Biarro Like a phoenix from the flames, Marquês de Pombal designed a new layout for Lisbon’s city centre after it was devastated by the 1755 earthquake. Using a grid system, with wide open boulevards, Pombal connected the Praça do Comércio on the waterfront to the busy Rossio square. Known as Baixa, the area still attracts locals and tourists to its bars, theatres, shops and cafes.

Elevador de Santa Justa

Biarro

One of the more unusual characters of the area is the Elevador de Santa Justa, or the Elevador do Carmo. This neo-gothic lift was built by the French architect Raoul Mesnier du Ponsard at the turn of the 20th century.  Its iron work filagree is distinctly reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower and for good reason, as Mesnier was the apprentice to Alexandre Gustave Eiffel.  But unlike the Eiffel Tower, tourists don’t have to queue for some three or four hours for a trip to the top.

The lift’s box office is located at the foot of elevator and costs about 5.15 euros, or for the very savvy, you might realise that the lift technically forms part of Lisbon’s public transport system ran by Carris. So if you’re hopping on and off the trams or metro, you’re probably covered if you’ve got a 24-hour ticket (6.15 euros only available at metro stations).

I have to say this would be an interesting commute to work every day, sitting in one of the wooden panelled carriages descending from the Largo do Carmo 32m above the Bairro Alto at the bottom of the lift.  Mind you, I’m sure with a number of visitors the novelty would soon wear off.  The very top floor is the gallery area with great views from Rossio, Baixa, the castle on the opposite on the other hill, the river Tagus and the nearby ruins of the Carmo church.

 

Igreja do Carmo

Igreja do Carmo I think optimises the horror of that 1755 earthquake which has sculpted so much of Lisbon. As the congregation was attending mass the earthquake’s shockwaves caused the church to collapse, with the roof’s masonry falling on the flock below.  Founded in the late 14th century by Nuno Álvares Pereira, the commander who became a member of the Carmelite order, the church was once the largest in Lisbon.  Now the ruin stands with the sunlight flooding the church’s nave.

This building is historically important, as it was here during the 1974 Carnation Revolution that the Estado Novo surrendered power after 50 years of dictatorship, mainly lead by António Salazar.

Pastel de Nata

Walking towards the Rossio square, along the Rue Aurea, we stopped at the Casa Chineza Pasteleria, where we ate as many pastel de nata as we could manage. The story goes that after the liberal revolution in 1820, many of the monasteries were falling on hard times, the Belém monk’s at Jeronimos Monastery made small sweet pastries using the sugar cane refinery that was connected to a small shop nearby (handy!) and sold these to passers by. Supposedly the recipe hasn’t changed to this day and is a closely guarded secret.

The pastel de nata, as they are known across Portugal, are an egg custard tart in buttery flaky pastry – 20,000 are eaten in Lisbon alone.  (At least 50 per cent by the Friend family…) There’s an old Portuguese proverb that says that ‘a bride who eats a pastry will never take off her ring’, so we’ll have to see if we can knock up a few on our own W-day this December.

Jane's enchanted tea garden

Back in May, my work colleagues bought me a high afternoon tea at Jane’s enchanted tea garden as a birthday present. Last Sunday we finally headed to Kirtlington, Oxfordshire to enjoy a lazy morning by the canal side.

This tea garden in Kirtlington could almost be called a pop-up, it only opens its doors to tea lovers every third Sunday of the month between May and September. Through word of mouth it’s absolutely packed and booking in advance is essential – in fact, I booked three months ahead for this July date.

Jane's enchanted tea garden

But booking is not necessarily a straightforward exercise – Jane’s website is functionary even if there is no telephone number; bookings are only made by email. Once you’ve jumped that small hurdle, there’s then finding the place. The instructions on the website are pretty clear and read like a treasure map –  “park on the tarmac, follow the path through the quarry – an area of special scientific interest, keep the canal on your right, then you’ll find us.”

Jane's enchanted tea garden

Walking down Mill Lane, the tarmacked road ends and the bridleway begins, sometime later a hand painted teapot hangs on a fence post saying ‘open’ – ‘X’ marks the spot! Winding down the covered path you expect to see a cottage a la Rosie and Jim at the end. Soon you hear voices, chatting and giggling and then a small brightly painted hut adorned with kitsch teapots hanging from the rafters appears as if from nowhere.

Jane's enchanted tea garden

The bright staff checked our reservation, loaded us up with a tray filled with tea paraphernalia and we made our way to our table underneath a large canopy. Decorated with faux botanicals and wisteria, it was a quaint haven – a secret tea garden wedged between the country lane and Oxfordshire canal. In fact, it had several boats moored alongside.  The eccentric decor wouldn’t have been out of place from a scene in Alice in Wonderland.

Jane's enchanted tea garden

Tom and I had the high tea (£17.50 per person) which included our tea (obvs!), a selection of sandwiches (British favs – classic egg mayo, cheese and tomato, smoked salmon and ham and chutney), with a lettuce garnish (our was a tad brown – I put that down to the heat!). Next layer up, two homemade scones – one plain, one fruit – plenty of cheese and biscuits and on our top tier meringue nests, lemon cupcakes and chocolate sponge slices. It was all delicious and made by Jane, head chef, and her team.

It is was a very family friendly occasion. The only draw back – this is July, and everyone was eating A LOT of jam. It was a wasp’s complete heaven. I wouldn’t say that I was their number one fan, but I can cope with the odd un-wanted visitor, however, the number of botherers was unbelievable. Nothing though that couldn’t be solved by a good ol’ fashion jam trap.

Jane's enchanted tea garden

After we finished, we left our jam pot uncovered on a nearby spare chair and were left to eat the rest of our lunch in peace. Obviously, there’s nothing you can do about these critters, but jam pots with lids and staff swiftly clearing tables all help.

Jane's enchanted tea garden

With the live pianist playing a few classic ragtime tunes, it felt that we really had escaped back in time into an enchanted part of Oxfordshire.  If you’re interested in visiting Jane and her team, the do check out her website and remember – booking is essential!  http://www.janes-cream-teas.moonfruit.com/

Aster Restaurant There are no words in the sentence ‘would you like to go to a free-flowing prosecco brunch at Nordic-inspired Aster Restaurant?’ which I don’t like. It was simply an invitation that was too good to pass up, so a friend and I headed over to Victoria, Westminster just to see how free-flowing this prosecco was.

Aster Restaurant

Aster’s Executive Chef, Helena Puolakka, comes from the south-west coast of Finland, which has shaped her cooking – uncomplicated, homemade with distinctive flavours. She worked as head chef at Pierre Koffmann’s three-Michelin-starred restaurant, La Tante Claire and with Pierre Gagnaire at his three-Michelin-starred restaurant at Hotel Balzac in Paris.

As Michelle Roux Jnr likes to say on Masterchef, ‘she’s been trained in the classics’ and her French culinary training can be seen in the detail of her creations. If asked, Helena would some up her cooking as Nordic/French – and that is the vibe you get at Aster.

Don’t be put off by the current renovation and refurbishment works going on at Victoria Underground station which has turned the whole place nearby a little crazy. It’s worth the trip. This is probably not the place if you are looking for a lazy, calm and quiet Sunday brunch. Instead, Aster presents a lively setting filled with families and groups of friends enjoying each others company – and the free-flowing prosecco.

Aster Restaurant

Housed in one of London’s newest glass monoliths, Aster is bright and airy. The large champagne bar dominates the room, with marble table tops and brass details – that ever-so-now ‘lux look’, it would be a cool place for after-work date.  And as the Evening Standard said, ‘an overhead hanging clock (similar to that in Grand Central) sets the bustling brasserie tone.’

The Sunday brunch menu spans that awkward period between ‘late breakfast’ (or for some ‘second breakfast’!) and late lunch – roughly 11pm to 3pm. So there’s a good selection of more ‘breakfasty’ items and lunch favourites. And at reasonable value too, two courses came in at £21 or £26 for three, adding £15 each for unlimited bubbles.

Aster Restaurant

Waiting staff were very good with keeping us topped up with the bubbly, the menu stipulates that bubbles flow for a two hour period from when you booked your table. Realistically, I think staff kept us topped up beyond our designated period, even giving us one for the road. As my friend and I hadn’t seen each other for a while we were chatting away and weren’t exactly in a rush.  

Despite mindful of my wedding dress fitting in a few weeks time, we did opt for the three courses. Each course was a healthy portion – not huge, but not measly either – and we easily ate three courses without that horrid stuffed feeling at the end.

To start we had smashed avocado on rye toast with green goddess dressing and the Aster Caesar salad with Greenland prawns, smoked vendance and crispy rye. For mains, Steak tartare, green salad, sourdough toast and Fillet steak, celeriac remoulade, BBQ hollandaise – which was quite different and tasty.

Rounding off our brunch, we had Aster’s take on a classic – nordic mess: Kefir mousse, berries, meringue, strawberry coulis and a coconut pannacotta, basil shortbread with lingonberries (an IKEA favourite.) To be honest, the Nordic influence isn’t that obvious across the brunch menu, with just some finishing touches here and there like my lingonberries and my friend’s nordic mess.

Thank you to Bookatable and Aster for our great brunch, if you’d like to book a space for this weekend head to https://www.bookatable.co.uk/aster-restaurant-victoria-london I think that if you are a fan of afternoon tea, that the floral-inspired offering from Aster would be a real treat (and a bargain at £15 a head!)

Water of Leith

Tom and I are out of holiday, we’ve got two big ticket events happening in October and December which means we’ve maxed out our annual leave. This means that in true ‘Weekend Tourist’ style, the bank holidays have become very important. During Whitsun week, we visited friends who have relocated to Edinburgh six months ago and  very kindly acted as personal tour guides for the weekend.

Stop off: Penrith, Lake District

We drove up on the Friday night after work, stopping off at Penrith in the Lake District on the way. It’s an almighty six-hour drive to Edinburgh and in after work traffic, we were grateful that we’d broken up the journey. We stayed at the Lounge Hotel in the town centre and were glad to get some shut eye. It was a lovely boutique hotel with super friendly and helpful staff and its hearty Cumbrian sausage, English breakfast would step up any tourist for exploring the Lakes.

Penrith

Penrith is a quaint market town, its square surrounded with some independent shops with their Victorian shop fronts. Before heading off, we walked up to the ruins of the medieval Penrith Castle – built by Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury to help defend the English border from the Scots. In its history, the castle was also inherited by Richard, Duke of Gloucester who was Sheriff of Cumbria and resided at the castle, before he was crowned King Richard III.

On to Edinburgh

I’ve only ever been to Edinburgh once and that was during the Edinburgh Fringe, and I don’t think Tom’s ever crossed the northern border. So we were both looking forward to seeing a different side of the Scottish capital.  Our friends live in Edinburgh’s ironically-named ‘New Town’, which is actually not so new, being one the world’s most complete and unspoilt examples of Georgian architecture and town planning. Alongside Old Town, (where the Castle sits at the top) it was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1995.

 

After exploring New Town on Saturday, we ambled around Stockbridge on Sunday. It is a bohemian enclave north of the city centre with hipster-esque bars, continental bistros and upmarket cheese delis – much to Tom’s delight. It was originally a mill village and developed in the early 19th century on lands owned by the painter Sir Henry Raeburn; the area still resonates that early artistic vibe.

Royal Botanic Gardens

Of course, marrying a gardener, no Edinburgh trip would be complete without taking this opportunity to visit the Royal Botanic Gardens. After Oxford, Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Gardens are the second oldest in Britain, founded in Holyrood in 1670 and moved to its current spot in 1823 with 70 landscaped acres. Having seen their rhododendron collection, I’m determined to get some in the garden (if it’s allowed in Tom’s colour scheme of course!)

The gardens are free to enter, but a small fee gives you entrance to the 25 glasshouses which house a huge collection of tropical plants. Clearly, pride of place goes to the Victorian palm house built in 1834 and includes a species of Bermudan palmetto which is nearly 200 years old. The Front Range of 1960s designer glasshouses is famous for the large tropical pond filled with giant Amazonian water lilies.

Water of Leith Walkway

We were lucky to be in Stockbridge on a Sunday for the popular market – set in leafy square next to the bridge which gives the area its name. Stalls range from homemade crafts to taste bud tingling food traders. I really struggled to choose, plumping for a ‘naanwich’ and an iced coffee from the bearded baristas.

From here we headed down the Water of Leith. Edinburgh’s river is a modest stream only 20 miles from northwestern slopes of Pentland Hills eventually entering the Forth of Firth at Leith. As my trusty Lonely Planet says ‘it does cut a surprisingly rural swath through the city, providing an important wildlife habitat.’ It’s a small piece of calm amongst the urban Georgian landscape. We strolled along its wooded riverbanks towards Dean Village, taking the Water of Leith Walkway.

Dean Bridge is a central focal point on the stretch between Stockbridge to Dean Village, it was designed by Thomas Telford and built between 1829 and 1832. Unsurprisingly it became a popular suicide spot and the parapets were added to dissuade potential jumpers.

Arriving in Dean Village, named after the Scots’ word for valley ‘dene’, is a bit like entering the set of Amazon’s Outlander. The milling village was founded by the canons of Holyrood Abbey in the 12th century and by 1700 there were 11 water mills grinding grain for flour. Now the place is a tightly knit residential community and to preserve its historic look even the colour of the windows is strictly monitored.

So if you’ve not got any particular plans for our last bank holiday of the year (until Christmas) in August, why not consider a few days in the Scottish capital? Thanks so much for having us and sharing your city.

When we were invited to review Ray Cooney’s ‘Out of Order’, which has been showing at the New Theatre this week, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. When you take in the cast list, it reads like a who’s who of comedy sitcom legends. Even though I was born in ’89 I was brought up on diet of 70s British comedy classics (In fact, the only impression I can do is off the French resistance leader,  Michelle Dubois from ‘Allo, Allo’…”Listen very carefully, I will only say this once…’) and I was excited to see so many familiar faces on the stage; together this stellar lineup didn’t disappoint. Quite frankly I haven’t laughed so hard in an age. Honestly, if you are looking for a good night out this Saturday snap up one of the tickets left.

Out of Order is a farce, a political mickey-taking. Heading up the cast is Shaun Williamson (Eastenders, Extras), playing the tormented private secretary to Jeffery Harmer’s junior minister. Whilst Sue Holderness (Only Fools And Horses, Green Green Grass) plays the unsuspecting wife and Arthur Bostrom (Allo, Allo) is the less-than-understanding hotel manager.

Tory junior minister, Richard Willey, hopes for a night of hot passionate love with Jeremy Corbyn’s secretary Jane Worthington. When a dead body is found hanging out of their window, Mr. Willey’s secretary George Pigden is brought in to help with the cover up. Suffice to say that it all quickly descends into haphazard chaos, with poor ol’ George suffering an identity crisis which had the audience in stitches. I’m not going to go into the whole thing as it will simply ruin it for you.

Ray Cooney is heralded as the ‘Master of Farce’ having written some twenty plays which combine that traditional British sense of bawdiness with complicated narratives as characters leap to assumptions and talk at cross purposes. I’d love to see what Ray Cooney could do with the Trump administration, I bet he’d have a field day. Anyway, if I haven’t convinced you to catch this play whilst it’s in Oxford, just watch this teaser…You can get tickets here: