets were laid out for us to try, with crisp Loukoumades, miniature doughnuts drizzled with honey, a slice of Galaktobureko custard tart enclosed in syrupy filo pasty and Moustalevria a sweet jelly made from grape pulp left over from the wine pressing and scattered with nuts. And of course there was creamy Greek yoghurt made from sheep’s milk bathed with honey and scattered with walnuts. Stani: 10 M. Kotopouli str, Omonia square
A tasting of olives and LIA oil, the symbol of Athens
Our next stop took us to the Big Olive offices where we had a tasting of olives and olive oils with sweet, hard biscuits flavoured with orange and almond. These traditional Koulouraki biscuits would be hard baked to preserve them but then softened by dipping into olive oil. The LIA extra virgin oil from Messinia, beside the Ionian sea was poured into a cup to sip on its own and savour the green grass flavours. We tasted the small, salty, black Kalamata olives from the Pelleponese and the plump, fleshy Amphisa olives from central Greece, the Kalamata ones being the more expensive of the two.
The olive is seen as a symbol of peace and prosperity in Greece since the legend goes that the Greek Goddess Athena planted a tree on the Acropolis, so founding the city of Athens which was named after her. I thought perhaps that the Big Olive city walks had started from selling olives, but Yannis explained that it was a play on names like Big Apple for New York, but Big Olive for Athens since the olive is not only the symbol of the city but also of regeneration and will spring up and grow again after a forest fire.
With the fishes in the Athens Central Market
Our gastronomic tour now took us through the amazing Central market on Athinas Street known as the Varvakios agora where stand after stand of fish was laid out, with all the vendors keeping up a constant calling and exhorting us to buy their fish. Silver scaled and yellow striped fish stared up at me with dead eyes and open mouths from their bed of ice strewn with lemons while plump pink crayfish were standing ready to make a seafood supper.
At the farthest end of the fish section we reached the meat section where half carcasses of dead animals hung from the meat hooks. I winced as the butchers wielded their cleavers expertly on the chopping blocks and hoped that no fingers would be chopped off in the process.
Nikos the story teller told us how the market had originally been located within the archaeological area until this new one was built in the 1880s to allow the excavations to take place. The traders resisted moving into it since it was further away from the busy shopping areas, until a fire mysteriously broke out and burned down the original market, leaving them no choice.
Flatbreads warm from the oven from Antiochia
Next stop on our gastronomic journey around the regional influences on Greek cuisine was Feyrouz Lahmajoun, another new family venture featuring the flatbreads of Antiochia. What is a Lahmajoun? It’s a Turkish or Armenian street-food that is somewhere between cross a pizza, pitta and a pie. The owner, Andreas explained how the shop was named for his mother Feyrouz who made all the doughs and fillings for the Lahmajoun and also for the much admired singer Fayrouz who was considered the queen of Lebanese music and whose portrait was hanging behind the counter. “She is the only Arabic singer who is loved by all religions and all nationalities” he told us.
We could see the different flatbreads laid out behind the counter covered with minced meat or vegetables to which you could add humus or olive paste as an extra topping. The Peinirli or open top pies were laid out along the window counter for us to try, warm from the oven with toppings of cheese and tomato or cooked vegetables, with a glass of perfumed amber Turkish tea flavoured with cardoman and cloves. Each of these a bargain at around €3. Feyrouz: Karori 23 in Aiolou, Athens
Ham and charcuterie at Karamanlidika
Reluctantly our group moved out of Feyrouz, having devoured everything that had been laid out for us and headed through the side streets to another cafe/deli specialising in cheese and charcuterie called Karamanlidika. Strings of red sausages, bunches of garlic and chillis and whole hams were strung above the counter like Christmas decorations. With bare stone walls and simple wooden tables the place looked like a classy village taverna serving simple plates of cheeses and sliced charcuterie to appreciative diners.
Many of the hams had a thick red coating of spices like pepper and fenugreek which once thinly sliced, made a ribbon edge of the meat, giving a zap of flavour as we greedily ate it with our fingers. Also on the menu were Meze like the stuffed vine leaves and matured cheese with plenty of jars and bottle full of oils and condiments to take home. Karamanlidika: Sokrates 1 & Evripides 52, Athens
Coffee and a sweet spoon at the Museum of Gastronomy
Our final stop was the charming Museum of Greek Gastronomy, a private house that had been opened up with a restaurant upstairs, some specialist produce on sale and downstairs an exhibition about the foods and cultivation of the monks of Northern Greece. We sat in the small courtyard looking out towards the church next door and enjoyed a strong Greek coffee perfumed with rosewater and a “Sweet Spoon” which in this case was a miniature aubergine preserved in syrup like a crystallised fruit. Museum of Greek Gastronomy: 13, Agiou Dimitriou Street 10554, Athens.
Now mid-afternoon and our Big Olive Gastronomic walking tour completed, it was time for a bit of tick-list sightseeing. Paris may have the Eiffel Tower, Rome the Colosseum, London the Elgin Marbles (don’t mention the Elgin, or should I say Parthenon Marbles to a Greek!) and of course when in Athens one must see the Acropolis.
The heavy rain that we had battled through in the morning had given way to warm sunshine and so with my new blogging friend Paula from Soothed in the city I headed up the hill towards the Parthenon. By pure chance we had chosen the perfect time to take photos of those famous monuments, at the golden hour of late afternoon when the sun bathes the golden stone of the Parthenon and those lovely ladies holding up the roof bask in the sunshine. The Parthenon was something of a building site and seemed to be in a process of being dismantled and put back together with cranes and scaffolding everywhere. We walked around, took lots of photos and marvelled at the size and sprawl of Athens below us, stretching as far as the mountains in the distance.
Sightseeing boxes ticked, we headed back down and wandered around the narrow streets filled with cafes and restaurants, stopping for a pistachio ice cream (me) and an enormous chocolate truffle (Paula) from Da Vinci, an artizan ice cream parlour that it seemed churlish to pass by without going inside to investigate the flavours on offer.
The next two days were taken up with the TBEX conference but our final Saturday night was spent at a street party put on for us by the local traders of Pandrossou Street. Emerging from Monastiriki Metro station and crossing the square I was half expecting that this narrow street nestling below the Acropolis hill would be full of tourist tat, but instead I found charming family businesses that were full of character, displaying Greek crafts and artizan goods. I stopped to watch the lady handpainting gorgeous vases at Pagani and stepped inside to find a treasure trove of painted gifts from all over Greece.
Further along the street the shops were putting on demonstrations of their crafts, a shoemaker tooling traditional leather sandles that a fashionable Ancient Greek lady might have coveted and the bouzouki maker at the Pegasus musical instrument workshop. I tried a real Greek coffee outside the Mikro cafe, strong and sweet just how I like it, but beware drinking it down to the last drop or you’ll end up with coffee sludge between your teeth.
At the end of the street the bouzouki band were playing all the old favourites, those foot tapping, shoulder swaying tunes that demand to be danced to. Since my sister lives on the Greek island of Zakynthos, I’ve had the pleasure and fun of the Greek night that she puts on in her hotel each week for guests, and all the songs were familiar to me. This is the music of festivals and wedding celebrations, enjoyed by every age from the trendy young things to their black clothed grandmothers and believe me when the band strikes up, the Greeks don’t need much excuse for a dance.
I’d like to say that I joined the circle of dancers, a mixture of locals and bloggers and danced the night away in the streets of Athens, but I was too busy recording the music on video for you dear reader (please watch it below). “We invite you all to be Athenians” the major had told us, and on our final night in Athens, listening to the familiar songs we took that message to heart. Come to Greece was the message, come enjoy our ancient cuture and our modern spirit, come enjoy the sunshine and the music and the people. Come enjoy a glass of wine with new friends, come eat our traditional dishes reinvented in new ways, come feel the warmth and spirit of Athens and Greece. Come visit us in 2015.
I hope you enjoy the video below of Bouzouki music in Pandrossou Street Athens
You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey