Dr John Hawkins
Welcome to my bit of the Maison de Stuff,
home to a huge load of pictures,
and my daily blog.
My email address is as above - I've put it in an image in a vein attempt to reduce the amount of spam I get.
- John's Journal / Blog
- John's Pictures
Main Index (text only)
- John's Travel
- Other Related Sites:
Maison de Stuff
- Recent Entries:
- Lorenzo Again
Back to Work
Back to London
Saturday in Florence
Monterosso to Florence via Pisa
Thursday in the Cinque Terre
To the Cinque Terre
Tuesday in Sestri Levante
Monday in Sestri Levante
Sunday in Genoa
Saturday in Genoa
Day Before the Holiday
Elizabeth Street Party
Erika in the Gardens
Picnic in Hyde Park
Pesto, Twineham Grange and Gavi
Burrito in the Park, Sushi in the Garden
Duke of Wellington
Just Me and Erika
In The Night Garden Live
St. James's with Andy and Erika
The Middle East, Without Leaving London
- Lorenzo Again
- [Thursday 26th June 2014]
As it happens my ex-manager (with whom I'd parted ways about 3 months ago) was in London this week, and we had lunch together today. So that gave me a chance to get some of my current work woes off my chest a bit. Although there isn't really an immediately apparent solution.
By coincidence, today Lorenzo was in London for a short business trip. We originally thought we might go for dinner together, but for some reason or other that ended up not happening, and instead we just had a quick drink afterwards at the Nags Head in Belgravia, with his boss, also called Lorenzo, in tow. They didn't stay for very long as they'd had a long day, and had more to do in the morning, so it was just a rather short little adjunct to having seen Lorenzo a few days prior.
- [Wednesday 25th June 2014]
Had a rather demoralising meeting this afternoon, where I felt a bit like I was being ganged up on by a bunch of people in New York. There are features for which I am the sole owner now - nobody else works on them and a rather depressing recurring theme at work has become defending them against the circling vultures who, for frankly quite arbitrary and ill thought out reasons, seem to want to shut them down.
That really dented my morale, I tried to go back to being productive afterwards, but around 4:30 decided to just give up and leave early, so I could go to Waitrose and buy some things to make a really nice dinner for the girls, in the hope that I would at least still be appreciated in that role.
So I took on the ambitious task of making a moussaka in time for Erika's dinner (she normally gets quite agitated if she doesn't eat by 6:30). Consequently I rushed it a bit and it wasn't quite as good as the last couple I'd made. Still I guess if nothing else the cooking took my mind off work for a bit.
- [Tuesday 24th June 2014]
Really not much to report. Stayed relatively late at the office to try and get something finished in time for people in the US to pick it up (which ultimately turned out to be wasted effort).
Made a strong sort of improvised dinner with orzo and some mock chicken I'd picked up in chinatown a while back, with tomatoes and leeks. I suppose it was something vaguely like a risotto or a paella. It wasn't actually bad.
- Back to Work
- [Monday 23rd June 2014]
Back to work today, and the morning routine of dropping Erika off in the morning.
Attempted to make some kind of Chinese food for dinner this evening having found myself craving it a bit towards the end of our trip in Italy. Made ma po tofu (with Quorn mince), some noodles, some stir fried broccoli, and a dish of pak choi with chillies, in which I probably over did it with the chillies a bit.
- Back to London
- [Sunday 22nd June 2014]
As our flight back from Pisa wasn't until 3:25 in the afternoon, we'd originally considered trying to go to the Uffizi this morning (it apparently opens at 8:15, even on a Sunday) but in the end lethargy set in a bit, and we instead had a bit of a lie in, followed by a fairly lazy morning slobbing about Lorenzo's place. We eventually decided to just load the car up with our stuff, and have a late breakfast at Lorenzo's favourite (or maybe second favourite?) pasticceria, before then heading off to the station to catch the coach to Pisa airport.
So we were saying our goodbyes by 11:30, and on the coach on the way to Pisa airport shortly after that.
We thought it would be good to give ourselves plenty of time in the airport, so we could have a leisurely lunch there. As it turns out though it was a bit too long - our flight was delayed by an hour, and we ended up with almost four hours to kill in the airport. We had lunch in the self service restaurant there, where the little old lady behind the counter rather sweetly made a dish of pasta with tomato sauce specially to order for Erika. It seems mumbling something along the lines of "per bambina" whilst pointing at Erika works wonders in Italy.
Finally boarded the plane just after 4. The flight went fairly smoothly I suppose - Erika was very well behaved considering the cramped conditions. We did need to change her nappy part way through, I task I valiantly offered to take on alone, which turned out to be a bit of a challenge in the tiny loos on board this flight. I somehow managed to cut my finger quite badly in the process, and so had to go through the usual ridiculous routine of asking the cabin attendant for a plaster, and convincing them I wasn't allergic to plasters.
I think we landed some time around 5:30 UK time, managed to get on a Gatwick Express to London not long after 6.
Had Japanese food for dinner (rice and miso soup), and it felt very good to be back home.
- Saturday in Florence
- [Saturday 21st June 2014]
As predicted in advance, this was the best day of the trip - as interesting as it was to explore new parts of Italy, Florence is a fantastic city, and it's always more fun visiting a friend in a foreign country rather than trying to make do by ourselves.
We started by visiting the market at the Piazza delle Cuore to buy some provisions for breakfast. The main objective was to get fresh fruit to feed into Lorenzo's fancy juicer, but whilst there I couldn't resist also buying some fresh porcini, and on the way back we also picked up some pastries from Lorenzo's local pasticceria. So altogether that made for a very nice breakfast.
After breakfast (allowing Erika some more time first to play with the kittens) we headed out in the direction of the Boboli Gardens - mainly with the attention of visiting the fort there, which turned out to be closed. So we just had a general wander round the gardens, which offered some nice views out over Florence, and over the Tuscan countryside in the other direction. That was ll very picturesque.
For lunch we headed back to the centre, and dined very cheaply and cheerfully at Trattoria Bordino, where the set lunch was an almost embarrassingly frugal 8 euros.
The highlight of the day, for me at least, then commenced in the afternoon, when we embarked on a Negroni Crawl around some of Florence's grand historic cafes. We started at Caffe Rivoire, which now considered itself to be the spiritual home (if you'll pardon the pun) of the Negroni, having been owned by the same people at the time the Negroni was invented in Cafe Casoni, which no longer exists in its original form. The bartender noticed we were interested in Negroni history, and said she would make our Negronis with a couple of tweaks to be more consistent with the original - a squeeze of lime zest, and a splash of soda water. This made for a really fresh tasting zingy sort of a Negroni.
Next on the itinerary was Caffe Gilli. Although they weren't particularly involved, as far as I'm aware, in the creation of the Negroni, they were around at the time, and were likely one of the first places outside of Casoni to serve the drink. I think I possibly liked the interior here best of all out of the three.
Finally we went, with slight apprehension, to Caffe Giacosa. This is a modern fashionable cafe owned by Roberto Cavalli, which occupies the sight of what was Caffe Casoni, the birthplace of the Negroni. Before coming here I'd got the impression they'd rather turned their back on that history - the plaque about the Negroni which originally hung here is now hanging in Rivoire, for example - and I wasn't even sure whether they'd serve a Negroni in its new incarnation. However, those fears were unfounded, as in fact the glasses here had a picture of Count Negroni on, and they actually made a very respectable Negroni using Carpano Antica Formula - so in terms of ingredients this was probably the best of the three, although for technique I think I slightly preferred the one at Rivoire.
After all that excitement, the remainder of the day was fairly quiet by comparison. We gradually meandered back to Lorenzo's place after leaving Giacosa, and had dinner at a local pizzeria near where he lives, called Re Matto. I actually had quite possibly the best pizza of the trip here - with porcini and black truffles on. Very tasty, albeit perhaps a tad burnt round the edges.
- Monterosso to Florence via Pisa
- [Friday 20th June 2014]
Pretty much every train journey of this trip turned out to be problematic. I suppose today's experience was the least bad of the three (we didn't end up being robbed, either by the licensed bandit ticket inspectors or more traditional thieves) but it still started rather frustratingly. We arrived at the station in plenty of time to catch our train - almost half an hour beforehand - and I then proceeded to spend almost all of that time in the queue for the ticket office. Infuriatingly an elderly American couple in front of me were planning quite a complicated trip, which wasn't even until next week, and took up at least 15 minutes of the sole member of staff's time, utterly oblivious to the fact there was a long queue of people behind them who were just about to miss their trains as a result. Not even a hint of an apology when they finally finished their transaction, despite increasingly escalated sighs of frustration (not least from me). To cap it all the entire booking system crashed for a while - non funziona - which I assume to be a more than daily occurrence with Trenitalia's shamefully poor infrastructure.
Fortunately our train was actually late, otherwise we would have missed it, with me stuck in the ticket queue all that time. There was no way I was going to even consider getting on board without a ticket. Just a few minutes after leaving Monterosso we then spent something of the order of half an hour stuck in a tunnel for no apparent reason. After that though the remainder of the journey ran smoothly.
We'd decided to break our journey up with a lunchtime stop in Pisa, a city I'd only ever passed through before. I wanted to go and do the standard touristy picture with the leaning tower, etc. We arrived in Pisa around 1:30, dropped our luggage off at the very convenient left luggage facility there, then headed in the direction of a place Kyle and Hannah had recommended for lunch.
We were aiming for the Osteria de Cavalieri, but actually ended up at the Sosta dei Cavalieri across the street. I think they're both owned by the same people. They had a set vegetarian menu (which is I assume why Kyle and Hannah had recommended the place). I started with a really delicious ribollita (a Tuscan soup made with stale bread), then followed with a tasty-but-a-bit-too small aubergine gratin. Erika slept through the whole thing, so I ordered an extra portion of the ribollita to take away for her, thinking it would be the sort of thing she would like, but turned out not be be a big hit.
After that we headed to the leaning tower, at which point Erika conveniently woke up so she could be in the standard touristy pictures too. There then followed an unsuccessful attempt to get Erika to eat some ribollita, whilst she just continually demanded ice cream instead. We didn't bow under pressure and just kept telling her she could have some ice cream if she ate some more of the ribollita. Neither party emerged the victor of this particular battle of wits.
The train from Pisa to Florence was thankfully uneventful, and actually more or less on time. Chie managed to persuade Erika to eat a bit more of the ribollita whilst we were on board.
We arrived in Florence some time around 5:30. Apparently the traffic was quite bad so Lorenzo couldn't easily get to the station to come and pick us up - instead we got a taxi to his house. I was slightly concerned his mind wasn't entirely on the job at hand, as Italy were playing in a World Cup game - and losing, as it turned out. Still, we managed to get to Lorenzo's place in one piece.
Lorenzo has recently had his place refurbished and it is now looking really rather swanky indeed. Also, much to Erika's delight - he has recently acquired two kittens. She was utterly mesmerised by them.
It was our first time to meet Lorenzo's girlfriend Olya, who seems lovely, and was also an instant hit with Erika (there was some controversy when Erika said "Olya" for the first time before she said "Uncle" - which is what she'd decided to call Lorenzo).
We went out for dinner to a place up in the hills above Florence (this is the sort of thing middle classed people delight in saying when they come back from holiday, isn't it?) - called La Casa del Prosciutto, although despite the name they were actually capable to provide a very satisfying vegetarian meal for me. The bruschetta were good, followed by some pasta in an "ortolana" sauce which was good too.
- Thursday in the Cinque Terre
- [Thursday 19th June 2014]
There are five villages in the Cinque Terre, as you might guess from the name. We were staying in one (Monterosso) and had briefly visited another (Riomaggiore) yesterday. I thought we probably ought to try and fit in one more so we could say we'd been to the majority.
So after a lazy morning we decided to head to the station (not sure how at this point I'd got over my extreme displeasure with Trenitalia) and get the train to Vernazza. It was a pretty similar sort of thing to Riomaggiore, and if I'd known the heavy toll our daytrip would take on us, I wouldn't have bothered.
We had a simple lunch bought from a little bakery, eaten in a shady spot next to the church. We tried one of the little pie things (torta or something?) filled with rice, which was a surprise hit with Erika, and felt reassuringly at least a bit less salty than the focaccia. We followed that with some gelato, and it was all more or less pleasant enough.
Things rather went down hill on our way back to Monterosso though. For a start we had to wait well over an hour for a train (for a four minute train journey). Presumably Trenitalia's staff have a little siesta this time of day. As a result the train was packed when it did finally arrive. One of the doors was broken, so we had to carry Erika and her buggy through the carriage to the other end. After we got off, we heard somebody saying something about being wary of pickpockets, so Chie checked her bag, and found her wallet was missing. Some utter lowlife had pickpocketed a mother carrying her child's buggy off a train. I couldn't believe it.
So that was almost certainly the low point of the whole trip, and Chie declared at that point we were never coming to Italy again. We marched furiously back to our hotel, and started making all the necessary calls to cancel all our credit cards etc. I was rather vexed at how chirpy and upbeat the people on the phone were - none of them showed any kind of sympathy at all. You'd really think simply saying "I'm sorry to hear about that" would be added to the script.
Next we went to the police station, to report the theft - of course there is absolutely no point in doing this other than for insurance purposes. What particularly rankled is that there are signs at the station (we only noticed after it was too late) saying that there are pickpockets operating there on a daily basis. If that's the case why don't they just put a police officer there, rather than have three of them pointlessly languishing in the police station. The man before us was reporting exactly the same kind of theft, and I got the impression people being pickpocketed at the train station was the majority of cases they dealt with. Yet the carabinieri stay in their office, pointlessly filling out forms, nowhere near the station.
On the plus side the police officer we spoke to - a young lady - was very sweet with Erika. She invited her to go and sit on her lap for a while as she was filling out the form.
I think both Chie and I had probably cooled off a bit by this point, and had got through the initial anger, into a phase of acceptance and resignation. There wasn't much cash in her wallet, and all the cards etc were of course replaceable. So it was really just a big inconvenience, mixed with that unpleasant feeling of feeling like a complete mug, and the pickpockets having won.
After leaving the police station we decided to try and lift our spirits with a drink, and got ourselves a table outside Enoteca da Eliseo, which seems to be the place to go in Monterosso according to the web. Therein we tried some local wines which were interesting, and I also had a Negroni, which wasn't bad. The seats of the wine bar were in a tiny little square, and there were lots of people coming and going, which made it fun for Erika too.
So I suppose we did start to cheer up a bit after that.
We had a last attempt at a swim in the sea after that, at one of the public beaches in Monterosso. I stayed on the beach again this time, but Chie actually had a swim, and Erika got in the water at least up to her ankles.
For dinner we were feeling miserly following the events of the afternoon, and so went to a cheap cafe type place specialising in pasta - I think it was classified as a takeaway but they had a few tables, as long as you didn't mind eating off plastic plates, with plastic forks. We also sat at a little plastic table. Somehow I ended up choosing pesto again, I thought I had got bored of it by this point, but apparently I had room for one more.
- To the Cinque Terre
- [Wednesday 18th June 2014]
Partly because we thought it would be fun, and partly because we were loathed to put any more money in the unscrupulous hands of Trenitalia, we decided to take a ferry onwards from Sestri Levante to the Cinque Terre. This actually turned out to be extremely convenient as well - there was a ferry departing just before 10, and the pier was just a few steps away from the lift which took us from the hotel to the bay.
We had spotted a member of the boat company's staff yesterday, and mentioned we wanted to travel to Monterosso al Mare by boat, one way. She told us that although the boat was going there, the first stop was Riomaggiore and if we only had a one way ticket we had to get off there. I asked if there might be a means of buying some kind of extension ticket or anything but she flatly said no. This being Italy, I found that a bit hard to believe. As it happens the same woman was selling tickets for the boat this morning, so I repeated our requirements, and she still rather sternly said no. I still didn't believe her.
Once actually on the boat, I chatted to a member of the onboard staff who said that would be absolutely fine, and we just slipped them an extra 5 euros.
It was a pleasant, albeit quite a brisk run from Sestri Levante to Riomaggiore - the boat went at a fair old pace, and out on the top deck it was actually pretty windy. There were quite nice views to be had, with the five villages making up the Cinque Terre nestled along the coastline, but it was really difficult to get a decent picture.
We arrived in Riomaggiore at 11, where we had an hour to spend before the boat proceeded on to Monterosso. It immediately became apparent just how packed with tourists the Cinque Terre was. They're all pretty small, dense villages, and there's basically no way to escape the crowds. I think that rather coloured my appreciation of our time there - yes on some level they were quite picturesque and everything, but the effect is rather spoilt when you have an American tourist in your right ear talking about basketball, or whatever.
An hour isn't of course time to really do anything in a place, so we just had a quick wander around. I think I at least managed to get one or two nice pictures - I particularly liked this one.
Conveniently in Riomaggiore we found a takeaway pasta place there wherein I procured, from the rather grumpy looking member of staff, a box of trofie in tomato sauce. Erika ate it once we were back on the boat.
We arrived in Monterosso around 12:30. Thankfully, unlike Riomaggiore, there were no steps between the pier and the town, and so we had a fairly easy time getting from our boat to our hotel for the next two nights. Our room at the Hotel Souvenir was refreshingly bright and modern - not usually my cup of tea, but in contrast to the depressing drabness of our room at the previous hotel it was very welcome. Apparently there had been a landslide in recent years in Monterosso, and our hotel had to be partly rebuilt - thus the very up-to-date interior.
We headed out for a wander around Monterosso after dropping off our bags, and found lunch at what I can only assume to be an outpost of Scottish gastronomy: a place selling deep fried pizza, and Tennent's Lager. I'm not sure how they turn a profit, as it took two of them something like 15 minutes to prepare our relatively simple order, but anyway, it was all surprisingly nice - Chie particularly liked what she ordered (something seafoody and deep fried, I forget the specifics).
Erika had a little play in the town's playground after that, and then the girls retired back to the hotel for an afternoon nap. I thought I'd try somewhere for a pleasant afternoon drink, but after a couple of circuits of the town couldn't find anywhere I liked the look of, so I too returned to the hotel.
In the evening we headed over to the newer side of Monterosso, as I had found a place which sounded like it might be good for dinner on the web. I'm not actually sure if the place we ended up at - a pizzeria called L'Arembaggio - was actually the place I'd been aiming for. Anyway it seemed to meet our needs.
Took a stroll along the beach on the way back to our hotel.
- Tuesday in Sestri Levante
- [Tuesday 17th June 2014]
I think when I'd originally booked our hotel for two nights in Sestri Levante I'd originally envisaged we might use it as a base, and possibly make a first foray into the Cinque Terre from here. Despite not being particularly enamoured with the place we'd also become a bit lethargic after yesterday, and ended up just hanging around the town today.
We started off with a disappointing breakfast at the hotel. From previous trips I'd got the impression breakfasts in Italy were generally not much to get excited about, but our hotel in Genoa had done a great job.
We then headed down to the hotel's private beach/pool for a late morning swim. Not quite sure why if it's private to the hotel why we were then expected to pay an entrance fee (for use of the sun loungers / parasol / towels). I was feeling stingy at this point and so we just paid the minimum possible for a couple of towels and nothing else. I managed to have but of a swim - what would turn out to be my only swim of the trip in fact - but the water was a bit too cold still for the girls. It was practically empty, and we assume those in the know wait until late afternoon to use it - or maybe until August.
Erika had her now usual lunchtime nap after that, and we headed into the town centre to do a bit of shopping at the little supermarket which we'd seen yesterday evening, but was already closed. We also went to Frantoio Bo, the olive oil producer just outside the town centre, which a colleague had recommended. The shop there was not permanently manned, and it took quite a while to actually get the attention of the owner, who was presumably having lunch. Still, despite the rude interruption she was very courteous and let us sample some of their oils, and talked to us a bit about the production methods, etc. The oil was very good, so we bought a couple of bottles to bring back home.
We then picked up some foccacia for lunch, which we took back to eat on our hotel balcony.
After that we headed back into the town once more, to a gelateria called "100% Naturale" which we believed rightly or wrongly might produce relatively healthy gelato. It wasn't bad, but a far cry from the wonderful experience at Profuma di Rosa in Genoa.
Chie was keen to try the beach again, and this time we went to the little sandy public beach in the town centre, where encouragingly there were lots of families with young children. Erika seems to take a while to acclimatise to this environment, she's unsure of the water, and doesn't really seem to like the feel of sand on her skin. However, I went and bought her a bucket and spade set which seemed to revive her interest, and after a bit of digging with Erika, I remained on the beach and embarked on an ambitious plan of excavations, whilst the girls went for a bit of a paddle. So that was quite pleasant.
For dinner we decided to try one of the places we'd wanted to go to yesterday, but had been closed. It was a pizzera called I Due Forni, which did indeed have two ovens (not sure why). It was perhaps less well suited to Erika than yesterday's place though, as they didn't have any pasta on the menu. We ordered her a small pizza but she didn't really eat much of it.
- Monday in Sestri Levante
- [Monday 16th June 2014]
Had our holiday just been a Tale of Two Cities (the bit at the start in Genoa, then the bit at the end in Florence) I think we'd have had an uninterrupted good time. Especially if we did not use the trains to get between the two.
As it was though, we commenced on "the bit in the middle" today - four nights on the Ligurian coast - which was not entirely successful. Primarily because of two unpleasant events involving train journeys. The first was this morning, as we were getting the train from Genoa to Sestri Levante, where we'd be staying the next two nights. The main station in Genoa was practically shut down - there seemed to be some kind of building works going on, none of the escalators were working, all of the lights went off at one point, and apparently the ticket booking system had crashed, so none of the ticket machines were working. As I was trying to use a ticket machine, a member of Trenitalia staff came and told me they were "Non funziona" - which rather became the defining phrase of the trip. She instructed me to give up on using the machines, and instead to buy a ticket on the train. I am really angry with her now, and wish I had taken down her name so I could report her. Not that I imagine that would achieve anything with an organisation of such clearly dubious principles as Trenitalia. Anyway, at the time I didn't give it much thought, we had a lot of luggage and Erika's buggy to manhandle, and it turned out to actually be quite a long way to the platform.
Part way through the journey, on encountering the first member of Trenitalia staff I'd seen on the train, I asked to buy a ticket. He was apparently a special ticket inspector and told me I had to pay a fine of 50 Euros for not having a ticket. I did attempt to keep my composure as best as possible (especially as Erika was with me), but as you might imagine I was more than a little irked by this. I of course argued the point, even presenting a photo I'd taken of the broken ticket machines, and pointing out I was just following the instructions of his company's staff. However no amount of reason seemed to make any difference. I can only assume therefore this was a deliberate tactic on behalf of Trenitalia to steal money from unwitting tourists. I really have no desire to ever use that train company again.
I tried as best as possible to put this behind me so we could get on with trying to enjoy the rest of our holiday. I was of course quietly fuming though, having effectively been robbed by a licensed bandit.
We arrived in Sestri Levante just before midday, and headed to our hotel - the Grand Hotel dei Castelli. I'd somehow neglected to read about the fact the hotel has a lift from more or less sea level, as it's actually up on a bit of a hill, so we had quite a steep climb with our luggage etc to get there. It was apparently too early to check in, so we deposited our bags, and headed back into the town centre to find lunch. Consistent with the last couple of days, Erika fell asleep at this point.
We chose "La Cantina del Polpo" for lunch, which was pleasant enough I suppose. Yet more pesto for me, and I think I had now reached my limit.
Headed back to the hotel again to check in proper. Although the grounds ann some bits of the interior of the hotel were quite grand as the name suggested, our room wasn't. I should have taken some pictures to illustrate - the only adjective I can think of is "drab". I'd splashed out a bit for this hotel, as for most of the rest of the trip it had actually been quite hard to find anything above mid range sort of hotels, and I'd thought a couple of nights in more luxurious surrounds might be rather nice. This hotel certainly didn't deliver on that front. For a start, I know it's just the way they do things in warmer countries like Italy, but for a start I just don't like tiled floors. They're cold, unwelcoming, the always seem dirty and are generally not nice to walk on with bare feet. As for the rest of the decor, our "suite" comprised a funny little adjoining room with too decidedly naff tired old sofas, and some ugly faded cheap looking tapestries, which I assume were leftovers from some kind of one of those mock medieval banqueting hall dining experiences. The bed was very noisy too, the slightest movement resulted in a cacophony of ancients springs. The shower head was plastic. The amenities left a lot to be desired. Yes, there was a balcony with a sea view, but which also had an ugly grill fence on one side.
Combined with the unpleasant incident on the train this morning, I was really struggling at this point to feel in a jovial holiday sort of mood. Again though I did my best to put on a brave face.
We went for a walk round the hotel grounds. Again they were OK, I suppose, but not very well maintained (which reminded me by contrast how lovely the grounds of the Hotel Endsleigh had been). There were some goats and peacocks which kept Erika entertained for a bit. At the end of the grounds there was supposed to be a lift down to the hotel's private beach/pool. Perhaps unsurprisingly though this was "non funziona".
We sat outside the hotel for a while after that and had a drink on one of the swinging chairs. This would probably have been a partially redeeming part of an otherwise very disappointing hotel experience, where it not for the fact we were surrounded by Bosch employees on some sort of offsite training trip, doing "brainstorming". The occasional waft of corporate nonsense speak did rather spoil the setting a bit.
In the evening we headed back into the centre of Sestri Levante for a bit of a pre dinner stroll (las passeggiata as I believe it's called), then settled on a cheap and cheerful pizza place for dinner which was unremarkable but did the job. Perhaps it was partly because it was a Monday, but lots of the places I'd researched on the web seemed to be closed - apparently June doesn't count as summer here - and the town felt quite dead. I wasn't really warming to Sestri Levante.
On the way back we walked along the beach and were treated to a nice sunset, and I managed to get some quite pleasing pictures. Probably the highlight of another mostly quite disappointing day.
- Sunday in Genoa
- [Sunday 15th June 2014]
Past experiences of hotel breakfasts in Italy have been somewhat underwhelming. Today's rather bucked that trend though - lots of interesting fresh fruit, some really tasty tomatoes, plenty of good breads and pastries and so on. Consequently we spent at least an hour over breakfast this morning.
Headed out for the remainder of the morning for another wander around the interesting streets of Genoa, taking in some of the smarter bits today - Via Garabaldi and the Piazza Ferrari, I think that must be the city's grandest square.
We had booked to have lunch at Osteria di Vico Palla, which I assume to be another of Genoa's very well known restaurants - I had heard about it from multiple sources. Erika fell asleep before we arrived, leaving us to have lunch in peace. It was a lot more bustling than last night's restaurant, and the service was a bit erratic by comparison, but we felt reassured that we were having some kind of authentic local experience. We had fried things to start - I had a plate of panissa (deep fried farinata) which was far too large. Followed by mandilli ("silk handkerchiefs" - thin lasagne sheet) in, of course, pesto.
After lunch we went for a bit of a wander round the port, until Erika woke up, when we went into the aquarium. That took up the bulk of the rest of the afternoon, and Erika seemed to enjoy it she always does at aquariums (aquaria?).
Another wander round Genoa afterwards, culminating with an early evening at Caffe Mangini, another of Genoa's historic cafes. We had an odd sort of mixture there, as Chie wanted coffee and I wanted a Negroni - so Chie had some little cakes to accompany her coffee, and I was given an array of salty bar snacks to go with my drink. I'm not sure the staff really expected customers standing at the counter with a small child in a baby carrier, but we were quite determined to do so regardless. The counter at cafes is typically cheaper than the prices if seated, sometimes dramatically so. This definitely applies to the price of coffee, which seems to be regulated by law to be 1 euro almost everywhere, but not really sure how it affects other prices. Still, I have grown to rather like the atmosphere of standing at the counter, where all the action is, and it's good to not have to wait around for a waiter when it's time to pay.
Wandered back from there to the hotel, and once back at the hotel went and took a look at the children's play area - "the pirate's garden". There was a fairly sizable pirate boat to play on, albeit that it was a bit wet and slippery after the recent rain. We also went and took a look at the roof terrace, which gave the impression it would be very nice were the weather a bit better.
For dinner we decided not to venture too far, and went to one of the hotel's restaurants (technically the restaurant of the hotel next door, I believe, which was apparently owned by the same company). So that meant yet more past with pesto for me - a dish which was somewhere between last night's dinner and today's lunch.
- Saturday in Genoa
- [Saturday 14th June 2014]
First day of our week's holiday (a whole 8 nights away!) in Italy.
After much deliberation, I had eventually given in and agreed to fly for this trip. It was sad to have to break a record of the best part of a decade of not flying anywhere within Europe (since September 2005), but after careful consideration it just seemed a bit too much with Erika (and Chie!) to go by train. We managed to get down to Menton and Monaco purely by train at the end of last summer, but, a little over 12 hours travel by train each way, but Erika was less mobile then, and in a way more easily entertained (and slept more during the day too). Getting to Genoa by train would have taken more like 15 hours each way, which would have really been a struggle to fit in a single day, and sleeper trains seemed like a big unknown variable too.
So we got on the Gatwick Express early this morning, and flew from Gatwick to Genoa. Whilst I can't say I enjoyed the journey at all as a result, I have to admit it was extremely quick. By lunchtime we were in Genoa.
Got a slightly dubious taxi from the airport to the city centre - we shared with an English couple and another man of indeterminate origin, and then the taxi driver proceeded to charge us per person (including Erika, which seemed a bit of a cheek) which rather defeated the object of sharing really.
Our hotel, the Grand Hotel Savoia, was conveniently right next to the station. So our first port of call was to check in there, rid ourselves of our luggage, and then head out from there to find something for lunch. We opted for a quick and simple lunch at a nearby focacceria. Focaccia is one of those things I had somewhat assumed to be fake Italian food which only really exists abroad (like spaghetti bolognese, and garlic bread), but apparently it is in fact a speciality of Liguria - perhaps explaining why I hadn't really encountered it much on previous trips to Italy. We also had a slice of farinata, a kind of pancake made from chickpea flour, which we'd had on previous trips to the French Riviera under the guise of "socca". Apparently that originated in Genoa too.
After a brief pop back to the hotel, we embarked on an exploration of the streets of Genoa. I think I had already made up my mind that I was going to like Genoa even before we got there, and this belief was not shaken on arrival. States of architectural preservation varied throughout the city, but when we did encounter once grand and impressive buildings which had now fallen into disrepair it only seemed all the more picturesque. It reminded me of Ruskin's writings on Venice, or perhaps, at the risk of overdoing it, Wordsworth and chums on Tintern Abbey etc.
Such lofty thoughts of aesthetic ideals were put at least briefly on hold towards the middle of the afternoon, as we stumbled upon a gelateria called Profumo di Rosa, which I had read about whilst researching Genoa in preparation for this trip. We were just hours into our holiday, and already this was probably one of the highlights of the whole week. Not just did they have really interesting - and delicious - gelato on offer, but the lady behind the counter (who I think was also the owner) was so sweet to Erika - she gave us a "Happy Gelato" bib for her, as well as her own little toddler sized portion of "fior di latte" (plain milk) gelato in a cone, with a spoon. Erika looked so content digging into her very own gelato all by herself and it was a delight to watch. Although we'd given Erika a spoonful of ice cream now and again before now, this was the first time she'd had one just for her, for which this will always be remembered as the place she was properly introduced to it. The rose flavoured gelato I had is also something that will be a lingering memory, no doubt.
Next we headed down to the harbour, and decided to visit the Neptune, a mock pirate ship. For something which is primarily a tourist attraction it seemed impressively large and realistic. To add to the drama, whilst we were on board the clouds burst, and there was a thunderstorm and quite a heavy downpour. It was actually quite a hard job to find a place to shelter on the boat itself - most of the floor boards (deck boards?) had gaps between them, and the rain poured straight through. We eventually made a bit of a dash for the ticket office, which was a bit more enclosed, and spent a while waiting there for the rain to die down a bit. Rather sweetly the lady who was selling tickets gave Erika her chair to sit on.
Went back to the hotel for a bit after that, and then headed out again once more in the early evening for dinner. I thought we should probably try out Genoa's Metro system, not least because it was still raining on and off, but it felt like we spent longer waiting for a train than it would have taken to just walk. It's not a particularly huge city. Erika dozed off again en route so we decided to take the opportunity to have a bit of grown-up time, and go for a pre-dinner drink somewhere.
After some wandering about we eventually ended up, almost by accident, at Caffe degli Specchi (the cafe of mirrors) which is actually on my list of historic cafes in the city I wanted to visit. There we ordered a couple of Aperol spritzes, having almost forgotten about the (I believe fairly recent) Italian trend of aperitivo which means when ordering drinks at this time of day, you tend to get quite a lot of accompanying snacks for free. We weren't really sure what a lot of the little nibbles were exactly but it was all very nice. I liked the interior of the place too - the mirrors from which the cafe takes its name looked reassuringly old.
We decided to go for dinner at I Tre Merli in the Porta Antica (old harbour) which I think is quite a well known restaurant in Genoa, and appears in all the guide books etc. There were lots of Ligurian/Genoese specialities on offer here, which meant pasta with pesto for me (the traditonal Ligurian way - trofie with green beans and potatoes), as well as their "focaccia col formaggio pizzata" which was an unusual sort of pizza where the cheese was inside the bread. I had a couple of glasses of Vermentino, the local white wine, to accompany, and I think we both agreed this was probably the best meal of our time in Genoa, and one of the best of the trip.
It was also rather special as this was Erika's first time to have pasta (one of her favourite foods) in Italy - they made trofie with tomato sauce for her.
Headed back to the hotel after that, it had been quite a long day and we were all quite tired!
- Day Before the Holiday
- [Friday 13th June 2014]
The day before our holiday in Italy. Stopped off at Chimes on the way home from work for a quick drink.
- [Thursday 12th June 2014]
A few random pictures.
- Elizabeth Street Party
- [Wednesday 11th June 2014]
A bit of shopping in St. James's at lunchtime, and then the Elizabeth Street Party in the evening.
- Erika in the Gardens
- [Tuesday 10th June 2014]
A few pictures of Erika in the gardens in the evening.
- [Monday 9th June 2014]
Things took a slight turn for the better at work today after last week's rather demoralising tone.
Made a Quorn chilli for dinner, using some of the dried peppers Mum had given us a while back. That turned out reasonably well. Also had an Aviation or two, a reflection of the warm weather of late (although today was actually quite overcast).
- Picnic in Hyde Park
- [Sunday 8th June 2014]
I woke up a bit before the girls this morning, and was determined to act on this frequent weekend impulse I get to go out and buy freshly baked bread and pastries for breakfast. In practice there isn't a decent baker anywhere in Pimlico, and so instead this morning I decided to walk over the river to Vauxhall, and go to the Little Waitrose there. Whilst Vauxhall can hardly be described as an idyllic destination for a Sunday morning stroll, the sun was glistening on the Thames, there was a warm summery breeze, and it was actually rather nice.
After our breakfast of croissants and Gail's rosemary and potato bread we set about trying to invite pretty much everyone we know in London to join us for a picnic in the afternoon, as it was such nice weather. I am well aware that the chances of ever getting anyone to do anything at the weekend at short notice are next to none, but picnics seem like the sort of thing that have to be organised on the spur of the moment, being so obviously weather dependent.
Anyway, none of my friends were available, and Chie only managed slightly better - just one of her friends, and her son (who is about the same age as Erika) came to join us. Still we just carried on regardless - we picked up takeaway Lebanese food from Noura on the way, and a bottle of Nyetimber (left over from the recent Champocalypse) from my office, and headed to Hyde Park to find a shady spot to sit and eat.
Erika enjoyed playing with the ball with her friend, and I ended up looking after both of them for quite a while as his Mum went off to find the loo which I assume must either have been a long trek or had a long queue. At one point the little boy accidentally hit Erika on the head with a stick. Not particularly hard, but of course Erika cried a bit - he then looked quite terrified and pretty much froze solid, presumably as he was expecting to be scolded. I ended up having to pick him up and carry him back to our picnic blanket as I just couldn't get him to move at all. Eventually playing with the ball resumed and they both brightened up again.
On the way back, Erika dozed off in her buggy, giving Chie and I chance to have a sneaky beer sitting outside Tom Tom in Belgravia, which was rather nice. We rather greedily followed that up with ice cream at Olivogelo round the corner, for which Erika conveniently woke up, and whilst there bumped into some of our NCT friends.
Didn't really feel hungry in the evening, as a combination of the hot weather and the fact we'd more or less been eating all afternoon. So just had a very light dinner, some hiyayakko, nasu dengaku, and sunomono with a bit of rice. Very pleasant.
- Pesto, Twineham Grange and Gavi
- [Saturday 7th June 2014]
Erika and I went along to the Dads and toddlers group at our local library this morning. Unfortunately it wasn't the same person doing the singing etc as last time, so Erika didn't seem quite as engaged, and wandered off from the group at various points to go and look at the books instead. Still, it was nice to do something together noneless.
Had a very nice lunch when we got back - pasta with pesto, Twineham Grange, and Cortese di Gavi wine.
Erika dozed off in her bouncer for quite a large chunk of the afternoon, and Chie went out to an opticians appointment half way through, so I ended up not leaving the flat the rest of the day.
Made Indian food in the evening - it's quite a challenge making something that is interestingly spicy enough for mine and Chie's taste, but mild enough for Erika to eat. The mutter paneer was quite successful in that regard, as actually it's quite nice without much other flavouring - I just put some turmeric and asafoetida in it. The dal came out quite well, although looked a bit too non descript for Erika to be interested in, and the sag aloo wasn't particularly successful today. I think this is part of the reason I always end up making several curries when we have Indian food - at least one of them is always a bit of a disappointment.
- Burrito in the Park, Sushi in the Garden
- [Friday 6th June 2014]
Really nice weather today. As a combination of that and the fact I was having a rather crappy week, I was really keen to get out of the office at lunchtime. So Kyle and I ventured out and took a stroll past Buckingham Palace, down the mall a bit, past St. James's Palace and along Crown Passage to try the new branch of Adobo, a chain of burrito places. Despite having been slightly underwhelmed by the one nearer to Victoria, I was oddly fascinated by something as "modern" as Mexican food amidst the ancient Georgian surroundings of the lovely Crown Passage. On arrival we found they'd ran out of ice, which gave the perfect excuse for a quick shandy outside the Red Lion.
Ate the actual burrito in St. James's Park. I think it was an improvement on the one from the Victoria branch, although that could have been largely down to the setting.
Continued the al fresco dining theme in the evening, I picked up some middle-of-the-road sushi from the Wasabi in Victoria station on the way home, which we ate out in the gardens. Erika then proceeded to blow some bubbles for after dinner entertainment. Which was all rather lovely.
- Duke of Wellington
- [Thursday 5th June 2014]
A rather crappy week at work (people in another office trying to shut down things I've put a lot of hard work into) left me feeling not a little frustrated today, and so I was keen to flee the office at the earliest opportunity and seek the reassuring sanctuary of the pub.
I managed to persuade some friends from the office to come along too, although it seemed to take them all bloody ages to get out of the building, and I was already on pint number 3 by the time anyone else arrived.
I then needed to leave shortly after, to have dinner with Chie and Erika - we decided to go to a "cheesy Italian" in Pimlico we'd been to once before, wherein the food is still at best passable, but they were nice to Erika, something which pretty much seems to be in the DNA of Italian waiters and waitresses.
After that I returned to the pub again, as the people from the office were still there. I think I probably just got quite ranty for the remainder of the evening.
- White Asparagus
- [Wednesday 4th June 2014]
Popped into Rippon Cheese Stores in Pimlico today on the way into work, surprisingly this is the only place I could find in London now selling a vegetarian Parmesan style cheese (Twineham Grange in this case, which I happen to think is a particularly good one). It used to be easy to find in supermarkets, I don't know why it now seems to have all but disappeared.
Used this to make a risotto bianco, which I topped with some of the white asparagus Chie had brought back from Berlin. I'm not sure I really cooked the asparagus perfectly - I did peel it as I believe you're supposed to, and gave it a lot longer than I would for the green variety, but still some bits were a bit tough. Still, the risotto itself came out rather well - both Chie and Erika seemed to like it - so I think I can overall declare it a successful meal.
- Maverick Pizza
- [Tuesday 3rd June 2014]
Went to try the new pizza place on Buckinham Palace Road with Simon for lunch today. I don't see Simon nearly enough since we've been working for the same company again (the third time that's been the case!) - frustratingly he's not in the same building as me, and it seems all too easy for us both to just go about our daily routines and never bump into each other.
So it was good to have any old excuse to catch up. The pizza was actually not bad too - nice to have another alternative lunch option.
Picked Erika up from nursery again, and took her home and fed her (rather lazily a sort of ready meal today - it would have gone out of date otherwise!), and spent a while playing with a pirate eye patch which had been a free gift on one of those magazines for toddlers I got for her.
Chie got back from her trip to Berlin before Erika's bed time, which was really nice. Chie brought a pretzel back for me, which Erika then proceeded to debag and eat a fair amount of.
I wasn't really in the mood for cooking so I ordered in Chinese takeaway for me and Chie, which we ate after Erika went to bed.
- Just Me and Erika
- [Monday 2nd June 2014]
As Chie was away in Berlin I both dropped Erika off and picked her up from nursery today. I mentioned to the nursery staff that Chie was away and said she might ask for her Mummy a lot, but to my pleasant surprise they told me she in fact only said Daddy during the daytime instead. I hope that means she actually sort of understood that Chie was away, and that I'd be looking after her.
We had tofu and noodles for dinner (not a particularly exciting meal, I wasn't feeling very culinarily inspired today) and then I gave her a bath - I felt a definite sense of pride at being able to do things like this entirely by myself. Erika was very well behaved and again seemed to just sort of accept that Chie was away, and I'd be doing everything for a couple of days.
- In The Night Garden Live
- [Sunday 1st June 2014]
Took Erika to see "In The Night Garden Live" at the O2 this morning - a stage show version of one of Erika's favourite TV programmes on CBeebies. Or at least it always used to be - we'd booked tickets for this a few months back and in the intervening period she seemed to be going off it a bit. She does still play with her In The Night Garden toys a lot though, so perhaps it's just that once you've seen a few episodes it does start to get a bit repetitive.
Still, fortunately she seemed to quite enjoy the show regardless, as got quite excited on the way in when she saw the posters, the giant "Haa Hoos" and so on. I thought it was all quite well done too, and have to admit I was probably just excited as Erika was when Iggle Piggle and Makka Pakka first made their appearances.
I've occasionally felt a bit guilty that sometimes we seem to be trying to live our life as it was before Erika came along, and just fitting her into it somehow - I'm not sure toddlers in general particularly like having to sit still in restaurants, for example. So it's actually quite a lovely feeling when we make a special effort to do something purely for Erika like this.
It was all over by 11 o' clock, and I would have liked to have extended the day out by taking a boat trip on the way back or something, but Chie was flying off to Berlin this afternoon for a business trip and we didn't really have time. So we got the tube back to the flat, had a bit of lunch, then waved Chie off.
Erika slept for a couple of hours in the afternoon, after which we went for a wander round the gardens, then had macaroni cheese for dinner. I was a bit apprehensive at how Erika would react to Chie going away this time, but actually she seemed pretty much fine, she seemed quite happy to be fed, entertained after dinner, and then put to bed by Daddy.
- St. James's with Andy and Erika
- [Saturday 31st May 2014]
Chie and Erika went round to see Ai-san and Kai-kun in the morning, and so I was left to my own devices to do some shopping. I headed to Jermyn Street with the intention of buying some new shirts, and after pretty thoroughly perusing just about every shirt shop on the street eventually settled on Charles "cheap and cheerful" Tyrwhitt. Also popped into Fortnum and Mason while I was in that neck of the woods.
Went back to the flat for lunch, and en route received an email from Andy who wanted to retrieve the luggage he'd left with me last weekend, as he'd be heading on to France the next day. So I headed out again shortly after lunch to meet him at my office, where I'd stored the bags.
It seemed a waste to just hand over the bags and wave him off so we went for a drink at the Cask and Glass, after which we then had to meet up with Chie who was going to the optician, at which point we swapped over and I looked after Erika for the remainder of the afternoon. Still though Andy didn't need to be anywhere any time soon, so slightly oddly Erika came along with us to a couple of pubs - it ended being the two Red Lions back in St. James's (as it happens Andy also needed to go to Charles Tyrwhitt). We stood outside at both places, so Erika could have a bit of a wander around which hopefully meant she wasn't completely bored.
- [Friday 30th May 2014]
Not much to report really. Didn't go to TGIF, haven't really been in the mood since the Champocalypse earlier this month. I think we had spaghetti with a Quorn bolognese for dinner.
- The Middle East, Without Leaving London
- [Thursday 29th May 2014]
A while back I'd been fascinated to see an advert on the side of a London taxi entirely in Arabic, for what turned out to be the London branch of a chain of Qatari tea houses called Chapati and Karak. Somehow this had bubbled back into my conciousness today, and I decided to go there at lunchtime.
I suspect I was the only person in there who wasn't of Middle Eastern extraction. I ordered one plain chapati, one sweet chapati, and a cinnamon karak. Karak seems to be something like the Qatari version of Indian chai. The plain chapati was indeed just a plain chapati, and whilst pleasantly fresh tasting it really seemed to be lacking something. A curry perhaps?
Apparently the thing to do in Qatar is to have cheese with your chapati, but the waitress was at pains to explain to me as I was ordering that they don't sell cheese. After spending a few minutes there I soon figured out why - just about every customer seemed to be asking for cheese, and one set of customers appeared to have brought there own (Dairylea triangles, which seemed a bit at odds with the presumably otherwise exceedingly wealthy clientèle).
The sweet chapati was more interesting and I was able to eat that without even once thinking how much nicer it might be with some cheese.
So anyway, that was a rather fascinating cultural experience.
In the evening Chie had given me the night off from parenting duties - perhaps advance payment for her upcoming trip to Berlin - so I arranged to go on a short pun crawl with Iain and Robert around Marylebone. I was keen to visit the recently (I think) reopened Barley Mow, with its famous listed booths. It was pleasingly pubby, in a borderline grotty sort of a way. The booths were obviously well used, and a bit shabby around the edges, but that was all part of the charm.
After that we proceeded to the Windsor Castle, a recent favourite of mine, with its eclectic hoard of eccentric nik-nakkery.
After that our thoughts turned to dinner, and as we were near Edgware road a continuation of the day's Middle Eastern theme seemed appropriate. After some deliberation we eventually settled on an Iranian restaurant which actually didn't work very well for me - rather confusingly there were several green Vs on the appetisers page, and nowhere else on the menu. I assumed these to be some kind of mezze, so orderered all of them, to then discover they were essentially all different kinds of dip. Not really a very satisfying meal.
- Water Stain
- [Wednesday 28th May 2014]
Spilled some water on the carpet this morning. It looked a bit like the shape of a country. Possibly Switzerland?
Other than that mental jog from having the photo, I don't really remember anything about today.
- [Tuesday 27th May 2014]
Apparently went to the Waitrose in Belgravia after work today (according to my phone's location history). I presume therefore we had something nice for dinner, but I am writing this over two weeks hence and don't remember what exactly. My search history reminds me I bought a nice bottle of red wine from Chateau Maris, and looking back at the chat I had with Chie on Google Hangouts it seems it was raining. Don't recall what exactly we had for dinner - but presumably something which went with the red wine.